The Best Advice in the World on Freshman Drinking

The Best Advice in the World on Freshman Drinking

 

ON MAY 20, 2016 

 

I have a former student who I care about very much. She actually listens to me when I give her ideas. We were messaging back and forth about her recent graduation from high school and her excitement to matriculate into college as a freshman this fall. I closed a message by saying, “Remember to ask me the best advice in the world on drinking alcohol in college.”

This was her response:

Thank you Mr. Parsons! I definitely look forward to college, hopefully the distance doesn’t get me down too much. I will definitely stay in touch! Is your advice “don’t do it”?:)

I left her name out of my response to protect her privacy. This is my response to her question:

No.

That is typical, stupid parent advice that any college student who is going to drink in college will ignore. I know, I know, you are not typical. You don’t see yourself as being like other students, and you are right: you are not like other students. You are smarter, cooler, and have a brighter future than the rest of the pack.

On the other hand, there are college students, about a million or so, who are smarter, and “cooler” than you, and think they have the same future ahead of them as you have, but they will never have that future because they are well on their way to a life shrouded in alcoholism.

I have been to college; you have not. I know the “pull” of peer pressure, and the desire to rebel, and to just say, “F it, I’ll do what I feel like doing.”

You do not know that pull, or desire to rebel. Not yet.

Every year, millions of college kids unwittingly learn a lifetime addiction in college; they never recover from that habit whether they grow up and stop drinking heavily, or they continue to drink themselves slowly into a morass of apathy.

No one has to drink in college. For the first three years of your college experience, it is illegal to do so. But who follows the laws these days, right?

Feel free to not drink.

You might be lucky like me, and alcohol will have no allure for you. I doubt it. Alcohol is a magical substance the defeats even the most resolute of souls.

I have no idea why I didn’t drink like all the rest of my high school friends and my college cohort. It’s irrelevant why I didn’t drink. I missed the alcoholism bullet. My wife missed the bullet, and my daughter, so far, is dodging that particular bullet.

You may, or may not dodge it. You are a deliberate and contemplative person; you should at least hear some reasonable strategies to avoid a brush with alcoholism.

My first, and simplest advice is to drink if you choose, but just don’t drink your first freshman semester of college.

You will notice that a lot of the first semester heavy drinkers won’t show up the second semester. The whole point of first semester is to make it to second semester; you will be much wiser, and less impetuous your second semester because you will be a bit older, and you will think to yourself, “Holy shit, that was a bunch of people that flunked out, dropped out, or got killed. I’m glad I wasn’t one of them.”

If you think you have to drink, delay drinking until second semester. I guarantee you that there will be more booze available to you because those other guys will be drinking somewhere else.

My second piece of advice concerning responsible drinking is to drink slowly.

Drinking is not a “game.” Beer pong and chug-a-thons are games that are fun for awhile, but they promote irresponsible drinking. Students engage in those games because they don’t know how to drink. Learning to tolerate alcohol takes a bit of distraction to get past the taste and the uneasy feeling that you should not be engaging in this activity as a freshman. You don’t see thirty-somethings playing drinking games. There is a reason for that.

My third piece of advice is to drink in a same sex group: drink with the girls, and only with the girls: they will never rape you.

You have no idea how many girls get raped in college. Neither do I, actually, but it is way more than is ever reported.

Boys like to have sex; they want to have sex with younger girls because those freshman girls are more easily coerced. Freshman girls are frequently easily manipulated to do what boys want to do the girls are drunk.

There are ten thousand college freshman girls raped every school year to every college senior girl who gets raped.

Where did I get my statistics?

Nowhere; I just made that up. I’m not too far off, and the exact numbers are not germane to this argument when it is my cherished friend and student who might have to go through the rest of her life as a rape survivor.

If you want to drink with a guy, take your boyfriend to college with you; at least he won’t rape you when you are drunk. No other guy you’ve known for less than six months can guarantee that they won’t rape you when you are drunk.

Where do I get my authority on abstinence?

Does F. Scott Fitzgerald sound like the voice of authority when he wrote: “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes you”? He spent the last third of his life writing to earn enough money to keep his dearest love, Zelda in an asylum. (Zelda invented the verb “to party” by the way.) Fitzgerald’s goal was to get Zelda out of the asylum and back into his life, but neither of them could stop drinking long enough to make that happen. It makes for a good romantic story if that is how you want your life to read.

Incidentally, F. Scott was smarter, better looking, and a better writer than you are now, and look what happened to him.

Fitzgerald could have learned something from me: “Nobody ever starts drinking with the intention of becoming an alcoholic.”

My dear student, if you never start drinking, then it follows that you will never become an alcoholic. That is logical. Logic is great, but it can’t hold a candle to the maelstrom of emotions that will drive you to drink in college. Logic is a pitifully weak ally against the pressure to drink in college, but it is all you have got.

But what’s the fun in going through college without drinking?

I’ll offer my life experience:

I have lived a riotously fun life, an extraordinarily fun life for the last sixty-five years. I have another thirty years of fun ahead of me. I did not drink in high school, or in college. I am sure that I have drunk less than one thousand bottles of beer…in my life.

In closing, you and I are not close to each other yet; we can barely even consider each other true friends. So what’s my personal interest in you?

You are unique in the world. There is nothing that you cannot do if you set your mind to it. Steve Jobs said that he wanted to “put a ding in the Universe.” You are smart enough, magical enough, and have enough of the right karma to put a freaking dent in the Universe if you have a mind to do so. It would be an unforgivable shame, a crime against everything that is good and right in this world, if your energies were diverted by alcoholism, or rape, or dropping out of college before you had a chance to see your true destiny just beyond the horizon of a college education. Trust me on my perception of your uniqueness; I am always right when I identify extraordinary students like you: students who will go out into this world and change it for the better.

Okay.

Closing for the second time: Your mother, or even your goofy father would never ask you to do anything illegal, immoral, or self-destructive with your body, or your life. Be the guardian of your body, the defender of your life, and the advocate of your destiny, by never doing anything illegal, immoral, or self-destructive to the wonderful person who may one day call me her close friend and valued advisor. “______________ and Jeff Parsons are friends.” Such a sweet sentence.

If you read my blog post titled “Using Math and Modeling to Defeat Alcoholism,”  I quote my daughter Samantha asking me why I would ever drink again when she reaches 21.

What she really was asking is, “Why would anyone ever drink?”

 

Dear reader, I would be happy to hear your comments on this essay!

 

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Rereading The Liar’s Club for the First Time

Last December 2015, I was walking with a friend for the first time in five years. We were walking and talking about writing: writing memoirs in particular. My friend thought she might have a few books in her waiting to get into publication. She was thinking of writing a memoir and was sounding me to find out if I could tell her anything valuable from a literature teacher’s point of view. I’m sure I didn’t.

She asked me if I had ever read Mary Karr’s book The Liar’s Club. I said I had read it. I remembered that I had listened to Mary Karr talk on NPR about her book in 2010, when she re-issued it. I bought the book, didn’t find the immediate enthusiasm to start it and shelved it for a while. One day, again on NPR, I listened to Stephen King profess has admiration for Mary Karr and for her book The Liar’s Club. I dusted off my copy and started to read it due to King’s enthusiasm for Karr and the book. I remember not being too fond of the idea of a Liar’s Club, and I must have dismissed it after a few pages because there is no way I could have read that book then, or now, without simply falling in love with the language, Mary Karr’s style, and her voice. The book is all about voice and that voice speaks to a broad audience.

I could not have read more than three pages. If I didn’t like the book, and didn’t think much of Mary Karr, then I could not have read it. Maybe my problem was that it  was set in Texas…who knows?  Bald fact: I didn’t read the book. Mea culpa.

My response to my friend was that I had indeed read the book a long time ago and that I didn’t think much of it, or much of Mary Karr as a writer. A dark shadow crossed this woman’s face. She was thinking deeply to herself, “This guy’s an idiot.” Her formally good opinion of my literary opinion stock dropped through the floor. I can’t be sure what her exact thought was coursing through her mind, but if I had to guess, it probably went something like this: “You are a pompous, arrogant dumbass, who doesn’t know good writing when you read it.” Or something to that effect. People don’t think highly of ridiculous criticism of obvious good writing, especially writing they personally enjoy. Fact. Been there.

Last week, after I had to cancel what would have been a third walk in five years, and first in three months, I decided to reread The Liar’s Club in order to find out why this book is adored by so many readers, and by my friend.

People read books for a number of good reasons. Some people like the action in a book, others are happy to read a simple narrative; still others like to read a particular genre, or read about an interesting topic; I am happy to read books others find interesting. I will always find a book engrossing, if the language talks to me with interesting metaphors, images, rhythm, tone and sentencing (variation of sentence lengths); I am a hopelessly attracted to novels that read more like poetry, and novels where I can’t distinguish between whether, or not the language has been deliberately chosen and polished, or if the author is just that damn amazing of an artist, and writes beautiful language effortlessly and naturally.

Mary Karr’s particular genius is that she understands that the sense of smell is intimately related to memory. If you are writing a memoir, it makes great sense to use the smells that evoke memories liberally. She is a master of placing an evocative image of a particular smell to introduce her recollection of a place, or event. The entire novel derives its sense of place through her numerous appeals to our sense of smell.

Mary Karr had me from her first image when she connects the sense of smell to her memory of the nutty smell of coffee and the background smell of her hometown: “Somebody had made a pot of coffee that laid a nutty smell over the faint chemical stink from the gasoline fire in the back yard. Every one tries to conjure up the sense of smell to fill out their narrative by using the smell of bacon, or coffee, and then abandons the sense of smell as a tool to evoke a minor image. Karr uses coffee, cigar smoke, Salem cigarette smoke, and then moves on to much more masterful smell images throughout the book. She repeats the coffee image: She remembers picking up her dad at work: “He brought into the cab the odors of stale coffee and of the cleaning solvent he used to get the oil off his hands.” Later in the book, when Pokey reunites with her dad, she uses “He’d been drinking black coffee during his shift, the coffee that pored like tar from the foreman’s beat-up percolator. That coffee brought my whole former Daddy back. I knew the solvent he used to strip grease from his hands and the Lava soap applied with a fingernail brush. (She moves to a tactile image: “His chin bristles scraped my neck.”) then she shifts back to smell to complete the child and father reunion: “And he must have been sweating from damp or work or worry, for the Tennessee whiskey he’d stood on the tarmac sipping was like the fresh-cut oak coming off him.” It bears repeating: Karr’s genius is her use of smell images to build her memoir because memories are richly remembered around specific smells. Karr makes fun of frozen fart smell which appear as her Dad, Pete, tells a story of “about a dozen of these round fuzzy things rolled our his pant leg. Big as your thumb, and white.” Pete continues the story: “And you ain’t going to guess what happens when they thaw. They pop like firecrackers and let off the biggest stink you ever smelled…” “They was farts?” Daddy slaps the laughs at sucking in his audience. And thus, we are introduced to the humor of the Liar’s Club and Pete’s storytelling through the sense of smell.

Another favorite of mine that takes me right in the car with Karr: “The too-sweet smell of Grandma’s hyacinth perfume hung in the car till Mother lit a Salem.” I know that perfume and I know the smell of Salem (menthol) cigarettes and that sentence takes me back to my mother’s smoking when I rode in the car with her as a youngster, about the same age as Karr is at this point in her narrative.

Karr gains memory-evoking strength just a few sentences later on the page when she remembers: “The sheer stink of my hometown woke me before dawn. The oil refineries and chemical plants gave the whole place a rotten-egg smell.” A positive memory: “The right wind could bring you a whiff of the Gulf, but that was rare.”

That smell leads, a couple of pages later, to this revelation about her hometown: “I later learned that Leechfield at that time was the manufacturing site for Agent Orange, Which surprised me not one bit.” She is remembering arriving in her hometown after an all-night car ride: “That morning, when I woke up lying under the back slant of the windshield, the world smelled not unlike a wicked fart in a close room.”

Another example of Karr’s narrative genius is how she parallels the novel To Kill a Mockingbird without even reaching from her own life to do so. Karr is the Scout Finch of Leechfield, Texas. Both Mary Karr and Jean Louise Finch have nicknames: Pokey and Scout. Both tell the backstory of their hometown while writing about how much they adore their fathers. Scout is no slouch at setting people straight, and neither is Pokey. They both speak in the vernacular, both write in a highly literate narrative form that somehow reaches out and includes the speech sounds and rhythmic cadences of the South. Karr doesn’t appear to deliberately make the connections between the two novels, but there are clear connections in her story. Harper Lee has a unique voice that draws the reader in by telling the story with a child persona: Scout. Karr steps back into her childhood and tells her story as her younger self, modeling her seven year old voice when she asks questions of her sister and parents and then shifting subtly to an adult voice to carry the narration.

Karr lends credibility to her memoir by questioning her remembrance of certain events as though she might not be remembering them as accurately as she lived the events as a child. Both Karr and Lee echo the idea that we don’t remember events as they were, but as we were.

Another comparison to TKM I noticed was Pokey’s comment about running away from home: “What I didn’t know until I finally did leave home at fifteen was that, if I had lit our, nobody would organize any posse to sniff me down.”

Dill observes to Scout that maybe Boo didn’t run away because he had no place to run to. Dill was also the product of a mother who remarried and chose to focus more on herself and her new husband than on her child. You can see that parallel in Pokey’s mom when she divorces Pokey’s dad and remarries destroying the family bond. The children are allowed to choose which parent the wish to live with. To me, this shows the indifference of Pokey’s mom to her children. To her credit, Pokey’s mom later reunites the family.

Does everyone in the South drink to excess? Wow! There are the big drinkers: Aunt Rachel and Bob Ewell in TKM. In The Liar’s Club, everyone is a drunk. They probably don’t problem drink any more in the South than in the North, but drinking is definitely a favorite past time that has detrimental effects on both communities. The Liar’s Club makes glad I live boring, non-drinking life, that no one would actually write about.

I noticed that in Karr’s alcoholic family, each sister was willing, at any time to walk away from the other. I think this is the mark of an alcohol-affected family. For example Pokey says of her loyalty to her sister: “I wished Lecia no particular harm, but if there was only one banana left in the bowl, I would not hesitate to grab it and leave her to do without.” On the other hand, when Lecia, Pokey, and her dad were together, Pokey said, “We were just like the three curved boards for the hull bottom of some boat that only needed gluing and caulking together.

If you are still with me, you might like to think about Karr’s use of pacing to add texture to the story. Throughout the narrative, she leads us down a narrative trail, story by story, stopping and digressing occasionally to illuminate a important connection to the narrative.

The rape story demands a under current of pacing to reinforce how craftily Pokey was cut out of the herd and raped by an older boy. She mentions him. She describes him as evil. She tells how he grooms her. Then she describes the rape as it happens. It all seems to build up gradually, to demonstrate how this evil boy planned the rape. Pokey is left without any recourse to address her rape. She concludes her story by describing him walking off to the ball game, he never rushes; he is confident that he is in complete control of Pokey and Pokey’s will, and he is confident that he will never be found out. The pacing of the story reflects his confidence: slow and deliberate.

A particularly touching dramatic story Karr relates is how Lecia, Pete, and Mary enjoy a cookout in Colorado. Mary remembers it as a Halcyon moment before the family’s tight bond is obliviated by their mother’s selfishness the next day. Mary experiences the best day of her life the day before she faces her worst day.

If I filmed this book, I would choose Adele’s “Hello” as the theme song for the for The Liar’s Club. The book has an most plaintive vibe to it. One can hardly imagine a little girl growing up in such a dysfunctional family and still turning out as close to normal as most of the rest of us are (if we all were truthful about our families).

I have a special . If I really like a book I have read, I rate it by how many copies I buy on Amazon and then send to my reading buddies, or give to my friends. So far, I have given away fifty copies of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, forty copies of Gilbert’s, Eat Pray Love, twenty-five copies of Caroline Knapp’s, Drinking: A Love Story, twenty-five, or thirty copies of Ted Kerosote’s, Merle’s Door. I was so taken with Elizabeth Smart’s Story, that I bought fifty copies of a very expensive hardback to loan to my students. Each book was read over twenty times over a two-year period. That was money well-spend. If I thought I had fifty friends that would actually read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, I would order fifty copies just to start. Sadly, I don’t think I am going to find that level of enthusiasm unless a bunch of folks read this blog and tell me how excited they are about the book.

Thank you, my friend for embarrassing me into reading The Liar’s Club. As with everything else in our relationship, you are right and I am wrong. The abyss will never be bridged except with great book recommendations. I’ll miss those in the future.

This interview and video might pique your interest in reading The Liar’s Club:

http://www.raintaxi.com/feeling-making-machine-an-interview-with-mary-karr/

https://www.facebook.com/MaryKarrLit/videos/945703705138/