OM412 - The Smiley Face Killer(s)

This week, Ken and John talk about:

John being a recovering alcoholic (OM412)

Although Ken went to college, his biggest alcohol consumption has been in the form of some rum-soaked desert. One time he has accidentally been served a cocktail on a plane and he happened to take a sip out of it before he could tell them that this wasn’t orange juice. You can’t just put Vodka in all the drinks, Delta, even if it is first class!

John is a recovering alcoholic and he spent many years very drunk. He was drinking heavily and he did a lot of dumb things doing so. He doesn’t recommend drinking at all, especially not binge drinking or heavy drinking, it is on his list of Top 400 things he does not recommend. You should definitely watch the Ryan O’Neal / Tatum O’Neal movie Paper Moon, which is a great movie, although the relationship between those two is very problematic.

John does not recommend binge drinking, taking up skateboarding in your 30s, or listening to late-1990s Rap Rock. Don’t go into the middle of Alaska with no outdoor survival training and expect to live off the land in a school bus, don’t stake the fortunes of your company on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or a made-up blood testing device that doesn’t actually work, just because the CEO has a weird voice.

Binge drinking produces a lot of bad results, in John’s case it has produced a lot of injuries because you are drunk and you lose your motor control and your judgement. You think you can do things that you can’t, like drive, chop firewood, or climb things. You think you can dance, you think you are funny, and you think you are sexy. John knocked out three teeth, he broke both his hands, and he spent many nights in emergency rooms and a smaller but still significant number of nights in jails as a result of heavy drinking.

John could hold his liquor because he is a big boy and he was not given to blackouts or to passing out. He could usually drink and drink and stay awake, he was going and going, but breaking his hand was just a matter of being confronted with people who wanted to teach him a lesson and being prepared to resist that lesson. In a lot of cases they were probably also very drunk and there was a lot of fighting and bad accidents. Thankfully John never drank and drove because he couldn’t afford to own a car.

Alcoholics who don't know they are alcoholics (OM412)

John has met a lot of people in recovery that were not aware that they had a drinking problem because they maintained a resemblance of life. They had a good job, they were married, and it didn’t occur to them that they had blacked out behind the wheel of their car or they had lost an entire 4-day period before they woke up in a Motel. It is like with a lot of mental illnesses: You think that this is how everybody does it!

If you drink seven days a week there is always somebody to drink with you at the bar. It is probably somebody else each night, but in your mind you think that everybody is drinking every night because every night there is somebody to drink with you. John was surprised to learn in his early 20s that not all of his friends were there every night. Other people there he knew well, but they went home and got up the next day and went to work.

The role of drinking in society (OM412)

During the pandemic Ken as a non-drinker had to confront during the fact that bars are a little odd. People are pining for the third place, the place where you can get out of the house and be convivial, especially if don’t have a family at home or even a cat, or in some cases because you have a family at home. Ken doesn’t crave the place where the people and the noise is because he already lives in a place where the people and the noise is. It is odd that we have chosen to base a big part of a certain age of our life’s socialization on special places for special kinds of grain alcohol to various percentages.

Bars and heavy drinking have always played the role of a lowering of inhibition. Alcohol makes you talk louder and makes you lose your sense of what would have been your stifled decorum that dominates daily life. It gives you a chance to sing and to be out, and whatever the troubles were pressing down on you earlier that day are no longer present.

In our culture we currently reflect on the fact that the lack of inhibition also eliminates a lot of the constriction on young men to not be violent, sexually aggressive, and entitled. A lot of the inhibitions that traditionally we couldn’t wait to throw off our shoulders are the inhibitions that in contemporary culture we actually hope that will make a society possible. We are animals and some of those strictures help us, but alcohol works directly counter to it.

Drinking in college (OM412)

It is a big part of the conversation around alcohol, binge drinking, and college students: We hold students who are very drunk accountable to the same rules that we would hold them if they weren’t, but alcohol subverts your judgment and by removing your inhibitions it removes your capacity to judge people’s facial expressions, how far you are from someone, or what time of day it is.

What kept Ken away from alcohol is that it is terrifying that the first thing you lose is your sense of what you have lost. John’s tendency to fight when he was drunk was directed entirely at other big drunk men who he thought needed to fight him right then, and a lot of those big drunk men also wanted him to fight them, he was never a bully. It is a classic Irish bar problem: ”What did you say? How dare you besmirch the memory of Sir Walter Raleigh! Take it outside!” and typically the response he got from the world was: ”Boy, you sure got into a fight with the wrong Australians last night!”

Drinking among young college-age men is weirdly normalized, and the more privilege you have, the more binge drinking is socially acceptable and it plays a larger and larger role. Drinking in college is expensive because you are already living in a world of expectation and your expenses might be higher than in any other time in your life. There are institutions in place including your parents and your fraternity to get you out of trouble. Also you probably don’t have a lot of experience navigating limits and avoiding trouble.

We used to celebrate this period, which makes the current cultural moment so transformative: It is not just reflecting on the behavior of this or that individual drunk college student, but we are really re-evaluating decades or hundreds of years of saying: ”Oh, these young men! Aren’t they so in their wild oats! They are out there having fun and learning the ropes and now is the time for that!”, not ever thinking of the collateral damage that is turning young men full of booze out on the world. As college culture got more and more integrated and diverse this became true for young women as well.

People freezing to death in Alaska after drinking too much (OM412)

One time in Alaska the younger brother of a good friend of John’s left a party and took a shortcut home by climbing over a chainlink fence out in somebody’s backyard, and he got his pants caught on top of the chainlink fence. He hung there, tried to get himself loose from the fence, nobody could hear him, and he passed out and froze to death.

That type of thing happens a lot, it is surprising how many people in Alaska just die of exposure and there actually was a city-funded task force in Anchorage that would drive around at night and check in dumpsters because homeless people would go into a dumpster to keep warm and either freeze to death or be killed when the garbage truck came. Homelessness, freezing temperatures, and alcohol really don’t go well together.


Already in 1997 it was understood that you should not get into a windowless white van, no mater how drunk you are. John was sober at that time, but if a white van had pulled up next to him in 1992 and somebody would have said: ”Hey! Want to party?” he would probably have gotten into the van. John got into a lot of vans, and even if a guy wearing a cast would have asked him to help get his boat on the top of his Volkswagen Bug, John would have helped him, which is a Ted Bundy reference (he had a fake cast).

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