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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/30/22

In Praise of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Recreational Drugs

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There's nothing I hate more as a baby boomer - well, there are plenty of things I hate more, but for the purpose of this article, let's go with nothing - than when baby boomers make these two specious and appallingly hypocritical arguments when speaking to young people.

Argument One: Well, of course I experimented with drugs when I was young (yeah, like every day for about 20 years), and I did smoke cigarettes, but I quit when I realized they were bad for me (about the same time your hair turned gray), and, of course, I won't deny I like to drink beer now and then (not to mention tequila, bourbon, vodka, etc.), but I gave up all those bad habits a long time ago (namely, when you first started to collect Social Security). So please, kids--can I call you kids?--don't make the same mistakes I did. Don't drink, don't smoke, and don't use drugs.

Argument Two: If you can remember the '60s, then you didn't really live through them. This argument is usually used by baby boomers who don't want to admit they were uptight dweebs during the '60s and don't have any shocking or bizarre stories to tell because they rarely indulged in any of the aforementioned behavior. The truth is, most baby boomers - even hard-core drug addicts and pass-out drunk alcoholics - can remember what they did in their twenties and thirties. At least all my friends and I can, although lately we have trouble remembering what day it is.

I realize this argument about not remembering the '60s is intended to be humorous or tongue in cheek, but I have heard a few play-it-safe, conservative baby boomers say it with a straight face, pretending to be hip when they're standing around at a party wishing they could recall at least one outrageous story from their youth that would be entertaining to a younger generation.

Which begs the question: Why do individuals who are now in their sixties and seventies feel the need to lie or be ashamed of their past? As the comedian Pat Cooper used to say, "Never be ashamed of who you are, because I'm not ashamed of who you are!"

The truth is, all those so-called "bad habits" played an integral role in the formative years of many baby boomers, including those of my friends and me. They were part and parcel of the zeitgeist of the era, the bildungsroman of our own lives, the mother's milk of our antiestablishment political radicalism. What would the '60s have been like, for example, without pot or hallucinogens? They helped us see through the plasticity and hypocrisy of the establishment. And perhaps more importantly, they brought a "separate reality" to our consciousness and played a seminal role in the formation of the anti-war/rock and roll/ free love experience that changed our society forever.

True, without drugs, there still would have been a civil rights struggle and a feminist movement, and there still would have been protests against the Vietnam War. But not the same way. The tactics would have been more legalistic and nuanced. More civilized and incremental. Less wild and in your face. Less passionate.

And let's not forget the pleasure all those nasty old habits gave us. Speaking personally - I'm 74 now - I've had to give up most of my old habits in my senior years due to health reasons. Instead of getting high, I take pills for high blood pressure and high blood glucose. Instead of wolfing down donuts and pizza two or three times a week, I eat a balanced Mediterranean diet and consume meds that combat plaque and cholesterol. Not much to look forward to, eh kids? As Bette Davis once remarked: "Gettin' old ain't for sissies!"

Do I miss my old vices? You're damn right I do! Fortunately, I have many fond memories of them, and on balance I think they were more salutary than destructive to my mental and physical health. I realize this flies in the face of conventional wisdom and every piece of medical advice from every doctor in the country, but hear me out as I examine them one by one.

Alcohol: I've been a lightweight jolly toper all my life, but never an alcoholic or a mean drunk. When I think back to my years of swilling booze, I'm pleasantly reminded of those wild beer and tequila parties of my youth, gourmet meals with cocktails and fine wine in mid-life, and an occasional martini or neat aged bourbon in my senior years. Naturally, there were times when I threw up and did a Jackson Pollack on the bathroom floor, but they were few and far between once I got older and learned how to pace myself and know my limits.

There were also times in my life when I used alcohol to help me through stressful emotional periods and hard financial times. Yes, I drank more than usual during those years, but I backed off when the good times returned. I realize not everyone can do this, but many individuals can. And I'm grateful that I was one of them.

Tobacco: I started smoking cigarettes when I was a teenager and continued smoking until I hit my fifties. As with booze, I didn't overdo it. I was about a half-pack-a-day smoker of commercial cigarettes. As I got older I went through a phase where I smoked cigars or a pipe; as I approached my fifties, I began to roll my own cigarettes with loose Balkan Sobranie Yenidje tobacco and cut down to about three cigarettes a day, and then finally none at all. The only reason I stopped was because I began to cough quite a bit and was having trouble breathing. Two pretty good reasons to stop!

But in my younger days, smoking didn't bother me, even when I worked out or played sports. And truth be told, it gave me a lot of pleasure. When you smoke cigarettes you always have something to do and it always caps off or complements what you're doing, to wit: Have a meal. Smoke a cigarette. Have a drink. Smoke a cigarette. Getting bored? Cigarette. Stressed out? Cigarette. Have sex. Definitely have a cigarette.

Recreational Drugs: I smoked my first joint when I was 18 and continued smoking pot almost daily until I was in my late fifties. During those decades I also did other recreational drugs that were popular at the time, like LSD, mescaline, and coke. But I didn't do them on a daily or even weekly basis, and I never shot up heroin or any other drug. Neither did any of my close friends. That's where we drew the line.

I should note that during those decades my pals and I balanced our drug usage with exercise and meditation. We also worked out with weights and practiced martial arts, jogged, and played tennis and basketball. Later in life we played golf, and now we play pickle ball, the ultimate sport for seniors with one foot in the grave.

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John F. Miglio is a freelance writer and the author of Sunshine Assassins, a dystopian political thriller. His articles have been published in a variety of periodicals, including Los Angeles Magazine and LA Weekly. His most recent articles (more...)

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