Lowering the bar

I was raised in a dry family. My dad was raised Baptist, the kind of Baptist where you don’t drink – or if you do maybe have some liqour tucked away, you don’t talk about it. Neither of my parents themselves were strict teetotalers, but neither care much for the taste of alcohol, and besides it just wouldn’t fit the budget. Once in a great while, due to some unusual circumstance, some beer would turn up at the house, usually sitting neglected for months before Dad would crack open a can and offer the kids a taste. It tasted bad. I’m not sure what ever happened to the rest of the cans.

In college I remained abstemious. I only remember being invited out drinking once, to an establishment I wouldn’t care to visit with or without the alcohol. My first drink was a coke and rum, after work sometime in my second or third year working. I got invited out several times by coworkers, but I suspected them of mainly trying to see how drunk they could get me (a professed goal of at least one of them) and generally declined. In my first five years in the workforce I think I had about 3 drinks.

My teetotaling was mostly a habit. I was against drunkenness on principle, and still am; but I could always recognize at least a theoretical difference between having a drink and getting drunk. But it always seemed like people who wanted to drink also wanted to lose at least a portion of their senses, so the theoretical difference didn’t seem to mean much.

It wasn’t until working for this company on the marketing side of the business that I got into situations where drinking “after” work was really still part of the job–business dinners instead of after work hangouts. Since I wasn’t a teetotaler in princple, I pretty much started out on the theory that one drink of anything was fine. It’s not a bad rule of thumb, although I’ve learned that with my slender build a single beer will get me buzzed even consumed at a moderate pace. But that at least is where I stop; if I can tell I am affected, I don’t have any more.

For a  while I could say I’d never had more than two in a night, but that went out the window on this last buisness trip. I don’t really know what I had–not because I lost my senses, but because it was one of those classy restaurants that won’t let you get to the bottom of a wine glass. The host kept the wine flowing. And ordered shots around, twice. That was probably my maximum lifetime consumption of alcohol, but as we were standing on the curb waiting for the taxi I was not feeling any of the lag that a single beer will do for me on an empty stomach.

The only time I actually wanted to drink myself silly also occurred on this last business trip. I’d got through a long week with lots of driving to a short weekend, starting off Sunday at 7:30 with five hours more driving, partly in metropolitan Phildelphia. Driving takes a kind of mental general alert (or its supposed too, anyway), and after all that driving my brain wanted to crawl into a corner and shut down. I was mighty tempted to order a second sake. But, still having driving obligations ahead of me, I got no further than wishing for it.

The first two years on this job I was only drinking as expected during work-related events. After two years I didn’t know anyone from work in anything other than a work capacity. For some people – for some of my own siblings – this is ideal: the fewer people you know, the less you have to worry about. But I like to know what matters to people, to be a part of what matters to people, and the charade called work usually just scratches the surface.

So this year, not only did I hang out after work, I instigated the hang-out. I sent out time and place notices to people I’d never even met. People showed up, too. People said thanks for putting this together. They said great idea, we should do this more often. Sometimes it didn’t work out, but in the main if you say “let’s get together after work” and it’s understood that alcohol will be available, people show up.

And that struck me as so sad. Why does it have to be about alcohol? Why is the one thing that will bring people together a toxin that makes them forget themselves by degrees, and eventually each other? There has to be a better way, I thought.

Then as I thought through it I realized what an impasse we’ve constructed as a culture. Inviting people into your house is considered intimate, especially if you cook food for them, and / or if you have a family. You can invite people to your house, but it signals that you’ve already decided to be friends with them, and how would you do that if you only know them by name at work? Of course the exception is if you are having a Party, in which case actual Friends can invite their friends, and then you can get to know them and decide if they get their own direct invitation next time. But the single most important element of having a Party is drinking alcohol, because then in any of the awkward uncertain moments everybody knows what to do: drink. Or find a drink. Or talk about the last time you were drinking. If there are a lot of awkward moments just keep drinking until someone loosens up enough that a lively chatter starts up.

In my earlier years I assumed a “lively chatter” was just a euphemism for drunken boisterousness, but that’s not entirely accurate. It is just as fair to say that people would loosen up just as much if they spent an equal amount of time drinking water at the same table. That’s not entirely accurate either, but in reality the necessity of alcohol is greatly exaggerated by both is proponents and its critics. If you can get at least five people together at one table chances are quite high that one of them will initiate a topic of conversation and at least one will respond, and one or two of the others will be quite happy to just listen in. And it doesn’t particularly matter what they are drinking–but everybody thinks that it does.

I’ve been to those parties, too. I’ve been to the teetotaler parties where there wasn’t any booze to be had. People survived. People behaved pretty much like drinking people behave on their first few drinks. Eventually the drinking people will drink enough that their behavior becomes noticeably different, but by that point the sociable people have usually headed for home and the ones that are left are the ones who truly are in it for the drinking, not the hanging out. The first hour of an alcohol-enabled gathering is pretty much like the first hour of a dry gathering, and the first hour is most awkward. After that if you need to keep drinking to avoid feeling awkward you shouldn’t be with those people anyway.

Now I’d rather join a bunch of people for a corn-husking bee, or a barn-raising, or a sheep-shearing, or putting in the hay, or whatever kind of other productive thing you can do to help people. But what is that, today? Among the set of office professionals you can’t just ask the office to help you remodel your kitchen. You can’t invite everyone over to mow your lawn. There is very little you can do that doesn’t seem excessively intimate besides meet somewhere to drink.

It is sad that our sense of community has shriveled to the point where we all leave our houses to meet in some other place and pretend to be busy with our drinks just to be able to sit together for a few hours. But there aren’t very many ways around it, either, at least not without abdicating the culture in general and reinforcing my point. You can always join the Amish and prove me wrong, but you’ll prove me right at the same time also.

There are some exceptions. I should know. After beginning my campaign of after-work sociability I did wind up meeting some people who can invite you over without promising a drink, who I can invite over to my house without promising booze. It’s less expensive and it is more enjoyable.

But even so, it was at some bar that I learned about several colleagues who recently moved, and got help or needed help moving; and I knew them well enough to help with moving, and would be quite happy to help with just such a project, but I never heard about it because those are the kinds of things that get talked about after work, over a drink. Not because it has to be that way, but because that’s the way that everybody thinks it is.