So don’t ask me Hank, why do you drink?
Hank, why do you roll smoke?
Why must you live out the songs you wrote?
Stop and think it over,
try and put yourself in my unique position.
If I get stoned and sing all night long, it’s a family tradition!
–Hank Williams Jr., “Family Tradition”
I grew up as the oldest son of an alcoholic, speed-takin’ road musician known as “The Rockin’ Johnny B.” There was never any chance I’d reach adulthood without a nickname, and sure enough, by the mid-1980’s, being leader of a high school fraternity called “The Radicals” got me pegged as “Radical” Russ. (That’s why I’m an Eighties “Radical”, not a Sixties Radical. I’m more Yuppie than Yippie.)
I am a champion for personal liberty and civil rights, no matter on which side of the traditional left/right spectrum that may fall. Ending drug prohibition, LGBT-equality, reproductive rights, sexual freedom, labor solidarity, ending corporate personhood, sustainable economy, environmental protection, firearms rights, personal privacy, net neutrality, and universal health care are some of the issues I’m most concerned with. I also enjoy rock, funk, blues, soul, and country music, and I am a ridiculously dedicated Boise State Broncos and Green Bay Packers football fan. If you’re interested in the highlights of my life that have made me the “Radical” I am today, read on…
Growing Up Alcoholic
I got my work ethic from my mother. She worked restaurant and teaching jobs and rarely took a sick day while raising two boys. She’s the one who taught me to read by age 3 and who held our family together. She never divorced dad (what Super Bowl is it this year? – that’s how long they’ve been married), even as his addictions meant moving every year, job to job. It got so bad Dad locked himself into a trailer behind our home when I was 10, shrieking and puking and hallucinating as he tried to quit booze and cross-tops cold turkey. That sobriety didn’t last and one night when I was 12, my father stood on the railing of a bridge on the Idaho/Oregon border, ready to commit suicide.
After what he calls “divine intervention” (I’m an atheist – I call it “subconscious self-preservation hallucination”), dad checked into a rehab, got detoxed, got sobriety, and enrolled himself back into college, graduated with honors as the president of the student social workers, and became a drug and alcohol counselor at the very rehab that saved his life. In my first dozen years, I experienced the chaos of addiction in the family; in my teenage years, I experienced my father’s recovery.
But as the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I was blessed with my father’s talent for music and my mother’s love of learning, so I was always in the honor rolls in school and quickly taught myself how to play bass, clarinet, bassoon, and Sousaphone. I joined the Army National Guard to pay for college, performing in the military band by day and making extra money playing music in clubs at night.
Unfortunately, I also acquired my father’s taste for alcohol at age 16, and by age 22 I was flunking out of college. I had entered as a dean’s list freshman, on the cheerleading team as an alternate to the Boise State University mascot, Buster Bronco. I had an improbable parody-rap hit single called “The Arnell Shuffle” about one of our star basketball players. But studies got in the way of my beer-chugging time and soon I was looking at a 1.88 GPA and an end to student funding. I was an alcoholic, spiraling downward fast.
Enter Mary Jane Warner
Then, on July 4, 1990, a life-changing event occurred. Following a gig with my band in the resort town of McCall, Idaho, a guitar player back in the room whipped out a marijuana joint. I was shocked that I was in a band with guys that did drugs! Sure, I was a booze-soaked drunk, but that’s legal. I passed up the joint on the first few rounds, and was surprised there was no peer pressure or disappointment that I did so. Once I saw my band mates laughing and enjoying themselves, I thought I’d try it. I was stunned to find that this was the terrible “pot” I’ve been warned about? I wasn’t sick, out of control, or belligerent. I woke up the next day refreshed from the best night of sleep in days and with no hangover.
From that day forth, I have been a regular cannabis consumer and a very infrequent drinker. I continued playing music by night in various rock, blues, and funk bands in clubs all over the Pacific Northwest. That gave me access to all sorts of interesting drugs, none of which ever did me any real harm until I found that nasty bathtub crank. An eighteen-month meth habit led to an emergency room visit and very close to death. I quit drugs for good – and that was only possible thanks to the marijuana I used for pain and withdrawals. It’s no stretch to say marijuana remains a very important part of my life and perhaps even saved it from drugs and alcohol abuse.
In my spare time, I began a little hobby writing on what we used to call “listserves” in the mid-1990’s. I was working for the Idaho State Government and hooked up to this new “world wide web” where I was recruited (I forget how) for a private e-mail discussion list concerning liberal politics, the Clinton presidency, and just daily conversations with people online who became virtual friends. It was Tumblr and Facebook when the founders of those websites were still watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
A visit from an East Coast contractor to set up a new database system for the state led to my recruitment to join his company back in Boston. I learned quickly this new technology called “SQL” and was dispatched from Manhattan to San Francisco and everywhere in-between to convert banks, hospitals, governments, and businesses to the new system.
But I missed my home and my family, especially my sister-from-another-mother, Karri, who had been tending to the house in which I only spent one week a month. I found a job teaching office software and settled down in Boise again.
Enter Iva Marie Cunningham
As the 21st century approached, I met and fell in love with my best friend’s (and drummer’s) wife’s cousin. Iva and I married on January 1, 2001, at 4:20pm in the old Idaho Penitentiary, because I’m a numbers geek* and I couldn’t resist 01/01/01 as an anniversary, because 4:20 is a good time for tokers, and because what better place to get married than a prison?
My wife’s got a fascinating tale all her own. She’s the fifth of fifteen children, born to a fireman/paramedic who believed in a strict Christian Scientist sect that forbids the use of medicine and doctors. That’s right, he treated head wounds all day on the job with medicine, but when his fifth daughter gets a smashed face in an accident, she gets prayer and soup. Have you heard of the “faith healing parents” out West who get convicted of manslaughter when they let their kids die from an infection that they tried to “pray away” rather than call a doctor? Those are her first and second cousins.
Iva’s medical conditions – chronic migraines and nausea – are certainly exacerbated by lack of proper medical attention as a girl. On top of that, she is allergic to most conventional medications. When she’d get a migraine, I used to have to drive her to the emergency room for a shot of Demerol (generic name: don’t make any plans). After six expensive ER visits, I finally convinced Iva to try a hit off my joint when she got her next migraine. She had always been fine with my pot smoking, but never took to it herself. The result was astounding – it was like you could just see the pain and nausea melt away in seconds.