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My Afternoon of Getting ‘Pantsdrunk’

The good people of Finland have long believed that drinking alone in their underwear will reveal great truths about our collective isolation. But would it work for this American?

Finland, glorious Finland! There are few places about which I know less, except that my next-door neighbor when I was little was this divorced Finnish broad who was always drunk and shit-talking her ex-husband. I do know that it’s a Nordic country, with all the dark winters and herring that implies. I also know that its air force dropped the swastika from its emblem in, uh, 2020 — better late than never, Finland! Finally, I know that its inhabitants apparently partake of a practice called kalsarikanni, or, as translated by Finnish journalist and author Miska Rantanen, “päntsdrunk.”

Rantanen’s book, Päntsdrunk (Kalsarikanni): The Finnish Path to Relaxation, defines the behavior as “drinking at home, alone, in your underwear.” It’s such a common practice that it appears as a specially designed emoji in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ guide to the country.

Pantsdrunkenness makes sense for the Finns, or at least for the stereotype of Finns that I carry in my mind, which is that they are a) tall and sturdy enough to thrive under drunk-all-day conditions; and b) insane from the protracted darkness of their winters. Here in the U.S., however, we’re likely to view such drinking as a pathology to be cured. 

But is that unfair — or xenophobic even? After all, we’re emerging from various degrees of quarantine, during which many of us loosened our rules about when and where it was appropriate to drink. It’s one thing to proscribe drinking at home alone when there are parties and bars available for the purpose; it’s quite another to do so when there’s no place but home. In the early months of quarantine, I used to down two tequila shots before my nightly trudge around the neighborhood, unable to feel anything for my miserable little walks otherwise. And people who might have previously pointed to that behavior as a sign that my addiction had become unmanageable were too busy doing the same thing. 

Of course, bars and restaurants have started opening again for socially sanctioned indoor drinking. But given the Delta variant — and all the variants sure to follow — who knows if it’s safe or not? Which once again brings me back to the Finnish and kalsarikanni. Is getting pantsdrunk a viable alternative to getting COVID-risk-drunk In These Uncertain Times?

I bought a fifth of whiskey, poured myself a double, and decided to find out.

* * * * *

10 a.m.: Down the hatch!

10:08 a.m.: I’m just now realizing that at no point in my research about pantsdrunkenness did I find the advice to begin drinking as early as 10 a.m. But whatever, I’m here now.

10:20 a.m.: I receive a phone notification reminding me that in 10 minutes, I’m to be interviewed about my book for [OUTLET NAME REDACTED]. I could have checked my calendar before doing this.

10:45 a.m.: I did begin that interview by indicating to the interviewer that I “could really go for some gotdamn [sic] mozzarella sticks right now.” But otherwise, it passed without incident, and I don’t think he even heard me mutter about mozzarella sticks while he was fooling with his recorder. Pantsdrunk means never having to say you’re sorry.

11 a.m.: I read that “[pantsdrunk] doesn’t encourage binge drinking or alcoholism of any sort. Some research has shown that having a drink once in a while might be an excellent way to reduce stress.” “That’s right,” I slur out loud to the dog at 11 o’clock in the good lord’s morning.

12 p.m.: Okay, but I could really go for some gotdamn mozzarella sticks right now.

12:10 p.m.: Mozzarella sticks procured, along with the grudging respect of the bodega grill guy once he learned why I was stumbling ass over elbow into his store braying about mozzarella sticks and stinking of the demon whiskey.

12:15 p.m.: Check this out, I just invented it: red wine for beef, white wine for fish and a shot of Old Granddad for mozzarella sticks.

1 p.m.: Per Rantanen, “Pantsdrunk is the antithesis of posing, performing or pretense: One does not post atmospheric images on Instagram while pantsdrunk.” I suppose it’s true that I wouldn’t want any atmospheric images of me posted on Instagram while I’m in this condition, but I feel I’m missing the point. Should I be, like, reflecting? Doing mindfulness? Am I too drunk right now?

1:15 p.m.: All the articles I’m finding about pantsdrunkenness also reference “hygge,” a term whose definition I’d forgotten but which lived in my head as a faint grim memory of something I disliked. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m four shots in and struggling to make sense of what I’m reading, but isn’t this just fucking detestable?: “Winter is the most hygge time of year. It is candles, nubby woolens, shearling slippers, woven textiles, pastries, blond wood, sheepskin rugs, lattes with milk-foam hearts and a warm fireplace.” 

I mean, obviously that all sounds great, but bears little resemblance to my broke-ass experience of winter, which tends to revolve more around busted radiators, wet socks and employers insisting that I come into work on the off-chance that a customer might avail himself of our services. It occurs to me that pantsdrunkenness is The People’s Hygge, a Nordic-branded coziness for those of us whose shitty rental apartments have no fireplaces and whose pastries are made with Crisco rather than butter. Few among us can ride out the winter in a deceptively pricey state of Scandinavian minimalism, but just about everyone can chug Lancers until they pass out. 

I send these thoughts to my boyfriend as a series of 10 texts, certain that he’ll thrill at this early look at my manifesto.

1:21 p.m.: My boyfriend clarifies that I don’t need to text him every pantsdrunk thought I have.

1:30 p.m.: Down the hatch! Nuts to you, boyfriend, I’m optimizing.

2:10 p.m.: Lord, I’d forgotten the horrible part of day-drinking where you start having your hangover at, like, midday. The sun is still high in the sky and here I am, chasing Excedrin with Old Granddad. For the first time while getting shithoused on well whiskey in my panties for journalism, I begin to feel like a failure.

2:30 p.m.: Water! The magic hangover cure I was looking for was water. I’m back, baby!

3 p.m.: I wouldn’t say I feel “good” right now, per se, but I do feel notably different from my default state of working-from-home numbness. Back in the beginning of quarantine, when I still had a day job, I couldn’t shake this rage that kept disguising itself as ennui. My boss would ask me to call this contractor and remind him about a form he owed us, or email that client about our unpaid invoice, and I’d think: Who cares? But really what I was thinking was that I didn’t care, that I couldn’t imagine caring about this stuff during this moment — when hundreds of thousands of people were being thrown to the wolves. 

All my boss wanted to talk about was work, and it wasn’t essential work we were doing, not by any stretch. In fact, the world would have been a better place if our jobs didn’t exist at all. By the time I lost said job, I wasn’t sorry to see it go. But if I hadn’t lost that job, pantsdrunkenness may have presented itself as the proper way forward. I wouldn’t have felt more relaxed, but if I’d spent my days fending off my creeping sense of uselessness with intoxication, I would have at least been able to see relaxation from where I was sitting.

3:04 p.m.: What I’m saying is, pantsdrunkenness is an opportunity to keep us intoxicated enough that we don’t ask questions about the jobs we hate.

3:30 p.m.: I have had a number of shots that, were I to reveal it, would result in my mother making a concerned call to remind me that there’s nothing shameful about admitting one is an alcoholic. I still think I’ve hit upon something, however: We live in a world emblematized by great capitalistic unpleasantness over which we have no control. The fossil fuel and manufacturing industries burn up our planet’s resources while cheekily telling us to recycle, conserve water, turn off our ACs, etc. Is it any wonder that we turn to intoxication? Getting too drunk to tackle one’s responsibilities feels like taking control back over one’s life. But in the highly individualized model we Americans use to relate to one another, a person who’s routinely too drunk to function is merely a sad sack alcoholic. Rarely do we stop to consider that getting too drunk to function may be the only solution available to us — and if it’s no solution at all, it’s still not our fault for trying.

3:35 p.m.: What I’m saying is, I’m too drunk to function right now. And I think it may be time to call this experiment to a close, lest I wake up tomorrow with cirrhosis.

The Next Morning: In the cold and, more importantly, sober light of day, I feel that pantsdrunkenness does have something to teach us — less about how to relax than about the desperate mechanisms we turn to when we want to relax. At times when I’ve felt overworked and exploited by bosses, my first instinct has often been to dull the stress of work with a drink, after which I do tend to feel better. But what if the world we lived in wasn’t so hostile to a more holistic version of relaxation, one that genuinely made us feel calmer? What if we had the option to relax for longer than the span of time that the effects of a drink last? Would we feel the need to drink like this?

I probably wouldn’t, myself. Alcohol was never my drug of choice, as it’s the one that feels most straightforwardly like ingesting poison. But I can certainly see the appeal of it. Enough so, that I just might turn to pantsdrunkenness again sometime soon.

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