Voluntary Madness


         My side felt a lot better when Nora called me at noon the next day. "My nice policeman wants to see you," she said. "How do you feel?"

         "Terrible. I must've gone to bed sober."

                                                               Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man

Tonight, New Year’s Eve, is the high holy day of what Seneca, the Stoic philosopher of ancient Rome, called “nothing but voluntary madness.”


Here on Outer Cape Cod, night has come cold and clear. Skies are star-pocked. The prevailing westerly winds are crowding 20 knots. But bars and restaurants are aglow with Christmas lights as patrons get their own alcoholic glow on.

It’s the time of auld lang syne—old times' sake, the phrase popularized by a 1788 Robert Burns song.

Tonight I’m remembering a stellar journalist named Howard Alexander, who was my managing editor at The Evening News in New Jersey when I was a cub reporter.

Howard was the archetype of the classic newspaperman: a small, skinny man with a shock of wiry white hair, nicotine-yellowed teeth and his daily attire of rumpled suit, wrinkled white shirt and bowtie.

In addition to his duties as managing editor, Howard indulged himself from time to time in penning an op-ed piece when a topic intrigued him.

One of those pieces—which ran in the paper one New Year’s edition—was a catalog of synonyms for “drunk.” What made Howard’s column memorable to me was that he did not use a thesaurus. He summoned up from his mind and his memory scores of different words denoting “drunk.”

In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a thesaurus in the City Room of either The Evening News or The New York Daily News, where I also worked. Nor did I ever observe a reporter, re-write man or editor at either of those newspapers refer to a thesaurus—including me.

The idea of enumerating synonyms for “drunk” was not new with Howard:

  • A list of 220 expressions for "inebriated" was published by Benjamin Franklin as the “Drinker's Dictionary” in the Pennsylvania Gazette on January 6, 1737.
  • Some 166 synonyms for "drunk" were published in the St. Louis Republic on June 30, 1901.
  • Roget's International Thesaurus (which was first published in 1852 and has never been out of print) offers at least 120 synonyms for "intoxicated.”

Drinking enjoys unearned glamour—accepted, approved, encouraged.

In my days as a reporter, for example, drinking and holding my liquor was requisite. I haunted the bars near city hall to pick up story leads from buzzed municipal officials. Then I returned to the City Room to write them—with a big container of black coffee to keep me honest.

I wasn’t alone in this. The three-martini lunch popularized by 1950s “Mad Men” was real. For my newspaper crowd, though, scotch was the preferred drink, with a bottle stowed in almost every desk drawer. In The Thin Man movie franchise, both Nick and Nora Charles (in the still above) never ventured too far without martini or highball in hand.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who made nihilism infamous by helping shape and define it, added to the romanticization of alcohol when he said, “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.”

But the romance of drinking loses its ersatz gloss with the horrid consequences of alcohol over-indulgence.

Earlier this year, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported:

  • Nearly 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes every year, making it the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States
  • In 2012, alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities accounted for 10,322 deaths, or 31 percent of all driving fatalities

Statistics become sorrow when they strike at your heart. My son-in-law, Davin, returning home from a Sunday evening date-night movie with my daughter, died after a head-on collision with a drunk driver. The other driver left her four children orphaned—and my daughter a widow at 28.

Tonight, as my wife and I count down to midnight and 2015, we will recall the people who passed though our lives during the years past and left us enriched by the memory of them. Howard. And Davin. And many, many others. We will celebrate them with a prayer. Not with a toast.

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  • Jo Lesniak
    commented 2015-12-31 14:06:57 -0500
    I am sure I commented on this last year but it is a good reminder of the consequences of our actions. Prayers it is! Thinking of you my dear friend.