Archive for April, 2013

America’s history of booze and bars.

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Click here to listen to podcast of this blog article.

(04/20/13)

The story of mankind as a social creature includes a long history of alcohol and public meeting places to drink alcohol. As far back as the 5th century B.C., the Greeks and Romans built Taberna Deversoria (Taverns along roads for travelers) and Taberna Meritoria (Taverns for locals). These weren’t exclusively dedicated to serving wine and alcohol to patrons, they were the world’s first shopping centers, but a central feature was the drinking area where people could congregate.

The United States of America also has a long (and often dark) history of alcohol and bars. Settlers were arriving from Europe, where clean, safe drinking water wasn’t readily available. Fermentation and distilling was a way to assure that a fluid wouldn’t kill you. Along with hydration, these fluids also offered a minimal amount of nutrients, so the intent wasn’t strictly to catch a buzz. Wine, beer and hard ciders was what people drank, even for breakfast.

When North America was being settled (invaded?) the first point of business by settlers was to build a Tavern. Taverns were used as courtrooms, for religious gatherings, town meeting centers, as post office, library, etc. Over the years the Taverns have been called many things: Ale house, pub, ordinaries, grog shop, Inns, Taprooms, Beer gardens, Saloons. The bar has always been a place where people could congregate and discuss any topic freely. (For purposes of this article I will use the term: Bar.)

The American Revolution was hatched, developed and centered out of bars—so you could say that our country was born in a bar. Many new ideas and movements have developed while people sat in bars, some good and some bad. The assassination of Lincoln was planned in a bar, corrupt political wrangling and business deals have been discussed, started and executed through bars. Racism, sexism, political corruption, violence, revolt, homophobia, segregationist rhetoric, vigilantism and all sorts of hate have been spawned in bars.

On the positive side, many movements have been started and organized through bars. It was mainly the “right to associate” which bars allow for and people could congregate and discuss their concerns. This sparked the development of unions, worker’s rights, women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights and more. It is “the right to associate” which is key to human freedom. Bars have been the social gathering place for many citizens who wanted to maintain their (or their group’s) anonymity before going public with their movement. Bars were America’s first (and virtually the only outlet) for freedom of speech. It’s funny that bar patrons would decry, “America should be fair and free to all people,” except for the unsavory sorts that the bar patron didn’t like.

For me it’s a bit shocking and painful to read about certain aspects of our country’s past. The history of America is far more violent, corrupt, limiting and racist than many of us may realize, and a lot of it stemmed out of bars. Bars and patrons in one area of town might be violently attacked by patrons of a different bar. Many Black, Irish, German, Jewish, Slavic, (virtually any ethnicity), gay and lesbian bars were constantly being raided unless the owner paid the necessary bribes to politicians and law enforcement. Then those “protected” bars would be strong-armed to have the patrons vote for the politician giving them the protection. You think our politicians are crooked now, this strong-arm corruption by law enforcement and politicians in bars had been going on for a couple hundred years.

Live music was rarely allowed in bars and if it was allowed, there was a limit on how many musicians could play at one time (3 was the limit to perform). The saxophone was banned because it was “too racy, associated with drugs and loose sexual mores.” This of course was intended to control the “animalism” of black patrons and their influence on the general populace with their devil “spasm” music, which would eventually become known as jazz and ragtime. (I wish to remind you that these are NOT my opinions but simply the recounting of history.) Laws and ordinances were not enforced equally.  An ethnic barkeep had to pay the bribes or be raided and shut down, whereas the elite “whites” didn’t have this problem. Most of their places were left alone because as officials said, “They were respectable and knew how to drink.” A good example of respectable, responsible and knowing how to drink would be Ted Kennedy?

Bars were the “safe” meeting place—most of the time—until they became villainized by puritans and anti-drinking proponents. Prohibition is often called, “The failed noble experiment.” Corruption, loss of tax revenue and the infringement of an individual’s rights brought the repeal of prohibition. When someone else determines who can meet whom, where you can meet, what you can talk about and what you can imbibe with, that infringes on your deep desire to make your own decisions. Tell a person that they can’t do something and chances are good they’ll want to do it even more. People want the freedom to associate and make their own decisions.

I find it interesting that by making something legal, this allows for it (the product) to be controlled better, without controlling a person’s rights. Alcohol for instance. Laws are established for when and where it can be sold. Bars have limited hours of operation. Penalties can be imposed upon those who drive while under the influence or have open containers in their vehicle. Age limits for legal use are imposed and easier to enforce. The % of alcohol content in a given product can be limited, enforced and regulated. The government receives taxes on multiple levels of production, distribution and sales of the product. The failed noble experiment showed that alcohol itself is not the villain, the misuse, overuse and inappropriate use of alcohol is the villain.

Alcohol and bars have been a major part of our heritage, politics, economy and our right to freely associate. But this is a double-edged sword. Corruption, illegal activities and many broken lives have come as a result. There have been ridiculous regulations on who can enter a bar, how many musicians or what type of music is allowed to be played in a bar. We might laugh at these things now, because most of us can walk into any bar or club, listen to music, mingle and determine for ourselves if we feel comfortable or safe and want to stay there. We have a lot of freedoms today as a result of people congregating, associating and freely discussing ideas in bars. The root of our “right to associate” stems from the bar. I feel that our current society is much more open and better as a result of bars. But there is a new movement even more powerful than congregating in bars, and that is our current technological and information sharing revolution.

With all that said, what do we non-drinkers do if we don’t want to hang out in bars? (And if we’re non-drinkers why would we go hang out in a bar anyway?) Regardless of whether you’re in a marriage, partnership, relationship, have children or are single, most of us want a break from the routine and we would like to go meet with new people or meet with those from our community that we might not normally meet in the work or home environment. Where do we go? Where do we meet to socialize and discuss new ideas?

The coffee shop (Starbucks), libraries and bookstores are public places, but it’s not the same as a bar. Free spirited women don’t jump up on a table and lift their shirts and flash everyone. People are much quieter and reserved in these places, they tend mingle less. Many are there to work, read or relax; they’re not necessarily there to socialize with strangers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go there to socialize and meet new people. Just be aware that it’s a much more restrained atmosphere. After you’ve been there a few times you may recognize some faces. Take a risk and introduce yourself. You can always offer to buy someone a cup of coffee or tea; it’s no different than offering to buy someone a drink in a bar.

Many other people feel that AA meetings or religious gatherings are their new social hangout. But at these gatherings, the people in attendance are explicit in their purpose for being there and the topic of conversation is limited to the parameters set forth by the organization. (At least that’s the way it is at “official” meetings.) Social gatherings hosted by these organizations allow for intermingling and free discussions among the attendees, but any subject contrarian to the group’s tenets could be considered as sedition against the organization. Free speech and free thought are not always welcome. Regardless, those venues may serve your interests and purposes for socializing just fine. Who am I to say what’s best for you?

I believe that technology—namely the internet with websites, blogs, chat rooms and social media—is rapidly becoming a viable social outlet. Keep in mind that a lot of websites have precise guidelines as to what can be discussed, allowable language, etc. Many have overzealous moderators who edit or ban comments. If you don’t like a website, its subject matter or guidelines, then don’t visit it, there are plenty of alternatives out there.

Don’t overlook the power of the internet when you’re searching for groups, clubs and associations that are in line with your interests or hobbies. If there isn’t a local chapter or group for your interests, maybe YOU will be the person to start one? You can also start your own website, blog or chat room, inviting others to be part of YOUR movement.

The internet is a distinctly different way of meeting and communicating with people and we need to use the internet in a different way than face-to-face meetings. Literacy skills are a must to establish credibility. Facts, data and claims can be easily checked on. Words and ideas can be misinterpreted. The internet is a wonderful exchange medium, but there’s still nothing much better than face-to-face communication and the freedom to gather and associate—and it doesn’t always have to be in a bar.

Let’s use social media as a launch pad for movements and to invite people to gather at public rendezvous places. I believe that we are smart enough to evolve our social “freedom to associate” skills in healthy and civil ways. Together let’s figure out new ways and new methods to mingle, freely associate and share ideas, without having to resort to meeting in a bar. Let’ start our own revolution.

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If you want to do some research or reading of your own about alcohol and bars in the history of America, may I suggest:

America Walks into a Bar / By: Christine Sismondo

Last Call / By: Daniel Okrent

The Spirits of America / By: Eric Burns

Prohibition / A film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

Accepting the irrational and illogical:

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Click here to listen to audio version of this blog article.

(04/05/13)

My mind is a mess. I like to believe that I think rationally and logically, but my brain has a mind of its own and it usually plays tricks on my rational thinking through irrational and illogical emotions. But that’s o.k., that’s just part of being human. I’ve come to realize that I’m trying to function and survive in the 21st century with a brain that was designed to work best in 5,000 BC.

When we look at the neuroanatomy of the human brain, we find that we have all these various brain parts that help us protect ourselves from predatory animals, find food and promote raw reproduction of our species. (Parts like: amygdale, pons, hippocampus, cerebellum.) The brain was not originally designed to drive a car, use an iPhone, shop eBay, interact on Facebook, use online bill pay or do online trading. These are new concepts that our mammalian and human brain must learn about and adapt to. There are new types of pressures; technologies, societies and interactions of relationships that our brain hasn’t yet evolved to understand and handle. But that doesn’t mean we’re a lost cause.

As far back as Plato, many great thinkers believe that we have two different minds running inside of our brain—the unconscious and the conscious mind. There is so much that takes place within our unconscious mind which then drives our feelings, actions and behaviors that it can be scary—almost as if we really don’t know ourselves or why we do what we do and emotionally feel the way we feel. I like to tell myself that I use my conscious mind to rationally control my behavior (and often I do), but the information I observe from the world around me dictates the emotions I feel—which are rooted deeper in my unconscious mind—and those thoughts play on and effect my conscious thinking.

The purpose behind my ongoing study of neuroanatomy and psychology is to better understand all the crazy shit that was going on in my mind when I sobered up. I was experiencing thoughts, emotions and drives which I had never fully (or clearly) dealt with before. I would think, “Am I going insane? Where are these thoughts coming from? How come I don’t have answers to thoughts and emotions? Why do I feel a particular way now that I’m sober? Why do I no longer like this but now I’m attracted to that? How can I make the best out of this new experience of vivid and lucid thinking?” I knew that there were tangible answers and I didn’t want to just blindly swallow all of the popular traditional catchphrases that people use in recovery. That’s where an understanding of how certain parts of the brain function comes into play.

It would be nice to be able to rationally and logically interpret all the stimuli coming into our brain, but it doesn’t work that way. The two aspects of the mind (unconscious and conscious) do communicate, but not always seamlessly or the way we would like them to. It isn’t that we’re helplessly foolish and impulsive to our unconscious mind. But our unconscious mind plays a powerful role in decision making and decision making is a conscious executive thinking function. When we’re drunk or under the influence of a mind altering substance, these executive thinking functions don’t function very well. Examples would be having your pants fall off at the wrong time with the wrong person, crying for no apparent reason or getting into fights with people about stuff that you can’t even remember the next day why or what you fought about.

The unconscious mind is very powerful in influencing how we feel emotionally and physically. There are biochemical processes that take place naturally and automatically in the brain. This includes the release of endorphins, dopamine, vasopressin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, etc. When we’re drunk we just “impulsively” react to these biochemical changes. When we sober up, we may become confused as to what’s taking place within our mind. We haven’t dealt with these emotions through a clear mind. The lows feel lower and the highs aren’t as rewarding. It’s understandable why someone would relapse just to deal with the emotional confusion. I’m not endorsing relapse, I’m just saying that I understand why someone might.

Knowing all about the various parts of the brain, what chemicals they produce, what they do and how they interact with one another doesn’t automatically make you feel “happy.” But I do believe that it’s important to realize and accept that natural chemicals are released by the brain (and other organs), which affect our autonomic nervous system. This system affects blood pressure, pulse rate, breathing, arousal, anger and fear, which then affects our parasympathetic (unconscious) nervous system and our sympathetic (conscious) nervous system. This is all taking place involuntarily while we are trying to intentionally temper our emotions and control our outward behavior. When we’re drunk we don’t worry about all these connections and we just do whatever we do, but when we become sober all of these sensations are new and can feel overwhelming.

I invite you to do some studying of your own. Do a little research on some of these hormones and neurotransmitters listed here:

  • Oxytocin
  • Vasopressin
  • Norepinephrine
  • Epinephrine

(An interesting note here is that small amounts of alcohol increase the concentration of oxytocin in the blood, making some people horny and willing to boink anything. However, higher amounts of alcohol have the opposite result, leading to belligerence and violent outbursts, along with being too drunk to have sex.)

Here’s where I would like to pass along some ideas for feeling happier. Very simple actions can help your brain release “feel good” chemicals. While they won’t get you high, they can lift your mood and help you enjoy life a little more. Small, positive actions stimulate the feel good chemicals in your brain. When these actions become habit, they will come naturally and you’ll feel mildly better and more connected with people. Here are some real simple behaviors that will promote the release of feel good chemicals:

  • Smile at people more often.
  • Say, “Hello” when you pass along someone when walking.
  • Hold a door open for people. Allow others to go through a doorway before you.
  • Hold hands more often with your lover or children.
  • Hug longer; take a deep snort of your spouse’s hair or neck. Breathe in the aroma of your children.

Another thing is to take your time to think rationally when you can. Thinking rationally and logically are slow actions, they take concentration. But that’s why I’m asking you to practice simple behaviors. We’re amazed at the performance of certain athletes, musicians and leaders. We are in awe by fireman and pilots who save lives without thinking. They practice constantly and their unconscious mind handles the fast, hard tasks. They follow their unconscious cues when faced with dilemmas that demand split-second thinking and action. They practice so that they are unconsciously always ready.

Here’s my wrap-up on this: Remember that our brain has not kept up with social, cultural and technological evolution. Even for those who don’t accept human evolution, just think about the social, cultural and technological changes that have taken place over the past 100 years. If you’re over 30, look at the huge cultural and technological changes that have taken place during your own lifetime. The Bible speaks of how to treat one another fairly as human beings, but I haven’t seen where it explains or foretells the coming of social media, the iPad and how to use it. Evolution (or natural selection if you prefer), favors the fittest, and the fittest are not those who are violent, strong or cruel—the fittest are those who have learned to engage in cooperative and collaborative social environments. Having a closed mind, an unpleasant disposition or an uncaring attitude leads to isolation, insulation, sometimes loneliness and often a shortened life of the perpetrator.

Our brains are capable of rational thinking and executive decisions, but these are a slower process, while most of our brain parts are still designed for basic life maintenance, which is a faster and reactive process. So try to go easy and go pleasantly. Consciously do things to promote the unconscious release of natural feel good chemicals within your body. This means to go easy on yourself and others. You and others may be acting and reacting to primal emotions and unconscious chemical releases which aren’t synchronized with our current, modern social environments. When I say, “Go easy” I’m not talking about blind altruism or complete forgiveness of transgressions. Don’t allow yourself to be used or taken advantage of, but be pleasant. Being pleasant helps you feel better and it extends your physical health.

When it comes to making the best out of your own sobriety, go easy on yourself and others. Let your sobriety and your thinking evolve. Let your mind evolve along with cultural, social and technological changes that are sure to come with sobriety. Let your body reward you with natural “feel good” chemicals by being calmer and a little friendlier. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll feel good (for reasons which you won’t cognitively know why), and you might make some new friends and really start to learn about yourself.

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