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My Father, the Teetotaler

The need for a drink doesn’t run in my family, but control issues do

I don’t know how long the wine cooler sat in my family’s refrigerator when I was a kid. I do know, however, that every time we went to the store, my mom would throw out the expired items from the fridge and unload the new groceries in there — and that, every time, the wine cooler survived her weekly purge. It wasn’t going to be drunk, and it wasn’t going to be tossed. Instead, it would just be there forever, taking up permanent, silent residence.

The wine cooler came into our lives because of my Uncle Tom, my dad’s older brother, who had decided to buy a few as part of a family outing we had gone on. Even as a boy, I think I inherently knew that wine coolers weren’t exactly the most badass alcoholic beverage one could consume. With their curvy bottles and neon colors, they looked more like cutesy fashion accessories than alcohol for serious connoisseurs — a girlie drink in a glass. But two of the leftovers ended up with us, and my mom (who’s not much of a drinker) decided to try one because she was thirsty. “I had never had one,” she tells me, “so I had a sip and thought, ‘Oh, this is pretty good.’ But I’m so unused to drinking, I just drank it down like a soda. Then the world started spinning and I thought, ‘Oh, not a good idea…’”

One of the other reasons my mom drank the wine cooler is that she knew my dad wouldn’t. The man turns 67 this summer and has never had a drink. Not once — save for the bad wine we had at church on Sundays during communion. And without ever talking to me about his reasons for being a teetotaler, he has permanently informed how I feel about alcohol. My lack of interest in the stuff is a dim reflection of his own.

My dad grew up in St. Louis in a family that didn’t drink. It wasn’t for religious reasons. (“After all,” he tells me, “Catholics have nothing against drinking.”) And it wasn’t because we had a dark family history of alcoholism. His parents simply didn’t like booze. “When I was a child,” he says, “I have recollections of my father having something to drink — not very much, not very regularly. My mother, I wouldn’t say never had anything, but I don’t have a recollection of her doing that. We just didn’t have alcohol around the house.”

Even into his teens, my dad didn’t develop a curiosity about drinking, maybe because he’s never been much of a rebel. “I just never had any interest in it,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “Just like smoking. My parents didn’t smoke, and they certainly discouraged smoking. They said it was bad for athletes.” My father was a standout on his high school baseball team, so he took his folks’ words to heart. “Being the kind of son who would listen and do what his parents said, as opposed to react the other way, I certainly never had any intention [of smoking and drinking].”

Plus, my dad is the sort of guy who takes pride in being impervious to peer pressure. And when I pressed him on that point — C’mon, even in college, you weren’t tempted? — he reminded me that, at school, he was too busy working a steady job to have much downtime. Besides, my dad married my mom before his 21st birthday and then went right to law school before immediately landing a job at the firm where he still works. He’s always been too focused to think about anything like drinking or partying. (Not that the guy doesn’t have his vices: The amount of diet soda and Hardee’s he consumes is obscene.)

Until I interviewed my dad for this piece, we had never discussed drinking. The reasons are obvious: He never drank, we never had alcohol around and I quickly internalized the fact that booze existed in a world far away from the one populated by my family. It was as if his mindset had been passed on to me through osmosis—or maybe genetics.

I told him about my strange childhood association with alcohol: how, to this day, when I smell beer, I have a powerful memory of being in my seat at Busch Stadium as a kid with my family, passing a Budweiser from the vendor to some random guy down the aisle. The beer never stopped at my dad’s seat. Alcohol was a thing other humans consumed, not us.

It’s funny how these fleeting childhood memories solidify into permanent impressions of people — and of ways of behaving in the world. My father was, and is, my model of what a grownup is supposed to be: intelligent, levelheaded, thoughtful, mature, sober. I mean “sober” in the sense of having a calm disposition, but as I get older, I realize I associate the other definition with him as well — and myself.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the occasional beer or glass of wine; I was in a fraternity and did my fair share of drinking. (Keg stands are tougher when you’re over 6 feet.) And when I’m at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s customary to subsist on rosé between screenings. But for me, drinking has always felt like an affectation—a thing I do to pass as a normal person rather than something I’ve particularly looked forward to.

Talking about this with my father felt strange. Discussions about alcohol didn’t fit into a language we shared. Even when I arrived at my parents’ house after my 21st birthday party cripplingly hung over, he never said a word. (Until my bachelor party a decade later, that was the drunkest I’d ever been. In both cases, I probably was too worried about his disappointment to bring it up.) But when I mention my attitude about drinking to my dad, he says something that surprises me — but, really, shouldn’t have, since I feel the same. “I like to be in control,” he explains. “I always would be concerned that, if I was drinking, I would lose control of myself.”

I understand completely: Whether at the ballpark or seeing how that one wine cooler affected my mom, I began associating drinking with an anxiety over losing a sense of myself. Watching random strangers get drunk at games or in other social settings as a kid, I unconsciously decided I didn’t want to behave that way. It never seemed like they were having a good time. And even if they were, I just always felt embarrassed for them — and, yes, maybe a little judgey.

Of course, if you admit stuff like this in public, you’re asking to be labeled a world-class killjoy. Just as ruinous, you can come across as unsophisticated out at a restaurant. When the waiter uncorks a wine bottle and pours out the first glass, I pray that it goes to someone else at the table. If it comes to me, I do an amazing job of pretending I can tell if it’s a good wine and then hope there are no follow-up questions. My dad has suffered this indignity of seeming unworldly at the hands of my younger sister, who teased him mercilessly when he incorrectly referred to that well-known Mexican beer brand as a Corolla. (My sister has an occasional glass of wine, making her the resident lush in the family.)

I’ve been married for 11 years to a woman who also doesn’t drink much, so at least I have some company. But as friends and colleagues have gotten to know me in my adult life, I’ve picked up on signs that I’m pegged as The Guy Who Doesn’t Drink Much. That designation has always left me a little wary. On the one hand, I’m too old to pretend I’m somebody I’m not. On the other, I feel a little squeamish that others think I’m either too good or too boring to drink.

When I ask my dad if he feels the same, he tells me, “I mean, there will always be people who will think you’re not going to be as socially accepted if you don’t drink. [And there’s a concern] they’re going to say, ‘Oh, he’s smug. He’s too good for that.’ There’s always been some of that: People are going to think that you think you’re better than them. And, to some extent, you think you are, because you’re not out of control.”

For people who are more relaxed than my dad and me, it’s hard to understand how wrapped up we get in this fixation on appearing cool, calm and collected at all times. Maybe it’s just being neurotic, or maybe it’s a desire not to come across as a buffoon, but we share a desire to be on-point at all times. What’s funny about the world, of course, is how often it throws you off your game — a glass of whiskey in hand or not. Control is an illusion, but one that my dad and I are happy to perpetuate for as long as we can.

Sometimes I envy my father. His ability to simply decide what things he’s going to bar from his life certainly makes things easier. (Of course, even he isn’t impervious to the comments of others. “It gets tiresome to be around people who do drink and point out that you do not drink,” my father confides in me. “So, again, I never had any urge to [drink], but that probably is another reason I pushed back. I get tired of hearing about that — and if they’re gonna keep that up, I’m certainly never going to drink.”) But for me, it’s a lot more complicated. In a social setting, others will unwind with a beer — it’s how folks bond with coworkers or friends in a low-key but meaningful way. I do it too, but I never feel natural. I almost feel like I’m being untrue to myself — or maybe untrue to my dad’s example.

My mom eventually got rid of that wine cooler, by the way. It’s not a drink you hear much about anymore — partly because they’re a relic of a dopier era when not even Bruce Willis could make them cool. But in my mind, that thing is still there, tormenting me. Such a silly-looking beverage, and yet it reminds me of that other life that other people partake in, free of the hangups I have and the possibilities I haven’t indulged. If I were anybody else, the whole situation would be so frustrating that I’d probably need a drink.