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Unhooked: Personal Indulgences No. 7

I’ve always thought of myself as an addictive personality, but life is forever proving me wrong.

Take alcohol, for instance. My father–himself only a social drinker, and not much of one at that–introduced me to an occasional dab on the tongue of very good scotch when I was a mere child, so that, as he put it in his raspy voice, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself when I got older. The Scotch tasted foreign and, in the parlance of my tender years, yucky. At the same time it seemed one of the accoutrements of the adult world, a realm I aspired to, childhood as I perceived it being a claustrophobic thicket of arbitrary rules.

On my first date–age thirteen, at the “nightclub” of a Borscht Belt hotel–my youthful swain asked me what I’d like to drink and suggested an innocuous just mildly spiked lemonade affair suitable for young virgins. Duly cognizant of the dangers of imbibing a substance I’d never tried at home, I rebuffed his cautious proposal and requested a scotch and soda. Scotch was the only alcoholic beverage I knew besides wine. Wine was my mother’s preference. My mom always claimed scotch tasted like shoe polish. What bizarre experiment could have brought her to that conclusion?

A couple of decades hence, having turned into a dance journalist, I became aware of the heavy drinking indulged in by a couple of my colleagues. (I myself learned in time that there are some performances–I call them “double-scotch events”–that might easily drive one to drink, but it’s hard to review them coherently in a state of advanced intoxication.) So fearful was I that I might become similarly undone, I observed an annual two-week total abstinence just to make sure I had “demon liquor” under control. I did, Puritan that I was.

Take smoking, then. I took it up at college, having already been raised in a cloud of secondhand smoke. Both my parents were two-packs-a-day consumers–and my father a physician, no less. My sense of the glamour of smoking came, of course, from the old movies (Now, Voyager, for instance) and the fact that my minor in French led me to hang out with the most chic professors in the school. When I could afford those hyacinth blue packets, I bought Gauloises. The rest of the time, I resorted, as my French idols did, to Camels, reputed, perhaps falsely, to carry the heaviest load of nicotine and tar available. I never inhaled.

Next, in short order, I graduated, married, and duly produced a baby. (That’s how we did things back in the day–took care of lots of the heavy stuff before we reached the age of reason.) I found that I was relaxed enough to smoke only when I sat down to nurse my infant son. One day, after he’d lost his crib hair, I noticed to my horror that still-glowing ashes from my cigarette were falling onto his dear bald head. I quit smoking then and there. No withdrawal symptoms arrived to plague me, and I rarely missed cigarettes. The glamour of smoking had lain with my cinematic and Parisian models; a sleep-deprived housewife and nursing mom simultaneously trying to earn her master’s degree in English lit has, by definition, lost her passport to that world. I spoke a lot of French to my infant, just to keep my hand in and secretly adhering to the theory that a foreign tongue can be imbibed with one’s mother’s milk. My son, as it turned out, did not confirm that theory. He was a scandalously early talker–spoke in sentences, indeed paragraphs, before he could walk–but, though he’d obey a command in French if caught unaware, his utterances were firmly confined to English.

I didn’t do drugs either. Not even recreational ones. I didn’t work up the courage to try until I had two half-grown kids, and then I felt that if I was instructing them to say no, I had to follow the rule myself. Eventually, the aforementioned son, home on holiday from his name-brand college, where he had tried out a number of controlled substances, brought me, at my request, a cache of marijuana. I put it away carefully to save for “the proper occasion” and, predictably, managed to lose it. From time to time I look desultorily through my drawers and files, in the faint hope of retrieving evidence of a misspent youth I had never managed to have. My daughter took after me. Arriving home after a college party–she attended the same institution as her brother, whose description of the very same party included a gaudy menu of pharmaceutical refreshments–she asked me mournfully, “Why doesn’t anyone ever offer me a controlled substance?” I sympathized and explained, “You’re just not the type.”

My addiction of choice–or, rather, necessity–is pitifully harmless: caffeine. How else, I often wonder, could I have survived the rigors of devoted child-raising coupled with a (I use the word advisedly) career in writing about dance? I have quit, cold turkey, several times, the main withdrawal symptom being a piercing headache that no aspirin can ameliorate. I’d stay off all sources of caffeine–even chocolate–for weeks, even months, then relapse, relief far outweighing guilt. My most memorable succumbing was through an intensely rich double espresso bought from a celebrated restaurant’s outdoor cart in Little Italy. I sipped it slowly, with the deepest pleasure, walking down Grand Street. After five minutes, everywhere I looked, colors jumped out at me, more vivid than anything that has ever hung on MoMA’s walls. Marvelous stuff, coffee. To paraphrase Sydney Smith’s paean to tea: Thank God for coffee! What would the world do without coffee? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before coffee.

Over the years I decided that there must be a gene for addiction. This was simply a fantasy on my part, but lately researchers have been looking seriously into the possibility that some people are simply born vulnerable to indulgences capable of destroying body and soul. I know for sure that there’s a gene for understanding the digital world, another for attaining whatever mathematical capabilities follow the memorization of the multiplication tables, and yet another for a sense of geography that keeps one from getting lost the moment one leaves home base. I don’t have any of them. I’m good with children, I have a keen eye for style, and some people even think I can write.

© 2008 Tobi Tobias


  1. Joan Acocella says

    I too sometimes saw ashes on my son’s head after he had nursed while I smoked. They weren’t glowing, though. Lovely piece. [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  2. Maina Gielgud says

    Snap! Exactly the same – and about coffee – precisely, the way everything changes with a cup of coffee, colours, physical capability and optimism abounds! [Sent March 23, 2008]

  3. Martha Ullman West says

    Of course Personal Indulgences would make a lovely book; you know that. [Sent March 13, 2008. –Ed.]

  4. Sandi Kurtz says

    I had to giggle at your description of loosing your marijuana. My partner and I haven’t really done anything illegal in years and years, but we have a little baggie floating around here somewhere. I can never find it when I’m looking for it, but it pops up in a drawer or box every so often. I think, “oh, there it is” and think I’ll remember the location, but I never do. Perhaps it has special powers. [Sent March 18, 2008. –Ed.]

  5. Andrea Siegel says

    Loved the image of young you ordering a scotch and soda. [Sent March 18, 2008. –Ed.]

  6. Philip Thurston says

    I REALLY enjoyed your column. “Some people even think I can write”? Boy, can you write! Thank you very much for this and all your writing. [Sent March 17, 2008. –Ed.]

  7. Lynne Schwartz says

    This is a Wonderful!! Piece. I enjoyed it so much. I like that it’s a bit longer, too. You do sound awfully pure, but honest. I actually do have an addictive personality. I never got deeply into pot–cigarettes were better–but I have deliberately never tried heroin or cocaine because I know what would happen. I’d probably drink, too, if could stay awake after more than two. Carry on! [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  8. Micalyn Harris says

    Thanks. Made me smile. [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  9. Oliver Stilling says

    I enjoyed reading your “Personal Indulgences No. 7”. Now I’m gonna go through 1-6. [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  10. George Dorris says

    Charming — and I’m much the same, except that I drink wine regularly and smoked for only a few months the summer I started college, when I was really sophisticated. In September, at a party, I pulled out a cigarette and lit it, while thinking Why are you doing this? You don’t really like it. So I stopped and the only time I’ve ever missed it is when alone at an intermission, when one needs (in Lady Bracknell’s words) an occupation. But I’ve excused quite a number of other excesses, such as buying books and records, by thinking of all the money I’ve saved by not smoking. [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  11. Maida Withers says

    Enjoyed the addictive article. Having been born and raised a Mormon, youngest of 8 amazing brothers and sisters, caffeine continues to be my challenge. You have accomplished a great deal. [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  12. Carol Schlacter says

    Thanks so much for this one tonite. The many actual belly laughs were extremely therapeutic in the midst of a very tiring though exhilarating jam-packed weekend in the City, still only 2/3 over.
    And made even more so by unexpectedly by (because of your review) injecting two Paul Taylor performances at City Center; the related pair, “Suenos” and “Repiten,” were done on two separate programs instead of one. I didn’t favor the choreography exuberantly, but it did pique a lot of interest on my part, and induced me to take my cousin for her birthday celebration (she absolutely loved them!). Also am especially grateful to you for catching “Promethean Fire” not seen in quite a few years, and whose breathtaking beauty to Bach’s Fugue in D Minor brought the house to its feet with six or seven loudly cheering curtain calls, and Paul taking bows with the company on both nights.
    So thanks much for all: the really big laughs, the great ballet, and most of all the pressure you put me under, with these unexpected add-ons, to cram every minute of my whirlwind NYC visits to the max and with heightened efficiency. Of course, I’ll need three days to recuperate–and then have to make up for the lost time spent resting! [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  13. Tim DuRoche says

    Much enjoyable stuff. . . . I like the Personal Indulgences. [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  14. Mindy Aloff says

    Very interesting essay. Amazed that both your parents smoked–and two packs a day! Wow. [Sent March 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  15. Martha Ulllman West says

    I want a Gauloise right this minute dammit.
    I like this Personal Indulgence, Tobi; I like them all actually. [Sent March 2008. –Ed.]

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