Just the other day I went to a networking event on a rooftop lounge known as Sky Bar in Pittsburgh. I felt antsy though prepared. It seemed as if everyone knew each other. Each person had a colored coded name tag for his/her industry and it seemed as if everyone was deep in chat.
Who would I speak with and why? I wanted my networking time to be purposeful. So I got focused and started talking with a few people from my industry. I could feel the energy trying to take me back to my teenage years when I would try extra hard to be somebody I wasn’t.
I sipped a glass of wine. I allowed myself to get slightly tipsy which was fine by me. I had an agenda. I was focused on making networking contacts to advance my business, but first, I was trying to fit in.
One of the sections from my now copyedited, “ready-to-go” memoir Accidental Soldier: What My Service in the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me about Faith, Courage and Love that didn’t get the cut came from the period of trying to fit in as a volunteer on my aunt’s kibbutz near the Israel-Lebanese border back in 1989 — the summer before getting inducted in the army.
The lessons I’ve learned from that time have served me until today. If my older self could tell my younger self how to behave with all these Brits and volunteers from other countries whose idea of having a great time is to get drunk, then I would have had an easier time stepping out of my comfort zone. But nothing could have prepared me for that messy summer. Nothing.
Lesson #1: Take it as it comes. I grew up sheltered in New York City (yes, a kind of contradiction in terms.) Drinking scared me as illustrated by the snippet below. So what do you do when everyone else has a “worldly background” (yes, drinking counts because to the 19 year old in me, I feel less sophisticated than others) and you’re just trying to figure it out? I tried to go with the flow. (I’m still working on trying to go with the flow.) This brings me to lesson #2.
Lesson #2: Is it possible to truly be yourself without inhibitions?
For that 19 year old in me, I felt kind of pressed to what everyone else was doing. I wasn’t hanging out with any particular cultured group either, just volunteers who had traveled all over the world and wanted to remember their last days on my aunt’s kibbutz as being drunk. That of course, didn’t sit so well with me.
Here’s how the 19 year old in me saw it: (and yes, this was one of many sections that didn’t get the cut. A hard thing to let go of.)
From Chapter 4, Toga Party
I can just see the scenario: drunk volunteers cavorting with IDF soldiers and kibbutz members, loud heavy metal music, slamming banging doors.
If I go, I’ll be in for their idea of a frivolous time that lands on the border of superficial and boring. Part of me thinks I’m better than them because I don’t need to get drunk to have fun, but because I want to fit in, at the last minute, I cave in to Ian’s requests to join him without really thinking about how I feel.
Packed on the sink counter along with the beers are a few bottles of wine from the local winery, cans of olives, and bags of salted pretzels. Ian uncorks a bottle, produces two paper cups from his side pocket, and pours himself one careful to stop right before the brim.
“Have some,” he says.
“No thanks. It’s still way too early to get tipsy.”
“Tipsy?” He glances at the bottle. But this only has 10% alcohol? What are you nervous about?”
Fact is, I have zero experience in the drinking department, which makes me feel embarrassed. I don’t know what it’s like to wake up with a hangover, or what it feels like to get drunk. Occasionally a voice rises up to say, “Join the alcohol club and “don’t be a sissy; you’re making such a big deal out of this. Stop thinking you’re better than everyone else because you don’t need to drink.” But in front of Ian, Mr. Expert on Drinking and Getting Drunk, I don’t ever muster the courage to tell him why I don’t drink, or what I’ve been holding back all this time. This, too, is another reason to feel embarrassed. Surely, my first experiences drinking wine with Josh, a twenty-eight-year-old former chamber singer and student, also from Suny at Albany, doesn’t even come close to what my peers back at Suny at Albany and the volunteers here do regularly. At the time, Josh drove all the way down from Upstate New York just so we could walk hand-in-hand along cobblestone streets in Greenwich Village, a few blocks away from my apartment building as we bar hoped. I was visiting Mom for those first few New York City visits during the two years I spent at Suny at Albany.
He was a beer and wine connoisseur. I was neither. But we both loved chamber music so I didn’t mind when he nuzzled his furry red beard past my neck and face.
He bought me a drink that night—a tall glass of red wine. Drunk couples of same and different sexes were lined up at the bar, kissing each other with wide-open mouths. Suddenly, I realized I was at a bar I’d passed by with Mom, where she’d once pulled me closer to her and said, “Stay away from those people. I don’t want you kidnapped.”
At that moment, an exiting couple teetered this way and that. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh, Urghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, Ha-Ha-Ha!” the couple had screamed behind us. They sounded like pirates. I realized in that moment that Mom was deeply afraid that I’d get kidnapped by “drunk pirates,” or as she called them, the “creepies.”
These drunks, the ones who frequented this bar I was at with my twenty eight year old friend, reminded me of the few times drunk students would hang out at our dorm room at Suny at Albany and it was at these few moments, I felt out of place and usually confronted to make a decision: Do I drink like them or do I leave? Varsity team members who happened to be my roommates’ friends shot spitballs with their first glass of beer. They poked fun at their law and pre-med professors. I wanted to go home, but what would wait for me there? A child prodigy of a mother who would tell me to go see a psychologist every time I felt intimidated, nervous, scared, insecure, or upset? I felt that the only way I could connect with her was through her classical piano music.
I guzzled the wine in a few gulps as I sat next to my boyfriend on the barstool. Immediately I thought, I should have sipped that slowly!
Nobody bothered to ask for my ID. The alcohol went straight to my head. My face burned up. Was I drunk already? High-pitched noises in the bar got louder and softer at the same time while the pop music of INXS blasted. I made eye contact with my burly friend and leaned against his muscular wide arms for support. He pulled me closer and tried to French kiss me. I felt awkward. Time to go home.
We left just as someone smashed a glass.
With just a few blocks away from my home, I leaned on him. It felt good to tell the world I had a boyfriend even if he was just a good friend. But as soon as I reached the steps to our building, I hastily said goodbye and ran back up the stairs of the entrance to our building. Once in our hallway, Chopin’s etude number 42 greeted me – the best greeting of all. I opened the door to our apartment and walked up the stairs to my room. Mom didn’t know I’ve entered. In the safety of my room, I waited for the drugged effects of the alcohol to wear off.
Getting slightly tipsy or even drunk at a bar in New York City was the equivalent of trying to find a sense of the familiar outside the fortress walls of Westbeth, or at least beyond the world of my mother’s music and my father’s art. I’ve heard people tell me that when a person is drunk, thoughts are more lucid and they feel more comfortable and at peace with their surroundings and with oneself. But since this was my first experience with alcohol in an unfamiliar place in New York City, I’m already deeply afraid of what drinking can possibly do to me. There are no alcoholics in my family. The information I got from my mother about the outside world was not entirely reliable, but since I was just a teenager stuck in my Mother and Father’s self-consumed world of art, I didn’t have any background knowledge or firsthand experience of alcohol or drugs to help me put labels and facts to things. I was ignorant and innocent, protected for my own good.
As I become a soldier, I acquire new and different lessons that will teach me how to cope with a militaristic mentality and situations that will test my doubt, confidence and courage. Stay tuned!