I took a sip from my devil’s cup

Breathing in the light scent of fermented grape, I relaxed slightly from the work day.  My shoulders untensed, and my mind wandered from its occupation of numbers, rules and technicalities.  Portishead streamed over the speakers at a hipster coffee shop and complimented the process of letting go.  I don’t always work in coffee shops, but if I have an appointment or meeting some distance from my home, I’ll shack up temporarily at a small table with my laptop.  Usually I’m inundated by the scent of the brown stimulant which is the star of the show at these venues, and my unwinding occurs elsewhere.  Why does coffee smell so much better than it tastes??  I love the taste of coffee – I drink it black and strong – but the smell can be especially intoxicating.  That day, though, I was in a coffee shop that also served beer, wine, and had a small food menu.  And I was contemplating: intoxication.

I wrote a rather broad introductory post about the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR; The gold in the buckle).  I love, love being a volunteer, and I thoroughly enjoy both being a part of the organization and attending the Rodeo.  Although I generally described features of the Rodeo and just why I appreciate it, I did not emphasize a particular facet of the Rodeo experience which can be considered both positive and negative.  To be fair, I was not trying to ignore or underplay the negative influence of this characteristic, but rather my exclusion reflects a genuine belief that this feature does not define the Rodeo.  The Rodeo does not equate to alcohol abuse.  It is so much more than that.  But like many festive events, such abuse can occur.

To set the stage, at one of the Rodeo volunteer pre-season meetings, I vaguely remember hearing that during the 3 weeks of Rodeo, almost as many bottles of Crown Royal are consumed as there are volunteers.  Approximately 30,000.  That’s almost 1,500 per day (unless the World Championship BBQ Competition was included in those figures).  Around 2 million people attend the Rodeo every year, so this spreads out the whiskey considerably.  However, many of those 2 million are minors or don’t choose to imbibe, and there are quite a few other hard alcohol options available, as well as copious amounts of beer and wine, so the perspective is adjusted yet again.

There is ample opportunity to let loose for all volunteers, participants, and the general public; so long as they are of legal drinking age, booze is readily available to celebrate the season, and be frivolous.  It’s a party.  But, when we volunteer, we are committing not only our time, but our reasonably capable faculties and mental ability.  Meaning: not strictly sober, but definitely not drunk.  There are a few acts that can get a volunteer ejected from the organization, including (without limitation): letting a third party use a volunteer badge, credentials, or parking pass, not showing up to volunteer shifts without reasonable/acceptable excuse, and being drunk while on a volunteer shift.  I don’t consider this to be overly strict or unusual; certainly not unconscionable.  HLSR is mainly a volunteer-driven organization, and the legs must support the weight of the table.  On the flip side, to err is human.

I became a volunteer three years ago, and grew close to several others in the rookie class on my committee.  As the years go by, people leave to move away or volunteer for other committees, but many have stayed and continue to volunteer on my committee.  One of my good friends received a warning last year.  She drank too much on shift, and was given what equated to a time out: another volunteer sat with her during the rest of her shift, the caption in charge talked to her, and the event was put in the records at the end of the night.

This year, it was her birthday on the first night of Rodeo.  We’d talked beforehand about how we were both cutting back on drinking as a life choice.  I was assigned a position across the club from her, so I only saw her periodically.  As the night wore on, her eyes became more bloodshot, and her words began to slur.  The first time I saw her after our volunteer shift started, she proclaimed “I’m only drinking light beer so I don’t get drunk!” and I smiled.  We were all excited to be back at Rodeo, so I understood her enthusiasm, but I was already slightly wary.  Another time she was in the break room, and said “I’m getting drunk…”  I interrupted her to say “Not yet. Wait until after our shift.”  She contended that she had just switched to hard alcohol, so it was ok, and also that it was her birthday.  The next time I saw her, another volunteer was helping her walk and her eyes were glassy.  I asked if she was ok.  She said she was, and to go back to what I was doing.  I said ok, but told them to try not to attract any attention.  She was sent home while I was across the club at my assigned volunteer position.  I didn’t even know until after it happened.  And she was kicked off of our committee the next day.

It broke my heart.  Not necessarily because she was off the committee – I knew we would hang out anyway.  But because I knew it hurt her.  Notwithstanding this reaction, I didn’t second guess the decision to eject her as a volunteer.  It was the appropriate action.  But, I’m sad I can’t share Rodeo with my friend anymore.

By the way, I am not judging – I am not innocent of overindulging.  If I hadn’t decided on a mantra of being more aware, thoughtful and responsible with drinking, I may have been in the same situation.  Easily.  In fact, I feel a little cowardly for using her experience as an example here, and not highlighting one of my own transgressions.  However, the event underscored my Rodeo season this year, and it was a reminder that I’d made a good decision in my new mantra.  It was also a case where there were tangible repercussions for abuse of alcohol.  Ignoring an issue is easy until it becomes real, and facing consequences is a quick way for things to get real.  Even the affirmation itself was a mixed bag because it was at the expense of my friend.  That’s not how I like to learn.  But it is important to realize that we all go through this process at some point – experimentation and pushing limits – especially when the element at play is social, addicting and occasionally euphoric.  At some point, the thrill wears off, and alcohol shows its true nature as a downer and a depressant.  That’s the way life can be, until you decide to make a change.  I genuinely hope my friend makes a decision about her life based on this event.  I understand the juncture at which she stands, and no one can do anything about it except her.  The level of gravity is not that of an alcoholic needing to go to rehab; it is a lifestyle decision and a commitment to that decision.

Not every instance of boozy indiscretion is abuse.  Some of it is just fun and silliness.  My volunteer team tailgates before some of our volunteer shifts without issue, and we are able to handle ourselves responsibly.  Sometimes we get rides home from other volunteers or take Ubers/taxis because it is not safe or legal to drive.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or dangerous about insisting on a corn dog while walking through the carnival, drowning it in mustard, and physically guarding it from the crowd.  Or slipping and falling while dancing the two-step, in part because they threw too much sand on the dance floor for the night.  Or brazenly hitting on a guy because (1) he’s cute and (2) he’s in front of you.  Where is the line?  How do we know if we crossed it when an intrinsic part of drinking is impaired judgment?

My girl, Britney Spears, is not a role model for sobriety or reasonable behavior, and the lyrics of one of her songs resonates with the problematic issue of making a reasonable choice after having already indulged:

It’s getting late
To give you up
I took a sip
From my devil’s cup
Slowly, it’s taking over me.

Too high
Can’t come down
It’s in the air and it’s all around
Can you feel me now?

“Toxic” is not actually about alcohol, but the lyrics and tone are illustrative of being artificially induced to a state in which rationality is in question, and decisions are based on impulse.  If you are in a YouTube mood, Ashley Tisdale and her husband, Chris French, perform a haunting and beautiful arrangement of the song.

How does this relate to the Rodeo?  Making choices about consumption and abusing alcohol are prevalent within the celebratory environment of the Rodeo season.  When considering intoxication, the issue is a matter of degrees.  Having an occasional drink to relax, to enjoy with dinner, or the like, is one step.  Having 2-3 drinks with friends socially is another.  Getting drunk to the extent of slurring speech and acting a fool is a level above that.  Binging, blacking out and losing ability to perform basic functions takes the cake.  Overachieving, in this instance, is not a virtue; apparently neither is cake.  There are several layers between each of the degrees I’ve identified, and there are probably studies on this issue.  I am not inclined to research and read them.  I’ve seen the highest levels of drinking at the Houston Rodeo, but I’ve also seen corresponding levels of restraint and responsibility.  The responsibility is community as well as personal.  We don’t let our friends drive drunk; we make our friends sit down with water and a BBQ sandwich; when a friend falls, we pick them up.

In response to events in my own life as well as observations of others’ experiences, I developed what I have called my personal mantra.  This works for me, but everyone has their own circumstances and demons, so I am not advocating it for anyone else.  My personal mantra includes the first and second degree identified above, but halts before the third degree.  Full disclosure: as a minor exception, if I am hanging out at the house with a girlfriend and we are having a deep conversation or a dance party, I might have 1 more drink even if it pushes me towards the third stage identified above.  But, just 1.  This is as much for Rodeo purposes as for the rest of my life.  I do not expect to be perfect in this endeavor but I fully demand of myself a level of compliance with the promise I made myself: thoughtfulness, awareness and responsibility.  If you can’t keep a promise to yourself, how can you expect to keep any promises at all?

As I contemplated the dregs of my pinot noir, I considered the inevitable question: should I get another?  Ugh, after I wrote all that about drinking and responsibility?  No chance.  I left the last sip in my devil’s cup, and went home to my Magnolia dog.

– Your huckleberry

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