Monday, April 16, 2018


So the time has come to give serious thought to my life-long love affair with alcohol. Think of it as an aside, occasioned this past weekend from a moment of awakening in a hotel room in Ojai, California, where we were staying in conjunction with a visit to the delightful Lotusland Gardens in Montecito (by good fortune spared from the terrible effects of both the Thomas fire, earlier this year, and the catastrophic mudslide that followed.) The gardens are simply splendid, rivaling any of the gardens we have visited elsewhere in the world—including Kew.

But this is about alcohol. We’d had dinner with friends in Ojai the previous night and I had consumed no more than a couple of glasses of wine over the period of two hours—at least one of them awaiting delivery of our order. Ojai must have been particularly busy that evening. Still, those two glasses were enough to remind me, on awakening, that alcohol and I are not such good friends as we used to be. It was far from being a hangover—God knows, I have experienced enough of those over the years. It was, rather, I concluded during meditation, a not-quite mental sharpness, a disturbance in the brain’s ability to focus and settle into concentration, an intrusion of thoughts that came to rest on the subject of alcohol itself.

We became acquainted early, alcohol and I. In Europe, where I grew up—and particularly in France, where I visited for the first time at the age of fourteen and where I traveled frequently thereafter—it was not unusual for teenagers to be offered a glass of(sometimes) diluted wine at dinner time. At boarding school, I would slip away on every possible occasion for a furtive and illicit pint of beer. My years at Cambridge, though, were pretty much drenched in beer. Well, plus anything else I could lay my hands on. There was that still unforgotten occasion when three of us friends returned from summer vacation: my Arab friend from Lebanon with a bottle of arak, my English friend from was then Czechoslovakia with a bottle of slivovitz, and myself from France with a bottle of cognac, and we sat down one evening and drank all three at one sitting. Not a great idea. But throughout my university days and the years that followed, I drank a lot. I cringe in shame at the thought today, but I rather frequently drove home in a state of serious impairment, risking not only my own life but the lives of those I loved, and the lives of others I did not even know. We all escaped my recklessness more by good fortune than good judgment.

(My father, perhaps not incidentally, was a drinker—though a benign one. In his later years this minister of the Church of England would start out the evening with a pint of Guinness at the pub and move on to a glass or two of sherry before dinner, a meal was always accompanied by cheap red wine—“plonk”, he called it, and after dinner there’d inevitably be a snifter of brandy or a glass of liqueur, green Chartreuse when he could afford it. To the best of my recollection, he never showed signs of drunkenness, whether in behavior or in speech… but he sure managed to swallow down a lot!)

Back to today. My thoughts on awakening at the weekend were not new. I have been watching the negative effects of alcohol on my health and mental acuity for some time. I attribute some appreciable part of my unwanted weight gain to the wine I like to drink. I go to bed heavily fatigued, yet do not sleep so well. And wake with less clarity of awareness than I would like. I have noticed, too, an unfortunate need to supplement the illusory comforts of wine with an extra, stronger hit before dinner—whether a shot of vodka or of single malt Scotch. The temporary gratification of these drinks is belied by the more lasting discomfort of bloat, drowsiness and inattention that is bound to ensue. I offer myself unconvincing excuses that allow me to persist in a habit that is frankly harmful, but I can’t really pretend that I don’t know better—that I don’t recognize those excuses for what they are.

Some time ago—actually, a long time ago!—I gave up smoking cigarettes. It was for many years, ten years, as I recall, a frustrating and a losing battle. I tried everything, from will power to patches, chewing gum to hypnosis. I managed to quit many times for a few days, a few weeks, but inevitably some crisis, real or imagined, would have me back at it again. No matter how often I would remind myself—or Ellie or my children would remind me—that it was ruinous to my health, I remain stubbornly addicted to my noxious habit. Until one day a wise friend suggested a different approach, to make it a matter of choice rather than compulsion. Instead of the “mustn’t,” “shouldn’t,” “can’t,” he suggested, try reminding myself of the benefits I could choose: better health; better sleep; the ability to walk upstairs or down the block without losing breath; no more smelly breath or stinking clothes; a renewed sense of freedom, and so on. Plenty of good things to choose. And this time it worked. For a while I carried an open pack of cigarettes with me everywhere, and when the desire came up, as at first it often did, I made the conscious choice for better things than the momentary satisfaction of lighting up.

So habits can be broken, and this particular habit is not serving me. Once again I am confronted with a matter of choice. On the one hand, the pleasure of a glass of wine, the comfort of a vodka with a squeeze of lemon, easing into the evening with a relaxed, if slightly befuddled mind. On the other, a clear head, less heavy fatigue at night time, a better sleep and waking experience, a loss of the bloat I have come to associate with the consumption of wine and perhaps even an overall loss of weight.

The choice is clear. The time has come to make it.

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