Nothing I’ve written about drinking has generated more public interest than a year or so ago when I wrote about not drinking. So now, as we move past a December soaked in drink, seems a good time to revisit the theme.
We all need to rest. Not just rest from exhausting activities (gift-buying, parties, hosting, work, consumption), but from the psychological toil of our aspirations. We aim to master every interest: to keep abreast, engage with others of like spirit, and perhaps be of service to others who come for guidance.
There’s nobility in that but a shadow side too, which springs from a distinctly American acquisitiveness that involves striving, restlessness, dissatisfaction. I know most people don’t approach wine the way I do — most people just want a drink — but most of us do try too hard at something. Surely you, too, however you feel about wine, have something in your life you’re demanding too much from.
The toll this takes, in a culture bursting with information and myriad means for disseminating it, is rarely acknowledged. Because we can never grasp everything we think we ought to, we grow increasingly anxious. And lest I overstate the universality of this condition, I’ll take it to a more personal level and assert that it afflicts early-middle-age American men most acutely.
We never grew up. Our parents, detonators of the greatest collective flash of individualism and youthful exuberance in history, passed to us a fetish for endless juvenescence so strong that we never even wanted to grow up.
Alcohol stages a performance of youth regained, but there are other means available. In high school and college we geeked out on rock ‘n’ roll, movies, manual cameras, marijuana or some other object of obsessive, exhaustive, controlling adoration. It felt crucial at the time.
Then somewhat resentfully, without much gratitude for our historically fortunate situation, we got real-ish jobs and started raising families. We held tight to the old objects of desire, but our bodies were moving on; our minds staying in place; our hearts tearing between past and future.
Unlike in real cultures where values are communal, critics are unnecessary, and rites of passage are cherished, in most modern societies you just do whatever there is to do. The lawless West pervades every spiritual breath we take: corrupt sheriff, vast desert, impending chaos. I and my generational brethren didn’t accept that we’d have to give up the doctoral-thesis treatment of our youthful hobbies.
I eventually turned that mindset to wine. I enjoy it tremendously. Of course there’s a toll: drunkenness, if not dissolution and debasement. When you’re drunk you dream that drunkenness itself is fine. When you’re eating that fourth cookie you dream that sugar and white flour are fine. When you tap out a quick reply to an email at 60 mph you dream that texting while driving is fine.
We suppose we’re safe and happy, that what has captivated us is not just interesting but necessary. The toll always comes later, when the masks peel from our faces. Everyone needs a break from keeping up appearances.
The greatest benefit of abstinence from whatever fascinates you is that you avert the toll before it’s presented. You pay up front, in a currency of self-discipline.
Getting old just happens, cycles of chastened “no” following blithe “yes.” Maturing occurs with disruptive effort: saying no to something you’ve invested in saying yes to. The arduous “no” brings grateful “yes.”
Abstaining is a risky reclamation of sabbath. It’s respite not just from the thing itself — “I could really stand to stay off alcohol for a week” — but from the overarching anxiety, the oscillating self-identification with that thing. That’s what we man-boys of a certain age need to be most watchful for, even if our livers are functioning, our minds stay clear and we uphold our responsibilities to our families and friends: the deluded conviction that what we care about so deeply is really so important after all.
A month after Hurricane Sandy, I saw Manhattanites go about their daily, expensive routines, while a few miles away in Red Hook, Coney Island and the Rockaways neighbors were waiting outside Red Cross trucks for food and drink. There are too many people in the world literally dying of thirst, with scant potable water in their environments, for me to get too caught up in the nuances of a less urgent beverage.
The pursuit of beauty in a fallen world is not inherently cruel. But temporarily withdrawing from what stirs me most is a powerful tool for maintaining perspective, generating empathy, and staying appropriate. Abstention is a metaphorical experience of thirst, reminding us that deprivation exists not in some other world but in ours. Alongside bliss. Enjoy your sabbath.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: