Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Drunkard’s View


Let’s talk about boozing it up, shall we?

I mean, tomorrow is Amateur Drunk Night, after all. The streets will be an obstacle course of big damn SUVs and expensive sedans driven by people who have just discovered — just tonight, at the big New Year’s Eve party — that they love Irish whiskey or Mai Tais or Mad Dog 20-20 or whatever… and look! it doesn’t affect their ability to drive even one li’l teensy li’l tiny bit, buddy, and whadya gon’ do ‘bou it, huh, mishter? Shime da bescht der-river inna worl! Hey! Where’d da tree come fum, huh? He he he he…

Don’t do it, man.

Don’t drink and drive. And don’t even drink a lot, if you’re not used to it.

Especially if you’re around friends or co-workers.

Bad, nasty, evil mis-adventures will befall you, and haunt you for decades.

I know.

I’ve been there.

And no, I’m not gonna share any details… cuz the Statute of Limitations hasn’t applied yet in some instances.

Plus, I still need plausible deniability on a few other, more recent things.

Still… big surprise… I am NOT gonna get down on anyone for tippling a few too many once in a while.

I just want to wave a caution flag a little bit. Maybe provide some Sage Advice here for the tippling novices.

Because writers — more than any other profession — seem to gravitate to the bottle. For some, it never becomes a problem. For many of the best — Hemingway, Thompson, Capote, Kerouac, Bukowski — it takes over their life and destroys first their talent, and then their very existence.

And that sucks.

But it’s not the whole story. I’ve been thinking about booze and writing for decades now, and I think I can offer some sober (so to speak) insight.

Here’s my story (and I’m sticking to it): I’ve tried just about every possible position in the “booze intake game” during my many trots around the block.

I learned to drink with guys are now either dead from too much good-time fun, or in AA and dry as tumbleweeds. I was just a teenager, looking for clues on how to be cool, and booze was a fast, easy route to the center of the action. I’m just lucky my tolerance has natural limits — while the hard-core drinkers binged into the night (and into the next day), I had to beg off and go sleep it off somewhere safe.

Oh, the hangovers I’ve suffered.

Earned ‘em, too.

I’ve also been sober as a monk, pointedly ignoring even modest forays into Partyland for long, dusty, dry periods… without complaint. Halbert was dry when I met him, and I vowed not to drink while around him as part of my “business before pleasure” attitude while I was deep into mentoring. I became the permanent designated-driver for my other friends.

I was in training, in a way. I was studying hard, writing constantly… and despite the prevalence of drunkeness among famous writers, I knew that — for me — booze was a no-no when I sat down to craft copy.

I need to be me when I write… and even a single beer can wobble me off my Zen balance. I learned this the hard way, and I’m glad I learned it early. Writing takes (and deserves) serious concentration and focus, and nowadays I even watch my caffeine intake and the temperature in my office when I sit down to work my magic.

It all matters. To find your “edge”, you must pay attention to details.

Ah, but the reality of a totally sober and hard-working life can be more than a little depressing. Early on in my career, I developed the idea of “Miller Time” — the ritual period of reward after another day of dedication, focus and production. It didn’t have to be booze. Back when I smoked (yuck — 10 years of pack-a-day wheezing), it was pure pleasure to sit back, light up a Player and read what I’d slaved over.

Add a frosty beer, and you couldn’t have impressed me more with the promise of my own harem and kingdom — I had the perfect buzz right there. Shove your veils and crowns.

However, that “perfect” buzz can blindside you.

My good buddy Garf — also a writer — just quit smoking, and I can relate to the sudden emptiness of his smoke-free Miller Time at the end of his day. I tossed my last cig away over twenty years ago, but still have cravings. Nicotine is a nasty little bastard, with a wicked jones. Joe Camel didn’t appreciate being unceremoniously ushered out of my life, and would welcome me back with open, smoky arms anytime I wanted to give in.

Get straight on the difference between habits and rituals. (Garf’s hanging in there, and I’d bet on him staying away from the cigs… but he’s gotta fight the cravings, every day. Tobacco’s like an evil succubus demon, always crawling around in the shadows, waiting for an opening.)

I also have, as I said, several other writer pals who have been forced to give up booze in all forms… and I can relate to that, too.

But Miller Time doesn’t actually require a vice. It’s just some kind of reward… something you enjoy, but won’t indulge in until you’ve been a good boy or girl and completed another productive day. You don’t get it unless you’ve been good. It’s got to be something special.

Your reward could be sex. Or a movie on HBO. Or a long steaming bath with Mr. Ducky.

It’s the ritual that matters, not the actual identity of the reward.

One of the hardest things for writers to do is get into the habit of grinding out the prose. Even the best slag off, and you can easily slip into a bad habit of procrastination and avoidance. (I don’t believe in “writer’s block” — if you have something to say, you have something to write. All top professional writers get over any romantic notion of waiting for “inspiration” to begin writing, because they’re under deadline. They still sometimes miss deadlines, and still stare at a blank page for weeks at a time… but they’re choosing to avoid writing, not suffering from any mysterious metaphysical blockage. Don’t fall victim to this rookie bullshit.)

For me, Miller Time has consisted of such varied pleasures as a cig and a beer… just a beer… a shot of whiskey and an hour of listening to my favorite music… sex… late night movies… a quick pop into the local pub to argue politics with the know-it-alls… playing guitar… and a few other things not involving alcohol in any way.

All have worked, once they became a ritual. You may miss the nicotine buzz or the warmth of a boiler-maker in your belly, but if it’s bad for you, dude, you gotta knock it off your list of acceptable rewards. Some folks can’t drink, and no one should smoke. Get over it, and find something else.

Yes, even if that something else isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the old stand-by’s used to be. There are lots of other pleasures out there.

Same with booze. Same with sex. Same with stamp collecting. Same with everything else.

People get hung up about rituals and habits, and it’s unnecessary. Every part of our “advanced” culture carries some addiciton risk. People get hooked on ice cream, then become diabetic and think their life is over. Runners will limp to the corner and attempt to log ten or twelve miles to get that “runner’s high” again even after shattering both ankles. Adrenaline junkies will have a near-death experience jumping out of an airplane, and force themselves to do it again… because they lack the imagination to find another source of excitement.

Plus, of course, there are the really vicious habits… including booze, drugs and gambling. Oh, and sex, if you believe the day-time talk shows. And shopping. And…

Just get over your bad self. If you can’t, you need help, and it’s out there. I’m a big fan of the 12-step programs, cuz they’ve saved many of my friends. And I love talk therapy, cuz it’s helped me over and over again.

But, the big realization for most people (and especially for most writers) is that life and habit and ritual isn’t a black-and-white, either/or decision. There’s lots and lots of gray area to be explored.

I’ve hung out in bad, dark, filthy bars as a patron… and loved it. And I’ve played music in those same joints, dry as a churchmouse (cuz booze will screw up my ability to play, so I don’t usually drink when I’m on stage)… and loved it just as much.

You really can adjust to what the situation calls for. I know it’s not popular to believe this, but it’s true. You control the script of your movie.

Nowadays, my Miller Time involves an ice cold, frothy beer from west coast small breweries. None of that national swill for me, no sir. I’d rather drink tea than suffer through a Bud. In fact, I consider it a crime to waste your time with anything less than the super-excellent small breweries that have sprung up in the past few years.

We’re in a Golden Age of beer, dude. A Lagunitas pale ale, or an Acme IPA, or even a Stone “Arrogant Bastard Ale” (from, respectively, Petaluma, Fort Bragg, and San Diego) rivals — in flavor, nuance and pure undiluted pleasure — any of the best French or California vino you can serve up. I fuss over the glass I pour my beer into, I enjoy the sight and smell of it, and appreciate every sip like a gourmet.

And yeah, I’ll fight you if you don’t agree. Dude.

Okay, it’s not worth fighting over… but the thing is, we really do live in a wonderful time for choosing variations on your own private Miller Time.

Find your groove. Your own, personal, super-satisfying groove… and then get into it.

And stick with it.

And if getting wild with the gin-and-tonics isn’t your regular groove, then don’t top off your tank this New Year’s Eve just because every other dunderhead in the room is.

There is some existential value in getting snoggered, once in a while. You get to try out a different personality for a few hours, you experience the sudden relaxation of all that tense uptightness you’ve been holding onto, and sometimes it’s just nice to have all those new best friends to chat with. (Witness the bar at the next marketing seminar you attend, if you want to see this in action.)

But don’t do it if you’re new to the territory. Really. It’s one thing for a college kid to douse his system with rocket fuel and go steal a rival school’s mascot. Or, okay, and make out with that hottie who sits behind you in English Lit (whose name you forget).

But it’s another thing for a grown adult to pound Cosmopolitans, with car keys in your pocket, without knowing where that train is gonna let you off in a few hours.

Somewhere between the vim of pure sobriety and the vigor of blowing a 2.8 on a breathalyzer lies your groove.

You’re an adult. You’re also an entrepreneur, small biz owner or copywriter, if you’re reading this blog regularly. Or you hope to be, soon.

Make your peace with the temptations of modern life. You can indulge, but you’re still responsible for all consequences.

So be careful if you’re going out NYE. Please.

Remember: As a writer, it’s much more fun to lag behind the drunks and observe… so you have stories to write about later.

Think about that.

See you next year.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

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