Saturday, July 27, 2013

I Was a Teenaged Teetotaler

May 12, 1983. I am 22 years old. In the next 24 hours, I will experience three rites of passage: my first taste of alcohol, college graduation, and saying goodbye to the best friends I have ever had. As passages go, this one's a tripleheader.
 
I've written elsewhere about the "Element Gang," one of the nicknames for the Group (which is how I always referred to it). This entire essay is going to be about how I evolved from that to this:
 
 I took this selfie last Saturday, July 20, as I introduced my son Sean (who turned 21 in May) to the joy of beer. Joyful to me, that is; utterly unappealing to him. Two different beer festivals, and we couldn't find a single one he liked, though he did appreciate some cider.

Now back to me. I was raised by teetotal Baptists. Don't let the Methodist trappings fool you: both my parents were born and raised American Baptist, and while my father did spend most of his career as a Methodist minister, he never gave up his attachment to believer (vs. infant) baptism or his rejection of alcoholic beverages. So I grew up in an alcohol-free environment, with hardshell Baptist attitudes toward the Demon Likker and its cousins, tobacco, marijuana, and gambling. I could have experimented with any of these things as a teenager, but I bought the whole personal morals thing. It helped that my high school friends were not of the hard-drinking variety, and that the smokers (whether of cigarettes or joints) did not make a strong case for their vices as they huddled at Smokers' Corner, just off campus. I arrived at college with my liver still virginal, and somehow made it through to my next to last night still without even a taste of the stuff.

On May 12, 1983, my friends and I dressed up for dinner with our parents and our friend Tony, a 1980 graduate who'd been RA to three of us, and became a mentor to all of us, during our freshman year. We went to Mazzi's, an Italian restaurant that no longer exists in Salem (though there's still one in Eugene). Tony ordered a glass of liebfraumilch--a semi-sweet German Riesling blend. I expressed curiosity, and he offered me a sip. To my surprise, the Great Wall of Indoctrination had a chink in it, and I tried the wine. And liked it.

This may seem bizarre to you. How could a 22-year-old college student never have even tasted alcohol? Was there never even a hint of temptation? Was I never offered anything at a party? Was Willamette a dry campus? The first question is rhetorical; the answer to the second and third is yes; and to the fourth, no. To render that first question less rhetorical, in my mind, I associated drinking with these things:

1) Litter patrol: as a Cub Scout, I spent time on rural roads outside Filer, Idaho, with a garbage bag, collecting stuff people had thrown from their cars. This often included beer cans. Stale beer has a rancid yeast smell that is utterly unpleasant, not unlike...

2) Bottle deposit areas at supermarkets. P. U.

3) Health films: I remember two of them. One was about being cautious around trains, and climaxed with some partying teenagers racing a train to the crossing with disastrous results. The other was about how alcohol affects the brain, and also climaxed with a double-fatality automobile accident, followed by brain autopsies to show how compromised the alcoholic's brain had been by his heavy drinking. Ew.

4) College football games: During high school, I earned spending money by hawking pop and snacks at OSU games. I witnessed many a flask, smuggled in past oblivious ticket-takers, utilized to spike the flat soda I was selling. As each game progressed toward a typical Beaver loss, the increasingly intoxicated fans became unruly, even loutish. On more than one occasion I was pelted with popcorn for blocking someone's view while making change.

5) Drunk behavior at college: Willamette not being a "dry" school, there were, indeed, parties I attended at which people drank the spiked Koolaid, or the "gnarly" daiquiris, then behaved badly. I also occasionally had lunch with fellow members of the jazz band, some of whom were frat boys who liked to brag about how many times they had vomited. Meanwhile, my brother Ocean (still going by the name of Stephen at the time) was an OSU student whose roommate frequently staggered into their room drunk in the middle of the night, and occasionally fell asleep in his own vomit.

So no, I didn't want any part of that. I was also convinced that the best "highs" came from enjoying life with friends, reading a good book, and other forms of denial. I really had no idea.

That sip of cheap wine was a toe in the door, a minute acknowledgment that there might be a world on the other side of the bar. It did empower me to decide that night, after our families were all safely dispatched to their hotels, to do something with my friends that we had not done once in our four years at Willamette: visit the campus watering hole, the Ram, and order a drink. All the way across campus, I was a bundle of nerves. Once we got there, we were all carded, and turned away: Elizabeth's purse had been stolen a few days earlier, and she had not yet replaced her ID. I wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. 

Three months later, I was off to grad school in Illinois, still (except for that one sip of wine) a teetotaler. I managed to continue postponing my first full-blown drink until the graduate music ed Christmas party, and when I did, it was an accident: I didn't know what was in the punch. Whatever it was, I felt my face warming, and when the hostess realized what had happened--she had taken my alcoholic virginity--she refused to let me have seconds. A week later, at my TA supervisor's party, I consciously had a whiskey-laced nog. Three months later, visiting my Aunt Fran for Spring Break in Chevy Chase, Maryland, I accepted a glass of red wine to accompany my dinner--and hated it. That was it until more than two years later, when I started drinking wine coolers with my fiancé.

For two years in England, I drank wine, not trying beer until it was almost time to leave. I didn't try microbrews until I was living in the Portland area, 1992; and I didn't discover a microbrew I really liked until 2009, when I met a home brewer who specializes in Belgian beers. Since then, my palate has expanded to the point that I can make informed choices. I've become a beer snob 

It's a long journey from the judgmental teen-totaler of 1979 to the beer lover of 2013. As far as I've come, I haven't completely left that persona behind. There's still enough Baptist in me that, when the thousands of beer enthusiast at the Oregon Brewers Festival do their loud version of the wave, I shake my head, wanting no part of it. I'm still Baptist enough to be turned off by drunken behavior, and to find any intoxication in myself beyond a mild buzz extremely unpleasant. I do not foresee myself ever drowning my sorrows in alcohol, drunk-dialing, or going to an event at which I know I'll be drinking without arranging alternate transportation for myself.

There was a time when I really believed alcohol and tobacco should be illegal. Considering how many lives are ruined and ended by these drugs, their legality is utterly arbitrary. As I developed a taste for wine and beer, though, I began to consider a different, more complex approach. People are going to consume products, and engage in behaviors, that give them pleasure. Some of those people are going to have a hard time stopping these behaviors at a safe level. Some will gamble away their livelihoods. Others will turn the Sunset Highway into their own private racetrack. Still others will treat sexuality as an amusement park with unlimited rides. Pleasure is what makes life worth living, as the writer of Ecclesiastes acknowledged two and a half millennia ago:

What gain have the workers from their toil?  I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.  He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13)

The difficulty here, as in so much else that I write about, is in balancing freedom with the common good. What level of regulation is required to keep bar patrons either from overindulging or from driving off and committing vehicular manslaughter after they've overindulged? How can compulsive gamblers be prevented from using up their retirement savings at casinos? How graphic should warnings be on cigarette cartons and beer bottles? And in all of these cases, in fact in all cases in which safety is in the balance, how many deaths are an acceptable price to pay for freedom?

The moral calculus wrapped up in that three ounce sample of imperial pilsner is mind-boggling, and frankly, I'd just as soon not engage in it. But it behooves me, and every other drinker raising glasses and hooting in unison as the wave passes through the festival, to at least keep it in the back of our minds. I'd much rather that the moral cost of attending came down to the inconvenience of riding the MAX into town than the possibility of my car colliding with another on the Sunset Highway. As delicious as that pilsner was, it's simply not worth the latter.

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