I wrote at the end of my first post that, for the first Lenten week of not drinking, I was very, very hungry. No real surprise there: I was using alcohol less as an intoxicant than as fuel. It’s got lots of calories in it, so a drink can substitute, to some degree, for food. It wasn’t lost on me that I tended to get the hungriest after work, during which time I’d burned a lot of energy. I’ve been accustomed to sitting down to a drink after work because it marks the end of the labor period—I think a lot of people look forward to that end-of-the-workday tipple, as an indicator to the brain and body that one part of the day has ended and another is beginning—but what I didn’t realize was that I was also replenishing my sugars. It was Gatorade for Grownups.
All that reminded me of something I once read about Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist. At one point, the story went, he was trying to drop down from 135 pounds to 125 (!), and consumed only vitamin-infused banana daiquiris for perhaps as long as two years. Well, banana daiquiris and heroin. But the point is that it wasn’t just the bananas that Page was subsisting on; the rum had sugar in it, too. The human body will try to make nutrients out of whatever you put into it. A glass of wine has somewhere around 100 calories in it.
But back to that other reason for drinking after work: habit. When you pop the cork, order the beer or shake the martini at the end of the day—no matter whether your day ends at 5:00 or midnight—you’re sending your body and mind a signal as strong as an alarm clock: that thing you were doing, working, is over; time to do the next thing. For many of us, that signal is sent as part of a larger social broadcast that may involve going out with colleagues, going home and cooking dinner with family members, or any number of other activities that contain, as part of their cluster of signs to the cortex, alcohol. That’s why the thing we know as alcohol abuse may be much less a genetic or physiological problem than we think: substance use and abuse is deeply connected to the context in which we engage in it, and in healthy settings even excessive consumption isn’t anything like abuse. Just before Lent began, Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker about this phenomenon. A book I reviewed for the Indy a few years ago, The Cult of Pharmacology, makes a similar argument. Routine and ritual are the anchors of healthy drinking.
These days after work, I’m still hitting the bottle, but it’s a liter bottle of water, which I don’t even bother pouring into a glass. (One of my colleagues claims that this indicates a third thing I’m satisfying at the end of the workday: an oral fixation. But I don’t much care for Freud.) While Brad swigs 7&7s and Graham a single-malt scotch and Petrie a glass (or four) of Vouvray, I’m staying inside the circle of the rite by glugging artesian water. It’s one of the reasons why, so far, abstaining for Lent hasn’t been a killer. I’ve got more than two weeks to go, or less than two weeks, or exactly two weeks—it depends on whose calendar you keep. Turns out that this particular ritual, like almost every other, has variations. More on that next time.
It’s St. Patrick’s Day. Enjoy your pint or your fingers of whisky. (By the way: Bushmills beats Jameson by a mile!) Needless to say, I won’t be able to join you. Raise a glass for me. I’m green with envy.