Masterful drinking

My first up-close view of civilized and sustainable alcoholism (there have been a few but not many) was provided by an aunt and an uncle whom I barely knew and whom I visited only once in my adult life — Navy folks, the crew of a decorated captain whose career had chased the family from coastal Virginia to Hawaii to San Diego, back to the greater DC area to a desk job  (“You know what we say at the Pentagon, John? Every story has five sides”), and finally back on the waves, to Coronado Island off the coast of San Diego, where Uncle Dave retired from his last captaincy (right word?) to a life of Bonsai (a master), unforgivingly haute-cuisine, and masterful, ritualized drinking.

The daily window of their boozing was unvarying, though perhaps a bit personalized in its definitions of terms. Cocktails were before dinner, but the “before-dinner” interval seemed to begin around two o’clock. This was on the West Coast, mind you, where things are … earlier. And while these cocktails were very, very adult in strength and taken in number, they were not taken in leisure. Dinner was an invested, serious, ritualized, and scientific process. It was as if they drank to focus, something I think I understand now.

Wine went with dinner, of course, though it was unthinkable to me at that point that they would have any appetite for wine. And then they cleaned up and went straight to bed, well before nine, as I recall, every night. No sloppy hanging on, no fool’s dream of pouring another and keeping the party rolling. Neat. Everything about it was neat, tucked, and within the frame.


It occurred to me then — I was maybe 23 — that this was one way to do it, one way to extend the pleasures of not just a drink but of acute intoxication and its suppressed, unspoken euphoria over a lifetime, one way to show booze who was boss, if you had that kind of discipline in yourself and in your world. I don’t, and it doesn’t.

It was all about the frame. If it got out of the cage, it would eat you alive. I pass no judgment. They were productive, intelligent people of great accomplishment who reached (and in my uncle’s case surpassed) normal life expectancy. It was more likely that other generational blind spot — cigarettes — that finally caught up with them. If, through one of those either/or bargains that is never actually offered to anyone, they could have had five more years of retirement on Coronado for 5000 fewer drinks, I am confident they would not have changed their course.

With no intent to challenge or to offend, I offer: “alcoholism” is, among many other things, a word. They were drinkers, but was it a problem? I am not sure. Maybe there are stories I don’t know.

Why are they even on my mind? A New Paltz native and scratch golfer, the agelessly handsome Henry Robinson, recently posted on social media, “Hey, everyone here’s a fun game! Figure out your ‘Quarantine Drinking Name!’ It’s your first name followed by your last name.”


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.