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How to Quit Your Vices and Still Be a Scoundrel

Contrary to popular belief, sobriety doesn’t make you less fun

Fonzie from happy days posing with a halo drawn over his head
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The best advice is the kind you’re actually able to remember.

“Quit drinking, and marry rich.”

A very senior person in my profession hit me with this double-barreled bit of wisdom about 10 years ago. I wasn’t happy to hear it because I knew he was right — mostly about the drinking.

I liked drinking. Usually, it was no more than two glasses of wine a night, but I could tell by the level of intention necessary to resist the third pour that I liked drinking more than I should.

Once I got going, my tendency was to take it to the end. This was in keeping with my general approach to life, best summed up by another bit of advice, this one courtesy of Rodney Dangerfield: “Go like a tank.”

Also memorable. And totally solid, too, so long as it doesn’t also govern your drinking behavior. And innocent bystanders (wife, kids) don’t get ground up in your treads.

A few months ago, I finally got around to following the very senior person’s advice. To be clear, this wasn’t because I finally recognized that downing 14 glasses of wine a week significantly increases your risk of liver disease, digestive problems, depression, obesity and a gazillion other undesirable outcomes. I’m not that rational. Who is?

No, the reason I decided to quit had more to do with a need to assert some measure of control in my life at a time when it seemed like I had little to none. (When I started flossing regularly, it wasn’t because I finally recognized the importance of good dental hygiene, but because, at that time in my life, every waking moment went toward caring for my small children. Change the baby’s diaper? Love to. Can’t, though. Flossing!)

It’s not, in other words, that I ever expected anything good to come from quitting drinking. If anything, I expected to become measurably less fun. The Abstainer! In my mind’s eye, there arose the image of a Cistercian monk: somber, sanctified, robed. 

But quitting drinking, it turns out, does not lead to the extinction of every impulse that it once enabled. The imperative, for instance, to cross the room and chat up some healthy-looking lass at a cocktail party. Before, you might throw back a whiskey, haul up your dungarees and amble on over. Now, where the whiskey once was, you find your hand clawing empty air.

So you have to come up with some other way to make the crossing. Closing your eyes, you struggle to summon everything you learned from the great teacher, booze. There is only the moment. Whatever happens, happens. Nothing matters in the end, anyway. We’re all just briefly sizzling shrapnel in the exploded mind of God. Thus fortified, you set forth.

It’s a weird feeling when you do it for the first time. Because over the years, you get used to outsourcing courage to beverage, and without thinking, come to accept that there are some things you cannot do on your own. Then, suddenly, you are doing these things — and, being unimpaired, doing them well.

As you fall out of the habit of labeling your mental states as either sober or intoxicated, you find that the line that used to separate conservative behavior from risky behavior starts to fade. And there’s something unexpectedly emancipating in this. You don’t need to be tipsy to take risks. And the opportunities for risk-taking are actually far more numerous and more diverse than you perhaps realized. A new business deal. Why not? A year in Mallorca. Sure. A double-black mountain-bike trail. Well, OK, maybe pass on that one.

Even at our advanced age, there is still wisdom to be won. In this case, the subtle art of caring while not caring. Or maybe it’s the reverse. Whatever. The upshot is the same. Contrary to all expectations, once you quit drinking, whatever the game may be, you get better at playing it.