Dealing with personal failure is one of the great struggles of growing up. When we are young, the possibilities seem without limit, but as the years pass, we face every manner of barrier that causes us to be all too aware that we face a world with many constraints, many of them due to the limits of the temporal world but also, we must admit, many of them due to our own inadequacies.
I’m thinking in particular of my great failure to become a heavy drinker — I mean a serious, quaff-it-down-every-night, devil-may-care, kind of drinker. I think back to when I was a young man, and how I split the world between two types of people: those who seriously drink, managing their lives well and enjoying every minute; and the other type who have a "glass of wine at dinner" but nothing else.
How I heaped disdain on the latter type — those puritans who poured up a tiny glass for purely functional purposes only, such as to "relax after a hard day’s work," or to "cleanse the palette during dinner." How they collected bottles and talked so sweetly about vintages and labels and smelled their wine long and hard. How pathetic!
At dinner parties, some well-dressed man would refuse a cocktail — you might as well not come at all — and then lovingly take little sips of grape extract with the meal. When the host or hostess offers to pour another glass, the gesture arrives: the hand over the glass! It’s as if to say: I refuse to live robustly as part of this gang. I’m too weak, too precious, to handle more.
So many of our influences in life are of a negative kind, people we observe and swear: I will never be like that. But I’m here to confess that I am indeed like that. It is not something I ever wanted. I wanted to be that other man who drank two double scotches before dinner, two or three glasses of wine during dinner, a brandy over dinner, and finally some peculiar liqueur with dessert.
If I drank like that now, I would be in intensive care and miss work for weeks.
I’m not sure entirely when the softening and compromises set in. Instead of two high balls before dinner, I would secretly and inauspiciously have one. Then during dinner, I started to drink more slowly and then use water to quench dinner thirst — a very bad sign. Then the whole brandy thing was cut, as was the fancy liqueur bit. Once I gave up the before-dinner liquor, it was straight into the abyss.
In the course of all of this, there were people who said that the problem was that I was relenting and thereby becoming less tolerant of alcohol. I was digging my own grave, so to speak. So I tried to prevent this by deliberately drinking more than I wanted in hopes of increasing my tolerance. Maybe I had to go through several weeks of not feeling well in the morning before I could restore my old level. Sadly, this didn’t work at all.
Eventually I gave in to reality and my own defeat. I became what I once rightly loathed.
My second major failure in life deals with my lifetime ambition to be a heavy smoker until I died. Here I had many positive influences. I’ve seen men in the 80s who were still pack-a-day smokers. Because they smoked so late in life, they still looked cool. They were good conversationalists because smoking gave them time to think before they spoke. These influences were from all classes of people. I recall a banker who smoked and looked like a movie star from the ’30s well into his dotage. Then there was a coal miner who rolled his own cigarettes until his 90s. Every puff seemed to reveal a personal biography of courage and strength in hard times, and a marvelous and manly fighting spirit. He just had a way about him that was fabulous, and that cigarette seemed to sum it all up. Such style!
As with most smokers, I had a promising start when I was young, though of course it was a struggle at first. When you first start, you can’t smoke more than 5 a day without gagging. But gradually, you can increase that to 10 and finally, to the real goal, a pack a day. This I achieved in less then six months. I vowed to keep this up until the last day.
You can only imagine my thrill when I bumped it up further to two packs a day, and finally three. Now, I admit that my bragging rights are limited since I tended to light up incessantly and most of these cigarettes burned up in the ash tray. Even so, I was well on my way toward achieving my dream.
At some point, however, problems began to set in. There were rules, of course, about smoking in the office, and these rules tightened over time. Then the airline restrictions came along. Then restrictions in restaurants. But as much as I hated the state for curbing my ambitions, there was a more fundamental problem developing: my lungs just couldn’t take it anymore.
Of course I was in denial but as the bouts of coughing and sickness increased, I finally had to face the fact that there was a problem. No, I didn’t stop altogether. First I smoked a pipe. Now here was a new image that worked just fine! But all that apparatus — the cleaners, the bag of tobacco, the special lighter, the dirty fingers, and bulky pipe itself — became an annoyance. So next came: the cigar! But this introduced other problems. The expense was prohibitive and, frankly, people hated the smell.
Eventually and much to my dread, I had to face the fact that I would have to quit it altogether. It was a humbling moment but an unavoidable one.
I share all of this in the hope of helping others who have faced similar defeats, and letting them know that they are not alone. We all stumble.
Perhaps too there are lessons here in avoiding defeat itself. Perhaps there is a way to work up to becoming a lifetime heavy drinker and smoker by taking it all at a slower pace.
Perhaps one should set a schedule, and only hope to achieve the height at the age of 60, or something like that.
And key question will always haunt me: perhaps I should have started smoking and drinking earlier, before I was fully grown. Perhaps then my bodily system might have become more accustomed to the habit and not reacted so negatively by the time I turned 30. Then I might have kept it up until a blessed old age.
Always remember that there is no better time for smoking and drinking than when you are young, when your system can handle it. As you grow older, you never know the ways in which the body will fight back against your dreams to smoke and drink heavily forever.
In any case, there is no sense in giving up hope. There is still the great lift that comes from observing others who have not similarly failed but rather stayed attached to their ideals. Nor will I give up hope in myself. To paraphrase someone, I’m no failure because I’m not yet dead.