Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Clushtering


I was somewhat nonplussed by this article in Slate by journalist John Ore, who gives up drinking alcohol every January and had the dubious inventiveness to coin the name “Drynuary” which, he says, has caught on in some circles. What I found odd was that he seems to be plagued by demands to explain or hide the fact that he’s not drinking alcohol.

Everyone who knows me well already understands that I do this Drynuary madness every year—I’m not shy about it, after all—so their immediate reaction is usually an eye-rolling “Again?!” as they pathetically try to peer-pressure me into doing a shot with them.[…]

My wife, and other pregnant friends, have used certain sleight-of-hand tricks early in a pregnancy before they were ready to reveal that they were expecting. She would order the same drink as I would—say, a glass of red wine with dinner—and wait until mine was almost drained. Subtly, we’d switch glasses when no one was looking, and viola! It looked like she was pounding hers, and I was playing catch up.

It seemed odd to me personally because I rarely drink alcohol — and in Oxford that means frequently turning over my wine glass at dinners and drinking orange juice at social events with students — but I can’t recall that anyone has ever asked me why. Maybe it’s a difference between Britain and the US — more universal alcohol consumption here, but less eagerness to intrude on other people’s privacy — but I never had those questions when I lived in the US either. (Once I recall someone expressing surprise that I did drink something alcoholic, but without asking for an explanation. Perhaps I was just not sufficiently sensitive to the implications.)

I recently came upon this plot of alcohol consumption in the US. About 30% consume no alcohol, and the median is about one drink per week. So if Ore were hanging out with average Americans one would have to think that one in three of his companions would also not be drinking, and a second of three might very well pass on the opportunity as well. It wouldn’t seem worth commenting on. But obviously people don’t hang out with random samples of the population. And he specifically says that in his profession — presumably he means journalism — “business events and travel naturally involve expense accounts and the social lubricant of alcohol.” I’ll refrain from commenting on what this might explain about the state of journalism as a profession, but I’m pretty sure that in my profession alcohol definitely doesn’t get to be counted as a travel expense, and in some cases even the bottle of wine shared at a post-seminar dinner needs to be paid for separately because it’s specifically excluded.

I’m also fascinated by the terminology he uses, which is probably standard, but is unfamiliar to me. That “pounding” above. And this comment:

any bartender worth their salt is professional and cool about it. I’m sure they’ve seen it all, and know better than to ask anyway. Worst case, they think I’m a square. I try to dispel this impression by tipping as if I’m drinking the high octane stuff.

Fascinating for lots of reasons. First of all, of all the reasons I’ve heard to tip wait staff well, the need to dispel bad impressions produced by ones choice of drink is genuinely novel. Furthermore, if the bartender did think him “square” — does anyone really use that word in this millennium? — I doubt that any amount tip would convince him otherwise. He might get promoted to “generous square” or “square who’s trying to show off”. But this expression “high octane” really intrigued me. Octane, as I recall, is a component of gasoline that reduces engine knock, and was promoted in the 1970s as representing powerful fuel. The idea of bringing that into connection with something I would consume seems bizarre to me, but does fit with the tradition of presenting alcoholic beverages simultaneously as tasty treats and as disgusting poisons. It’s never clear to me which component is less sincere, but the two are weirdly superimposed: the goal of the drinker is to be recognised for a discriminating taste among the most disgusting poisons.

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