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.
Kera Bolonik is a writer and editor, whose work has appeared in New York, Glamour, Salon, The Nation, among many other publications. She is currently working on a book about female friendship, and lives in Brooklyn, with her wife and son.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Kera Bolonik: I suppose it was Manischewitz kiddush wine, which I sipped during Passover Seders when I was 7 or 8, but I didn’t realize it was alcohol, so I’m not going to count it. Also: It was unpotable, and I never could stomach enough of it to get so much as a buzz. But the first drink I intentionally imbibed was not much better than Manischewitz: a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler, when I was 14. It was awful, but my friend Paul had smuggled some from his parents’ fridge, and I obliged him by sampling the goods, if only to express my gratitude for the great effort he’d gone through to get them.
How did/does your family treat drinking?
My parents had a bottle of Dewar’s “aging” in a cupboard, collecting dust, for years. Which is to say, my parents and their friends don’t really drink, so I didn’t see the appeal, or recognize it as a vice, or any such thing, until I was in junior high school, when, at a birthday party, my classmates seized a bottle of vodka, and poured it into their Cokes. I was too immersed in The Shining, playing on the BetaMax, to participate or even notice (but, I can tell you, I would have shrugged, and thought it was gross). When the birthday girl’s mother came down to the basement to check on us, the party was, of course, immediately shut down, and everyone’s parents were called and asked to pick us up.
How do you approach alcohol in your everyday life?
I have a self-imposed rule that I don’t drink during the week, mostly for dietary reasons, but also because I like my head to be as clear as possible during the workweek. On the weekends, I enjoy a cocktail on occasion, and wine with dinner.
If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled?
My son has just turned one, so we haven’t had a need to explain what alcohol is to him yet, but we drink considerably less since becoming parents, as much for the sake of our sanity and health as to set an example.
Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
When I was in my twenties, I drank a lot more than I do now to steel my nerves and to buy time at a party or a bar (another drink, another hour before I’d go home). Also, having worked in publishing—and this is true of nearly every industry—it seemed to me at the time that every event centered around drinking: book parties, drinks dates with editors and agents, etc. And then I’d meet up with friends in bars, since none of us had living rooms—the city’s bars and restaurants were our living rooms. I also admittedly used alcohol to self-medicate back then—I was struggling with depression and anxiety, and though it would seem like I’d gotten myself trapped in a vicious cycle—drinking while depressed, since alcohol is a depressant—it worked as a pretty efficient Band-Aid for a time. What can I say: Being in my twenties with untreated depression didn’t exactly yield great decision-making. Though, I do sometimes marvel at the fact that I was able to metabolize alcohol as easily as I did back then—I would drink a lot, and then get to work the next morning at 8:30 a.m., and hunker down. I could never do that now. My head and liver hurt just thinking about it.
What’s your drink of choice? Why?
There are the drinks I enjoy with food: I love a glass of Sancerre and sharing a dozen oysters with my spouse, or a glass of Cahors or, if I’m really lucky, a Barolo, with a steak. On a Friday evening, I might like to come home from work and have a dry vodka martini, up, with a twist. Only caveat about those: They require quick drinking because few things are as unappetizing as room-temperature vodka. Which is why I’m not such a fan of those huge, spaceship-size martini glasses. I’d rather keep it small and ice-cold. And never more than one, or I’m under the table. I love a single-malt Scotch on a cold winter night—one or two rocks. Maybe that’s sacrilegious, and I can enjoy it neat, but I don’t drink for show. And my winter martini: a rye Manhattan with the slightest splash of sweet vermouth, and a dash of bitters, on the rocks.
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
I used to have a standing drinks date with a writer friend who lives around the corner when I worked at home. She came over every other week and we’d have a few drinks and postmortem the events of our week. Similarly, in my twenties, in the mid-nineties, my colleagues and I would go out to a bar in Little Italy on Friday nights—Mare Chiaro. In both cases, I can’t say the fun was in the drinking so much as in the hanging out with wonderful friends. There’s no denying that alcohol is a social lubricant, so a few drinks in, the conversations get interesting. People let their guards down and tell you what’s really on their minds, which is refreshing. More refreshing, sometimes, than the well-drink cocktails.
What about the worst time?
In college, I dated a woman who was a serious alcoholic. I’d never met an alcoholic before, or even people who drank heavily, so I was slow to recognize what was going on with her. On one particularly horrendous date—New Year’s Eve—I tried to keep up with her. I drank an entire bottle of Sutter Home White Zinfandel (I was 18, it was 1989, I didn’t know better). That wine was almost as bad as her behavior that night (I woke up to find myself on the couch, and her in bed with her ex. Oh, college lesbodrama). As was the ensuing hangover, which set in well before the evening was over: Before the clock struck midnight and 1989 gave way to 1990, I was resting my face on the cold porcelain rim of a toilet bowl, praying that I’d stop vomiting. A very classy and memorable way to ring in the new year.
Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—a relationship of yours?
One friend who went into AA broke up with all of her friends she ever drank with. Including me, who, at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, was one of her closest, most supportive friends. I’d offered to join her at meetings and introduce her to other friends of mine who were “in the rooms,” but it was not to be. I think something else was going there, but that’s another subject for another day—it was extremely hurtful. But I understood she had to do what she had to do. I have had to phase out a couple of acquaintances whose drinking and ensuing behavior have crossed a line into absolutely unbearable.
Has culture or religion influenced your drinking?
I was raised in a traditional Jewish home and all of the Jewish adults we knew didn’t drink, so my sister and I grew up believing that Jews didn’t drink. My parents probably drink more now than they ever did, an occasional glass of wine or a Cosmo (my mom has just discovered these)—my sister and I wish they had more discerning palates when it came to wine, but they like their two-buck Chuck and their Yellowtail. I, of course, now believe Jews drink plenty, but I do think there is something to the joke that we Jews can’t hold our liquor, at least where I’m concerned: Two or three drinks and I’m done for the night.
Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking? I don’t know about favorite: None of them is an advertisement for its virtues, such as they are.
They’re more like cautionary tales about the dangers of alcoholism in memoir form, in three different media: “Drunken Angel,” by Lucinda Williams, is one of my favorite songs, on her album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It’s a portrait of a brilliant performer ravaged by alcohol. And the first twenty minutes of Leaving Las Vegas is probably the most visceral, most disgusting depiction of an alcoholic binge I’d ever seen, and it still haunts me. I actually thought I was going to throw up when I saw it, it was so dizzying and disorienting. I don’t tend to like recovery memoirs, but I loved Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, because she so aptly described why drinking appealed to her and how it insinuated itself into her life. I realize none of these is a positive portrait of drinking, but why would an artist want to write about their uncomplicated relationship to something?
What do you like most about drinking?
The taste. I love the way wine takes on new life when you open the cork and it breathes and changes flavor. I like the way it pairs with good food. And I like how it can help some people relax and let their guard down a little. I love an innovative, delicious cocktail—mixology may have become a precious thing in recent years, but there are true artists out there, chefs of the spirits. I enjoy them like I enjoy a great meal, like a gourmand.
Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?
I choose to drink because I have just enough to enjoy it and not so much that it would ever consume my life. If I were told I had to stop drinking tomorrow, I would be fine with that. I would not feel that way about coffee… Or peanut butter. Or salted caramel.