Why We Drink
With apologies to Frank Capra (See, “Why We Fight”), and thanks to Amos Milburn for the nice live version of "Bad, Bad Whiskey."
Alcohol has so many negatives that it can seem strange that people drink it at all. It will ruin your health; it will lower your inhibitions enough that you may pick up an STD; it can even make a teenager foolish enough to steal a car and end up in prison. Hell, it often makes men angry enough to kill their friends or their families. It looks like a bad idea from many angles, but people continue to drink it. Many drink it to excess. It's enough to make you wonder.
Then you remember that alcohol is easily available, and that it does a serviceable job in addressing certain uncomfortable situations that many people find themselves in.
If you are a person who worries excessively, having a few pops will temporarily make you forget them. If your temperament is wound a little too tightly, it will temporarily loosen you up. If you suffer from shyness, it will temporarily make you gregarious. Like most drugs, it works much better in the beginning than it does in the later stages of the habit. Oh, yes, it does become a habit.
For many people it becomes a crutch. For a long time I have described alcohol as being not so much a substance as a place. It's a place that you can go almost any time that you wish, a place where worries disappear, where the women (or the guys) are more attractive, where jokes are funnier, and where Armageddon is a good movie. It is a place that many people can't wait to get to upon returning home after a long, grinding day of trying to make a living. I was one of those people for a few years in the mid-1990s.
In my teens and twenties, I drank with my friends. Teens? Whenever we could manage it. Twenties? Most evenings. In my thirties, I hardly drank at all. Socially, certainly, but that was only a few times every month. Drinking alone or in a group, I've never enjoyed being drunk, and I was never sloppy drunk. I went to law school in my early forties, and that was three rather sober years. I started working as a lawyer at forty-three. Working for other lawyers wasn't so bad, but when I committed to setting up my own practice, with the overhead, the business taxes, and the marketing, things got a bit tougher than I could easily handle. I never drank alcohol during the day, but at home, by eight or nine o'clock, I was a little bit frayed around the edges. No excuses offered, nor do I believe that any are called for. It happened, so what? After a few years I had a handle on the expenses of running a solo practice and I dried out, returning to drinking at a much more manageable level within a few years.
“Bad, Bad Whisky . . .” made me lose my happy home, says Mr. Milburn. As it happened, my drinking alcohol at any level had become a trigger for my now ex-wife. She convinced herself that both of her parents had been alcoholics, and that alcoholism had been a large part of them being hapless and distant (her father) or just plain mean (her mother). Entering our third decade of marriage, she decided that I was also an alcoholic, and that we three alcoholics were responsible for ruining her life.
Disclaimer: My own father was not afraid to enjoy a drink on occasion, but he was very responsible about it. He could always sip a short scotch or bourbon and then put the bottle away, with the same self-control that enabled him to smoke one cigar every month or so, never more. My mother was a different story. She was a dedicated, all-day drinker. She started in the morning, and put away a case of cheap rye per week.
After thirty-eight years of marriage, my first wife gave me the bounce. The following year she made her judgment permanent, and that was that. She never changed her mind. I waited five years and then moved on, which I think was only sensible. I was sixty-six years old, and I had to start preparing myself for impending frailty and the avoidance of loneliness in my old age. During that “up in the air” time, I steadied my nerves with a couple of drinks in the evening, and my blood pressure started to climb. That was the only six years of my life that I have ever lived alone.
By now I have lived in Thailand for fifteen years and I'm set up okay. I had an angioplasty a couple of years ago, so now I'm on meds for BP and cholesterol. All of the numbers are good, and I feel fine. My alcohol consumption has followed a pattern: abstinence; one little drink in the early evening; two little drinks; three little drinks; abstinence; repeat. The whole cycle takes about a year.
And now, the COVID-19 section of this essay!
We live in stressful times; no one could think otherwise. We are faced with three worldwide catastrophes simultaneously: climate change; COVID-19; and the Republican fascist coup in America. (Trump is just one aspect of that last one.) My hat is off to anyone who is not driven to drink by that lineup of horror.
I was at the “three little drinks” stage of the above described cycle as of about a month ago, when the generals who have been in charge here in Thailand for the last five years decided that Thais could not be trusted with alcohol during this COVID-19 situation, especially during the Songkran festival (Thai lunar New Year, the “water festival”). With the snap of their military fingers, there were no alcohol sales in the entire country. They said two weeks at first, but it was working so well that they renewed the ban for the remainder of April, and by now they are loving the results so much that alcohol sales are canceled for May as well. And do you know what? I'm just as happy that they are.
After a couple of days of settling into it, I am sleeping like a baby every night. After a couple of weeks, my blood pressure has dropped a few points, which I don't mind a bit. If I get a bit cranky, or worried, or afraid, I watch a Godzilla movie. That always distracts me. I was waiting today for the announcement concerning the government's alcohol policy, and I was fine with it when they announced that the ban on sales would be extended to at least the end of May.
Postscript: the Lost
The other day someone posted a photo of one of the famous boy baseball teams in our town in Queens in the late 1950s. A name came up that I hadn't heard in a while, and I commented what a good guy he was and I hoped that he was doing okay. Another friend sent me a message with the update.
Red G. was the boy. I remember him well from a very early age, six or seven years old. He was probably less than a year older than me. We were in the same group of little boys, playing around the neighborhood, playing ball or other games, talking about starting a club, sledding in the winter. He was always a sturdy boy, strong and athletic. A few years later was when we were involved with “choose-up-sides” baseball games at the big park near us, which had a great baseball field with a chain-link back-stop and a clay infield. Red was often one of the team “captains,” in charge of choosing players. To my knowledge, he never used his size and strength to push any of the other kids around. That was a popular pastime for many of the stronger boys.
After grammar school I never saw Red for about twenty-five years. My family and I were back in town in the mid-1980s so that I could finish my BA, and one afternoon I was waiting in the old neighborhood for my number two son, then in Kindergarten. I always referred to the mostly women doing the waiting as, “the other moms.” One day there was a guy there, about my age, a couple of inches taller and much stronger looking. We gave each other the same look. “Red?” I said, “Red G.?” He nodded and said, “Freddy?” We hardly spoke, the bus with the kids came, and that was that.
It turns out that Red was a New York City fire-fighter all of his working life. A fireman and a dedicated drinker, always, evidently, drinking in one of the bars that we remember from our teens. The Five-Corners; the College Lounge; the Blue Light. None of our friends were left at the end, they had all either moved or died. Red would either stand there alone or talk to anyone who was in the mood. He had a wife and children, but there had been some drama with one of the sons. Whatever, if Red wasn't on duty, he was at a bar.
He made it to his late sixties before the stroke got him. He spent a few years at a long-term care facility, and he died last year. I much prefer the happy stories about the boys and girls of my childhood, but many times I don't get one. Just the dying doesn't bother me, but Red's life sounds like it had a deep sadness in it. Alcohol can mask that feeling, but drinking cannot cure it.
Make your own decisions, dear reader. We are stuck with our temperaments, and there is very little that we can do about our personalities, but we do have some power over the direction that our lives will take.