Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I am a non-drinker. Always have been, and as long as I have any say in the matter, always will be. The responses I get from people when they hear that I don’t imbibe are always interesting: “WHAT?!? You don’t drink?!? At all? Ever?” Nope, never, hence the meaning of the word “Don’t.” I can usually tell what the person is thinking by the look they give me, which is almost always either one of shock and horror as if I’m some kind of mutant with a third eye sprouting out of my forehead, or one of pity and condescension, as if they’re silently saying to me, “You poor, naive thing. You just don’t know what you’re missing.” What most people don’t do, however, is ask me why I don’t drink. Maybe they’re too busy passing judgment or too preoccupied with picking their jaw up off the ground to find out if there’s a reason behind my choice. And it is a choice. And I do have reasons. Plenty of them.

I stupidly used to think that once I was done with school, I would also be done with peer pressure. I’ve found, though, it’s really been the opposite of that. In high school, I really wasn’t pressured to drink or experiment with drugs because I had a great group of friends who weren’t interested in that type of thing. A shift happened when I went to college and I found myself as a very small sober fish in a big pond of booze. Drinking and partying were everywhere around me and it was hard to find anyone who didn’t partake in the nightly college festivities. I even went to a couple parties myself just to see what they were all about. I found myself standing in a smoky room surrounded by drunks falling all over themselves while I wondered what the hell I was doing there, searching for the nearest exit. It just wasn’t for me. I was actually pretty miserable during my four years at college. It was the most out of place I had ever felt in my life and the only place I felt like I even remotely fit in was at the school newspaper. It became my second home and if I wasn’t in class or in my dorm room, I was at the paper. It was the only reason I stuck it out at college and didn’t transfer to the other university I applied to and was accepted by in my junior year. Graduation day couldn’t come soon enough for me.

Even as an adult I’ve found myself pressured to drink, mostly by those who just can’t fathom the idea that I don’t. A coworker of mine tells me at least two or three times a month that I need to start drinking. He offers to take me to bars and promises to take me home after I’ve consumed so much alcohol that I can’t stand up. He’s made it a kind of mission to not only get me to take a drink, but to get me shit-faced because he says he wants to see what kind of drunk I would be. “I bet you’d be a happy drunk,” he says, as if that’s some kind of encouragement to go along with his experiment. “No, you’d probably be a mean drunk. Or you’d get up on a table and take your shirt off.” Well, ok then. All the more reason NOT to drink. No matter how many times I tell him it’s not going to happen, he always tries again, giving me grief over the fact that I’m 32 and have never been drunk. Here I was thinking that was something to be proud of, but to the rest of the world, it’s apparently the mark of a social outcast. He, like most others, has never really asked why I choose not to drink and it’s not something that I just randomly offer up in casual conversation. My choice is a very personal one based on many experiences in my own life and the lives of those around me who I have seen suffer because of alcohol.

I guess the biggest reason I don’t drink is because I just don’t get it. I’ve never been able to understand why anyone would want to consume something in such quantities that they no longer have control over themselves. Maybe I’m a control freak, but I never want to find myself in a situation where I have no control over my body, my actions, or my words if it’s avoidable. I’ve never been able to understand why someone would choose to do something that they know is going to make them physically ill. I don’t particularly enjoy vomiting and I get headaches enough as it is, so I don’t see the logic in partaking in something that would result in me barfing my guts out and having to lay in bed with an icepack on my forehead the next day. It was a weekly ritual while I was in college to see just how many girls would be in the bathroom of my dorm, slumped over the toilet, sometimes the sink, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning, hung over from the night before. If I was lucky, sometimes they’d be puking in the shower or laying on the tile floor covered in their own vomit. Now that sounds like fun!

Other things, far more negative things, have factored into my decision to be a teetotaler. Alcoholism seems to be a running trend in my extended family and quite frankly I’m terrified that the affliction is lurking somewhere in my DNA, ready to pounce the first chance it gets. I have no idea if taking one drink would have no effect on me or open a door that I might never be able to close, and I don’t really want to test it. I know myself well enough to know that I have some slight addictive personality tendencies. I just don’t want to tempt fate when I have a choice in the matter. Life is complicated enough without intentionally creating more opportunities for further complications.

I’ve also seen enough devastation and destruction caused by alcohol to want to stay as far away from it as I can. I have one relative who has been in and out of jail most of his life on alcohol or substance abuse-related charges, one time for hitting and killing a pedestrian while he was driving drunk. In high school, two of my classmates – one who was a friend and fellow marching band member – were killed by drunk drivers. In college, our newspaper covered stories of students being put into the hospital or arrested after drunken fights. I remember one particularly gut-wrenching story we had to cover about a female student found dead in her dorm room from alcohol poisoning. As a professional reporter, I lost count of the number of fatal car accidents I had to cover that were the result of someone choosing to drive drunk. I remember one such accident in particular when I got to the crash site just in time to see the pulverized, dead body of an innocent victim being dragged from his smashed pick-up truck before being placed in a body bag and wheeled away on a stretcher. That’s an image that will be burned into my brain for the rest of my life. He was hit head on by a drunk driver who walked away from the accident with minor injuries, but thankfully ended up in prison. A friend of mine went to a party when she was still a teenager, got drunk, was raped, ended up pregnant, and became a single mother nine months later, with no idea who the father was.

I’ve never seen anything positive come from drinking. I welcome anyone who can show me some kind of positive benefit from consuming alcohol, besides the cholesterol-lowering properties of red wine. I’ve been given that one before as a reason to drink despite the fact that I don’t have high cholesterol and that I could take something like fish oil supplements if I did. I’ve been told that alcohol allows people to loosen up, relax, and have a good time. I admit that I’m pretty tightly wound, but I am able to do all of those things without the use of booze. What’s the point in having a good time if you can’t even remember the next day what you did that was so much fun? I genuinely would like to know if there are positive results that come from drinking. Maybe it would help me understand why people do it. Until I see proof, though, I have to go on what my own experiences have been, and so far they’ve all been negative. Making the choice not to drink hasn’t been an easy one. It would be much easier for me to give in to all the pressure and start chugging beers or downing glasses of wine, but I just can’t do it. My choice has sometimes been very lonely, making me feel ostracized, like a social pariah or outcast watching life from the outside in. Oftentimes it feels like I’m the only person on earth who doesn’t drink, even though I know that’s not the case. But those people are few and far between and I rarely cross paths with any of them. I’ve had two serious relationships in my life so far. My choice not to drink has played some kind of a role in the loss of both of those relationships. In the most recent one, which lasted almost 13 years, I thought I had found someone who actually accepted me for who I am and what I believe in, and who shared my views on drinking. Turns out he was just a good liar.

I’m not writing this to put myself on some kind of moral high horse. I don’t think of myself as better or more righteous than anyone else. I’ve never thought that about myself. Usually quite the opposite, in fact. The choice I’ve made is my own and it’s not one that I expect others to make as well. I know people who are able to drink without drinking themselves into oblivion. I know people who drink responsibly, never getting behind the wheel when they know they’ve had too much. Drinking is something that’s different and personal to every individual, and I’m not going to judge others if the decision they’ve made is different than the one I’ve made. My choice isn’t better or superior to anyone else’s choice. It’s just mine, and one that I’ve consciously decided to make. I try to respect other people’s decisions and in turn I hope they’ll try to respect mine.

I have to accept that the choice I’ve made comes with some sacrifices. I’m lucky in the fact that I have a small circle of people who support my choice and don’t judge or criticize me for it. I wish I could find more people to add to that circle, and hopefully I will. It’s hard, though, especially when you’re judged for it before you can explain it. I think a lot of people see me as a prude or maybe even a loser. I don’t think I’m either of those things, but I can’t really do anything about other people’s perceptions. Maybe they think that while they’re judging me for being a non-drinker, I’m in turn judging them for being a drinker, which isn’t the case at all. I’m usually more worried about their reaction when they hear that I abstain from liquor, rather than thinking about or judging the fact that they don’t. This is just part of who I am. I’ve always stood up for what I believe in and I’m not going to stop now. If someone can’t understand that, then I’m probably better off without them anyway. I’ll continue to hope, though, that people can just accept me for who I am, and I’ll continue to be grateful for the people in my life who do. And I'll keep my chugging limited to the glass of non-Long Island iced tea I always have at the ready.       

Friday, April 20, 2012

I’ve been an animal lover for as long as I can remember. There hasn’t been a day in my life when I haven’t had a pet of some sort. Growing up, my family had fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, and dogs at one point or another and I loved every single creature that made our house its home. Well, at least as much as you can love fish. My first cat, Spooky, was around even before I was alive and we quite literally grew up together. She was 21 when she died, and I was 18. It was a tough day at college when my mom called to tell me Spooky was gone. We were pals from the time I was big enough to yank on her ears and pull her tail (luckily for me she was very patient and docile), and my mom has plenty of embarrassing photos of Spooky and me as a toddler hanging out in the bathroom, playing in the toilet together.

My life is now graced with another cat, Libby, and a very spoiled rotten Shih Tzu, Sammy. They’re more than just pets to me, though, they’re part of my family and they both have their own personalities, especially my dog. He’s quite the character and gets away with just about anything he feels like doing because he’s so stinkin’ cute. This tiny little dog rules the roost. He only drinks the water in his bowl if there’s also ice in it. He only eats soft canned food, and only if it’s cut up into bite-sized pieces and fed to him by hand. He doesn’t like to get his poofy little face dirty, and I give in knowing that because he’s small, his blood sugar can drop quickly and he can have seizures if he doesn’t eat. It’s worth the extra time it takes to feed him if he never has a seizure again. Every day it’s a guessing game as to what kind of treats he will like at that moment, and he has a cabinet full. If you offer him a Greenie, a Dingo Goof Ball, a Buddy Biscuit, or a Petgetable (just some of the goodies he gets to pick from) he might take it and he might turn his nose up at it, but he won’t let you get away with giving him nothing. He has his own little wardrobe of sweaters and coats for the winter, not because he’s a little doggie fashionista, but because he’s small and old and gets cold very easily. If it’s raining when it’s time for him to go outside, his personal assistant (usually me or my sister) stands in the rain, holding an umbrella over him to ensure he stays dry while getting soaked ourselves. My cat’s not quite as demanding, thankfully, and usually all she wants is food and lots of attention. And what do I get in return for my service? Lots and lots of unconditional love.

That’s what’s so great about pets, specifically dogs and cats. They don’t care what you look like, how much money you make, or what kind of car you drive. They’re just happy you’re with them and they’re not afraid to show it. I’m certain that my dog and cat know or can sense when I’m upset or sad. Libby especially will glom onto me when she knows I’m down, following me around the house and climbing into my lap as soon as I sit down, laying down next to me on my bed, or coming over to put her face right up to mine and give me a few little licks on my forehead, as if she’s telling me that everything is okay. It’s amazing how being around animals can pick your spirits up just when you need it. There are lots of other benefits to having pets that have been scientifically proven. Studies show that petting a dog or cat can lower your blood pressure and calm stressed and frayed nerves. It’s even been shown that a cat’s purr has a unique, calming effect on humans when they hear it. And having a dog promotes overall health because dog owners are more likely to exercise by taking their pooch on walks. Having pets also has benefits for people who suffer from depression because it gives them a reason to get out of bed every day when they have to take care of another living being.

I love all kinds of animals, not just cats and dogs. Even bugs can sometimes pull at my heartstrings. Sometimes. I generally hate bugs. They’re creepy and gross and I’d prefer to stay as far away from them as possible. But, most of the time, I can’t bring myself to kill them. Take, for instance, the lady bugs that find their way into my house every single winter. For whatever reason, they almost always end up in the upstairs bathroom and usually in the bathtub when it’s cold outside. When I go to hop in the shower or bath, sure enough, there’s a lady bug waddling across the tub making its way to who knows where. I figure I have a few options: 1) Wash the lady bug down the drain, drowning it in the process, even though it’s kind of cute and just trying to stay warm and survive. Not a great option for the bug, and something I usually can’t bring myself to do. 2) Call my cat into the bathroom so she can take care of the insect intruder. Again, not a great option because my cat has never been a hunter. She’d just look at the bug and then look at me as if she’s saying, “Really? This is what you called me in here for? I’m no exterminator, you’re on your own. Is there any food in here?” 3) Scoop the lady bug up and out of the bathtub, and gently place it in a safe corner of the bathroom so we can both get on with our business. This is my go-to solution, even if it is a little out there. Even nasty, creepy spiders can sometimes get a pass from me, like the spider that took up residence in my bathroom, again, during the winter. (What is it with these bugs and my bathroom? Maybe I need to check the seal on the window in there…) He was tiny, smaller than a pea, and always hung out on the ceiling. I made a deal with him. “Ok, spider,” I said. “I promise not to squish you if you promise to stay up there and leave me alone. No crawling around on the floor. No sudden drops from the ceiling and dangling in front of my face. You don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you. Deal? Deal.” We both kept our ends of the bargain until it got warmer outside and he disappeared.

It breaks my heart to think of animals suffering in any way. I can’t walk into an animal shelter without supervision, or else I’d walk out with as many dogs and cats as I could fit into my car. The title of Crazy Cat Lady is a very real possibility for me when I reach my 80s if no one is going to be around to keep me under control. And don’t even talk about those horrible commercials on TV showing polar bear cubs floating away from their mothers on a tiny piece of ice, or abused and abandoned dogs and cats looking at the camera with their sad, sad eyes while Sarah McLachlan sings “Angel” in the background. Good lord. I have to change the channel every time those things come on before they get to the part where they tell you how to make a donation or else I’d bankrupt myself trying to save all those polar bears, puppies, and kittens.

Having pets is a lot of work, to be sure, but it’s well worth it. I know some people think I’m nuts for treating my dog and cat the way I do. They look at me like I have lobsters crawling out of my ears (thank you, “A Christmas Story”) when I tell them that my dog refuses to drink tap water (bottled only, please, and preferably Culligan) or that he gets a pile of gifts every year on his birthday, all wrapped of course, that he excitedly opens one by one. It’s one of the cutest things you’ve ever seen, I promise you. But I give the same look to anyone who says they have a dog or cat who lives outside and never comes in the house, or who has never been to the vet because it costs too much. Having a pet is a multi-year commitment, and if someone’s not willing to do what it takes to care for that animal then they shouldn’t be a pet owner. I can’t imagine not having a pet in my life, and it pains me to think that my dog and cat are getting up there in age, each 13 years old and Sam almost 14. But I’ll take whatever time I can get with them and use it wisely, spoiling them until they’re absolutely rotten to the core, just the way I like them!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

I don’t really like to admit it, but I’m a bit of a technophobe. I believe I’m one of about 17 people on the planet who does not own a smartphone, although I get along just fine with my basic little freebie phone. No laptop or netbook for me either, but I do have a Kindle Fire, which I received as a gift this past Christmas. Three and a half months later and I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m fairly certain that I have some kind of magnet or device implanted somewhere in my body that actually repels technology of any kind. I rarely touch the copier at my office without it jamming up, overheating, or making some kind of horrible screeching noise when I try to use it. Computers freeze up at the very touch of my finger. Internet service disappears for no reason when I get online. God help me if I ever have to have an MRI. There’s no telling what could happen. I’m always lagging behind when it comes to new gadgets, software programs, websites, and anything else that could be labeled “techy.” It’s not that I’m not interested in that stuff, because I am, to a degree. But I’m a little bit intimidated by it mostly because I don’t understand much of it. I have no patience for figuring it out and I get frustrated with it very easily, so I tend to avoid new gadgets until they’ve been out long enough that someone I know has one or answers to potential problems can be found quickly with a Google search.

Case in point: My work upgraded our Microsoft Office program to the 2010 version a while back. It’s 2012 and I’m still finding things that I used to be able to do quickly and easily in the prior version that are impossible for me to figure out with the “new and improved” Office. There’s ribbons and tabs and bubbles and I don’t know what else that you have to sort through to do something as simple as saving a document in a different place. Really, Microsoft? This is better? Before, all I had to do was click on “file” and then “save as.” I didn’t have to sort through 20 different screens to complete one little task. Like I said, patience is a virtue I don’t have in abundance, so spending half my morning trying to do something that used to take me literally seconds is beyond aggravating to me. They did put lots of pretty pictures in the bazillion tool bars that now grace the top of the page in Word and Excel, but all those pictures are just cluttering up my screen and making my eyes cross. It’s even harder to figure out what you’re doing when you see two of everything.

A couple weeks ago, I was given an assignment to make a series of line graphs from blood work data in one of our ongoing medical malpractice cases. “Easy enough,” I thought. “I’ve done this before, so it shouldn’t be a problem.” I conveniently forgot, however, that this would be the first time I made graphs in our new version of Excel. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly proficient in Excel, but I can find my way around it and get done what I need to do. Or at least I used to be able to do that. Most of my Excel work involves creating spreadsheets, so I’m usually using the most basic functions of the program. Making a graph starts with making a spreadsheet of the data, so I thought this task would be easy peasy, lemon squeezy for me. Yeah…not so much after our upgrade. Everything was going swimmingly until I got to one of the last graphs I was making. For whatever reason, Excel decided that the labels for the horizontal axis (Is it the X axis? The Y axis? The LMNOP axis? I have no clue.) should be right smack dab in the middle of the chart. “Huh, that’s weird,” I thought. So I clicked on the labels. A box miraculously appeared around them along with that little four-point arrow thingy (Yes, I’m very technical, thank you for noticing) that shows up when you need to move something, like a box, for instance. “Oh good,” I naively murmured to myself. “I’ll just move it down to where it’s supposed to be.”

So I move the arrow thingy to what I think is the box around the axis labels and attempt to drag them down to the bottom of the graph. Nothing happens. I try again, and again, nothing happens. The box doesn’t move, even though it looks like it should. It acts like it should. But there it stayed, in the middle of the chart mucking up the whole thing. “What the what?” I asked, my annoyance level rising ever so slightly. The box was there, I’m sure of it. I did learn enough in my high school geometry class to recognize a rectangle when I see one (that’s about all I learned, though). But no matter what I did, that stupid box stayed put. Forty-five minutes later, after clicking, double clicking, triple clicking, right clicking, staring blankly at the “format axis” screen, searching through the so-called “help” section, and a few choice curse words slipping out under my breath, I was ready to rip my hair out and chuck my monitor into the hallway. I sat at my desk, completely perplexed and slightly enraged that this tiny set of labels was getting the better of me. Luckily a coworker discovered my plight and offered a solution, found through a Google search, that solved the problem. She was probably walking by my office and heard me muttering, “WHAT, Excel? What am I supposed to do? Just move the box. Pleeeeeeeease move the box. Pretty please? GAAAAHHH! New and improved, my ass.” I was picturing some dweeby computer programmer sitting at his desk at Microsoft, pushing his glasses up his nose, adjusting his pocket protector, and saying in a snivelly voice, “This will be fun! Let’s make it impossible for someone to format the axis labels when they make a line graph! Payback for all those times I got shoved into my locker in high school!”  

I mean, come on. In the old version of Excel, I could make these graphs in minutes and move on to the next task. In this new version, though, I may as well have been trying to decipher hieroglyphics while coming up with a formula to build a nuclear bomb. I was a little comforted to know, though, that I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. The Google search performed by my colleague turned up message board posts, website queries, and questions from many other people who had come across the same frustrating Excel oddity that I had. Thank the lord that someone out there had the answer and was nice enough to post it online. Otherwise, I’d probably still be sitting at my desk two weeks later, bald, with a crazed look in my eye, rocking slightly back and forth in my chair, my monitor shattered to bits, mumbling, “Move the box…move the box…”

It shouldn’t be that hard. It just shouldn’t. I’m convinced that the people who created Office 2010 have never actually USED Office 2010. If they had, it wouldn’t be so user-unfriendly, complicated, and frustrating. There should be some kind of law or regulation that requires companies to have a panel of everyday people who test any kind of program that’s going to be used in offices throughout the world before it’s actually sold. The computer nerds making these programs would probably learn very quickly that what seems great and forward-thinking to them translates to headaches for normal people. The testers could point out what works, what doesn’t, what’s too hard to find, what doesn’t make sense, what’s difficult when it should be easy, and why “new and different” doesn’t always equate to “better.” That will probably never happen, though, so I better just get used to being frustrated when I sit down at a computer. And invest in wigs. Lots of wigs.