It’s Fake Paddy’s Day in Kent: the Saturday before Saint Patrick’s Day. And even when the official Saint Patrick’s Day happens to fall on the weekend (as it does this year), Fake Paddy’s is always the bigger deal in this college town. Students dress in green and go out early in the morning (bars usually open at 7AM or 8AM). They wander between bars and house parties until they’ve drank so much alcohol that they can’t stand up straight. And they consider this to be the height of fashion and pleasure.
It’s pretty much the same every year. But I happened to notice something new this year, when I passed through the area between downtown Kent and the Kent State University campus. Many students on the streets of Kent were carrying gallon jugs of brightly-colored liquids. A friend explained to me that these were BORGs, or Black-Out Rage Gallons. College students presume them to be safer: less susceptible to someone dropping some kind of “date rape drug” into the top of an open container, and with the alcohol supposedly “balanced” by extra electrolytes and water (and flavoring). But my initial impression of the BORGs was that they were an inelegant means to a dubious end: getting as drunk as possible as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
This seems consistent with the way that young people use alcohol in the United States. They want to lower inhibitions so they can vent their rage and their lust and their fanaticism more quickly. More forcefully. And of course, this image of “college life” has been reinforced for decades now. So, it’s cyclical. And I honestly do understand why this has become the norm for today’s practitioners.
But more and more, with each passing year, this way of using alcohol strikes me as sad and immature. And I’m finally (after years and years of trying to understand) getting a better idea of why this might be.
A Perspective Shift
I didn’t really grow up with alcohol, as my family was a part of a Conservative Baptist denomination. Even so, I’m not anti-alcohol. Through my twenties and thirties, I learned to enjoy an occasional beer, wine, or whiskey. I happened to live in Amsterdam for many of those years, and I got a very different image of alcohol consumption while living there. Ironically, tourists go to Amsterdam to get drunk, to get high, to get laid. But Dutch people regularly live by the mantra: “Just act normally; that’s already crazy enough.”
In terms of alcohol consumption, I observed that most Dutch people consume alcohol on a pretty regular basis, but it’s highly irregular to see Dutch people getting black-out drunk. Binge drinking sometimes happens with high school students or college students, like their cohorts here in the United States. But almost never with adults. They act normally. The whole tone of drinking is less bombastic, more mature. And as I grew older myself, maybe marginally “more mature,” I started to better understand the meaning of a drink. Not just in the Netherlands, but in other settings as well.
The Meaning of a Drink
You’ve heard the phrase, “Let’s go get something to drink,” right? Sometimes a guy will try to pick up a girl by asking, “Can I buy you a drink?” Or a business relationship or friendship will be initiated by saying, “First round (of drinks) is on me.”
I used to think it was strange that so many books and films were set in cafes. They often made a point to indicate what each character was drinking. And honestly, all just went over my head. “Who cares?!?” Bourbon… Cabernet Sauvignon… Coffee… Tea… “They’re all just drinks!”
What I’ve come to realize is that all of these drinks are meant to create space to slow down and cultivate a relationship. The meaning of a drink is facilitating relationships!
It’s not about the buzz that comes from alcohol or caffeine. It’s about investing in the time it takes to carefully consume whatever beverage people may choose. A fine wine reflects unique elements of the place in which the grapes were grown and how the wine was crafted. Scotch whiskey is a complicated beverage that uses the slightest deviations in craftsmanship to create subtle distinctions in flavor. So, anyone who chugs a fine Barolo misses out on the unique flavors and textures of Northern Italy! And anyone who shotguns half a bottle of 21-year Glenfiddich is not just wasting the experience, but also a ridiculous amount of money!
And these principles are not just true of alcoholic beverages. Coffee and tea, for instance, are traditionally served piping hot. So hot, in fact, that it’s unpleasant to drink quickly. A good cup of coffee has to be sipped. Savored. You have to take your time. And since you’re taking your time to enjoy the drink anyway, why not make conversation?!? Why not build a relationship?!? Drinking as much as possible as quickly and as cheaply as possible misses the whole point.
What Your Drink Says about You
Whether you’re getting drinks at a bar or drinks at a coffee shop, what you order can say a lot about your social class, your education, and your personality. The older I get, the more I understand the way that different drinks are perceived. But even without having a full “answer key” for what each beverage choice says about the person who orders it, I know that there are meta-narratives at play. I prefer to choose drinks that match the tone of the person with whom I’m trying to build a relationship. But in the absence of any other information, I usually go with something I know and like (in case the drink prompts a story), something medium-priced (to not appear neither ostentatious nor outclassed), and something simple (not requiring a lot of extra ordering instructions).
There are no hard-fast rules. Still, I can tell you that a BORG breaks almost any rules that I could think up for myself. It seems like there could be something fun in the naming conventions and the color of the BORG. But mostly, it just says, “I’m trying to get black-out drunk as quickly and cheaply as possible.” And if that’s what you’re trying to say, I hear you loud and clear.
If you’re looking to develop a more mature understanding of some more nuanced options for drink signaling, however, let’s go get something to drink and we’ll talk about it.