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June 26, 2011

...As the Proverbial Judge





Just a Sampling of America's Great Drunken Writers

My name is Josh (“Hi, Josh!”), and I’ve been sober for twenty-five days now. (Warm applause) But I’m not an alcoholic. (“Say what?”) I’m just too darned busy these days to fritter away whole weekends on beer and Spartacus. (“Who are you kidding, Josh?”)

No, seriously, dudes—I’m not an alcoholic. Or maybe I am. It’s just as likely, I suppose, as my having a porn addiction. But that, as the saying goes, is not relevant to the case on trial. What is relevant is that it’s June here in Japan—as it may well be where you are—and that means I’m plowing through one of the busiest months of the year at Dayjob-land. Ergo, I have to give up drinking.

For good measure, it also means that the sun is coming up around 4:30 in the morning every day because the Japanese have an aversion to Daylight Savings Time every bit as powerful as their aversion to safety measures at nuclear power stations. As a result, I waft through these stark, sober days on an average of four hours sleep per night.

The annual Month Without Alcohol has been a Muggins tradition dating back to Mankato days, when the Archangel Yeltsin appeared before me in a fever dream out back of the Rathskeller and assured me, in slurry Russian, that if I kept trying to keep pace with my friends, I would end up dead or—worse still—just like my friends.

In the past decade the Month Without Alcohol program has been expanded to two or three months per year. Here’s a brief inventory of what I’ve learned.


Sobriety is the New Crank

When I was in college, my drug of choice was amphetamines, which we often called “crank” to make them (and ourselves) sound more macho. Laying in a baggie of a hundred White Cross (glorified No Doz more often than not) was akin to unleashing a platoon of benevolent and diligent fairies into one’s languid lifestyle. Within days, long postponed reports were magically typed up; textbook chapters suddenly skimmed; parents cloyingly hit up for cash; rooms abruptly cleaned; Playmate foldouts vigorously ejaculated upon; cafeteria food fights meticulously plotted.

But the fairies stopped lining up for roll call when I hit my mid-twenties. It was strange and ironic. Just as one was finally old and wise enough to obtain authentic Benzedrine, the good stuff, one suddenly and unaccountably became immune to its effects.

But it gradually occurred to me over the decades that I could achieve the same results that I got in college not by adding a stimulant to my system but rather by subtracting a depressant. The same results, albeit without the buzz or the fun.

Besides which, the prospect of a whole month without alcohol is so dreadful at the outset that I stockpile unpleasant tasks ahead of time just to keep my mind occupied until the damned thing is over. Lesson preps, gift shopping, financial planning, and, yes, blogging, and…

…Well, I won’t bore you with the full litany of things I’ve knocked off the to-do list in the last three skull-crushingly sober weeks, but it is prodigious. I suppose one could argue that Dirk Nowitzki has had a more grindingly productive June than I have had, but I wouldn’t bet on it.


More Alert? You Bet!

In the wake of 9/11, Attorney General Ashcroft exhorted Americans to remain alert for signs of further terrorist activity, prompting Tina Fey to famously respond, “I think I speak for all Americans when I say: Bitch, I can't be any more alert than I already am!”

That more or less sums up my attitude three weeks into a bout of sobriety. The happy sense of heightened alertness and focus that accompanies the first ten days or so gradually gives way to a species of hyper-alertness that, rather like HAL the computer, refuses to let itself ever be turned off.

Now, alertness has its place. I’m bullishly pro-alertness when it comes to, say, air traffic controllers on duty while I’m in flight. But for the bulk of humanity, including humble English teacher/bloggers, well, I’m here to tell you that alertness is one overrated virtue.


Joyless Days

There’s a Stephen King story about a scientist who invents a transporter-beam device that works perfectly, except for the awkward fact that every volunteer who is sent through the darned thing comes out insane, and promptly commits suicide by tearing himself apart. One feels for the man’s janitor.

Eventually it’s discovered that, though the transporting appears instantaneous to witnesses, the subject himself undergoes an out-of-body experience that seems to drag on for decades—during which his mind floats untethered, devoid of any sensory input before suddenly getting plunged back into the body, thereby reducing the person to a suicidal sac of protoplasm.

That story neatly encapsulates my third and fourth weekends without alcohol.

“There has to be something each day that brings joy into that day.” The sportswriter Tom Boswell said something close to those words in the PBS Baseball documentary back in the Nineties. For him, that something was baseball, as it was for me at one point in my youth. But at college, alcohol took over that slot and has jealously held it ever since*.

No matter how miserably a day might unfold, there was always that knowledge that, come 9:30 or so, there would be that sweet, sweaty bottle of white wine, that bowl of nuts, that episode of The Daily Show waiting for me. With these pleasures would come a processing and a reconciling of the day’s events and of the poisonous emotions that may attend those events. But without the wine, there are no nuts, thence no Daily Show, thence no processing. The emotions just pile up and pile up and pile up, like garbage in Naples, and the month goes drearily on and on and on, like the Gingrich campaign

“It’s eternity in there” is what one volunteer in the King story managed to rasp out before pureeing himself. Yes—yes, that's June in Japan.


Side Effects

I’ve snapped at students, bristled at bureaucrats, carped at cashiers. I’ve engaged in violent, physical arguments with coat hangers that failed to yield up their shirts as readily as I expected them to. I’ve banged on computers that didn’t belong to me. And don’t forget, this is a bona fide wussie talking here. I suppose the cliché "sober as a judge” applies if the judge you have in mind combines Antonin Scalia’s generosity toward the less intellectually gifted, Judge Judy’s patience with the compulsively chatty, and Simon Cowell’s affability toward the less talented. I'm not a very nice man these days. I've curtailed conversations with Mrs. Muggins because of having "better things to do." I've argued with the very air itself, calling it vile names that I would never reproduce here in print.

Around the third week of sobriety, like clockwork, I start twitching. Last year, it was one of my eyelids—I can’t recall which one. It would flutter and jerk of its own accord. This year, it’s some obscure nerve on the bridge of my nose, the contractions of which cause my glasses to bob up and down—which amuses my students, which in turn sets off a fresh round of snapping. It's a vicious cycle.


Sorry About This

This blog post is about as funny as a poodle colonoscopy. I know it, but there’s nothing I can do about it. If Drinking Josh were here, he’d figure out some clever way to rescue the thing; he’d reel in one of his ideas out of left field and put just the right spin on it, and he’d avoid any clumsy mixing of metaphors in the process—I can tell you that from the horse’s mouth.

Yep, lucky thing for all of us that I’m not an alcoholic. Because I couldn’t make it a day past one month on the wagon to save my life. Sorry for this crappy blog. Please check out this one, or this one, or this one, all of which were proudly brought to you by Drinking Josh.




* Despite the best efforts of my Rolling Fella Bomber to claim the title.