My Conflicted Love-affair with Alcohol

Good morning from the Acre,

I am back in Pennsylvania more about a month before my initial plan, but I believe it was a decision that needed to be made. As a person who plans more than some might believe, I can be flexible, but lack of control of my life or my schedule is more stressful than often imagined. As noted in a couple of my last posts, the summer has been a learning experience, and while not always pleasant, probably important in the bigger long-term. The first few days back have been a time of introspection and trying to understand how things that have been so enjoyable for most of my life seemed to be disconcerting and difficult. I have been a wanderer, a vagabond of sorts,  but perhaps it is that I have called one town home for almost a decade. This time 10 years ago (almost to the day, I was arriving in Bloomsburg on the motorcycle and embarking on a new adventure, a new position, and a new place to call home. In that decade, so many things have happened to cause me to become the person I am now. Certainly the work done to make Bloomsburg a home and place I feel a sense of belonging in is significant. While much of this has to do with the university, I have also established relationships and friendships outside, which continue to develop, and I have been able to create a space that is my safe haven. This summer work on that, which is significant, was part of my stress. It was the taking care of things vital to structural integrity that created a stress for me that was unlike anything I have ever felt. Perhaps part of the struggle is a feeling of selfishness or attachment to “stuff,” which is not something that has been typical of me. That is not to say I do not appreciate what I have nor that I do not take care of things. In fact, I have been teased for the energy put into caring for things at times, but that is more because I do not want to replace it or pay to get it again. Perhaps what most surprised me was a felt like a home-body for the first time in a profound way.

The week of introspection has caused me to consider another aspect of my life. From the time I was barely twenty-one, I began to work in restaurants. My first server position was in a restaurant in Ames, Iowa called Aunt Maude’s. It was a fine dining restaurant that had flaming desserts and entrees, we carved rack of lamb table-side and used a gueridon, not anything I had experienced in my NW Iowa meat and potatoes background. I also learned about alcohol in a different way, and actually a healthier manner than what I had done in the Marine Corps. I have noted in the past that my first experience with alcohol was literally a case of they poured it down me. It was not a positive thing. However, I did not learn from that. During my early 20s I bartended and waited tables and my abuse of alcohol was the rule rather than the exception. The consequences were some of the normal things, but the more unintended consequence was that I did foolish things. Not only would I spend money buying for others, but I got involved in some risky behavior that culminated in a friend pulling a gun on me and I grabbed that gun, which was loaded, and it discharged and shot him. There were two entrance wounds and one exit wound. This meant surgery would remove that bullet from his upper thoracic area. That no one was more injured than that was a miracle. That did get my attention, and I made some changes. Yet, both at Dana and later at seminary, while the bouts of over indulgence were not frequent they still occurred. What was it that made me drink to the point of excess? That is still something I am unsure I can answer completely. I think most often it was a need to be accepted, to fit in. I was often about 5 to 10 years behind (older) than the people I was around. That began when I returned to Dana as a 24 year old freshman. Perhaps it was if I could drink with the best of them, I could fit in. Regardless the underlying reason, I did some really stupid things. Once I became a parish pastor and campus pastor, that changed. There was about a 5 to 6 year period I drank sparingly or not at all. Then one day I decided after loosing a position to go to the bar. Unexpectedly, but by my own volition, I got trashed. That began about a 5 or 6 year period where I drank way too much again and while there was a bit of a respite in there when I had gotten married again, after that marriage I returned to graduate school and there were too many times I was well beyond legally intoxicated. Again, some of behavior during those times is something that is nothing to be proud of nor would I condone in others. It embarrasses me to this day. It is something for which I have made apologies and still feel like those apologies are inadequate. Simply put, the fact I have not died of alcohol poisoning on more than one occasion is by the grace of God. There is no logical reason I should be alive.

What is so incredibly asinine about all of that is I did my pastoral care and counseling classes in treatment centers. I remember one of my most dear friends speaking to me as well as writing me a letter about my alcohol abuse at one point. I still have that letter. I grew up with alcoholics in my life and both my siblings had significant drug and alcohol issues, to the point of treatment in one case. So what changed . . .  what is it that allows me to have an rather astronomical amount of alcohol in my house and not drink it. Somehow, I am able to see it as a way to enhance a dining experience rather than control it. Somehow, perhaps it has been watching what it has done to so many others and realizing what could have happened to me. What happens for me how is so different than what happened before. Where I once seemed to practice a theory of being able to drink with the best of them made it all better, now being around intoxicated people makes me uncomfortable. Being around someone who reeks of alcohol makes me queasy. As I noted above, I have been in Bloomsburg for 10 years. I have been intoxicated three times in that 10 years (which can be argued is three times too many). That is not to say I have only drank three times, but I have learned to be much more responsible. Can I offer a reason for that change? Not with some sense of complete clarity. Not even with the idea of it was intentional. I think rather it was a sense of what I did, or am apt to do, when I drink too much is problematic on a whole multitude of levels. Perhaps it is because I realize so much more completely now that being a professor, as I have said many other times, is not what I do, it is who I am. During the past year, I have witnessed, again, first-hand what alcohol abuse can do and the consequences of someone’s actions on those around them. It is painful to watch. It is more painful to know there is nothing you can do to change it. What I have come to realize is how our American culture glorifies the use of alcohol or sees it much like owning a gun, somehow we are entitled to be able to drink whenever or however we wish. Damned the consequence. Ironically the summer I spend working in the winery I drank less than other times. I think I owe that to both Peter D’Souza as well as Marco for helping me see the natural aspect of wine making and how it works to help create an entirely different food and taste experience for a meal. Even now when it comes to beer or cocktails, I am able to think about the art of the beverage and what it can do to help enjoy something socially versus I need to drink to get trashed or even buzzed. I love what food and beverage can do together, and I simultaneously hate what we do societally with alcohol. American culture does not seem to be able to promote social drinking. Drinking it about getting trashed. We have to pre-game before we go to the bar. We have to mix crazy shit like Red Bull and Four Loco. The results have been deadly. For instance, did you know that in 2010 31% of fatal weekend car crashes involved alcohol? That is 8 years after the 0.08 for DUI went into affect nationwide. Again, in 2010, 17,000,000 people admitted to driving intoxicated. If they had their own state, they would be the 5 largest state in the country (I did research on these statistics for this blog). Again there is this sense of we can chance it. Again, in the spirit of transparency, I received a DUI when I was lived in Wisconsin. I had a medical issue, and attempted to drive home (less than 6 blocks total). I got pulled over 72 steps from my house. That night cost me over 5,000.00. One of the things I learned in my mandatory classes was that a person will drive intoxicated a couple of hundred times before they are pulled over and actually charged. If that is accurate, it is mind-boggling, and petrifying.

So where does that leave me today? Yes, I have alcohol of various kinds in my house: beer, spirits, and wine and quite a quantity, but I can go days or weeks without drinking a drop of anything. I enjoy having a glass of wine with a meal. I enjoy a ice cold beer on a hot day, and I love experimenting with spirits to see what I can concoct that will taste refreshing and enjoyable. Yet it is an art a type of creativity that offers an opportunity to share socially in a responsible and enjoyable manner. I have somehow learned that one can be social, responsible and enjoyable all at the same time. In 2012, the alcohol industry made 162,000,000,000.00 (yes, billion) dollars (again, I looked this up through economic databases). I guess I do contribute to this amount. Where am I today as I write this? I understand why people might get intoxicated. I think most often it is to forget their own problems; it is because they have not dealt with some aspect of their past or because they do not like something about themselves. Perhaps it is an attempt to fit in. This morning I was speaking with a dear friend, who has a strong affinity for their ethnic heritage. They noted that that heritage is ensconced (somewhat of an oxymoron) with alcohol and that connection has resulted in their choosing to eliminate alcohol from their personal use. I have noted the propensity for the misuse of alcohol in my own family on many occasions in this blog. If I were to balance the misuse of alcohol on a scale to the appropriate use of alcohol in my experiences, either communally or individually, the misuse side of the scale would so far outweigh the appropriate use that you would wonder if there was any weight at all on the one side. So how do I understand this love affair? Indeed it is conflicted. Indeed it is frightening. It is such a delicate balance. How did I learn to balance? Embarrassment for my past actions is one of the greatest motivators, I believe. Realizing how much I have to lose should I lose that balance is another aspect. Somehow, for me the grace of God that has kept me alive or out of trouble or jail more times than I have fingers and toes, and even if I borrowed some of yours. I think being an example for others, and realizing the consequences and damage of some of my past, which still haunts me, has been a motivating factor. For so long, I struggled with my identity and feelings of inadequacy. I think I have managed much of that, or more importantly, I learned that alcohol does not fix that, it only complicates it. Using alcohol did not make me fit it more completely, it made me look more completely foolish. Using alcohol inappropriately enhanced inappropriate and embarrassing behavior and it damaged my relationships and my reputation. Some of that will never be repaired. To this day, I enjoy more than words can say how a great Mourvedre can enhance the spice and flavor of a good ribeye steak. I enjoy the amazing flavor of caraway seed and lime in an aquavit and tonic on a hot summer evening. Yet, it is the experience of the flavor and more than merely getting stupid.

Respect or healthy respect seems to be apt here. It is something lacking in so many areas of our societal fabric, and that, of course, is an entirely different topic. I think it is where I am, however. I have learned if you play with fire (and I have used things like Ol’ Gran Dad or 151 to flame desserts), you will get burnt. That adage is certainly true. I have been burned more than once, but it was not a burn that changed me, it was merely age and wisdom, and the observation of consequence, of both my own actions and the actions of others. I will always appreciate alcohol when used to enhance a meal or a social setting appropriately. As my former professor once said, I can appreciate alcohol, but he had no tolerance for drunken behavior. He is still an incredibly wise man, and he is entirely accurate. I have been prone to put a video at the end of my blogs that somehow connects to the topic, but almost all music videos about alcohol glorify it, so I decided on something that was about trying to make the appropriate choices and take the chance and make life better without being intoxicated. I love this video for the generational beauty in it.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Traditions of Christmas

Scan 757Hello on the day retailers go into the Black,

I am probably not helping them make any goal today and I am grading and attending to matters that somehow once again seem beyond my control. I do not plan to do much shopping, if any today, and I have other things I want to try to manage. I sometimes wonder if my attention to detail is something wrong or merely something that causes me difficulty, or perhaps both. The picture here is of two of my seminary friends when they came to Pennsylvania when I first lived in this state a quarter century ago and was a parish pastor in Lehighton. They are in the house I lived in and their names are Tim Christensen and Sandra Van Zyl. I miss them, but still know where they are (in Montana).

I did have a nice Thanksgiving, though a bit untraditional and a bit traditional. I spent part of it on the road taking my Midwest guests back to the airport and spent some time in a traffic jam. Then I went to a family’s house for dinner. They had extended family there and it was nice to meet them. It always it interesting to be around a group at the holidays. I listen to comments and conversations and one learns so much. It was the “cousin” comments which taught me the most and gave me new insights.

I didn’t finish all of this yesterday and last evening (it is 4:00 a.m. and I have been awake for over an hour, so I write) I was at the Decker’s. I had a nice time watching Grace in a parade and seeing Caroline and Rose scramble for candy. Mary always brightens my day because of her amazing love and beauty. Max, Mark and I played a card game following the parade (which Max beat us both) and Ethan, Christian (the Clark nephews who were visiting), and Gayle worked on a jigsaw puzzle (which they pulled an all nighter and I just got the completed picture as a text). It was interesting that advice both Mark and I gave Grace last night, I need to take for myself. It really dawned on me as I was saying it. In fact, I noted that point and Mark and Grace both noted it back to me.  It is a bit ironic how we tell others not to put up with what we ourselves are putting up with. So, now comes the hard part: doing it and continuing to say that impoliteness is not reasonable nor acceptable, regardless of what the other does to justify. I realize that I put up with a lot more of this than I should and then when the consequence is my generosity or kindness (in any form) is taken advantage of, I am always surprised (I should not be). What I am learning is what I offer or think about a person’s intentions or character is not as pure as I want to believe. If one’s heart is not selfish, it is almost impossible to act selfishly. This is the adage I must remember.

Tonight when I got home I pondered (yes, again I am pondering) why it is that Christmas music so profoundly affects me. I am not sure if it is because I grew up singing from the time I was small. I am not sure if it is because I remember recording an LP (do your remember those things?) with the Sioux City Children’s Choir. However, it was actually trying to listen to Christmas music on Thanksgiving evening and a comment from the cousin that gave me the most insight into things I have watched, but perhaps did not really understand. In addition, it also got me thinking about the music. The station I was listening to was probably the most traditional of any Christmas station one could ever hope to find. John Rutter and Robert Shaw have probably done more arranging and composing of Christmas music than any other two people in the world. It is their Pandora stations that play the most amazing Christmas music one could ever hope to hear. Check it out; I am quite sure you’ll be glad you did.

This coming Wednesday, I am going to see Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas concert in Bethlehem. I have not seen them live since I was in seminary. I got two tickets way last summer, but the plans I thought of have changed pretty dramatically, and I am really fortunate to be going with a former colleague. She has a “bit of a musical appreciation” so going to see the concert with her will be amazing. She is also one of the people for whom I have great admiration. I am looking forward to it. Next weekend I am going to hide out in Jim Thorpe for the weekend. I plan to see the Bach and Handel Chorale there (and probably do some grading).

When I grew up every Christmas was at my Grandmother’s house. This is the same person with whom I lived until I was about four and a half. I have mentioned her in my blog many times, and she is my hero. She is probably the most loving and giving person I ever met. She had a much more difficult life than I have really taken the time to imagine. She grew up on a farm in the depression and the dust bowl years in South Dakota. She did go to college, at least for a period of time, but she did not finish. I never learned the story behind that. I’m not exactly sure how she ended up married to my grandfather, but I think that deeply loved each other. He died when she was only 45 years old. So what I’m realizing that she spent the rest of her life, the next 19 years, as a widow. Another one of those ironies, Lydia has been alone also for 19 years. I think with me this is me the most about my grandmother is that she overcame her alcoholism. I did not know she was an alcoholic, but I remember as a small child going to the liquor store with her. From what I understand, my grandfather also had a drinking issue. It was really after I became an adult that I understood what it happened. Long story short, AA changed her life. I think she quit drinking when I was seven years old and she never drank again. For the rest of her life, she focused on her ownership of the bakery and she was active in Eastern Star. She eventually was the Worthy Matron of her chapter. I remember in high school being amazed as I watched these elegant women do the things they did at installations. It reminds me of someone, a person who worked at the bakery. I wonder where she is today.

Christmas at my grandmothers house was amazing. She owned a bakery – the one I worked at from the time I was 12 – and everything that was made there was delectable. Both she and her older sister, Helen, where the most amazing cooks in the world. So between her bakery and her culinary skills Christmas dinner has never been equaled. However, that was only the beginning. Grandma pulled out all the stops at Christmas and her generosity was unparalleled by anyone. I do not come close for those thinking I am like her. I only wish I was. I can still remember her kindness, her smile, and how happy she was that everyone was in her house. Perhaps the best part of Christmas was that we got to stay at her house the week that followed. My favorite breakfast every day consisted of two poached eggs, a half a grapefruit, and toast. Hanging out at the bakery is a small child and working later in my life was something that I love to do. I still remember the present of a toboggan and sliding on her hill. The house she lived in the rest of her life with the house I had spent my first years in. It was a place of safety; it was a place of love. Perhaps that’s the most important gift she gave me the gift of unconditional love. While I’ve tried to emulate her all too often I fail miserably. However I still have her example to remember and to cherish.

In spite of the craziness at the end of the semester, regardless a number of things that can get in our way, it is the time to remember the things that matter. No matter how busy we are or how much we have on our plate simple acts of courtesy and kindness or what Christmas and traditions are about. I am blessed by my traditions from earlier my life and the memories I have. I’m grateful for the things that I have learned this past year. I’m not sure what the future will bring or how long with future is, but I do know that I have been blessed. Even when I don’t understand all the reasons or even the actions of others, I can still find some blessing in those experiences. I’m grateful for my traditions, for my heritage. While I will not leave children behind, I was reminded again this week by an email that somehow I make a difference. While I love the traditions of Christmas perhaps my most important legacy is in the classroom. It is one of the places my gifts really shine. I hope you can find time to create new traditions and begin new things. I’m looking forward to Christmas and having some people at my house to share to learn together, and perhaps create a new tradition, at least once. Well, it is 5:30 a.m. – time for a nap.

The link is from one of my favorite group, the concert I will see this next week. The song is titled “Traditions of Christmas”. I hope you find it as meaningful as I do.

As always thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin