Michelob has a special place in my heart. It’s cheap, decently flavored (the Amber Bock being the finest variety), and obviously is nothing compared to the wares of Great Lakes and Anchor. But it was the first alcohol I ever tasted.
As a child, I’d get sips of beer, wine, or whiskey at family gatherings. I can’t remember the wines; for a long time, my younger self thought white wine was a thick, opaque liquid similar to milk. The beer was often Michelob, Moosehead, or Heineken. The whiskey was always Crown Royal. I come from a Crown Royal family, where the drink is brought out for any holiday or special occasion.
This was also the age where middle and high school classes, with all the textbooks and programs of Reagan’s years intact, strictly enforced the idea of perpetually saying no to drugs and alcohol. The younger me didn’t think drinking was special and felt perfectly content to stay away from alcohol my entire life.
Then I turned nineteen. I never engaged in underage drinking in college; I was the antisocial type anyway. However, during my semester abroad in the Netherlands, not only was alcohol legal, but we also were given it on a boat cruise the very day we arrived at our castle home so we could fall asleep easier in the face of jet lag.
That semester was when I really and truly opened up for the first time, and having a drink with friends in the town bars or at crowded tables in France or Spain made me realize that alcohol, especially when shared in social settings, wasn’t bad at all. I developed an affinity for Guinness in particular, and properly drank it at 250 year-old restaurants in London. My one regret, knowing what I know now, was that I shied away from wine in France and Italy. My palate wasn’t ready yet.
I turned twenty-one and my uncle was in Boston that day. He bought me a seafood dinner accompanied by Jameson, Guinness, and Bailey’s to go with dessert; I didn’t feel well afterwards. The year went on, and I stayed in Boston for all of it, winter and summer. There was beer. Lots of beer. There was a birthday party at an apartment on Beacon Hill, a party whose events are now shrouded in legend, where I drank non-stop until two in the morning with no ill effects the next day.
More importantly, two girls I’d gotten close to hosted regular soup nights at their ramshackle home off the Orange Line, and I now began to seriously consider wine. (I started off with the Red Bicyclette family…you have to begin somewhere!) And I found I liked wine even better: the slow slipping, the flavors, the care that went into its production. Sideways being released about the same time probably helped. The company of the young ladies and their artistic circle probably helped. But wine became, and remains, my go-to drink, and that only increased in California, where I visited Napa and Sonoma and Santa Barbara and tried a multitude of wines, learned the differences, learned how to enjoy it.
Overall, I learned to drink properly in Los Angeles, and there began to branch out into harder substances (gin in particular) but I didn’t drink to excess. Then I moved to Chicago and found that when working in a high-intensity graduate program, so many social events boast free beer and wine, and that there is no better stress reliever than to share a couple glasses of anything you can find with people going through the same experience. I also had the first night I was conscious I drank too much: an October evening when I burst into tears at Social Hour while trying to contemplate Lacan over too many glasses of chardonnay, cabernet, and Miller High Life.
A year and a half later, I had my first and only hangover. I was in the middle of a brief career that nearly cost me my life savings, I was barely writing, and my one salvation, my relationship with a wonderful woman, was starting to show cracks. My supervisor, one of the best people I have ever known, asked me to join him for a pub crawl for a charity his girlfriend worked for. We hit up multiple bars and quaffed John Dalys on the trolley, and by the end of the night I was in a bad way. The next day, I attended an orientation for the marathon training program I’d be embarking on, irony of ironies, and I spent the entire meeting feeling I would throw up any moment and not wanting to open my eyes.
The relationship ended, but so did my job and my writer’s block. With this measure of stability in my life, I found I could enjoy social drinking even more, as well as the occasional glass of wine while researching or brainstorming story ideas…although NO DRINKING DURING WRITING is a primary rule for me. My education was completed by my friendship with J. Michael Bestul, who introduced me to an appreciation for non-champagne cocktails and, more importantly, whiskey. Whiskey is now one of my favorite little pleasures in life, although thanks to J. and company I, like my Uncle Richard, prefer a good Scotch, single malt or blended, above anything else except wine.
If you, my readers, haven’t figured it out already, I like to drink. I keep certain rules for myself: again, never during writing. None on weekdays, or as little as possible if with friends. And always in moderation, a lesson my parents taught me by both rule and example.
However, the past few years, I noticed that at social gatherings, especially when people brought a multitude of different drinks and I wanted to try them all, I would drink more than I knew was good for me. Apart from a few instances, including being overly friendly with a semi-famous television personality at a barbecue and yelling obscenities when a car I was riding in hit a speed bump, thus terrifying somebody I’d only met that night (who is now a very good friend), I never did anything embarrassing. Instead, I would lose energy, get noticeably loopy, and often fall asleep in public. It also would ramp up my emotions, leading to tearful dreck and either conversations with my parents or stretches sitting up a home during which I would get obsessed with my general worthlessness. And afterwards, I always felt guilty, mixed with resentment that everyone else around me seemed able to occasionally get trashed and feel no shame about it the next day while I worried that it left others with a terrible image of me, which itself could inspire more drinking.
This was not healthy.
So this year for Lent, I decided to give up drinking as something I felt could potentially hinder me as a person.
I only drank alcohol on two Sundays (which my minister told me did not count for Lenten disciplines): Oscar night and the day after I finished the first draft of my novel. Otherwise, I was on the wagon.
There were two great lessons I learned. First, I discovered that I did not miss alcohol. I never felt a desire to drink, nor did I feel jealous when I went to parties and found others indulging. As someone who always feared he might develop alcoholic tendencies (a leftover from my days as a perpetual worrier), this was a joyful experience.
Second, giving up alcohol didn’t make me feel closer to God, per se, but it did make me feel closer to people. Without drinking, I found I was even more focused on what people had to say to me, and it might have been my imagination but I felt they opened up to me even more than otherwise. Perhaps they always had been this way with me and I simply hadn’t been paying attention.
On Easter Sunday this year, I broke the discipline with a little whiskey and a few glasses of zinfandel. I savored every drop with contentment. And I enter into social situations now with that same contentment and a further watchfulness against overindulging.
Because I do like to drink. And I intend to live a balanced life so, like my grandmother, I can keep drinking with my friends and loved ones well into my nineties.