Here is something that always gets me, emotion-wise: Teenagers dressed in slightly silly outfits doing some type of work among adults without complaint. Like, for instance, the teenagers at my local grocery store who work the registers in their ill-fitting polo shirts. Despite how personally trying it may be for them to be seen in a collared shirt, they don’t complain or sulk about it. They simply put on their best faces and go about their jobs. This slays me every time.

OK AND SO: I am at a fundraiser for a local nonprofit and find myself similarly affected by the teenage girl playing the saxophone. She is here as part of the high school honors jazz band providing musical entertainment for the event. And while, yes, all five members have a good level of affecting teenage awkwardness and ill-fitting fancy clothes, it is her, the sole female playing the saxophone for all these adults – many of whom are wearing black yellow polka dotted clothing – who makes me well up with something I can’t quite put my finger on, especially when she stands there during a break, listening to the trumpeter play his solo.

The black with yellow polka dot thing is because the fundraiser is titled “The Salamander Soiree,” and salamanders, I learned, are black with yellow spots. The event, which is at Amherst College, benefits a local Environmental Education Center where Former-Housemate-Extraordinaire Casey works. This is why Wine-Allergic Girlfriend and I are here. W.A.G. looks great in a yellow dress and black sweater, and Former-Housemate Casey, also fetching, has on a black fuzzy scarf with yellow polka dot stickers stuck to it. I didn’t have any black to wear, but I am here in my “I Love Not Camping” t-shirt. It is yellow.

There will be an auction later, this is the core of the event, but now we are in the mingling portion. Donated food fills a few round tables in the middle, while rectangle tables along the walls offer the beverages. Casey and I head to these outer tables immediately.

I suppose I could have counted on it, this being an environmental educational thing and all, but I am delighted to see that the wine is from a local Massachusetts winery called Les Trois Emme. The two people opening bottles answer questions about the wine and the grapes to the people in front of me. This ask-the-winemaker chit-chat seems charming for about a minute, but then just becomes an obstacle between me and a glass of wine.

For the most part, let’s just say that the wine isn’t so good.

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It’s early spring, and though cold, some Amherst College students are defiantly walking around outside in short sleeved shirts. Two kids even throw a Frisbee back and forth, though let me assure you: it is still too cold for Frisbee – whether you are in college or not. We are back at our table in the corner: Casey, her husband Chad, W.A.G. and I.

Casey notices someone in official Amherst College Dining Hall garb walk by and says, “Oh my god. That guy was my boss when I worked here in the dining hall. I can’t believe he’s still here.” Casey worked in this dining hall when she was seventeen, teenager growing up in a college town. “He can’t be happy,” she adds.

I look around at the high schoolers who are staffing this fundraiser, and just as I did with the saxophone player, I well up with that same feeling that, while hard to put a finger on, I know has something to do with their stoic acceptance of the situation. When she worked here, Casey tells us, she regularly stole wine and food. This sparks a round robin of employee theft stories. I used to steal money from a camera shop in Los Angeles where I worked. W.A.G. stole food from her restaurant jobs. Chad lifted stuff in his days as well, but he has both a long history of sticking it to the Man and of working in a number of places where the Man was ever present, so it’s hard to tally just what and how much he’s taken.

“How is that OK?” W.A.G. asks. “I wouldn’t do that now, but back then I didn’t even think about it. What is wrong with you when you’re that age?”

“Well it’s not all that bad to steal food from Amherst College, right?” Chad says. “It was going to be thrown out probably anyway.”

“Yeah, OK, but the wine?”

“Well, it’s Kohlberg’s theory of the stages of moral development,” Chad says, or at least in so many words. He’s probably the most well-read person I know, so I’m not even going to try and make this sound like natural dialogue, but rest assured, it is relatively close.

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American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg wondered, given an ethical dilemma, how does a person decide what is the right thing to do? The popular ethical example (this explained by Chad and later confirmed by Wikipedia) is the “Heinz dilemma,” a Les Mis sort of problem: Heinz’s wife is dying and the only medicine that will save her is more expensive than you can afford. Therefore, he decides to steal the medicine. Should he have done this?

Kohlberg wasn’t interested in whether stealing the medicine was right or wrong. Instead, he wanted to know how people decided whether it was right or wrong.

Kohlberg’s theory proposes that human morality develops over time in six stages. You start your life at Stage One, a morality driven by self-interest, and progress through your life toward Stage Six, a morality driven by abstract universal principles of justice. So a person in Stage One would say Heinz should have stolen the medicine because he’ll be happier if his wife lives (self-interest); whereas a person in Stage Six would say that Heinz was right to steal the meds because human life is sacred and way more important than the property rights of the druggist (universal principle). Again, the point here isn’t whether stealing the meds is right, but how a human being decides whether it the right thing to do.

In between self-interest and these universal principles, humans make moral decisions based on things like their feelings for others (Stage Three), how they want the world to view them (also Stage Three), and social norms (Stage Four). According to Kohlberg, each stage is necessary and unavoidable; you move through each as you experience moral dilemmas that can’t be solved by your current way of dealing with things. Oh, and also, most of us get stuck around stage four, which is like basically abiding by the social contract.

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In terms of Kohlberg, all the stealing W.A.G., Casey, Chad and I did represents some pretty low grade Stage Three moral decision making. Casey stole the wine because she obviously couldn’t buy it, and she wanted to be the friend who showed up with wine, and she didn’t think she would get caught. Same goes for W.A.G. I stole money because I didn’t think I would get caught and it advanced my own interests. Chad’s morality is perhaps the most advanced here. Taking stuff in order to give the Man a good sticking to seems closer to the realm of universal principle.

Right around Stage Three, according to Kohlberg, people start making moral decisions based on how others will view them. For example: You help an old woman cross the street because you want everyone to perceive you as a good person. This seems to be the archetype of teenager morality; doing stuff because of how you think it makes you look. I must admit that this is how I still come to many of my own decisions. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at shielding those self-promoting motives and can mask my Stage Three-ness behind some Stage Five or Stage Six reasoning. This leads me to wonder: What does it mean if I make moral decisions because I want to be viewed as a Stage Sixer?

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Throughout the fundraiser, I keep returning to the Les Trois Emme table for more wine. When I said earlier that the wine wasn’t good, I meant really that it didn’t have the production value of most wines you find on a restaurant wine list. It was like the difference between the local and national news. It’s not that the local news is objectively bad, it’s just missing a sort of polish. That’s what this wine was like.

And, you know what? Good. There are somewhere around thirty wineries in Massachusetts, and every one of them is improbable. It’s like finding a good BBQ joint in the north or a good cup of coffee in Georgia (shockingly difficult). In many ways, those places are better because they are improbable; the people running them have to care a little more. The folks at Les Trois Emme don’t make great wine, but they make wine in a place where the growing season is more favorable to producing maple syrup, so I say bravo. They don’t, I find out, grow all the grapes in MA – apparently, that would be too improbable – but the wine I liked most is made from the Cayuga grape, a grape specially created for northern vineyards by researchers at Cornell University. I promise to look into this grape more in a future installment of this column, especially since I learned that they created the Cayuga grape at some place called the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, which tickles the same spot in me that also likes the second season of Lost.

I’ve now returned to the Les Trois Emme table enough times that I start making abashed comments like, “Haven’t seen you guys in a while!” or even worse, “Ha-ha, my friends sure do like your wine,” Eventually, I resort to telling them that, you know, I write a regular wine column for an esteemed website, and maybe I could come visit their winery? They rightfully did not seem impressed. As Chad pointed out I was already getting their wine for free.

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The Salamander Soiree eventually gets around to its main event: the auction of donated items. The organization auctions off things like a weekends at New England vacation homes, or wares from local artists, or restaurant gift certificates. I hope they raise lots of money, but auctions make me uncomfortable. It’s like performative shopping or something, and I kind of want to run away when the guy starts doing his auctioneer fast-talk shtick.

The Les Trois Emme wine table is right next to the auctioneer’s podium. Once the auction begins, a crowd forms a half-circle around the podium, which makes getting to the table difficult, as you have to cross in front of the stage to get to it. Damn auctions. I don’t want wish to be seen as a person focused on alcohol while everyone else participates in a charitable auction. No one else in the crowd even looks at the wine table.

As far as the auction goes, things seem to be going smoothly. A weekend in Cape Cod brings some high bids. Tension builds when the auctioneer calls out, “950 going once … 950 going twice … 950-” and then is interrupted by a higher bid. The crowd actually “oohs” at this.

The last item up for auction is a baseball signed by Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. When the bidding starts, two guys in suits quickly become the only two going for it. This being New England, everyone in the audience is excited about the ball, and while I hadn’t paid attention at all to who got that two-night stay in Provincetown, I quiet down like the rest of the crowd to watch the battle for this item. I used to collect baseball memorabilia and I remember how excited I was to simply be around objects touched by my favorite players. I owned a ball signed by Red Sox left fielder Mike Greenwell, who I don’t remember even liking all that much. I’m not sure why I bought the ball, but I do know that I really enjoyed having a signed baseball on display in my room alongside my most favorite things.

The Jason Varitek ball goes to a bald and bearded fellow in a black and yellow polka-dotted tie. He pays almost $400 for the thing. The auctioneer thanks everybody and the place starts to empty. There is still a bunch of wine left, but I don’t bother getting any. Perhaps even more than not wanting to be the guy getting wine during a charitable auction, I don’t want to be the guy hoarding wine as people head toward the exits.

This, of course, is yet another example of me making a decision based on how I am viewed by others. And the thing about these teenagers staffing the event and playing the saxophone is that they are violating that most teenage of instincts, and it’s totally moving to me. They don’t want to be seen in these silly clothes around all these adults in their polka dots, but they are here anyway, and they are not complaining. You know what really slays me? It’s when someone driven by Kohlbergian Stage Three concerns (“I am doing this thing because I want the world to think I am a cool person”) goes against those concerns, puts on an ill-fitting polo shirt, hangs a saxophone around their neck, and manages somehow to care.

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Wines used in the creation of this article:

Les Trois Emme Berkshire Red, Cabernet, Blush, Cayuga White (drunk while at the Salamander Soiree)

Grand Vin de Bordeaux – Chateau Clos de la Chesnaie – Appelation Lalande de Pomerol (drunk while researching Lawrence Kohlberg)

Charles Bove Vouvray (drunk while discussing Kohlberg and Blue Jays with friends)

Bota Box Old Vine Zinfandel (drunk while writing)