IN DEFENSE OF: : Getting Drunk : A Spirited Imbiber Speaks Up for the Pleasure of Alcohol, Which he Argues is Too Often the Scapegoat for Societal Ills.
I’m drunk. My cheeks are flushed. My heart is beating fast. I’m not sure what time it is. As I look around the room, I find myself transfixed by insignificancies--a beam of light etching a tiny rainbow onto one side of an Evian bottle protruding from an ice bucket; a thin, translucent rim of molten wax ringing the flame of the milk-white taper on my table; a scribble of blue thread on the back of a waiter’s short black jacket. I also find myself, improbably, enjoying the syrupy pianist in the corner as he oozes through his maudlin repertoire. I feel wonderful.
I’m sitting alone in the dining room of the Hotel Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland, and have just finished a simple but delicious dinner. I began my evening with a flute of champagne in the hotel bar. With my meal, I consumed a bottle of good Swiss pinot blanc. Now, with a demitasse of strong, creamy coffee, I’m starting on my second tiny glass of the aged dry white cherry brandy called vieux kirsch .
Do I disgust you? Do you disapprove? And if so, why? I’m not behaving oddly or inappropriately to my surroundings. I’m not singing loudly to myself or knocking things over. I may well lurch a little when I get up to leave; I’ll probably snore like a foghorn tonight. But I’m not going to drive anywhere. I’m not going to abuse anyone on the way to my room. So what if I’m drunk? Maybe I’ll die before you do. Maybe I won’t. Maybe you’re a better person than I am. I hope you are, in fact. Good night.
I WROTE THOSE WORDS, OR AT LEAST SCRAWLED the notes on which they are closely based, not quite two years ago, on the third evening of a 17-day business trip to Europe--a trip that was to include many more good meals and many more ascents, as I like to think of them, to a state of pleasant inebriation. I was scrawling in the first place, instead of just sitting there sipping cherry hooch and listening to “La Vie en Rose,” because I had lately started thinking seriously about alcohol and (for a start) my own relation to it. Since that time, I’ve scrawled and thought a good deal more, drunk and sober both, not just about why I drink, but about why other people do or don’t, and about why alcohol is increasingly condemned these days, by the earnest and the honest as well as by the fatuous and the self-deluding, as evil straight up.
I’ve come to several conclusions: I think, first of all, that a lot of people who drink, and genuinely enjoy drinking, sometimes drink too much ( because they genuinely enjoy drinking), but that when they do, it’s usually no big thing. They usually don’t cause anybody any problems, and they probably do no more than minor damage to themselves. (A hangover is not a pretty beast, but it is a short-lived one; and, up to a point at least, the liver has astonishing self-regenerative abilities.)
I think that if alcohol is indeed, as we are often told, “America’s number-one drug problem,” it is also probably America’s number-one scapegoat for societal ills--ills whose real causes don’t come conveniently packaged in bottle form.
And I think that, insofar as it is possible to measure such things, alcohol probably brings as much pleasure to the world as it brings pain. Plenty of people speak out against the pain. I think somebody ought to speak up for the pleasure.
I LIKE TO DRINK. THIS IS NO SECRET TO ANYONE who knows me. Let’s define some terms here, though: I don’t live in a constant state of intoxication. I don’t--I can’t--work drunk. I don’t get drunk every night. I don’t get drunk on purpose. I mean, I know that alcohol will inebriate me if I consume a certain quantity of it and, in fact, appreciate that quality in it--but I don’t sit down at the table, open a bottle of vodka and say, “Boy, am I gonna get blotto tonight!”
And when I talk about getting drunk, incidentally, I don’t mean falling-down / throwing-up / screaming-and-flailing-or-sniffling-and-sobbing / out-of-control drunk. I mean drinking to the point that the chemical equilibrium of my body begins to be altered in various noticeable ways--my capillaries dilated, my muscles relaxed, my neurons disordered--with pleasurable effect.
Drinking is not an obsession with me. It is far from the defining activity of my life. I don’t wake up in the morning imagining what alcoholic beverages I will consume that day. Drinking is simply a thing I do, a part of the mix. I drink wine--a bottle, more or less--with dinner three or four times a week. (I should mention that I’m 6-foot-1 and weigh something over 250 pounds, so I might be said to have a somewhat larger capacity than usual.) The nights I don’t drink wine, I might have a small scotch when I come home or a brandy before I go to bed, or I might have nothing at all. I almost never drink at lunchtime, unless I’m off somewhere where lunchtime drinking is the norm. Occasionally, day or night, if I’m in the mood and the circumstances permit, I exceed these limits.
I don’t drive drunk, but I’d be a liar if I said that I’ve never driven drunk--and so would many of you. Sometimes when we drink more than we’ve intended to, judgment and coordination take advantage of the situation and sneak off hand-in-hand in the middle of the party, so discreetly that we don’t even notice that they’re gone. One of the drinker’s most important responsibilities is to keep an eye on them, even through the haze, and to shut the bash down (and give up the car keys) if they disappear. (And one of the drinker’s most important assets is a friend to help mount the vigil.)
I’m well aware of the physical dangers of alcohol--the way it can wrack the body, scramble the brain. I’m also aware of its beneficial effects (wine’s apparent value to the cardiovascular system, for instance). But I neither drink nor moderate my drinking for medical reasons. I do moderate it--I drink less now than I did 20 or even 10 years ago, and will probably drink less in 1995 than I do in 1994--but only out of common sense. My body is less resilient than it used to be, and since I drink for pleasure, I try to avoid drinking to the point of displeasure.
Why do I drink, then? I drink because I like the way alcohol smells and tastes, especially in the forms in which I most often encounter it, which are wine, scotch, various brandies, an occasional beer, an occasional silly cocktail. I drink because I like the trappings of imbibing, the company it keeps--the restaurants and cafes and bars and (usually) the people who gather in them. And, I drink, frankly, because I like the way alcohol makes me feel. I like the glow, the softening of hard edges, the faint anesthesia. I like the way my mind races, one zigzag step ahead of logic. I like the flash flood of unexpected utter joy that sometimes courses quickly through me between this glass and that one. I like the feeling of being almost, but not quite, in control.
ALCOHOL IS ANCIENT--AS OLD AS FRUIT AND grain. Fermentation, the process by which alcohol is produced, occurs spontaneously in nature. It is ignited by airborne yeasts, settling by chance onto grapes or other sugar-laden fruits, vegetables, grains and such (the catalogue of willing agents is immense). The yeast secretes an enzyme called zymase, which acts upon certain of the sugars--principally dextrose and levulose--to form carbon dioxide and a carbohydrate called ethanol or ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH), which is the kind of alcohol we drink.
If alcohol is ancient, it is also ubiquitous. I don’t mean just that most cultures, in most parts of the world, have discovered and enjoyed alcohol for themselves, but also that it is present in every one of us, whether we drink or not. In 1973, the Nobel Prize-winning British biochemist Sir Hans A. Krebs discovered that dietary sugars are fermented daily in the human intestine, producing alcohol in an amount said to approximate that contained in a quart of 3.2% beer. This alcohol doesn’t have the effects of a quart of beer, at least in normally functioning human bodies, because it is broken down almost immediately, before it reaches the bloodstream. Still, this would seem to be further proof that alcohol is a natural substance, and that the body has the means for dealing with it, at least in modest quantity. This is accomplished initially through an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase, whose function is to catalyze the first step in ridding the body of alcohol--and which, as Mark Keller of the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies writes in his book “Alcohol and Alcohol Problems,” “doesn’t seem to have very much else to do.”
It was Louis Pasteur who discovered the nature of fermentation, in 1857. Many thousands of years before that, though, human beings began to take note of both the process and its effects. According to one story, Noah drank fermented grape juice after watching goats grow tipsy from the grapes, and liked the stuff so much that he subsequently became the world’s first drunkard (and planted the world’s first vineyard). Another tale credits a concubine in the court of the (probably mythical) King Jamshid of Persia, who sought oblivion by quaffing a noxious, foaming liquid she found at the bottom of a bowl of rotting grapes in the palace cellar--and became the life of the party instead.
Distillation, the process by which whiskey, vodka, rum and other such liquors are made, is another story. Unlike fermentation, it is not a naturally occurring process, but rather a technique apparently developed by Arab alchemists in the 10th Century, originally to make perfumes and medicines. It is based on the fact that alcohol evaporates faster than water; by boiling wine, then, its alcohol can be drawn off and collected. The spirit, as it were, is extracted from the vinum corpus .
However fermentation was discovered, there is archeological evidence to suggest that, as long ago as 6,000 BC, the process had come under some measure of human control. The anthropologists Solomon H. Katz and Mary M. Voigt push the date back even earlier, to about 8,000 BC. They also posit that the earliest fermented beverage, apparently a kind of beer, might have been considered so desirable by its consumers that they were willing to change their very mode of living to ensure its regular supply--actually planting grains that had hitherto been gathered in the wild. Out of cyclical, non-migratory agriculture grew the first permanent human settlements--and the next thing anybody knew, you had rush-hour gridlock at Wilshire and Westwood.
The desire to get drunk, in other words, might lie at the very roots of human civilization.
MY NAME IS COLMAN, AND I’M AN ALCOHOLIC. IT says so right here, at the bottom of this questionnaire from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The form poses 20 yes-or-no questions. “If you have answered YES to three or more,” it reads in conclusion, “you are definitely an alcoholic.” They got me on four of them: (3.) Do you drink because you are shy with other people? Yes, sometimes, when I’m feeling out of my element. It works great; after a glass or two of something, I loosen up, start a conversation and join the party. (10.) Do you crave a drink at a definite time daily? Yep. Dinnertime. (16.) Do you drink alone? All the time, especially when I travel. I like drinking in company, but good wine tastes just as good at the solitary table. (17.) Have you ever had a complete loss of memory as a result of drinking? Yes, once.
I was young (in my early twenties), tired (I was near the end of an arduous second-class train journey from Bucharest to Paris) and unwise. Stopping between trains in Dijon, I stashed my luggage in a locker and went off to the Foire Gastronomique, an immense food and wine exhibition, at which I attempted to taste about two dozen varieties of calvados--strictly for academic purposes, of course--after already having had a bit too much wine to drink. I vaguely remember leaving the exhibition hall. The next thing I knew, my train was pulling into the Gare de Lyon some four or five hours later. Miraculously, I had all my luggage with me.
This is not the place to question the validity of facile questionnaires, to discuss the philosophies and methods of Alcoholics Anonymous and other such groups (which frequently use such questionnaires as screening devices) or to lampoon the you’re-either-in-denial-or-in-recovery school of pop psychology.
But I think it might be worth noting, since it is not commonly understood by the general public, that there is no single, universally accepted medical or legal definition of “alcoholism"--and that by no means every expert on the subject accepts the fact that alcoholism is a disease at all. In his controversial but extensively documented 1988 book “Heavy Drinking; The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease,” Herbert Fingarette, a former World Health Organization alcoholism and addiction consultant, goes so far as to say that “ No leading research authorities accept the classic disease concept (of alcoholism).”
Alcoholism is perhaps like obscenity in this respect: Almost everybody admits that it exists and most folks claim to know it when they see it. But when you try to get specific and say, This Is, This Isn’t, it becomes a powerful elusive thing. Is an alcoholic, for instance, simply someone who ingests a certain predetermined quantity of alcohol? (The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus thought so 2,000 years ago. “He is a drunkard,” he proposed, “who takes more than three glasses, though he be not drunk.”) Or should we define alcoholism in terms of physical symptoms (blackouts or the DTs, say) or of tragic social consequences (auto accidents, domestic violence, whatever)?
My father was an alcoholic by nearly anybody’s definition. For most of his life, he drank like a son-of-a-bitch. As a young dandy of a newspaper editor in Chicago, just before Prohibition, he was famous for going to bed at 4 a.m. “drunk as a skunk,” then getting to the office in the morning before anybody else and knocking out stories while his colleagues were still squinting at the coffee. Later, as a Hollywood writer, he hung out at Lucey’s and other movie-business watering holes, where water was rarely consumed, and downed martinis or (his trademark drink) Old Rarity and Perrier. My personal recollections of his drinking are somewhat less romantic. I recall, for example, that he used to hide bottles of whiskey in his suitcase when he went on business trips--and that when we went out to dinner as a family, he would sometimes excuse himself for a trip to the men’s room, then stop on the way back to bribe a waiter to surreptitiously bring him a water glass filled with vodka.
If he was an alcoholic, though, he was also a scrupulously moral man, a stranger to violence whether drunk or sober and an almost unbelievably hard worker--a writer who sat at his typewriter for unbroken four- and five-hour stints, not even getting up to go to the bathroom or the coffee-maker, or to stretch his legs. At the age of about 60, on doctor’s orders, he quit drinking. He did it cold turkey, subsequently refusing even a celebratory glass of champagne when I graduated from high school. After my mother died, I encouraged him to drink a bit again. This he did with great pleasure. “I’d forgotten how good that tasted,” he said when he tried his first martini in a dozen years.
When he died himself a year later--from the effects not of his drinking but of his lifelong three-pack-a-day cigarette habit--I found nothing to suggest that he had started drinking seriously again. There was not a single bottle stashed in his apartment, not even beer in the refrigerator. If my father was an alcoholic, then, I’m tempted to say that he was not a typical one. But does a “typical” one exist?
Isn’t it sometimes a question of social norms, or of context? Is the Frenchman who consumes maybe a bottle or a bottle and a half of wine a day, every day of his life (except when he’s taking his annual government-subsidized, two-week “water cure” at some sulfurous-smelling spa in the mountains) an alcoholic? What about the Greek or Italian who cannot imagine sitting down to lunch or dinner without at least a glass of wine or beer? On the other hand, what about the kid who guzzles too much Coors at a high school beer bust and pukes all the way home (and who will probably repeat the process for a while until he grows out of it)? What about your aunt, who hadn’t had a drink since George Bush was elected but who sipped a bit too much spiked eggnog a couple of nights ago and knocked over a stop sign driving back to Mission Viejo? And if she’s not an alcoholic, which I would argue she certainly isn’t, then how dare our courts require, as they might well do, that she attend AA meetings as a portion of her sentence?
And, er, what about me?
Context, in fact, is the whole point. You know all about context if you’ve ever gone sober to a party where the drinking is heavy. Everyone seems so, well, glassy-eyed and red-faced, so loud and unfunny. It is not a pretty picture. But that’s just you. You’re out of place--just as you’d be out of place if you walked, glassy-eyed and red-faced, into a room full of the stone-cold sober. Wine-tasting party, wedding reception, Friday night at the tavern, table at Patina, bearskin rug by a ski lodge fire--those are drinking places, or can be if you want them to be. Freeway, office, library, schoolhouse--those are not, not even if you want them to be.
But the notion that there is a proper context for drinking, and for getting drunk, is rapidly disappearing in America. Institutionalized carousing is a facet of many cultures: Just as certain days are often set aside for abstinence, so certain days are set aside for popping corks and tapping kegs. We’ve just had such a day ourselves, and have another one coming up, on March 17. But, we are now told, it’s not OK to get drunk on those days, or on any others. Drinking is bad, period. The consumption of alcohol is increasingly unacceptable anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances.
The three-martini lunch is an artifact today, as rare as the eight-track tape. In certain industries once famous for being practically fueled by ethanol--the movie business, journalism, advertising--drinking has become so suspect that a beer after work practically ruins reputations. In trendy restaurants, pregnant women are refused drinks by self-righteous waiters (never mind that some obstetricians permit their expectant patients an occasional glass or two of wine--or that waiters probably ought to wield no particular moral authority in this regard). Schoolchildren come home with their “Just Say No” brochures and beg their parents not to drink wine with dinner because alcohol is a drug. The line between use and abuse is blurred. If you look up “Intoxication” in the on-line catalogue at the Santa Monica Public Library, you will be asked to “See Alcoholism"--as if they are one and the same.
It’s about time alcohol fell into disrepute, say anti-alcohol activists. According to some estimates, in this country it is involved in more than half of all fatal traffic accidents, more than half of all homicides, more than half of all arrests of any kind--and has a “negative economic impact” of more than $100 billion a year. It leads to suicide, broken homes, addiction to other drugs, woes of almost every kind.
It is possible, to some extent, to defend alcohol from these charges. Who says, for instance, that the tragic character flaws blamed on drinking are always caused by drinking, rather than the other way around? How many people on Skid Row drank themselves there, and how many drink because they are there? And why, for that matter, do we lavish opprobrium on those people irresponsible enough to drive drunk and not on those who drive while under the influence of prescription tranquilizers or antihistamines (which can cause dangerous drowsiness), or the ones who nod off behind the wheel from sheer fatigue or sleep disorder, or the ones temporarily short-circuited by anger or deep sorrow?
There’s a more basic response to the litany of accusations leveled against alcohol today, though: Alcohol is innocent. It has no soul. It has no intentions. It is a morally neutral substance, a mere arrangement of molecules, no more inherently good or bad than water (which both nourishes and drowns) or sunlight (progenitor of both chlorophyll and melanoma). Alcohol does not “cause” automobile accidents or child neglect or rape or murder. We do, by misusing it. Alcohol doesn’t even cause alcoholism. (If it did, observed the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1977, “everyone who drinks would become an alcohol abuser.”)
If drinking, and getting drunk, should be done in context, they should also be done with a sense of (and I hope this doesn’t seem too weak a word) manners. There are, and have always been, codes of drinking. These vary according to geography and era, but they are always in place. “Make not thyself helpless in drinking in the beer shop,” reads an Egyptian papyrus from about 1500 BC, “for . . . falling down thy limbs will be broken, and no one will give thee a hand.”
It is the responsibility of the drinker to know how, as well as when, to drink. There are people who Can’t Drink. Something--personality, hereditary chemistry, whatever--robs them of control and of good sense when they ingest alcohol. Their etiquette is simply phrased, if not easily observed: Don’t drink. There are others who can drink, and who choose to do so. Their etiquette is, or ought to be: Know yourself, and know alcohol in yourself.
I HAVE TWO DAUGHTERS, ONE 9 MONTHS AND the other almost 4 years old, and though I’ve never actually sat down and thought deeply about the consequences of the messages I’m sending them by drinking so frequently in front of them--by incorporating alcohol into my life, into our family life--I am certainly very much aware that I am sending them messages.
“What are you going to do,” my wife asked me recently, “if Maddy comes to you one day when she’s a teen-ager and says, ‘Dad, I’d like a glass of wine before I do my homework?’ ” I replied that I’d say no, and that I’d explain to her that there are some good things in life that you have to wait awhile for--like coffee in the morning, a driver’s license and that glass of wine.
I realize, though, that that’s far from enough. I realize that I have to imbue in my daughters a sense of respect for alcohol’s heady powers and a sense of responsibility in its use. I hope, too, that I can inspire in them a deep affection for the concept of conviviality, and for the almost sacramental implications of breaking bread and sharing wine with someone.
But I also hope--and this is the really tricky part--that I can teach them this about getting drunk: That drinking, like life, is a matter of balance; that balance isn’t always the same as moderation, though it keeps moderation at its core--and that you can’t keep your balance if you can’t see the edge.