I wrote this last May and never published it. I guess I was a little busy completely falling apart or something. Here, enjoy a time capsule.
It’s a luxury, I guess, to mostly back off alcohol for physical reasons and not for staring-at-the-precipice-and-backing-away or “Oh fuck I’m in the crevasse and need to climb out oh god oh god” reasons. It’s a better reason, if one must have one. I’ve held for some years that if you say things like “Perhaps I should quit drinking” or “Perhaps I should quit Facebook” or “Perhaps I should get a therapist,” you probably should at least give it a try, if resources allow. Last fall, I found myself considering giving up the sauce for a while, and I realized I should probably heed my own advice.
My advice is solid but annoying.
There was one bad hangover involved in finally making this decision, but it was a catalyst and not a cause. Instead of fearfully thinking, “I am doing myself damage with this and ought to stop,” I felt a familiar feeling: deep irritation for wasting my own time on what was more broadly a stupid night out anyway. I traded everything and got nothing.
I had recently realized I’d been feeling that hangover irritation after, say, a glass or two of wine with dinner. Or a beer that I wanted, to try to make an anticipated event even more luminous to experience. I’d have a very modest amount of alcohol and later – often even before bed – be deeply annoyed at myself for using my limited amount of energy on something that sapped me so badly. That slowed my brain, that made my newly sensitive stomach quail, that wasted my fucking limited time on this earth.
The physical shift was dramatic enough that I scheduled a physical. It’s an interesting thing to look at a doctor and say “Drinking treats me a little differently than I’m used to,” seeing them switch into, “Whuh-oh, we maybe have a problem drinker,” only to see them back off that concern after hearing that the “problem” happens after a single drink.
Alas, my liver count (and all the other blood tests) came out fine. “Age!” said my friends, my contemporaries, when I mentioned this. So maybe it’s age! Ok! But I thought I’d make it past 40 before another great metabolism shift. My last one was when I was 27, when suddenly three beers was not so much the recipe for a good buzz but the recipe for a hastened end of the night. But I could still have wine with dinner, a tall Tecate at wrestling, or a mimosa with lunch, if I felt so inclined. I didn’t always, but I appreciated the option.
In stepping back from booze, that’s mostly what I feel I’ve lost: the option to commune with my fellow adults. I love bars, I love sitting at the bar, I love asking the bartender what they’re excited to make (if they’re open to conversational noodling with some random). I loved turning 21, I loved learning to like beer when I moved to Seattle shortly after that birthday. I loved inexpensive wine in Paris, feeling just a little bit warmer and more in step with the people around me. I love learning more about a place when I taste its beers. I often feel so separate of people, and it’s meant a lot to me to be able to be one with so much of humanity in something.
It’s been a loss to have that opportunity mostly squelched.
Now that I’ve learned that my new limit is the booze equivalent of a night at the penny slots, I’ve adapted some. If I line my stomach a bit first, I can have a beer or two with dinner without being furious at myself for squandering time and energy. If I stay up late enough to drink a ton of water and have a snack after, I can have a wrestling beer without much regret. It’s a lot of thinking, though, to make possible something that so many people take for granted.
Usually I end up wondering if all this bargaining is worth it. I’ve thought, for a long time, in the way I knew when I was younger that I’d eventually return to a version of vegetarianism, that I would most likely have a point where I backed off the sauce for a while, maybe for good.
To be honest, though, I thought that was more likely to happen when I saw some of my family’s unacknowledged alcoholism rise in me like an unbidden tide. I have watched people I’m related to lean on it more and more until it was less a crutch than a part of them, and I wondered when it would be my turn. When did their drinking change from recreation to necessity? Did they notice it right away or at all? Would I notice it if it happened to me?
I watched for that moment on the occasions when I would have the calm but deeply unsettling feeling, a couple of drinks in, when my anxiety would unclench, and my body would say, “Hey buddy, it could always feel this way. This gliding, easy feeling could be all the time,” and I’d shudder with unwanted understanding of how some of my friends and relatives used booze. Joining the Inebriati comes at a price, after all.
Instead, the turning point was a newly sensitive gut and a suddenly decreased tolerance – for both alcohol and wasted time.
I know our perception of time changes when we age. I think a lot lately about how, as we grow older, we sometimes exchange youthful energy and ingenuity for the mastery that can come with age, for the ruthless prioritization that comes with less energy and a diminishing balance of time on this earth. I just didn’t expect it to be at least half of the reason that beers now sit in my refrigerator for months. I thought I’d have to stare my family’s least-acknowledged genetic legacy in a blaze of fury and self-love and declare I SHALL DRINK NO MORE, FOR THIS SHALL NOT BE MY WAY, FOR I HAVE SEEN THAT PATH, AND IT ONLY LEADS TO A BLOATED FACE BLOVIATING AT PASSERSBY.
Now, it feels like an event. I’m going to have a beer with dinner tonight. Better add a side of bread, better bookend it with pints of water, better ensure dinner isn’t too late so I can cycle it out of me before I sleep. More mindfulness than I ever wanted, more care than I ever wanted to require. Is it a problem to think this much about drinking? Is it any different than the thinking I do about getting away from my family’s legacy of passive-aggression while still having relationships with other people? That’s a lot of thinking too, and both help me make better use of time.
When I travel, I often rely more on caffeine than I do at home, and I’ve used booze to make it easier for me to limp through the local language without being completely halted by self-consciousness. I’ve been leery of caffeine for a long time, because its utility comes with the risk of punching my anxiety button, making my heart race and my brain unable to fix on anything for more than a second or two, because somewhere in there it’s convinced there’s a predator afoot, and I become a jittery rabbit of a person. But I process it differently when I’m nine hours off of my home time zone. Will it be like that with wine too? Is there an exception when I’m on another continent? I’ll find out someday. Maybe not in 2020 [ed: lol], and I’m not making any set plans for 2021 either. It’ll just be one more aspect of a strange new world.
One of the regular jokes of quarantine times is how much more everyone is drinking – or, as I can attest, most everyone. Cocktails are available to go, beautiful concoctions in clever mason jars, and I’ve partaken of none of so little of it. (Exceptions: a beautiful smoky paloma from Marica here in Oakland; a jar of what’s basically alcoholic Hawaiian Punch from DNA in the city – AKA “Oops, I bought a $33 jar of hooch, oh well” night.) When we get oysters from our local sea-SA, we pair it with sparkling wine. When we make risotto, I have a little of the two-buck Chuck we use for cooking wine, but it’s all ritual, undertaken with caution. I may be the soberest American adult in the quarantine, or at least the soberest one without a specific religious or physical reason. So it’s a new kind of outsider life, here inside my apartment. I’m delighted at all the bars offering to-go service, a flat of tall PBR cans here, a box of rice and flat of toilet paper there, and I’m mostly a spectator in this interesting evolution. Sigh.
Alcohol is a drink, and alcohol is a tool. To make the lights brighter, to make the communing easier, to help get through situations that can only be solved by endurance. And the price has largely gotten too high for me to pay.
So instead, there are memories.
The bilingual trivia contest in Paris in 2013, where I quickly drank a liter of mediocre French beer in order to speak French better (which worked, by god).
Mulled wine in Montmartre, like the universe welcoming me home.
Craft beer in a hipster rooftop bar in Guadalajara, surrounded by cornhole boards as if we hadn’t left the Bay Area at all.
Pulque at a much different bar that same trip, its soothing and slippery effect as my friend and I drank into the night from big clay mugs, surrounded by locals, feeling so happy we’d found something innate to where we were.
Molsons upon Molsons in Canada, slipping into the stream of life around me.
The 0.5% sour beers I was able to guzzle freely in Stockholm, one of my favorite inventions ever, and one I’m still trying to find anywhere near home.
Cantillon at a Belgian beer bar in Sweden, next to a kilo (a kilo) of mussels, and only stopping because I knew I had to safely get myself home on a long walk around the waterfront.
Drinking a Westvleteren 12 in Amsterdam on American Thanksgiving in 2014, after mentioning it in passing to a friend, only to have the bartender light up and then go into a tiny cellar to pull out a couple of bottles.
Passing a bottle of cheap, perfect French wine back and forth on bleachers in front of Notre Dame in 2013, put up to allow people to celebrate the cathedral’s 850th anniversary, on a deeply flawed trip full of sharp awareness of these small, perfect moments, little jewels mounted in a setting of confusion and pain.
A pint a day in London, to make sure I saw lots of different pubs.
POG cocktails in Honolulu.
An unfiltered blond in Bruge, a bright spot in a grueling day.
Scorpion bowls at the tiki bars of the Bay Area, gazing at friends as we both sipped through long straws.
Limoncello on the Amalfi Coast, and too much of it… but, also kind of just enough (if I skip the part where I puked on a ferry to Capri the next morning).
I find it hard to talk about things like this, booze-centered memories, without wondering if a recounting like this will be read as a problem. These are a lot of memories, but they’re also across a lot of years years. Bars are like coffee shops, laundromats, and grocery stores: one of the ways I like to see how people live in new places. How do you order, how do you tip? Does the waitstaff want to talk to you at all? Is wine priced as a luxury or as an assumed part of the meal? Are people obsessive about cocktails or happy with meh beer that flows freely? It’s a lot to feel on the outside of.
It felt stranger when it wasn’t paired with so many other deprivations: no BART, no office, no friend gatherings, no movies or plays, no sense of general ease while being within 15 feet of strangers. It’s just one more shift off of ordinary, and so my separation from the world has been unexpectedly virtuous, at least physically.
I suppose I’ll just have to learn to be celebratory in bars with soft mixed drinks and to take delight I don’t usually feel in unusual sodas or whatever fancy mixers bars around here have to offer. Kind of like life in quarantine itself: the contents that are left are fine. There’s just something that’s missing, but there’s no choice but to learn to deal. I go outside, but usually it’s more stressful than is worth it. So I go strategically and with precautions, and I have learned how to have it feel like something like enough. Life as a short glass of Sprite with a wedge of lime – enough to get by, but with the hope that there’ll be something more again someday.
Also, P.S., this sounds like bullshit, but I swear this method has been really helpful. I’m still pretty light on the drinking as of when I published this, but if I combine it with what I now call booze vitamins, I get by pretty painlessly. I look forward to trying it out with a wrestling beer later this year.