Concrete Jungle

Gin

January! Month of hope and empty promise; month of bright and biting sky. Hump month. Midwinter. Month of cold clarity. Gin month.

For a thousand years or so, when an artist in Britain, Holland, France, or Italy, wanted to represent the month of January in pigment or in stone, he would almost invariably resort to the same image: a man or woman warming themselves by a fire. Sometimes with a feast, sometimes without. In the Middle Ages, January was a month when almost all agricultural work was impossible. But in downtown Minneapolis, our labor goes on uninterrupted via the longest climate-controlled tunnel system in the world. The cold and darkness can feel claustrophobic, but January has its rewards. If you can leave the office by 4:30, you might catch a column of steam pouring up from a rooftop vent past a sky the exact bright turquoise of a tropical lagoon.

And then there are the mornings, walking Matilda in Loring Park, sunlight falling on brick and glass, the snow still blue in the shadow. In January we wake from the cozy fever dream of Christmas—Middle Eastern legends, pagan rituals, Victorian poems, American lights, silent nights—to frozen lakes beneath blue sky. The solstice has passed. The darkness is still at its peak, but each day lasts a little longer than the next. The future seems palpable: I will be slimmer, stress-free, more compassionate, more disciplined. At Christmas we anticipate gifts, but at the New Year we expect transformation.

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It is the prospect of another transformation—more modest, but more certain—that makes me giddy every evening as I pull off my hat and gloves, hang up my coat, and pry off my slushy boots. The prospect of sitting on the couch with Liz beside me, Matilda on the floor with a rawhide, The Current on the stereo, and a martini glass between my fingertips, cold gin and two olives. Taking the edge off. January, gin. Both come as a shock of pure, bright, and biting cold. Both begin with precision but do not end so much as elide into whatever comes next. January passes into two more months of winter, the snow no longer transforming the landscape but imprisoning it; the sky the same boring blue. And the first martini ends far too often in the decision to shake up a second. For a few minutes of bracing pleasure I endure hours of wet-brained, weary, semi-incapacitation as I make dinner, take the dog out, wash the dishes, enjoy a movie, try to maintain a coherent conversation with Liz, whatever it is I’m doing with with my free time to justify the hours I just spent in the cubicle.

Neither of my parents is much of a drinker. When I was growing up we had just two liquor bottles in the little cupboard under the phone: a handle of Gordon’s and a handle of Beam. In college, I drank bourbon and Coke, like everyone else, or bourbon and ginger. “Of course those drinks upset your stomach,” my grandmother explained a few years later, during the summer I lived with them in Maine. “They have so much sugar.” I have reason to doubt that sugar was the primary culprit, but I’ve never enjoyed sweet cocktails since. My grandparents claimed I earned my keep by making the drinks at their daily cocktail hour, even though the only cocktail I knew how to make was my parents’ old standby, the gin and tonic. This is what I was serving one evening two years later, during what we all knew to be the last summer of my grandmother’s life, when I finished off a bottle of Beefeater and found myself calling out “Goodbye gin! Goodbye!” as if I was waving to an ocean liner about to cross the Atlantic. My Grandmother came into the kitchen and joined me. “Goodbye!” she called. Then we walked out to the deck and saw that Gramps was missing. “He must have fallen off,” I said. “Goodbye Gramps!” Grammie cried in the same tone we’d used for the gin. We shouted our farewells out towards John’s Bay where the sun was making a golden trail across the water, though we both knew Gramps had just stepped into the bushes for a moment. That’s the kind of summer it was, the kind where anything was liable to become a joke, especially goodbyes. The kind of summer that gin helps quite a lot with.

When I was a kid, and the rocks and tide pools in front of my grandparents’ house were the greatest place on earth for staging action figure battles, adulthood was clearly an unmitigated disaster. Bitter drinks at five o’clock were a sorry exchange for hours of play beside the ocean. And even now that I have a palate for bitterness, and the disastrous nature of adulthood has been qualified by a recognition of the general disastrousness of life and by the memory of the specific disastrousness of my own adolescence, I still think we drink to be children again, to return to spontaneity, to forget the rules and boundaries that protect us, to escape the certainty of loss and the grim and constant knowledge of responsibility.

I mixed my first martini in Milledgeville, Georgia. I was a grad student living in a small apartment at the back of a one-story house near the military academy. My roommate Will and I would write in the mornings, teach and take classes in the afternoons, run in the evenings, and end the day on our deck, drinking High Lifes and shucking peanuts. My grandfather had served me a few martinis the previous summer, and to celebrate my brother’s first visit to Milledgeville, we purchased a bottle of vermouth, mixed it with Gordon’s in equal parts, poured our mixture into big plastic cups, tossed in a couple olives with a splash of brine, dumped in some ice cubes, toasted George’s arrival, and all gagged in unison.

Since then I’ve refined my method: acquiring a shaker, cutting out the brine, finally cutting out the vermouth too. There is no finer or more dangerous drink than cold gin with two olives. The danger can be physical—I once nearly choked to death on a soft pretzel after over-indulging in Tanqueray at a friend’s wedding—but it usually lies in the loosening of the restraints that are the essence of adulthood. A few months after I moved to Minneapolis, Liz and I took her dog Little John out for a late-night walk after drinking quite a lot of gin. John pre-dated me in Liz’s life by fourteen years. He and his siblings, all show dogs, were named for Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men because their mother had escaped her kennel to give birth in the forest. By the time I moved to Minneapolis, John was fat and blind. He’d always been spoiled, but now he was as baby-like as he would ever be. Liz referred to herself as his mother, and I’d been living with them long enough to feel I’d earned my own position in the little family unit. As a fellow male, I felt I understood John’s desire for dignity and freedom better than his mother could. Holding John’s leash, I allowed him to stumble off the curb and walk beside us on the tarmac. He seemed happy enough. Then Liz noticed. “What if someone tries to parallel park and hits him?” she asked.

“I would never let that happen,” I told her. “I’m his father.”

“His father was Chief Hiawatha,” Liz informed me, “a champion.”

If a child allows the dog to be struck by a car, we ask why the parent let the child walk the dog in the first place. If a drunk adult allows the dog to be struck, the dog’s mother most likely sends him packing back to Virginia or wherever the hell he came from. This, responsibility, is the essential difference between being drunk and being a child. We admire childhood because it is a vector towards responsibility, and we condemn drinking because it is a vector away from it, both in the short-run effect of taking a single drink and the long-term effect of developing a drinking habit. Some excellent literature has been made from the intersection of these two vectors, and John Cheever is its master. In The Sorrows of Gin, named for the liquor Cheever carried in a flask in his jacket, fourth-grader Amy Lawton observes how her parents and their upper-middle class friends subcontract responsibility to maids, cooks, and baby-sitters so they can go through their careless, comfortable lives dosed on gin. The girl sees that the cook who stumbles back from her day off clutching a corked Coke bottle filled with gutter gin has more to teach her about courage in the face of loneliness than her respectable parents and their friends, whose complaints about the shortcomings of the hired help seem to be the chief topic of conversation at their nightly cocktail parties, described here through Amy’s eyes:

They were never indecorous—they seemed to get more decorous and formal the more they drank—but sometimes her father would get up to fill everybody’s glass and he would walk straight enough but his shoes would seem to stick to the carpet. And sometimes, when he got to the dining room door, he would miss it by a foot or more. Once, she had seen him walk into the wall with such force that he collapsed onto the floor and broke most of the glasses he was carrying. One or two people laughed, but the laughter was not general or hearty, and most of them pretended that he had not fallen down at all. When her father got to his feet he went right on to the bar as if nothing had happened. Amy had once seen Mrs. Farquarson miss the chair she was about to sit in, by a foot, and thump down onto the floor. But nobody laughed then, and they pretended that Mrs. Farquarson hadn’t fallen down at all. They seemed like actors in a play.

Gin makes you drunk, for good or ill, carefree and clumsy. It can be a joy to get drunk with people who love you, or at least love fun, who allow your incapacitation to disappear in the context of their own. But drunkenness is not the reason I love gin. I don’t want to be a child again. I like rules and boundaries. As the gin hour approaches, I feel the same anticipation that I do for coffee in the morning: there are plenty of nights when I look forward to going to bed because it means I will soon wake up to make coffee. I don’t think much about gin during the day, but sometimes in the evening, as I kick off my boots and fend off the dog, it occurs to me that there is no barrier of duty, propriety, or guilt to stop me from shaking one up and bringing that first cloudy sip to my lips, and joy pierces me like an arrow. It’s one of the great mysteries, how these humble liquids—morning coffee, evening gin—can enrich my life so profoundly. In my reflective moments, I wonder, is it a sign of the paucity of meaning in my life, that the prospect of gin should give order, hope, and inspiration to my days?

In his 1938 book, The Labors of the Months in Antique and Medieval Art to the End of the Twelfth Century, Professor James Carson Webster of Northwestern University explains the revolutionary and singular role that the labor cycles played in medieval art. In addition to the feasts and fires of winter, they depict peasants pruning, flower-gathering, sowing, mowing, reaping, threshing, treading grapes, making barrels, fattening hogs and slaughtering them. Webster traces a particular evolution in thought: from the first known depiction of the Labors of the Months, a 2nd Century B.C. carving in Athens, to the height of the great twelfth-century cathedral culture. In Classical Athens and Rome, the months were illustrated with holidays and celebrations. Religion and mythology gave the yearly cycle its significance. A thousand years later, it was man’s own humble work that gave the year meaning. Among the thousands of saints, apostles, cardinals, monarchs, angels, devils, parables, and judgments, there was always one spot on the cathedral devoted to the common people and the rhythms of their daily lives.

I lived for three years on a ten-thousand-dollar stipend in Milledgeville, Georgia, and during that time if you’d asked me to evaluate the quality of my life, I’d have said it felt constrained: by the social and cultural opportunities available in central Georgia, and by personal finances that made it basically impossible to do anything anyway. I couldn’t wait to graduate, move to Minneapolis, live with Liz, get a real job, buy things for myself again and go out to eat sometimes. Then graduation day arrived, my parents and grandparents flew down to party with us; Will packed up his car and drove back to Texas, and I found myself living alone for a few days, most likely for the last time in my life. The night before Liz flew in to help me pack the U-Haul and drive to Minnesota, I had a few friends over—Roger, Jenny, Joey—the last of us who were still in town. We drank gin and tonics on the deck. I watched the sky turn gray beyond the branches of the pecan trees, and I realized these evenings on the deck had been some of the best of my life.

“If you were a billionaire,” I asked my friends, “what would you change about this moment?” I had everything: beauty, health, friendship, leisure, a delicious drink, a mellow mood. My true love would arrive the next morning. But if I’d tried to sit forever on the deck drinking cocktails, I’d be Mr. Lawton in Cheever’s story. A gathering of friends, a sip of gin, two sips, a glass, changes the day, takes the edge off, transforms our mood. But if we don’t stop drinking at six, don’t start making dinner, don’t go to sleep clear-headed for another day of productive labor, our lives get pickled. Transformation becomes impossible. We are tired, irritable, careless, reckless. We ignore the children and endanger the babysitter. (Cheever: “She was driven home night after night by drunken gentlemen.”) We say hurtful things to those we love, fail to comprehend the books we try to read, sink into depression, lose contact with our own lives. “In the school play,” thinks Amy Lawton, as she watches the adults walk into walls, “when you knocked over a paper tree you were supposed to pick it up without showing what you were doing, so that you could not spoil the illusion of being in a deep forest, and that was the way they were when somebody fell down.”

In the next eleven months, I’ll be using this column to write my own Minneapolis Labors of the Months. I landed on this project because I wanted to move away from the sprawling essays I’ve been writing, pick out twelve things and consider them closely. I chose this format because of my weird obsession with Medieval art and the windows it opens into the daily lives of people long ago. But as I wrote this essay, I realized the Labors are more than an arbitrary template, they are a way of understanding why I love coffee in the morning and gin in the evening. The Labors of the Months, Professor Webster writes, in the concluding paragraph of his little book, “answered the desire to make more memorable the movement of time, to introduce some sense of order, of commemorate recurrence into that ‘ocean of time’ within which the small round of man’s daily activities seemed otherwise to sink without a trace.”

The meaning is not in the cocktail, it’s in the cocktail hour. It is in the action performed well at its right time—in March, when the plow can finally break the ground, at five, when the labor of the office is over and the labor of the family has yet to begin. The meaning is in the anticipation and in the feel of the tools in the hand, in the slosh of ice in the shaker and the harsh, bright first sip. The meaning is in the discipline it takes to stop when the glass is empty, so anticipation can exist again, so transformation remains possible. I’m lucky. I might waste an evening by giving in to an extra glass of gin, but I won’t waste my life on gin. It isn’t alcohol I get pickled in; it’s my thoughts. They’re a train I don’t know how to stop: my anxiety about writing bleeds into my relationship with Liz; a misunderstanding with Liz bleeds into my work at the office; a grant deadline bleeds into my yoga class; E*Trade bleeds into my walks with Matilda, and Microsoft Office Suites bleeds into my dreams.

This is the quandary of January, call it the quagmire: it is a beginning with no ending. Month of clarity. Month of dazzling white and the squeak of snow beneath the boot soles. Month of transformation and reversion to the mean. Liz and I jump off the couch together into the New Year, and thirty-one days later we trudge into February, one gray day of snow and cold indistinguishable from the next. The dark hours feel endless. Winter is an ocean. But if you can learn to mark your progress in coffee spoons and cocktail hours, you can stay above water.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.