Friday, January 1, 2010

It's a Family Thing

It’s the age old psychological argument: nature vs. nurture. Are a person’s character traits and behaviors inherited, or merely a result of the influences of his environment? It’s a debate that often takes place while drinking, but I think it’s also worth looking at when talking about drinking (that is, aside from examination of the root causes of alcoholism, in which both nature and nurture tend to factor—trust me, I’ve been to enough AA meetings to know that much**). This being the holiday season, I’ve once again spent some time mixing my family and alcohol. And it has reminded me that my proficiency with booze, whether because of nature or nurture, is largely due to my own flesh and blood.
  • On Christmas Eve I had dinner at my mom’s house, and we were joined by two of my cousins (“PJ” and “Jump”), as well as PJ’s husband, Jump’s fiancée, and his fiancée’s son. Shortly after their arrival, my mom had the realization that she hadn’t picked up any beer for the occasion. All she had was the few cans of Coors Light in the refrigerator in her garage—cans that have been down there so long, even I won’t touch them. Jump sprang into action, despite our warnings, and ran down to get a can. He’d cracked it before he had even come back upstairs, and he declared it to be "fine" as he took a few preliminary sips. Later, when he’d finished the beer, my mom asked him what the expiration date on the can said. “September 2007.”

  • Jump stuck to wine the rest of the night.

  • An unapologetic yinzer 20 years my senior, Jump has never found a moment where he felt uncomfortable saying exactly what is on his mind. Particularly when he’s been drinking. Even at family gatherings. Especially at family gatherings when he’s been drinking. And this hasn’t changed now that he has a fiancée with an 11 year old son. As PJ, his sister, explained which kinds of vegetables—fresh, frozen, or canned—that she and her husband eat, Jump patiently sipped from his glass of wine and waded through the mind-numbingly mundane conversation, awaiting his chance to speak.

  • PJ: “…He won’t eat frozen. But we both like canned.”
    Jump: *beat* “Do you like kielbasa in the can?”

  • Jump got at least part of his drunken bravado from his mother, my late Aunt Pat. As a kid, my favorite feature of each year’s huge family Christmas dinner get-together was the inevitable moment when Aunt Pat was visibly sauced. It usually came shortly after dessert and just before we began unwrapping gifts. One Christmas, as all of us laughed at her feeble attempts to entertain our cat, Jagr (we’re Penguins fans—fight me), she slouched back into the dining room chair and said, “Jagr…you little pussy!

  • I’ve already written about my mom’s night of celibations a few weeks ago. Although such nights have always been few and far between for her, I do have a few childhood memories of holidays and parties where she and her siblings would indulge and cause hilarity. There was even a late night peanut fight when I was about 11, where my Aunt Barbara, my mom, and I battled in a winner-take-all peanut-throwing showdown that led to us finding peanuts in different corners of the house for the next few months.

  • Throughout my younger years, there were several summertime cookouts and parties at Jump’s house, and they often involved him and his buddies polishing off a bottle of Ouzo (among other things). When I was about 14 or 15, they began offering me a taste or so of my own. Now I can drink the stuff without much change in my demeanor; I’ve done shots of the Greek delight with friends, however, who afterwards look like they’ve just drank turpentine.

  • In June 2005, I was in Connecticut for a cousin’s wedding. As people began to roll into his house for the rehearsal dinner, I helped my uncle carry the first keg out to the back porch. Picking up the tap, he asked, “Do you know how to put one of these on?” I had it locked in place and was bleeding the foam before he could finish his sentence. “Ah,” he countered, “I see you’ve done this before.”

  • In October ‘99, my boy E and I were in Baltimore for Morgan State’s homecoming weekend. While sitting in my grandmother’s living room on Sunday, we talked with my aunt, a couple of my cousins, and one of my uncles (“Uncle Red”), who was sitting quietly at the dining room table with the Sunday paper. My aunt, ever the little sister, grabbed the glass of iced tea sitting in front of Uncle Red and took a swig.

  • Aunt: *shocked, nearly choking* “[Red]! This is almost all whiskey!”
    Uncle Red: “That’s why you don’t take other people’s drinks.”
    Aunt: “It’s 11:30 in the morning!”

  • As long as I can remember, when my uncles and cousins would gather for a family event, the two most plentiful liquors on hand were always Ketel One and Jack Daniels. One day several years ago, I walked through the liquor store on a Friday afternoon, looking to replenish the bar in my apartment. I had no particular brand in mind to buy, but I knew that I wanted a bottle of vodka and perhaps a whiskey or some other dark liquor. As I placed my items on the cashier’s counter, I realized that I had picked up none other than a fifth of Ketel and a fifth of Jack. I texted my cousin, “Mrs. Blue Moon” (MBM)—Uncle Red’s daughter, coincidentally—and explained what had just happened. She laughed and said, “It’s in our blood. Don’t try to fight it.”

  • My Uncle Johnny has often told a story about my Uncle Rob visiting him once. Johnny had a bottle of some liquor that he proclaimed to be deceptively strong. Rob’s response was a confident, “I find that hard to believe.”

  • An hour later, confined to his chair by the potent drink, Rob called on Johnny’s son to take the glass from his hand and put it up on the counter for him.

  • Once MBM, Uncle Red, and I were heading to a small family reunion at my sister’s house, just outside of Washington, DC. We packed up the trunk of Uncle Red’s car with coolers of drinks and food, and hit the road. While navigating our way to the highway through the streets of Baltimore, I casually mentioned that I was eager to get started on the day’s drinking. Uncle Red, ever the gracious host, pulled over to the curb, ran back to the trunk, and came back with bottles of Dos Equis for MBM and me.

  • In the summer of 2000 my dad’s family held a large reunion in Raleigh, NC. Because a cousin of mine—who herself lived in North Carolina—was also getting married that same summer, they decided to combine the two events. This meant that nearly everyone in the family, even many of those who lived in North Carolina, got rooms in a nearby Homewood Suites for the weekend. My boy Chris and his girlfriend made the trek with me; upon checking into our room, we decided our #1 priority would be keeping the kitchen fridge stocked with bottles of all sorts. Our room quickly became the default party room, where my generation of the family hung each night to booze and party.

  • MBM is a skilled drinker herself, and often the instigator of intense boozing sessions. She volunteered her house as the site of the afterparty following our cousin’s wedding last May, and it was there on her porch where I first witnessed beer pong and flip cup being played in the hood. Often when I would come to Baltimore for a visit, I would crash at the upscale townhouse where one of our uncles lives. On one such trip, we decided one night that we wanted to drink, but neither of us felt like going out on the town. MBM came up with a remarkably perfect solution: The uncle who owns the townhome hardly drinks at all, but yet has shelves full of alcohol in his basement closet (he keeps it stocked for those occasions when he’s entertaining guests). And since his basement features a plush TV room, complete with a large sectional sofa and a large television, it was the ideal place to quietly relax with some drinks. It quickly became a mini-tradition that anytime I was in town, at least one night of my visit we would get twisted with drinks at the townhouse.

In the end, it’s difficult to say which has played the bigger part in making me who I am. While nature has certainly ingrained me with a comfort level with booze, it’s hard to deny the nurturing that went on while hanging with my crew during my college years—or any that has occurred in the time since. Each has played a part, but I would never have become elite without both of them. To put it into drinker’s terms: A glass of Guinness is good on its own, but if you drop in a shot of Baileys and Jameson, it becomes something much more powerful.

Damn I’m thirsty.

[**Sadly, that’s not a joke. My stepmother has been sober for over 18 years now, and I’m proud of her for it. Although this page is a dedication to the pouring pastime and I often (read: constantly) make jokes about my friends and I being “drunks”, I would never belittle the disease of alcoholism. I’ve seen firsthand the kind of pain and damage it can inflict on both its victims and their families. I would hope that any and all of you out there reading this understand that my writings are largely tongue-in-cheek. I like to have fun, as do my friends. But each of us knows his or her limit, and I only feel comfortable talking and joking about our drinking because I am secure in it being merely social recreation, and not the symptom of deeper problems.

This is something that’s very personal to me. When I was younger I spent a lot of time at AA and Al-Anon meetings with my stepmom and my dad. I listened to people tell stories that not only crossed that ever-so-fine line between “funny drunken antics” and “destructive addiction,” they raced across it like a Top Fuel dragster. That’s why, with every story I report on this page, I do so knowing that its participants were firmly on the safer side of that divide. I have also, on a few occasions, talked with people who are authorities on the subject of alcoholism—namely, men and women who counsel people that abuse alcohol and drugs. I don’t consider myself an expert; but I do feel that my own hands-on experience with the sickness makes me slightly more qualified than the average person to identify who might or might not have a serious drinking problem.

And yet, despite this, I have had to defend myself from the reckless accusations of a few individuals in my private life who know very little about alcoholism, but who have naively decided that because I drink a lot, I must be an alcoholic. If you know anything about the disease, you know that my consumption habits fall well short of anything that should sound off any alarms. I already have a mother, and she worries about me as a matter of standard operating procedure. And if she’s not concerned about my drinking, then you shouldn’t be either.]

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