Drinks. A couple having a cozy cup of tea by the fire.

The Symbolism of Drinks—Beveraging My Way through the Day

Many people measure their lives by their mealtimes. Breakfast is the kickoff, lunch is the major break in the day, and dinner is a daily debrief and a closing out. This can be a good way to psychologically parse out the day and mentally check off the phases of our days as they go by. But for me, it’s more about the drinks and mainly a function of alcohol and caffeine. Coffee is a key psychological ingredient for me. It kicks off the day, is medicinal, and marks a transition. Water and other hydrating drinks follow and serve to wash down lunch. Tea in the afternoon marks the transition to the final phase of the working day. Last are the evening cocktail, wine with dinner, and a nightcap, during which I officially close out the day and my time is my own (more on that later). Though it is not conscious or intentional on my part, the drinking phases of my day are a critical aspect of how my days are structured and measured. This has good aspects as well as harmful ones.

The life-giving nectar

Coffee is like magic, and it serves so many useful purposes. It symbolically marks the start of the day and helps me make the transition from unconsciousness to being able to call myself a human being. I love its smell and taste. I equally love the feel of the warm cup in my hands, especially during the winter but also during the summer. In the winter, it is a comfortable source of warmth as the house warms up from the overnight setting of the thermostat and my brain and body warm up from their overnight shutdown. In the summertime, I tend to think of coffee as the ambassador of the sun, filing my soul with all the promises of a summer day. I say that caffeine is a major element of my love of coffee, but, if you were to limit me to decaf, after a brief struggle with my physical dependence, I would not care that much. My mental clarity and focus are a much greater function of moderation or lack of alcohol (more on that later) than they are of getting a caffeine jolt. But alas, we are a one-coffee maker family, and my chances of that pot not having caffeine in it are lower than those of a baseball veteran running hard on a routine ground ball.

Water of life and of place

Even with the prevalence and importance of caffeine and alcohol in my life, I am able to recognize and act on the need to keep myself hydrated. Although there is generally nothing fun or pleasurable about it, it marks a transitional point in my day, and it symbolizes much in my life that is important to me. I remind myself that I am mostly made up of water (up to sixty percent) as is our world (about seventy percent). While it is not something I look forward to, my intake of water can be thought of as a ceremonial return to myself and my place. Water is also central to my identity, and in the summertime, I try to be in it and on it as much as possible. Even in the wintertime, I try to be around water (in my case, the Chesapeake Bay) as much as possible. Water marks another transition in my day, the transition from awakening and getting going to living and moving. I start on the water in the late morning. It gets me ready to exercise, which I do at around lunchtime, and aids in maintaining my mental clarity and focus. In the summer, it’s more (and is actually refreshing), and in the winter, it’s less, but it’s always there. I don’t measure it or strive for a minimal intake, but I do try to be consistent.

Tea for one and one for tea

After exercising and lunch, when I get back to work, I have a need—not an emergency-crisis-coffee need like the one I get first thing in the morning but a need nonetheless. It’s a need for a little pick-me-up and something to sip on to help me think. It’s not a caffeinated pick-me-up—I drink decaf black tea in the afternoon—the pick-me-up aspect is purely psychological. To me, tea is not a “hit you over the head and shake you into consciousness” type of drink. It has a more subtle, nuanced “What do we have now?” type of effect. It has other psychological effects. The smell strongly invites nostalgia as tea was a staple of my father. It always brings me memories of him. He certainly had his faults, but I can always look back with esteem for his wisdom, his worldview, and his intelligence. Tea helps me to try channeling that part of my father into my work and to do more than just “take care of business.”  It helps me to think about my work and my life with a vision and an ethos. It’s also warm and cozy.

… and then there’s booze

I have a complicated relationship with alcohol. On the one hand, it’s something that I’ve had a problem with. I’ve been told by a mental health professional that I’m a high-functioning alcoholic. Until recently, I’d had alcohol every day of my life for decades. I went through phases of moderation, during which I was able to keep to a plan and to overcome my compulsions, and I went through phases during which my drinking was a bit out of control. It never stopped me from going to work every day or performing at a high level professionally, but it did limit my clarity of thought, and there’s no doubt that I did not achieve all my potential in my job. For me, alcohol has not resulted in failed marriages or the ending of friendships, but it has negatively affected my relationships periodically during episodes of heightened emotions or irrational interactions due to inebriation.

On the other hand, alcohol has been a significant symbol during my days, a central component of my social life, and a big part of my identity. Of all my symbolic daily transitions, the evening cocktail (bourbon on the rocks) while making dinner and talking to my family and while transitioning from my working day has been the most psychologically important. As an introvert, I’ve always needed to psyche myself up to be with people during the day and to keep myself “active” during the day in terms of being ready to talk to people. The evening cocktail was a symbol of my going off duty—of my putting down my shield and letting my guard down. This moment naturally led to wine with dinner, and a nightcap of brandy. I loved it all (and still do), and if I had been able to keep it at that, it would have been fine (well, “three-drinks-a-day fine”), but the bourbon often led to a couple bourbons, the glass of wine to two or three, and the brandy to two. I also loved the idea of beers after a hard day of yard work or at a ball game, champagne to celebrate our victories, and port while decorating the Christmas tree (all traditions in my family).

Then one day, my twenty-year-old son said to me, “Hey Dad, let’s stop drinking alcohol for a month and see how we do.” Through a frozen, panic-stricken smile, I said, “Sure!” which was the only possible response when my son was suggesting a healthy, life-improving change that had great potential to positively impact both our lives. I didn’t think I could do it (and I didn’t), but I did go two weeks with no alcohol whatsoever. And since that time (coming up on two years), I only drink on the weekends and have replaced bourbon with wine as the foundation. This has led to significant moderation. The impact was astounding in terms of quality of sleep, clarity of thought, and creative energy.

Many would say well, yeah… at what should not have been a revelation but an obvious consequence of this change. However, alcohol—like all the other beverages in my life—was not just a drink (or a drug). It was (and still is) a symbol—a ritual in the sacred ceremony of my daily routine.

As I sit here writing (with improved mental clarity) and warm up and wake up with my coffee, I look forward to a brisk walk in the winter rain, followed by some tea to warm me up and a glass of wine while making dinner (it is Friday). And the days roll on…


Another Cup

The day begins, with a scent most fragrant
that pulls me from the depths of sleep.
A promise of, the day to come,
in ground beans and hot water steep. 

Another cup of the magic elixir,
as I begin to earn my keep.
It fills me with the spark of life,
and helps me sow the crop I reap. 

Then I get moving and as I do
my body burns the essential me.
The water of which I am made
I replenish with a thirsty glee. 

Then the meat of the day has come and
I find I need a drink more pure
that helps me to think and forge ahead
while calming me with a distinct allure. 

And when I cross the line that divides
the working day from the day that’s mine
I celebrate with grains fermented and
relish in my family shrine. 

Then a cork is popped with dinner
as we recount our adventures that day
while sipping the fruit of the vine
as we while the night away. 

And finally the day is done
and one more splash of wine distilled
the brandy sipped in deep reflection.
A perfect day—I am fulfilled.

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