#44

“W.C.”

In Great Britain it’s short for ‘Water Closet,’ which is a colloquial term for a bathroom, and just one more example of why the US and Britain are described as two great nations separated by a common language. Hopefully the Brits are working just as hard to make Britain great again as we all are on this side of the pond. Also they drive on the wrong side of the street, which is no big deal unless you are trying to cross a busy street and you get confused about which way you should look for traffic. I did this once and got so weirded out that I literally turned around and went back to the place I started. And that was just walking! Imagine trying to drive, and every time you reach up with your left hand to the turn signal…you turn on the windshield wipers. Old habits die hard. Also if you try to drive over there you could die hard. But I digress.

In our house, W.C. is the accepted abbreviation for ‘Weak Constitution,’ which sounds like it might describe a country where the ruler has too much power (I’m not naming names) but which means being weak or frail or feeble or in West Texan, wampy. Twenty years ago I might have said it meant girly man, but given the grit of the women in my family that would be truly pointless and I might get beat up. But I digress.

Over the years it has become painfully obvious that Laura is much tougher than me (in a strong feminine way). If someone in the house is going to be struck down with a random bug that’s going around, it will be me. Laura, in contrast, is the person who once had minor surgery with general anesthetic, woke up, and suggested we go eat at a buffet. Which we did, after first doing some yard work. I, on the other hand, require days to recover from common medical procedures like having my height and weight measured or giving a urine sample. I require more sleep to function and I require more medications, and when I succumb, again, to some random bug, Laura and I look at each other, nod knowingly, and just say “W.C.”. As I sit here writing this I feel something coming on. I really hope it does not require a urine sample. But I digress.

Of all the many accommodations I have had to make due to W.C., one of the most critical is the uneasy truce I maintain with the drug caffeine. This wonder drug is used by 90% of North Americans, which is more than drink tap water, and way more than floss regularly, but not as many as lose the TV remote or falsely tell their dentists they floss regularly. I have a long and glorious history of gradually ramping up my caffeine intake until I develop insomnia, then quitting cold turkey, leading to headaches that feel like someone is using the side of my skull for artillery practice, followed by promising myself I’ll show more restraint, followed by starting the whole cycle over again. For this reason, I am now that weird old guy who walks into Starbucks at 7 am and orders…decaf. Our local ‘Bucks (the photo at the top of this post) knows me and loves me anyway, but I can tell you that if you pull this stunt in places like Washington state or Oregon, where coffee is kind of a religion,the high priests (baristas) look at you sideways, and you wind up on the java equivalent of the ‘terrorist watch list.’ But I digress.

I am not the only one who has experimented with this drug. Neuroscientists Gary Wenk, who gave an entire TED Talk on how food and drugs impact your longevity, shares what most of us who attended college already knew: campuses are rife with students (and some faculty members) experimenting with this drug, which triggers the same kind of pleasant, addictive brain reactions you get get from cocaine or marijuana. Wenk describes one chronically sleepy student who ate a dry packet of instant coffee to see if it would help. It did, so being young and uninhibited he naturally ate the other 31 packets in the box, eventually concluding that the three days of extreme productivity he experienced were not worth the three days of explosive diarrhea that went with it.

A more formal experiment demonstrated that yes, there can be way too much of a good thing. Two students at Northumbria College (in Great Britain, where the Starbucks drive-thru windows are on the wrong side of the car) joined a study on the effects of caffeine. They were given caffeine equivalent to 3 cups of coffee, which is no big deal, except that in this case it was accidentally 300 cups worth, because math is hard and the British use the metric system and an abacus. One of the students wound up in intensive care, on dialysis, for two days and lost 22 pounds (1.57 stone), while the other was hospitalized for six days, suffered short-term memory loss, and lost 26 pounds (0.012 metric tons). Both are ‘pursuing legal action’ and the school was fined £400,000 (a whole bunch of dollars). As the British put it, “I digresseth.”

So now I drink decaf coffee and limit myself to one Diet Coke (no refills) per day, which is enough to satisfy my sweet tooth but not enough to board the roller coaster again. For me, caffeine is a literal fount of happiness in the short run (I love that wired feeling it gives me) but a mound of unhappiness in the long run (after a while the ride leaves me more tired than I was when I started). The saddest part is that it has taken me decades to recognize my own W.C. Moderation is incredibly, unbelievably hard. Saint Augustine said, “Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation,” which is why so many people choose to swear off of problem habits entirely, rather than ‘cutting back.’ So I drink decaf, and my life is better because of it. At age 51 it seems like my life consists of more and more of these ‘accommodations’ that are required just to keep things rolling along, but i think that is just how life goes.

Most of us have things in our lives that we enjoy, but that we struggle not to enjoy too much. Addiction and dependency, whether to caffeine or social media or dessert or closing the next deal or writing the next blog post, follows a pretty standard trajectory, and sooner or later you have to shoot straight with yourself and ask whether this thing that once brought you joy is now costing you more than it’s worth. Dependence, on anything, doesn’t feel joyful; it feels like something you need just to not feel bad, and that is anti-happy any way you slice it. Thomas Jefferson may or may not have actually said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” but it is true for nations and it is just as true in our personal lives and habits. At least for those of us with W.C.

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