June 11 323 B.C., Alexander the Great Dies from (Possible) Overconsumption of Alcohol

Cleitus the White Loses his Epithet

The omens were not kind that year to Alexander of Macedon (aka: “the Great”). They bespoke of death and decline, and warned him not to enter Babylon. Under the pressure from the looming threats of supernatural comeuppance, he naturally embarked upon a month-long drinking binge.

That binge was capped off with a two-day bender. He threw a party for one of his admirals, Nearchus. While he was running off to bed, his friend Medius invited him to keep drinking at his place. After what was probably very little arm twisting, Alexander rehoisted his wine bowl and drank the next day away with Medius. Later he felt sick, at which time he downed a jug of wine to ward off a fever, which you’ll be shocked to know didn’t work. He was stricken ill for 10 days and died.

The world reacted the way it always does when a celebrity does. People wept and shaved their heads; the more disturbingly devoted starved themselves to death. (It’s also possible they just couldn’t find any food.) Alexander was a brilliant general, an astute leader and politician, and (sometimes) magnanimous towards his people and enemies. But more, he was larger-than-life, a superstar of the Ancient World. And like many superstars before and since, his fast and furious life was shadowed by self-destruction. And so, the world said goodbye to Alexander the Great: Ancient World Wild Child.  

Alexander was from the drinking part of Greece. While wine held a big place in Greek culture at the time, drunkenness was viewed as vulgar. Someone who committed a crime or a faux pas while inebriated was punished more harshly than someone committing the same crimes sober. The opposite policy seemed to apply in Macedon, where Alexander was born. Macedonian nobles drank their wine akratos (undiluted by water) a practice considered barbaric by Greek standards. Drunken fights and murder seemed less a crime as much as a way to pass the time before getting drunk again. To boot, in Macedonian military culture, drinking to excess was not only accepted, but admired and considered a far better way to gauge manhood than say walking into combat with a sword. Alexander was beloved by his men for his abilities in both.  

Moreover, Alexander’s model for drunken behavior was his father. King Phillip was also a great general and a noted philopotes (a lover of drinking sessions). He was hot-tempered, paranoid, and rash, dangerous faults when you have an army and a drinking problem. At a feast, he once tried to run Alexander through with a sword, but was too drunk and tripped up by a couch. Similarly, Alexander often drank to incapacity, acted rashly while drunk, and then deeply regretted his actions when sober, like the time he woke up to find that he had burned down Persepolis. Unfortunately, he also took after his father in the realm of stabbing people at banquets. At a feast years later, he ran through Cleitus the Black in a drunken rage. Not having the good fortune to trip over a couch, he profoundly regretted murdering Cleitus, who had served in his father’s army and who had saved Alexander during the battle of Granicus. A minor bright side was that Cleitus the White could finally drop the epithet from his name. 

Alexander’s life is glamorous in the overview. By the age of 20 he had become king of Macedon and by 30 he had conquered most of the (known) world. He had picked up the epithet “The Great” somewhere along the way. He lived in palaces and had a hareem. But though he was young, he had crammed a lot into those days. He had taken part in countless battles, witnessed thousands of deaths, dealt with almost constant political strife and rebelling territories. It took its toll. Alexander became unhinged and paranoid.  

The straw that broke the philopotes’ back was the death of his best friend Hephaestion, who had tried to medicate a painful intestinal issue with the lesser-known remedy of boiled chicken and a gallon of wine. Perhaps mercifully, this combo killed him. The death of a friend often forces us to consider our lives and our choices. And so when Alexander heard of his friend’s death, he understandably retreated to his tent for a period of grieving and personal reflection. When he came out, he hadn’t so much decided to take up yoga or put a tributary decal on his Ford Bronco, but rather had Hephaestion’s physician crucified and had the temples to local gods razed. He then massacred a small local tribe called the Cosseans and dedicated their deaths to his friend. In another event of peculiar tribute, Alexander put on a drinking game to mark the death of a philosopher friend. During the games, 42 people died of alcohol poisoning and Alexander’s friend, Promachus, died three days later, having downed 13 liters of unmixed wine. But Promachus had won the contest, which was hopefully some solace for being dead.   

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The Quest for Chlebíčky

I love routine. It’s a family thing, too. One of those things you get from your parents that you don’t realize you got from them until it’s just too late and it’s an ingrained part of your personality.

The only thing more fun that working one’s way through a routine (and the euphoric joy of ticking off a segment of a routine) is writing it out the night before and talking about it to anyone who happens to be nearby after you’ve created your schedule and before you’ve put it into action. In most cases, this is Burke. She sighs a lot nowadays.

By far the best routine that my household enjoys is our Friday morning routine. After living like a monk for 5 days, we get up early and go shopping at the grocery store up the road. When we have everything, Burke pays and I walk across the street to the deli and get a box of chlebiky. If you have never been to the Czech Republic, chlebíčky is like heaven on a slice of bread. There are several varieties – ham, egg, diced ham. Otherwise they have potato salad and butter and cream and sorts of other things you need in your life that your doctor advises against.

The chlebíčky lady knows me. When I come in she says “Eight?” and I say “Yes.” And she reaches for the box with no judgment, or at least she hides the judgment behind her mask. I really don’t care if she’s judging me. I have taken it upon myself to confuse local shop people as to the healthiness of my lifestyle and habits. The nice man in the little shop across the street never knows what I’m going to buy when I go in there as my last five visits have procured the followings items:

  1. A bottle of Tullemore Dew, two bottles of wine (white and pink), and a bag of kitty litter
  2. Four boxes of cookies and a grapefruit
  3. Cheese (4 varieties)  
  4. Socks, a pack of gum, and four beers
  5. Six lemons and a shoehorn
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Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make the water of life

…and scotch whisky is introduced to history

The order from King James IV is right there in the exchequer. Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make the water of life. Though archaeological evidence does show that spirits were distilled at Lindores Abbey, we don’t know if Friar Cor was the monk doing the actual distilling. He may have been the quartermaster or the apothecary. We only know he was in charge of the malt.

In any event, I’d like to imagine there was excitement. That Friar Cor goggled his eyes and shuffled his sandalled feet along the grassy walkways of Lindores Abbey with a little excitement in his step. The man had just been involved in what would be the first written evidence of the production of scotch, after all, someone was probably going to talk about that in the future. But the exchequer records don’t let on anything to that effect, no denotation “Friar Cor amped AF” or some other indication.  

In fact, reality destroys any romantic notions we (aka: I) might have had about monks distilling a nice, warm, brown Scotch whisky. Instead, the alcohol that Friar Cor and his celibate associates would have distilled was flavored with spices and herbs and maybe honey. Lindores Abbey was known for its pear and plum orchards, so it was probably using these in its distilling process. And before the 18th century, scotch was not aged after distillation. The final product might have been more like brandy wine, a fruit spirit, or gin than what we know as whisky.  

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One for the Road

We knew it was going to be big. For at least two weeks before, there had been commercials and teasers. It was the same sort of disruption in the TV world that tipped us off to very special episodes and presidential addresses. The network was devoting three half-hour slots to one episode. It was going to be big. But unlike very special episodes and presidential addresses, we actually cared about seeing this one. Cheers was ending after an eleven-year run. We buckled our seatbelts and we waited until Thursday night.

It’s hard to explain the all-encompassing phenomenon of network TV to someone who didn’t live through it. If you were born before 1990, doing just that will be your World War II or your Great Depression. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, in the days before a trillion shows existed on one website, we TV-watchers were forced to watch something called “a television.” Television networks organized their TV programming into schedules, and if we wanted to watch one of those programs, we had to be in front of our TV at the allotted time. Once in front of that TV, there were more agonies yet to navigate. These TV programs were riddled with commercials which viewers had no ability to pause or fast forward. Instead, they were forced to time their bladder evacuations and snack creations into those 2.2-minute slots. This is why people over 40 have very good bladder control and can make a ham and cheddar sandwich on rye (with two condiments) in under 50 seconds.

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Dirty Dozen Saturday

When my mom and dad used to tell us stories about kid life in the 1950s, I was baffled. So you listened to the radio all the time? What do you mean you didn’t have 1100 sugary breakfast cereals from which to slurp diabetes? You didn’t have a TV until the 60s? And that only had, like, four channels?

What? Insanity.  

For a middle-class kid of the 1980s, some of these things carried over. Every room in our house had a radio in it. My sister Amanda and I sat listening to the radio for hours so she could hit record and to bootleg her favorite song (Eternal Flame). Otherwise, we listened to cassettes until they were worn down to threadbare strips of magnetic tape that would loosen up and which required a combat ravel with a pencil. We rented movies at the video store. Sometimes we had to deal with the dreaded line of static running up the middle of Vietnam, or Oz, or Lando Calrissian. Our TV (even with cable) had about 12 channels and we became obsessive about “flipping around” to see what else was on, because there was no rewind button. You don’t know the tragedy of watching 70 minutes of a movie you don’t like just to realize that Major League was on another channel the whole time.  

If you were born after 1985, this might sound like a nightmare. But it had a lot of good sides too.

When your favorite song comes on the radio when you didn’t play it, it’s as if the universe has gifted your soul a shot of espresso. Young people don’t understand what it’s like to buy and listen to and fall in love with an album. I asked some students a few years ago “What’s your favorite album?” and, once I explained what an album was, they looked at me as though I had asked what wagon they were planning on taking across the Oregon Trail. There’s also a great understated pleasure in listening to a baseball game on the radio. My dad still listens to the radio announcers while watching the Phillies’ games on mute. My mom does the same for football games.     

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On May 8, 1962 Sean Connery Appeared in American Theaters as James Bond …

…and gin said “uh oh.”

“I admire your luck, Mr. …?”

“Bond,” says the sexiest man of the (last) century (he has a plaque from People Magazine). He lights a cigarette, snaps the lighter closed to show certainty and confidence. Cue the Bond theme in background. 2.29 seconds later, he adds: “James Bond.” It’s later in the movie (Dr. No) that Bond gets what would become the classic Bond martini. A medium dry vodka martini, shaken not stirred. Though the moment doesn’t ring with any significance, womankind said: “Whoa,” mankind said: “I want to be like that guy,” and gin said: “uh oh.”    

James Bond is the ideal of calm under pressure, worldliness, and British sophistication. He wears the best suits and drives the best cars. He handles the world’s most specific gadgets. That Sean Connery played this character is something of a jab at that ideal when bearing in mind that he is the posterchild for the working-class Scotsman. He had a growly brogue and a tattoo that read Scotland Forever (and another one for Mum and Dad). This all flies in the face of Britishness, as do the facts that he hates tea and, perhaps more disconcerting, that he damaged gin’s standing.  

Bond is a drinker. He downs 45 different drinks throughout his adventures. Gin, cocktails, vodka (with black pepper because it evidently makes the impurities sink), scotch, claret, and champagne. He then engages in post-drinking activities like driving, fighting, flying helicopters, having sex, gambling, fighting crocodiles, parachuting off cliffs, and scuba diving. He only has four beers throughout the series, which makes sense because beer makes one sluggish, and fighting crocodiles and shooting someone while skiing takes a clear head that only several shots of hard alcohol can provide.

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Chlebíčky Day

There have been a number of language additions since the Coronavirus hit more than a year ago. If someone were to time travel from December 2019 to May of 2021 they would probably not understand half of the conversations being had. They’d wonder what a covidiot was or what the rona is. They’d be baffled by why people were being dubbed anti-maskers and they’d wonder why zoom was all of a sudden an active verb. And let’s be honest, they’d deserve to be a little confused because they chose to time travel 14 months into the future. How boring.

People have talked about gaining “the Corona 15.” This isn’t the first time I’ve been faced with a predicted weight gain of 15 pounds. When I started college, they said I would gain the “freshman 15” and, I’m happy to report, I blew that number out of the water just like I did the Corona 15. I went the extra mile – or didn’t, as logic would present – and put on a Solid Corona 20+ish.

How, you ask? It wasn’t hard. I stopped walking and I started eating lots of comfort food. I kept up a 4X a week workout routine, but it was fighting an uphill battle. Very. Very. Slowly. And in between servings of pate and potato salad. Also, it’s remarkably easy to gain weight without noticing when you don’t wear outside pants for 7 months. In September I put on a pair of khakis, nearly shot out the cat’s eye with the bursting button. A change was needed.

We made a pact in our household. Lunch is two rice cakes with hummus and a slice of tomato, a cheese stick, and fruit. Our weekday dinners are chicken twice, salmon once, lean pork once, and almost every day is accompanied with broccoli or carrots. We sneak in beets and sauerkraut for filler and I have found that after four months of careful eating it’s remarkably easy to fool myself into believing that a pile of beets is a pile of candied pizza rolls. Each night dinner is followed by a low calorie míša bar. Sometimes a small bowl of popcorn with olive oil and a little salt. And then it’s nothing until noon the next day. Saturday is Cheat Day – when we eat whatever we want.

It’s become our own kind of language. We talk about Cheat Day as if it’s a religious holiday. He speak about dinner in half syllabic utterances. Chick and Broc tonight? Míš? Pop? Chicken is spoken about around here as if she’s been bullying our grandmothers.

One can tell what kind of week it has been by how soon before Saturday we begin talking about Cheat Day. Sometimes it’s by Wednesday. In particularly rough weeks it can be by Tuesday. Sometimes we shamelessly discuss next Cheat Day on this Cheat Day, blowing out of the water everything the Buddhists have tried to allow us to learn about being mindful and present. Well to them I say “don’t be a covidiot.”

Perhaps better than Cheat Day is the day before Cheat Day, known and spoken about with love in my house as Chlebíčky Day. If you have never had chlebíčky, they are a Czech delicacy that are sort of an open-faced sandwich. They have potato salad, cream, butter, ham, hardboiled eggs, and, just for the health conscious, a sprig of parsley and a strip of pepper. On Friday morning at about 7 am, I walk up to our local bakery and get six chlebíčky, on rough weeks, I’ll get 8. The woman who runs the bakery reaches for a box as I walk in now and asks “Six or eight?” I think she’s being polite.

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On April 25, 2007, Boris Yeltsin is buried

…and finally lands at Shannon

The mood was heavy. People were crying. It was a state funeral in Moscow, a city made for bereavement. Red carnations colored the road between the church and the Novodevichy Cemetery, where the procession would head. In the crowd, old ladies wearing babushkas interwove between Bill Clinton and George Bush Senior. In front of them was Vladimir Putin, on whose thin young face one can almost see the dismantling of democracy being worked out and bare-chested horseback pictures being staged.   

It was an event that Boris Yeltsin would have livened up by chucking back a couple of shots or by stealing the microphone from the priest to sing a Billy Joel tune. He might have done so were he not the one in the coffin. He was big and stocky even in the box, a white-haired Russian Bear, replete with snout, puffy cheeks, and beady ursine eyes. His wife spoke into his ear for a minute (getting in one last nag, no doubt. You forgot to take out the trash, Boris). He was lowered into the ground and the Russian national anthem played. Boris Yeltsin had landed at Shannon.

Boris Yeltsin’s early life reads like Paul Bunyanesque legend. “The boy from the Urals” was almost drowned during his baptism by a drunken priest. Subsequently, his parents named him “Boris” because he was a fighter (Borets in Russian). During World War II, he snuck into an ammo dump to steal a hand grenade and proceeded to blow off two of his fingers. Though he still managed to give a bone-crushing handshake. When he owned a construction company, he climbed and pacified an out-of-control crane in a heavy storm. His later life acts didn’t disappoint, with him making speeches on tanks and suppressing communist coups.

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The History of Cats Pissing People Off

Friday morning. I get up nice and early. The sun is out as if by accident, it seems, these days. I have coffee. No students to see today. No planning. Just writing and a notebook, a bit of editing on the computer. Utter joy. The cat jumps up on the back of the couch, which lies to the right of my desk in the living room.

We are creature of habits, so I know what’s coming. She stalks down the spine of the couch, stopping to nibble the dangling leaves of various plants who wished they were up higher. A ladybug distracts her for a moment. She crouches, her pupils go took-too-much wide as she watches the benign being flutter to the window. Our house enjoys a moderate infestation of ladybugs, who gather in tiny red and yellow clusters on the ceiling and around the windows in spring and summer. At least it’s not black widows, I tell myself. After smashing the ladybug against the window and noting the place where it’s fallen, she gets back to her stalk. In a matter of moments she’s creeping over a row of notebooks at the back of my desk, and then in between my document stand and my computer. She then peers around the back of my computer at me, daring me to invade what she has deemed as her territory. I wouldn’t dare – I like my fingers too much. Finally, she gives up her territory and steps across my keyboard adding her own comment to my essay. “dwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwdddddddddddddddfffffffffffmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,………////..”

Commentary with which I agree to some level, but find mostly derivative of her previous points. She then dances around in front of me on the desk, stepping on my tablet, my notebook, smudging recent notes; her tail is interminably flipping at my nose in a way that’s too precisely annoying to be coincidental. Soon, she stops and stands sideways on the desk in front of me. She then steps down onto my right thigh with her front legs and, as we both know I will, I lift her back legs and place them on my left thigh.

It’s a common scene in my house. The cat stands on my thighs, nose tucked in my right elbow, tail vying with my left forearm for air superiority. I write off my left shirtsleeve, which takes the brunt of things better left unsaid. She settles, finally, and we enter a state of mutual understanding (comfort in her case; resignation in mine). I am careful not to disrupt this balance of quiet and serenity as I get back to work. It is a volatile calm.    

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The Great Fitzgerald: America’s Boozer

If you went to high school after the 1950s, you probably find it inconceivable that The Great Gatsby wasn’t published to great fanfare. Critics loved it, but the public greeted its arrival with the same exuberance as they might a downstairs neighbor they could hear through the floor. Evidently crates and crates of it sat in the publisher’s warehouses for decades, until they were dusted off and handed out to my sophomore English class in 1989.

Gatsby embodies every little bit of the Roaring Twenties. Flappers, jazz, women smoking in public, speakeasies. Gatsby is rumored to be a bootlegger and he throws lavish parties for elites. He calls Nick “Old Sport.” The book is the cat’s pajamas.

At the time Gatsby was written, America was in the middle of prohibition, which made the sale or consumption of alcohol illegal. To be fair, America had developed a bit of a drinking problem. I mean, America had always been a drinker. The Pilgrims came off the Mayflower wondering which apples would make the best cider. Throughout the 18th century, beer, wine, and cider washed down breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For a long while America had a good happy buzz. But as farmers cultivated grains in the late 18th and 19th centuries, whiskey and rum replaced beer and cider. And America traded in its beer mugs for shot glasses. With this switchover came problems like rising death rates due to alcohol, domestic abuse, and unemployment. By the early 20th century, it’s arguable that America needed an intervention.  

The Temperance Movement hoped to remove the temptation to drink. But this, and I can’t stress this enough, did not work. People found a way around being sober. In the 1920s speakeasies were booming, bathtub gin was common, and doctors would prescribe whiskey for ailments like back pain, stomach pain, or being married to an asshole. The prisons were filled with bootleggers and drinkers and everyone apparently had syphilis. Bathtub gin was crippling people, making them blind and leaving them paralyzed. So the Temperance Movement did not stop people from drinking as much as it made them more creative, destroyed lives, and indirectly made people’s genitals burn.   

France was a different story (but not with syphilis). At the same time that America was trying to stop people from drinking, France was encouraging it. France was in a period of post-war euphoria. There were new fashion trends, new music, new artistic movements, and booming tourism. Artists, musicians, and writers were among those who found France preferable to their native land. France was cheap and artists relished the idea of living in close approximation to legal alcohol, like-minded thinkers, and prostitutes. And among these numbers were the Lost Generation. The term, coined by Gertrude Stein and used by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, referred to the “directionless wandering” spirit of the war’s survivors striving to cope with the carnage and destruction of the First World War. (No wonder they all needed a drink). They were unable or unwilling to cope with living in America, preferring instead a place with a once-in-a-generation arts community and the ability to get drunk without a doctor’s note.  

Not only are the Lost Generation writers known for their drinking prowess, they’re believed to be the origin of the archetypal alcoholic writer. While every culture has its drunk pen-smiths, the concentration is highest among male American writers. And not only male American writers, but those born in the late 1800s and writing in the 1920s to the 1950s. All one needed was a penis, a rollneck sweater, and a crippling yet charismatic weakness to fit the pattern of the mythic genius writer. For F. Scott Fitzgerald this weakness was never in doubt. Booze. He was a self-professed alcoholic. “I’m Scott Fitzgerald, the alcoholic,” he would introduce himself. And then he would probably fall asleep on the floor or go swimming in a fountain with his insane wife. While at Yale, he would often brag in his letters that his shaky script was a result of “beers and a few Bronxes [cocktails].” Perhaps the true wonder of Gatsby is that Fitzgerald stayed sober enough to write it.

Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda’s relationship teetered on a rickety bar cart. In the brutal character evisceration of his friends known popularly as A Moveable Feast (subtitle: My Former Friends and Why They Suck), Hemingway claimed that Zelda kept Fitzgerald drunk because it would disable his writing. She had literary ambitions of her own and was evidently jealous of his success. She in turn claimed (not in his book) that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were lovers. So while Fitzgerald tried to stay sober long enough to write, Zelda gummed up the works. In her defense, it wasn’t hard. And if it was her goal, it worked. Hemingway pointed out that in the mid-1920s Fitzgerald was drinking too much and barely working. By the mid-late 1920s he was drinking while writing which led to unpublished and unaccepted stories. In the hopes of keeping himself sober enough to work, Fitzgerald invited Hemingway to their cottage town and waxed happy about their potential day. We’ll find an inexpensive villa and we won’t drink and it’ll be like the good old days and we’ll swim and be healthy and brown and we’ll have one aperitif before lunch and one before dinner. It’s sad in a sort of nostalgic, was-Zelda-onto-something kind of way. (NB: Zelda’s claim is not harmed by the fact that at a café once, Fitzgerald asked Hemingway to check his penis to make sure it was big enough. Spoiler alert: it was fine).

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