Interview with Lindsy Van Gelder, journalist

by Caren on October 27, 2010

Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.

Lindsy Van Gelder is a journalist who has written for most of the usual suspects at one time or another, most recently for the New York Times, More, Real Simple, Whole Living, Prevention, Allure, Self, Budget Travel, the Ritz-Carlton Magazine, AARP Magazine, and Martha Stewart Living.

Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?

Lindsy Van Gelder: I was little. I grew up in a Mad Men fifties suburban family where it was considered  cute for the kids to learn how to mix drinks. My dad drank a rye and Coke when he got home from work, and that may have been my first sip. Alternatively, I remember my grandmother giving me thimbley cups of beer from time to time.

How did/does your family treat drinking?

Despite pressing us into service as baby bartenders, my parents frowned on drunkenness. (They also told us all about sex, but would have been upset if my sisters or I had gotten knocked up. The whole idea was to do away with forbidden fruit.) My father once explained to me as an object lesson that he had gotten very publicly wasted as a  teenager, and even though it was a one-off, for years afterward he would run into people who assumed he was a lush. Nonetheless, when I was 17, some friends and I went to a Greenwich Village club with a drink minimum after we’d already had drinks somewhere else, and, long story short, most of my intake came back up in various litter baskets on the street, in the subway and on the bus on the way home to New Jersey.  We woke my mother up with our wracking and heaving. It was awful….  made worse by realizing I had disappointed my parents.

If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?

My children are grown, but when they were younger I pretty much took the same tack as my parents had. (And they never threw up in wastebaskets, at least not on my watch.) I even taught them how to roll joints. This was in the “Just Say No” era, which I found idiotic. I thought it was really important to impart the wisdom that, say, pot in moderation was okay, but crack was evil.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?

I drink a lot more on vacation.  In fact, part of the lure of drinking for me is a kind of international alcohol snobbery – the whole terroir thing, where the wine or liqueur you’re drinking is part of the culture you’re exploring and the land itself. I especially enjoy discovering rarities like Sciacchetrà, which is served as both an aperitif and a dessert wine in the Cinque Terre area of Italy, and was a favorite of Dante’s. There are only a few hillsides where the grapes are grown, and you can barely find this stuff in Rome, much less in New York or Miami. I’ve also lugged home Cuban rum from anyplace in the world where I could legally buy it.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

Dry white wine. The first time I went to Paris, at the age of 24, I discovered Sancerre. I stray from time to time, but I always come back to the sauvignon blanc grape and its cousins.

How has alcoholism affected your life?

I’ve had several friends whose lives were saved by AA, and several people in my life who should have gone to AA.  I started my career as a newspaper reporter, and it was a pretty hard-drinking environment; editors kept flasks in their desk drawers, and all of this was romanticized as part of their machismo. I briefly had an alcoholic newspaperman boyfriend who got into fights when he was drunk. The first time he hit me, I was stupefied, but did the typical girly thing of trying to be “understanding.” The second time it happened, I bailed. Later in my life someone else close to me had a serious drinking problem that wasn’t being addressed; that time I got myself to Al-Anon.

What was Al-Anon like for you?

The truth is that I hated it. I think the AA model of admitting that you’re powerless over your addiction doesn’t translate well to relationships. I would sit at meetings  – I went for several months, to give it a chance – and I would hear people talk about their loved one’s bad behavior, and I’d want to shake them. But of course, that would have been “cross talk.” I especially remember a guy whose boyfriend went out to the bars at night, going on quite movingly about the special time they had together every evening in the garden before the boyfriend got sloshed. I sympathized with his pain, but the default assumption was how best to accommodate the relationship with the drinker and where to draw the line in order to do that without losing your soul. I wonder if the Al-Anon model was laid down at a time when most alcoholics were men, and their wives had no financial wherewithal to leave. The truth is that even if it’s a parent or a child or your oldest, best friend in the world, you can usually leave, and sometimes you should.

What’s your weirdest drinking memory?

When I had my first child, my ob/gyn encouraged me to drink imported beer. The hops or something in the beer was supposed to provide B vitamins to the baby and help the mother’s let down reflex when she breastfed. I mostly only like beer once in awhile on a hot day, and this baby was born in January. I kind of forced myself to swig it down, the way you’d eat your broccoli.

If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?

A mojito. I’d like the excuse to be muddled.


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