Monthly Archives: January 2021

A Journal of the Plague Year: #26

What a terrible time to stop drinking. In the first week of this glorious new year, I was so disheartened by the attempted coup, the insurrection in our nation’s capital, it would have been SO easy to drown out that despair with alcohol. Similarly, it would have been so simple (and yet impossible) to self-medicate away the death toll of 420,000 Americans lost to the Coronavirus. Conversely, a celebratory drink or two or three would have been totally justified at the inauguration of our 46th President, Joe Biden, and the first ever female, Asian-American, African-American Vice President in the history of the United States, Kamala Harris, not to mention an inaugural day that, across the country, was marred by not a single act of violence in protest, at least not on my radar. I might have raised a glass in approval at Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook, his second impeachment by the house, and I might have raised still another glass as his sorry ass, in a helicopter, lifted into the air from the White House, never to return. And then, I decided to dye my hair purple, the kind of decision a man of a certain age makes while drinking. I even went through with it! So many good reasons to be drinking! But I have not been drinking. You might call it a dry January–but, to be fair, I had my last drink on January 2nd, have abstained then, as of today, for only 28 out of these 30 days in the month, and, of course, the month is not over. A single day is a long time.

It hasn’t been easy. Two or three nights ago I watched Jimmy Kimmel, in celebration for his sideman Guillermo’s 50th birthday, show a montage of about 50 celebrities taking shots in honor of the occasion. Today I drove by an open-air beer garden and my favorite liquor store on my way home from an errand. It’s getting a little bit more difficult as the month closes itself out and I know I have a decision to make: was this a dry January–or the beginning of a longer commitment to live without–or with significantly less–alcohol? The jury is out. I miss it and I don’t miss it. As I’ve felt in other years when I have made this same prolonged abstinence, I am mostly glad to know that I can do it. Without withdrawals, without lapses, without any kind of detrimental side-effect (save the purple hair), I have been able to live for a time, quite contentedly, without booze.

I didn’t mean for this entire blog entry to be about drinking or not drinking. It just seems to be a little bit front and center. Maybe, for me, it feels less casual of a thing than it does for most Dry Januarians. My parents drank every day of their lives for as long as I can remember, and in my middle to late-middle years, I find myself to have become the same kind of drinker. I am trying to be super conscious about how my life, or how I feel about my life, changes without it. I know that when I am not drinking, I tend to be more creative. I tend to be more productive. I feel smarter. I tend to be happier–less likely to enter a funk of melancholy. And, as much good news as there is in this new world regarding a more engaged, more compassionate, more representative administration, and regarding an impending mass-inoculation against COVID-19, there is still the residual bad news abounding and leftover in the wake of Trump; for example, today, in Los Angeles, a protest by far-right conspiracy goons prevented people from getting vaccinated! –despite this, as angry as that makes me, I do not feel the impulse to self-medicate. I am less easily rattled or annoyed. I am more present to others–maybe. I’m more engaged, as much as I can be, with my students in distance learning. I think I sleep better and my dreaming is more vivid. I snore less. This is all to the good, but there are things, sadly, that haven’t changed. Without all of that empty calorie, and even with a fair amount of exercise, I don’t think I’ve lost an ounce. I was kind of betting on that. I don’t think I’m eating more to compensate, or eating worse things for me–you know, replacing one poison for another kind of poison. But maybe I am. A single serving of my favorite gummy worm, seven little worms, is only 90 calories. That’s not bad, but there’s an occasional cookie. Too many carbs, perhaps. Thankfully, the resident teenager beats me to most of the snack food. But I bet I snacked less when I was drinking! The dumb part of my brain just wanted to see more miraculous results, and thinks to itself, alas, if there aren’t clear and positive health results (ignoring for a moment the list of benefits above), why bother? Man, I so much wanted to take a shot with all those celebrities! I mean, Guillermo only turns 50 once in his life!

I don’t know how to close. This entry feels somewhat confessional. I don’t want it to be. I don’t want to confess. I want to say that I don’t feel shame about drinking and I won’t feel shame about breaking my abstinence in February, if I choose to do so. I know there are forces in my life and in the culture at large that both want to shame me about alcohol use AND encourage me to keep doing it. What it’s about, I think–what it’s always been about, is consciousness, understanding, being awake to and honest about the relationships we have to the stuff that’s bad for us. I know I’ve said this before in past entries written around the turn of a new year: we need (I need) to drink more mindfully, to be fully aware of why I’m doing it and what it’s bringing to me, both good and bad. Meanwhile, on the eve of the last day of January, 2021, I’m still dry. And I have purple hair.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #25

Cheers!

This morning I got up to find a comment posted to one of my blog entries! How exciting is that? I will tell you. It’s pretty exciting. It’s rare, these days–it’s rare in general, but it seems more rare these days–in part, I know, because I have not been writing. Guess what the blog entry was about–the one that received a comment? “Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution.” It was published on the blog site a year ago, right after Christmas, 2019. Curious about what I had to say about writer’s block a year ago, because, as I stand here with my coffee after sorting the laundry on this bleak, wet, Saturday morning, I am fully aware that I have hardly written a word since September, I re-read my blog entry. In the first paragraph, I confess, “Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September.” Hmm. I sense a pattern. I wonder if I went back another year I would find a similar confession. I think it’s true, generally speaking, that the time between September and January seems to be a creatively dark time for yours truly, inexplicably (or not). Mostly I think it’s explicable. Let me explicate.

I blame the beginning of the new academic school year. Getting the ball rolling in a public high school and in my own realm as a classroom English teacher, is always a monumental undertaking. Even though, most often, everything is already in place in terms of planning and curriculum, there is just something pretty exhausting about the first few months of a new school year. But this year–oh my–this year was an entirely new jarful of bees. Is that a thing? I was going for a colloquial metaphor there, and I think I may have missed the mark. Bucket of rats? Nest of wasps? Barrel of monkeys? No, none of those are good. Let me just say that it was terrible. This fall we had the monumental undertaking of reimagining everything we do for the virtual-world classroom, for distance learning. That means that every single lesson had to be re-written, re-formatted, transformed into some interactive slide-show. Curriculum had to be condensed. Time had new meaning. The school day itself, reinvented. Suddenly, we relied on help from our colleagues more than ever before and we were feeling blessed and lucky if we had a strong team. The boundary between work and home became completely blurry. I found myself grading or planning until 7 or 8 o’clock at night and receiving text notifications that Johnny had finally turned in his essay at 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.

Needless to say, it was difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem, a story, or work on my memoir, or record a song, or read a book for pleasure. This is how I explain the lack of creative productivity from Autumn to Winter, especially this year. And while this transition or transformation from the school house to the virtual google classroom was, in itself and by necessity, a creative act–it did not satisfy the soul in the same way as writing what you think might be a pretty good poem.

So, how do we get started again in this new year, a year that promises to be a continuation of the pandemic nightmare of the last nine months–with the optimism added to the mix of a couple of vaccines and a new administration? If I look again at last year’s resolution blog entry, I find that I had set myself a number of goals and even went so far as to design a kind of checklist to track my progress–inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s virtue checklist from his autobiography. And just like Franklin admits about his project, mine, while it yielded early results, ultimately failed–but not in its entirety. Write a thing a week? I think I was able to do that, or close to it, at least until September. Read for pleasure more often? Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I did not, for example, read a book a month. Write an album’s worth of songs? Nope. However–music was made this year in small increments and in some new collaborations. Close, but no cigar. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me? No, I did not do that. This one rankles, perhaps, more than the others. Why is it that the things we know are necessary are sometimes the hardest things to do? I’m no psychologist. Meditate more often? Well, no. In fact, while I didn’t give it up and maintained a loose practice of meditation, I jettisoned altogether the tracking of stats on my Insight Timer. Spent some time, instead, with Sam Harris on his Wake Up app–which yielded some good results, but still, was insufficient on its own. I’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that someone should be talking at me while I’m trying to meditate, even if it’s Sam Harris. And lumped into the goals about seeking the help of others and a stronger meditation practice was some totally sincere and earnest stuff about better general health. This didn’t work out too well, either. I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I do not think the isolation during the COVID 19 pandemic has done a single bit of good for my health–except for the fact that I have not contracted COVID-19.

If I were to set goals for myself again for 2021, they would look almost identical to these. But we all know instinctively or intuitively, and the research bears this out, that resolutions often fail. I know I’ve written about this before. We also know, though, and teach our younglings, that goal setting is somewhat paramount to self-improvement, yes? So what’s the mystery? What’s the key? I think it is possible, and advisable, to go ahead and make the goals. Yeah, write them down. Revisit them often to remind yourself about what it is that you want. But ultimately, you must be kind to yourself, you must be forgiving, you cannot beat yourself up, wring your hands, gnash your teeth. And you have to accept the fact that certain things may happen that are completely out of your control, things that may wreak havoc on your best laid plans: a pandemic comes to mind. 330,000 American casualties. The death of a mother-in-law. The dire cancer diagnosis of a brother-in-law. Another dire cancer diagnosis for a friend. Wildfires. A democratic society on the brink of dictatorship. An election year fraught with danger and divisiveness unlike anything most of us have ever seen, an election that feels to everyone of all political stripes to be of monumental, earth-shattering, history-making, dire consequence. The continued violence against black and brown Americans in the streets of our country and a justice system that repeatedly fails to do the right thing. We’ve had a lot this year to take us away from our goals, to make us feel pretty sheepish, frankly, about self-improvement, especially when and if we have been lucky and/or privileged, as I know I have been.

Meanwhile, it helps to find things and people that inspire you and move yourself in those directions. Even during the pandemic, when attendance at a yearly writers conference was impossible, we found a way to conduct a mini-conference through zoom. I participated in a manuscript exchange with some friends from the Warren Wilson MFA program, and this weekend, on the first and second day of the new year, we have organized a virtual reading for poets and fiction writers from that same program. We are finding ways to connect to the tribe. And these things, just over the last couple of days, plus this lovely comment that I found this morning on last year’s blog entry, have put a charge in my creative reservoir. Lo and behold. I have written almost 1500 words.

So, finally, happy new year to you, readers, friends, family. Let’s hope 2021 is less of a shit show. I’m guardedly optimistic about that, but the bar is pretty low, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we have lots to be hopeful about. I wish you the best of luck with your goals for the new year. May you tap into your own creative impulses, whatever they may be, in order to experience a rich, productive, life-giving new year. Cheers!

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Filed under Reportage, Self Reflection, The Plague Year, Writing and Reading