I have a drinking problem. There, I said it.
It’s not what many would consider a drinking problem. For example, there’s no rolling out of bed reaching for a Bloody Mary, followed by a liquid lunch and bookending the day slumped face down in my soup.
In fact, I rarely drink anything other than wine, and almost never in a quantity that causes me to stumble about or spend the next day in bed applying ice to my forehead.
Quite the opposite. I typically bounce out of bed soon after the crack of dawn in order to study, write, or otherwise get an early start on my workload in anticipation of slipping out later for a few hours in the leisurely pursuit of small white balls on the local links, or for an invigorating ride on my horse Charming.
So, what’s my problem?
Simply this: Stuck firmly in my psyche is the idea that drinking a bottle of wine a night is on the same deviant scale as dosing oneself with a bottle of scotch or the equivalent. As a consequence, I feel guilt, particularly early in the morning.
And I hate it because I firmly believe in living a life of no regrets and largely do. With this one glaring exception.
Why the Guilt?
My “problem” is, I suspect, related to growing up with an alcoholic stepfather, Hank “Churchmouse” Davis. Hawaii’s only WWII Ace, Henry was the prototypical fighter pilot, a hard-drinking, fast-living man’s man.
Picture John Wayne back when bellying up to the bar for straight shots of whiskey was all the rage, and you’ll have conjured up a fairly accurate image of Henry.
After the war, Henry became a commercial pilot. If I correctly recall the regulations for commercial pilots at the time, pilots weren’t supposed to drink a drop of booze for 24 hours before flying.
This was a regulation Henry paid less than no heed. Come cocktail hour, which in Hawaii comes no later than 5:00 pm—out came the scotch, bourbon, or vodka, and they would stay out until Henry toddled off to bed.
Sometimes Henry went out like a lamb and, unfortunately for everyone else in the house, sometimes he went out like a lion. Those nights do not make for pleasant memories, but I don’t feel like going there, and so I won’t.
The fact of the matter is that alcohol had a constant presence in our lives. In our youth my brother, sister, and I found the hard partying of Henry and his friends funny, but as time passed and Henry became more sullen and resolute in his drinking, it became mostly painful.
And so, over time, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of drinking became firmly wedged in my cerebral cortex: to drink is fun, but simultaneously it is bad.
The very definition of a guilty pleasure.
Henry wasn’t the only contributor to my drinking problem.
I remember well my maternal grandmother pulling me aside in my early teens and warning me about the family’s poor history with demon spirits, illustrating her admonishments with sad stories of two of my great-uncles, both of whom apparently shared a passion for the juice.
According to her account, they both died young, one the result of tipping back a martini too enthusiastically while leaning against a porch railing some floors above street level. Not be outdone in the manner of exiting this dimension, the other wayward uncle decided to sleep one off while parked on railway tracks.
I’m not sure why those stories resonated so strongly with me, nor why they have stayed so fresh in my mind all these years, but they have.
Added to the observational inputs received from growing up with Henry, the narrative of my ill-fated uncles unquestionably contributed to my uneasy relationship with drinking.
The problem is complicated by the very nature of the place we live.
Life Among the Vines
Here in the remote and quaint wine-producing valley of Cafayate, Argentina, wine is a full partner in the local lifestyle and culture. We live among the vines, are well acquainted with the owners of several bodegas in town, know the best wines to serve depending on the occasion, and so on.
Reflecting the high-altitude terroir, the grapes produce a full-bodied, well-nuanced, and altogether spectacular result. Big wines ideal for the hearty Argentine cuisine.
So imbued am I with a growing passion for the wine culture, in fact, I have recently become a partner in two different wine businesses and spend happy hours each day working on things like wine label design, finding new distributors, and so forth.
Basically, you can’t turn around here without bumping into something having to do with wine.
Furthermore, like the idyllic climes of my childhood home of Hawaii, the entire aspect of this place croons the siren song of enjoying one’s favorite adult beverage as the sun drifts lower toward the horizon at the end of yet another picture-perfect day.
It would take a man made of sterner stuff to resist a tropical beverage complete with tiny umbrella and a skewered slice of pineapple while sitting on a lanai watching the sun dip into the Hawaiian sea.
Or, more relevantly to today’s musings, to wave off a bottle of fine wine while dining out of doors on Cafayate’s scenic plaza.
As mentioned at the start of these musings, I typically don’t drink during the day—not even after finishing a round of golf when such things are customary. Furthermore, I typically will only have three to four glasses of wine spread out over the course of a long evening.
Of course, every so often a gang of us gets together at one of the many agreeable venues hereabouts—the Piattelli Bodega, Patios de Cafayate, Estancia Chimpa, or down at the Clubhouse at La Estancia—and let the good times flow. And they flow pretty good, with the bottle count high and the laughs aplenty.
As you can confirm for yourself with the assistance of Google, years ago I came up with the quip, “Everything in moderation, including your excesses.”
Call me an anachronism, but I don’t much appreciate a society where people are so range-bound by social convention and Big Brother rejoinders to be modest in all things, they forget how to have a good time.
Fortunately, here in the Argentine outback that is very much not the case. People are moderate in general, but when it’s time to party, they let their hair down and the merriment flows as freely as the wine.
There is another saying, this one attributed to an unknown Jewish sage, that goes, “You can tell the true character of a person when they are broke or drunk.”
Well, I’m happy to report that I am a happy tippler, as is everyone I associate with down here (otherwise I wouldn’t associate with them). Just the sort of people you are happy to let your hair down with.
Still, following such outbreaks of merriment, I invariably wake with the nagging sense of guilt harping in my ear.
A Quick and Depressing Detour
I would be remiss in the extreme, or risk coming across as hopelessly naïve, if I didn’t acknowledge that all is not roses when it comes to the fondness some people have for alcohol.
Contrary to the picture of a happy-go-lucky band of hale fellows well-met painted just above, you don’t need me to tell you many people have serious problems when it comes to their level of dedication to spirits, especially the hard stuff.
There are those who do roll out of bed each morning with eager thoughts about their Bloody Marys. Or who, having resisted until lunch, roll up their sleeves and set to drinking like Russian soldiers on leave.
To save possible embarrassment, I won’t go into any specific details, but there have been more than a few people passing through here who could be said to adhere to the idea of “Everything in excess. Period. Full Stop.”
You know, the sort of people whose average day consists of battling hangovers with the liberal application of the proverbial hair of the dog. Rise and repeat, day after day.
These are sad and serious addictions of the sort I have experienced first-hand through Henry and, later, with a very close friend who after falling in love with vodka experienced a painful slow-motion suicide.
In these instances, one can and should be encouraging and supportive. In the end, however, it always comes down to the presence of will power or lack thereof. Either the person finds the will power to stop the destructive behavior or doesn’t. If you are one of those people, stop looking to others to fix your problem… they can’t.
By contrast, my drinking problem is but chaff in the wind. And yet, I find it most aggravating, grains of sand in an otherwise rich and fulfilling life. Especially because…
Drinking Wine Is Good for Us
In my heart of hearts, I know my predilection for sharing wine with friends or while enjoying the evening with my wife causes no blips in my day, nor damage to my health. In fact, as I am sure you have heard, there are numerous studies that show drinking wine to be directly correlated with living longer and healthier lives.
According to the research, the correct amount to drink is two to three glasses per day.
Sounds about right, but digging into the research, one learns that these studies are based on self-reporting.
“How many glasses of wine per day have you had over the last month?” asks the survey.
After a quick mental calculation and concluding that reporting the actual number might make them appear immodest, the survey-taker settles on the moderate-sounding “two” as the correct choice.
Consequently, the optimal number of glasses of wine for one’s health is scientifically unproven, but one strongly suspects it falls somewhere on the scale between three and less than guzzling wine straight from the bottle. In short, three or four glasses are good candidates.
Four glasses pretty much finishes off a bottle, at least the way it’s poured around here.
And There’s More!
According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in which more than 12,000 women between the age of 70 and 81 were evaluated for mental acuity, moderate drinkers outscored the teetotalers.
In the research, they found that even one glass of wine a day reduced the risk of mental decline by 23%. According to the research, this is because wine reduces clotting in the blood as well as the inflammation of blood vessels.
In addition, drinking wine has been shown to increase a person’s “good” cholesterol, the HDL variety, by 20% while lowering the bad stuff, leading to an overall decreased risk of heart disease.
And the benefits don’t end there. According to the website Health.com, a glass or three a day goes a long way in keeping the doctor away, offering the following benefits.
1. Weight control. Studies find that people who drink wine daily have lower body mass than those who indulge occasionally; moderate wine drinkers have narrower waists and less abdominal fat than people who drink liquor. Alcohol may encourage your body to burn extra calories for as long as 90 minutes after you down a glass. 2. Boost your body’s defenses. In one British study, those who drank roughly a glass of wine a day reduced by 11% their risk of infection by Helicobacter pylori bacteria, a major cause of gastritis, ulcers, and stomach cancers. As little as half a glass may also guard against food poisoning caused by germs like salmonella when people are exposed to contaminated food, according to a Spanish study. 3. Guard against ovarian woes. When Australian researchers recently compared women with ovarian cancer to cancer-free women, they found that roughly one glass of wine a day seemed to reduce the risk of the disease by as much as 50 percent. Earlier research at the University of Hawaii produced similar findings. Experts suspect this may be due to antioxidants or phytoestrogens, which have high anticancer properties and are prevalent in wine. And in a recent University of Michigan study, a red wine compound helped kill ovarian cancer cells in a test tube. 4. Build better bones. On average, women who drink moderately seem to have higher bone mass than abstainers. Alcohol appears to boost estrogen levels; the hormone seems to slow the body’s destruction of old bone more than it slows the production of new bone. 5. Prevent blood-sugar trouble. Premenopausal women who drink one or two glasses of wine a day are 40 percent less likely than women who don’t drink to develop type 2 diabetes, according to a 10-year study by Harvard Medical School. While the reasons aren’t clear, wine seems to reduce insulin resistance in diabetic patients.
As importantly, a large French study involving over 150,000 subjects found that those who drank between two and three glasses of wine a day (see comments on self-reporting above) were happier, less stressed, and enjoyed optimal social status over those who drank little or none. The chemistry involved in wine’s relationship with happiness has been identified.
According to WineFolly:
Chemically speaking, alcohol stimulates the release of several neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and opioid peptides. These natural brain chemicals will produce pleasurable feelings like euphoria, reward, and well-being. The good news is that if you practice moderate drinking, you will feel this chemical release every time you have a drink.
So, why is it, even in the face of the evidence, I regularly worry about having had that extra glass of wine (or two) in an evening?
In an attempt to answer that, I must now turn to the root of the problem.
The Nature of Guilt
Lest some dear readers are ready to bolt from this page like spooked deer in fear I might now elaborate extensively on the topic of guilt, let me assure you I’ll make this section brief and to the point.
To be sure, I could go on at some length about guilt. It is, after all, a topic over which much ink has been spilled by practitioners of the pseudo-sciences.
For the sake of brevity, I will mention only that there are, generally speaking, two types of guilt. Productive guilt and unproductive guilt.
In the case of the latter, unproductive guilt, these are the sort of mental torments a Stoic would term a total waste of time because there is nothing you can do about it.
For example, there is nothing one can do to undo the ill-advised follies of youth. I can’t un-steal that car, and so dwelling for even a minute about it is about as unproductive as can be.
Likewise, some people actually feel guilty about their “white privilege” and do all sorts of completely ineffective or counterproductive things in the attempt to ameliorate their guilt. Yet no one alive today in America enslaved anyone’s ancestors… get over it.
Productive guilt, as the moniker suggests, has some utility. In my case, given the lurking genetic disposition to excess in the family tree, perhaps this relatively mild though irksome mental finger wagging in my psyche has kept me from going off the deep end?
The mechanism is obvious. I dislike the guilt, so I try to minimize it by keeping my excesses moderate.
So, in the end, I guess the right way of thinking about this whole topic is to accept this is the way my brain is wired, and to embrace it as a useful self-monitoring function and to leave it at that.
If there’s a broader lesson in all of this, I would propose it is that sometimes it is worth stepping back and having a chat with oneself about why we feel the way we do.
Do you dwell on unproductive guilt? If so, don’t. By contrast, despite being a damn annoyance sometimes, productive guilt may be more correctly viewed in a positive light.
And so, with apologies for essentially sharing what would normally be a diary entry of the sort one scribbles on the verge of a New Year, I will wish you happy trails by leaving you with a link to a very special audio segment on the topic of this posting.
The link will take you to a rare interview with the irreplaceable H.L. Mencken in which he shares his three timeless rules for enjoying one's drinks while maintaining ones equilibrium.
Oh, one more bit of housekeeping before I go. If you would like to experience the full Cafayate wine experience, the dates have just been set for the annual Harvest Celebrations here at La Estancia.
There are two, one typically for owners and guests (though anyone is welcome) that will be held March 13 – 19, 2016. For info on that, drop John Stevens, the Event Chair, a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The second event, hosted by Doug Casey primarily for first-time visitors, is March 17 – 20.
For information on that event, drop Juan Larrañaga a note at email@example.com.
If you make it down this way, I’ll buy the first bottle!
May the new year take you on happy and interesting trails…