A blog about nothing.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

THE (SE)X FACTOR

I was born a hopeless romantic. I say hopeless because in today’s world romance seems to have vanished or to exist merely as a mirage so seeking it is a lesson in futility. The more appropriate term perhaps is hopeful romantic, since I wished so badly to be in love, but that was then. By then I mean from the time I was in nursery school until my parents broke up when I was twenty-four. During this time I wanted more than anything to get married. And by now (I am 41) I could easily have gotten hitched a half a dozen times. And been just as many times divorced.

Like most boys, my earliest sexual experiences predated even the presence of another. I think it was Marvin Gaye who awakened the urge within me with his chart-topping tune Sexual Healing, which stormed the airwaves in 1982. I was 9. But it was around this time that I had caught my first glimpse of such girlie magazines as Playboy, Penthouse, Oui, and Hustler, courtesy of my father. Not that dad owned these magazines, not that I know of. He lived an abstemious existence and raised us in accordance with the five human values – truth, non-violence, peace, love and duty. Note that lust is not one of these. But dear ole dad’s friends and clients (he’s an attorney) were loyal subscribers, and when we’d visit their houses for parties his married male friends would leave these magazines by the toilet, not bothering to conceal them. Apparently they felt no guilt or shame about advertising their love of the female form to anyone who came over. Once at a party I locked myself in Barry Himes’ bathroom with a particularly salacious issue of Hustler, one which featured the familiar teacher-student scenario. Mustached man, blonde co-ed. Ruler. Tight clothes. Bulges everywhere. No clothes. Private tutorial first at the desk, then in a bubble bath. Etc. It was studying these images that I first felt my loins stir and become blood engorged. My heart began to palpitate and my cheeks grew flushed and wet with perspiration. This was before I knew how to masturbate so I couldn’t achieve immediate release, and thus the dreaded blue-balls ensued. Ah, the pangs of youth! My mother eventually knocked on the door but I came up with some excuse, tummy upset I think, to buy myself a bit more time. The next time we visited the Himes’ home I made my way to the guest bath and managed to snatch away a particularly titillating shot of a guy performing cunnilingus on a girl – at least his head was in her nether regions. Eighties smut left precious much to the imagination. My mother, who I am now sure made it a habit to root through my desk, found my prized possession and threatened to make me return it which was enough to ensure I’d never pilfer pictures again.

The first time I saw a porno was again courtesy of my father’s friend, another client of his, named Louis (I think). While the guests were outside eating barbecue I asked to remain in the living room watching baseball on TV. From the couch I caught sight of Louis’ impressive collection of VHS videos (this was 1984) and popped a particularly interesting title in and pressed play. While I watched a peeping Tom spy on a couple doing the deed in their bedroom, my whole body stiffened as a surge of adrenaline shot through me like a bolt of lightning. Of course I had to watch with one eye on the hallway leading to the room, in case my parents came to check on me. You can guess what I did when I got home.

By this time I had learned to masturbate from of all people my little brother. He used to sit in front of the TV with his pants off, employing a sawing motion against his sex with the pinkie side of one hand. I tried the same while watching baseball (so no one would guess my intentions), my hand working feverishly beneath the bed covers. With a bit of practice I was able to achieve the desired effect. That same year my brothers and I spent an afternoon in a Jacuzzi at the home of yet another of my father’s friends. We got the idea to press our private parts against the air jets. About a minute of that and I felt a surge in my loins and the release of a lifetime, or what would have been that had my brother Justin not thought to obstruct my pleasure by placing his hand on my penis. He laughed hysterically, as if he knew he had just ruined my first high. A chance at greatness. My first orgasm cruelly interrupted. I think I’m still chasing the perfect one. That was when I was 10.

I didn’t start ejaculating until I had been masturbating regularly for a couple months. Before that I’d experience the penile paroxysms so familiar to a young man, but nothing would issue forth. In common parlance, I’d shoot blanks. Then, after borrowing my mother’s massage device (she used the vibrator to massage away a double chin, or so she said) and placing it to my swollen sex. Not long afterwards I experienced a blissful sensation and what ensued was a curious white substance not unlike sputum. I dabbed my finger and put it to my tongue. Slimy, slightly sweet, quite salty. Not the last time I tasted my own semen. When I was thirteen I learned that my good friend had come down with mononucleosis and among the ways of contracting the viral infection – other than drinking from a water fountain and “licking your palms” (who would do such a thing?) – was from masturbating too much. Seeking to avoid depleting my sperm count I tried to drink my jizm (such a crude term!) but ended up dry-heaving. I don’t know how girls do it. (But I am thankful for it.)

In elementary school my eighth grade teacher, Sister Francis Mary, once told us about a king in England whose countless sexual encounters had driven to an early grave. She proposed a number of ejaculations a man may enjoy before he dies. It may have been 10,000 but I’m not sure so don’t quote me. This was in biology class so I assumed the statement held scientific truth. 10,000. Such an astronomical figure. But doable. That’s climaxing every day for 30 years. Since I was 11 at the time and already enjoying my daily habit, I calculated that if I persisted I’d be dead by the time I hit 40. As I mentioned I’m 41 and still around. Possibly because I decided to cut down on massaging myself. Indeed I once tried to go 2 weeks without “shooting my wad,” just to show how badly I wanted to make the baseball All-Star team. It was my deal with God, who if only He answered my prayers I’d offer my celibacy. But I couldn’t make it through the week. I still made the All-Star team however.

My willpower grew as I got older. By age 14 I was able to abstain for 40 days; by 18 I managed 5 months without self-stimulating (as I took to calling it), although during this time I did ejaculate during sex. (I lost my virginity at the age of 17.) Testosterone levels peak at around age 20, then decline, precipitously for the first decade (the 20s), then gradually from age 30 onwards. With a reduction in testosterone comes a decrease in sex drive, making abstaining from masturbation (and for that matter sex) ever easier. I have currently gone without sex for nine months, and not masturbated for nearly half a year, breaking my previous personal best. Nevertheless the body may have a physiological need to ejaculate at least on occasion. During this period of celibacy I have had two episodes of nocturnal emission. Wet dreams as they are called hadn’t occurred since I was in my early teens with my hormones on the rise. As to why now it’s hard to explain. The body recycles sperm that has not been ejected after a few months, to keep the stores fresh. But maybe ejaculating is a way to, I don’t know, clean the pipes. There must be a medical explanation but I never learned it in school. Anyway, masturbation always left me feeling guilty, probably because we were told as children that as a form of premarital sex “spanking the monkey” is a mortal sin (punishable unless confessed with an eternity in hell, yikes!). A wet dream achieves the end of masturbation (the release) but since it is not intentional there is no guilt. And it feels pretty good to be awakened from sleep by an orgasm. In an out-of-body, otherworldly sort of way.

That my sexual awakening coincided with the onset of puberty is common to most young men. In fact I had quite a love affair with myself during my teens and early twenties. A little alone time in the bathroom, the applied science of manual dexterity, the benefit of my imagination, perhaps an erotic image or two, and voila I was able to keep the crazed monkey of sexual desire in its cage. Curiously there are many chemicals released in the body during ejaculation. These include adrenaline, which dilates blood vessels, makes your heart pound, and gives that feeling of exhilaration associated with sexual stimulation; phenylethylamine triggers dopamine release in the pleasure centers of the brain, overwhelming you with bliss, attraction, and excitement; testosterone, which is responsible for that rush of confidence that comes after sex; serotonin, a natural anti-depressant, makes you feel cheerful, hopeful, emotionally balanced, and content – if a bit sleepy. The body is a natural pharmacy waiting to release powerful chemicals otherwise obtainable through drugs, gambling, sky-diving, and other risk-taking behaviors. All you have to do is press the fleshy magic button. It’s not against the law (like drugs and gambling), nor is it life-threatening (like extreme sports), unless you have a pre-existing heart condition – as did my grandfather, who died in the act of coitus. One might argue that there is no better way to exit this world than with a literal bang. . . .

Indeed so powerful are the endorphins (natural pain-relievers) flooding the body during ejaculation that once when I had injured my back playing soccer and decided to masturbate, during the several seconds of climax I was able to move my torso side to side and back and forth (movements so necessary to the rhythmic thrusting motion of the pelvis) without so much as a twinge of discomfort. Sexual healing. I was making Marvin Gaye proud.

But it’s worth mentioning that the same feel-good chemicals as are released in orgasm also flood your body with laughter, which may be the best remedy, less complicated, and certainly less messy.

Long before I was sexual, even before I heard that song, I was a romantic through and through. My first great love was Tabitha. She was a first-grader who used to visit the nursery school I attended. I think her mother was a teacher there. She’d sit and have lunch with us and I’d always bring a snack to trade with her. Usually cheese and crackers or fruit roll-ups. From then on, I had a series of crushes but in 3rd grade I fell in love with Jennifer Hall. Blonde, blue-eyed, and two years my senior, she was a fellow student at Bellagio Road elementary school. One day I scribbled a list of three names of boys in the school, myself being one of them, and asked my friend Greg Houle to deliver the list to Jennifer Hall and request that she rank us from 1st to 3rd in terms of looks. I ranked second. First place honors belonged to a boy in her grade. At that age, two years is a lifetime. How could I compete? For the most part my thoughts of Jennifer were pure, but Marvin Gaye’s titillating ditty awakened something curious in me. He sang of romance mingled with love, sex as medicine, a rush to relieve the mind, and in the song the two worlds - my crushes on girls and my solitary sexual fantasies and mysterious urgings - were united as one.

And the question arose: Could I have love and sex both in the same female?

Christina was my first official girlfriend. I was in the seventh grade, she was in sixth. Our “dates” were limited to after-school kissing in whatever nook or cranny we could steal away to, out of sight of the ever-vigilant nuns. That summer I learned Christina had had her first period. She was three months shy of her 12th birthday. They say Latin girls mature rapidly. (Christina was Colombian.) We promised each other we would one day get married. Our mothers were friendly and allowed us our romantic fantasies, which I’m sure they found quite droll. And they call it puppy love. . . . Christina and I went steady until I graduated the eighth grade. As a graduation present my parents let her spend the night at our house, provided she sleep in the living room. Of course when everyone turned in and the lights went out I snuck in there to be with her. My mother had loaned Christina a red cotton pull-over which was very form-fitting and revealed her legs up to mid-thigh. Earlier that evening I had watched the movie About Last Night. If you don’t want your 14-year-old boy to rev his engine before his 12-year-old fertile girlfriend comes over, don’t let him watch this film. Unless you want grandkids. Or do let him. We all need to start somewhere, and what better place to begin the amorous adventure than in the home? Rob Lowe and Demi Moore had some of the most vivid and erotic love-making scenes of R-rated 80’s film. And by the time Christina arrived I was a walking erection. Alone together for the first time in the quiet of the night, I attempted to put my finger between her legs and beneath her panties. I was in a world of firsts. She told me, “Don’t Adam, you’ll just get lost down there.” These words couldn’t have been more true, and I wonder if they still are. Enter the gates between a girl’s legs and be expelled from the garden of Eden. Eat from the tree of knowledge, know a girl carnally, and say goodbye to innocence. Maybe this is the former altar boy in me talking. But at the time I was intrepid (and horny). After we had made out for what seemed like an eternity, Christina said, almost in a whine, that she wanted so badly to have sex. It would have been ungentlemanly of me not to comply. I began rubbing against her with such ambition (dry humping is the rather pedestrian term) that I ejaculated in my sweatpants. Talk about boiling over with enthusiasm. I excused myself abruptly, cleaned myself off and locked myself in my room, where I buried my head beneath the covers and went to sleep. I never told Christina the reason for my early exit (pardon the pun). Communication was not my strong suit I guess, and I was embarrassed.

Our puppy love ended by the time I began high school in the fall. Loyola is an all-boys parochial school, and girls (being nonexistent) took a backseat to studies and sports. Of course there still was masturbation. But most of my friends were from Beverly Hills where I played baseball, and my teammates had girlfriends, and their girlfriends had friends, and before I was even 16 I was sleeping over Linda Atri’s house the night before games and we were rolling around in the hay when her parents were away. She had my sex pressed to her lips and said, “You know you like this.” It seemed so arrogant an expression that I lost the attraction, and we broke up before we could devirginize each other. I always wanted to be a girl’s first, and that was the closest I’d ever get.

I had my own first two years later, with Neysa. I had just turned 17. She was the same age but had already been with a dozen or so guys, and one girl. By then I had seen enough movies of the R and X variety to learn the moves, and I pulled it off so well Neysa swore it couldn’t have been my first time. But it was. By the end of high school I had been with four girls. College brought a prolonged period of celibacy, about 2 ½ years. I had been studying Hinduism, and one of the stages a young man passes through is that of brahmacharya, corresponding to the educational period between the ages of 14 and 20. Among other requirements, the student is to abstain from sex. I imagined myself a brahmacharya, although I continued to masturbate whenever the urge seized me, every few days or so. Then came a brief (year-long) amorous affair with a girl I had known in high school. We were very attracted to each other physically, but after a few months sex had become a ritual, required and sort of tired. I suggested we take a month off to let the fire of desire grow. Of course she took offense, reading into it and thinking I was no longer attracted to her. This is where sex began bringing problems, and making me wonder whether love and sex could coexist in the same couple. Could I be a girl’s friend and also her lover? They say a guy and a girl can never just be friends, that one or the other has romantic feelings, or both. And my experience was proving this true. But can a guy and a girl be lovers without it blowing up in one’s face?

My twenties and some of my thirties were spent in a series of more or less casual relationships in which sex played a pretty central part. I got it into my mind to be with as many girls as my age in years, and since I had only carnally known seven or eight women by my college graduation I had some catching up to do. Most of the relationships were stormy, many were brief, and I am no longer in contact with any of the girls. I managed to fulfill my girl-per-year quota (that sounds so cheap!), dated a girl for every letter of the alphabet, all the zodiac signs, different races and creeds, but one thing was invariably true: They all ended with some degree of disappointment if not downright disaster.

I began to wonder if it wasn’t more trouble than it was worth, the whole romance thing, as along the way I got a girl pregnant, became engaged to another, lived with a third, and for all the romantic dinners and days at the beach there was often more frustration than frivolity. I used to fantasize about having a wife, not to have someone to share my dreams with, or to be the mother of my kids, but whose panties would be in my bedroom hamper for me to sniff at any time. That’s a guy who shouldn’t get married, you say. Why this desire? Had I been a dog in a former life?

As the years went by sex happened sooner and sooner on (often on the first date), and had become more and more casual and less fulfilling. Indeed the best sex was probably with Sheri, who years after we had been together I found out had become a lesbian. Speaking of lesbians, the closest I’ve ever come to being strictly friends with a woman, to proving untrue the adage that man and woman cannot be just friends, came in a relationship I had with a lesbian. But I didn’t know Mariama was “that way” when we started hanging out, and we even kissed a few times before she let on that she was more interested in girls than I or me. And the time we spent together, often at girl bars, could be characterized as my drawn out attempt to make her fall for me. It didn’t work. She got a girlfriend. I got a girlfriend. We no longer speak.

And that’s just the thing. Friendships, for me at least, are defined by what friends do together. With my guy friends it was always about getting together and doing guy stuff - playing video games, sports, pursuing girls, surfing, lifting weights. But what do a guy and a girl do when they get together? Have sex. Sure, it’s nice to talk, but to me talk is cheap, and I tire of conversation rather quickly (unless I meet a person who really intrigues me, which I hardly ever do!). If I want words, I pick up a book, or write one myself. But the thing is, the older I get, the more comfortable I am spending time alone, and the fewer the activities I engage in which require the company of another. I run, a solitary pursuit. I read and write, also best done alone. And as they say conversation is the enemy of good food, so out the door go romantic dinners. If I am seized by the desire to ejaculate, Rosy Palm is at my beck and call. And these days I’d just as soon refrain. Besides, some schools view ejaculation as depleting one’s sexual energy and thereby explain the fact that women (who unlike men do not lose their seed with orgasm but only with menstruation) outlive men by over five years. So saving sperm can’t hurt and might extend my life, albeit one in which I am alone and asexual, which to some is not a life worth living, I recognize.

By the end of my most recent “serious” relationship, which lasted nearly four years, one of which was spent living together, we both agreed (as we saw the end coming, and you always do) that if we never spoke after breaking up it would be because we had had sex. You can say your partner is your best friend, but best friends don’t break up (probably because they don’t have sex?). Have sex with someone and you can assure it will be stormy and you will be strangers when all is said and done. Strangers if you’re lucky. You might wind up hating each other. But friends? That’s consistency. My ex had many gay boyfriends who predated our relationship and I knew would outlive it, if for no other reason than she and they had never been naked, had never known penetration. If things never get too intense, they never blow up. Things just stay at that even keel. Slow steady flame, like. But you could argue that all associations need not be permanent, that if sex shortens the lifespan of a friendship, but is fun while it’s done, then the ride is worth the fall and new friends are easy to find.

Everybody knows the divorcees who despise each other or at least refuse to speak, and when you’re looking where to place the blame sex is an easy target, but there is no ignoring the fact that sex offers the opportunity to get to know someone inside and out and every square inch. And that opportunity, perhaps because it is so rare and surely because it is quite pleasurable, entices to no end. No sport other than sex do you play naked, the partner’s body being the playing field. God that’s exciting.

Nevertheless, if it’s merely about getting one’s rocks off, a bottle of lotion and some Kleenex and a few deft strokes and in a moment or two in privacy and boom! you’re done. Why go through all the trouble, all the dates, and dinners, and disagreements, for a little roll in the hay? Perhaps sex should not be the main course but the cherry on the dessert of an otherwise satisfying friendship. Because if a five-minute romp is the focus of it all, it’s not worth it. Self-stimulation, even celibacy, is a far better option. Because massage parlors are too seedy, and brothels cost too much.

Don’t think I’m being cynical. Remember the hopeful romantic I used to be. I think my whole romantic life has been spent proving the truth of a song that was popular when I was fourteen and dating Christina. Friends and Lovers was the title, perhaps you remember it? The most memorable line: “I’ll be your friend, and I’ll be your lover. ‘Cause I know in my heart we agree we don’t have to be one or the other, we can be both to each other.”

Which brings me to the present. How would I describe things now? I’m sort of leaning over the abyss, really. Relationships seem to be a dead end. Either they end in a(n often tumultuous) break-up with one or both parties frustrated and broken-hearted, or the lovers wind up in a “successful” marriage (read: they stay together), where the man becomes a beast of burden, the wife naggy and demanding, the romance sucked dry, and which judging from the outside looks like a jail sentence maintained out of fear, convenience, or habit. I speak with authority. Although I’ve never been married, I have close friends who are, and I’ve stopped visiting them because that’s how it seemed.

What place does the pleasure of sex have in a romantic relationship? A necessary one, if you want kids of your own. Ask a man of the cloth (I did) and he would add a second purpose: to show love between husband and wife, as long as birth control isn’t used, which takes us back to the first reason. Sex is ultimately for procreation. What if you don’t want kids, or to get married, but still want to enjoy the pleasures of another’s body without the pitfalls? Should the boon of physical union be reserved only for those united in holy matrimony? Of course it’s not, since so many have casual sex, and as you now know I have had a lot of my own.

Now that we know the position of the Catholic Church, what do the sages say, those mystics from around the globe who have subdued their senses and seen through the mystery of life to the essence of all that is? Many advise celibacy. Take Swami Prabhupada, master of the Vedas who lectured around the world and founded the Hare Krishna movement. Abstaining from sex is essential for one on the spiritual path, he maintained, and since the purpose of life is to realize the divinity that shines from within, everyone should be spiritual, and therefore celibate, unless actively engaged in the conception of children. The other no-nos are alcohol and other intoxicants (tobacco, drugs, even caffeine), gambling and eating meat. Funky hairstyle optional. Prabhupada’s insistence that followers shun the pleasures of sex is in line with the brahmacharya stage of life I mentioned above, only the spiritual aspirant is to abstain for life. Even if he is married. Well, that’s one person’s view.

But there are others. Take Osho, aka Rajneesh. In his book, The Way of the Clouds, on page 109, he states: “In your love, fear is always there. The husband is afraid of the wife, the wife is afraid of the husband. Lovers are always afraid. Then it is not love, then it is just an arrangement of two fearful persons depending on each other, fighting, exploiting, manipulating, controlling, dominating, possessing – but it is not love.”

See, this is what I see going on all around me!

But Osho continues: “If you can allow love to happen there is no need for prayer, there is no need for meditation, there is no need for any church, any temple. You can completely forget God if you can love, because through love everything will have happened to you: meditation, prayer, God, everything will have happened to you.”

That, according to Osho, is the potential of Earthly love (presumably even with the sex). But so few seem to realize it! All’s fair in love and war, and the battle of the sexes rages on.

As Osho saw it, to the fair sex (women) God is love, and since the purpose of life is Self-realization, the Self being synonymous with God, women seek to know God through love in the arms of a man. Men, being of nature more solitary and less inclined to partnership and family, grow spiritually through meditation, discrimination, introspection. Thus arises the age-old conflict of interest. But men want sex. Testosterone is the sex hormone, and guys have it in spades. And so they are often cajoled into a romantic union, either by the prospect of regular intercourse, clean laundry, and tasty food, or by the desire to have children to carry on their family name. And too often what happens is the woman’s desires (for God realization through companionship) and the man’s desires (for sex) distract the man from the solitude that his soul would seem to require, and he is irritated, and she is hurt. Matrimony is the field where a woman can grow spiritually, and indeed the life of a householder is believed even by the sages to be harder than the solitary life of the monk, but what happens is it becomes a poisonous, toxic environment that not only kills love but kills the couple. They say women thrive in marriage. Well, not if you look at the stats, which show that a married woman’s lifespan is actually a few years shorter than her single counterpart’s.

And then there is the spiritualist Jiddu Krishnamurti, who states on page 222 of his book on relationships: “There is pleasure, sexual pleasure, in which there is jealousy, the possessive factor, the dominating factor, the desire to possess, to hold, to control, to interfere with what another thinks. Knowing all the complexity of this, we say that there must be love that is divine, that is beautiful, untouched, uncorrupted; we meditate about it and get into a devotional, sentimental, emotional attitude, and are lost. Because we can’t fathom this human thing called love we run away into abstractions that have absolutely no validity at all. . . .

“The religious saints, unfortunately for mankind, have established that to love a woman is something totally wrong; you cannot possibly come near their idea of God if you love someone. That is, sex is taboo; it is pushed aside by the saints, but they are eaten up with it, generally.”

A seeming proponent of romantic relationships, Krishnamurti continues: “You do not say, ‘I love the whole world,’ but when you know how to love one, you know how to love the whole. Because we do not know how to love one, our love of humanity is fictitious. When you love, there is neither one nor many: there is only love. It is only when there is love that all [the world’s] problems can be solved.”

For Krishnamurti sex itself was not an obstacle to love. The act itself was not a problem, only thinking excessively about the act. But this goes for the man that abstains as well, since the celibate who doesn’t have sex but often thinks about it can be termed just as obsessed if not more than the sexually active person who enjoys it for what it is and when it’s done moves on to other areas of life.

Despite their differing views on relationships and sex, both Krishnamurti and Osho were unmarried celibates. Ramakrishna, another sage who as a young man got married before later devoting himself fully to the spiritual path, coexisted with his wife in a platonic relationship rather than divorce. So he was a married celibate. The two were seen as a holy couple. Was their holiness enhanced because of their abstinence? Were their feelings for each other somehow purer than the feelings of their sexually active counterparts, because they stayed together without the incentive that the pleasure of sex provides? I know that I have only felt jealousy and possessiveness towards the girls I have had sex with. But there have been girls I didn’t feel possessive about, even after having sex. There may be a threshold, a certain number of times you have sex with a person after which you view them as part of you and grow anxious at the thought of their being with another. Something for me to think about, and since I’m not thinking about sex, I can spare the time.

But mustn’t one look to the circumstances of birth to determine the path to follow in life? If I were meant to be a celibate, would I not have incarnated perhaps in a village in India, there to spend my days bearded and wearing a loin cloth, absorbed in meditation, like Ramana Maharshi, who I might add is a great hero of mine? But if I was meant to live like a Westerner (and continue to enjoy casual flings) why would I then be exposed to these Hindu heroes, these maharshis and maharajas, Rama, Krishna, Sai Baba, who often shunned sex? Indeed most of the Godmen who have walked this Earth have been celibates, but there are stories of Christ’s having consorted with Mary Magdalene, and Krishna who is the Eastern equivalent if not inspiration for Christ, was quite the womanizer. Tales abound in the Srimad Bhagavatam, which contains volumes devoted almost exclusively to the pastimes of Krishna, that detail his amorous exploits. Therein one can read all about how Krishna enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh with countless women, often at the same time. He’d manifest as multiple versions of himself to be with all the females in the village, while copies of those females fulfilled the domestic duties and satisfied their husbands. Talk about multi-tasking! One passage reads: “Following the ways of the world, encountered by a fair maiden love-lorn, [Krishna] quickly occupied her luxurious bed, and drawing her to him where he had sport with her.” But instead of asking for liberation, which is what you’re supposed to do when in the presence of the Lord on Earth, she asked for him to live with her, a request he fulfilled, but when the allotted time had expired he left and she was known as a fool by asking for the trivial pleasures of the senses. Reading this, one might be tempted to say, “What’s good enough for Krishna…” But it is important to remember that Krishna cavorted with females unattached, enjoying their bodies not for any selfish motive but to fulfill their desires, and once this was done left their sides if their desires were rooted in the senses rather than lifted to the sublime.

The secret it seems is to be detached, to enjoy what comes you way without seeking it, and to let it go when it no longer remains. It is said that without desires you lack nothing, that the wise man seeks no one but enjoys what enters his life unsought. But to make this work, it takes two (wise people, both detached).

For however dispassionate you may be, if your partner feels attachment after love’s embrace and wants to possess you, you can get trapped. And I’ve always felt beholden, not wanting to hurt feelings, and obliged to remain with a woman until she is ready for me to depart, which is often much later than I’d have liked. Sometimes entire years too late.

So the trick lies in a certain carefree lightness of heart – I like the term insouciance - and in finding someone who is willing to play the game of love with the same insouciance, the same lightness, even if the loins get heavy.

At least in theory.

Maybe I haven’t met the one, you say. All I can offer you on that is a shrug. I once read a book entitled Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex. It said that some people prefer masturbation to intercourse. Maybe I’m one of those people. Maybe I’m better off alone.

So far, my life can be summed up as a nearly 30-year experiment to prove true the words of that old song, that two people can be both friends and lovers. But experience has proven me wrong. Friends or lovers. Choose one, because to find both in the same person is just not possible. In short, I have failed. But I must say that failure has never been so much fun!

Which I suppose is the point of it all anyway. The ancients talk about samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death that humans endure, over lifetimes and lifetimes, with its alternating bouts of pleasure and pain. And why? God is said to have created the world for sport. It is His leela, or divine game. And so it all boils down to having a good time (even when you think you’re not.)

Going back to Osho, who also said: “The body will be taken away by death. Before it is taken away why not share it? That is the only way of possessing it. If you can share and give you are the master.”

Of course, his more orthodox counterparts would counter with something to the effect of: “Pampering the body and catering to the senses only increase attachment to the earthly realm, which is ultimately unreal and to be rejected for the reality that transcends the senses and alone is. So practice celibacy.”

After a while reading so many books and thinking all these thoughts just get confusing.

I suppose I must go back to forging my own way.

There’s this really special girl, you see. She’s a friend. Or maybe a lover? But surely not both?

Oh, here we go again!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

JOE, JAVA OR WHATEVA



Fact: There are authors who attribute many of civilization’s greatest achievements to the consumption of coffee. AKA Java. AKA Joe. If not for that daily cup or pot as the case may be, how would people have the energy to do all that they do? I mean really!

Question: If you need coffee in order to be able to accomplish something, should you be doing it in the first place?

My personal history: Like most teenagers, I fell asleep in my morning class. As the National Sleep Foundation will tell you, teens need, on average, over nine hours of nightly sleep, and tend to have irregular sleep patterns. In general, teenagers stay up late each night and sleep in late on weekends. They are night owls. I quote: “Biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence -- meaning it is natural not to be able to fall asleep before 11:00 pm.” The effect on the biological clock is such that it is therefore also natural to be snoozing in classes that begin at 8 am. Sorry Ms. Wortman, but a fact is a fact. Ms. Wortman was my Math Analysis teacher my senior year at Beverly Hills High School.

My mother, an avid coffee drinker, made me my first morning cup shortly after my 20th birthday. She surely would have given me coffee prior to my sophomore year at UCLA, if not for the belief, still held by some, that coffee can stunt a child’s growth. Like lifting weights before you’re fully grown. But this is largely a myth. And besides, I was full-grown by the time I turned 15. I quickly took to the taste – black with a spot of sweetener – and in no time made a ritual of having coffee after my morning meal of oatmeal and eggs. Instantly my grades improved. I was always a good student, but I became an even better one. I just felt more intelligent, as if my IQ were increasing with each daily dose. This is to be expected. Coffee is a central nervous stimulant, and the central nervous system is basically the brain. As a vasodilator, coffee increases blood flow, and thus transport of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. While we’re on the subject of physiological effects, the caffeine in coffee also increases levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It increases body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate, as well as body temperature, the International Journal of Vascular Medicine tells us. Ooops, I already said that. See, jittery!

Never a morning person, overnight I began to look forward to getting out of bed each day, just to have my morning cup of Joe. Granted, I had just quit my job waiting tables, which had involved late nights, many of them during the school week, so I no longer felt so overworked. Waking up was no longer so hard to do. This was in 1993, and for the next 21 years coffee or some stimulant was part of my daily routine. Sometimes I added to the morning cup a capsule or two of Ripped Fuel, now taken off the market. Ripped Fuel contains ephedra, a stimulant associated with heart irregularities and the turn of the century preseason deaths of several overweight football players, but that’s another subject.

By the time I had enrolled in medical school, in 2004, I had become a confirmed coffee drinker, every morning enjoying two large cups of the strongest brew I could find. It made me more alert. Duh! And by this time I had added distance running to my daily regimen, and an extra cup or two, pounded quickly at the start line, helped me to compete in endurance events like triathlons and half marathons. More than once I was visited by the unsettling awareness of my coffee addiction. I wasn’t born needing this dark thick drink, so how had I become so dependent on the stuff? But the few times I tried to kick the habit, while doing juice fasts or spending a day in bed and not needing an energy boost, I felt the effects of my chemical dependence in the all-too-familiar form of a piercing headache and general malaise.

When I was hit by a car in 2012 while training for a marathon, I was bed ridden for a month and stopped drinking coffee, only to resume it once I was cleared to resume physical activity. And when I broke my hip in 2014, I gave it up for a whole two months. (Too much coffee weakens bones. I wonder if the two are related.) I had forgotten what life was without some form of stimulant. By this time I was 41. I had kept up the habit for over half my life. And sans pick-me-up, I wrote and read as usual, but when I tried to work out, I had lost the spring in my step. It seemed I needed coffee just to be active. Coffee had become synonymous with living. Something I needed to do every day, even if I don't feel like it. Sorta sad.

I don’t think I’m alone in being hooked on kona (my favorite brand), but this is not the rule, or doesn’t have to be. Chuck Engle runs a marathon every seven days as part of his 80 weekly miles and doesn’t drink coffee except on the day he races, which means he runs six days a week sans stimulant. And I know of writers who do not need caffeine to put words on the page. Stephen King doesn’t touch the stuff. He prefers black tea, which does contain caffeine, making my point moot.

What would the world be like without coffee? What would my life be like? I was an A student and varsity athlete in high school without drinking java. But in college I struggled in school and hardly had the energy to live my life – until I started consuming coffee.

I recently reconnected with a girl from my past, a lovely gal whom I had loved then and still do now. Excited to see her I wanted to get in shape in the shortest time possible. I was still recovering from my broken bone and hadn’t so much as done a chin-up in the two months since the accident. So I started drinking coffee again. I wanted to supercharge my recovery. Suddenly I was jumping rope, climbing stairs, and pushing weights over my head, as if I hadn’t skipped a day. I might add that these were the very activities that the doctor had told me not to do for at least a few more weeks, but I felt super-powered. Before the week was through I seemed to have regained my muscle tone and pre-accident fitness level. P.S. it didn’t work out with the gal in question. We wanted different things. It happens all too often. A bit depressed, I stopped drinking coffee. And working out.

The question is this : Without coffee what will I do? I don’t feel like doing anything, really. Not moving a muscle is fine by me. But if coffee gives me the energy to do what I don’t otherwise feel motivated to do, is this justification to take it? Or should I reconsider my goals and activities? The sages say not to engage in unnecessary action, and if only useful actions are necessary, and by useful those that benefit oneself or others, most of what we do doesn’t have a point in the grand scheme. So maybe rest is best. But how to combat complacency?

An NIH study finds that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of death. But Joel Fuhrman, MD, nutrition guru, tells us that caffeine gives a false sense of energy and causes one to override the signals of fatigue, and that it should therefore be avoided. Who are we to believe? If taken too late in the day, caffeine most definitely compromises sleep. Fitness enthusiasts are familiar with the phenomenon of adrenal exhaustion. Coffee stimulates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, with the long-term drawback of leaving you chronically tired. Caffeine may combat Alzheimer’s but it can contribute to diabetes. Drinking several cups a day is linked with a lower risk of depression. And caffeine can give you a short-term competitive edge both mentally and physically, increasing the entry of sugar into muscles by as much as 25 percent (Journal of Applied Physiology, June 2006) but also leading to more muscle damage and fatigue, possibly aggravating the symptoms of depression? The findings are by no means conclusive, and it must be remembered that regular coffee consumption can be classified as a chemical dependence (thus the withdrawal symptoms most of us are so familiar with). Drink too much coffee and you're liable to experience the symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, even a full-blown panic attack with sweaty palms and racing heart.

It makes me uneasy to rely on a substance that unlike food or water or sleep is not a biological need. After all, we didn’t come into this world drinking or needing coffee, so why spend our days consuming the stuff so religiously? The same can be said about sex. But as with sex, if life is more enjoyable with a cup or two of caffeine to start each morning, just to kick start an otherwise drab day, then this stimulation, albeit artificial, is harmless enough, and the benefits may outweigh the risks, but the jury is still out.

This much I do know: there is much I would not do, if not for the nudge that coffee provides. Maybe I should save myself the effort. I may not achieve much, but at least I'll know that what I do counts.

I am drinking black tea as I write this. Its merit I leave for you to decide.

If you're going to drink coffee, it's best to keep caffeine intake under 500 mg per day. Note that an 8 oz cup of strong coffee can contain as much as 200 mg of caffeine, so 16 oz of daily java will put you at the maximum (which the Mayo Clinic says is 400 mg). And avoid your morning cup on days you don't work out, due to increased risk of diabetes and cellular damage. Also, the half-life of caffeine is 5.7 hours, and as it takes about 6 half-lives to remove a drug (which caffeine is) from the body, the stimulating effects you get from drinking Joe can last 36 hours or well into the next day. Remember that next time you toss and turn.

THE GAME OF LOVE


No too long ago my girlfriend – let’s call her Tristen - and I had, after many moons and much debate, decided to terminate our relationship. I use terminate rather than end because the former seems so much more final. I was en route to the apartment we had shared for more than a year to collect my things, when I became aware of the fact that I was humming a song. It was a tune over two decades old, and I hadn’t heard it in almost as long. Soon I was murmuring a few bars of the chorus, and before long I was belting out entire stanzas. The song was Surrender to Me, a power ballad by Ann Wilson of the rock group Heart and Robin Zander, the lead singer of Cheap Trick. 

A few rather interesting things deserve mentioning here. First is that the song is written by Richard Marx, who penned a series of very sentimental love songs in the late 80’s - Hold Onto the Nights, Endless Summer Nights, Right Here Waiting – all of which I had enjoyed immensely when they were released during my early teens. Marx had helped to set the tone of sweet, heartfelt romance, which married rather nicely with the work of other artists and with hugely popular movies of the time, including Dirty Dancing and Ghost, and a few years later, Pretty Woman (and who doesn't remember its theme song, Roxette's ballad It Must Have Been Love?).

Another thing I should mention is that by the time I arrived at her door I had sung Surrender to Me in its entirety. Verbatim. After not hearing it in more years than the age I had been when it first hit the airwaves. That's a convoluted way of saying a really long time. 
How to explain this? I know that the brain stores memories as bits of information associated with specific neurons or brain cells. But what caused me to recall a song I hadn’t heard since I was a teenager at that particular moment in time? 

A third noteworthy tidbit is how fitting the words were for our particular situation. After I left her place, I sang the song once more, this time paying close attention to what I was actually reciting, and I was dumbfounded at how exactly the lines mirrored our relationship.
Is it that we've been together much too long? Tristen and I had been together for nearly four years (3 ¾ years almost to the day), which was 150 percent longer than my longest previous romantic relationship of 2.5 years. Had she and I been together for too long? Is that why we were fighting so vehemently, especially in that final year before the breakup? 

The answer may not be in black and white. This had frequently come up. The issue catalyzing many of our arguments had been whether we’d take it to the next step, “build a life together,” (her words). I was happy as her Part-time Lover, and as I liked to say, she was my Saturday Love (both of which are, incidentally, themselves names of songs). And I wondered why it had to be all (white, all the colors of the spectrum; living together, constant companionship, an attempt at forever, despite that she had already been married, recited vows, and broke them, call me critical but I’m simply naming the truth) or nothing (black, absence of light, of each other, the break-up she threatened would follow should I refuse to get hitched). 

We’re always trying to prove who’s right or wrong. Also true. Over the last year, our relationship had been characterized by a strong undercurrent of tension (due in large part to her frustrated desire) and had devolved into bickering and petty fault-finding which drove like pouring rain over our sunny days at the beach, giving me heartburn at our once so romantic dinners, wearing away at the foundation we had erected with all those picnics at the park and walks along the shore, chipping away at the fairy tale romance that began when we met on Valentine’s Day, at a party at my childhood home, where we kissed for the first time and spent many subsequent nights in bed and days by the pool. And the beach, lest we forget!

And now we’re giving up without a fight. Yes we had fights, but after many threats to end it we had a particularly stormy fight over something incidental. We had gotten together to take a bike ride and when I arrived at her apartment ready to go she had just gotten out of bed and was still in her pjs. I was anxious to leave, and resented her for not keeping our exercise date. She never was very punctual, and this had for a long time worn on me. I said so and stormed out dramatically. We talked a few hours later, argued about something I can’t recall, and in the argument a fuse seemed to blow, and we agreed we could no longer go on this way. We decided to schedule a time over the ensuing few days during which I’d pick up my things. 

And there I was, singing Surrender to Me. Isn’t that what I really wanted? For her to just give in and allow me to lead us in the right (read: my) direction? I was eight years older and with age comes wisdom, doesn't it? And yet didn't she want the same thing, for me to surrender to being together full-time and for the long haul? 

The Hindu mystic Osho, whose book I had been reading, says that romantic love can only hope to succeed when the lover surrenders entirely to the beloved, and when you surrender, it succeeds fantastically. Of course in an ideal situation, the beloved does the same, surrendering her particular desires to those of her lover. If both parties don't agree to give in completely it makes for a situation in which at least one member of the pair can get seriously manipulated. But according to Osho, the purpose of romantic love, like that of meditation, is the obliteration of the ego. Romantic love achieves this ego-destruction through total surrender to love, and only if in any disagreement (lovers’ spats, to use Elvis Presley's term) you willingly assume total blame can you hope to destroy the ego and attain self-realization, which the sages agree is the purpose of life. Was my relationship with Tristen my chance at self-realization through love? Should I surrender totally and agree to move back in with her even though I couldn’t afford it and had found in a brief period of cohabitation that she was impossible for me to live with (she is slovenly by my standards and an incorrigible night owl, while I’m just the opposite)? In short, it was either surrender to her desire or say goodbye. And if you give me an ultimatum between all or nothing I will invariably choose nothing because nothing is something since I'm comfortable alone. And yet, were we abandoning something valuable and which hadn’t been allowed to fully run its course? 

I picked up the phone, poised to call her and give in to any and all demands, anything to keep us together and keep alive the hope of self-realization through ego-destruction through love. Because:

I know when you’re gone, I’d wish we held on.

I knew this moment would come, despite how strongly I felt that breaking up was the right thing to do, especially since we had promised to do so amicably and at least try to remain friends. I knew I’d inevitably hit the stage over the ensuing weeks in which I’d long to make it like it was (another song). This is how it has been for me in prior relationships, and if I wanted her back, I’d only be true to form. Despite knowing full well that Tristen and I had come to loggerheads, and that neither her way (living together, assuming her huge student debts as my own, tolerating the clutter, one day having kids despite feeling that she was no more than an overgrown child herself) nor my way (doing our own thing during the week, getting together on weekends for days by the beach and nights in each other’s arms) satisfied us both, despite knowing full well that neither was willing to surrender to the other so the only sane option was to go our separate ways - despite all these incontrovertible facts, all I wanted to do in that moment, humming that song, was forget about the past and who’s to blame. 

And this got my thinking, in a what comes first, chicken or egg? sort of way. 

Were these conflicting feelings of mine so universal that the songwriter and singers of so many popular ballads of yore (and the millions of fans who enjoyed them) had felt them and felt strongly enough about putting them into words? Were the words themselves so generic that they might apply to any relationship, the way you can wear white with any other color? Or did I feel the way I did about Tristen and the relationship, which was somewhat of a pattern with me – convince a girl she is not the one for me until she gets it and lets me go only to beg her to take me back, as I was on the verge of doing in the very next moment – did I feel as I did because I had heard this song and others like them, by Richard Marx and his ilk, during my impressionable youth? Surrender to Me had debuted in December of 1988, peaked at number 6 on Billboard top 100 in March of 1989. I was 16.

I reflected on my romantic history, considered the serious girlfriends, whom I’d been with every four or eight years like clockwork starting with Christina at the age of thirteen, Neysa at seventeen, Isabella at twenty-one, Shannon at twenty-nine, up to Tristen at thirty-seven. And I began to realize: Most of the break-ups had played out to a song. Shannon and I broke up to the words of Chicago’s Hard Habit to Break. The song was released in July of ’84 and reached number 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Shannon and I ended our 2 ½ year relationship in 2004. In the 20 years that intervened, I had maybe heard Chicago’s hit a handful of times, and not at all for at least a few years prior to the breakup. So why did it come to my mind on those nightly walks by the beach shortly after we ended things, nights I spent casting lovelorn glances at the tumultuous ocean, reminiscing about times gone by? And why did I remember the Chicago song word for word, and why did the words once again fit my situation to a T? 

I guess I thought you'd be here forever (I did: two months into our love affair Shannon suggested we get joint bank accounts; she must have really thought me a keeper!)

Another illusion I chose to create (it was, for the obvious fact that we broke up)

You don't know what ya got until it's gone (a clich├ę, but probably because it’s true!)

And I found out a little too late (indeed)

And here is where it got eerily accurate:

I was acting as if you were lucky to have me

Shannon was my best friend, but I wasn’t attracted to her sexually. They say a guy and a girl can never be just friends, that couples often use friendship as a pretense to get to know one another because either one, or the other, or both, is in love. Well, Shannon was very much into me, and she pursued me openly and persistently. And after we had been bosom buddies without the bosom for about three months, she gave me an ultimatum: Lose me as a friend, or take me as significant other. I gave in, and though I didn’t say it, my actions always let her know that I was:

Doin' you a favor I hardly knew you were there

But then you were gone and it all was wrong (because I was crushed!)

Had no idea how much I cared (I didn’t)

The next verse:

You found someone else you had every reason (After we broke up, Shannon and her high school sweetheart immediately got back together)

You know I can't blame you for runnin' to him (Eventually they’d marry, have three kids, and divorce)

Two people together but living alone (Oddly, we had moved in together 4 months before breaking up, and although we shared a bed, during this time we hardly saw one another, our schedules were so different: I worked during the day while she went to graduate school, and at night she’d cocktail waitress while I wrote screenplays. But I felt it wasn’t that our schedules didn’t coincide. We were growing apart because:)

I was spreading my love too thin…
Etc.

The more I thought about my feelings and the way I was expressing them in song, the more I felt the pervasive influence of pop culture. And I wondered about the precise relationship of pop culture to romantic relationships. Do love songs tell us what to feel, or do they reflect what we’ve been feeling, those universal and timeless vicissitudes of romantic infatuation? Either I have some Rainman quality to pull from the archives of my memory the perfect song to describe precisely what I’m feeling, or hearing Surrender to Me and other power ballads programmed me to feel a certain way in the future. A sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. And as a dot at the end of the sentence, the song appeared at that moment it had proved itself true to reveal its identity, like the producer emerging at the end of his play to take a bow and receive an applause (or in this case, my tears).

I am not a music buff. I learned and quickly forgot how to play both the guitar and the piano, and I can’t carry a tune to save my life. My own mother has called me tone deaf, and she is otherwise my biggest fan. If you examined my CD collection (which is nonexistent) or my iPod (which I never use) you’d hardly call me a collector or connoisseur. But from early on, starting at the age of 9, through my early 30s, I was very, very much affected by whatever happened to be playing on the radio. In the era before CDs, I’d record tunes and play them over and over and over again. When I liked a song so much it became an obsession, I’d buy the CD just for the song, and listen to it until the CD became inaudible and by then the song had branded itself on my brain.

I once believed that music’s magic ended when the song was over, or when I could get a particular song out of my head. I never had any idea that the pervasive power of music extended deep into the fiber of my being, even going so far as to influence my actions and emotions. Not until I found myself humming a 25-year old love song at just the right moment were my eyes opened to the power of song, and to its impact on the game of love.
It goes without saying that we are profoundly influenced by our environment. In the battle between nature and nurture, genes do have their say, but we don’t come into the world shaking hands and saying God bless you. We are taught these things by observing others, and the process of socialization begins from the time of birth - possibly even before we are born, if you believe my mother that I was dancing to the oldies playing on the radio while still in her womb. The question is this: To what degree is the struggling lover influenced by popular music, and if the influence be great, since more relationships than just my own seem to be floundering, how do we get help?

Consider: I decided to move to New York after hearing the lyrics of Baz Luhrman’s “Wear Sunscreen” (Live in New York once but leave before it makes you hard).

With Shannon, I listened to “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, and seeing my future life flash before my eyes I knew if we stayed together I'd find myself living in suburbia with a picket fence and 2.4 kids and soon find myself screaming with David Byrne, This is not my beautiful wife. this is not my beautiful house. My God, what have I done! So I sold my car and moved abroad.

In fact, a song is what brought Tristen and me together in the first place. Because when I was eight I used to lock myself in the bathroom and sing the words to 50s crooner Frankie Avalon's hit Venus. And because Frankie Avalon wished for a girl with "sunlight in her hair," and eyes like the "brightest stars up in the skies," not to mention all the charms of the love goddess herself, I wished for Venus to make this same dream come true for me as well. And the night Tristen and I met that song came to my mind, and I was sure that she was Venus coming to me in the form of my blonde-haired, blue-eyed, now ex-gal.

Such has been the influence of music in my life, despite my hardly ever paying attention to the lyrics – if I could even understand them, which is getting ever harder as the years progress and instruments overwhelm the artist’s voice. Usually it was the melody that made me so enamored of a tune. But after the Surrender to Me episode I realized that the words, even if they didn't consciously register, were making their impression in my life indelibly felt. 

So, which comes first, the song, or the emotion behind it?

Themes such as the battle of the sexes and all’s fair in love and war have been around since time immemorial. Why? Is it because they are true, or because a few isolated experiences infiltrated media and tainted all of romance? Relationships are suffering, marriages are failing, couples are quarreling. Many point to loss of tradition, or to the changing nature of domestic roles, or to the institution of marriage itself, which some call unnatural, man-made, imposed like a prison sentence that only serves to make a couple desperately wish to break free. And they often do. Did my parent’s stormy break-up when I was in my early twenties somehow jade me? But since my emotions so closely mirror the lyrics of pop songs, could it be the hidden and not so hidden messages in music that tell us what to feel, believe, and hows it gonna be (Third Eye Blind)? 

Of course, there are many musical genres, each with its characteristic themes. There's the rapper’s self-aggrandizement, the country singer’s jilted lover. Both have their drinking binges. There’s the top 40 stuff, hard metal, techno, and many others. A tune for all tastes. What accounts for one’s musical interests, and does one’s personal preference have any bearing on the type of romantic relationships that ensue? That's me thinking aloud. But until I wrap my head around the nature of lyrical influence, I prefer my tunes be instrument only, thank you very much. So bring on the Mozart. His symphonies are supposed to raise one's IQ. And I'll need it to get to the bottom of this connection between pop culture and modern romance. So overwhelming is my desire to do so that it overwhelmed my urge to piece a broken relationship back together. The moment for calling Tristen had passed. So I set down the phone and instead picked up the pen. 

Hope you enjoyed this. More to follow shortly!




Monday, December 29, 2014

ETOH: A EULOGY

Shortly after my brother Justin passed away, I began drinking regularly. Well, that’s not exactly true. At the time of his death from cancer at the age of twenty-two, I had been living with three of my best friends from high school, and as we were in our early 20’s, beer was always in the fridge; we’d go clubbing three, sometimes four nights a week on a quest for chicks, often starting the evening with a few shots of tequila before we hopped in a cab and let the night take us where it might; and, working at a fine dining restaurant, I had developed a taste for fine wines.

Before that, I hadn’t been much of a drinker at all. In fact, I hadn’t even tasted alcohol until the age of fifteen, and living at home for college I’d only been drunk a handful of times by the time I graduated, even with a six-week stint as a Sigma Chi fraternity pledge. But after living in a post-graduate frat house for about 330 days with those buddies of mine, at least half of which involved some sort of inebriant, I had quickly become a seasoned, shall we say, imbiber of libations. Tolerance takes time to develop. Like any skill, the art of holding one’s alcohol takes practice, patience, and there is a margin of error: I had done my time with vertigo and with vomiting into toilets and trash cans – once, I’m almost ashamed to admit, I even blacked out. Yep, after drinking a bottle of wine and a couple double vodkas I stumbled to bed and called a girlfriend with whom I had a lengthy conversation which the following morning I had no recollection of whatsoever. It was like I had been concussed. Talk about brain damage. Scary.

When my parents split up and my dad left the house six months after Justin left his body, I started drinking every day. Just sort of fell into it. It started with red wine and cigarettes at night after dinner; and then at a sushi restaurant, the same restaurant where my brother and parents and I had dined such a short time before, when he was alive and the family was together, alcohol took the place of lunch: While my friend wolfed down salmon rolls, I helped myself to generous quantities of beer and sake. Good ole sake bombs. Liquid food, I called it. To this I added a 40-oz bottle of beer at night, with or without a shot or two of tequila. Alcohol numbed me. At times it obliterated me. Which I seemed to need at the time. It became my constant companion, and as such made the loss of my nuclear family easier to bear. Maybe I should have just gotten a dog. It would have been a whole lot easier on my liver.

But it seemed so natural. Justin had drunk a lot of beer in his short stint on this earth. I used to watch with concern as the bottles of Mickey’s Malt Liquor piled up in the recycling container outside his room, but I never said a word. Live and let live, right? Now I was picking up where Justin had left off. And alcohol was so damn reliable. It wouldn’t die on me, or break up with me. Or be unavailable. Morning, noon, nighttime too, ETOH (the abbreviation for ethanol, which is the chemical name for alcohol) was always there for me. So we became friends. And since we hadn’t really gotten to know one another till after I had graduated college, I felt we needed to make up for lost time.

The first time I drank beer was at a party my freshman year in high school. Me and a bunch of guys I had just met became bosom buddies over a game of quarters, the game where you bounce a coin off the table and hope it lands in a glass of beer. If it does, you get a pass; if you miss, you get to drink. For boys wanting a buzz, there was not much motivation to make it. I loved the giddiness I felt drinking beer. I felt fizzy. Of course, it brought out a bit of the deviant in me. After the game was over and the beer had been drunk, I spent the remainder of the night trying to convince this cutie-pie of a girl (who my friend happened to like) to kiss me. Granted, my friend had a girlfriend, but so did I – not that I thought of this at the time. A shot of selective amnesia and a dab of disinhibition and there’s no telling what you’ll do. The girl didn’t go for me. It was probably for the best.

The following year I went on a double date with a buddy and two older girls from the local public high school. Since we attended the not-so-local all-boys parochial school, we were super-excited for our first real date. We went to a Thai restaurant famous for not carding minors, and I made quick work of two Long Island ice teas. They just tasted so good! Never mind that all the sugar masks the gargantuan dose of several varieties of booze in a Long Island. Well, mind. I spent the rest of the night on my date’s lap, in between bouts of emptying my stomach’s contents into whatever receptacle presented itself. Two years later and I hadn’t learned my lesson. Over double Greyhounds (vodka and grapefruit juice) that cost $5 at a trendy club in Hollywood – this was in 1990 - I told my first serious girlfriend that I loved her. And we were both so drunk it sounded like two stuttering idiots attempting to emote. Scarcely had I got the words out and I was paying homage to the porcelain god while the bathroom attendant encouraged me to “Get it all out.”  I threw up multiple times out of the car window as she drove me home. When the following day my father found out what I did with the $20 he had given me (I had bought 4 drinks total and hadn’t left a tip – silly me, but I was only 17!) he almost tore my head off he was so angry. No, that’s not quite true. Dad is not a physical man. But he has a tongue like a knife, and I got one big lashing. But such is the resilience of youth that a few hours later I was running all over the soccer field, feeling no pain.

My first taste of wine came as a waiter at an Italian restaurant, where I worked in college. After countless times serving house reds to couples in love and watching how after a few sips the female’s face flushed like a flower in bloom, I helped myself to a small glass of chianti just to see how I felt. I didn’t mind the tart, tannin-y taste, but I preferred beer, as most guys, and as most of my friends were guys, beer is what I drank.

But before my family broke up, drinking was never a habit. Sure, when alcohol was available, I’d drink it, often too much of it, just like a lot of fellas my age, but these binges usually involved others. Yes there were occasions when I’d drink alone, whether while reading a good book or trying to write a good book of my own, but for the most part I drank with company. It was just the thing to do. But soon I was doing more of it.

I explored drinking during the day, waking up and on an empty stomach polishing off a six-pack of hard cider, which is usually made with apples but can also consist of fermented peaches or pears, and has twice the amount of alcohol as beer. Nothing like beer on an empty-stomach. It’s like mainlining the stuff. Straight to the brain. While building my morning buzz I’d sit at the computer and try to write fiction, which was difficult once the words started blurring onto the page, as they always did approximately after bottle number two. (Drinking helps you sit down to write, makes the task less daunting - after all, it does ease inhibitions - but the writing itself suffers in a blunted, benumbed way, leaving you to question whether writing while drinking isn’t just a waste of effort. I wouldn’t begin to wonder this for a long, long time.)

I experimented with other types of alcohol, becoming a regular ole connoisseur. I drank port, which my father denounced as a wino’s drink. I found it too sweet and heavy. It made me rather tired. I bought vermouth because I liked the look of the fancy bottle, not knowing at the time that it is generally used to make a martini dry, and for that purpose only a drop or two is needed. I drank it by the glass. By the time I had finished the bottle, it tasted like what I imagined paint thinner to taste like, and I vowed never to drink the stuff again.

It’s amazing how quickly drinking can become a habit! It became so that I’d look forward to my trips to the store, where I’d saunter through the liquor section examining all the bright-colored bottles with tongue-twisting names (Cointreau, Gew├╝rztraminer, etc.) and pick something new to experiment with. It was like being a kid in a candy store, only better, since alcohol doesn’t have as many calories as candy, so it wouldn’t make me fat, was my reasoning at the time. My parents separated in September of ’97, and by the end of the year, I was drinking every day without fail. If a day went by and I hadn’t had a drink, I felt somehow that life had not been fully lived. Therefore it followed that the more I drank, the more I lived. Drinking is synonymous with partying, is it not? I was young, so the untoward effects of consuming so much alcohol were unnoticed or nonexistent. I confined myself mostly to beer and wine for the first year, but while in Brazil I rented a room from a French artist who taught me a love for Scotch. Phase two in my drinking habit became a Scotch on the rocks at around noon just after lunch, usually 4 oz. worth of J&B, a brand I had encountered in the pages of Ellison’s American Psycho and whose light color and affordable price I appreciated, followed by some wine for dinner. I found I could write while drinking wine, which had other benefits, including helping me over breakups. After a few sips of the vino, the pain of separation just didn’t seem all that acute. When my Brazilian beauty and I parted ways, my mistress became a nightly bottle of shiraz. Red, red wine, stay close to me, don’t let me be alone, go to my head, to make me forget that I still need her so, as the UB40 song goes.

In 2000, three years after I had begun drinking daily, I met a woman from Australia who shared with me her yen for martinis, and so began my love affair with Bombay Sapphire gin. The relationship with Gillian barely made it to the new year, but gin martinis were a fixture for me until I started medical school, in the winter of 2004. Before that I had worked as a high school teacher during the day, and an English instructor at night. The night stint involved a lot of lecturing, which was a lot like what I imagined performing stand-up to be – just you on stage with a bunch of uninterested strangers whom you’ve somehow got to keep engaged in your subject matter or else lose them to attrition - and I couldn’t get through it without my trusty flask, which carried 5 oz of Napoleon brandy. Brandy is a great drink if you want to be cheery without seeming drunk. Too much beer makes a person dull, whiskey made me tired, wine makes you slur your words and gives that unbecoming reddish tinge to your tongue, but brandy, or its cousin cognac, is really underused as a cocktail. Unfortunately most drinkers relegate it to an after-dinner drink, the so-called digestif, saying it aids digestion, but really, with a full stomach, the alcohol in brandy is absorbed very slowly, diminishing its euphoric effects. After finishing my flask while lecturing on the past participles of action verbs, I’d come home to a big martini or a couple beers, and/or a couple glasses of wine, so that by the time I left for medical school my drinking habit had grown from binge drinking with friends through a four-drink minimum mixture of beer and wine, to six to eight drinks of various brands, flavors, and colors. Curiously I could never get into vodka, which many heavy drinkers (a term that could now be used to describe moi) adore for its colorless, odorless, flavorless qualities. Vodka always made me disagreeable.

I lived in the dorms for the first 4 months of medical school, which was odd for a guy in his early 30s who had never lived in the dorms in college, and in the dorms alcohol was forbidden. I could easily have smuggled some into my room but I am not a rule-breaker and so I confined my drinking to the weekends, either Friday or Saturday night, but never both. This meant that I’d go six days at a time without drinking, longer than I had managed to abstain since taking up the habit seven years before. Gosh, had it been that long? But when my roommate discovered that like himself I was a Scotch lover, he introduced me to various breeds of the classic Scottish whisky, Johnnie Walker, and on the island where we studied, since alcohol was not heavily taxed, we could get top-shelf versions – Johnnie Walker Gold, and Blue – for a fraction of what they’d cost in the states. So once again I began drinking more frequently, and in my med school years I abided by the work hard drink hard philosophy, capping off 12-hour days spent studying with a big brandy and a glass of wine, the equivalent of about 4 daily drinks. I often wondered whether drinking this much negatively affected my memory, and if my recall, specifically on tests, was compromised. Would I have been a better student had I been a teetotaler? As it was I was valedictorian, earning straight As. I don’t think it would have made much of a difference. Besides, those nightcaps gave me something to look forward to. Part of me believed that I was able to study so hard because I knew I could unwind at night with my libations. But why did my preferred form of relaxation have to be drinking? Why couldn’t it have been swimming, or tanning? Actually, I did a lot of swimming, running, biking, and suntanning during my school years. I even competed in a triathlon (hung over, of course) and still managed to place second. But drinking was different. Drinking had a mystique, and it was somewhat…naughty. And aside from the bottle my life was so clean and good. Like Cape Fear’s Max Cady, I needed a vice, to remind me I was human.

But it was in medical school that I began having difficulty sleeping. Sure, I could fall asleep quickly, but I’d toss and turn all night, never really hitting that deep stage. I assumed it was the effects of many mugs of coffee combined with the strains of studying so hard. I was too tired to rest, I reasoned, and paradoxically I felt wired! I didn’t think alcohol was to blame. Later I’d learn that mine was the characteristic sleep pattern associated with drinking alcohol, which decreases sleep latency (the time it takes one to fall asleep) but also decreases sleep quality, meaning you rarely reach that coveted REM sleep, and consequently never awaken really feeling refreshed. There were other problems. While many people have a cocktail to unwind, alcohol is anything but relaxing to the system. Sure, it dulls the brain, producing a glazed-eyed stupor that is often mistaken for relaxation, but alcohol is a poison. The root of intoxicate is toxic. And true to its term, alcohol is a potent neuro(brain)toxin and it taxes the liver and kidneys which must work overtime to metabolize and excrete it.

Nevertheless in residency my drinking continued to increase. It was cold in Denver, I was unhappy with the hospital life, and I hoped spirits would, well, enliven my spirits. After long soul-sucking shifts with terminal or near-terminal patients in a system designed to profit from their ailments (but don’t get me started on health care!) I’d come home to a 4-oz Scotch on the rocks (measured out in a Pyrex cup), followed by a Red Stripe beer, sometimes two, followed by a 5-oz glass of wine. In all, five drinks, six max. By then I was beginning to feel a little guilt. Moderate (safe) drinking is defined as two drinks per day for a guy, one for a girl. I was over double that, maybe even triple. My medical training had taught me all about the havoc wreaked by heavy drinking - cirrhosis of the liver, memory loss, brain damage, varicose veins, an enlarged heart and shrinking testicles. And of course I had read about alcohol addiction and dependency and recognized a few characteristics as my own. In med school they teach you how to screen for alcoholism by asking 4 questions. It’s called the CAGE questionnaire, CAGE being the acronym for “Have you ever: (1) felt the need to cut down your drinking; (2) felt annoyed by criticism of your drinking; (3) had guilty feelings about drinking; and (4) taken a morning eye opener?” Answering yes to 2 or 3 of the questions, the physician is taught, should give a high index for suspicion of alcoholism, while 4 affirmative answers is virtually diagnostic. I answered the questions: Yes, I often thought about cutting down on drinking; no, I didn’t feel annoyed by criticism of my drinking – basically because no one had ever brought up my drinking since I always drank alone (which itself is, in some circles, suspicious for alcoholism); yes, I had guilty feelings about drinking, which I felt was the same question as the first question – I wanted to cut down because I felt guilty; no, I never drank alcohol first thing in the morning, my preferred beverage being coffee, but there had been a couple times in my twenties that I had been up all night and continued to drink through the a.m. hours, and there was that six-pack a day before noon stint, so…maybe? Which meant I scored a 2.5, meaning I was … iffy. To hell with labels! I told myself. Alcohol is my friend! I could count on her. She’s always there for me when I need her, not like Justin who was gone, and my father who by this time had remarried, and my mother who lived several states away, and the job I despised, and the girlfriend I didn’t have. But I also could not ignore that many unsavory things, like a car accident and a sexually transmitted disease, had occurred in the setting of excessive alcohol consumption, so all was not hunky dory.

There was a time at the end of medical school that I had the sudden urge to quit drinking, and so one day I just put down my unfinished glass of brandy and stopped, cold turkey. It lasted for about three months. During this time, I became a faster runner, winning a half marathon in Mississippi, my performance on tests improved, and for the first time in nearly half a decade I was able to sleep through the night. But after graduating medical school I had a celebratory glass of wine, and a couple glasses later I was once again a confirmed drinker. As many athletes will say, alcohol, especially beer drinking, seems to complement working out, it’s in line with the work hard play hard vibe, and the sedative effects of alcohol seem to provide a nice counterpoint to the morning jolt of coffee. And as I had learned in residency, when I began keeping a journal of my daily experiences, a glass of Scotch seemed somehow to make the process of self-expression smoother and more meaningful. As the drinks flowed, the words would flow more easily. It got to the point that I could not write unless I had a glass of Scotch in hand, or at least taken a few sips of wine. Classic dependency. I used to say that the highlights of my day were coffee in the morning, and Scotch at night, that everything in between was crap, and so I quit medicine and soon I gave up Scotch drinking. This was followed by the inevitable hiatus from journaling.

But then, when I met my sweetheart, alcohol seemed a fitting addition, a way to celebrate our love. We’d have a beer or two while making dinner, cooking being a pastime beloved by us both, and then share a bottle of wine with dinner. One night we had guests, one of whom was a very lively 15-year-old girl. She was the wittiest little thing, didn’t miss a beat, and there was a moment in the conversation where she and I were going back and forth, rapid fire, classic banter about something, I forget what now, and I paused to as they say wet my whistle with a few sips of wine. Then, as the alcohol made its way to my brain, I could no longer keep up with her. I had lost the flow. I had instantly become stupid!

This got me thinking. Had I been blind to other untoward effects of drinking?

I have always been an avid reader, especially of novels, which I like to peruse for an hour or two after dinner, and I picked up the novel I was currently reading, opened to the page where I had left off, and read the passage that came just before, and what did I notice? I couldn’t remember having read the words. It was if I had never seen the page in my life! Since reading followed dinner and dinner always involved a few drinks, I always read with a buzz, and either I was developing early dementia, or alcohol was dimming my recollection to the point that reading under the influence was worse than not reading at all: It was a total waste of time. Sure, I got the novel’s gist, could write a passing book report if need be, but the nuances were what I had missed. And it’s the nuances that separate the skilled reader (and writer) from the novice – or, as I now recognized, from the drinker dulled by too much booze. I thought back to the (few) times I had attempted to study while buzzed in medical school. I never could. To the occasion or two that I had gone on a run after having a few drinks. And hated it. Even the delicious act of coitus is always less, shall we say, pointed, after having too much to drink.

And I realized: all the things I love to do - run, read, converse, make love, sleep - alcohol makes difficult, or unenjoyable, or both.

And I realized then that I didn’t so much like the taste of booze, or even the buzz, which I always found a bit disorienting and somewhat stultifying: I liked what alcohol represented. Good times, parties with friends, dinners with loved ones, throwing caution to the wind. Alcohol seems to attend all festive occasions – weddings, shindigs, sporting events - but by dulling you with a buzz, it really is only a buzz kill, making you less able to enjoy said events. Yes, it disinhibits you, but often the things you do while disinhibited – crash cars, write drivel, go off at the mouth, possibly have sex with hookers – you or I probably shouldn’t be doing in the first place. But alcohol represents youth, because most of us try it when we are young. And it is a way of clinging to the risk-taking behavior and irresponsibility, the raging hormones and lusty bravado of being a kid. Yes, I had drunk deeply of the cup of youth, but what I was left with now was only drinking’s downsides – a heavy-headed, leaden-limbed, puffy-eyed vestige of the kid on his first binge. And I realized: I haven’t been the success in life that I had envisioned, if success means doing what you love, doing it well, and getting paid for it, which is my definition. I wondered if my failure to meet my own expectations was due at least in part to my relationship with alcohol. It is, after all, a depressant, kills brain cells and deadens sensations, and makes you do things you possibly shouldn’t - and if while intoxicated I couldn’t run as fast or far, nor retain what I read, nor enjoy the boon of mutual climax, perhaps my drinking habit was causing my writing to suffer as well. And for all of 2012, every time I took a sip of alcohol, this thought, of sabotaging my own success, was first on my mind, and it sapped all the enjoyment that a heady drink used to provide. I read over the pages of my journal and saw that the desire to stop drinking was expressed on nearly every page. It wasn’t drinking that obsessed me, but the awareness that I needed to give it up!

So in 2013 I resolved not to drink anymore. I’d stop for the year, and then see how I felt. I made it through the first half without the remotest desire for a drink. Even if my sweetheart wanted one, I had no urge to join her, nor resentment that she’d allow herself to indulge. Alcohol and I had broken up, no hard feelings, but it was best to move on. In July, after I participated in a 5-hour long sporting event, I rewarded myself with a couple drinks before dinner, and over the summer there was a period of 3 weeks, mostly while travelling, during which we had 2 or 3 drinks a night, usually beer or wine. Oh, and a shot of Schnapps on her birthday. But by then alcohol had lost its appeal, and the spell was broken. Since becoming a regular drinker in 1997 I had never gone more than a couple months without a drink, and rarely more than a day or two, but the 7 months that started 2013 set a standard, and now that the year is over and I can drink to my heart’s content if that is my heart’s desire, I know that those days are dead and gone. If in the future I choose to drink, it will only be on those rare occasions when I am seized by some inexplicable urge, as for a walk down memory lane, but those memories are dim.

It’s funny, though. When I quit drinking, my first thought was my life would instantly improve. I’d have more clarity, more energy; I’d be emboldened by a renewed zest for life, and would make more (or at least some) money skillfully doing what I love, which (for now) is putting words on the page. Remember my definition of success. None of this has turned out to be true. But ceasing to do something that is not good for you is an end in and of itself. Maybe had I quit drinking and subsequently written the next great American novel, I’d put the two together, and if my sophomore effort weren’t a success, I’d return to the bottle for support. This way I know that regardless of what happens, my life is better for the mere fact of having one less bad habit.

Kids go to parties without libations. Their treat of choice is candy. Why is it that adults have to get all lubed up to socialize and have fun? Is it because candy is not served at adult gatherings? Maybe it should be. As a molecule ethanol is closely related to sugars, which are merely carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms clumped together. Instead of gathering around the punch bowl maybe we should all just share a plate of fruit. There probably would be far fewer cases of STDs in the world. Car accidents, too.

While a medical resident I did a paper on addiction, and as part of my research I visited a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Denver. But really it was to see whether I was one myself – an alcoholic, that is. They wanted me to speak at the meeting but I didn’t offer much information about myself or my purpose for attending. Even if I was an alcoholic, I didn’t agree with the idea of branding myself as such, which would rule out the possibility of change. I know that it can be hard to escape a label. I saw it with Justin. He worked hard to create the identity of happy go-lucky stoner/drinker/drug user/joker, only to find that no one took him seriously, and that he had become a prisoner of the vary persona that he had worked and drunk so hard to create. I am always prepared to be amazed by my life. Two months before medical school I was a writer and a teacher who never thought he’d go back to school, and then a mere 60 days later there I was studying organic chemistry on an island in the West Indies. If we avoid coming to conclusions (about ourselves, about others, maybe even about right or wrong) we can enjoy limitless possibilities and always be amazed, and often for the better.