The New York Times' "Proof: Alcohol and American Life" blog recently ran three pieces by recovering alcoholics (the third by Susan Cheever) who struggle to avoid drinking at seasonal parties, which has led them deeply astray in the past.
Fair enough. But the drunken spectacles they describe reflect a different experience with alcohol than many others have had. After all, human beings have been drinking alcohol enjoyably together for centuries. This is one reason the practice of consuming alcoholic beverages continues.
I live across the hallway from the brother of a hall-of-fame baseball player -- one of the first African-Americans to play in the major leagues. My neighbor has three kids, innumerable friends, and even more innumerable stories about ballplayers, the segregated U.S. army during World War II, and life in the South before moving to New Jersey.
The other night, another neighbor (who came to New Jersey via Brooklyn and the Dominican Republic) hosted a small gathering -- just the three of us -- to celebrate our older friend's 87th birthday. Provisions consisted of a pleasant living room, a full moon, and single malt scotch on the rocks.
We practiced harm reduction. None of us got stinking drunk. Furthermore, the birthday boy and I each only had to stagger back out across the hallway -- not only no driving, but no steps! For all of us, such events are infrequent at this point in our lives (I'm in my sixties and the host in his forties).
We discussed how we each first drank. Our Latino friend got drunk at age 12 on Cuba Libre (which he had to explain means Bacardi rum and coke). Some years later, his first American employer took him out for a drink, and explained that stylish people drank scotch genteelly -- a lesson he has adhered to ever since.
I described my deprived upbringing where I tasted the horribly sweet Manischewitz wine as a kid. Later, I started hitchhiking from Philly to New York with friends to see jazz greats like Thelonius Monk. There were two-drink minimums, and - overhearing someone else's order - I had Seven and Sevens (Seagram's 7 whiskey and 7-Up).
Our older friend claimed he waited until he was 21, then had a drink of good liquor with his father, himself a moderate drinker. "What," I exclaimed. "You never drank until then?" "Well, I had some wine," he filled in. He also described having a couple of rounds of clear moonshine in Alabama from his uncle's still some time later.
For all of us, our initiation into drinking was a significant event, generally positive after perhaps some early mishaps, involving nonalcoholic role models and people meaningful to us and important things going on other than drinking.
As a result, we all survived without becoming alcoholics. What's more, we all enjoy a drink. What's more, we all feel it is appropriate to use alcohol to celebrate. What's more, on a special occasion, like an 87th birthday, we might drink a little more than usual and get slightly giddy.
Maybe that's why we ended the evening with a group hug.
And, you know, we all felt great the next morning.