Animal House. Old School. Van Wilder. If you ask any student in America for a “college movie,” the odds are you’ll be told to go watch one of these, or another like them. Everybody knows a college movie when they see one, because these movies have one thing in common: beer. Beer and parties, beer and friends, beer and shenanigans, beer and vandalism, beer and sticking it to the man.
Nothing says it better than the famous image of Bluto, John Belushi’s Animal House alcoholic, hanging on the wall of nearly every male dorm room you’ve ever seen. The grizzled, unshaven prankster is downing a fifth of Jack Daniels, with COLLEGE written in block-script across his chest. Drinking and college are inseparable, as per the common wisecrack, “my school is a drinking campus with a college problem.”
The drinking we do is not inconsequential. Very little about this stage in our lives is inconsequential. These are the formative years. We make lifelong friendships, we form lifelong social habits, we lay foundations for our careers and we may even meet a spouse while we are in college. We are in transition. We are becoming the people we will be for the rest of our lives, and the fact of the matter is, many of us are doing so with a beer in our hands. What does this say about us? Why do we do it?
Easy. We drink because of football, win or lose. We drink because of grades, pass or fail. We drink because of girls or boys, to forget them or to enjoy them. We drink to compete, and we drink to relax. Some of us may drink for more serious reasons: bad memories that won’t fade or a deep and abiding depression. We drink for all these reasons and for none of them. And our drinking behavior can be looked at in two ways — as an end in itself and as a means to an end.
For most of us, it’s not really the drinking itself; it’s what we can do while drinking, beyond normal socializing. This is the stuff we remember, that we retell time and time again. This is what’s really important.
Drinking, as a means to an end, allows us to cope with the pressures of a complex and changing world in a powerful way. We sign out, escape completely, and not just because we are getting drunk. When we pick up the bottle, we are entering a new world, our world, with our rules. Our actions in this wide-open world can be truly representative of what we are feeling in a way that our actions in the sober, weekday world, encumbered by all the weight of societal convention, could never be.
The untold story
This whole thing started four months ago when I set out to explain something that was part of my life, focusing on people my age, my type. When I set out to uncover drinking, I wasn’t interested in statistics. I couldn’t care less what percentage of 18-year-old females have sipped a beer in an on-campus location by the close of first semester. Leave that to news magazines. We all know it; plenty of kids do drink. Some drink their faces off. I wanted to tell the untold story, the why behind the why. What’s really going on when we pick up the bottle?
Conversations were predictable. Try it sometime. Walk up to college-age kids in a bar next Saturday and ask why they are drinking that night. Maybe it’s because of a birthday or a sporting event or a holiday. No occasion is necessary, though. You are more likely to find out they’re drinking because it’s Saturday or maybe because they only dance/kiss/make good jokes/sleep over/flirt when they drink.
Frankly, everybody has a reason to drink. Many readily concede, in one way or another, that they tend to use booze as social armor, but I couldn’t in good conscience pretend that discovering alcohol’s ability to instill confidence was an earth-shaking revelation about my generation. Country singers everywhere beat me to it. There also were many who said no such thing. Anybody can tell you, in countless different ways, “why we drink.”
It’s all true — the happy reasons and the heartbreaking (and there are heartbreakers). But these things aren’t new, and there’s nothing to be said about them that you can’t get from the guy on the next barstool. What we don’t immediately recognize is that we are all doing something communally transformational when we get together and get hammered. The presence of alcohol in our gatherings opens up a whole new set of rules, a new culture, a new world of live-and-let-live. And it is our world. Our generation wasn’t the first to create this space that we live in between 1 and 4 a.m. at an overcrowded house party, but that space is undeniably the realm of the young.
This world isn’t really the chaos that “old” media love to portray it as. Sure, our rules don’t match up with the rules of everyday life. What would be the point if they did? But there are unspoken rules, or at least customs, the breaking of which results in a party foul. I don’t have a prayer of enumerating them all here. Suffice to say we all know a breach of social etiquette when we see it. From time to time, someone breaks the mold. People act up, people aggress, people do downright weird and crazy things. Chairs fly through windows.
I think it’s safe to say most of us don’t go into an evening thinking “I’m gonna have a few beers and put my head through a mirror tonight.” So why does it happen? What’s really going on in those moments when life looks more like Animal House?
The four young men announced their coming with raucous hollering, trouping out the back door and down the porch steps; they immediately had the attention of the calmer partygoers who had been sipping their beers casually in the yard. These guys were plainly on a mission. Onlookers tried their best to discern the intent of this little band of activists from the frenzied and nonsensical vocal outbursts that continued to draw more students to the yard.
The one in the red sweatshirt led the way to the garage. The broad, white door was thrown open with a purposeful flourish, revealing nothing more exciting than a cluttered storage space.
“Finally we can clean this f—ing garage out!”
Everyone was momentarily disappointed. This was about nothing more than an early spring cleaning? Impossible. There had to be a fight brewing or something. Something was going on here beyond the usual get-drunk-enough-to-dance, maybe-get-lucky Saturday night routine. We students can sense a breach in the ordinary fabric of party life from a mile away, and our intuition is seldom wrong.
Sure enough, there was more to come. As they moved into the garage, it quickly became apparent that the gang of four (who had by now been identified as the hosts of this particular gathering) was on a quest for justice. The unfortunate victim upon whom hell was about to rain was none other than a worn-in sleeper couch jammed alongside a banged-up grill. Which one of the boys had been wronged by the couch, and in what way, was irrelevant. It wasn’t about the couch anyway. Everybody understood, now. They’d seen this kind of thing before.
The important thing was to get a good vantage point as they carried out the sentence. It was a rather spectacular one. A thorough dousing with spirits and gasoline led quickly to 15-foot flames, which by some miracle did not attract police attention, and the catharsis of the executioners was worth watching. There was a great deal of punching and kicking directed at the quickly deteriorating piece of furniture, accompanied by a chanted refrain that, in a choice example of drunken eloquence, came out something like “F— THIS S—” repeated on a loop for a good five minutes.
Same story, different day. The spontaneity of the whole thing, and the magnitude of the fire, would give those random night-lifers who witnessed the event something to brag about next time they engaged their peers in the subtle game of “who hit up the raddest party this weekend” over Monday’s lunch. These onlookers dispersed in groups of twos and threes once the violent bit was over.
In doing so, they missed the most poignant scene, the moment that gave the whole thing meaning. Having apparently exhausted the well of emotion that led to this pyrotechnic man vs. furniture display, the four young men now stood calmly to one side of the comfortably warm bonfire, sipping beer in silence, until one said: “I’m gonna miss you guys next year.”
The imposing “next year.” The only line spoken by any of them, and it rendered the whole thing sensible. Such is the behavior of seniors in springtime. These particular boys were in a tough place, and I could identify with them. High school to college can be a hard leap for many, and graduating from college seems far more serious. Leaving high school for college is like leaving our childhood families for different families that let us do whatever we want but are always there for us just the same.
In school, we’ve got the security of an institution, when we decide we want it. We’ve got a network of friends, and, let’s face it, they are the family we choose. We love it sometimes, we hate it sometimes, but it is all familiar and its very presence is security.
When we leave school, life changes. The very prospect of the transition looms large enough that seldom is any conversation in these last few months free of the “future questions.” You’re supposed to know what to do with your life. You need to know what that wimpy Arts and Letters major is going to do for you. You need to know how to pay all your bills if you don’t already, and, hell, you might have to take public transportation every day. At times we feel like we are coached to fear what is coming.
When we are in such a significant transition, our sense of identity is malleable. Our elders tell us how to be successful, and it doesn’t always jive with our ideas of success. Every decision is second-guessed. Is it any wonder that people in such a state might take advantage of the freedom of our world, the one with the booze and the freedom from external judgment, to blow off some steam in unpredictable and destructive ways?
The graduation transition may only explain this particular case of the weird and wild, but the underlying pulse behind the boys’ actions is shared by an entire generation. The tension created by different measures of success, of intelligence, of morality between prior generations and our own, puts all of us in a tough place, and graduation from college isn’t the only time we feel it. Pause and think about who we are, the world we live in. There’s plenty to be conflicted about.
This is not to say that transitional stress and difficulties with identity are the only causes for violent or “abnormal” behavior among young people with alcohol. Personality traits like bullheaded aggression, for example, don’t go away with a couple beers. It is merely to point out that our generation’s unique place in a quickly changing world creates a variety of tensions between the old and the new that should be taken into account when trying to explain what makes us tick.
Maybe this is why we insist on spending most of our social lives in a timeless world of our construction, where the unwritten rules follow a general live-and-let-party framework and where we don’t have to think about the constant tug-of-war between childhood and adulthood. This certainly explains, at least in some cases, the blatant disregard of daytime social convention that breaks through the party mold every once in a while.
Sometimes our behavior is a little bizarre, however, and I can understand when a concerned neighbor wonders what those yahoos next door are doing on the garage roof. I can understand why the police aren’t supportive when they find college tenants destroying their own property quite violently in the deserted early morning streets. I’m not telling anyone else that they have to agree with us. I’m just here to explain.
I hope that this allows the members of venerable older generations to feel for a moment what it is like to be in our place. I hope they can identify with the feeling of living in the midst of massive changes in our world, or of being engulfed in a conflict between the person you have grown to be and the person you are told you were grown to be. Or of realizing, at the same time, that you are the only one who can make the right decision for you, but that everyone whose opinion you are taught to respect will want to weigh in on whether or not you are making the smart call. Of learning that, finally and for the first time in your life, their opinions are counsel, maybe wise counsel, but nothing more. Every choice is yours.
Some of this is “just growing up,” and most of us will come out of it just fine, although there will be casualties along the way. But much of it comes from our place as the first truly global generation, inheriting a world where it is impossible to see black and white, or even just gray, raised by those who cannot know what we know, and who know what we cannot know, and conscious of the fact that we will bear the same relationship to those who follow us.
If our concerned neighbors can understand that much, then they can understand why, once in a while, we get drunk and go crazy. I think they can; in one way or another they’ve probably lived it too.
Call it the swan song of our childhood, call it our momentarily repressed or impaired individuality lashing out, call it simple catharsis, stress relief at a time when there are just too many pressures in our lives. The point is, it’s not pointless. As random as our behavior may seem (and as arbitrary as its physical manifestation may be), we are rarely if ever acting out just for the hell of it, even if we don’t ourselves realize exactly what is going on. We’re crazy, but we aren’t mindless, and that’s how we deal with the world in which we live.
Dan Bradley is from South Bend, Indiana, and now is in law school at Indiana University, Bloomington.