Freelining with Mike Freeman: On being a bad (or is it good?) drinking companion

I always thought the notion of being a “mean” drunk was an urban legend.

Until, I suppose, a friend and co-worker told me he gets really mean when he drinks.  It was hard to believe, because he’s one of the nicest guys I know. Besides, I’ve been around mean people before, but usually alcohol has nothing to do with it.

When are a couple of drinks one too many? How many drinks does it take to cause one person to open up, another to pass out, and a third to become a mean drunk?

About the only time I’ve ever been exposed to angry drunks is when I worked at Walt Disney World years ago at one of the hotels, and came across my share of drunken guests.  But they seemed angry for a different reason: usually paying hundreds of dollars a night for their room and having nit-picky complaints about it: the washcloths looked dirty, they were promised a feather pillow and didn’t get one, their kid threw up on the bed 30 seconds ago and why didn’t the maid know this was about to happen and stop it. Sigh. In true Disney fashion, I would lie and say there was a nickel-a-drink happy hour special at Pleasure Island if they got over there within the next 15 minutes.  Then they became happy drunks.

Usually when I’m hanging out with who drink, their reaction to booze is different: they get giddy. Silly, even.  They lose their inhibitions and get a little crazy.  They roll out bad jokes and complain about their mother in law in ways they never would without alcohol in their system.  They whisper their secrets to you. They open up.

But mean? I’ve just never seen that. Maybe I just drink with the right (wrong?) people.

For the record, I should acknowledge that I’m not a “fun” drunk, either – but that’s not because I become “mean.”  I’m really not much of a drinker to begin with, and after just a couple of glasses of wine, I’m already starting to fade off into dreamland.  I don’t get grumpy or irritable, but I do get sleepy rather quickly.  I’m notorious at family gatherings around the holidays for fading before the evening news has come on.  I’ve never mastered the art of consuming large amounts of liquor and absorbing it like you were sipping lemonade.  So unless you want to carry me home, passed out over your shoulder, I wouldn’t recommend inviting me to go drinking with you.

But I don’t mind playing designated driver.  In fact, it’s fun.  I can go out with friends and have a non-alcoholic drink, and relax in a very alert fashion while I watch them down one drink after another after another.

The changes come slowly.  The guys ease into the “Yer mom!” slams.  My women friends giggle a lot.  They shift the conversation to subjects we’d never discuss over lunch at work.

It’s not always happiness, though, that bursts forth in these gatherings. Yes, sometimes the conversations get raunchy and explicit, and I find myself squirming and thinking, TMI, TMI. But if alcohol can open you up to be more frank and honest about issues, it’s not just their sex life that people have a strange compulsion to discuss.

When you’re a good listener like I am, and can nod your head sympathetically no matter what the topic, people open up to you in ways you never expected.  But it’s not always on pleasant subjects.  I’ve had friends tell me about their health care problems in excruciating detail, which makes the conversations about sex seem vanilla by comparison.

I’ve also had friends tell me about abusive parents, about the decaying relationship with their significant other, about how depressed they get, about their anxieties over aging.  After a while of listening to them, you start to understand one thing: they’re not looking for answers or solutions.  They just want to vent, to get it off their chest. The alcohol gave them the strength, maybe even the courage, to do that.

There are times when I think I could be a Prohibitionist.  I’m anti-drug, and not just the illegal stuff, but also all that over the counter junk meant to pick you up, bring you down, help you sleep, relax your mood, etc.  When I think about alcohol, I think about all the drunk drivers who have destroyed people’s lives. I think about the torment of being a child raised by two alcoholic parents.  I think about how alcohol has wrecked families – the mean, abusive drunk that I’ve never met coming into play here.

But instead, I take the libertarian view that we’re all better off making our own decisions and charting our own destinies rather than having the government do it for us.  So I stay anti-drug – meaning I choose not to use them because I think I’m healthier without them, while still finding an occasional drink to be well within reason.

I doubt I’ll ever become one of those people who opens up after a few drinks.  I’ll probably always remain the one who falls asleep by the time I finish my second glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

I have, on the other hand, seen plenty of instances where alcohol became an amazing therapist.  And for all the folks brought down by drink, I’m amazed that I’ve mostly been exposed to the ones who find it liberating …  as long as they’ve got a good listener by their side.  

Contact Michael Freeman about this column at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Freelining with Mike Freeman: The woes of a careful driver.

It only takes a few seconds to let your guard down while you're driving ...

Just a matter of seconds, that’s all it took, for me to open my eyes ….

… and, it turns out, avert a tragedy.

I saw the car in front of me, and for a second, it looked like that red car on Interstate 4 was moving in reverse, speeding right at me. I thought the driver had accidentally fallen asleep at the wheel and mistakenly shifted his car into reverse. And there it was, the back of his car, zooming right for my front hood.

I slammed on the brakes, and then within seconds … all was fine again.  That red car started moving faster and faster away from me on the highway, as my own car slowed down. Several  cars behind me shifted into the left and right hand lanes to zip around me, because suddenly I was moving too slowly for their taste.

And it hit me, then, that the motorist in front of me hadn’t fallen asleep at the wheel.

I had.

It wasn’t even late at night. It was about 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, the sun was still out, and I was confronting rush hour traffic to get from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs. Traffic was slow, but not the worst I’ve ever seen it.  It was at least moving, if not very quickly.

But I was dead tired from a long, exhausting week.  Sitting there in that bumper to bumper, move-then-stop kind of traffic, I allowed myself the luxury of leaning my head back against the seat, taking in a deep breath, and refusing to get annoyed by the road congestion.  I ignored the traffic altogether, in fact, and started thinking about other things.  Outside of feeling very worn out, I was upbeat, in a good mood.  Suddenly the traffic started to pick up again, so I pressed on the gas pedal.  And then, still lost in my thoughts, it happened…

For just a few seconds, I faded.

The only other time in my life that I can remember nodding off while driving was in 2002, when I moved from Massachusetts to Florida.  Stuck in a UHaul truck with six cats — all of them, it seemed, much happier than I was — I had stopped for a quick nap, and then, figuring I was nice and refreshed, decided to make an all-out effort at driving throughout the night from the MidAtlantic into the Deep South. But after a few hours it caught up with me again, and, behind the wheel of that big UHaul, sleep beckoned — rudely, and constantly.  My eyes struggled to stay open, and it was just like being on a couch, when you’re perfectly relaxed and comfy, and you really want to stay awake to see your favorite TV show and — suddenly you’re out. That’s how it was in that UHaul that night. So I gave up and pulled into a rest stop and slept some more. That helped.

This incident was different. I opened my eyes to see that I was moving fast, and heading right for the car in front of me that, well, wasn’t going quite as fast as me.  It’s a good thing I’m not the tailgating type, because the car in front of me would have gotten very intimdately involved with mine if I had.

And the rest of the drive?  Uneventful.  A shocker like that has a good way of waking you up once and for all.  I made it to the Altamonte Mall unscathed.

I thought about this afterwards in part because I kept thinking about Russell Hurd.

I met him on Jan. 3, during a ceremony in Davenport marking the official dedication of the Heather Hurd Memorial Highway along the stretch of U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk County. Heather was his daughter, and in January 2008 she was driving on U.S. 27 near the Berry Town Center shopping plaza when she stopped at a traffic light.  That move turned out to be the last few seconds in her life.  What she didn’t know as she put her foot on the brakes and came to a stop is that the driver of a tractor-trailer right behind her, David Lunger, hadn’t noticed that the light had turned red.  He slammed right into Heather’s car. She was killed at the scene in what turned into a multi-car pileup.

Lunger, who later pleaded no contest to a citation for careless driving and was fined $1,000 — and has since died of cancer — had been distracted by a cell phone text message.

As I stood there talking to Russell Hurd on that brisk January morning, he told me about how that tragedy had changed his life, and made him a tireless advocate for new laws that ban people from texting while driving. He serves on the board of directors for Focus Driven, a group promoting laws that prohibit sending texting messages while operating behind the wheel of a car.  He hopes to model their efforts on the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in raising awareness about the dangers of drinking and then getting behind the wheel of a car.

But I also found Russell Hurd to be practical.  He knows passing a law won’t eradicate this kind of behavior altogether.  (Florida is now among the states without a ban on texting while driving.) As he noted, the law bans drinking and driving but some people still do it. The key, he said, is to change the mindset of a culture — a culture where more than a few people feel comfortable reading a text message or even drafting a text response while they’re driving. According to some statistics, that could be as much as 90 percent of the U.S. population.

There’s a lot of truth to what Russell Hurd says. It’s easy to view the problem as being isolated to people who are completely, totally irresponsible. They go to bars, drink too much, and then get behind the wheel of a car, intoxicated.  They pay for that in the lives they claim when they smash into someone, and the prison term they face afterwards, if they even survive the crash.

But as Russell noted, the bigger problem is with those of us who think we’re being safe for precisely the opposite reason: we’re not intoxicated or under the influence of anything. We’re sober, maybe even buzzed from a fresh cup of coffee.  We figure nobody could be better prepared to start driving safely.

I can’t say how many people I’ve seen talking on their cell phone while speeding down I-4 — or how many times I’ve done it, too.

I’ve also seen people texting behind the wheel while on I-4. I’ve read text messages while driving, but only sent out text messages while stopped at a red light.  But just the same, I’ve joined that 90 percent of the public that figures, Hey, I can do this safely. I know what I’m doing.

Do we? What if we’re driving safely, but the people around us are not? Do we lower our guard just long enough to let them smash into us?

When I set out from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs on Friday, I felt fine. No reason to think I’d have problems behind the wheel. I was in a good mood, and while I was tired, it was Friday, after all. Who isn’t run down by the end of a long work week?  And it was only 5 o’clock at night.

And as I opened my eyes to see the car in front of me zooming toward me, for a second I thought, oh, no, crazy driver …

I was wrong.  That driver was doing fine.

The problem, I was forced to admit, was me.

Contact Mike Freeman about this column at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

In-Cite by John DiDonna: Vitriolic Rhetoric

By now we’ve all read the stories, mourned the losses, gotten slightly (ever so slightly) over the shock, and discovered a new name in the lexicon of hate:  Jared Loughner.  The new assassin on everyone’s lips.

The sad direction of our national political dialogue ....?

On Saturday, with a semi-automatic handgun, he shot and he shot.  And when he finished shooting (and was wrestled to the ground), there were six dead and 14 wounded.  A federal judge – dead.  A nine year old girl – dead.  A congresswoman – Gabrielle Giffords – in critical condition but alive, her doctors optimistic about recovery.

The shooter himself?  The usual expectations.  Loner.  Pot smoker.  Unbalanced.  Previous trouble.  Worried classmates.

The not so usual?  The YouTube and MySpace postings showing a very disturbed man obsessed with “conscience dreaming” (his mistake, not mine) and the “new” currency.

In the face of all this tragedy and barrage of information, what did I also notice as I attempted to make sense of the hopelessly senseless?

One of the things that frustrates me on a daily basis.

It took about 15 minutes (or more likely less) from the last pull of that trigger for finger pointing to start, and it has yet to stop beyond multiple calls for it (including a brilliant one by CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen).

The “left” blamed the “right” which in turn blamed the “left.”  He was a tea partier. . . no,  he was a liberal and a democrat. . . no,  he read the communist manifesto. . .no, he was influenced by Palin. . .no,  it is your fault. . . no, it is yours. . .

Stop.
Just stop.

The fact is a very crazed man (yes, I used the word crazed) who was disturbed for reasons beyond our current knowledge of him, went on a killing rampage. Was it politically motivated? Possibly. But not in the way you would imagine (one friend pointed out it was a politician who was targeted, not anyone else – and recent findings in the shooter’s house support that clearly he went after Giffords). Was it an organized and agenda driven attack? Not likely – read the man’s writings and you will know there was not much coherence there.

Yet now we have new media sound bites to chew over.  “Vitriolic Rhetoric”.  “Toxic Political Environment” (Gergen’s phrase and one I like).

And while the direct and only blame that is deserved in this particular tragedy must be foisted on the shoulders of Loughner himself, we do have to ask ourselves: when did this savage vitriol start, and does it indeed set out an environment whereby a mentally disturbed man such as this may finally take the tragic action we are all now shocked by.

Every day we see the rhetoric in our papers, on our talk shows, blaring out of our radios and in blogs and our own conversations — from both sides of the political fence.  Just last night I was appalled at the horrifying posts being made on Facebook.  One – which I had to confess I was not sure was even real, it was so parody-like  – involved the effusive use of the words “Right Wing Nuts …. Nazi Propaganda ….” And of course there was the obligatory and oh so charming “Go f__k yourselves.”

As you see, the hate comes from all sides, not just one. Finger point. Finger point.

So how does it stop? None of it is beneficial. Some say “But it is political debate.” No, it is not. It is political division. It exists merely to divide.

Politics certainly contains high passions of both the intellectual and emotional kind.  But when exactly did the hatred start?  When did the vitriol become commonplace and even expected? When did finger pointing become a national pastime?  How and why did we let these individuals who flourish in this come into the equation, and why do we still listen?  When did we become so divided?  And how do we stop it and return to a useful national political dialogue?  And most importantly – why do we always think the “other” side is the one to blame?

What do you think? Looking for your in-cite.

But remember, no finger pointing.  If you decide to point the finger at the “other” side, (whichever “other” that might be), consider that a finger may be squarely pointed right back.

And remember the events of Saturday how dangerous that might be. Sometimes a finger pointing can be as dangerous as a gun.

Let us prove here on In-Cite that we do not have to fall into this dangerous trap and can have a non-partisan, intelligent, and constructive dialogue.

Enjoy the conversation.

Contact John DiDonna at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.
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