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America Could Benefit From German Beer Culture

Like having sex, depending on the context and your personal values, drinking alcoholic beverages can be good or bad for you. It can affect your relationships with others and your whole life experience in negative or positive ways. For reasons of my own, I’m going to call for a lowering of the legal drinking age.

Two of my younger fellow Daily Nebraskan columnists, Stacey Van Zuiden and Jacob Euteneuer, have already written about the topic of alcohol. As a non-native and older non-traditional student, I would like to add a third and very German perspective. The topic is not only fun to write about, but it is also of life or death importance.

I know so from personal experience because my former husband, Eric Byorth, died from alcoholism at the relatively young age of 47. We drank like most of the other college kids while earning our bachelor degrees at UNL during the 1970s. Just like today, the college students back then drank like fish.

Though I stopped drinking to excess, Eric couldn’t. Again for reasons of my own, I am convinced that our differing cultural backgrounds had something to do with it.

The legal drinking age in Germany is 16, but it is not enforced. Most Germans don’t even realize there is such a law. Children are taught early on and at home about drinking responsibly and in moderation.

Van Zuiden advocated, on Aug. 17, for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to adopt an alcohol amnesty policy similar to what other universities around the U.S. are offering. It was a kind column in which Van Zuiden rose above her own opposition to drinking on campus so that her inebriated friends would not fear seeking medical help in extreme circumstances.

According to Dr. Matthew Hecker of UNL’s Student Judicial Affairs, the alcohol amnesty policy was recently approved. He faxed me the legal document. However, those who think they can call 911 and get out of being held accountable for breaking local, state or federal alcohol laws would be well advised to read the fine print of the judicial diversion program policy.

Hecker also said that nothing about the "no drinking in university housing" policy has changed because it would be too difficult to keep track of who is 21 and legally allowed to drink alcohol and who isn’t.

Personally, I see the amnesty program only as a band-aid solution to a larger problem with an overly puritan U.S. attitude towards alcohol. This attitude treats capable young adults, who are ready to lead this country to a better future, like naughty children. It would drive anyone to drink.

By the force of police, this cultural attitude hunts down talented members of our next generation and makes many of them into criminals before they even have a chance to contribute to society. By associating closely with today’s young students, I have found that they care far more about the fate of our country and have way more to offer intellectually and with regard to ethics than most politicians currently running for office.

Euteneuer’s Oct. 6 opinion piece centered on the need to never mix drinking and driving, among other concerns. I agree with him 100 percent. The concept of choosing a designated sober driver cannot be over-emphasized.

Recently, some of my twenty-something fellow students invited me to a couple of drinking parties, and I obliged. I drank a little, laughed a lot, behaved myself and went home by around 2 a.m.

What really impressed me was how careful all of the young students were when it was time to drive from one party to the next and then on home. They selected people who seemed sober and who would likely test under .08 percent if stopped by police. I was proud of them. When my generation was that age, we weren’t that careful or educated.

I also appreciated Euteneuer’s total honesty about why he chooses to drink beer, saying that, "...alcohol is fun. There is a reason it is popular. There is a reason ’everyone’ is doing it. It is a blast."

More than 8,000 years ago, humans discovered naturally fermented honey wine, also referred to as mead wine. A Web site that sells kits and supplies to make this beverage says, "Almost every civilization has lore and myths associated with the consumption of mead." For more information, go to http://leeners.com/meadery.html and other similar Web sites.

The Germanic tribes called mead "met." They would engage in prolonged cultural mead-drinking ceremonies to celebrate occasions like weddings. It’s where the expression "honeymoon" comes from. Norse mythology considered honey wine the source of wisdom and poetry.

The young Germanic tribal members would have mead-drinking parties, reminding me of our U.S. students’ parties today. It was a rite of passage then, and it is a rite of passage now. I see nothing wrong with it, as long as the amount of drinking is reasonable and there is no drinking and driving going on. The key is to use one’s brain early on and impose limitations on oneself before alcohol can work its addictive and sometimes lethal un-wisdom and un-poetry.

Not everyone can do that. People who have trouble with limiting their drinking should seek help early on. Or, if necessary, family and friends should urge them to get help.

Free programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon have done wonders to turn seemingly hopeless lives around. I’ve been a grateful member of Al-Anon since 1989. I found the group’s help invaluable when I was thrown into the role of a single mother and had to raise two fatherless children.

In his column, Euteneuer also registered his discontent with the way alcohol is made into a forbidden fruit in U.S. culture, quoting the Bible: "Stolen water is sweeter, and bread gotten secretly is pleasing." Again, and sadly so, I must agree.

In 1970, when I first came to Lincoln, Nebraska as an exchange student from Germany, I was barely 17 years old. My fellow students at Southeast High invited me to a secret drinking party that was to take place at midnight underneath Antelope Bridge. I said no, preferring to go home and do my homework.

In Germany, alcoholic beverages were sold next to milk in the grocery stores, and they were treated as such. You don’t drink milk like a fish. You drink a little of it once in a while. I had grown up having free access to alcohol. The idea of standing underneath a bridge all night, while sipping Mogen David wine or drinking whiskey out of a shared bottle had sounded like a terribly boring proposal.

It is possible - and I am not talking science here, but only anecdotal evidence - that Eric might still be alive today, and our marriage intact, if he had grown up in the German culture like I did instead of being exposed to the U.S. drinking culture.

Both of us had alcoholic genes lurking in our families’ medical histories, but Eric was drawn to the forbidden fruit of alcohol as a teenager. I had free access since childhood and didn’t feel the unusual pull.

This is not to say that culture alone is responsible for turning people from social drinkers into alcoholics. Today we all know that the biological and psychological factors of family history also play a major role in causing the illness of alcoholism.

But overall, I think it would help reduce alcohol-related problems in this country if the legal drinking age was lowered to at least 19. It should be lowered gradually, like one year down every two years, in order to prevent culture shock. Except it should never coincide with the same age when young people become legal drivers. Increased education about the dangers of drinking too much and about the hazards of drinking and driving should accompany this plan.

I urge the young people of our country to fight back against the overly puritan and "forbidden fruit" attitude about alcohol by our staid old U.S. guard. This will necessitate that young adults get their heads out of their... bottles. It will mean they need to get involved in the political process where laws can be challenged and changed.

Angelika Byorth

Nebraska State Paper - 24 October 2006
 
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