The Art of Scolding

In 1987 I promoted a story about “Secular Organizations for Sobriety” [SOS] that appeared in the Buffalo News. SOS was one of those secular humanist initiatives promulgated by Paul Kurtz’s publishing enterprises out of Buffalo, in this case “Free Inquiry,” a quarterly journal that published critiques of supernatural belief and religious dogma. I was Executive Editor of Free Inquiry at the time.

SOS was started as a secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous, which has numerous religious overtones (“a higher power,” “the Serenity Prayer,” and so on). SOS has kept the peer-counseling component and left out these overtones.

I was interviewed by a Buffalo News reporter for the story. In the course of the interview, I said I had “a lot of friends in the arts and music community who were beset by terrible problems with alcohol.” The next day that quote appeared in the article. (The photograph of me accompanying the article made me look like a long-time “friend of Bill” myself: eyes not completely open, my hands clutching at a cup of coffee. I wished I had been better prepared for the interview.)

The Pink Flamingo

That night I went to the Pink Flamingo, a gritty Buffalo pub where lots of writers and artists took their recreation. I had been a regular there for a couple of years. I walked in, saw about a dozen people I knew and some good friends, and went up to the bar to order something (I am guessing a shot of tequila and a Molson Extra).

“Hey, Bob!” A good friend of mine, “Fay,” tapped me on the shoulder. I gave her a kiss. Fay organized arts events and wrote articles freelance.

Fay smiled, but then said plainly: “We all read that article in the News today, how all your buddies here are terrible alcoholics.”

I winced.

I was surprised by what my friend said next.

Fay neither rebuked me nor wondered aloud how I could disparage and embarrass my friends. Instead she said, “You drink here, and elsewhere, as much as we do, and often with me and everybody here. It would have been delightful had you mentioned *that* happy fact as well.”

Rather than telling me that I was a hypocrite, she said, in effect, “We like you, and you can tell the world you are one of us.” I was humbled by Fay’s gracefulness and courtesy.

Here was the “us” of whom I was a lucky part: a gregarious, generous, and hard-working coterie of writers, artists, students, musicians, film-makers, arrangers, editors, curators, and their friends and lovers and roommates and their relatives who repaired to the Pink Flamingo to drink, plan projects, receive solace, read out loud, and debate everything.

After Fay and my other Flamingo buddies made it clear I wasn’t going to be scolded any further, we talked until 2AM, feeling the love, as it were, and I was reminded that scolding might succeed best as words of welcome that can rescue relationships and fortify friendships.

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