On Drinking – Present Day

There’s a dial in my head that’s been turned all the way to “information absorption” to the detriment of information dissemination lately. I had a rather heavy night out (read: “I drank really heavily”) a while back, and it sent me into a small downward spiral, and my inner critic had a lot to say when I handed him the mic.

He asked what the drinking was worth to me. Is it worth making friends with people whose names I can’t remember? Is it worth the hundreds of dollars I could have saved that night and the weeks of catching up on bills in the aftermath? Is it worth the multiple-day hangover and depression that inevitably follow? Or the lasting effects it has on my dog when I’m not willing or able to take him outside as often as I should because I can’t fathom getting out of bed? I think not.

About a decade ago, then chief drug adviser to the UK David Nutt, MD and a team of colleagues ranked different drugs based on nine different types of harm caused to an individual and seven types of harm caused to society. Alcohol was found to be the most harmful of all drugs (including heroin, crack, etc.) to society, and the fourth most harmful to the user. Dr. Nutt was fired from that position for saying that the government-sanctioned drugs were worse than the ones the government was trying to vilify – LSD, MDMA, and THC among them.

Much of alcohol’s harm to society is likely due to its legality, and the multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns encouraging us to raise a glass to whatever day it happens to be, or for no reason at all. There are, unfortunately, no juice bars selling small hits of Molly along with a kale smoothie – at least not that I’m aware of – but maybe that’s a much better way to hang out with your friends than having a beer together.

Don’t get me wrong – I love alcohol. I love the taste of it, the feel of it, the look of it – pretty much everything about it, actually. There are also plenty of studies saying that small amounts of alcohol can be good for your cardiovascular health, prevent kidney stones, safeguard against Alzheimer’s, and boost your social and sex lives. My problem is usually with the “small amounts” bit of those studies. When I drink, I fucking drink.

My friend called herself a “freegan,” meaning she only ate meat at dinner parties or when it was purchased for her. Essentially, she only ate it when she was socially called upon to do so. I think that’s the stance I’m going to take with alcohol going forward. If someone wants to buy me a drink, I’m not going to say no, but I’m also not going to ask for one or purchase one for myself. We’ll see how it goes.

Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” I seem to have the thinking and the saying parts down, but there’s still some room for improvement on the doing. I’ll keep you updated.

Alone in Chicago

On Thursday evening I made my way to an event called The Anatomy of Connection at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The focus of the discussion was on the lack of connection and the epidemic that is loneliness as we become ever more connected via the devices in our hands (or pockets or purses or on the table… whatever – stop nitpicking).

Loneliness has been linked to higher rates of mortality than air pollution, drinking, and obesity. In one of the longest longitudinal studies of health and wellness, loneliness at age 50 had a higher predictive power of death than high cholesterol. It can suppress our immune systems, lead to depression and anxiety, and in severe cases, suicide. It’s such a problem that the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Here in Chicago, a researcher had morning commuters do one of three things: engage the people around them in conversation, specifically avoid conversation with the people around them, and just go about their business as they would normally. At the beginning of the study, everybody who was tasked with talking to people thought, “Ugh, I’m gonna hate this!” By the end, those folks reported the highest amounts of happiness as compared to their counterparts.

The problem is that we all assume nobody wants to talk to us, so we don’t engage. We isolate ourselves in order to self preserve, then our empathy decreases as our defensiveness increases, and we start interpreting ambiguous social cues as negative. Moreover, it can be contagious as we all collectively avoid each other out of fear that we’ll get a weird look for saying hello or asking how someone’s doing today.

I know I’m guilty of this. I am a commuter in Chicago, and I certainly wouldn’t say I go out of my way to strike up conversations with people. I wouldn’t even say I go in my way to converse, given that folks are often pressed right up against me on crowded buses or trains. So, then what? Are we all just doomed to a life of self-perpetuating loneliness? Not if we put in the fucking effort!

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of A Road Less Traveled, said that “mental health is dedication to reality at all costs.” The therapist giving the presentation noted that we have to practice what he called, “radical acceptance.” We don’t have to approve of our state of loneliness, but we have to accept that things just aren’t right in order to go about fixing any of them.

I lost my phone a couple weeks ago, and I just haven’t replaced it. There are financial reasons involved, sure, but honestly I just don’t want a phone. I find my quality of life to be higher right now. Sure, there are parts of my day where I wish I could call an Uber or text a friend right when a thought comes up, but do you know what I do? I write that shit down, I take that note home via public transit, and I reach out when I get there.

As a result of my phonelessness, I’m more connected to the situations I’m in. I’m not constantly wondering how many Instagram followers I’ve gained in the last ten minutes since my post, I’m not wondering about any event updates for that thing coming up this weekend, I’m not fretting over an unexpected phone call (most of which I just let go to voicemail even when I do have the phone). It’s relaxing. As evidence of how fucked up I was as a result of having my phone in my pocket all the time, I occasionally think I feel my notepad buzzing in my pocket. Guess what? It is not.

On Thursday night, I walked away by myself, but in my heart, I knew that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. I think more of us are lonely than we’re willing to acknowledge (or accept to stick with the vernacular). So do me a favor, if you see me on a train or on a bus or in an airport, say hi (and buy me a drink if we’re at the airport, as I’m likely at the bar). Talk to me about your day, and I’ll talk to you about mine. Wake me up from the dream state proliferated by the screen in front of my face or by the endless stream of what-if’s I’ve got running in my head. We can do this. Together.

We’re all gonna die someday, but if we chat about it with a little more frequency, we lower our chances that that day is tomorrow. Sláinte!

Deep Dives and Fine Dining

Valentine’s Day was my first day as a barback at the fancy restaurant. There was a lot to learn on Day 1, and given the nature of the establishment and the holiday, all space at the bar was reserved for the entirety of the time we were open. I got there a bit early so I had ample time to familiarize myself with the layout of the bar and ask some questions I had about any number of things that can come up during service at a bar.

Honestly, I’d say it went pretty well. Luckily, they were restricted to the tasting menu, so I just had to memorize the order of the menu, what silverware, plating, wine-pairing, etc. went with each course, and who was ready for what when. It certainly wasn’t a small task, but it was doable. By the end of the night, I had most of that down, and I was able to sneak away from time to time to help the folks downstairs polish glassware and silverware, then hall it back upstairs for immediate use.

It’s really just about letting yourself fall into a rhythm – check plates, check water glasses, check glassware, check faces, check bus tub, check with bartender, check with dishwashers, repeat. Stressful? Sure, but again, manageable. I mean, I only had one tiny breakdown where I had to crouch behind the bar and remind myself to breathe. Totally normal, right?

I woke up on Friday feeling ready to get back in there and kick some ass. I walked the dog, did 30 minutes of stretching and breathing meditation, and got myself ready for work. On the way to the bus, I always check the bus status on my phone to see if it’s necessary for me to run the two blocks to the bus stop, or if I can stroll leisurely. It said APPROACHING when I looked, so I put my phone in my pocket and ran. The bus did that thing where it sort of stops, then stops all the way on the other side of the street because the driver realizes there were people hoping to get on.

I ran a little faster, thanked the driver for stopping, then found my seat toward the back of the bus. I was glowing because I was going to be hugely early that day, which was good because I would get family meal and have plenty of time to fill out my new hire paperwork. I reached for my phone so I could schedule my dog’s walk for the evening, and it wasn’t in my pocket. I frantically patted all my pockets and looked all around me – nothing. I asked the people who got on after me, “Hey did you see my phone fall out of my pocket?” They said no.

I immediately pulled on the cord to request a stop (maybe four blocks from where I got on). I jogged briefly but thought, Meh, there’s no need to hurry – I’ve got plenty of time and I can just call a Lyft once I’ve got my phone.

I saw three or four people walking in the opposite direction, and I considered asking them if they saw a phone, but I thought, Meh, they wouldn’t have been looking for a phone. I’ll be there in a minute.

I retraced my steps, scanning back and forth along the sidewalk and the grass I had run through to catch the bus. No phone. I did one more back-and-forth, looking into potholes and small divots I might have overlooked the first time. Nothing. Well fuck. My phone was gone. I didn’t have time to brood – I needed to get to work. So I got on the next bus thinking, It’s just a phone. The most important thing is that I call Wag customer service and schedule Max’s walk when I get there.

I got to work on time for family meal, I ate, I filled out paperwork, then I got right to work cutting limes and lemons. I looked at my watch and realized it was already about the time I should be clocking in normally, so I rushed to the phone to call Wag. I sat on hold for eight minutes, tapping my foot impatiently, sighing heavily, and putting all my effort into not throwing the phone across the room every time the woman’s voice said, “Thank you for your patience.”

At the eight minute mark, I pressed 2 so that they’d call me back when a customer service rep was available, and ran back to the bar to help with setup. When I got there, the bartender said, “I just had to do all of the prep work by myself. I’m only going to say this once – that wasn’t cool.” I made a weak attempt to explain the situation, but it was too late – I had already fouled up the start of Day 2. I had a small panic attack right as the first customers of the day walked through the door, and the bartender sent me away so I wouldn’t be seen breaking composure.

I went out of sight and collected myself. It took fifty breaths, but I got my head back in the game. I went back in with a smile on my face, but I still got a talking to from the restaurant manager about how important it is to keep your cool. I assured him I could, then went behind the bar to get to work.

The rest of the night went pretty smoothly. I did hit my back twice on the metal cover over the entrance to the bar, which makes a loud metal-on-metal noise that you can hear across the whole restaurant. And at some point, I asked a question with too many Um’s and Uh’s in it, and got reprimanded for not being concise.

A married couple (Cory and Lorie [you can’t make that kind of shit up]) who were regulars came in, and engaged me a little, which was my saving grace for the night. Rapport is my fucking wheelhouse – I can charm the shit out of just about anyone. I did, and it redeemed some of my mishaps.

The manager and the bartender were nice enough to let me go right at close because Wag never called back, so my dog was just stuck in my room the whole shift. I asked for notes on Day 2 before leaving, and initially the bartender just said, “Oof. I’m not ready for that, yet.” Finally he said, “My two main points are that you need to work on decisiveness and conciseness. Be confident in yourself. You’re a smart guy – we wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t.”

That felt encouraging. I felt better. I got home as quickly as public transit would allow to clean up the urine and feces that were largely a result of how much time Max was in that room by himself.

Here I am a few days later, though, and I find myself questioning the value of my employment there. Can I learn a lot from those folks? Absolutely. Do I really need that information? I’m not sure. Given that I’m not planning on making bartending my lifelong career, I don’t know how good at this I really need to be. I can learn a fair amount from the folks at the rooftop bar about bartending, and I have the greatest potential for actually becoming a bartender there. I can learn a lot about bar management from the folks at the honkytonk pub, and I feel like I really fit in with those people.

I talked it out with a close friend, and she encouraged me to read my own blog – I’m overwhelmed by how quickly my life is changing. I’m not going to reread anything because writing it is hard enough, but thank goodness she’s reading it because I needed her insights. I’m stressed the fuck out a lot of the time as it is. Do I really need to add to that considerably just so I can say I’ve worked in fine dining for a bit? I can do this job, but should I? Maybe not.

Especially considering that none of this post was decisive or concise, and after rereading it, I have no edits.

But I do have an addendum (I added this bit a few days after the original post): I was offered more hours and thereby more money at my other job, and given my plans to move to Europe in less than a year, the money really is important to me. After spending another two days at the fancy place, I really started developing a rhythm, and once I fell into it, things ran very smoothly. I worked there a grand total of 4 days, and in retrospect, I loved all of them (stress included). I was pushed to be better, to work harder, and to think faster. I enjoyed the patrons, and I enjoyed providing them with excellent service and a warm smile. I was fulfilled there.

When I told my manager that I had to take the better monetary offer, I could tell he was hurt. He had gone out on a limb for me because I was passionate in my emails to him – both about the restaurant itself and the industry. I sat down with him after my last shift and it felt like a breakup. I hope I was able to communicate clearly enough that I love him and his staff and the masterpiece of a restaurant he helped create. I am ultimately sad to go, and sorry to have let him down.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 27

What a wonderfully chill morning! I mean, it’s fairly cold out, sure, but more in the “relaxed” sense of the word. I ate way too much for dinner last night and passed out on my couch watching SNL. I had very vivid dreams punctuated by my dog moving around or asking to be let out or fed. I went in and out of sleep until around 11am, then ate some leftovers, played with the pup, and did some personal grooming. I suppose I didn’t need to share any of that with you, but then, I don’t really have to share any of this with you, do I?

Today’s meditation was a combination of the walking meditation and the lovingkindness meditation. I skipped the bus and just walked to the train station. I repeated, May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be safe. Then as people came into my consciousness (seen by my actual eyes or my mind’s eye), I’d put my attention on them, May you be peaceful. May you be happy. May you be safe. The streets of Chicago are hectic at this time of day (wet, slushy roads and sidewalks be damned), and I happened to connect with a lot of good friends electronically today, so I had no shortage of other folks to rest my attention on.

Occasionally I’d catch myself caught up in the rhythm of the words, not putting any real intention behind them. I found it easier to hold the individual in my mind if I visualized myself holding their face and staring into their eyes as I imparted my words of lovingkindness. A little creepy? Sure, but it’s my head and I’ll love people how I want, dammit. Also, this method really allowed me the chance to connect to the words in a much deeper way.

By the time I got to the station, I had turned the words into a song resembling Tiny Bubbles. Singing it allowed me to focus on the pleasant tingling of the cold wind on my face. The light crunch of snow that had just fallen combined with the smush of the snow that had already melted became more satisfying under my heavy boots (like when you’re a kid hopping from puddle to puddle). I had a stupid smile on my lips that started somewhere in my toes and went through the entirety of me.

I came out of my meditation as I got to the station. There was a woman crying on the platform where I transfer to the Red Line. A guy who got onto the train next to me said into his phone, “Did you just tell me to suck a dick?!” I can see the gray of the outdoors on most the passengers’ faces around me, but I also see the curling of lips and the brightness of the smiles that persist in spite of the weather.

Dan Harris got me intrigued by saying meditation can make you about 10% happier, and as week 4 of my practice comes to a close, I’m starting to agree.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 26

Oof. Last night involved a lot of drinking. Well… The last two nights, I guess. Saturday was particularly hectic at the rooftop bar, so the whole staff drank together after we closed. Then I saw one of my coworkers at the bar on ground level, and he convinced me (it did not take a lot of convincing) to join him and the two ladies he just met at a late-night spot.

I spent much of my time hitting on the wait staff and ignoring the two women he brought with us. Interestingly, both of the ladies I was interested in had neon-colored hair – one was lavender and the other was lime green. Finally one of the two that my coworker was chatting up snapped and insisted that they go back to their hotel (they were staying at the hotel on top of which was our place of work).

In the Lyft on the way home, the one who snapped kept making drunk, biting commentary, and I found it very funny. She was, however, not trying to be funny, so her friend got mad at me for continuously chuckling at how ridiculous the situation was. I excused myself and made my way to the train station to go home.

I got home when the sun came up on Sunday, went right to sleep, and got to work only slightly late yesterday afternoon. I dutifully stood in the doorway of the pub until around 8pm (taking only brief pauses in professionalism to chat up the attractive campaign manager for the alderman who was having a fundraiser there), then my manager and I had a few drinks after clocking out.

Well, it was karaoke night at the pub, and my thought was, “I’ll just sing one song, then I’ll get out of here.” I sang California Love by 2Pac, but the words were wrong on the screen, which distracted me, and fucked up my performance. I couldn’t leave on a bad note, right?! So I signed up for another one. A few more drinks later, I was flitting around from table to table buying shots for small groups of customers with my employee discount.

At one point my coworker thought, “Man, Sean knows everybody in here!” Then he listened in on one of my conversations and realized that I didn’t really know anybody and I was just starting conversations with people at random. Before I knew it, the bar was closing and it was time for me to go home.

Fastforward to today: after tending to my rather severe hangover with some greasy Colombian food and strong coffee, I decided I had better do that whole meditating thing I’ve been doing lately. Luckily, today’s meditation was on quieting the inner critic, which was serendipitous because he’s particularly loud on days after some drinking goes on. The goal was to focus on a recent negative emotion (I chose regret), and sit with it and work through what it feels like and what comprises the list of associated concerns.

So I played out the worst-case scenario: I get fired from this job. I don’t think it’ll happen (my other coworkers drink rather heavily, so I’m in good company there), but what if it did? Well, I’d be down to just two jobs. I’d up my availability at both of them, and I’d be just fine. The takeaway from any real deep diving on failure is, “Life keeps going.”

Again, I ended up crying during the meditation. I’m finding that I spend most of my days when I’m upset just being marginally upset. I hold the emotions on the fringes of my mind while I focus on getting things done, and they just sort of sit there gnawing at my awareness the whole day. Meditation gives me the opportunity to stare them directly in the face, take them in fully, and profile them so I better understand them.

So much of my time is spent trying to be or look happy that I don’t get the opportunity to sit with my feelings, and it turns out there are a lot of them eating away at me. It’s relieving to confront them. It’s so very necessary to feel. Ultimately, I’m more happy because I let myself be sad or angry or whatever more fully. Meditation doesn’t make me emotionless, it helps me be at peace with the fact that I’m going to have unpleasant emotions sometimes, and that’s okay.

I could definitely stand to drink a little less, though. I’ll give you that one.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 24

I got home from work around 6am this morning, walked and fed my dog, had some concentrated petting time so he knows I love him, then passed out. I woke up at 2:30 this afternoon (also 10:30am to feed him and take him out again), and in order to make it to work by 6pm, I need to leave the house around 4:45pm (a bus and two trains, and a little bit of time buffer to account for how temperamental public transit can be). After showering and getting dressed for work, I took him on a 30 minute walk, and handled some finance nonsense.

Given that this is my schedule much of the time, I feel like I am usually in a sort of waking dream state. I also feel like I don’t have a whole lot of me time, no less time to read instructions and meditate. So today I decided to break away from the guided meditation laid out in my book, and do a little mindfulness session of my own making.

There’s a little hipster coffee shop right next to the station where I catch the train, and I’m a big fan of it. The coffee is artisanal, the food is clearly made with a passion, and the staff is always friendly, but my favorite part about it is the atmosphere created by whatever interior designer that these folks had the good sense to employ.

All of the light fixtures are the kind I chose for my bedroom – modern LED lights made to look antique that give off a soft, yellow light that’s even pleasing to look at directly. Tens of them hang from the ceilings on long wires, and some are arranged in two fan-like sculptures with long bulbs that have helical innards.

The wall opposite the coffee bar is lined with a fake ivy, giving it a natural and calming feel. The tables are all dark wood, and they’re fit tightly (but not too tightly) in the small space so even when you sit by yourself, you feel like you’re in a small community.

The bar itself is tiled along the bottom in a way reminiscent of the mosques-turned-cathedrals-or-palaces that dot southern Spain (and other places, but I’ve seen those ones, so that’s what they remind me of). The ornate patterns are supposed to replicate the are starry skies, and were used as meditative inspirations by their designers and whoever hired those designers. Along the top is a two-foot wall of glass, and a lineup of small indoor plants blocking the pipes and wires of all the coffee-making machines.

I ordered a little loaf of bread with feta cheese, tomato, and egg, and a cold brew coffee. I sat at a table at the back of the dining area that looked out at the other guests and the street beyond (interestingly, this is the same spot I sat in last time I was there, and it was the only spot open that time, too). I shed my many layers of winter clothing, set down my backpack, read a little of Real Happiness, then just focused on being there.

I set my fork down between bites. I chewed with awareness of the texture of the bread and sesame seeds along its top. I sipped my coffee, then set it down and closed my eyes, swishing it around I’m my mouth. If I breathed out while chewing on the bread, I got delightful coffee aromas to mix with the savory flavors of the bread.

Occasionally my mind drifted to the other things going on in my life. Occasionally I thought about how cute the young women were in there, some studying, some chatting amongst themselves, the younger ones snapping pictures and giggling loudly. Occasionally I thought about how weird I must look with my hands on my knees, chewing with my eyes closed. But mainly, I was calm, I was relaxed, and I was present, and it was beautiful.

Snap! I finished writing this RIGHT as I arrived at my stop for work. How cool is that shit?

Sitting and Breathing: Day 17

Prime numbers, amiright?! Today’s meditation was the flip of day 15, in that I was to call up positive emotions instead of negative ones, then focus on the sensations that those feelings begat.

Pretty much the moment I hit center and was able to focus on my breathing, my dog popped into my mind. My mind conjured an image of him hugging me, and of him holding his head against mine while I pet him. I felt my love for him and his for me in that moment. Warmth radiated out from my center and I felt my face contort in that kind of weird smile people do when they’re overwhelmed by happiness (it bares some similarities to sadness in that everything pulls back and you get teary-eyed).

Then I mentally meandered for a while, trying to imagine this thing or that thing to illicit the positive emotions I was shooting for. My mind flitted through the various women I’m currently interested in, and I imagined being with them, around them, near them, etc, but honestly most of the things I imagined were just daydreams, and not actual events from my past, so I feel like those didn’t count.

I tried thinking of different words for happiness. My usual self-speak kicked in, and I was reminded of my many failures recently and farther in the past. Finally I remembered that I made a bar for myself! I felt awash with accomplishment. It had a similar radiating warmth, and I felt myself sit up straighter, and a smile pulled itself onto my face.

I refocused on my breathing, and found myself putting a lot of mental attention on my alarm and when it would be going off. When I tried pinpointing the reason for my shift in attention, I realized I was anxious about it going off. I was worried that if it went off right then (or in the immediate future), I wouldn’t have really done today’s session right. I wouldn’t have maximized my Good Feels Meditation Day because I how could I? My life is largely in shambles and so on and so forth.

I caught myself before getting too far down that rabbit hole, then took a moment to be happy about that. It wasn’t elation, necessarily, but should elation be the standard for positive emotions? I don’t think so. I think that there’s a whole range of small pleasures worth paying attention to, and if you’re looking for them, you’ll find plenty peppered throughout your day. If I’m looking, they tend to be there.

Back to breathing. And this fuckin’ itch that wouldn’t go away on the left side of my face! I caved and scratched it, which was serendipitous in that it reminded me I just got a tattoo I’ve wanted for almost a decade! I felt giddy! Again, radiating warmth, but also the smile that pulled itself onto my face was tighter than the other ones. My shoulders hunched up and my hands clenched, and I rode the feeling back to my breath.

My alarm went off, and I was largely pleased with the way today’s practice went. I veered off course a few times, but I was able to bring myself back, which is the whole point. After my meditation, I was reminded of a number of other reasons why my life isn’t so bad right now. I’m doing a lot of things that I absolutely love, and I’m doing them with a passion I haven’t had in a while. This blog is a fine example of that, as are the subjects of my happy thoughts for today.

Pleasantness in its many forms sits around us all day just waiting to be noticed – we just have to be looking. I’m gonna look harder.