Cap'n Arbyte's

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The Juice of the Barley

I was a drinking virgin. But the petals have fallen from this flower.

Through high school and college I had no interest in drinking. I avoided it though simple adherence to a principle: I cherished my mind and my reasoning power as something sacred and worth defending. I adopted that position while I was a young teenager after my father told me a short story. One time he and some friends at work had gone out for a few drinks, then decided to go back to work for a little while longer.

At the time, my father was working on some software written in assembly language. I forget what processor he was writing for; I think it was an Intel 8080. [He doesn't, and never has, worked for Intel.] Back in the day, the instruction set was so simple that it could be entirely memorized, and my father was able to write in machine code directly. He didn't drink much that night, but even with very little alcohol he was no longer able to work effectively. He couldn't remember the opcodes.

That story deterred me from drinking for about a decade. My father didn't tell me that story as a morality lesson. It wasn't given as advice. It was an innocent story, told for its entertainment value, as part of a conversation we had while driving back from my grandmother's house one night. He certainly did not know how that story would stay with me and guide me through my most vulnerable years. He does know it, now. Never doubt that your children pay attention to you — they do, when you speak from experience and tell the facts, but let them make their own moral evaluation. He wasn't trying to teach me not to drink, but it happened anyway.

As a result I never drank in college, despite spending a lot of time around people who were drunk, or high, or both. I was totally immune from peer pressure. However my conviction did strain some relationships, even causing a very painful break-up.

Years later, after I had moved to Oregon, a good friend of mine picked up a book on mixing drinks and I was happy to be a taste tester. I was willing to do this because the quantities were very small and I was with very trusted company. I had no fear that anything bad would result. Another important factor is that I have slowly realized over the past few years that I have lived a — for lack of a better term — "personally conservative" life, generally shying away from new experiences. I had decided that behavior was a personality flaw that that I would grow as a person by trying new things. Eventually, trying some mixed drinks was one of those things I was willing to do. I never drank very much and never got drunk — never even a little tipsy.

So why, you must be asking yourself, am I writing so much about this?

I went to a work-related group dinner last night (05/14/04), a celebration for getting a product to market. It was a simple affair, a dinner accompanied by a jazz band, so I was initially not interested in going. Most of my team was planning on attending, and wanted me to go also, so after several days of pestering I finally gave in. We knew in advance there would be drinks at this dinner — two drink vouchers per person — but several people in my team, myself included, were not interested in drinking. On the other hand, Emma had earned a reputation as a drinker and encouraged everyone to give their extra drink vouchers to her. That promised to be entertaining and is what ultimately caused me to change my mind about the event.

Emma, the Corruptress

Emma, the Corruptress

The event was already full by the time I RSVPed, so I thought I'd be unable to go. Luckily each person was allowed to bring one guest, so Emma offered to bring me as her guest. Somewhere along the line I volunteered the information that I had never been drunk and she took upon herself the task of corrupting me. Before dinner we went immediately to the martini bar, fearing the line would be too long during the dinner itself. We went to our table with four drinks in hand — the maximum amount we could safely get, knowing that the bartenders knew about the two-drinks-per-person system.

Instead of me drinking one and her drinking three, we each had two: a cosmo and an appletini. At this point it's important to know two things about me. First, because I'm not a drinker I have absolutely no alcohol tolerance and didn't know any useful tips about drinking such as not to drink on an empty stomach. Second, I'm a very thin person and my low weight makes me more susceptible to alcohol. I knew I was getting a little tipsy.

I told Loren I trusted him to be my conscience, and told Emma that I blamed her for getting me drunk. She enthusiastically agreed. Free from both blame and responsibility, I was happy (very happy) to continue drinking. So I decided it would be fun to try to keep up with Emma. The extra drink vouchers were used, more drinks arrived, we toasted a lot, and I fell way behind. I only had two more drinks at the dinner, a lemon drop and a cosmo with chambord. Emma had several more than I did, finishing at 6 or 7. Neither of us remembers exactly how many. I quickly realized that this was a competition I couldn't win. I can't do it, I'm no match for her.

Let's be clear about what happened: This was binge drinking. I started drinking on an empty stomach, didn't eat very much at the dinner, and drank everything relatively quickly. I tried a couple online BAC calculators and believe my BAC reached around 0.20 during the course of that evening. (Emma and I also split a long island later at a pool hall.) I knew I was drunk, but I didn't know I was that drunk. I'm new to this so I didn't know what my "limit" was — but now I'm confident it's much less than 5.

Kyle and Emma after one drink…

Kyle and Emma toasting the evening

After more drinks…

Kyle and Emma, happy together

Woo-hoo, look what alcohol can do!

Kyle holding Emma

I may have many of the following details out of their chronological order. I remember incidents but not how they were related to each other.

Ever mindful of the opportunity to learn, I kept notes on my impairment. I was pleased (everything pleased me) to discover that I could still read while drunk. I had no trouble at all recognizing words, but it took me longer than normal to extract the meaning of a sentence. My speech was slurred but my vocabulary wasn't hurt too much. I only thoroughly botched a sentence (wrong conjugation or totally nonsensical) a few times.

I'm a very happy drunk. I remember saying "Hi!" in the most wonderful I-haven't-seen-you-in-years sort of way when someone left the table and returned with more drinks. But my field of perception was quite narrow, because I didn't notice people coming or going unless they were only one or two seats away from me. I remember almost nothing of what Sarah and Jennifer talked about, except I recall Jennifer once telling people to look at me as I was smiling for no apparent reason while looking at nothing in particular. Hey, I thought it was funny.

Jennifer and Sarah

Jennifer and Sarah

Sarah, Clinton, and Paul

Sarah, Clinton, and Paul

My balance and motor skills were gone quickly. It was difficult to stay upright in my chair. Whenever I talked to someone I leaned over toward them, and frequently had to grab hold of the chair to keep from falling off. I thought this was very funny. I had poor balance but did not have visual problems such as the room seeming to spin. At some point Paul had me follow his finger with my eyes and I don't think I had any difficulty doing that.

I remember saying tongue twisters for a little while. I think I slurred "Sally sells sea shells by the seashore" badly, but I came back with what I think was a fine performance of "The sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick." But I've practiced that one while sober, so maybe it doesn't count.

Kyle's behavior raises some eyebrows

Kyle's behavior raises some eyebrows

Walking was very hard. During the dinner I had to get up to go to the bathroom (with Loren's appreciated escort) and I wobbled and stumbled my way there. On the way back I was much better adapted and walked without too much trouble. Belts, zippers, and buttons were all more difficult than they're supposed to be.

I was encouraged to feel my chin to see how numb I was. I think I could only feel pressure, but no finer sensations. I had never before heard that drinking could make you numb, but it's absolutely true, and leads to an interesting question. Part of the mythology of relationships is that many people get drunk to loosen up so they can hook up and get laid. This may be humorously naïve, but I must ask: Given the fact that alcohol makes your skin numb doesn't it therefore also make sex less enjoyable? Isn't sex best when sober? (In the name of science, the truth should be found! But I do think this sort of thing requires personal research, so you should only write me to volunteer for the study, not to provide the answer.)

After dinner, Emma and I staggered out together, arm in arm. At least I was staggering — at that point I wasn't paying attention to how impaired she seemed to be. She seemed to know where she was going, which was good enough for me. I would have gone absolutely anywhere at that point, but I was still aware of the existence of streets and the fact that they're dangerous. Even drunk, I looked both ways before crossing the road. I think I was mindful of my physical safety all night.

The plan was to regroup at a pool hall. As we started driving there I felt very queasy and we pulled over. After a walk around the block I felt enormously better and we arrived without further incident. We had to climb stairs to reach the pool tables, which I ascended (and later descended) by holding on to both handrails simultaneously. I don't think it was actually necessary, as I wasn't dizzy, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We started playing pool at a table near the center where there was a lot of foot traffic, but we quickly relocated to one in the corner of the room. I didn't understand the change at the time, but I suspect Loren said something to the employees about how drunk Emma and I were and requested the switch to get us to a more secluded area.

Kyle and Loren at the pool hall

Kyle and Loren at the pool hall

Loren and Heather at the pool hall

Loren and Heather at the pool hall

I have never played such awful pool in my life. I remember trying to break at the start of one game and just nicking the que ball so that it didn't even hit the group of regular balls — twice in a row. The third time I managed to hit them. Despite being awful, I had a lot of fun. Toward the end of the night I managed to get two or three points, and at each one I would hoot and go around collecting high-fives from the group. They must have been embarrassed for me, but they didn't say anything. :)

I tried to help Emma with some of her shots but it didn't work very well. She kept moving in the opposite direction of my gestures, so I gave up.

There was music playing at the pool hall, and Emma stated dancing a little by our pool table. I happily joined in, although with little coordination left it probably looked terrible, and I didn't dance for long. My inhibitions were definitely low, because it's extremely difficult to get me to dance. (Just ask Kim K…) Despite how much Emma and I were hanging on each other by this time of the night, I don't think I made any clumsy advances on her. Well, except one. But I'm sure I didn't try to kiss her, though I'm also sure I was thinking about it (for very loose definitions of "thinking") and reminded myself not to — so being drunk clearly didn't affect all my inhibitions. I am curious to know why I was so selectively affected.

I don't think I was affected by "beer goggles" but frankly I wasn't paying any attention to anyone I didn't know. And only sparse attention to people I did know. And Emma's a looker anyway — how could she have gotten any prettier? :) So I don't think I can draw any conclusions about my perceptions of other people changing because I was drunk.

I usually played on Emma's team, against Loren, Heather, and Sarah — drunks vs. sobers. But I remember one game that was men versus women. My memory is a bit fuzzy on this, but I think Emma and I managed to win one game, the last game of the night, because our opponents pocketed the 8 ball by accident. We were very happy to win. There were hugs.

It felt like we left very suddenly. I wasn't part of the decision making process, and I'm not even sure they told me it was time to leave. But everyone was leaving, and I was right there with them. The change was abrupt but I didn't say anything about it. In fact, I don't think I complained about anything the entire night — I'm a very happy drunk. I just kept my head tilted back with a smile on my face the whole night.

We dropped off Emma and I remember saying some not-quite-coherent things on the way home about needing to watch the road so I didn't get queasy. I also said I was sort of looking forward to the hangover because it would be a valuable experience. (Heh.) At home I checked my e-mail and wrote a handful of notes for this narrative before going to bed. I remember having trouble spelling and typing, and also that I didn't mind.

During the night I agreed to do something like this again in two weeks. My notes have a little happy face at that point. After experiencing the hangover, I think I'll want to change the plan just a little.

When I woke up in the morning I looked over at the clock and realized it was early. I only slept for about five hours. I thought to myself briefly that maybe I wasn't hung over at all — and then I tried getting out of bed. I almost fell over and gasped to myself, "I'm not hung over, I'm still drunk!"

I wanted to go back to sleep, to avoid the discomfort. But I wasn't tired anymore. I was, however, pretty queasy… and you can guess what followed. I drank about a half cup of water, and that only made me feel worse. (I know now that I should have kept drinking water, but nobody gave me hangover instructions. At least not while I was sober and could remember them.)

My body was struggling between being dehydrated and needing to urinate. It must have taken me an hour to finally relieve myself. No longer in great discomfort, but not tired, I grabbed my laptop and thought I'd read blogs for a while, from bed.

I started fine but after a few blogs my eyes were exhausted. I couldn't go on. I tried to sleep a little longer, but kept waking up. Eventually I grabbed a phone and started calling people. My first instinct was to call Emma because she's been drunk lots of times and knows what to do… but I guessed she would either be still asleep or worse than I was. And besides, I wasn't ready to talk to her just yet. That would take a plan and some courage.

I called my friend Saralyn from college. Thank you for being there. I don't remember most of our conversation, but I do remember telling her a few of the things that I've since written into this narrative. She got the news first; I'm sure she's excited about that. :)

I talked to my mother for a little while, which I hoped would be very helpful because she used to be a nurse. But I don't remember what advice she gave me except that I should ease very slowly back into eating. Not a problem; I wasn't eager to put anything near my stomach for a while.

I talked to Loren briefly, but I don't think I was very coherent. He did tell me that I didn't make too much of a fool of myself the night before, which was good to hear. But he sounded very busy (I immediately forgot with what) so I didn't talk with him very long.

Despite having evacuated my intestines a couple times already, I had to do it again later. I was fairly miserable. At least it was only unpleasant and not painful. However, I did not have a headache — I almost never get headaches — and I was not uncomfortable with light or loud noises.

Somehow I managed to sleep a while longer, but it wasn't normal sleep. I had a large number of very short sleep episodes, and I had a lot of truly bizarre dreams. About a dozen, I think, but I only remember two of them.

In one, I was looking at a partially obscured human figure lying on the ground. But there was no "ground", it was just a white background. Every few seconds the person would sit up a little bit and use their arms and face to make faces at me, then lay back down. Some of them were amusing, and some of them were just motions that I didn't react to. But that was not a normal dream at all.

The other dream I remember took place outside in some kind of field or maybe on a hill. Every few seconds a pair of little white birds on the ground would start growing, take off, and whooosh past me, very close by. They didn't flap their wings (if they even had wings — I only call them birds because I think they had feathers), they just glided through the air. And as they whoooshed their bodies stretched out far behind them so they looked more like gigantic white feathered balloons. Like I said, these were bizarre dreams!

I got out of bed for good at about 12:30pm. By the middle of the afternoon I felt mostly normal and started eating things again. It took until that evening before I felt fully normal. I didn't realize that it took all day to recover from a night of drinking. How do those college students do it, night after night?!? There must be a method.

I should have a conclusion here, but I don't think I'm ready to make one yet.

I'll need to wait until Monday, when I see all my co-workers again, and they tell me what they thought about my behavior. And I'm looking forward to the inevitable awkward chat with Emma. That night she said she accepted full responsibility for corrupting me, and says there's no need to apologize for anything, but I don't know … she was already drunk when she took the blame, so that doesn't actually count. And I still have this nagging impulse that somehow I need to make things right.

Tiny Island