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Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Sad spring snow surprise
2nd draft

Back in 1993, my first job in Idaho was working with the Blaine County Recreation District. After a bond approval our valley workers and volunteers built a world class bicycle trail on the old railroad right of way. In winter we groomed the same path for a cross country ski trail, which thousands of winter recreationalists delightfully used.

Back then the Rec district had only one snow-cat groomer, which we used primarily for the popular Harriman ski trail. For the local path we used a modern snowmobile, dragging behind it a rudimentary 200 pound steel groomer. For colder days when the surface was icier, we added barbell free-weights, which locked into small poles at the end of the groomer and tugged behind. In front I carried additional weighted disks to dig deeper where the top snow crested hard at the few shady spots where cottonwoods arched over the trail.

Usually, we began grooming two hours before sunrise, slowly combing our way north to higher elevations, hence following the trail temperature at an even keel.

If the weather forecast was warm, we started at night, hoping to encounter prime grooming conditions. Sometimes, this was challenging; for instance when a cold snap followed a sunny day, this would result in 3 to 4 inches of crusty hard freeze. In cases like this, I would be required to repeat the grooming process several times, focusing firmly on the most traveled spots. Even so, there were times when skiers complained, thinking that we had not yet groomed, though it was often an area that we had already combed over repetitively.

It was a pristine job, and it led me to idealistic thoughts and musings as I groomed along my merry way, encountering folks who were enjoying healthy sunshine and happy exercise. Part of the task consisted in picking up stray trash, which didn’t seem too bad since I only needed to stop a handful of times. It was important to carry a shovel as well, since there were spots where the snow-machine would bog down, especially in warmer climate. Moreover, since the air-cooled snowmobile overheated under the stress of pulling large weights, I was required to unhook the heavy groomer and go play, spinning speedily around in snowdrifts to cool the engine.

I soon learned it was important to dress smart for the grooming task. This included sunglasses, warm hats, thick and thin gloves and spares, a face shield with defogger, first aid kits, warm fitting snow boots, layered jackets -the outer waterproof, toe warmers inside quality socks, but not too tight. It was also important when dressing to make sure my feet had fully dried from morning showers before pulling on socks to prevent foot moisture from freezing fast in the below zero temperatures.

When spring arrived, we would try to time it right to plow the south half of the path to provide eager bicyclists a safe place to ride. This, while continuing to snow groom the north section through late spring. As the melt-off continued and snow receded I was surprised at the large amounts of trash and dog poop tarnishing the trail. There were even McDonald’s wrappers in the wet dirt, and back then the nearest Mickey-D’s was 80 miles away! The first spring cleaning day our boss had expected me to finish renewing the south bike path in around three hours. But picking up hundreds of pieces of trash spread afar filled many bags. When the boss asked, “What took so long?” I replied, “Oh, the humanity.”

That next season I worked as an itinerant cab driver, and one day my fare was a young lady. Soon after introductions, in an impromptu manner she suddenly told me the story of how she had arrived in the Wood River with great expectations; seeing how immaculate the area was painted with its virgin snow surface. This bright luster helped convince her that Sun Valley was a power spot or some sort of a fantastically exceptional place. Then she started weeping as we passed a gas station as she saw stacks of trash blowing around. She said that she was disappointed when the pristine snow melted, which had been hiding the filth and dirt of the entire town. Then she equated the sad snowmelt to some of her broken friendships. As she began sobbing more uncontrollably, all I could say was, “I know what you mean, Honey.”


Jim Banholzer was an active Idaho resident for 25 years. Currently he is residing in Pennsylvania with family.
Sad spring snow surprise

Back in 1993, my first job in Idaho was working with the Blaine County Recreation District. After a bond vote our valley workers and volunteers created a world class bicycle trail system on the old railroad right of way. In winter we groomed the bike trail into a cross country ski trail, which thousands of skiers delightfully used.

Back then the Rec district had only one snow-cat groomer, which we generally used for the popular Harriman ski trail. For the local bike path we used a regular snowmobile, dragging behind a rudimentary 200 pound steel path-comber. For colder days when the snow surface was icier, we would add barbell weights, which locked into small poles at the end of the groomer and tugged behind. In front I carried extra weights to dig deeper where the top snow crested harder at the few shady spots where cottonwoods arched shadows over the trail.

Usually, we began grooming two hours before sunrise, slowly working our way north to higher elevations, hence following the trail temperature at an even keel.

If the weather forecast was warmer, we started earlier in the night to encounter prime grooming conditions. Sometimes, this was challenging; for instance when a cold snap followed a sunny day, resulting in 3-4 inches of solid top freeze. In cases like this, I would be required to repeat the grooming process several times, focusing especially on the most traveled spots. Even so, there were times when skiers complained thinking that we had not groomed; though it often had been an area we had combed over repetitively.

It was a pristine job, and it led me to idealistic thoughts and musings as I groomed along my merry way, encountering folks who were enjoying healthy sunshine and happy exercise. Part of the job consisted in picking up stray trash, which didn’t seem too bad since I only needed to stop a handful of times. It was important to carry a shovel as well, since there were spots that the snow-machine would bog down, especially in warmer climate. Moreover, since the air-cooled snowmobile would overheat under the stress of dragging large weights, I was required to unhook the heavy groomer and go play, spinning speedily around in snowdrifts to cool the engine.

I soon learned it was important to dress smart for the grooming task. This included sunglasses, a warm hat, thick and thin gloves and spares, a face shield with defogger, warm fitting snow boots, layered jackets -the outer waterproof, toe warmers inside of quality socks, but not too tightly snug. It was also important when dressing to make sure my feet had fully dried from morning showers before pulling on the socks to prevent foot moisture from freezing fast in the below zero temperatures.

When spring arrived, we would try to time it properly to plow the South half of the path to provide eager bicyclists places to ride. This, while continuing to snow-groom the north sections through late spring. As the melt-off continued and pristine snow receded I was surprised at the large amounts of trash and dog poop tarnishing the trail. There were even McDonald’s wrappers in the wet dirt, and back then the nearest Mickey-D’s was 80 miles away! The boss had expected me to finish cleaning the renewed bike path in about three hours, but picking up took over a day. When the boss asked, “What took so long? I replied, “Oh, the humanity.”

That next season I worked as an itinerant cab driver, and one day a young lady was my fare. In an impromptu manner she suddenly told me the story of how she came to the Wood River with high expectations; excited seeing how pristine the area was with its immaculate snow surface. Then she started weeping as we passed a gas station and she saw stacks of trash blowing around. She said that she was disappointed when the snow melted, which had been hiding the entire towns’ dirt and filth. Then she proceeded to equate this snowmelt to some of her broken friendships. As she began sobbing more uncontrollably, all I could say was, “I know what you mean, Honey.”


Jim Banholzer was an active Idaho resident for 25 years. Currently he is residing in Pennsylvania with family.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

My friend has a blind spot

My marginally disabled friend gives me rides sometimes, so I hesitate being a backseat driver, but recently I noticed a pattern he employs that bugs me when it comes to his restricted parking ways.

My friend has a disability permit. His first physician said he was well enough and that he should walk more. The doctor would not recommend a special placard. So what did my friend do? He drove to the next town for a second opinion.

I don’t believe he told the second doctor what the first advised. Perhaps my friend exaggerated his difficulty, trying to gain quick empathy. What bothers me more is that when my friend aims to park in a designated handicapped spot; a regular parking spot is often available nearby, mere steps away. What if someone with a more challenging disability needs the spot my friend just snagged? Someone blind who’s experienced a horrific crash or a quadriplegic needing wide berth, (which those spots provide) for maneuvering a wheelchair?

Mt friend thinks otherwise. For him it’s “First come, first serve!” When I see attitudes like this I’m reminded of the nine UCLA football players who counterfeited disability placards in 1999*. Here was a sad case of our most able-bodied men, who trained lifting weights and running many miles, getting caught being parking cheats.

My friend makes the argument that he needs the closest spot in the event of an icy pathway. Well, maybe so, but ironically for him sometimes those much desired spots are the iciest, since they’re the closest ones to the building shade! I would hope for snow days my friend would don proper shoes or use lightweight cleats. And call on me to guide him to the door.

 If my friend would consider more mindful courtesy toward those with less fortunate ambulatory capabilities, it would be a nice turn of a walk for him to take.


Saturday, August 25, 2018

Cheers to Annelise

-for her uplifting chants and earth-grounding meditation leads in the magnificent Williamsport pipe organ room. Now I know more about self-correcting, soul-shaking chakras. You made a difference, impacting some of the quietest souls in our NAMI fellowship. And who knew about twelve-step programs harmonized with yoga? What a perfect match.

Homepage • Clear Sphere Yoga

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Less traveled cheers & jeers
Draft 2
Cheers to the flag lady with the sunny disposition on Route 45. You helped many-a-motorist spark off their day well, with a nice smile from your animated character. During our morning commutes we looked forward to guessing what your next original act might be and we hoped you would stop us in traffic so we could enjoy watching your playfulness.

Jeers: to the inconsiderate motorist who last spring purposely drove over a turtle on Brush Valley Lane. The poor turtle was seeking a field to lay new eggs. You could have easily avoided her, but you ruined a lady friend’s day, which had been perfect up to the marvelous sunset, until she saw an opposite polarity of how awful people can be. Perhaps the transportation department with help from our Sierra Club can help install nature crossing conduits under the road by ponds tortoises enjoy transiting amongst, so they can avoid the likes of you.

Cheers to Annelise for her uplifting, acoustical chants and earth-grounding leads in the Williamsport pipe organ room. Now I know more about self-correcting, soul-shaking chakras. You made a difference, impacting some of the quietest souls in our NAMI fellowship. And who knew about twelve-step programs harmonized with yoga? What a perfect match.

Jeers to the prisoner who senselessly assaulted two correctional officers at Rockview. Sadly, you must be a slow learner. What was there to gain from such an impulsive act? Has what you did made you contemplate yet how the guards will now treat you? Well, now you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate your unscrupulous behavior.

Cheers to the many that made Grange Fair come together as a successful fete. I’m glad I audio-recorded delightful glees coming from the phantasmagorical overhead whirligig, to play back in the doldrums of winter as a reminder of how good summers can get here.


Well, I always wanted to have more cheers than jeers, and am pleased to live in an area where it’s easy to do this. So I will stop with a cheer for now.
Less traveled cheers & jeers

Cheers to the flag lady with the sunny disposition on Route 45. You helped many-a-motorist spark off their days with a nice smile from your animated character. During our morning commutes we looked forward to guessing what your next original act might be and hoped we would get stopped in traffic to enjoy watching your playfulness.

Jeers: to the motorist who last spring purposely drove over a turtle on Brush Valley Lane. The poor turtle was seeking a field to lay new eggs. You could have easily avoided her, but you ruined a lady friend’s day, which had been perfect up to the marvelous sunset, until she saw an opposite polarity of how awful people can be. Perhaps the transportation department with help from our Sierra Club can help install nature crossing conduits under the road between ponds that tortoises enjoy transiting amongst, so they can avoid the likes of you

Cheers to Anneliese for her uplifting acoustical chants in the Williamsport pipe organ room. Now I know more about self-correcting soul-shaking chakras. You made a difference, impacting some of the quietest souls our NAMI group. And who knew about twelve-step programs matched with yoga? What a perfect match.

Jeers to the prisoner who stupidly assaulted two correctional officers at Rockview. Sadly, you must be a slow learner. What was to gain from such an impulsive act? Has what you did made you contemplate how guards will now treat you? Well, now you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate such bad behavior.

Cheers to all who made Grange Fair come together as a successful fete. I’m glad I audio-recorded some delightful glees coming from the phantasmagorical overhead whirligig, to play back in the doldrums of winter as a reminder of how good summers can get here.


Well, I always wanted to have more cheers than jeers, and am pleased to live in a place where it’s easy to do this. So I will stop with a cheer for now.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill 
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

Up Jack got 
And home did trot,
As fast as he could caper;
And went to bed 
And plastered his head
With vinegar and brown paper.

When Jill came in 
How she did grin
To see Jack's paper plaster;
Mother vexed 
Did whip her next
For causing Jack's disaster.
My friend wears handicap blinders
My slightly disabled friend kindly gives me rides sometimes, so I hesitate being a backseat driver, but recently I noticed a pattern he employs that bugs me when it comes to his handicap parking.

My buddy has a disability permit. His first doctor said he was well enough and that he should walk more. The doc would not recommend a special parking placard. So what did my friend do? He drove to the next town for a second opinion.

I don’t believe he told the second doctor what the first thought. Perhaps my friend exaggerated his agony, trying to gain quick empathy. Another thing that bothers me is when my friend sometimes aims to park in a designated spot; a regular parking spot is also open mere steps away. What if someone with a more difficult disability needed the spot my friend just snagged? Someone blind who’s experienced a horrific crash or a quadriplegic needing room for his wheelchair?

Mt friend doesn’t see it this way. For him it’s “First come, first serve!” When I see attitudes like this I’m reminded of the nine UCLA football players who counterfeited handicapped placards back in 1999*. Here was a case of our most able-bodied men caught being parking cheats.

My friend makes the argument that he needs the closest spot in the event of an icy pathway. Well, maybe so, but some desired spots are icier because they’re closer to the building shade! I would hope for snow my friend would don proper shoes or use lightweight cleats. And call on me to guide him to the door.

 Meanwhile, if my friend would consider nicer courtesy toward those with less fortunate ambulatory capabilities, it would be a nice turn of a walk for him to take.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Wisdom of Trees: Walt Whitman on What Our Silent Friends Teach Us About Being Rather Than Seeming


A supreme lesson in authenticity from a being “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage.”

The Wisdom of Trees: Walt Whitman on What Our Silent Friends Teach Us About Being Rather Than Seeming
“When we have learned how to listen to trees,”Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions“then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” Two generations earlier, a different titan of poetic sentiment extolled trees not only as a source of joy but as a source of unheralded moral wisdom and an improbable yet formidable model of what is noblest in the human character.
At fifty-four, a decade after his volunteer service as a nurse in the Civil War awakened him to the connection between the body and the spiritWalt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzed. It took him two years to recover — convalescence aided greatly, he believed, by his immersion in nature and its healing power. “How it all nourishes, lulls me,” he exulted, “in the way most needed; the open air, the rye-fields, the apple orchards.” The transcendent record of Whitman’s communion with the natural world survives in Specimen Days (public library) — a sublime collection of prose fragments and diary entries, restoring the word “specimen” to its Latin origin in specere: “to look at.” What emerges is a jubilant celebration of the art of seeing, so native to us yet so easily unlearned, eulogized with the singular electricity that vibrates in Whitman alone.
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)
In the years following his stroke, Whitman ventured frequently into the woods — “the best places for composition.” One late-summer day in 1876, he finds himself before one of his favorite arboreal wonders — “a fine yellow poplar,” rising ninety feet into the sky. Standing at its mighty four-foot trunk, he contemplates the unassailable authenticity of trees as a counterpoint to what Hannah Arendt would lament a century later as the human propensity for appearing rather than being. In a meditation from the late summer of 1876, Whitman writes:
How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
Nearly a century and a half before researchers uncovered the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, Whitman adds:
Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don’t, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons — or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get.
Art by Jacques Goldstyn from Bertolt, an uncommonly tender illustrated story about of the friendship of a tree.
Two centuries after an English gardener exulted that trees “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” Whitman considers their quiet wisdom as a model for human character:
Go and sit in a grove or woods, with one or more of those voiceless companions, and read the foregoing, and think.
One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)
Art by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié, an illustrated atlas of the world’s arboreal wonders.
Specimen Days is a beautiful, healing read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with a tender illustrated ode to our bond with trees, the story of how Marianne Moore saved a rare tree’s life with a poem, and a lyrical short film about our silent companions, then revisit Whitman on democracyidentity and the paradox of the self, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life – Brain Pickings

“When we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life
I woke up this morning to discover a tiny birch tree rising amidst my city quasi-garden, having overcome unthinkable odds to float its seed over heaps of concrete and glass, and begin a life in a meager oasis of soil. And I thought, my god*, what a miracle. What magic. What a reminder that life does not await permission to be lived.
This little wonder reminded me of a beautiful passage by Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) — one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read — from his 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library).
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A questionable search engine encounter
Draft 2 -300 words

As I was ambling down Foster Street on 08/08, I spied a newfangled Google Maps car filming the area with a 360° lens. While the gadgety car snapped my photo I tried shooting in return, to frame the Bug in my camera; but alas, my drawback was too slow, even though I’m recently returned from decades in the Wild West.

Being captured so unexpectedly, I glanced where I had stood moments before, in hopes that I had not presumed too slovenly a posture to be marked on my permanent State College record. The dynamic doodlebug pressed forward, it filmed a woman carefully pushing a baby in a perambulator; then in front of the curious baby I sensed another stir and became excited for a young couple, as their freshly-surveyed teacup poodle will be soon featured on a new map.

The all-seeing car then wound through other avenues, leaving me behind. I wanted to question the driver, being curious about his job with its weird and waspy ways. I imagine the driver stops for lunch. He would know good diners from his maps. He probably has a list of snappy answers ready for inquiring minds: Can Google illuminate maps for blind people? What type of protection does the vehicle have? How many kilometers does he cover on a normal day? In what types of settlements does he encounter the friendliest folks? How much of everything does Google vacuum up? Does it sniff information from all nearby devices; for later use in a valuable database? How do our munificent mapping overlords purport to measure the quality of a good college town?


Besides simple streets, what other dead ends will the futuristic data-collecting car help us and our curious babies to avoid as we evolve and mature?

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A questionable search engine encounter

As I was ambling down Foster Street on 08/08, I spied a newfangled Google Maps car filming the area with a 360° lens. While the gadgety car snapped my photo I tried shooting in return, to frame the Bug in my camera; but alas, my drawback was too slow, even though I’m recently returned from decades in the Wild West.

Being captured so unexpectedly, I glanced where I had stood moments before, in hopes that I had not presumed too slovenly a posture to be marked on my permanent State College record. The dynamic doodlebug pressed forward, it filmed a woman carefully pushing a baby in a perambulator; then in front of the curious baby I sensed another stir and became excited for a young couple, as their freshly-surveyed teacup poodles would be featured on a new map.

The all-seeing car then wound through other avenues, leaving me behind in the dust. I wanted to question the driver, being curious about his job with its weird and waspy ways. I imagine the driver stops for lunch. He would know good diners from his maps. He probably has a list of snappy answers ready for inquisitive passersby: Can Google illuminate maps for blind people? What type of protection does the camera car have? How many miles does it film on a normal day? In what types of settlements do you encounter the friendliest folks? How much of everything does Google vacuum up? Does it sniff information from all nearby devices; for use later in a valuable database? How do our munificent mapping overlords purport the measure the quality of a good college town?


Besides simple streets, what other dead ends will the futuristic car with its many-faceted tools capturing our immense data, help us to avoid?



AFTER 75 YEARS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, IT'S TIME TO ADMIT WE HAVE A PROBLEM

Challenging the 12-step hegemony.

For much of the past 50 years or so, voicing any serious skepticism toward Alcoholics Anonymous or any other 12-step program was sacrilege—the equivalent, in polite company, of questioning the virtue of American mothers or the patriotism of our troops. If your problem was drink, AA was the answer; if drugs, Narcotics Anonymous. And if those programs didn’t work, it was your fault: You weren’t “working the steps.” The only alternative, as the 12-step slogan has it, was “jails, institutions, or death.” By 2000, 90 percent of American addiction treatment programs employed the 12-step approach.
In any other area of medicine, if your doctor told you that the cure for your disease involved surrendering to a “higher power,” praying to have your “defects of character” lifted, and accepting your “powerlessness,” as outlined in the original 12 steps, you’d probably seek a second opinion. But, even today, if you balk at these elements of the 12-step gospel, you’ll often get accused of being “in denial.” And if you should succeed in quitting drinking without 12-step support, you might get dismissed as a “dry drunk.

DODES SHOWS THAT MUCH OF THE RESEARCH THAT UNDERGIRDS ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS IS A CONFLICTED MESS THAT CONFUSES CORRELATION WITH CAUSATION.

The latest salvo comes from Dr. Lance Dodes, the former director of Harvard’s substance abuse treatment unit at McLean Hospital, who weighs in with a book called The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. While much of Dodes’ diagnosis of the problems with rehab and 12-step programs was originally made by maverick psychologist Stanton Peele in books like The Meaning of Addiction(1985), Dodes benefits from several decades of additional data, and he covers complicated scientific issues lucidly. The results are largely persuasive.


Dodes doesn’t pull his punches. “Alcoholics Anonymous was proclaimed the correct treatment for alcoholism over seventy-five years ago despite the absence of any scientific evidence of the approach’s efficacy,” he writes in his introduction, “and we have been on the wrong path ever since.”
Dodes shows that much of the research that undergirds AA is a conflicted mess that confuses correlation with causation. It’s true that people with alcoholism who choose to attend AA regularly drink less than those who do not—but it’s not proven that making people attend works better than other options, including doing nothing.
In fact, some studies find that people mandated into AA do worse than those who are simply left alone. (If true, that would be no small problem. AA’s own surveys suggest that some 165,000 Americans and Canadians annually are court-mandated into the program—despite the fact that every court ruling on the issue has rejected such coercion as unconstitutional, given AA’s religious nature.)
Contrary to popular belief, most people recover from their addictions without any treatment—professional or self-help—regardless of whether the drug involved is alcohol, crack, methamphetamine, heroin, or cigarettes. One of the largest studies of recovery ever conducted found that, of those who had qualified for a diagnosis of alcoholism in the past year, only 25 percent still met the criteria for the disorder a year later. Despite this 75 percent recovery rate, only a quarter had gotten any type of help, including AA, and as many were now drinking in a low-risk manner as were abstinent.
Unfortunately, compared to the rehab narrative, the stories of people who get better without treatment are rarely as compelling. They tend to consist of people leaving college and realizing they can’t binge drink or take drugs and hold a job and care for a family. And since most people who straighten out on their own never show up in treatment, the worst cases congregate in rehab and make addiction recovery seem quite rare.
This is not to say that there is no benefit at all to 12-step programs: It’s clear from studies of recovery, with or without treatment, that some of the most important factors in success are having social support and a sense of meaning and purpose. Both of those can be provided by AA—at least to those who find its approach amenable. Rather than treating AA as one potentially excellent resource out of many, though, all too many people still regard 12-step programs as the only true way.
One effect of this 12-step dominance is that addiction continues to be seen by many people as a moral failing rather than a disease. This is somewhat ironic, because many 12-step advocates firmly consider addiction to be a disease, as do government agencies like the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But it is awkward to posit addiction as a disease while simultaneously promoting AA’s non-medical and moralistic course of treatment. For what other medical condition does 90 percent of the treatment consist of meetings and prayer?
Dodes is eloquent on what drives addiction, and his argument that much of it results from an attempt to counter a sense of helplessness is convincing. In his view, addiction is a compulsive disorder, an attempt to cope with anguish by engaging in ritualistic behavior that is soothing and predictable, despite ongoing negative consequences.
But Dodes stakes out dubious territory with his claim that some compulsive disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), are primarily chemical in origin, while others, like drug addictions, are purely psychological. Most psychologists reject this idea—a fact Dodes fails to acknowledge.


Dodes advocates traditional treatment, such as talk therapy and medication, for what he labels “chemical” compulsive disorders (including most of what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls OCD). For instance, someone who can’t stop washing his hands might receive Prozac and a specialized type of talk therapy. But Dodes recommends individual therapy for what he labels “psychological” disorders—including what we commonly think of as addiction. Specifically, he prefers psycho-dynamic therapy, which involves looking deeply into a patient’s past and often takes years to bear fruit.
Unfortunately, psychodynamic therapy has not been found to be any more effective than the 12-step programs Dodes so ably eviscerates. Although he admits he has his own bias in advocating psychodynamic therapy, Dodes thinks it’s an approach that hasn’t yet been studied well enough for its true effectiveness to be reflected in data. This is an unsatisfying answer. In a major review of the literature featured in The Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches, psychodynamic therapy ranked 46th out of 48 in effectiveness for treatments of alcoholism, even lower than Alcoholics Anonymous, which ranked 38th. It seems unlikely that additional study will cause a complete inversion of those numbers. (The review was notorious for finding an inverse correlation between what is most practiced in treatment and what is most effective in helping people.)
Dodes also fails to mention the success of certain approved medications for addictions—like buprenorphine and methadone for opioid problems, which have been shown to be more effective than any type of talk therapy or self-help in terms of saving lives and reducing the spread of blood-borne disease, according to the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization.
Still, Dodes has a deeply humane understanding of the ailments he studies, and has made an excellent case for why we need to overhaul our treatment system and provide more evidence-based options. If his book has weaknesses, they only underscore how much we still need to learn if we want to cure the multifactorial disorder we call addiction.
This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “Kicking the Habit.” For more, consider subscribing to our bimonthly print magazine.