Actor and TV host Jack Maxwell traveled the world to learn about people, places, and cultures through the nature of their drinks. He is now sharing personal insights about the journey that took him to more than fifty countries over six continents in his newest project, the 'I Don't Drink Alone' Podcast.
The abundant recollection of exotic experiences, the engaging narration, and the depth of this storyteller's observations and analysis triggered my own interest in how it all links to an extended understanding of the world and who we are as humans. I also wondered about the long-lasting impressions this highly immersive venture left on one of the very few people brave and curious enough to undertake it, and whether personal history and specific traits play a role in the decision to take these daring steps and let yourself be shaped by it all.
The answers I needed weren't going to be in any book I could have read and they weren't going to reveal themselves to me by other indirect means either, so I went straight to the source: I invited Jack to share his perspective on all of these subjects and help me put together a more nuanced depiction of our world and what it means to be a human in it. Being of the very generous type, he accepted the invitation and agreed to answer my questions. My expectation? This written communication was going to be an encounter with a traveler of the very reflective kind. And I was right. Read on and find out why.
As the charismatic host of Travel Channel's "Booze Traveler" for four seasons, Jack discovered the world through its drinks - what we drink, why we drink and the adventures and stories that emerge from these contexts. He learned about people and places through their libation-driven customs. He's seen and tried the strong, the bad and the worthy, and even helped make them on several occasions. Most of all though, he engaged with the people of the world and got to experience life as they do, where they are, tasting the specificity of each place he visited and being part, even for a little while, of the various communities that welcomed him across the globe. Among them, the Maasai Warriors in Tanzania, Nomads in Mongolia, the Babas of Nepal and the Zulu in South Africa. He shared drinks, laughter, and stories with them all, seen them and let himself be seen in those bonding moments, lending himself to the experience fully.
Jack likes to say that he looked at it all 'through the lens of a cocktail glass'. That is indeed a wonderful way to think about this exploration of the world. But you see, even though this lens is extremely fit and revealed a great amount of information about our social and cultural environments, I was more interested in the eyes that looked at the world through that lens. A filter can make an image incredibly charming, but where you point the camera makes all the difference in relation to what is going to be revealed.
All previous metaphors aside, this time I was not curious about the images that made their way onto the TV screen, but pretty much about everything else. What he chose to look at during his journeys and the things that stayed with Jack after the actual experiences ended.
Where we look is mainly guided by who we are and what we need at a certain moment in our life, our interests and natural curiosity both inform and support that process. What we keep is marked by the significance we assign to each of the elements we store, what made the most lasting impression, what we allow to permeate our own fabric and change it, slowly turning us into who we want/need to become. Many of the elements that play core roles in this ongoing exchange between us and the world are of a private nature and only make sense to ourselves, but others we can share and watch find their way into the lives of other people, once more making an impression and at times, even help this new host find their own way to become who they want/need to be. And so we grow together. I guess it takes an extended village to achieve that after all.
Jack often says that one of the things his travels revealed to him about people is that we have so much more in common than we do differences. So I asked him what traits appeared to him to be universal or core to us humans and whether there was any particular one that surprised him. What did he find we share? "Everybody loves to laugh", he replied. "They appreciate sense of humor. In themselves and others. We all want to love and be loved. Whether that's family, friends or sometimes the strangers we find solace in because we don't have enough of the first two." He then continued, "Was wonderfully surprised how many people around the world - whether they herd camels in the Gobi desert, work on fishing boats in the seas of Turkey or teach tango lessons in Argentina - love to take the edge off at the end of a long day with a couple of cocktails."
How can we actively use these traits to come closer to one another? "What do you think each of us can do to increase the sense and level of connectedness?", was my next question.
"When you spend time with someone really listen. Be present. The greatest gift you can give someone in the moment is your full, undivided, loving attention. Especially in this day and age of :10 sound bites, social media, and slavish devotion to our electronic devices."
The significance of being present in our social interactions is one of Jack's recurrent messages on 'I Don't Drink Alone" too. He talked about the meaning of such fully shared experiences and the impact they have on the quality of a social communication.
Another recurrent message is the importance, and sometimes, necessity, of maintaining a realistic level of optimism when confronted with difficult moments in life. Both his present and his past speak about his strength and determination to overcome such contexts.
During his childhood in South Boston, he used to shine shoes in barrooms to help raise extra money for his family. He lived with his single mother and asked for a shoe shine box as a combination gift for his birthday and Christmas. This information about his beginnings triggered my next questions.
L: As a kid in Boston, you managed to turn dimes into quarters and eventually those turned into a full dollar. And that mainly happened because people offered you more than what you would charge. It seems to me that people always considered the experiences with you to be worth more than what you would ask for them. That appears to have carried into your adult years. The way people respond to you, to the experiences you offer them through your projects or presence, is a core element of what can be labeled personal and professional success. Once those major changes happened in your life, have you ever slowed down, taken a moment to yourself, a deep breath and told yourself you've "made it"? Have you taken a moment to take it all in, to process it all?
J: "That's very nice of you to say. Thank you. I believe an artist is restless, never truly satisfied. It's just the nature of our soul. Have never felt that I've "made it". Certainly not in the way it's generally understood. It's just a matter of different experiences along the way. Whether that's on television with a couple of bucks in my pocket or broke and hanging out with friends and doing what we love to do."
L: Whenever you share elements about your childhood years – the barrooms, the clients and their stories, the way they would treat you like their best friend, etc. – a connection to "A Bronx Tale" pops into my mind. The young boy being surrounded by so many experiences, many of them with a formative potential, and mainly of the adult kind, together with his sense of choosing the 'right' ones from the pile - I cannot seem to be able to shake off the "Calogero" feeling and link. You mentioning that that was a time when Southie was ran by Whitey Bulger and the likes, and even your Sicilian roots, add to that mental image. Considering that entire period, is there any story, any particular lesson you would feel comfortable sharing? A(n unlikely) teachable moment that emerged from that extremely powerful environment?
J: "Didn't really have any of those kinds of life-altering experiences. I was raised by women and enjoyed spending time with them. My mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother formed who I became and informed my choices along the way. Even though the latter two are gone, my mother is still the beacon that lights the path. They've taught me so many of life's lessons just by the way they lived theirs. I owe everything to the three of them."
Everything he said above, the love, gratitude, and respect he has for the women who raised him and formed who he became, can be easily inferred from all the pictures where he appears close to his mother. It's when his persona (social identity) seems to take a break. And I do not refer here to a public figure's persona, but the one we all have in social contexts. When we are close to those whom we love and trust, that layer is no longer needed.
His journey, like many other people's (maybe even yours, or mine), was long and bumpy, but many good moments also made memorable appearances in his life's narrative. We all get those too, and sometimes they have an almost restorative power in relation to difficult or unpleasant past events. One of Jack's memorable good moments is this one:
L: You threw out the first pitch in the environment of your favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox – Fenway Park. As a child, you admired them, loved the game, but couldn't afford the attendance experience. Years later, you're there, on the field, ... and threw a strike, nonetheless. What is your message to your 9-year-old self? Not only about this particular experience, but the entire journey?
J: Dream big. Hold on to hope. And never ever give up.
I don't know anything about baseball. It took me forever to phrase that question, sent it, and hoped for the best. But I really wanted to ask him about that moment in relation to his younger self, because I thought the two stances are linked, or at least should be considered in connection to one another. It's a good example of 'then & now'. We sometimes get so stuck on the "then" that we forget, or even do not allow ourselves to savor and factor in the "now". Well, it's obvious this kid had a blast.
And he is still taking his own advice. He never stopped. 'I Don't Drink Alone' is proof of that. His new podcast is where he talks about his many journeys, the people he met, the lessons he learned and does all of that while having a glass of his preferred drink in hand. This too is a show about drinks, not drinking. About the cultural, educational, and experiential value of a context and the people who build or share it.
L: In a previous communication to me, you referred to the 'I Don't Drink Alone' Podcast as a "personal journey". What does that actually mean? And how does it differ from the TV show experience?
J: As the host of 'Booze Traveler' I am merely the face of the show but we are all the Booze Traveler. The network: Travel Channel, the production company: Karga 7, the crew who accompanies me, the locals who pitch in to give us help and of course, the two women who created this show, Deborah Von Brod and Maria Bukhonina. On my podcast, it's just me. I am responsible for it all. I can share who I truly am and my experiences the way I wish to. It might not be as professional, or in the long run as satisfying for the audience, but it's certainly authentic.
It's a good thing I don't have to keep the same modesty line when talking about his podcast. 'I Don't Drink Alone' is the perfect mélange of culture, adventure, and personal insights. Its social relevancy is derived not only from the informative content but mainly from the host's life experience and professional background, and from his excellent skills related to communication, observation and socializing. Jack Maxwell could probably make his strongest opponents like him (I am not sure he has any of those though) and befriend a rock if needed (Yes, I am using a metaphor to convey the idea of rigidity, but I've also seen some selfies..). He is an incredible storyteller and the depth of his observations transforms his personal audio journal into an entertaining, educational and at times touching experience. He speaks nuance and subtlety - languages that you pick up on your own but the beauty of which is mainly revealed when shared. I like the way he looks at the world and this makes me like his podcast too.
I've listened to all of the episodes (first personal record on my Podcast Listening Achievement Board) and each of them not only made my day more rewarding but also placed new self-reflection themes in my mind. There are things that stay with you. Many of them stayed with me. Based on the things Jack did and shared on his podcast, some of these moments may resemble a 'Black Mirror' episode. A "What would you do if...?" silently accompanies many of his recollections about exotic, eccentric, and at times downright ghastly drinking experiences he's had in his travels around the world. Without throwing any major spoilers in here, what would you do if offered to drink a blended frog, spit beer, cow blood or tarantula-infused moonshine? He said yes and did all of that and then some. So, I had to ask...
L: There are so many things you've engaged in during your extended travels – and many of them are rather extreme. I wonder what was the order of things: Were you the right fit for this project (Booze Traveler) because of your natural openness to experience new things of all kinds, or did the travel and the linked experiential options prompt you to reconsider your personal limits?
J: At the audition, I was just myself. I let them know what I was capable of and of my boundless enthusiasm for adventure. They understood I had a natural curiosity about all people, who they are and what makes them tick. They came to know I would do all of that while celebrating the joy of life. For the record, I never turned down anything I was asked to do, whether that was a drink or a challenge.
There is the complete cultural immersion he committed to. I know many people have called his hosting of Booze Traveler their 'dream job'. I wonder how many of them would have actually committed this seriously to achieving that dream... We may share interests and goals, but there's a reason it gets rather lonely at the top.
And it is not only about one's willingness to put themselves into a certain context. It is also about allowing that context to leave an impression on you.
L: What habits, beliefs or perspectives on people and life, if any, have managed to sneak into your travel bag from all over the world and safely landed in your life back in California?
J: I'm just so grateful I was able to have the experiences I did that not only taught me things from a historical or cultural perspective but also the inner workings of who we are as humans. Our emotions and what drives them. So many people around the world are just grateful for what they have; friends, family, and life. So many of them never need more than that. Gives me pause before complaining about getting stuck in traffic.
L: There's a sense of meaning, and balance, and reverence that permeates your perspective and attitude toward drinks as social connectors, and there is also a strong feeling of love and appreciation toward people in general, and in particular for those you've met in your travels. This becomes very clear in the podcast. Have you kept in touch with any/some/many of the people you've met, even if that meeting occurred in a professional environment?
J: Absolutely. I'm so grateful to call many of the people I met along the way friends today. Not just so I can collect a gaggle of acquaintances in a smattering of countries but because I actually admire who they are and the things they've taught me – even inadvertently - from just being in their presence.
Yes, alcohol - when not taken in excess - is a wonderful and magical social lubricant. I've experienced it too many times around the world, in too many different places, to believe otherwise.
Jack shared a significant amount of valuable information about what the world and us humans look like when seen not only through the lens of a cocktail glass, but mainly through that of an intentional, loving and dedicated observer.
However, one of my last questions was of a more... personal nature.
L: I rarely drink. As a result of that, I can't really order drinks – When I do, I will mostly stay on the very safe side, especially if I'm alone, or ask for a recommendation from the person(s) I am with, when possible. I'm a dessert pro, but a drinks rookie. In social contexts, this is quite a conundrum. If I were to ask Jack Maxwell to help me out of this one, what would he recommend I'd get? Consider this is a pretty great place too, about everything is available.
J: We eat for sustenance but we drink for entirely different reasons. How it makes us feel, what it connects us to, and for our own - sometimes private - reasons. Therefore, if you had experience with a variety of libations I could suggest something along those lines. Something I think you would enjoy. But since you have very little experience and like to stay in a safe zone I'd feel almost guilty if I got you hooked on something stronger or more affecting.
That being said, I certainly admire the wonder of mixology. It's a perfect blend of art and science. Next time you watch a craftsman doing his/her thing and you are impressed with the construction, the look, the feel of the performance, maybe give it a try.
I remember reading his answer and thinking "Yeah, Jack, because this is how one would get 'hooked' on strong drinks." I used mental quotation marks and all. But then I soon realized that this is exactly how I got hooked on 'I Don't Drink Alone'. You try it. Listen to one episode and tell me you've had enough.
And he was also right about one other thing: It is indeed, better, when it comes to uncharted territories, to make the first step alone. This is how you secure the journey as your own. And yes, if you've never hiked before, do not set the Everest as your first stroll. Moderation, balance, independence, realistic goals. I got all of that from just one paragraph. That may not even be something he intended to say, and maybe you understood something different from the same text, but I think this is another great thing we all have in common: We share and we build on personal perspectives, thus refining our own and at the same time adding elements to the common pool of understanding. Lens on lens on lens... and in the end, we may have a clearer and more detailed picture.
And yes, a cocktail that speaks to me by appealing to a variety of senses sounds like a great recommendation. Not to mention, taking this approach to my question was a rather gentlemanly thing to do.
I will offer him the closing paragraph of the article, so I will make my final notes here.
I am very grateful to Jack for accepting my invitation to collaborate on this article. Since it is the first time I extend such an invitation on Psychology Corner, the experience holds a particular type of meaning to me. I would like to thank my guest for making this virtual journey a very pleasant and rewarding one.
L: Your podcast is the first (and only one at the moment) that I listen to on a weekly basis. What should I expect from it next?
J: Not sure even I know. LOL I just love the freedom of sharing my experiences from around the world and taking you to different places I've been. But also, at the same time, where I am in this particular moment of life. How I might be feeling and whatever I might be going through or even thinking of in that minute comes out in the podcast. Maybe kind of a sloppy, messy technique, but it's certainly my true self. Wouldn't have it any other way.
Featured Image Source Photos: Courtesy of Jack Maxwell.