The crooked setting things straight

By Benjamin Massey

November 16th, 2016

Nearly every Western child must declare “when I’m grown up, I will have Cap’n Crunch in chocolate milk for every meal,” while our parents smile indulgently and force broccoli down our throats. Then we mature and discover that our parents were right: man cannot live on breakfast cereal alone (though in university he may, if he is me, give it a damned good try). But there is wide compensation, varying from single-malt or peach schnapps. Not convivial social drinking, loosening our tongues around friends and helping us hit on girls we’d normally have no shot with. I am referring to the oft-condemned, and just-as-oft-practiced, art of drinking alone.

Why do we drink alone? To get drunk. Hope this helps. But outside of the serious sodden-livers most soloists don’t get smashed off their faces and sing Abba songs on the balcony at 1 AM; at least, not often. We drink to relax, and to read or watch television or play video games or build Lego sets in an agreeably unusual state of consciousness. This is a habit as old as intoxicants; in these permissive days, your intoxicant doesn’t particularly have to be alcohol.

Done right you wake up fresh the next morning, get to work bang on time, and at the coffee counter you definitely say “I had a quiet night in” and not “I swallowed four flip throws, which are a little invention of my own that’s almost rummy egg nog but not quite, and plowed through a book that’s been half-finished for two weeks with fresh enthusiasm.” It is a private vice, and not entirely out of shame: there is nothing more horrible than the party where you have a case of liquor onboard but everyone else is as sober as the proverbial, and you rattle on about nothing much in the painful, ever-escalating, but inescapable realization that you have become The Bore. Nobody’s as much fun as company that’s about on your level booze-wise, and nobody’s worse than that which is way off either end.

At least, that’s how it once was. But today there is a deadly enemy which none of us can evade, and like a mole in the spy service it nestles in our pocket, our greatest ally until it betrays us horribly.

It is, of course, the humble smartphone. Almost all the world’s knowledge, and a majority of its population, is within the casual touch of our fingertips day or night, and once you’ve mastered the art of unlocking your phone in any state of being it doesn’t care whether you are of sound mind and body or you’re rolling around in the leaves with one shoe on.

In the old days you’d send painfully-predictively-typed messages to friends or exes from your Nokia soapbar and they’d politely pretend never to have seen them. This was an easy extension of the gentle forgiveness civilization has always extended to boozehounds. Then we got e-mails on our phone, and our peril grew, but typing an e-mail is something that takes a little thought, particularly when you only had ten buttons to do it with. It takes but a moment to realize “wait a minute, this isn’t the time for me to tell that co-worker what I think of him.” A failure in that regard was, quite rightly, taken as a sign you’d gone too far.

We didn’t know how good we had it. Now you have a couple hundred Facebook friends, maybe twice that number of Twitter followers who appreciate your remarks about hockey but don’t know you from Adam, however many Reddit users frequent your usual hangouts, and you’re watching that great Netflix documentary about Apollo 17, and they’re all right there, day or night, so close that you can reach out to them automatically, like a baby seeing its mother.

There are people with the self-control to stay off social media on evenings like this. At least, I know there must be, because there are people I’ve never noticed tweeting with a few well-chosen sheets to the wind and they definitely aren’t teetotal. But I am not one of those people, not every time, and come on, entre nous, neither are you.

How easy it is to check your Twitter. You’re only going to read, tap the notifications, maybe DM that person who knows you well enough not to be offended. But that documentary provoked an extremely profound thought and since you won’t remember it in the morning you’d best send it now. While you’re here, though, that really is a grossly ignorant political opinion. Leaving it uncorrected would be an offense against truth, and right now you’re seeing the truth more clearly than ever.

The fact that you’re suddenly having a wine-driven argument in the middle of the night with someone who, since he’s on the east coast and abnormally truculent, has probably got just as much fuel in him isn’t a saving grace. Because the “social” in “social media” is no lie, and all the other people reading are night owls, or working late, or reading in the middle of the day, or otherwise dead straight, and you just vivisected something with a clumsy passion you’d never feel if your head was on right. Worse, on this occasion you had the sensitivity not to go after anybody directly, you’re just outraged by the general mindset, and now everybody is reading, mumbling “oh god,” and discreetly turning that dreaded “Unfollow” button the other colour.

Okay, well, you’ve gotten the cocktail shaker back out and who gives a damn how many people want to read your 1,500-word essay in fifty 140-character increments anyway? But I mean, you do give a bit of a damn, don’t you? Everyone wants to be liked, and now you have statistical proof that you’re liked less than you were an hour ago. You are The Bore in the age of Big Data. Since you aren’t actually that drunk you’re not angry, just disappointed, like dad when he noticed his vodka had been replaced with water. Obnoxiously, however, disappointment is just as wordy an emotion as anger, and now you need to prove to the survivors that you’re all right really, and off you spiral, down the toilet.

It’s amazing how quickly this has become an old story.

What is to be done? There is, happily, an obvious solution: make your drink, carry it in one hand, your phone in the other, and bury that phone so deep in your sock drawer that even if you remember where you put it you won’t have the patience to get it. Alas, this is one of those things that everybody knows but is extraordinarily difficult to do. Some phones let you unlock them by swiping in fiddly geometric patterns that should theoretically be more difficult for the souse to crack, but frankly whoever thought that would work has never taken a drink in his life.

Perhaps the onus is on the sober, to see that person off his tether and think “ah, Stoli was on sale” with an indulgent smile. But it’s wholly unreasonable to go “just don’t get bored with me!” to the seven jillion Facebook users in the world. Shouting that to your boyfriend is bad enough; if you have to shout that to everyone you knew in high school you should probably sell the condo and take up permanent residence on the dépanneur steps.

When whisky came to Scotland they must have a problem like this. Ol’ Angus would return from a hard day delousing the laird’s sheep, start up a peat fire, distill some forty-rod, and without ever meaning to he’d be at the neighbouring peel tower, banging on the door and shouting “you’ll never guess what that bugger Cumberland’s done this time!” They adjusted, in time. Admittedly it took centuries of low-level warfare and a couple invasions, and led to a reputation as hard-drinking offense-taking fighting men that today’s pacifist, socialist SNP-voters haven’t lived down even a little bit, but they managed. So raise a glass, think with your hope of your wiser great-grandchildren, and call that newspaper editor a Nazi. As always, future generations will sort it out.

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