Friday, March 20, 2009

Why I don't drink alcohol

From the time I was very young alcohol has been a part of my life. My immediate and extended family are all drinkers. Alcohol was a daily part of my parents' lives, a kind of ritual. My mother drank Bourbon and ginger ale, and my father drank Scotch and water. Both drank it with ice. They would have their drinks while watching the news, and then retire. Parties at the house would always include alcohol. There was always a variety of hard liquor in the house, and my parents joined the Elks Club in Morgantown when I was young. I believe they did that because at the time we move there in the 1960's there were no bars where one could buy alcohol by the drink in WV. One would have to buy a bottle and put it in the keeping of the bartender, whose job it would be to mix drinks for you out of your bottle when you went there. You would rent a space for your bottles, and pay for mixers and food , as well as tip the bartender. (As I write this in Japan, I am curious about the "keep" system in Japanese bars where one can, but does not have to, buy a bottle of liquor to keep on hand at your favorite bar. A good way to encourage customer loyalty.)

My own personal drinking began when I was very small, being offered sips from my parents' glasses. I would steal a swig or two out of my parents' liquor cabinet just for fun, and I should have known that I have a very high tolerance to alcohol, because it never had any effect, even at a young age.

When I reached high school and got a driver's license at 16, my would of alcohol took a quantum leap. Even at 16 I could get any kind of alcohol I wanted, and was exposed to other varieties through friends. My tolerance to alcohol was very high and the only reason I didn't die in a fiery wreck taking a family of four with me in my alcohol induced fog was Divine providence.

I continued to abuse alcohol through college and grad school, binge drinking on weekends, and having a drink daily during the week. I also exercised like mad in those days, running marathons and competing in triathlons. Alcohol didn't seem to slow me down at all, but now I wonder.

At the age of twenty-six, I came to Japan to teach English as a Foreign Language. Alcohol is everywhere in Japan, and readily available to nearly anyone of any age, anywhere, anytime. There are vending machines for a variety of alcoholic beverages, beer, wine, and hard liquor, though the number is shrinking recently, probably due to the increasing number of convenience stores, where people can insure that young people don't buy alcohol. The legal drinking age in Japan is 20. One can buy it nearly anywhere, and consume it anywhere. There isn't the Puritanical tension of quilt and proscription about it like in the US.

Binge drinking in Japan is a normal part of life for men, and regular daily alcohol consumption is also common. Some people are very intolerance of alcohol, so they refrain, but other wise the sharing of alcohol is an important part of the social fabric. Japan doesn't consume so much totally, just less than the US. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica. (Japan at 6.5 liters per year per person and the US at 6.8), but the vast majority of it is consumed by the male half of the population.

My own drinking habits did not really change after I came here, but the drinks that I consumed did. Good wine is expensive and hard to come by. Beer became my standard beverage, and I drank frequently and in significant quantities. I saw nothing wrong with drinking, and I saw no detrimental side effects other than the occasional hangover.

Two things started to become problems for me, though at the time I did not make the link between them and drinking. First was my trouble with anger. Sometimes events or situations would trigger fits of anger, and sometimes they wouldn't. I studied martial arts, in part thinking that it would lead to better control. It did not. I exercised, hoping that it would dampen the anger that welled up from time to time like white hot fury. My family bore the brunt of those times, never physically but verbally as I ranted about some injustice or another.

The second problem was allergies. Soon after I arrived in Japan, I developed a pattern of severe colds and bronchitis. I could predict when they would come and go, and they would limit my ability to live comfortable. In Kumamoto an ENT specialist finally diagnosed my allergies to house dust and pollen from a common week and suggested that I had allergies that caused a weakened physical condition that led to more severe illness. I took medicine for the allergies, but continued to drink.

After several years of this patter, I remarried and my wife vowed that she would cure my allergies, but I had to control my consumption habits. She is knowledgeable about Macrobiotics, a lifestyle that focuses on eating whole grains, vegetables a, and little or not meat, alcohol, sugar, or chemical additives. After six years of living this lifestyle, my allergies are gone, and I am in much better control of my emotions.

For all these reasons alone, abstaining from alcohol is a benefit, but there are other reasons, too Humans and other animals enjoy alcohol, found in nature in rotting fruit anywhere there is a tree. I has had an important place in nearly every culture on earth, and was treasured for its curative and mystical properties. If we can imagine how precious it was when we think that perfectly good food that could sustain people was instead used to produce alcohol, then we can estimate the important place it held in societies. This was indeed a symbol of plenty, but regardless of the abundance that existed, there was never much of it. Johnny Appleseed spread apple seeds around the Ohio area, not for edible apples, but for the juice. Edible apples rarely come from a seed, as nearly 100% of the seeds will yield inedible fruit. What Johnny did was to plant apples for making hard cider. Imagine how happy early settlers were to have a little drink now and again. There couldn't have been much, because of the effort it took to make it, and it must have been expensive, but it gave people some relief to have it. Now huge amounts of our food supply and farm land is devoted to growing grain for alcohol and that is only possible because of our dependence on petroleum. Beverages are individually packaged in disposable containers and shipped great distances, stored in refrigerated areas, and finally reaches the consumer. Alcohol producers reap huge profits,as is evidenced by their advertising power alone.

The mass production and consumption of alcohol isn't something to be regulated by governments, but is something people just need to get wise to. I choose not to consume it because I am tired of the game, of looking for the buzz at the expense of my health and the world's resources. I drink from time to time. I had a few drinks at the local volunteer fire department's year end party last year, where the ceremonies that surround the sharing of a drink are important for cementing relationships with other people. I do not have to struggle with needing it, either, which is a blessing. I just got over it.

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