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

More than a Dirt Nap

Hello from my office on a Friday afternoon,

Between meetings and a couple of other things (including grading), I am considering some things in light of my Bible as Literature course and wanted to write. This past week, my Bible as Literature student have asked interesting and thoughtful questions about life (and beyond), and while it is not a religion class, when you are using the Bible as one of the central texts of the class, it is not surprising they might ponder and ask things that demonstrate they are trying to figure out questions of context, authority, and authorship and how those concerns might push them to consider what they have heard (either within their church background or without a specific church background), be taught, or as part of their own maturing and growing process. I think I have been pondering a bunch of things in response to their inquiries.

Certainly, an element of that is understanding one’s mortality. If my adoptive mother were alive, she would be 98 years old tomorrow (she lived to the age of 68). In terms of my own life, it is 32 years tomorrow that I had my first major abdominal surgery, while I was an intern pastor in Big Lake, MN, at the hospital in Coon Rapids, MN. I still remember how terrible the prep was for all of that and how I learned quite positively that I was allergic to erythromycin. Most assuredly, other things have happened since then to remind me of my own mortality, and that is more a case of reality that I would have ever imagined. Today as I searched another situation, I found that another person for whom I have an unparalleled appreciation and to whom I owe so much for their care was my cousin, Joanne Wiggs. I found out that she has passed away and joined her husband Jim, who had passed only 9 months before. They were both so good to me. I am sad more than some know that so much had changed in a situation that I was not involved in either service. They were one of the last few people I visited before leaving the Midwest to come back to Pennsylvania. They had grace and charm (both of them) in ways few people ever have, and I imagine ever will. It gets back to some of what I addressed in my last blog about civility and decorum. I remember my father thinking that Joanne was the most consummate hostess ever, and he was correct. I am sorry they are both gone. The picture at the beginning of the post is my picture of them about 9 1/2 years ago.

That was a slight digression, but an important one. It is sad to lose people. This morning what I woke up thinking about was the idea of religion and dying. It was not a morbid idea for me, but rather one of systematics. I do have students in my BAL course who claim to not believe in God, are unsure there is a higher power, and imagine nothing occurring when one passes except we bury them and continue on with our life. Hence my rather stark title. What actually happens when we die? Do we end up in some sort of purgatorial, soul-keeping holding cell until a second coming? Do we die and immediately we are away that there is something beyond, be it heaven (or some kind of eternal bliss) or hell (for me, the condition where there is an absence of anything good)? Certainly the fact that a number of students take a Bible as Literature course can be traced to a number of reasons (and some of it is getting credits to graduate), but I think for many it is their first foray into making whatever faith they come to college with their own versus it being merely what their parents tell them to believe or model for them. I think what I realized this morning in my early morning puzzling was a sort of if there is no real God and there is nothing beyond our demise, then it really is a dirt name, and nothing else need be considered. One of the students working on their paper stopped by yesterday and asked me how teaching the Bible as Literature affected my own personal faith. This is another thing I have deliberated upon a number of times. However, I think for me that is one of the amazing things about faith. From where does it come (which I, of course, have some specific thoughts ~the power of baptism), but assuredly, there are those who argue that it comes from our own human frailty. It was interesting to listen to one of my students from another class address some of that very thing this past week. Because I no longer wear a clergy shirt, and formerly being a pastor is not something I generally address, when students find out that is part of my background, I get a wide variety of questions.

Yet as I have noted, teaching the Bible as Literature class might be the thing that most affects my own piety as well as the practice of that. Faith is best described for me in Hebrews 11:1. I said this when I was in seminary; I stated it as a pastor, and now as the professor, it has not changed. I think back to when I was  a Sophomore in college and one of the freshmen students told me they could prove that God exists. They thought they would have an ally in this bit older pre-seminary student. They were not sure what to respond when I told them they were full of S____T and that I did not believe them, promptly followed by challenging them to do so. There is little one can say, calculate or demonstrate that proves God with any finality. It simply does not work. However, that sort of logic also works the other way, there is little that can be calculated or reasoned that proves there cannot or is not a God. In addition, I will go as far to say that much of the damage done to faithful people or their faithful attempts to be faithful are done by well-meaning (and sometimes less than well-meaning) Christians. I call them evangelical bulldozers. They think they can rollover or flatten any dissension about one questioning how God works. Their arrogance frustrates me (my rhetorically correct response to them). Posolutely, throughout Christian history, the role of the church by its arrogance, its abuse of power, and its dissemination of doctrine that instills fear more than most anything else, has created more questions than it has perhaps answered.

This semester I focused on the issue of contextuality in terms of the Bible being written by specific people at a particular point in history, noting that all writing is affected by the culture in which it is created. I tried to help my students see some of the things they merely accept without question because it is in the Bible and why that can be problematic for them. I think the response of a student this semester to the temptation story in Genesis 3 will be a life-long memory. Suffice it to say when I asked how it was Eve spoke “snake” or the snake spoke “human,” my student was a bit perplexed. She placed her head into her hands and shook her head overwhelmed by the indubitably unexpected consideration my question created for her. My comment to all my students is the same, but in this BAL course, the statement is a bit more profound. I tell them regularly that God gave them a brain to do more than hold their ears apart, and furthermore, they should use it. I wonder in my own piety which God would I like to meet? What I mean by such a statement is that I know the Bible demonstrates (or figuratively illustrates) both a powerful and complex God. What are those specific moments when we would hope to have our Moses-type encounter with God? Where is God at those moments? Who is the God we would hope to meet? I think for the most part, I would like to meet God and speak with him at those times when most of what I see does not make sense. I think I would like to meet (and yes, arrogantly ask) God when I am those times where things seem the most unfair. Those are the times when I question God’s power or ability to intervene. Those are the times that the consequence of our supposed sinfulness most vexes me. I wish our selfish arrogance did not have so many consequences.

There is much more to say about all of this, but as we head this Sunday into the liturgical season of Advent, the paraments (the colored cloth in the chancel area) will be blue. Blue is a color of both comfort and hope. It is a season where the haunting music that foretells the Christmas story reminds us of what is coming. While I am not a proponent of Christmas in the stores at Halloween or before, after Thanksgiving the Advent season is actually one of my favorite times. I think that was something that started earlier in my life, but it was something that really was instilled in me when I traveled around Germany during the advent season in 1985. There is something about organ music and chorale music that will always life my spirit in ways few things can. Awake, Awake for Night is Flying, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People are some of the things that come to mind. I think there is something haunting, and yet the melancholy of the season also has an undertone of hope. That returns me to my cousin, Joanne and her husband, Jim. The two of them created an amazing marriage and the love they had for each other was something all of us can only hope to find. They were married for 62 years and only apart for 9 months after his passing. The unquestionable affection and love they had was never someone could not see or feel. The way in which they made you welcome in their home was encompassing. Their home on Summit Street was more of a home to me through the years than my own. They were also people of immense and prodigious faith. They attended mass every morning and I learned much about my own faith watching them practice theirs. . . . this little exercise had me searching cemeteries back in Iowa. I remember going to Graceland Park and Floyd cemeteries before every Memorial Day growing up to clean and do yard work on the graves of the family, my father’s in Graceland and my mothers in Floyd, which for those not from my hometown is named after the only person to die on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he is buried above the Missouri River a bit south of my hometown. So indeed, they are all in the dirt, some in caskets and vaults and some cremated. Is there a purgatory type of thing happening there on the Morningside portion of Sioux City and what was called the South Bottoms where Floyd Cemetery is? Is there something more? Is it merely a dirt resting place and there is nothing more? There are times I struggle yet to understand how it all works and what it all means, but as I enter the season of Advent and I remember the birthday of a mother tomorrow and an older brother on Tuesday, I find that for my own piety, I believe there must be something more. It is more than ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Indeed, as I once intoned, “Almighty God, source of all mercy and giver of comfort: Deal graciously, we pray , with those who mourn, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may know the consolation of your love . . . ” (Occasional Services Book). With that I offer the following in this season of Advent. I hope you might find peace and comfort in its music.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Martin