Monday, March 16, 2015

The PC: As I’ve been saying since 1980, alcohol is a different matter entirely.

The PC: As I’ve been saying since 1980, alcohol is a different matter entirely.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

35 years ago, give or take a few hats filled with hollow, my friend Bob and I were seated on a bench in the public “commons” area of Indiana University Southeast in New Albany.

The topic of our conversation that particular day has long since been forgotten, but to be candid, it easily could have been a discussion of where we'd go for beers after class. After all, while not exactly Animal House, our informally chartered local "fraternity" had a reputation for tippling. We drank; therefore we were.

In fact, I believe it was proudly written into our constitution.

As we sat, comparing notes on who knows what, a female classmate with whom we enjoyed a casual campus acquaintance walked up, sheets of paper in hand.

"You two might be interested in this test," she said, and walked away.

It’s been a long time, and I can’t speak for Bob, but I’ve never forgotten the sensation of thinking I’d done something wrong, almost like being rebuked, even before so much as looking at the words on the page. Maybe it was something in her tone of voice, which was brusque, sad, annoyed and exasperated all at once.

Something like 15 numbered questions were on the sheet, with instructions to reply "yes" or "no," then to flip over the paper to learn the meaning of the results. First puzzled, we promptly saw our fully intended reflection in a mirror of wayward, dissolute youth.

Do you ever drink alone?
Do you ever black out while drinking?
Do you ever drink and drive?

The test’s aim was obvious, but we vowed to be as honest as possible, and began scribbling: Yes, no, yes …

Two or three of the questions could not be answered in black and white; as an example, both of us were uncomfortably between jobs, so missing work because of drinking fell into the "N/A" category – and this wasn’t funny, not at all, because there'd need to be employment fairly soon, or we'd be completely depleted of beer money.

And then what?

When the “exam” was finished, we'd each replied affirmatively to 9 or 10 of the questions. It was time to take our diagnostic medicine. The paper's back side tersely revealed that just one "yes" constituted flagrant problem drinking, two affirmatives pointed to full-blown alcoholism, and three ... well, three was really bad.

Had we selected our tombstones yet?

I'm being slightly facetious, and it was easy enough to dismiss the whole exercise as transparent propaganda.

Seriously, you mean to tell me that a man or woman living alone, enjoying an alcoholic beverage each evening (but never more than one) was barreling headlong down the road to perdition? Now, a quart of vodka ingested alone – that would be different, wouldn’t it?

Except for me, it wasn’t about the slanted wording of the ambush. Rather, it was unsettling to me because in effect, someone I barely knew was in my yard, on my porch, religious tract in hand, trying to frighten me, or save me, or move me, or wield some other obscure motive, when all I wanted to do was muddle through life until something finally made sense.

This I proceeded to do, and 35 years later, it’s still the way I feel. Deciding what you want to do when you grow up is hard. Having a few beers? That’s easy.

If memory serves, I didn’t see her around school much after that. Maybe we both graduated. Surely we both moved on.


Lots of miles have accumulated since then, and nowadays Bob is a skilled amateur winemaker, and as you know, I (as yet) own a brewery and know a little bit about beer.

At various points during the last 35 years, I'll freely admit to have gone through periods of elevated alcohol consumption, compared with what I’m told is the average, but never once has it become a physical addiction with me. I drink, and then I don't. There are no tremors, crawly spiders or drunken delusions that differ substantively from the ones I assiduously cultivate while perfectly sober.

Since March 1, I've had exactly two beers, both consumed on the same evening with a pleasant dinner of fish and chips. I may drink five beers tomorrow, but more likely none, because I have a head cold, and customarily refrain from drinking when I can neither smell nor taste it. During my last medical checkup, the sawbones declared me healthier than at any point in a decade.

At the same time, I’m not blind to the realities of life.

I have absolutely no doubt that alcohol is sheer and unmitigated poison for some people, and that their only recourse is to stop drinking altogether, lest it kill them. I’ve seen it happen, and mourned at the funerals. But I know just as squarely that for others, this isn't the case at all. They manage low-intensity social consumption just fine, and merely need to be left alone to live their lives free from the interference of do-gooders, well-intentioned or otherwise.

Is it nature or nurture?

Bob and I were raised in what amounted to non-drinking households. Our parents set excellent examples of teetotality, which subsequently, when older, we chose to ignore. His folks abstained entirely, as did my mother, and by the time I was in grade school, my father would nurse a beer or cocktail only on widely scattered occasions. He said drinking made him sleepy, so he refrained.

I was an athlete in high school, and against all odds, hung out with an intelligent, artistic and mostly non-athletic crowd that enjoyed drinking beer and partying, although with rare exceptions, my drinking was confined to the off season, in summer, and never during training. Once the season started, I generally played it straight.

Wait -- are there gasps in the peanut gallery? This must be the magical moment of confession, so yes, that’s right: I drank beer before the legal age. Strange, isn't it? When you're in the beer business, you spend an inordinate amount of time trying to stop this from happening.

Readers can make of this what they will, although to me, it's primarily indicative of a relatively normal Southern Indiana upbringing, which led eventually to the highly sought after 21-year age threshold, when drinking at last became a legal pursuit, then later to a reasonably productive adulthood, much of which has been spent in the business of alcoholic beverages when not engaged in consuming them, thereby destroying the evidence.

You're bound to be asking: What prompted this rant?

It’s simple. Want to critique the business of selling drugs? Then go into pharmaceuticals, or enlist in the DEA. I’m a beer guy … and that’s just plain different.


Recently an area Boy Scout wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper about "the drug problem in our schools and neighborhoods," and the editor duly asked for adults to respond.

A response: Drug problem is complex, by Shea Van Hoy (News and Tribune)

I am a Boy Scout with a troop from Floyds Knobs. I am writing about the drug problem in our schools and neighborhoods.

Too many kids my age can get drugs and sell them. How can this problem be so bad with all the laws and police officers we have? I feel like more resource officers and locker searches may help in our schools. The officers in schools should be more open and visible.

I also think that more drug testing needs to be done on athletes and students. This is how me and a lot of my friends feel.

Do you have the sense that this young man is referring to drugs, drug sales and locker searches in the context of alcoholic beverages? Is he pointing a finger at the dangerous classmate who is bootlegging liquor out of his backpack before geography class?

I don't think so.

The executive director of Our Place Drug and Alcohol Education Services Inc., an agency in New Albany, provided commentary on the scout’s concerns

She warned that it isn't possible for police to "arrest" these sorts of community issues, and correctly noted the civil liberties aspect of drug testing. But as one interested in words and their uses, what followed strikes me as noteworthy.

Substance abuse is an issue that is multifaceted and requires an entire community to work together to address the problem. From parents, to schools, to businesses and community leaders, we all need to be on the same page in order to address the issues surrounding substance abuse.

First, the wording shifts away from “drugs" to "substance abuse." Next, supply, demand and poor parenting.

This starts with parents setting good examples with their own behavior, and not buying into a negative community norms that “all kids use” so it is no big deal, or looking the other way — claiming “not my child.” Worse yet are parents who mistakenly believe if they supply it, kids will stay home and use, believing that this is a safer alternative.

Seems the concepts are being broadened. Are we still talking about drugs – or alcohol? Granted, some parents would supply marijuana or methamphetamines to their children in the hope of keeping them home, but in reality, most of us read alcohol into this example, because we delineate between the illegal-for-all-ages-at-all-times substances and the more socially and culturally malleable alcohol. Kids "who stay home and use" with the cooperation of their parents tend to be drinking, not smoking crack.

It is about business leaders who recognize that sometimes making money is less important than doing the right thing and getting their product sold is less important than the safety of those potentially buying it. If we are concerned about drug and alcohol abuse, then is it OK for stores to sell “moonshine” with cute bows on it next to the candy aisle?

BOOM – there it is. It may have taken a couple hundred words, but now the linkage has become explicit, and heroin officially is conflated with Bud Light. From drugs to substance abuse, and now to "drug and alcohol" abuse.

Did I expect this merging of targets to occur?

Of course I did. However, whenever I see this game of ideological semantics being played, it annoys me. In this specific instance, given what the scout originally asked, his obvious concern pertained to substances other than alcoholic beverages. However, by the time the drug and alcohol educator is finished, we’re back to digging the foundations of Prohibition – and not only for the teens.

We support efforts to reduce social availability of alcohol and we also work in collaboration with Indiana University Southeast to address college-age issues.

And so we come full circle. It’s ironic, isn’t it? I'm the one feeling brusque, sad, annoyed and exasperated all at once.

35 years later, and the two of us remain on opposite sides of the alcohol divide. One went into promotion, and the other prevention. Somehow I expect to see an alcoholism self-test atop the patio furniture tomorrow morning. I'll be sure to file it along with the Watchtowers and candidate spiels.

Nope, sorry. Alcohol and drugs are different. But for the first time in days, a beer sounds really good right about now.

No comments: