Over the summer I went to a reading and discussion at a Boston area bookstore. One of the writers made a point of remarking that the event’s host had prepared drinks for the assembled. Drinks! The writer lavished much praise upon the impromptu bartender and the free alcohol. I’m sure he wanted to acknowledge the host’s generosity, but by the third or fourth mention I began to wonder if he thought that the presence of a potent cocktail was just as worthy of the audience’s attention as the book he’d published. I don’t begrudge people’s enjoyment of alcohol, but why is it such a big deal?
When I lived in Denver, I used to attend gatherings and parties at a local writing center. Frequently, whoever planned the events or bought the drinks didn’t consider that not everyone who wrote also drank, as if literary output was invariably linked with booze. At times there was no water (let alone juice or soda), just alcohol. Or the limited quantities of water would run out quickly. It’s as if non-alcoholic beverages did not exist within that group’s collective consciousness or, worse, were associated with children and not adults. I can’t tell you how many looks or comments I received for joining in a conversation with a cup or bottle of water in my hand, not a glass of wine or a beer. It’s as if the choice to not drink alcohol has to be explained or justified, a way of answering the unstated, underlying questions: why aren’t you just like the rest of us? and if you’re not like us, can we trust you?
I wasn’t always an alcohol outsider, even though I grew up in a cocktail-free Jewish household where the locked liquor cabinet usually contained a lonely half-filled bottle of Manischewitz and a rarely touched bottle of scotch, neither of which particularly interested me. I drank a bit in college, where I learned of such things such as “white Russian” and “black Russian”. At one small gathering in a friend’s dorm I consumed three beers and, after stumbling across campus to my room and waking up feeling like death warmed over, decided I would never do that again. Not only did I dislike being hungover, I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I might lose control. That didn’t make me virtuous; it meant I was quite frightened of what could happen if I were in an altered state. Over time, I learned that I could more easily tolerate wine than beer. Liquor often made me sick, except for small quantities of vodka or sake. The few times I have forgotten about my limited tolerance, in the service of adventure, I have become ill. One martini too many, consumed in the sophisticated courtyard of the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City, caused me to vomit the next morning. A Negroni in Rome nearly knocked me out. Since then, I’ve gradually tapered off my consumption of wine and spirits to nearly zero. Occasionally I will have a sip of something, but I usually regret even that. That is how sensitive my brain has become to alcohol.
I write all this to keep me from watching the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her while intoxicated (his friends and acquaintances recall that he often blacked out when drunk). Leaving aside whether the allegation is true or not, it’s hard to argue that young adults drinking themselves into oblivion is quite common in this culture. It’s so common it’s considered “normal”. Keg parties? Normal. In following the news about this high profile case, I’ve been struck by comments along the lines of “everyone does this”, where “this” is getting so drunk that you lose control over yourself. It’s as if making yourself sick with booze will ensure a sense of belonging and thus is an American rite of passage. That such blotto drinking and partying is, after the fact, often referred to as “fun” or “good times”, is incomprehensible to me. If there are people who genuinely enjoy passing out and puking, please let me know.
As humans, we are hard-wired to be part of a group. Yet when a group makes alcohol either the focus or an integral part of its activities and therefore identity, that choice can leave others out in the cold. When I spent a month in Marrakech last February, it came as a relief to be staying in a traditional neighborhood, with no alcohol sold or served in the surrounding streets. I was temporarily lifted of the burden of feeling isolated or eccentric as a non-drinker. Except the group of foreigners I was with did drink, at times heavily, and not a day passed when someone didn’t mention alcohol in some form or another, as if they would die without a daily dose. For some, that we were staying in a Muslim area intensified their desire to visit bars in the modern part the city, as if it were an act of defiance. I went to one such place and enjoyed a beautifully crafted mocktail….yet, one was enough. Towards the end of the month, our group traveled to a winery near the coast, as part of a longer day trip which had other stops that interested me. After the tour, everyone headed to bar area to sample the fruits of the vine. Our leader made a point of telling me, an adult, that I could order a tea instead. In that moment, with just a few days left of our shared adventure, I decided to let her somewhat condescending comment pass. I wondered if she said that because she wanted me to be drinking something, anything, so that I would not be the only advanced primate to be empty-handed, thereby minimizing social awkwardness.
The SCOTUS hearings have brought rape culture further out of the shadows if not into the spotlight. Yet booze culture seems to be inextricably bound to that, not to mention to life in general. Even when I drank alcohol, people didn’t understand why I only had one drink. If I said, “No, thanks,” that was rarely heard or honored as the full stop I meant. It was often followed by, “Are you sure?” or, “Maybe just a little more.” I often sensed pressure to finish that bottle of wine, to open another beer. It’s as if acceptance required going with the flow…of booze. While alcohol has a role to play in celebrations and gatherings, it shouldn’t be the focus or a litmus test. Maybe, just maybe, the conversation around sexual assault will cause people to reflect on the unchallenged if not venerated position alcohol maintains in this culture and whether its centrality is justified. I can certainly raise my glass (of seltzer) and drink to that.
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