ON THE AVENUES: I won’t belong to any Dry January that would have me as a member.


What shall we use
To fill the empty spaces
Where we used to talk?
How shall I fill
The final places?
How should I complete the wall?
— Roger Waters

Earlier this week I donned headphones and listened to Pink Floyd’s album The Wall for the first time in ages. It didn’t occur to me that it had been almost exactly 40 years since the record’s release. The Wall came out in late 1979, and by summer of 1980 it was everywhere, unavoidable and inescapable.

Here’s a confession: Pot never really was my go-to substance, but admittedly some of my friends and I smoked a good bit of it listening to The Wall, and I’ve never regretted a single toke.

Seeing as my default setting, then as now, is to resist simpler (simplistic?) pleasures, it wasn’t enough for me to enjoy the music this week. I felt compelled to catch up on my reading, and into the unremitting rabbit hole of internet archives I dove.

The Wall isn’t the only instance of a massively popular rock band sternly meditating on the torturous aftershocks of stardom, but it’s the most commercially successful example. That’s because Waters, for all his vitriolic rhetoric likening rock shows to combat, wasn’t really a punk. He was a populist. It didn’t matter that he hated actual people: He still sought, perhaps unconsciously, their acceptance, because like all insecure rock stars, the only thing Waters feared more than Pink Floyd being huge was Pink Floyd not being huge.

Vitriolic rhetoric?

Now there’s something I can unequivocally endorse.

In chemistry, a vitriol is a sulfate. The word derives from the Latin vitriolum, or “glassy.” Apparently this is because “the crystals of several metallic surfaces resemble pieces of colored glass.”

At some point after the fall of Rome, vitriol came to be used to describe sulfuric acid, which has caustic, bitter, corrosive and pungent characteristics. Then in the late 1700s someone thought to transfer the word to the realm of human thoughts and feelings, hence vitriol, used to indicate harsh, bitter, caustic and corrosive criticism or comments.

I love this word, vitriol. The synonyms read like a who’s who of the reactions inspired in me by the sheer insipidity of life in New Gahania.

  • nastiness
  • sarcasm
  • venom
  • disdain
  • hatefulness
  • hostility
  • malevolence
  • maliciousness
  • virulence
  • acrimoniousness

In my interior world, these terms are to the practice of principled polemics what certain spices …

  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Mustard seeds
  • Ginger
  • Garam masala
  • Turmeric
  • Cinnamon
  • Cardamom
  • Spicy red chile pepper

… are to Indian cuisine.

Curry meets contempt, and souls are unburdened.

As months of the year go, January doesn’t get any respect. In fact quite a lot of vitriol is aimed in January’s general direction; in addition to being cold, dark and seasonally depressed, all those tax materials aren’t going to organize themselves, and January is when you resolve to wait until the second week of April to get started.

Trust me on this. Every damn year, try as I might.

But as if January weren’t already dire enough, some folks now insist on prefacing it with a tremendously gloomy adjective, redolent of defeatism and despair: Dry, as in Dry January.

It’s bad enough that bizarre pretend-substances like Michelob Ultra, “hard” seltzer and peanut butter “whiskey” pass through human lips, much less that after eleven months solid of all you people swallowing them — c’mon, it’s not really drinking, is it? — you’re compelled to invent social media strategies to, um, “get healthy,” though only for a very short time.

What’s left without booze, milk? It’s a horrifying thought. If ever there was a valid rationale for “drying out,” the proper liquid of exclusion would be milk. It’s liquid snot, nasty and not tasty in any way.

Milk is an aesthetic and culinary outrage on a par with Chick-fil-A and Taco Hell.

Milk is a conspiracy foisted on us by the multinational diary lobby.

Milk has no reason to exist for adult consumption apart from the utility of making it into cheese or ice cream.

Once I had a dream in which I was drinking milk and commenting about how perfectly it paired with fish and chips, and this nightmarishness hounded me for months.

Booze is the preferred antidote to this and most other conditions, although make my Russian black, not white. But how on earth does a guy self-medicate during Dry January?

My most malevolent assessments of Dry January are reserved for the planet’s killjoy health fascists, and there’s nothing like the condition of their preferred “dryness” to escalate the vitriol. This makes me appreciate Alain Ducasse even more.

French chef Alain Ducasse, an outspoken opponent of Dry January, has launched an initiative to entice patrons of his restaurants to drink more during the first month of the year, not less.

“I like swimming against the tide,” he told AFP on Tuesday, announcing plans to proffer top bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux at knockdown prices to encourage diners to order wine by the bottle rather than by the glass.

“I’m obsessed with selling wine,” Ducasse said, adding that he was horrified to see customers in New York order iced tea with their lunch instead of wine.

Ducasse is right. I dislike iced tea almost as much as milk.

Listen, just think of me as the harmless reincarnation of comedian Don Rickles. It’s nothing whatever personal with regard to anyone who currently is dry in January, or any other time. It’s not that I object to health and well-being. I’ve been known to grudgingly contemplate largely unattainable ideals like these, and even put them into practice on widely scattered occasions.

However, like so many other facets of modern life, I’d appreciate greater attention to a daily foundation of quiet achievement and genuine merit rather than a Facebook-driven reliance on asinine hashtags, memes and hysteria.

Esther Mobley is the wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. For her, “responsible drinking” is an everyday consideration, one not confined to a particular month or period.

Those of us who write professionally about booze seldom address the issue of problematic drinking, probably to our detriment. I’m unmoved by arguments against Dry January that focus on the negative impacts they’d have on the wine industry: It’s not my job to defend any industry, and wineries ought to have to win customers’ business in sober-curious times as well as indulgent eras. In fact, it’s in the booze industry’s long-term interest that its customers become introspective about their health.

The reason I’m not doing Dry January, however, is because I consider it a more meaningful achievement to practice responsible drinking year-round.

That’s my stand, but pay no attention to me. I’ve become comfortably numb, with or without the milk (or the cream liqueur) of human kindness.

Recent columns:

January 9: ON THE AVENUES: Elusive sounds of silence.

January 2: ON THE AVENUES: On patience, grieving, puzzles and a necessary sabbatical.

December 26: ON THE AVENUES: Four more years? Heaven help us all, but there are five reasons to be optimistic.

December 21: ON THE AVENUES HOLIDAY SPECIAL: Truth, lies, music, and a trick of the Christmas tale (2019 Remix).