On the Rocks: Can America Learn to Drink Intelligently?
We had just spent the evening dancing and drinking to the subdudes at the State Theatre. I don’t remember how much Carrie or I had to drink. Maybe we were drunk. Maybe we weren’t. It didn’t matter. Neither one of us was counting drinks; the very act of quantifying our consumption would have diminished our time inside the State.
It was the winter of 2005, still pre-Katrina, and the New Orleans musicians had just released Miracle Mule, their first studio album since 1996, when the guys somehow thought it was a good idea to silence one of the most harmonious sounds ever produced in the Big Easy. The venue was overflowing. At one point, Tommy Malone, John Magnie, and the rest of the band took their acoustic instruments and started performing among the masses gathered in front of the stage. They sang, “Known to Touch Me,” and Carrie and I and everybody else in that hall joined the band on the chorus, feeling each note as if it were a tender mercy in a tortured world.
After the show, Carrie and I wandered into the streets of Falls Church and over to Cherry Hill Park, not far from where she lived as a child, and played in the snow. At one point, I stopped in the tracks we had created in the flakes and told Carrie that I didn’t believe in big, highly orchestrated announcements. I believe in small moments. Then I asked her to marry me.
Intoxication, we all know, can lead to irrational behavior and poor decision-making. Most of us have horror stories of waking up with strangers to prove it. But the opposite is also true: A good alcohol-induced high can make you more attuned to life around you and the feelings you have about it. These highs are routinely brushed aside the following morning. We even have phrases for the conversations we have and the actions we take when inebriated: “It was the beer talking.” “That was just drunk talk.” “He was only a drunk hook-up.”
All these phrases negate the experiences we have when tipsy. Sometimes that’s appropriate—it’s easy to ditch an unwanted lover by labeling a previous encounter an alcoholic hook-up—but our highly developed ability to discount our drunken experiences strips away the reverence of those moments that have nothing to do with ill temperament or bad judgment. Like when you suddenly realize you can’t imagine your life without someone.
I realize I’m treading upon that famous slippery slope. History is full of tragic stories involving drunks and vehicles, let alone drunks with weapons and cheating spouses (and the inevitable country songs that grow out of those sad stories). Entire movements and organizations have sprung up due to the ill effects of alcohol. One of my best friends just told me the other day that he was giving up alcohol cold turkey. He realized he had no control over his drinking, and he promptly joined Alcoholics Anonymous. I told him I fully support his decision, and I do.
Drinking is clearly not for everyone. Americans in particular have a hard time negotiating their relationship with alcohol, largely due to what has to be one of the most immature drinking cultures anywhere. As a society we make alcohol readily available—at package stores, bars, restaurants, even at the 7-Eleven for chrissakes—but we simultaneously stigmatize the men or women who dare to overindulge on these many elixirs within their reach. The words we use to describe such drinkers almost spit with disdain: drunks, winos, sots, boozers, lushes, souses, and that Rat Pack favorite, rummy.
But our contradictions go much deeper and have a darker psychological edge. Our beers and wine grow more alcoholic by the year. Marketers and the media alike extol the merits of the latest premium liquors. Bars and restaurants promote happy hours and half-price wines. Clubs offer bottle service and create throbbing environments designed for little more than drinking.
And yet: Few seem to enjoy their drinking for more than its sheer alcoholic high. Few seem to think of it as a tool to unlock a deeper appreciation of their immediate surroundings. Do we even know how to drink? I look around, and I don’t think so. I see mostly reckless drinking, its aim unfocused but generally headed straight for Blotto-ville. There’s a more conscious intoxication out there, as oxymoronic as that may sound, one that can heighten your pleasure, instead of your pain as you’re bent over the gutter on Adams Morgan’s 18th Street strip.
I was attempting to make this point the other day to Derek Brown, the co-owner and mixology professor behind The Passenger and its cocktail laboratory, the Columbia Room. Brown is way too informed on the history of drinking, and the world’s love-hate relationship with alcohol, to cough up a simple philosophy for me. He told me he’s “in favor of a moderate enhancement of your experience and not drunkenness.” He also brought up the “paradox of hedonism,” which roughly states that a person cannot actively seek out pleasure but may find it in the course of some other pursuit.
Brown then directed me to an article in the Feb. 15 issue of The New Yorker, in which Malcolm Gladwell chronicled the story of Dwight Heath and Anna Cooper Heath. In the mid-1950s, Dwight Heath, then a grad student in anthropology at Yale, and his wife traveled to a small town in Bolivia to study the indigenous Camba people and their land use. By a strange twist of fate, the Heaths instead became authorities on the Camba’s drinking habits.
In an article that he wrote for Yale’s Center of Alcohol Studies, Dwight Heath noted that every Saturday night the Camba would gather for a drinking party that often wouldn’t end until work started on Monday. The party was a ritualistic affair in which the invited guests would sit in a circle, often with music playing in the background. A toaster would pour a glass of local rum and approach someone else in the circle. The two would exchange nods, and then the toaster would drink half the glass and the toastee the other half. The toastee would then become the toaster and start the process anew.
“When people got too tired or too drunk, they curled up on the ground and passed out, rejoining the party when they awoke,” Gladwell wrote. “The Camba did not drink alone. They did not drink on work nights. And they drank only within the structure of this elaborate ritual.”
Two things stood out about the Camba’s weekly drinking ritual: One was their choice of rum. It was 180 proof, which Gladwell describes as laboratory-grade alcohol that scientists use to “fix tissue.” But the other important point is the Camba’s reaction to this high-octane bacchanal. Dwight Heath reported that there were never any arguments, no fights, no sexual aggression, and no verbal aggression among the Camba people.
This example, of course, runs counter to the theory that alcohol unchains our monstrous Id and allows it to run amok among the innocents, raping and pillaging everything in sight. The Camba study—and others that followed—point out alcohol’s more shadowy effect.
Writes Gladwell: “Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That’s why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes that man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center—and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.”
I have been thinking a lot about this idea that drunkenness is myopia. It reminds me to be mindful of those moments when I put wine glass to lips. Drinking, in other words, should not be an automatic reaction once the work day is over and the bars start calling my name. I must give consideration to my mood, my drinking buddies, and the very venue where we plan to tipple. Is the place loud and obnoxious and full of Type-A assholes ready to fight the first person who looks at them funny? Are my fellow imbibers friends, or strangers, or even co-workers with whom I have a strained relationship? Or am I choosing to drink alone, with only my thoughts at the bar? Any one or all of these factors could shrink my world view into a sullen little storm cloud dumping acid rain on my head.
But I also think about this myopia in relationship to that night at the State Theatre five years ago. I think about alcohol’s splendid effect that evening, stripping away all the pressures I was feeling at work at the time so I could focus on the music and this magnificent woman dancing beside me. It created a feeling so intense that I wanted to repeat it ’til the day I die. Fortunately, Carrie felt the same way.
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