What Makes Us, Us
Be it nature or nurture or some mixture of both, children are steered by their parents, family and perhaps their village, and by that whole magical force they become capable of fitting in to the society they find themselves in. They develop from the inside out and from the outside in. Elders, having been schooled through living their own life, show children and young people ‘the right way to live’. These Elders may point out people who, from outer appearances, are living well, and on the other hand people whose choices result in hardships and disappointment. This could be where we start to pick up biases.
In 1940s-1950s Ireland, when I was growing up, problem drinking was like a ‘deadly sin’ because of the damage it did to families, not only the alcoholic, commonly the father. In those times it was not for us to think about the internal complexities that may have driven a person to choose an alcoholic life.
An article I came across recently revealed that since the 1930s Irish government ministers and doctors had been talking about how best to tackle the alcoholism that afflicted the Irish at home, and abroad in America and England. Psychiatrists put forward the idea that it was a disease or illness like mental illness. Stigmas were attached to alcoholism and mental illness and people presenting to their family doctor were anxious to ‘save face’. To assist them in that, doctors wrote a diagnosis of bronchitis or another side-effect of their principal disease. There were hospitals that offered treatment but I don’t know if people recovered.
Dr. Dermot Walsh, a Psychiatrist, tried to discern in 1962 the cause for the high incidence of alcoholism in the Irish and he came up with this list of cultural influences: persistence of Irish folk customs; a great capacity for superstition and magical belief; consequences of war, poverty, the great famine; effects of Irish mother’s dominance; Irish father’s lack of authority; Irish son’s ambivalent, conflict-laden relationship with his mother. Alcohol was used to relieve deep frustrations and repression of normal human desires. There were other voices opposing the viewpoint. (It sounds like some mothers’ martyr narrative could trap their family.)
In America the Irish and Irish-Americans had the reputation of being ‘great drinkers’. It was as if Irish-Americans took it to be their destiny to be predisposed to alcoholism. I sometimes wondered if alcoholics just stuck an “O” or a “Mc” in front of their name to fit the mould.
In the 1960s executives in the U.S. might have drinks in their office with clients or they might go out for lunch and cocktails and not get back to the office for a few hours. But cuts in tax deductions for business meals and entertainment in the 1970s meant that business people could no longer afford to take clients out for boozy lunches. Everyone started to see alcohol differently and soon it became smarter to order a soft drink with lunch.
In the company where I worked the marketing and sales departments were constantly figuring sales projections, comparing actual sales, doing rolling forecasts, and on and on. The chief statistician, Bill, was excellent with figures and in those days before computers the available tools were a pen, paper, a ruler and drawing compass to make graphs and charts, and a mechanical calculator.
Bill seemed to have a witty saying for every occasion. John, the national sales manager was getting ready to travel to all regions of the country to give the sales representatives their quotas for the new fiscal year. The quotas always increased and he had to show the reps how and where they could achieve them, to be sure of getting their year-end bonus. John was an animated southerner who paced around, up and down, hands all about, tapped the floor while he and Bill had a final look at the calculations from every angle. When John finally left for the airport Bill described him thus: “he flung himself on his horse and galloped off in all directions”.
He had a saying for a fellow who, having been let go, was using an office while looking for a new job: “forgotten but not gone”. The source of some of his witticisms was The Pocket Book of Quotations that he kept in his desk.
When I was new to the company the men clued me in to a bit of Bill’s history. He went to a particular neighbourhood pub at lunchtime every day, and at night also, it appears. One morning he came into work with a shoeprint across the front of his white shirt. They figured that he must have fallen onto the floor from a bar stool and somebody just as inebriated stepped on him while getting to the door. People knew when to tip-toe around him. I don’t know how long he was working there but people accepted the situation. His estranged wife met him outside the office building on Friday afternoons to take his pay check.
He was also a numbers runner for the illegal lottery played in the United States. Runners carried the money and betting slips between the office and the tavern bookie.
He called me Irish or Bridie and not by my name. He said he was Irish too, his surname was Rockett. He would chat for a few minutes, told me he had a Chinese girlfriend; then he said, “There must be a chink in the armour”. He retired to San Francisco’s Chinatown and kept in touch with Christmas cards to the office for a couple of years.
I never heard his story of how he came to be an alcoholic or a numbers runner. There were times in the office when he was humorous, gentle and kind as well as a good statistician. I think it is interesting that the stories of people who have little or no connection to us can move us; maybe it is because of the enduring nature of human universal traits.
“He flung himself on his horse….” Is from Gertrude the Governess, a nonsense novel by Stephen Leacock.
“Chink in one’s armour” has caused controversy in the U.S. due to the word “chink” being used as an ethnic slur in reference to Chinese and Asian Americans.