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Last night was my first-ever reading in New York. Not as an audience member. As a reader. Up there in front of everyone, pouring out my lovesick writer heart.
I’d read for friends in Jersey City once or twice, and plenty back in Gainesville and Miami when I was just starting out (and happily sharing my stream-of-consciousness scribblings with anyone who granted me an audience), but since coming to New York I’ve been content to remain a member of the crowd at readings, alternately envious of and feeling sorry for the brave/terrified writers who stand up at the mike. But when the good people of Calamari Press invited me to join them in a reading, my usually well-lidded pride was happy to accept. My much more bothersome self-consciousness and doubt, however, had me nervous for weeks leading up to it. Me? Behind a microphone? Reading that?
“Aw, it’s not so bad,” my friend Annie said. “Just have two drinks first. Any more and you’ll start slurring, though.”
Of course. Two drinks. Annie is a writer. She knows about these things.
Many of my Buddhist friends don’t drink alcohol at all. Some of them are in recovery, and a lot of them strive to keep the precepts as best they can. This means, if taking the Buddha’s words as they is written in the Pali Cannon, that they can drink no more than a dewdrop’s worth of alcohol at any time. I abstained from drinking for about a year in an attempt to keep the precepts, and it wasn’t easy. It taught me how to socialize with other people without relying on alcohol to open myself up. Namaste to that. But, like all things, my abstinence was impermanent. Skipping alcohol at a hardcore show or a dinner with the Dharma crew isn’t so hard, but try drinking Sprite while your writer friends are giving Tennessee Williams a run for his money. “You’re not pregnant are you?” No. “AA?” No. “Oh. You just think you’re better than the rest of us…”
No and no. Keeping sober is an heroic effort. Especially while the writers one loves and admires are all putting truly heroic quantities of alcohol away. And me? I’m a lousy Buddhist, and certainly no hero. I came up with a Protestant’s compromise: a two-drink limit. Just enough to technically break the precept (I bend my rule by drinking on an empty stomach fast), and not near enough to make the writers accept me with open arms. Disappointing everyone. Mara at my side.
So, the night of my reading. I checked ahead of time: Think Coffee has a bar in back. I showed up early, nerves a-jangle. I drained two pints of Guinness in ten minutes. I got up. I read. It was awesome. Then I went out with a few friends, drank an unknown quantity of sake, and [censoring this part, sorry] well… anyway… I don’t exactly regret it, but I’ll save my trials with the third precept for another day…
The Buddha added the fifth precept, some folks say, because intoxication can lead to the breaking of the other four. Here’s the old story of the monk who did just that. In my experience, limiting myself to only two drinks has been much harder than keeping myself from drinking altogether. Compromise be damned. Two drinks makes me crave two more. It’s part of craving for nonbecoming, as I think I understand it. That energy to destroy that all good punk rockers know well—and the first part of Dharma Punx I really understood. Gin & tonics, Guinness, Blue Moons, cheap wine, followed by dubious makeout sessions in the backs of cabs and damaged friendships later. Better than getting into fights and smashing windows, I guess…
And so the rationalization comes back in. Most nights I can keep it down to two. When I don’t, my body makes me pay, and I can neither meditate nor write the morning after. So I don’t do it for a while. Inevitably it comes back: I love drinking and I don’t want to give it up. Maybe I can learn to do it mindfully? But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation. The holidays are here. It helps me talk to people. It lets me dance. To the One City blog, I humbly submit my opened can of worms: When it’s time to take the podium again and read a new short story to a crowd, I’ll need my two drinks first.