This article originally appeared in the February 1999 issue of OUT.
I remember the first spring I wasn’t drinking; it was 1983. My friend Tom and I were walking around the West Village, and we were staring up and pointing. Isn’t that beautiful? It was like we had never looked up before. There was something wonderful and new about the way light clustered at the tips of buildings, and the buildings themselves had an articulate quality that was riveting. Our giddy enthusiasm led us to the Hudson, where we sat on a pier smoking and watching those great wrinkles in the water, looking over at New Jersey and the smoke pouring out of factory pipes. We knew it was filth being spewed into the air, but it looked great and we laughed. We were both in our early 30s, but we felt like kids. Tom and I were overjoyed, overcome with the awareness that we weren’t dead.
Let’s face it: Nobody really bothers to get sober who wasn’t a pretty bad drink or addict, one who didn’t have very far to go. Then you stop, and what you discover is a whole world. Everything, it’s all out there waiting for you, in a way it never was before.
Yet, who am I now? I wondered. It was suggested to me that there are water poets and there are wine poets, and so I began to toy with the idea of becoming a water poet—a reluctant lover of clarity.
What being sober comes to mean is days and days of life, doing all sorts of tedious things that no upstanding addict ever wanted to live to do—flossing, for instance. Since I am now committed to having teeth for the rest of my life, every night I stand in front of the mirror, watching my face grow older and older. I turned 40 in sobriety, and pretty soon, not this year but no far off, I turn 50. So I’m discovering that, in a way, sobriety is nothing—it’s just life. And now that I’m not fucked-up, I still fuck up a lot. I make mistakes, and then I want to die. It’s horrible getting older and not being perfect. It’s really what made me drink, I think, the pressure of time and imperfection and the body, which always wants to have sex or run away or do something to wreck things, because it’s so hard, or even so glorious, bearing the enormous burden of being alive.
Which makes me want to sail! A friend once told me that the trick to being in any relationship is that you have to keep deciding not to destroy it. So when it feels like your boat might tip, you just have to move. Switch sides. Do something you’ve never done before.
I spent a lot of my “early” sobriety thinking that I was really just fine and the only thing that had been wrong with me was that I drank a lot, and now I wanted to be that same great person, only sober. So I would be suavely leaning over a bar, like at Girl Bar in 1990, or, you know, at some fabulous dinner with cool people, a total nervous wreck, maybe in a nice jacket, drinking gallons of Perrier, girlfriend by my side, pretty speechless but sover. Looking good was good enough. Going to the gym and looking younger than I was and thinking that the next great thing that would happen, maybe around my career or something, would really make me me. Ta-da!
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The thing I’ve come to understand about being a water poet is that if I’m writing the score to this film, I have to be in it. Even like how it feels. I don’t go to bars much lately. In fact, I barely go to dinners. I’m not very comfortable unless I’m with really good friends, but there are other things I like to do. For instance, I have recently acquired a telescope, and I like to look at the sky—I saw Jupiter last night—and I tend to read several books at once. And I am thinking again about water, which I never genuinely cared about, and I still like the way it moves and all the colors it holds at once.
I like it a lot—rivers and oceans—and I really want to sail. I don’t understand wind. Do you? I don’t know where it comes from, but it seems marvelous that it moves boats; if you pay attention to it, it can skim you over the whole blue surface like you’re flying through the sky, though it’s water. Kayaks fascinate me too. You know, you work your arms, and it would be so snug, close to the water and all alone, sailing up the Hudson.
One of my favorite poets, Li Po, died by falling out of a boat when he drunkenly leaned over to embrace the reflection of the moon. I’ll be dipping my oar while I look. Merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.