Fumbling for Change

On becoming somebody (anybody) different.

The Curative Power of Bitterness

Sometimes, we need to swallow bitter stuff.

For a while, I sold booze. (Hang on for this one: You have to get to the end for it to make any sense.)

Now, don't get excited. I wasn't a moonshiner, though I've more than once fantasized about rocketing through the back roads of Alabama in a souped-up 1970 Chevelle SS 396, with the revenuers in hot pursuit.

It was nothing like that. I wore a jacket and tie and flogged cases of cheap wine and low-end spirits in airplane bottles to bored Yemeni shopkeepers in the seedier neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Commendably, many of the liquor-sales jobs in California are unionized, and I was a Teamster during this short phase. One of the well-intended points of our contract stipulated that management could only compel us to attend on meeting per month. Management scrupulously held up their end of the bargain and only called us together twelve times each year.

Of course, each of these meetings was ten hours long. And they occurred in hotel ballrooms, where the doors were locked from the outside. Caterers delivered three meals a day: Danishes sealed in plastic, fruit grown without the assistance of the sun, and great troughs of refried beans, all washed down with water glasses of undiluted gin, tequila, and flavored rum--and the occasional cup of acrid hotel coffee. From time to time, one brand of spirits or the other would field a troop of coeds in bikinis to wander through the ballroom dumping shots down our throats from little glasses they wore on lanyards around their necks. In our weakened states, deprived of fresh air, natural light, and the ability to move around freely, we could neither be aroused or appalled by the young women's antics, however our sensibilities might have inclined us.

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I have only one pleasant memory of this phase of my life, and it happens to be associated with one of these meetings (and, no, it had nothing to do with the Cuervo Girls.)

Do you know about Fernet Branca? It's kind of a cult digestif, hugely popular in Buenos Aires and San Francisco. It's a brown, bitter liquid, forty percent alcohol and vaguely minty. I'm being charitable when I tell you that it tastes spectacularly, splendidly bad.

Anyway, the area brand manager from Branca products was a regular speaker at these epic meetings. To tell the truth, I can't remember the guy's name to save my life, but I think it was Chuck--and that will just have to do.

No one could envy Chuck his job. They guy had to feed his children by convincing people to buy, serve, and consume liquor that tasted for all the world like battery acid (or, at least, what I imagine battery acid tastes like.) 

Chuck was totally forgettable to look at--shortish, thinning hair, spare tire, pretty average features. But the man had the charisma and rhetorical flourish of Southern preacher. He would come to the podium with a Jagger-esque swagger, put his hands in the air, and fire flew from his fingertips. He literally glowed.

He didn't sell Fernet, he preached it. It cured his acne. Pouring the stuff on their nests got rid of carpenter ants. Just having a bottle in the house or bar would keep bill collectors away and was sure proof against kitchen fires. Fernet Branca could get you up in the morning and put you to bed at night. If you had, it would fix it. Hallelujah.

You just wanted to believe the guy. And if you had any doubts, they were dispelled when, at the end of the show, Chuck performed his miracle.

"I've been drinking Fernet Branca since I was seven years old," he'd cry. "And this is what it has done for me!"

With that, Chuck would turn in profile to the howling audience. He would start to do a kind of chicken dance, pulsing his head far out over his chest. Then, in time to the thundering claps of the salespeople, Chuck would stick his tongue out and out and out, until he looked like a giraffe going after the really hard-to-reach leaves. To everyone's amazement, he would bend it up to cover his nose. And then--wait for it!--he would bend it down to cover his chin. His chin!

Two takeaways for those of you who read this stuff looking for self-help tips (I told you you had to hang on for this one):

The first, the lesser moral: Find hope, ye bungled and botched, in the story of Chuck the Branca rep and his double-jointed tongue! Here's a guy who managed to turn a physical anomaly into a career selling unpalatable swill to bartenders, restaurateurs, and shop keepers. And he sold at least enough to keep a roof over his head. So what if you can't hold a job, keep a relationship together, or manage to stop stealing? There is something valuable in you. You just need to learn to see it!

The second takeaway, though, is the real meat of the thing (but it involves a little more story):

Before I saw Chuck the first time, I'd never tried Fernet Branca. At the end of his presentation, Chuck gave away 50 ml bottles of the stuff for people to try (unlike the other brand people, he never encouraged us to taste his stuff while he was still in the room.) I left the meeting wanting more than anything to do a good job for this guy, and I wanted to really like the stuff he sold. I took it home, cracked the bottle, and dumped its contents over ice. I took a good swig.

And then I spit my first taste out in a huge aerosol cloud.

You see, Fernet is really, really disgusting. I'm not just making that up or trying for a cheap laugh. I couldn't keep the stuff down, but I really wanted to become a soldier in the service of Chuck. So I took another drink. And then another. In the coming months, I forced myself to swallow bottles of that astringent crap at restaurants and in bars.

And, lo and behold, I eventually started to actually like it.

And not only did I like it, but I discovered something about the stuff in the process. Fernet is kind of magical. It has the power to instantly resolve most digestive complaints (this, I'm told, is what the Italians rely on it for.) Though the stuff is bitter, or maybe because it's bitter, Fernet seems to have amazing curative powers (and now I must remind you that I'm not a doctor, and your mileage may vary.)

This long story popped into my head this morning as I read an article about the American Psychological Association's ongoing trouble with torture. The article continues to explore the extent to which psychologists put their training and expertise behind this despicable practice and whether the leadership of the APA colluded with former administrations, structuring ethics rules to give psychologists who abetted torture a get-out-of-jail-free card.

I have passing faith that the APA will do the right thing in time. At the very least, the investigations within that body are ongoing. Unless the current (and otherwise praiseworthy, IMHO) administration changes it tune, though, the investigations into the criminal use of torture authorized by the Bush Administration at the federal level are not. That really bothers me, and I hope it bothers you too.

Of course, there is a chorus of political voices that actually supports the use of torture. The less said about those folks, the better. Next to them, though, is a herd of "pragmatists," like Alberto Mora, who affirm the moral grounds for seeking justice for those responsible for the torture protocols but argue against doing so because of the political implications of such an inquest. In his 3 May 2009 article in the New York Times, Albert Hunt references Mora and remarks that the prosecution of Dick Cheney and other officials from the Bush Administration for crimes against humanity "would tear the country apart and set a dreadful precedent."

And maybe it would.

But what would this dreadful precedent be in the service of? From where I sit, it would serve the laudable purpose of cleansing my conscience of the stain that resulted when human beings were tortured--tortured!--in my name.

This isn't a political soapbox, though, so I'm going to let that one go.

I will say, though, that my experience has been that, sometimes, I have needed to swallow bitter stuff in order to start to cure what ails me, to get me to where ever it is that I want to.

Bitter: the frank acknowledgment of shortcomings.

Bitter: both sincere contrition and sincere forgiveness.

Bitter: the fact, indifferent to desire, that some things just won't get any better.

There's a lot of talk nowadays about acceptance. Good stuff on the whole from what I can tell. But I'm struck sometimes by what, exactly, it means to be truly accepting. It's all fine and well to say it. Doing it often really sucks. But learning to say yes to the world--all of the world, all of the time--seems like a useful endeavor to me.

I'm not there yet, but I'm trying.

If you've set out to do the same, I wish you all the best.

Troy DuFrene is a writer and editor specializing in psychology, food, and travel.

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