Living in Denial Part II

Sometimes you have so many ideas going in your head that you can't figure out how to weave them together. That's what happened to me yesterday while writing that article about addiction problems. I wanted to talk about denial with life and alcohol, doing things that aren't healthy while trying to justify a reason to continue doing so. At the same time I began thinking about a less serious form of denial that I see in the wine and spirits world every single day. It's the denial that we don't like or enjoy certain things we wish we really did. I suffered from George T. Stagg denial for over a year, trying to convince myself I liked the high proof because I knew other people loved it. I found it difficult however to transition from something more serious into something rather naive and childish, so I decided to break it up into two pieces about denial.

Whereas people who have addiction problems with alcohol might deny the severity of the disease, people with self-esteem issues deny themselves true pleasure because they want to fit in. What I mean by this is that they're too afraid to do the things they really enjoy because they're worried about how others may view it. They simply do what's socially accepted to avoid this conflict. I touched on this briefly via my own issues a few posts back, but I think it's important to elaborate on this subject a bit. There's a certain amount of the population out there that thinks wine, cocktails and food are pretty cool. Not "cool" as in they're merely things to be enjoyed, but rather they're things to define oneself by – the same way a teenager might wear ripped jeans and a Ramones shirt and identify as a rocker. Food and drink have become full-time hobbies, travel industries, and media-oriented pastimes. Over the past five years or so we've seen the rise of celebrity chefs, food travel shows, celebrity bartenders, and booze travel shows. It's now seen as cool to know something about wine, about whisky, and about general drinking culture. Having this knowledge seems to elevate one's status in certain social circles, where knowledge is valued and respected. There is something pretty cool about Anthony Bourdain, I must admit. However, what makes him cool is not the fact that he's a chef or a food blogger or an famous traveling critic – it's that he doesn't care about what other people think so he eats and drinks whatever he wants.  

My friend Steve and I have written a decent amount about what we think is a growing whisky bubble. However, while most whisky enthusiasts await the impending crash with anticipation of lower prices and less competition for bottles, I'm hoping that spirits (along with food and wine in general) become less cool as a result. There is so much denial in the booze world that stems from trying to impress others and it's embarrassing, so I want it to end as quickly as possible. There are too many rules for what you can and can't drink, what you can and can't like, that it's almost like a fraternity initiation ceremony. The rules, however, extend completely beyond the beverage and into the overall lifestyle. If I thought most people were actually enjoying themselves within these guidelines, I wouldn't care so much. However, I hear it in bars, on the sales floor, and I read it on blogs, message boards, and in advertisements - the fear of not following the rules of cool drinking.  There are no rules to drinking, however. They're simply a way for people to feel superior to others. They allow us to think we understand when other people don't. They help us to feel special, intelligent, and educated. We use them to point out the folly of others. Rules have never been cool, however. Breaking them is.

The biggest problem with rules is that they stand to prevent fun, rather than promote it. This drinking dogma is often used to intimidate and condescend rather than foster an educated enjoyment ("You can't drink white wine with that! You can't drink a vodka martini, it has to be gin!"). Have you ever heard someone tell you they don't own a TV? That they don't eat fast food? That they only read books, work on learning foreign languages, and go for hikes up in the mountains? That's the sure sign of someone who has work and fun completely backwards. The people who honestly don't enjoy watching TV aren't telling you about it. They're too busy doing what they really enjoy. It's this odd, fun-depriving portion of society that feels like enjoying themselves is off limits. You're supposed to be exercising or studying at all times, except for when you are mixing a cocktail or having a glass of wine. These people are so serious about it that they wear exercise clothes everywhere because they need you to know that they're either on their way to work out, or they just finished at the gym. Once the exercise is done, it's on to more education. We're at the point where even people who don't exercise are wearing the uniform just because they think they're supposed to!  It's totally crazy!

Guess what? Smart people watch TV. So do physically fit and healthy people. So do cultured, multilinguists. They play video games. They eat McDonald's. They relax every now and then with a bottle of Budweiser or a vodka tonic, despite the fact that it isn't something hip, healthy, or holistic (this was supposed to tie in with Robert DeNiro enjoying his chicken yesterday). Going back to Anthony Bourdain, one of key celebrities of this culture, he completely gets off on bucking the foodie trend despite the fact that he is worshipped by this same sect. Have you ever watched his show (to those of you with TVs)? He loves shooting vodka, eating fried dough, and drinking cheap, cold beer until 3 AM, breaking every rule that serious wine and food people hold dearly. True, he also enjoys fine Burgundy and haute cuisine, but there's always a balance. It's OK to like vodka. It's OK to drink Jack Daniels. It's OK to go against what foodie culture says you're supposed to do. That's what makes Bourdain so enjoyable. Every religion has their own set of rules about what you can and can't do and the food and wine scripture is really no different. It's a form of living in denial that seems utterly ridiculous. Why not just eat and drink whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it? Bourdain isn't doing it to be ironic, either.  The flipside of this is obviously the ironic backlash - the contingent that does what isn't cool just because it's the opposite of what people expect. To me, that's just as bad. You're drinking PBR because it's the opposite of a glass of Bordeaux, but do you really like PBR? Are you drinking Pabst because it tastes good to you or are you still trying to pad your ironic public perception?

The whole reason I even sat down to write this piece was because my boss asked me about David Foster Wallace the other day. I guess there was a segment on NPR about his biographer and he wanted to know if I had read Infinite Jest. I told him that reading that book was what ultimately taught me the important lesson about doing what I want in life, rather than slugging my way through something I hate just to impress other people. I've been there. I grew up around these people and they made me feel guilty about my own behavior. I followed the rules, got my master's degree in German literature, and fell right into the wine world with the same sense of idealism. What I found, however, is that the pedantry made my life less fun. I wish I liked Infinite Jest, that way it would have been a more enjoyable use of my time. There are some parts that literally made me laugh out loud, but overall I felt it was too long and too full of itself.  In my opinion, Wallace wrote that book for the same reason I wanted to read it - it's an impressive accomplishment.

However, who really cares about these achievements? I did. I cared if I got the Pappy. I cared if I got the Stagg. I wanted other people to think I was smart. To think I was cultivated. To think I was interesting, different, unique, capable of greatness, better than the average person. I was the guy who always had the great bottle of wine, or the rare bottle of whisky. In my own eyes, these were the things that made me special.  However, they didn't bring me more enjoyment or pleasure. I had forgotten how to simply have a drink and talk about something basic and everyday. Conversation became a way to impress other people rather than connect with them.  It's a form of denial. We want to enjoy the things that other people enjoy, talk about how much we love them, but it turns out they're not really enjoying them either.  It's like pouring a glass of wine and waiting for someone else to say it's good before you add your own comment. No one wants to be first. No one wants to be the one who doesn't get it. Until you realize that no one really gets it because there is nothing to get. It's just a bunch of people sitting around drinking - nothing more.

I spent six months going through Infinite Jest, banging my head against the wall, dozing off, losing my concentration, thinking about other things I actually wanted to be doing. It was such a waste of time. I felt guilty for giving up. "I need to tough this out," I thought to myself. But why in the heck would I use my free time to do something that I wasn't enjoying? It's called denial. Denial that I didn't like something I was supposed to like. Denial that I wasn't cool enough. Denial that perhaps other people saw something I didn't. Denial that maybe I wasn't smart enough to "get it." It's this same sort of denial that's going on inside the wine and spirits world and it's ruining all the fun. Drinking is not supposed to be work. It's not supposed to make you frustrated or feel like a novice. It's supposed to bring you enjoyment, just like reading a book or watching a movie.

Look at vodka. People in the whisky crowd won't touch vodka. Neither will the wine people. It's so uncool to drink vodka right now if you're part of the foodie crowd. Vodka is so dead among hipsters it doesn't even have a pulse. It's worse than Merlot after Sideways. However, I went out to a party with my wife the other night and danced until the early morning hours. Everyone was drinking vodka, opening bottles of Belvedere, doing shots, and having a blast. I hadn't had fun like that in years. There was no denial in this room.  Everyone was doing exactly what they wanted to be doing, drinking whatever they wanted. No rules, no food pairings, no snobbery, no condescension. Just fun.

Living in denial is forcing yourself to eat organ meat because it's rustic and traditional, when you know you'd rather have a burger. Living in denial is saying you only like dry wines, despite the fact that you love to guzzle sweet California chardonnay. Living in denial is using your former Comcast money to buy yoga pants when you know you love watching the Real Housewives.

Living in denial is no fun.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll