We wine people like to acknowledge an occasion with a toast.
There are two kinds of toasts, and the lesser of the two, ironically, is the long one — the tribute. This is the toast that happens at engagement parties, weddings, graduations, retirement parties and memorials — the events that mark the beginning or end of something.
Let’s not breeze past this toast type, because it is important. But let’s pay closer attention to the toast that happens more often — the simple “cheers.” While the long tribute is like a big traffic sign looming over the highway pointing you to an exit or entrance, cheers toasts are the little mile markers that line the shoulder all the way.
Neither toast is as complicated as it’s made out to be. If you are afraid to talk in public, the tribute toast will be difficult for you whether you imagine everyone in underwear or not. But it will be much easier if you do two things: prepare every word and keep it short. Yes, keep the long tribute short.
This kind of toast is a performance, and there is nothing wrong with polishing the verbiage before you raise a microphone to your mouth — almost close enough for it to be effective — and say, “Hello. Can everybody hear me?” And then: “Hold it closer? OK, how’s that? Better?”
It’s fine to wing it and speak from the heart. But to do that you have to be someone … who can do that. Speaking from the heart and not being a good speaker can turn into a rambling disaster quickly. Why not go into it with some precise words and a message that only you can deliver?
Even if you hate public speaking — and most of us do — you can nail a good toast. Because the more fine-tuned the toast is, the better it is. You can read, right? Then you can give a great toast. If you don’t want to read from a piece of paper, memorize your words. But don’t stray from them. Tame your wandering mind, deny your stream-of-consciousness reminiscences. Deliver your message — briefly — then raise your glass and say, “To Alice and Conrad” — if you happen to be toasting a newly married couple with those names. Short and sincere wins every time. No one in the history of weddings has ever said, “I wish the toasts would have been longer.”
The story I’ve heard most about the glass-clinking thing is that it was a way to make sure you weren’t being poisoned. By clanging thick goblets together, some of your potential enemy’s drink would spill into yours and vice versa. You would both smile and drink. It’s a bit too passive-aggressive for my tastes, and then again, I probably would not have made a good marauder anyway. I’m glad those rituals are behind us.
But I rarely miss an opportunity to say a word or two and clink glasses with someone I am about to drink with. This is the “cheers” toast, the everyday mile marker. My buddy Doc was the first to make a habit of toasting before our first drink when we went out. He usually said, “Good to be with you” or something as simple and unwrought. It seemed formal to me at first, but eventually I caught up with Doc and saw his toasts as nice little pauses — no longer awkward in my mind, but almost essential, as if not toasting our good fortune would be gauche or ungrateful. Because, friends, if you are lucky enough to be enjoying a glass of wine with someone, you are lucky indeed.
You are not working to meet a deadline or trying to fix a problem. Your health does not prevent you from indulging in the euphoric effects of alcohol. You are not sitting alone. You can afford the time and money required to enjoy this drink (and perhaps others to follow). These are all things that we take for granted. The idea is almost absurd to most of us — being thankful for the ability to share a glass of wine with another person. But when you really consider all of the above factors, your casual meet-for-a-drink starts to look like a small miracle.
It is also appropriate to be thankful for the wine itself and the effort that went into creating it. Because we love wine, we pay more attention to what is in the glass, and usually that heightens the experience even further. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Pause to recognize that the next time you share a drink with your pleasant acquaintances or the irreplaceable people who give shape to your aliveness. Say a few choice words, and clink glasses. If your glasses are thin and delicate — as they should be — protect their fragile rims and gently touch at the widest part of the bowls. There’s no reason to go rim-to-rim — your friends and family aren’t trying to poison you. And always look your people in the eye when you clink — not because, as the legend goes, you will have seven years of bad sex if you don’t — but because you are interacting with the humans of your life.
At a birthday party this spring a friend of mine raised a glass to his older brother and said, “Do not resent growing old. Many are denied the privilege.” Write (or borrow) an aphorism of your own, and make it your standby. Or simply say, “Cheers.”
But even when you are offering an everyday mile-marker toast, do it as Doc does — with sincerity and presence. This is important, because regardless of where you are on your life’s highway, as you know, any toast could be your last. Toast with fire.