I'm drunk. My cheeks are flushed. My heart is beating fast. I'm not sure what time it is. As I look around the room, I find myself transfixed by insignificancies--a beam of light etching a tiny rainbow onto one side of an Evian bottle protruding from an ice bucket; a thin, translucent rim of molten wax ringing the flame of the milk-white taper on my table; a scribble of blue thread on the back of a waiter's short black jacket. I also find myself, improbably, enjoying the syrupy pianist in the corner as he oozes through his maudlin repertoire. I feel wonderful.
I'm sitting alone in the dining room of the Hotel Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland, and have just finished a simple but delicious dinner. I began my evening with a flute of champagne in the hotel bar. With my meal, I consumed a bottle of good Swiss pinot blanc. Now, with a demitasse of strong, creamy coffee, I'm starting on my second tiny glass of the aged dry white cherry brandy called \o7 vieux kirsch\f7 .
Do I disgust you? Do you disapprove? And if so, why? I'm not behaving oddly or inappropriately to my surroundings. I'm not singing loudly to myself or knocking things over. I may well lurch a little when I get up to leave; I'll probably snore like a foghorn tonight. But I'm not going to drive anywhere. I'm not going to abuse anyone on the way to my room. So what if I'm drunk? Maybe I'll die before you do. Maybe I won't. Maybe you're a better person than I am. I hope you are, in fact. Good night.
I WROTE THOSE WORDS, OR AT LEAST SCRAWLED the notes on which they are closely based, not quite two years ago, on the third evening of a 17-day business trip to Europe--a trip that was to include many more good meals and many more ascents, as I like to think of them, to a state of pleasant inebriation. I was scrawling in the first place, instead of just sitting there sipping cherry hooch and listening to "La Vie en Rose," because I had lately started thinking seriously about alcohol and (for a start) my own relation to it. Since that time, I've scrawled and thought a good deal more, drunk and sober both, not just about why I drink, but about why other people do or don't, and about why alcohol is increasingly condemned these days, by the earnest and the honest as well as by the fatuous and the self-deluding, as evil straight up.
I've come to several conclusions: I think, first of all, that a lot of people who drink, and genuinely enjoy drinking, sometimes drink too much (\o7 because\f7 they genuinely enjoy drinking), but that when they do, it's usually no big thing. They usually don't cause anybody any problems, and they probably do no more than minor damage to themselves. (A hangover is not a pretty beast, but it is a short-lived one; and, up to a point at least, the liver has astonishing self-regenerative abilities.)
I think that if alcohol is indeed, as we are often told, "America's number-one drug problem," it is also probably America's number-one scapegoat for societal ills--ills whose real causes don't come conveniently packaged in bottle form.
And I think that, insofar as it is possible to measure such things, alcohol probably brings as much pleasure to the world as it brings pain. Plenty of people speak out against the pain. I think somebody ought to speak up for the pleasure.
I LIKE TO DRINK. THIS IS NO SECRET TO ANYONE who knows me. Let's define some terms here, though: I don't live in a constant state of intoxication. I don't--I can't--work drunk. I don't get drunk every night. I don't get drunk on purpose. I mean, I know that alcohol will inebriate me if I consume a certain quantity of it and, in fact, appreciate that quality in it--but I don't sit down at the table, open a bottle of vodka and say, "Boy, am I gonna get blotto tonight!"
And when I talk about getting drunk, incidentally, I don't mean falling-down / throwing-up / screaming-and-flailing-or-sniffling-and-sobbing / out-of-control drunk. I mean drinking to the point that the chemical equilibrium of my body begins to be altered in various noticeable ways--my capillaries dilated, my muscles relaxed, my neurons disordered--with pleasurable effect.
Drinking is not an obsession with me. It is far from the defining activity of my life. I don't wake up in the morning imagining what alcoholic beverages I will consume that day. Drinking is simply a thing I do, a part of the mix. I drink wine--a bottle, more or less--with dinner three or four times a week. (I should mention that I'm 6-foot-1 and weigh something over 250 pounds, so I might be said to have a somewhat larger capacity than usual.) The nights I don't drink wine, I might have a small scotch when I come home or a brandy before I go to bed, or I might have nothing at all. I almost never drink at lunchtime, unless I'm off somewhere where lunchtime drinking is the norm. Occasionally, day or night, if I'm in the mood and the circumstances permit, I exceed these limits.