Picking Your Poison.
As some of you have probably figured out, I enjoy a drink. Whether it’s a pint, a glass, a shot, snifter, or “just a wee dram,” I haven’t met an alcohol I didn’t like. Except for an “Amaro di Tartufo” (Truffle Liquor) that I tried in Noricia (northern Italy). I had been seeing signs for it all around the region as a local specialty. When I actually ordered it in a bar, everyone stopped to look at me as if I had just walked in and ordered a plate of Lutefisk. I knew that I was about to ingest something that any outsider (for example, to local Scandinavians, someone not genetically pre-disposed to lye-soaked cod) would find disgusting. They were right. I couldn’t have done any worse than if I had scraped moldering backyard mushrooms off our lawn, thrown them into a blender with vodka, and hit “liquify.” I know that some people swear by this stuff, but then again my grandparents sweared by codliver oil, and you know how good that is.
But I actually come from a dry background, and am a pretty careful drinker. My great aunts and uncles on my mom’s dad’s side nearly all died of alcoholism or the effects of too much drink, and a good deal of my dad’s father’s family suffered from it. My mom’s father, I hear, could be a pretty unpleasant drunk, and things got a lot better when he cut back to an occasional cold beer on a hot day or glass of wine with holidays. It probably, given the rest of his family history, saved his life. Nevertheless, he did establish one tradition, that my brother and I carry on, by bringing a bottle of hooch to my parents’ dry wedding and inviting various members of the family out to the parking lot for a “snort.”
My dad’s mother wouldn’t allow any alcohol anywhere near her house, and would smash the bottles of Grandpa Nelson’s brothers and cousins if they brought any over. I remember uncovering, with my cousin Randy, a bottle of hooch tucked away in a wall in the room where uncle Raymond was staying with them, and it causing a major incident. You seenobody, not even grandpa Nelson, would contradict grandma’s stern puritanism at home. They belonged to the Norwegian Free Christian Church. There was no dancing, no cards, no [fill in the blank here], and definitely no booze. She had seen what all of those things (especially gambling and drinking) had done to families in the Depression. Everyone at her home was kept on a stern straight and narrow. But my uncle Ronny tells me that he would go with Grandpa, after a long or hot day on the farm, down to Ferndale to “pick up some cigarettes,” at times. They would take the old Ford Falcon and drive down to the local tavern (all taverns used to have cigarette dispensers). About twenty minutes later Grandpa would emerge with a pack and smelling slightly of malt and hops. I’m sure everyone knew. It was probably one of those unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” marital policies.
Mother liked her white wine,
She’d have a glass or three.
We’d sit out on the screen porch,
White winos mom and me.
We’d talk about her childhood,
Recap my career,
When we got to my father,
That was when I’d switch to beer.
–Lauden Wainwright III, Mother Liked Her White Wine
In my own parents’ home there wasn’t a drop of booze for years, except for Christmas and maybe Thanksgiving. (That seemed to change after my brother and I left home, much to our utter amazement. Turned out, my mom and dad enjoyed a good wine, beer, or liquor, and I now enjoy sharing a brew or glass with mom when her medication doesn’t hinder it.) And, for the most part, I have to say that was a good thing for me. I was dry as dust for most of my youth. I was often a voluntary designated driver for friends’ parties clear into college. I didn’t start drinking anything until I was nearly of age, although Bob Finlayson and I would, on occasion, sit on his deck and enjoy a Moosehead when we were under the 21 year-old mark. And I remember fondly when some guys brought a Heiniken down to my dorm room when I was up late into the night working on an orchestral composition for finals in college. That beer sure tasted good.
Beer is God’s way of telling us that he loves us and wants us to be happy.
— Benjamin Franklin
Since then, however, I’ve learned to savor the pleasures of a good brew, vintage, or distillation. But I keep, for the most part, things in check. I’ve never been sick from drinking. I’ve never been falling down drunk. Well, okay, there was that time just after my marriage blew up and I was all alone in my grandmother’s house (she had died but my parents hadn’t sold her house yet, so I moved in there). I was completely depressed, drinking red wine and eating potato chips, talking to Susan on the phone. I eventually had to crawl from the living room beanbag (my only piece of furniture) down the hall to the bedroom while Susan stayed on the line to make sure that I made it. Okay, there was that time. But that’s the exception that proves the rule. And technically, just for the record: I never fell down. Other than that, I’ve been pretty sane. Sure, Susan and I sometimes, as the song goes, “sit around the shanty and put a good buzz on,” but we’re not overboard about it. We like a good drink, but we like other things that too much booze gets in the way of a lot more.
Gonna sit down in the kitchen and fix us something good to eat;
make my head a little high and make this whole day complete
cuz we gonna lay around the shanty, mama. and put a good buzz on.
–Jonathon Edwards, Shanty
Besides, for a guy like me, in whose family every other person develops pancreatic cancer or a related problem, you gotta be careful with drinking. It’s something, along with smoking and eating ice cream in the evenings (I’m not kidding), that has a statistical correlation to early cancer onset. But after a lot of research (and I mean NIH studies, conference papers, the Johns Hopkins institute, and a subscription to the PancreasWeb) there are a few things about this complicated disease that seem pretty clear to me. The main thing is that people like me appear to be wired with a system that eventually becomes cancerous by doing what it’s supposed to do: secreting enzymes needed to digest food. Things that stimulate this system (nicotine, alcohol) or require the system to work harder (fat and sugar, especially together) may cause the system to break down faster.
That’s probably why, for example, there is a greater correlation between pancreatic cancer onset and heavy cigarette smoking (heavy nicotine ingestion), less with cigars (less nicotine), and little to no correlation with pipe smoking, and no correlation with second hand smoke. Not that the doctors haven’t been trying like hell to establish a link. There’s a lot of money for, and in, anti-tobacco studies these days. And the same kind of risk progression seems to apply to drinking and fat/sugar intake.
This statistical message seems clear enough: don’t smoke or drink, and stay away from the Häagen-Dazs. Cut it all out and live longer. Why take a chance? Sure. The problem is that the statistics are just as clear that, if you are genetically preset for this disease, there’s a host of other “multi-valent” factors, including dumb luck and just plain living (we are all, even the organic among us, swimming in a sea of poisons) that are just as influential in determining when your system starts to go bad. Cutting out the identifiable risks doesn’t necessarily improve your chances much. It just means that you give up things you like for the feeling that you’re doing something.
And there’s no evidence — none — that the time you gain is worth it in length or quality. If that seems shocking, it’s probably because you imagine that the life you have now is pretty much the one you’ll have at the end of your life. But have you seen what most people come to at the end of their lives? If someone told you that, if you gave up having your cherished glass of wine for the rest of your life, you could live three more days, would you do it? If a doctor told you to give up the deserts you love for the rest of your life so you could live three more weeks, months, or years lying in a bed, not remembering your own children and having strangers wipe you ass every day, would you pass up the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie?
I’ve been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet
Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet. And I’m still… willin’
Now I smuggled some smokes and folks from Mexico; baked by the sun, every time I go to Mexico
And I been from Tuscon to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah
I’ve driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
I’ve driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine, and you show me a sign: I’ll be willin’
-Lowell T. George, Willin’
Besides, not smoking or drinking didn’t help my dad. He grew up on a farm. He never smoked. He didn’t drink. We are food canned from our garden. We butchered grass fed beef raised by my grandparents on the homestead. We ate line-caught salmon from the ocean, and drank hand-pressed cider from our own orchard. My dad didn’t live any longer than anyone else in his family who got this disease, some of whom smoked 2+ packs a day, others who drank over the rail, and others who made a range of other “lifestyle” choices good and bad. That’s why my lifestyle choice is for relatively moderate indulgence, informed acceptance of risk, and yearly pancreatic ultrasounds as a backup. Hopefully, if cancer starts to show up, we’ll catch it early enough to intervene surgically and late enough so that the technology continues to improve to the point where they don’t have to cut out half my digestive tract and make me into a diabetic.
We’re all gonna die, of course, and if we live long enough nearly all of us will die of cancer. As I see it, you can spend your life trying to run away from them on a treadmill, or you can figure out what you want to do with your life and do that until they show up. One way or the other they’re still coming. “Patience, and your drug of choice,” my former student Jason Thompson used to say, were two of the things that everyone learns from college. A good drink is a part of my personal mix to nurse the patience along at times.
A sip of wine, a cigarette, and then it’s time to go.
I’ve tidied up the kitchenette, I’ve tuned the old bango.
I’m wanted at the traffic jam: they’re savin’ me a seat.
I’m what I am; and what I am, is back on Boogie Street.
-Leonard Cohen, Boogie Street
Like the old saying goes, you gotta pick your poison. Trouble is, there’s so many poisons to pick these days. But still, whatever your personal coping mechanisms are, you gotta be careful with good stuff. Stimulants; depressants; anti-depressants; pain pills; penis pills; emotional drama; adrenaline; spiritual thrill; stress; risk taking; self-righteousness; anger; denial; projection; repression; transference; control — like the Neal Young song, From Hank to Hendrix, goes, “The very things that make you live, can kill you in the end.”
Don’t you know somehow her smile can make the day begin,
She’d take away this mask of grey and let the sun shine in.
Now I find that I’ve been blinded by the cold and winter wind
She disguised behind her eyes; oh, what a fool I’ve been.
So whiskey, whiskey, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.
Milk of mercy please be kind; drive this feeling from my mind.
–Chris Christopherson, Whiskey, Whiskey