Old Heights

As I type this I am listening to the comforting sound of my fermentation tank bubbling away in the corner of the room. I skipped a few years at this hobby, primarily out of sensitivity to the feelings of particular people about the whole subject of alcohol use in general, but I’m over that again. Even so, given all of the complexities there are regarding questions of alcohol use and intoxication in general, I think the subject is worth deliberating on a bit here.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

It all goes back to my childhood. I was raised as a teetotaler in the sixties and seventies. Many if not most of my friends were regular drinkers and casual smokers of marijuana, but I always kept my distance from both habits as a matter of principle. There were a few aspects to this choice, all having to do with my rather religious up-bringing.  First of all this was before the term “pro-life” had been invented. If anyone had talked about being “pro-life” in those years it would have meant that they were anti-war and opposed to young men getting sent to kill and be killed in Viet Nam. Homosexuality, meanwhile, was seen mostly as a bad joke in Mel Brooks movies, not a major threat to family life. For lack of any other distinctively Christian political issue, opposition to alcohol use in any form was one of primary ways in which conservative Christians “stood up for what they believed” still the late sixties/early seventies. Billy Graham was seen by many as a too much of a compromiser; what was needed was preachers who had the same sort of fire as Billy Sunday: someone who dared to scream out against alcohol “for the demonic force that it is.” Good kids in our church didn’t question this.

Second, perhaps somewhat more relevantly, many of those I hung out with and was friends with in my early teens were former hippies, 5 -10 years older than me: “Jesus Freaks” by any measure you care to use to define such a phenomenon. Many of these guys had experimented with booze and drugs during the height of Timothy O’Leary’s popularity as a chemical recreation guru, enough to know that there was more harm than good to come from such things. A few still were rumored to sneak the occasional joint on the side, but they were pretty intensively ostracized from the rest of the group. Overall they found the absolutely sober lifestyle to just be more interesting and fulfilling, and I was quite ready to take their word on the subject. This perception was all the further reinforced by my observations of my peers “partying” when I got into my late teens and early twenties. I knew some chronic drunk drivers and some people with other fairly serious problems when it came to addictions and chemical escapism.

But besides all that, among those I knew whose drinking and other chemical hobbies seemed to be pretty well under control, I occasionally received the complement of sorts that “David’s the sort of guy that you can be standing around talking with him stoned drunk, and you can forget that he’s entirely sober.” Sitting around after the shop closed on Friday evening, the other guys who were not driving anywhere would sometimes have 3 or 4 beers while chatting about the events of the week before heading home, and I with my ice tea or fruit juice could be just as loose and animated and talkative as any of them, without needing anything to loosen me up. I really didn’t see the need. I never drank for the same reasons I have never, to this day, smoked tobacco or anything else: I knew the basic dangers and I just never felt like it was something I had to do.

My habits in this matter gradually changed as I got into the restaurant business. I was selling wine to go with fine food, and I thought it was important to know what the various sorts tasted like. I didn’t need the buzz, but I wasn’t afraid of the slight experience of it. It was my own variation on the Buddhist principle of detachment: being preoccupied with avoiding something can be as emotionally harmful as addiction to the vice in question.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

Since then I’ve adopted habits of very moderate social drinking, that I can easily live without for months or even years at a time, but which doesn’t bother me in terms of my conscience, my health or my lifestyle stability to have a glass or a pint every now and again. I’ve never had any serious worries about slipping down the slope into alcoholism. I can still count on my fingers the number of times in my life that I’ve been drunk enough for the hangover to cause me to throw up afterwards. If anything, for purposes of optimizing the health of my circulatory and digestive systems I don’t drink quite enough alcohol. Even so, of all the regrets I have from my teenage years and early twenties, spending them entirely sober isn’t one of them.

There are two activities for which I make a point of having no alcohol whatsoever in my system: teaching and driving. I’ve never even toyed with the idea of doing either under the influence. Even if this wasn’t a matter of strict regulation, I can’t imagine the risks involved in either being worthwhile. I have, I confess, done both at times under conditions of fairly extreme tiredness, where I knew my brain was functioning at a level equivalent to if I had had a few glasses of wine. I did not run into any crisis situations because of this, but I’ve learned to carefully avoid such risks regardless.

Overall alcohol is not a major factor in my life, but it is a significant matter, pro and con, for many people close to me. Some find a certain amount of alcohol particularly useful as a form of self-medication under certain circumstances, and as an aid to social interaction. Some have had bitter personal experiences of their own alcohol use, or that of someone close to them, getting seriously out of control. It can be noted that in all countries bordering on the Arctic Circle the risks of alcohol abuse run pretty high. Under those circumstances I’m entirely ready to go without alcohol if I’m with someone who, for personal reasons, has a problem with it.

For me this clearly corresponds with the New Testament debate over neat which was leftover from butchering that was done as part of pagan rituals (1 Corinthians 8). Paul’s basic perspective is that the gods which were worshiped in these rituals were nothing but figments of the worshipers’ imaginations, and that isn’t any reason not to eat the meat. But if there are those who have a serious crisis of conscience about it, there’s no point in trying to prove that you’re stronger and that you know more than they do. Just don’t harass them by doing what they’re bothered by in front of them.

At the University of Helsinki's botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

At the University of Helsinki’s botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

But these days this leads to the question, “If you’re cool with alcohol, is smoking pot also cool with you?” My short answer: I do not have enough experience on the matter to take an expert opinion either for or against. I’m prone to believe that significant self-medication is more common with marijuana than with alcohol, and that attempting to deal with stress and depression in this sort of a way has its own significant dangers no matter what chemical you use. I know more people who’ve done significant damage to themselves with alcohol than with marijuana, but I’ve seen enough to know that the latter isn’t as harmless as some of its missionaries would have us believe. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m certainly not in strong enough need of the experience to break the law to get it; and even if it were legalized, I’d probably continue to think of it the way I do tobacco: I don’t think much the less of my friends who do use it, but I don’t see much sense in starting myself. For the problems it causes there’s no particular reason for me to bother. There’s probably not much more for me to say about that matter.

So why do I bother making wine? Honestly, part of the reason for taking up this hobby again is just the creative challenge of it. I enjoy working on producing flavors that I can enjoy and that my more seriously culinary friends find particularly nice. I had a fair amount of beginner’s luck in this regard, and I’ve learned to duplicate my successes and somewhat to build on them.

The raw ingredient

Aronia berries: the primary raw ingredient for my brew

Beyond that I believe that consumed in small amounts, as I tend to do, this stuff might actually improve my health somewhat. My primary ingredient is aronia berries (aronia melanocarpa in Latin), which are supposed to qualify as a “super food” for their health effects these days. According to the current Wikipedia entry on then, these berries, with their record-breaking richness in flavonoids, are currently being given to test animals to test theories that they can cure or prevent everything from heart disease to colon cancer to arthritis to eye irritations. Fermenting their juice certainly doesn’t appear to pose any serious health risks. They are currently grown as landscaping plants all over my home town of Espoo, and it seems like I’m about the only one doing anything with them. Given my Dutch heritage (as good an excuse as any in such matters) I hate to see such a resource go to waste.

When it comes to my social life, the overall effect of this endeavor is probably going to be quite minimal, but while there are some minor risks involved, there are also potential rewards. I suspect that overall the effect will again be positive. If I had pubescent children around who would be at risk of getting into my stash, I would probably think more cautiously about the matter. Likewise if I were to have friends with problems with alcohol one way or the other visiting on a regular basis, I would make more of a point of not bothering them in this sort of way. I do remember a few people in particular to whom I shouldn’t offer this year’s product as Thanksgiving table contributions or Christmas presents. But overall my friends find this a pleasing hobby to passively participate in, and for those few casual acquaintances I have whose world view is so narrow that they will think less of me for my wine production, I can easily live with that loss of prestige in their eyes.

So anyone here in southern Finland who wants to stop by and share the experience at the end of the month, or try my recipe for themselves, be in touch. I’m sure we can work something out. And regardless of how you think about such matters, I wish all of you a pleasant start to the autumn season.


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Filed under Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

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