I have something to confess. It’s hard for me to talk about. It may even shock you. The fact is, I have a drinking problem. It’s been a struggle, but I’ve been clean and sober for the past six months. Before you congratulate me, I have another confession. I have also been clean and sober for the past 62 years and ten months. You see, technically, I don’t actually have a drinking problem. I have a not-drinking problem.
I simply don’t drink. Never have. And that’s created many an awkward social situation my entire adult life. A lot of people have difficulty accepting this aberration – starting with my young adult daughters. In their college years, they attended many a party and chugged many a beer. “It’s what you do at college” they claim. Thus, they refuse to believe that spirits never pass over my lips. Nobody could be that much of a boring, uptight nerd, they argue, convinced I must be keeping from them deep dark secrets about my past.
I attended a university where so many students regularly drank themselves into oblivion, that I started to wonder if it was a pre-requisite for graduation. The entry requirement at most fraternity parties was to chug a pitcher of beer upon arrival. Apparently, it was a violation of the Greek code of ethics to be on frat premises without consuming large quantities of alcohol. The only permissible exception was if you’d already passed out in the hall closet.
Even now, when I go to a gathering, people just assume I’ll be drinking, like everyone else. The beverage selections typically are two red wines, a Zinfandel, three types of beer, vodka, bourbon, and club soda. Invariably, when I mention that I don’t drink, people assume the worst: I’m an alcoholic trying to stay on the wagon. When I clarify that it’s not that, they assume the even worster: I’m a holier-than thou Prohibitionist who looks down my nose at these sinners whose weak moral failings have led them the bottle. Excellent guesses, everybody, but no, that’s not why I don’t drink (although, yeah, drunken, two-timing Charlie over there making out with the fern is probably headed south when his number is up).
I don’t drink because – now you might want to sit down for this – I just don’t like the taste of alcohol. I know, that makes me a freak in some circles, by which I mean every place of employment I’ve ever worked. But it’s true. Over the years, I came to accept my social defect and just hoped that people would still talk to me at the holiday office party. But my sobriety made them uncomfortable.
Even in college, I rarely got invited to parties. My theory is that word quickly spread that I could recount every detail of the embarrassing strip poker game that transpired the night before, being the only sober attendee. Not that I would be so catty.
So, I adopted a coping strategy of holding the same half-full glass of wine or beer all evening long, so as to appear socially acceptable. It usually worked, until some pompous metrosexual with perfectly coiffed hair noticed I was only swirling, never sipping, and commented, “A bit austere for you, Tim? Try the Merlot. It’s nicely oaked. You’ll enjoy it.” No, I won’t. Trust me.
Nowadays, I brave get-togethers with a refined confidence. When the host asks, “What can I get you?” I simply respond, “Do you have any fruit juice?” Then I wait for the judgmental pause as they conclude I must be an alcoholic trying to stay sober, after which they say in a soft sympathetic whisper, “We don’t have anything non-alcoholic, but keep it up, buddy. Stay strong. Would you like some tap water?”
Last year, my wife and I went on a tour of Italy. Our itinerary included a visit to a winery, complete with wine tasting. Our group was invited to taste six different vintages. People pontificated about how one wine had a delightful honey aftertaste, while the second wine was playful, and yet another had a sophisticated, earthy tone, whatever that meant. Frankly, the Riesling reminded me of Scope, while the Chardonnay’s follow-through had more of a Listerine acidity.
My theory is that for reasons unknown, my taste buds simply experience a completely different sensation from normal people when anything alcoholic rolls around my tongue. My palate can no more appreciate the difference between a fine 100-year-old single malt scotch whiskey and a bottle of 7-Eleven rotgut than a three-year-old could distinguish between a Picasso and a squiggle.
After decades of feeling guilty for not drinking like the rest of the gang, I eventually decided to accept my embarrassing character flaw. I’ve been to many parties where guests wage lively debates on the merits of a particular Argentinian Grenache versus a Malbec from Burgundy. Far be it from me to say these people were behaving like pretentious snobs – because I prefer to keep those thoughts to myself.
So, the next time you’re throwing a big party, please forgive me for not trying your wonderful 1996 Pinot Noir from Northern Italy. I’m sure it’s to die for. But someone needs to be the designated driver when your buddy Charlie passes out in the arms of that fern and needs a ride home. That designated driver would be me.
That’s the view from the bleachers. Perhaps I’m off base.
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©Tim Jones, View from the Bleachers 2017
I am a recovering alcoholic — 33 years My sober years have been wonderful. MY only regret is that I didn’t find sobriety earlier.
Tim: My wife and I can take it or keave it. With my health issue now I am not using alcohol My wife may take askp of wine occasionally and agrees with your Listerine and Scope comparisons.
You’d enjoy Anne Fadiman’s recent memoir: The Wine Lover’s Daughter. The framework of the memoir is about how she just never liked the taste of wine, no matter how many extraordinary bottles of wine her father (Clifford Fadiman) may have collected and tried to share with her. She even went so far as to get her taste buds tested to see if there was some scientific explanation for the difference in taste that you neatly capture in the description of your Italy trip. Of course, it’s also about growing up to be a writer in the shadow of Fadiman. For a writer and book-lover, it is a fun read.