There is a language in the beverage and the men we share it with.
Drinking communities are alike, they all love drinking. But they are different too; each one identified by their choice of drink, their shouting and toasting, chatting and storytelling, betting and chugging. There’s no such thing as a dry community. We must drink to live and we must talk to live with one another. For many men, the drinking community is important. There’s a long history of us as mighty toasters.
I’ve been a part of four distinct drinking groups; each of them gathered around their drink of choice. These sub-cultures all had weaknesses and strengths that are easy to identify. Strengths arise in boasts and topics, languages and artifacts, the people and their comfortable familiarity with their drinking places.
When I’ve fallen into rote familiarity in any community, weaknesses are apparent too because static community makes it difficult to risk and, therefore difficult to learn new skills. When I stop taking risks, I forget how hard it is to break into a new group and in the process my empathy muscle atrophies.
I’ve always wanted to push boundaries and move beyond the familiar and the comfortable. I’ve never liked who I was – or how I felt – when I become passive and too comfortable in a group. I’ve never accepted group-think and I abhor demeaning others based on their drink, their gods or their skin.
Group-think seems to me like a rut, and I’m reminded of something a former professor of mine said, “A rut is nothing but a grave with the ends knocked out.”
To stay alive, vital, alert and empathic I need to move into drinking communities, and then out of them. That’s the way I grow and expand my awareness of the human being and his strange proclivities.
I don’t really trust drinking groups to grow beyond established boundaries. I’ve seen how easy it is from those places of comfort to close the door to others. In the club chair, it’s common to become soft-minded and prejudiced, too convenient and easy to label and discount non-members. In static groups, it’s a lazy two-step to move from being comfortable, to then plopping down on a spectator seat never reaching beyond arm’s length.
When it’s time to learn new skills, develop a fresh path, and seek out creative solutions, I want to be hungry. “Once life becomes a spectator sport, everything is downhill,” said George Sheehan, M.D. and running guru.
Some readers may feel there is a subtle treachery in writing about my drinking sub-communities. Some could even interpret this as a betrayal; for in telling words that come from inside the club, I’m doing what many men consider anathema: I’m disclosing the norms of societies that should be kept in the society.
Most men I know are comfortable with directing and telling, giving information, instructing, spinning a joke or giving an opinion. We’re good at public talk and boasting, but disclosing . . . working the borders of intimacy and change . . . that’s a different thread, and to many men, a frightening one.
But disclosure, in this case, invites feedback, opens a door to communication and relationships, lays open vulnerability, and places a premium on trust. Receiving feedback commands a subtle quieting of the tongue and open ears. Telling is popular, telling is easy, and telling in my drinking communities is the core of their identity. Most of the people in my communities are good at telling, but now it’s time to listen, for I’m telling on them.
Drinking Community #1
Graduate students in English, Michigan
Word = critical / Drink = Guinness, Irish whiskey.
One summer, I had a teepee in my Michigan backyard where I hosted campfire gatherings after dark; and because someone usually brought the Guinness, and because I had time to sit up with writers, and because a campfire must not be wasted, and because we were young, we’d drink and talk late into the night. We might take a moment to step away from the fire to gaze at the bright starry sky, but it was cold, so we’d quickly return to the warmth.
English majors enjoy language, but especially the play and art of language when drinking. Our mouths were busy forming sentences that reached beyond our grasp. But in that reaching, we found new language and new meaning.
Creative expression was the arc of our covenant as writers and friends. We stretched our minds and we punished our livers, and because of these things, we ended up deeper in the dictionary the next day.
We were students. We were casual and broke. There were holes in our shoes and the tread was worn smooth. We were liberally educated. We swore a lot and enjoyed – truly enjoyed – jokes, drinking, cursing and conversation.
We ached to be well-liked, but none of us were; after all, we were teachers and writers, and as book people, we seemed weird. At night, sitting near the teepee and energized by questions, we felt warmly accepted by our own kin, and in that secure fold, we told our secrets even when we weren’t talking.
Our dialogue was illuminated by critical and creative language; we talked Foucault and Derrida, Akhmatova, Rilke and Whitman. Our imaginations fired when exploring the what if’s of Dante’s Inferno and his icy trap for the Devil.
We reached to understand the mind- map of James Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses along with the mystery of Black Elk’s vision and the psycho-sociality of William Carlos William’s Paterson.
Our discussions were mystical too; several of us had been moved by Percy Bysshe Shelley and his incandescent glow-worm raised up in Prometheus Unbound. Even today, when I sit at a campfire, I catch a whiff of memories next to the teepee with English people on my left and right, criticism on my lips, smoke in my eyes, Guinness in my stomach.
But then I’d watch my peer’s faces express self-doubt and burning curiosity. These energies would come to drive them (and me) all our lives. Anyone watching my critical community at work teaching would not expect they had talked courageously all night fired by shots of Irish whiskey, they would not expect that their teachers harbored even a sliver of doubt about themselves or their careers. But a public persona can be misleading, for I saw their struggles and watched them self-sabotage.
It’s easy to write the self-destruct recipe: Take a stressed out graduate student and let them teach English, stir in hostile college students many of whom held a grudge against their high school English teachers; sprinkle in supervisors that refuse to affirm, or are incapable of doing so. Simmer for 16 weeks and watch for a graduate student to A-B-O-R-T. Self-doubt met stress and teaching careers ended.
I learned about my drinking friends, the ones I call critics, by my teepee when poets and writers appeared as fast as beer in the cooler disappeared. Pens and notepads accompanied our sessions because nobody wanted to miss a sudden inspiration, insight, quote or creative brainstorm. Early in the morning, when colleagues went home or crashed in the teepee, notepads sat in the grass collecting bugs and frost until sunrise burned them away.
In the morning, I would think back to our night of insightful critique and remember many layers in literature’s gold. I knew that my student status was a gift and I happily took that gift while imbibing the elixirs of dark beer and golden whiskey.
These creative friends were a progressive Bible, an alchemy of invention, living carriers of affirmation. The truth is, I was probably ruined by this community. I had no way of knowing at the time that there’d never be another quite like it.
Drinking Community #2
People of the ‘aina, Hawaii
Word = explore / Drink = ‘awa, kombucha
The drink is kava, but here in Hawaii, it’s called ‘awa. ‘Awa, like alcohol or cigars, is an acquired habit. It is made from a brown or light brown root and has a woody taste, a bit like dirt. It’s not the taste that takes me back to the Kanaka Kava bar in Hawaii, it’s the kavalactones from the root. They’re a relaxant that creates a mild numbing in the mouth and stimulates a slight euphoric feeling.
‘Awa comes from the land (‘aina), and nowhere is the connection between people and land more important than in Hawaii. Hawaii’s state motto concretizes this important connection, “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina I kapono,” translated to, “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” It means that one must do what is right for both one’s life and for the land.
In this root-drinking community, people understand the motto and their footsteps on earth are light. Nobody at Kanaka Kava earns status by sporting the right artifact; there are no bragging rights for wearing a super-fly leather jacket; there is little effort to impress with a Shakespeare quote, or any quote.
People arriving at the outdoor bar take three-steps up from the aina to a raised patio. Walking slowly, arms swaying in time, they often smile and with shallow upturned lips gaze into the distance. They seem to arrive from nowhere and suddenly they are at the bar, their beaded jewelry of shells or metal charms dangling loosely around ankles, wrists or necks.
The shoes among ‘awa drinkers are so flimsy that they might as well be barefoot, and many are. Tie-dye shirts are common, so are aloha shirts and t-shirts. The only fashion sense is no fashion sense. Sometimes in this drinking crowd, the shirts and shorts are stained with dirt from a coffee or banana farm and it’s always 80 degrees so nobody carries jackets or sweatshirts.
The only common artifact in the ‘awa drinking community is the large wooden bowl, called a kanoa in various Polynesian languages. This kanoa takes center stage at the Kava Bar and from it, ‘awa-tender uses a wooden spoon to lift the awa into small unadorned brown coconut shells. There are no cups or glasses. It’s a simple ritual. Shells are filled and passed.
Everyone at Kanaka Kava drinks either ‘awa or kombucha, a fermented probiotic drink. Before taking the first sip though, community members –in the know – dip three fingers into their coconut shells filled with ‘awa, and sprinkle drops to the ground for the ancestors. I’m glad to have learned this, and I’ve noticed the Hawaiian culture does better at honoring its ancestors than what I’ve seen in any other American drinking community.
Among the ‘awa drinkers, I find no common language or jargon. It’s hard to tell if anyone thinks in dualisms; I do not hear the clash of competitive banter. It’s the one place where young and old mix easily. Twenty-year-old people talk with sixty- or seventy-year- old people as if it were a normal occurrence. Outside the kava bar, it’s not.
Nobody works to classify words and criticism is not common because these drinkers don’t care about rigid systems. There is no excessive weight given to curse words for the kava bar’s zeitgeist is that all words are acceptable. But behind the casual acceptance of everyone and everything, the ‘awa drinkers seem to me an unfocused lot.
An unwritten rule at the kava bar discourages talk of politics or religion. Actually, it’s not a rule because people at kava don’t like rules, but people gathering in this community don’t want to deal with the buzz-kill of topics that typically create division.
They drink and talk their way into being cool and chillax. With ocean waves crashing to the shore 50 yards away, the giant banana tree leaves swaying from the Kona winds, and Hawaiian music softly playing on the kava bar sound system, the entire atmosphere lends itself to chillaxing. “Don’t worry, be happy,” could be their mantra.
The language is one of exploring. ‘Awa drinkers will touch down on many topics of conversation, and they move fast from idea to idea, like a bee from flower to flower. One moment a topic might be chi running, another moment the design of Hawaii’s flag, and in another moment people of the ‘aina will explore properties of the kava root or similarities between Korean and South India’s Tamil language.
Many conversations will stop in mid-sentence as someone abruptly stands and walks away for a smoke break. The patrons leave cell phones and coconut shells on the table. Nobody at Kanaka Kava would care, but I don’t hear resolve in their talk. And maybe that’s why conversations over politics or religion are frowned upon. I love this community, but the fear of confrontation keeps it light and unfocused.
Drinking Community #3
Lutheran Clergy, Wisconsin
Word = profess / Drink =coffee
We were not pretty when we gathered early in the morning for coffee. I never asked my colleagues, but I suspect many of the preachers were like me, gadflies and loners in high school. We never knew how it felt to be popular, so we developed other ways to court favor.
Most of us, when young, found that being polite could be rewarded, so we watched our language; the F-word rarely slipped from our mouths, and we were not the kind to swear at teachers or get in trouble at school for bullying.
Our drink was the ever-present cup of black coffee. Our clothes matched our drink: a black suit. The most formal members raised the bar on impression management by wearing white clergy collars. Everyone wore black dress shoes.
We were people of status and our artifacts proved it: books and coffee cups, wedding rings and gold watches, silver crosses and chains. These were the tools of peer pressure. That is, to fit in, one had to dress well. A gold wedding ring was a status credential; it meant stability, and clergy craved stability. Respect was given in our closed club if one put on polished shoes, had a short haircut and conformed.
I describe clergy parlance as professing. Our public language was formal and the topics were church, theology, scripture, and ministry. Most of the men in this drinking community – and in the ‘80’s most were men – appeared happy and well-fed in their suits and clean clothes. The frayed knot, or the hidden truth in this drinking community, was that behind the façade of shiny rings and polished shoes, many of our relationships were crumbling.
We met in the sanctuary for prayers, and then we adjourned to drink and talk. We were surrounded by crosses: they dangled from our necks; they hung on the wall in sculpture, adorned paintings hanging above the tables, and were stamped on the liturgical books at each place setting.
Clergy gatherings were kissed by the twin spirits of seriousness and somberness – pathways to high-blood pressure and heart attacks. It was easy to talk the talk, but deep-down I doubted the carefully built presentations by my colleagues and their motives seemed contrived. I hated falseness in myself and I knew I was not the only one pretending that everything was great.
I was one of the younger clergy then, and I had long hair, too long for them. My shoes weren’t polished as much as they should have been and though I professed a love for the Gospel I was also a liberal.
On my own, I searched to find where the Gospel was becoming hands and feet. I saw it, but did far too little because clergy are good at diagnostics, not so good at practicalities. Another disclosure: the cobbler’s children go shoeless. I didn’t want to saddle my children with the burden of being the ‘preacher’s kids,’ so I didn’t force God on them.
Language was important for the coffee drinkers; it was easy for them, but their language was marked by high-degree and formality, caution, and well-crafted jargon. Clergy love talking and they are trained to do so in logical, analytical, well-diagramed sentences and strategic paragraphs.
Coffee stimulated our minds as we jockeyed for word power. Our professional lexicon was informed by a common core of study and we fluidly employed words from our theological storehouses filled with Greek, Hebrew and German phrases. The clergymen spoke well from their thrones, and some people listened, but personal conversations were another matter.
They (and I) professed easily, but disclosure was off the table. We drank our coffee in group sessions – for clergy only with doors closed – where there was no interference from anyone not part of the club.
I often left community drinking sessions feeling as though I didn’t really speak with another person, but exchanged a packet of cleverly designed language that professed a point. My mind and mouth were busy. Deep down I admit that I enjoyed our complex jargon-filled banter and respected the intellect of my peers, but day by day I lost energy and had to bail out from association with the smart but too-taught professors.
Drinking Community #4
Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Riders, Everywhere
Word = entertainment / Drink = Alcohol, any kind.
My motorcycling community was mainly made up of people called HOGs (Harley Owners Group riders). Like clergy, Harley riders wear black, but its leather. Their drinks are beer and whiskey, but any alcohol is acceptable. In the bars where they drink, crosses do not adorn the walls or paintings, even if a biker might wear one on skin or a patch on a leather jacket.
I call biker idiom entertainment. When talking and drinking together, bikers laugh loud. And the escapades of the last ride, or the last rally, or the last mishap on the road are stretched out, toasted, told and retold.
Bikers love stories about shared elements of the community (road, bike, traffic, accidents and drinking). They are designed to elicit just one more belly laugh. The portal to a biking entertainment community opens through laughing loud, flashing the Harley-Davidson name on clothes, skin, boots and bikes. One earns their passport to dangerous adventure by leather and lace, pipes and boasts.
Biker gear is a language of symbol, and the symbol stands for power. The gear and the bike represent horsepower and are appendages to an energetic, bold confidence and entitlement. On the road, bikers live by making themselves seen and heard. In their visibility, they drive aggressively and take the same attitude off-road as they stomp into a drinking bar, boots and chains announcing their presence.
Many bikers are tattooed and like many aspects of the community, they are designed to get what they want. They strain to make every story, every ride, every conversation bigger, better, bolder, louder and more outrageous than the last. But it’s often the same story told again and again.
Bikers won’t tell you what I’ll tell you: They want and they crave attention, and without it are left to face the accusing reality of a wounded self-image. It’s too painful for the HOGs to face, so they will distract, make noise, and force you to see, to hear, to stay present at the loud party.
This community is different from all other communities because it’s movable. The clergy were stuck in the church with their coffee and hymnals – and it’s always in a church – the graduate students performed in a classroom or by a fire, the ‘awa drinkers gathered at the kava bar, but bikes are the antithesis of being stuck in place.
Their language is infused with a large dose of curse words and they make it clear that biking is life. Their slogans are designed to shock: “F the job,” “Ride fast and die hard,” “Do I look like I give a f…” I often walked away from conversation with bikers feeling entertained, but I didn’t learn anything new, I was not enriched.
I think about my sub-cultures of the mouth and realize that I love each of these talking and drinking communities in different ways, but I found no one community to call home, so ultimately I call all of them and none of them mine. I am part of each drinker and talker just as they are part of me. I am explorer and entertainer, professor and critic but I am also more than this.
I cannot state with Walt Whitman that all of them belong to me; I wouldn’t dare claim such largesse of vision or open-hearted grace, but in each of my communities, I see a strength which could balance a weakness in another.
To the explorers at the Kava Bar, enjoying the Hawaiian ‘aina, sipping root and chillaxing, I’d say your culture is wonderful and necessary in an up-tight world. But for wholeness, you could probably prosper with somber dose of focus: ‘Awa drinkers, I give you clergy and they hand out cleanliness, competitiveness, confidence and coffee.
To the professors with their books and their Christ, their coffee cups and their church, I understand your enjoyment of in-school dialogue and public status, but I give you iconoclasm in a shot-glass of American whiskey and a dose of Harley-Davidson bravado and risk. You know, sometimes you just got to say, ‘what the f….’
To the critics at the peak of their powers, I offer you an earthy-smelling brown liquid in a coconut-shell. For balance, forego criticism just a moment and think on beads and unity. Take pride in and be happy with your skills, don’t dice or slice, be nice, and take a casual sip of ground-up root.
To the entertainers, boldly mounting your two-wheeled drama machines; risk is a gift which opens new energy and this is good. But your stories need to evolve or they become stale. HOG riders, I give you the critics at their campfire, a quiet night alone in the teepee, a moment to gaze quietly at the stars, and the curiosity to follow a thread from Black Elk’s vision.
I love exploring sub-cultures of the mouth and clarifying my life in communities of drinking and talking. It’s helped me realize that clocks, since they are necessary, need to be reliable and any community I choose to be part of must be aware of precious time. I can’t waste time with a lot of adiaphora, a word from my clergy days that means “meaningless stuff.”
A community’s language, and its drinks, is identified by their unique rituals, artifacts and expectations. When your interest and energy in a community wanes, it is the signal that it’s time for you to change language and beverage.
This might require moving out of your comfort zone, to become a citizen of a community with unfamiliar – to you – rituals, drinks and words. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, it’s one sure-fire way to keep growing and learning. It’s good that we have choices and can change our words and drinks when they no longer suit us.
Staying in one community may lead to a rut, and if that is true for you, maybe it’s time to ask these questions:
- Is my community growing? Am I growing?
- Have the stories in my community gone stale? Have I gone stale?
- Is my community language helping me empower my life, or dragging me down?
- Is risk and loudness in my future, or should I read Tolstoy and think of my ethics?
- Do I need coffee energy, or do I need a moment of chillaxing under a swaying banana palm?
For anyone reading this, you are people of privilege as evidenced by the fact that you have Internet and a computer. The world is your ‘awa bowl, your coffee cup, your bottle, your glass of clear clean water, but most importantly your cup of choice.
There is much to discover in our four-score and twenty, or if we’re lucky, a few decades more. But in that time, why not work to find your word, find your drink, find your question, find your community, and as you seek it out . . . cheers!