More Tales of Intoxication and Sobriety

Several years ago, I wrote letters and schemed to get my boss fired.  It was a Friday afternoon when I got the news that he had been canned.  (Please don’t waste any time here worrying about whether he deserved it– everyone was grateful to see him go.)  A coworker appeared in my door and delivered the news.  I said, “I really want to kiss you right now, but I won’t.”  A sixty-year-old gay man, he got a Kermit the Frog look on his face and backed out of the room, chuckling. 

That year, I broke Lent to have a drink with my elated colleagues.  Over pitchers and pitchers of beer, we raved about our happy plans for turning things around, now that the dark clouds had lifted.  I thought, It’s wrong not to celebrate something that will only happen once, just because it happens during Lent.

During another Lent, there was a death.  The violent death of a kid I knew.  After the shock and well into the outrage, there was another barroom support group.  That time I didn\’t break Lent.  Not because of any great willpower.  One of my Catholic friends sweetly said, This doesn’t count.  You can have a drink.  I just didn’t want to.  I ate a grilled cheese and fries.  It was so greasy it made me sicker than if I’d had three drinks.

I always notice how hard it is to judge the effects of alcohol when I stop drinking.  I drove home that grilled cheese night and felt woozy, spacey.  I couldn’t blame my haze on alcohol.

And I couldn’t blame my hysterics on alcohol, either.  My face hurt from smiling and my stomach hurt from laughing.  There’s no funnier group than a group that just came from a funeral.  I don’t think I laughed any less or was any less engaging with friends because I was sober. 

But the weird thing about using drugs is that you really don’t know.  They impair your ability to evaluate yourself, and the ability to evaluate yourself is shaky in humans anyway. 

When I had a tooth pulled, I got narcotics.  I took them for one day.  By the end of that day, I had become obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet.  I sat on the couch with my boyfriend, and he said, “You’re fine.  You CAN feel them.  Feel that?”  And he smacked the top of my foot.  In a kindly way.  I could feel my feet, sort of, but they were as blurry as an Impressionist painting.  I kept seeing myself tumbling down the stairs and snapping both ankles, then shrugging.  Oh, well.  Guess I broke my ankles.  I went back to the Advil the next day.

I don’t know how these artists who drank so heavily and used so many drugs could still feel.  It seems like being able to feel, and experience your life deeply, is a prerequisite for creation.  Maybe they were so sensitive to begin with that they had to numb out a lot just to catch up with the rest of us.

When the kid was killed, I could have had enough to drink to loosen me up, or enough that my mind was blown.   I was feeling so blank to begin with, maybe I couldn\’t even imagine altering my emotional state.  Or maybe taking any step to soothe my grief would only have emphasized that nothing could help.

Eric Cantor is an Average, Decent Republican

Rush Limbaugh doesn’t act like a grown-up.  I guess that is not news.  He is, as the Republican Party Chairman said, an entertainer.  Entertainers don’t usually act like grown-ups. 

Grown-ups, of which we have very few in our world, don’t want people to suffer.  People suffering kicks in their empathy.  They suffer with people who are suffering. 

This does not mean that they view suffering as an outright evil, though.  Suffering because you don’t get candy at the grocery store is good suffering.  We’re talking about serious, long-term damage suffering, like losing your house, your job, your health, your life.  Grown-ups have empathy and it hurts to see people lose these things, even if they deserve it, even if it teaches them a lesson.  It’s hard to watch.  

Grown-ups have won some things they didn’t deserve (and know it).  They have also escaped some punishments they did deserve, without volunteering for punishment.  When was the last time you wrote yourself a speeding ticket?  Grown-ups know that life is not fair, and people are thorougly imperfect, and this enhances their empathy.

In 2003, I listened and read, and ultimately believed that invading Iraq was wrong.  I wrote letters, went to protests.  The U.S. invaded Iraq anyway. 

I hoped like crazy that my judgment was faulty.  I hoped that the peace demonstrators would be proven wrong.  I hoped that the people being mentally, physically, and emotionally scarred would be balanced by a clear purpose and the larger good that would come out of the war.  I hoped Bush was right and I was wrong.  I wanted Bush’s war to succeed.  I’d rather be wrong than have people suffer.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor is a grown up.  “I don’t think anyone wants anything to fail right now,” the Grown-up says.  Thank you, Eric Cantor.  Just because you think the Democrats’ plan won’t work doesn’t mean you want it to fail.  Reference again here, I didn’t think the Iraq plan would work, but I desperately want it to succeed.

I am, and will remain, deeply opinionated; however, my opinions aren’t intended to be used for worship or as weapons.  If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.  Being wrong helps you learn, and it keeps you humble.

Mr. Limbaugh, on the other hand, must personify his opinions to entertain people, rather than being a grown-up.  At least, he thinks that he must.  I wonder if a person with an open mind exploring ideas would be entertaining.  I guess that’s why we have “60 Minutes.”

Why I Stopped Drinking

One summer, several years ago, I wrapped up an evening of art openings in my boyfriend’s neighbor’s loft, listening to beautiful Spanish poems recited.  Everyone at this gathering was an artist of some sort, and conversation flowed around South American travel adventures, and paintings, and poets.  I listened to their conversation begin to pool and cycle.  I got irritated and thought: I want to go home.  This is getting boring.  They were drinking a lot of cheap Cabernet, and I was not. 

This was early in the history of my alcohol absention.  For years, I gave up chocolate for Lent, but alcohol eventually became the greater pleasure, and thus I added it to my list of forbidden indulgences.

I think the first year I gave up alcohol was also the year I went on a first date and seriously disappointed the man by ordering a Sprite at Gillhouly’s.  It’s Lent, I explained.  I don’t drink during Lent.  First dates are much harder without a drink.

Sobriety isn’t the greatest virtue.  I’ve known plenty of cold, nasty sober people.  I even find some virtue in drunkenness.  Sharing the experience of losing sobriety, and the progressive scrambling and blurring of the world, can be sacramental.  There are safer ways to get out of your head (meditation, exercise), but drinking is awfully fun. 

I think there is a time and a place for drinking and even for drunkenness.  I love wine and whiskey, and I love the casual, romantically self-destructive community of bars.  I’ve been lucky enough to maintain a relationship with alcohol that I enjoy.  I think it’s as safe and healthy as most of my relationships.

Giving up alcohol for a short time (Lent is 40 days plus Sundays) ensured that I spent some of each year resting my liver and reassuring my addict DNA that I can live without it.  It forces me to remember that I go to parties and bars to be with people, not to drink.  That when I say, “I need a drink,”  I actually need to breathe and relax.  Sometimes I need a nap, a meal, a hot bath, a massage.

Not drinking makes Lent about sobriety.  It is about honest confrontation: you are going to die.  You are not perfect.  And the response, the reason that you can face this is that your tradition and experience tells you it is okay to die and it is okay to not be perfect.  To die and to be imperfect, in fact, is a critical part of the human experience. 

Most religions encourage confronting this reality– Jews particularly on Yom Kippur, and Buddhists during every meditation.  Christians have Lent, which is way longer than the Days of Awe, and usuall y milder than a stringent meditation schedule.

So, I might give up alcohol again.  It’s only 10 AM, Ash Wednesday.  No one’s offered me a drink yet.

Playing God

I’m fond of the concept of “playing God”  as presented in The Cider House Rules.  It’s a novel with a good old-fashioned modernist directive: someone is going to play God, someone is going to wield terrifying power like a gun or a doctor’s kit, and maybe, since you’re a reasonable person, that person ought to be you.  (Thank you, John Irving.)

I joke about “playing God” as a teacher, which is one way of dealing with the knowledge that mutters in the background every day… I will say something that someone will remember forever, but what will it be?  Will it be some stupid off-the-cuff sarcastic remark?  Will it be, “You’re a good writer”?  Will it be, “I don’t have time for you to get your act together”?  Or something nastier?  There’s no way to know.  You talk almost all day, almost every day.  And you’re only a dumb human being, distracted and annoyed sometimes like anyone else.

You have to have confidence in your decisions and your instincts, although there is often no one to offer you confirmation, or even serve as a witness.  I feel lucky to work at a school where my colleagues frequently collaborate and commiserate, rather than competing or backbiting over test scores.  I probably have a lot more support from my fellow teacher than most educators enjoy.  You say, “Oh, that kid is driving me crazy,” or ask how the kid acts in another class or if the kid can read or do math or if the kid has something crazy going on at home.  And then you should have a better grasp on what is the kid’s craziness and what is your own craziness.  Maybe you’re just having a bad day.

I have a student teacher this semester, which is teaching me mostly about myself, and how I have a hard time holding any gray area of control.  Either I can use the iron fist to regain control for her, delivering the Royal Bitch speech about how the class was unfocused, or I can walk out of the room and read a novel across the hall and let her fend for herself.  The gray area is where I need to be sometimes: listening, encouraging, insisting.  I hate that area.  I’m nothing like God at all in that area.  In accordance with a popular story of human origin, I am eager to resemble God. 

I came in to work this morning with an unusual degree of self-doubt.  I’ve been watching my student teacher building her confidence, and it reminds me how deliberately constructed my own confidence is.  Today the student teacher is gone, and I’m back to doing things myself.  Can I still do it?  Can I do what I’ve been telling her to do all these weeks? 

When I began teaching here four years ago, I thought I could do a good job.  I thought, I’m an educated person, and a smart person, and passionate about the kids.  I can do this.  These were reasons to try, but hardly guarantees of success.  

I don’t even know how to define success here.  Grades are artificial, attention can be faked, knowledge can be short-term and meaningless.  They suck at tests– ask them half the questions right afterward, and they’ll show more understanding.  And when the kids learn and grow, it doesn’t mean it’s because of something I’ve done anything right.  Abraham Lincoln learned real good, and he didn’t have a teacher in his log cabin.  And children mature naturally, whether or not anyone pushed them to.

I am most encouraged by moments when my students treat me with respect.  That is something I trust.  It means we have an environment where people can learn, might want to learn, and might want to change and grow, regardless of the quality of my lessons, or the stupid things I might occasionally say. 

The day turned out well.  We had some strange moments of comfort when the kids realized their “real” teacher was back, if only for a day.  There were fewer arguments than usual.  My quick, vehement yanks on the discipline leash were generally acquiesced to.  (The highest level of this is requesting apologies for misbehavior.  I requested a couple, and I received them.)  Maybe, God or human, they missed me after all.