Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Anger About the Ambiance of Alcohol

So I wrote about drugs before, but if I’m going to be honest, that’s not everything. That’s the intellectual analysis, certainly, but as it pertains to my life, alcohol and drugs (pretty much just pot) manifest themselves in a very specific way, one that I don’t want to have anything to do with.

People drink for all sorts of reasons. Given how many times I’ve had this particular conversation, I think I have a good idea of what the major ones are. As far as I can tell, it is: it tastes good, it’s a social lubricant, it’s what college kids/20-somethings/high school students/whatever broad community someone considers themselves a part of does, to get drunk, to relax, to forget, to not be sad.

And I think these are almost all terrible reasons. Drinking because you like the taste is fine, within moderation. I happen to hate the taste of alcohol, so that’s one reason for me. Doing something because your community expects you too is stupid unless there’s something fun or meaningful or important about it that underlies the social pressure, and to me, that’s all pretty obvious. Getting drunk is dangerous, painful and unhealthy.

Every other reason has something to do with emotion and comfort, with yourself or in a social situation. If you are trying to make something in your life go better, that’s great. Bettering yourself is almost always a worthwhile endeavor. The problem is that none of those problems are caused by lack of alcohol. They’re caused by something entirely different, and if you never bother to find out what those underlying causes are, your betterment will be artificial, short-lived and you’ll be missing out on a chance to understand yourself better. If you’re unhappy or socially awkward, those are things about your life you should acknowledge and do something about in a healthy and positive way. Alcohol seems like a pretty poor choice for that kind of thing. Again, I’m taking a consequentialism tack, here. A drink that calms you down, to extend the analogy, a hit off a bong - probably not awful things. Not something I want to partake in, but fine. But this is a general habit that people have of not understanding the causes of their problems, and that’s not the kind of person I want to be.

Finally, and possibly most relevantly, there’s a culture that alcohol creates. It’s a culture in which anything goes, in which you can be your stupidest, worst self and have a bullet-proof excuse for doing so. It’s a way to do all the things you’re ashamed of, be the person you wish you were (or weren’t) without shame or guilt. I guess to some people, that sounds fantastic, but I’m not ashamed of myself, and the parts of myself I don’t like are not shoved down into the depths of my consciousness only to be lured out by the presence of ethanol. If there’s a way I want or need to become a better person, I will work at it, day in and day out, until I’ve achieved it. Alcohol is an easy way out. People always tell me it lowers inhibitions. And if I happen to like my inhibitions? What then?

That’s just the personal part, too. In general, parties are, how shall I say, gross. Drunk/high people are often clumsy and irritating. They revel in the profundity of a conversation that would feel stupid to have sober. They almost never want to talk about anything important or interesting or novel in a sophisticated, meaningful way. There are certainly enjoyable aspects, but when everyone I know comes back saying how disgusting it was, I really want to know why they go back. The parties I’ve most liked are those in which I got to be…exactly who I always am. I got to talk to interesting people, have fantastic conversations, be loud and personable, dance and frolic, meet and hug. I do those things all the time, and I’m proud of who I am. Other people, on the other hand, do things they don’t appreciate or respect. They do things they wouldn’t normally do. If alcohol pushes you to do things you lose respect for yourself for, you need to change your priorities or your drinking habits. If it makes you have more respect for yourself, why don’t you bring that into the rest of your life?

And then there’s this arrogance. I’ll never know what it’s like and how amazing it is if I don’t try it. I’m uptight. More like, I have enough respect for myself to not want to do things I would disapprove of, and enough respect to cull all the best parts of some experience into the life I lead every day. This is a statement for me, a life-affirming idea that my life can be something I never want to escape from. I stumble home drunk, collapsing with laughter and exhaustion after a well-lived day. I dance on tables, jamming to great music and kinesthetically expressing myself with friends. I stay up too late having great conversations. I look up at the sky wondering what the meaning of life is. I meditate calmly. And I never wake up with a hangover and dozens of pictures to un-tag.


Also, this is a good read: click

A Thoughtful Analysis of Drugs: A Tee-Totaler's Perspective

I’ve been thinking about drugs lately. It almost seems ridiculous to think so much about them, given that I don’t do them and don’t really want to, but it’s important to me to think about what kind of person I am and why.

If I choose a certain life path, avenue or even just set of activities, I want to know why, and whether that’s an end in itself or a manifestation of something else. It helps me understand myself better and also the way in which I might or should interact with other people. I know plenty of people who take a live and let live tack, but that’s never made much sense to me. If there’s something that you think is immoral or stupid or ridiculous or, on the other hand, important or true or significant, then other people living their lives differently might rightfully prompt you to have certain opinions about them. If, however, the differences are only varied ways of approaching a universal goal of some kind, that’s entirely different, and the distinction is important. I mean, life is a series of normative claims anyway, about how you think life ought to be lived. What is universal, what is objective and what circumstantial, subjective or coincidental is up to each of us to figure out. The point remains that there seems little point in have a coherent, intelligent, logically consistent worldview if you don’t apply it to the world.

The conflict is as follows: I don’t drink or do drugs, I have no intention of doing either, and I don’t think that it’s a particularly good idea. Yet, I know the history of drugs and enhanced consciousness, pain relief, art and various other aspects of human existence, so I would feel inconsistent Puritanically dismissing all of it.

Sometimes, when I’ve been thinking about something deeply for a long time, I encounter a common saying or a basic analysis that explains almost everything I was confused about. This, of course, makes me feel rather unintelligent, but I’m willing to accept that in the search for understanding.

In this case, it was a random AlterNet article about Paris Hilton that only partially talked about drugs. Nonetheless, there was a particular sentence that stood out to me. “Paris Hilton wants to use drugs, either to get in touch with reality or to escape from it.” It might very well be that obvious, and it completely failed to occur to me, probably because I’ve had a very particular type of experience with drugs and alcohol (alcohol is a drug; why don’t people realize this?), and the dialectic didn’t make any sense. But obviously, what I have a problem with is not drugs themselves, it’s their consequences. What they do to people, what people do with them. And if they were used for something else, maybe I wouldn’t mind so much.

So, here’s the deal. I value thoughtfulness, intelligence and engagement with the world. Using them to disengage, to forget, to not have to think deeply about yourself, is evidence that you don’t think those values are always worth upholding. In which case, we disagree, and I will form opinions based on that fact, because those are deeply important to me.

If not, great. I know, as I said, about all of the incredible artists, writers, poets and musicians who were able to engage reality in new and fantastic ways. I know about the scientists who were able to use drugs (on themselves and others) in order to understand the human brain, consciousness and perception better. I know about the political statement that taking some drugs makes, and how important that can be. I know the good it can do people, and I respect all that. Michael Pollan says something great about this:

“Obviously, 99.9 percent of the time, drug experiences are not making any contribution to culture whatsoever, and they're usually a complete waste of time and can also lead to all sorts of problems. So I liken them to mutations: you put out enough novelty in the world in the form of insider experience, and some of it is bound to be really productive, in the same way that if you put enough mutations into a gene or an organism, some of them are going to produce incredible advances.”

That kind of rigor and thoughtfulness, I really respect, and I share his opinions. I don’t think that drugs can do any of that for me, so I don’t do them. But I hear about people being productive and intelligent and thoughtful with their drug use, not letting it consume but rather enhance their life, and I can give my support.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Date of Manufacture: 26.10.1992

The next post or two is going to be a one-sided conversation. All of blogging is a one-sided conversation, to some extent, but I want to take the opportunity of having an outlet on the internet to explain in full and excruciating detail some aspects of my life that people seem at once entirely engrossed in, begging to understand, and at the same time only asking because it’s a passing curiosity, not something they want to hear me pontificate on for minutes at a time. Next time, instead of sitting down to have these conversations for the 1293th time, I’ll just refer people to my blog.

So, part 1: My age.

I am, at the time of this writing, 17 years old. I was born on October 26, 1992, a Monday, in the Salt Lake City Holy Cross Hospital. It’s not a particularly interesting date, except that apparently Even James Ussher, the famous 17th century Irish archbishop who decided that the world was created in 4004 BC stated that while the world had begun on October 23, the Antichrist was born three days later. I’m actually rather proud of that kind of heritage, but other than that, the day is only important to me because of the way I track time with the sun and earth and moon and all that.

I lived a somewhat normal life for several years, growing up on Miami Beach, learning to swim at a very early age and falling in love with a Books and Books on Lincoln Road. When I was 4, I was placed into kindergarten. I don’t think my parents had their eyes set on a precocious future for me. They’re psychologists who study child development, especially learning and cognitive development. They know all of the studies that have demonstrated that slightly older children tend to do better and be overall more successful. I’ve never asked them, but I speculate that they felt, given that I could (and did, avidly and eagerly) read, that I was ready to enter formalized schooling.

The school wasn’t even all that formal; I went to Fairglade Elementary School, a gem in Southern Miami that is, unfortunately, no longer in existence. Its ideals were letting kids learn at their own pace, making sure they got outside, roughed around, played on the swings and learn in interesting and varied ways. I recall, for example, being given a math textbook for a grade higher than my own and learning long division in the grass outside. There was also an area with many trees and sticks and brush and bramble called “The Woods” which we just adored playing in.

But I digress. The point is, this school didn’t care that I was a little young. They took me right in. Then, at some point, I was in the kindergarten room, and I was asked by the teacher to go into the first grade room, where they were learning (and I may never forget this) about the layers of the earth using eggs. There was a chant, which was “Inner core, outer core, mantle, crust” which one said rhythmically and with glee. I began a motley schedule, taking some classes here and some there. I remember the next year, I took some classes with the first grade, some with the second, and naps with the kindergarten class.

I believe the reasoning of the school was that I was intellectually ready. One of my favorite teachers, Ms. Stacey, told me the story later that she had once encountered my four-year old self in the Quiet Room reading a Dr. Seuss book. Surprised, she asked me to read it to her. Once I did, she suspected that I’d memorized it, so she grabbed another book and asked me to read that one, too. As I recall, she was fairly impressed.

I never found out why my parents agreed to it, except that they probably were told by the school that it was in my best interest, and to be honest it probably was. I don’t recall elementary school being all that difficult. I wasn’t particularly mature, and was emotionally somewhat unstable, crying a fair bit. Then again, I was between four and eight.

It was middle school that was really difficult. I went to a small school, with all of thirty kids in my grade. I had told a girl named Grace Heisenbottle that I was nine years old the first day of class, because it hadn’t occurred to me that I shouldn’t. I had enough sense to ask her not to tell. As far as I can tell, she didn’t hate me until I started doing better than her in all of our classes (she had been the top of the class in the elementary school adjoining the middle school). At that point, she told some girl named Alex D. (we had so many Alex’s, they were differentiated by their last initials), and together they told everyone and allied the grade against me. I recall having all of two friends through 6th grade and 8th, with a blip of social success with some incoming students during seventh (who subsequently joined the popular crew the next year). I was fairly miserable for large portions of the time, but that definitely had less to do with my age than with my inability to comprehend why people would expend conscious and considerable effort making me unhappy.

Moving right along, high school was fine. I had a enough friends, and people didn’t really seem to care, except for a few bad apples (also known as a fourth of the male portion of my grade). They made fun of me, but by that time, I had accumulated a measurable amount of self-confidence, and I put it very much to use, making sure that they could hate me all they wanted, but I would always be an ambitious, intelligent, successful, quirky young girl I could be proud of. Looking back, of course, I realize that those qualities didn’t perhaps make me the most approachable of people, but I didn’t much care. I wouldn’t have traded that independent spirit for all the friends in the world.

I really didn’t understand why people disliked me so much. I hated being called annoying in middle school. It was such an easy way to dismiss the whole of who someone was, which felt absolutely awful. In all fairness, though, as someone who came from an unconventional primary schooling and was young, I probably was. Adults always told me that everyone else was jealous. As a child of low self-esteem, I couldn’t understand why anyone could possibly be jealous of me. It seemed the height of absurdity, not to mention arrogance, to think that I was ostracized because of something good about myself. Even as my self-assuredness grew, it was never really something I got my head around. But it continued nonetheless.

So, after a high school experience that was adequate, but left much to be desired, that gave me the notion of people who would love me for who I was but without fully fulfilling on the promise, I got to the University of Chicago. And I made a decision. I wasn’t going to tell a soul how old I was. I value truth, clarity, transparency and honesty, but not at the cost of my emotional well-being, especially as the knowledge wasn't exceptionally important to anyone but myself. I realized, of course, that anyone who cared wasn’t someone I would want to be friends with, but the first weeks in a new state, school and life stage aren’t exactly the time to be going through the torture of applying a litmus test to the population.

Anyway, it worked. No one knew, no one treated me differently. I made a name for myself as a loud, opinionated, argumentative, intelligent student who could hold her own or better with anyone, cared a great deal about the world, politics and deep thinking. When the news came out and got around, it was gradually, slowly, without any of the excitement of gossip. I could play nonchalant, showing by example that if it didn’t matter to me, it shouldn’t matter to anyone else, and that I would accept no change in attitude towards me. Of course, people hated me anyway. But now I knew; they couldn’t handle me, regardless of my date of manufacture. Admittedly, it’s difficult to have someone who’s present and takes up space and wants to talk about interesting, complicated things all. The. Time. And who just never lets up and who, by the way, is an easy target because she’s two years younger than you. But I finally understood that that really wasn’t my problem. Eventually, it became old news, something to joke about in lightness and jest, and something I could finally be completely proud of, without the tinge of social and emotional stress.

So the next year, I did it again. The age I am has affected my life in many ways, has given me a different perspective and vantage point. In that way, it is and will always be a part of me. But of the things people could know about me, it is one of least important and least interesting parts of me. So I decided if it was that irrelevant, I wouldn’t let people judge me for it. I expect a certain amount of respect from my peers, whether they like me or not, and if this was they way I was going to ensure the life that I wanted, then I was damn well going to do it. At this point, most people know, but again, it’s not important, it just happens to be the case. By the way, my birthday’s coming up.

And that is the story of my age, what it means to me and why I don’t tell people even though I am totally and completely proud of it.

I think I’m awesome, and I will never apologize for my birth certificate.