For some reason, my parents moved to Oklahoma City recently. By recently I mean within the past five years. It will probably always feel recent to me, however, because it lies outside the boundaries of things that defined my parents when I was young. Anything they do differently now feels recent. My mom recently took up golf, for instance.
But so they moved to Oklahoma City and Wine Allergic Girlfriend, Stepson and I made the trip there to spend the Christmas holiday with them.
My sister and her husband also made the trip, driving up from Houston with their newly acquired dog Brewster—small, quivery, short haired. When we arrived from the airport, Brewster met us at the door and my mom began dispatching us to various rooms. My mom is short and flaps her hands while talking, as if either drying her nails or shaking away a squirmy thought about eyeball surgery or aquatic life. “Zane, you’re over here,” she said to Stepson, flapping towards the office. He hefted his bag and in a voice that all of sudden sounded way deeper than it did when we were not around my family, said, “Got it.”
“He’s so grown up!” my mom said.
“Is he?” I said.
You know what joke is easy to stumble into if you have been to Oklahoma recently?
“Hey, Matthew, how was Oklahoma?”
“It was OK.”
I have made that joke no less than three times since we returned home, each time a delightful surprise.
The truth was that Oklahoma was snowy. The state got hit with its biggest single snowfall ever while we were there, and because by definition you are never prepared to deal with the largest thing ever, we were snowed in in a serious way. By the time we ventured out a few days after the snow fell, the roads had regressed to a series of ruts strewn with abandoned cars. People were leaving vehicles in ludicrous places: the middle of intersections; by highway on-ramps; halfway off their driveways.
And just like the song warns us, in Oklahoma the good old wind really does sweep off the plains, so what should have been a reasonable eight inches drifted in places up to four feet. My dad had one shovel for us to try and dig out. “I’ve had this shovel since Colorado,” he told me proudly when I went out to relieve him on the driveway at 1 AM. We hadn’t lived in Colorado for over 20 years.
And I can say this: they simply do not make shovels like they used to.
My poor mother. I am vegetarian and my sister has a gluten allergy. Preparing a Christmas Eve dinner around those two things is sort of like Perec writing that famous novel without the letter e. Sure, it can be done; but it’s kind of an exercise in painful cleverness.
We had been inside for three days together by the time Christmas Eve dinner hit. Where my dad had arranged to take us around OK City to some favored spots (including one neighborhood which had “really just an amazing collection of Christmas light decorations. Really, really something”), we instead stayed inside and did puzzles.
At Xmas eve dinner, my dad brought out a bottle of wine from Esterlina Vineyard. I had given them a membership to Esterlina’s wine club last Christmas.
“We’ve been saving this to drink with you,” he said. Esterlina makes wine mostly from the Pinot Noir grape. I had joined the club myself after visiting their Anderson Valley Vineyard a couple years ago on a trip to CA for my brother’s wedding.
“Dad,” my sister said after I explained the Esterlina Wine/brother’s wedding connection, “do you remember how hungover you were after Joe’s wedding?”
“Oh, Chris, honey,” my mom said flapping a hand in his direction. “You were not doing well that day!”
I don’t want to embarrass my father—we have all been there—but he was incredibly hung-over the day after my brother’s wedding; a hangover of the dark room, please-be-quiet-sign-on-the-door sort. The reception bar had been open and the wedding had been relatively stressful. Drinking a few too many seemed a reasonable response.
This reminded my mother of the reception following her own wedding—hers and my dad’s—during which friends had to be twice dispatched on a booze run.
“It was so hot,” she said, “Chris, do you remember how hot it was?”
“It was very hot.”
“And our friends drank like fish. They just liked to drink.” She flapped her hands again as if the idea of fish just, you know, weirded her out.
We laughed at the stories about these drunk friends at the wedding (and later at the wedding album they pulled out, what with all that brown everyone wore), but when I looked over at Stepson—hunched forward over his plate, looking up with a grin—I felt slightly uncomfortable. How open should you be, I wondered, about drinking with your kid? Not about drinking in general—about this I am convinced you should be very open; and not about their drinking. No, what I’m wondering is: how open should you be about your drinking?
At 16, my family moved to London in the Great English Kingdom—a place with many charms, not the least of which is its lax drinking age. I began going out drinking with friends on weekend nights with my parent’s approval and even encouragement (it meant I _had _friends). On the night of my junior prom, my friends and I gathered at Nicole Ceccaci’s house beforehand with our parents, where we all drank champagne and took pictures. When we arrived at the prom, we were given drink tickets. Teenage drinking just wasn’t a problem.
It’s important to note, though, that the country’s relaxed attitude toward drinking comes not from a rotten moral center but from an entirely different culture of drinking. There is pretty much no equivalent to a pub in America, at least not the part where the 15 year old is given a beer (weakened by lemonade) while out with his or her family.
This whole attitude surprisingly rubbed off on my parents, and they seemed to accept that 15/16 year olds could drink. I didn’t share this story around the Oklahoma dinner table on Christmas Eve, but I remember a London New Year’s Day when I couldn’t rise from my bed because the hangover was so insistent, and it wasn’t like I pretended otherwise. My parents scolded me, but because I drank too much; not because I drank at all.
Coming from conservative Texas, this acceptance of teenage drinking was striking. Only a few years earlier my mom had sat me down and said, “We need to talk about alcohol.” She and the rest of my family were leaving for England, but I had insisted on finishing my sophomore year in Texas (long story involving my then-commitment to a church youth group and the theatrical arts); and so they arranged for me to live with a family friend for six months. “If we hear even once that you’ve been drinking while staying with the Meyers,” my mom warned, “we’ll pull you out of school in Houston and you’ll move to England immediately.” This, in retrospect, was sort of like out of the frying pan and etc. as far as teen drinking punishments go.
Given this history then, why am I clenching my teeth as the rest of the family relates tales of drunkenness around Stepson at Christmas Eve dinner? And why, when he asked if he could have rum in his eggnog did I almost have a panic attack?
Well, for one, I live in America and America doesn’t abide teenagers and alcohol, not one bit. Just like my parents flipped their attitudes when they crossed the pond, it’s hard for W.A.G. and I to go against the flow of America’s general attitudes re: teens and booze. It’s all well and good for me to set up a little European enclave in my house, but Stepson’s still going to walk out the door and have to deal with alcohol as it’s marketed, handled, and consumed by the U.S. at large. And in the case of your American teen that’s usually to excess, in the woods, with dumb decisions about automobiles amplified by under-developed brains and a nationally under-developed mass transit system. Just like kids with hippie parents become sociopaths about candy, your standard U.S. teenager becomes a hoarder and a sneaker. It makes sense that a parent would just want to pass the buck on booze, pretend it doesn’t exist until the kid turns 21, and at least then they are (hopefully) no longer living at your house.
Of course we as a country have spent the past century trying to figure out just how we feel about teens and drinking. Before the 20th century, there was basically no official state or national policy on the subject. Starting around the turn of the century, however, laws and attitudes around drinking (and specifically, just when a person can start drinking, age-wise) were enacted, driven by two of the more important aspects of American culture: 1) moral fervor; and 2) cars.
This has its most clear articulation in the all-out ban of alcohol during Prohibition, of course, but following Prohibition all the states set a minimum drinking age where there wasn’t one before. Originally, this age was tied to voting age—21 in most states at the time—but it moved up and down on a state-by-state basis between 18 and 21 for the next 50 years.
Most often, the reason for lowering the age had to do with voting, the age of which was officially lowered to 18 by the 26th Amendment in 1971. If you could vote, the thinking went (or, esp. in the Vietnam era, if you could get killed in the jungle), then you could have a beer. Whenever a state raised the minimum drinking age, however, it was most likely a reaction to alcohol-related driving accidents. In Oklahoma up until 1976, for instance (in addition to it not being as snowy as it was during 2009), there were two different drinking ages: 18 for women, 21 for men. It was like a state-wide ladies night. The reason? Men got into more drinking related auto accidents.
This was changed in 1976 by a Supreme Court case brought against the state for age discrimination, but your 18-year-old Okie male only got a few years to drink anyway. In 1984 President Reagan signed the Uniform Drinking Age Act, mandating all states adopt 21 as the legal drinking age. While an individual state can actually still set its own legal drinking age as it pleases, it will lose 10% of its annual federal highway apportionment, and, probably would be completely vilified by the 49 other states, anyway. Cars and morals in other words.
It would be so much easier to simply ignore the reality of alcohol around Stepson. Whether it’s because of general 20th- and 21st-century American attitudes toward drinking, or something to do with young people in general, the idea of Stepson out there in the world making decisions and interacting with others around alcohol makes me want to do some hand-flapping of my own. The discomfort I feel when my parents regale Stepson with hangover stories comes not so much from some idea about a correct legal drinking age; but because here we are sharing stories of when we were young and stupid with someone who is actually young and potentially stupid.
What I’m trying to get at here is that while we can open ourselves to him—showing him our foibles and letting him know we did some crazy things ourselves back in the day—it would totally inappropriate for him to do that same. Had Stepson joined in the hangover talk—"Yeah, you should have seen me when I was 14 in my friend’s basement…"—we would have looked at him in horror. While I may be open to Stepson putting alcohol in his eggnog with us, I don’t think I will ever approve of him out with his friends getting drunk (possibly even post-21), simply because it scares me.
And this is of course another part of America’s fear of teenagers and alcohol—aside from moral hand-wringing about alcohol or data about alcohol related car accidents—we simply don’t like to see our kids make bad decisions and do dumb stuff; and we try and put off and even ignore stuff that will increase their chances of being dumb, even if by ignoring it, we make it much, much worse.
“Yes, you may have rum in your eggnog,” I said to Stepson when he asked; or, more specifically, when he saw me putting rum in mine. “But you got to let me pour it.”
“Oh come on, don’t you trust me?” he said.
Later, while pouring the Esterlina wine at dinner, I asked him if he wanted to try a little bit.
“Wine’s gross,” he said.
I felt both sad and happy about this.