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Crib notes on passing the 'bar exam'

Knowledge to drink in

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When it comes to college drinking, America has a puritan streak a mile wide. Our children get told from Day One that alcohol is forbidden. They get stuffed full of Hot Pockets and pumped full of Sunny D their whole lives. Then, when they're sent off to a place where they're relatively unsupervised and suddenly stressed by grades and papers, we're all supposed to start fretting about "binge drinking." The real problem may be that so many college students don't know squat about booze. That's why they guzzle liquor and gulp down wine and order a dozen Jägerbombs. It's an American college tradition to charge down the "road of excess" to the "palace of wisdom" — which is all too often a fusel oil-fuelled hangover intruding on an early-morning PolySci class. But isn't there a middle ground? Can't we strip away the paranoia and take a fresh look at what the rules should be?

Wouldn't it be nice? — Here's a novel suggestion: Instead of a lot of puritanical fervor about underage drinking, wouldn't it be better if we all just relaxed? Lowered the drinking age? Made alcohol a part of family meals and celebrations and included our youngsters? The Europeans have watered down wine and given it to their children for years, and they don't have more alcohol abuse. Instead, we give it the cachet of "forbidden fruit" and offer little education. Only in America would the alternative be controversial: letting young people drink at home where you can make it a part of a family meal or a party, and supervise what "responsible" drinking really is.

It's in the can — But assuming we're good Americans and want to chug beer, quantity is more important than quality. A trusty 32-pack of Pabst will trump that sixer of Boddington's Pub Ale. This way, a few people can pitch in and you have yourself a party. The drink-it-while-it's-cold crowd has come up with some ingenious ways to get it down without all that laborious lifting of the can and drinking. With a move called the "shotgun," you can puncture the base of the can with your keys, then pop the top and drain a cold one down your throat in one long gulp. And for decades, old-school "beer bongs" have used plastic tubing and a funnel to deliver beer foam-free into the mouth. Except now you don't have to assemble them like your parents, you can order them online at drinkingstuff.com.

Don't drink that! — Unless you're roped into a round of shots at a wedding, don't drink what everybody else is drinking. Set yourself apart. You don't need to drink a Raspberry Kamikaze, a Washington Apple or a Pineapple Upside-Down Cake. You don't have to order a Red-Headed Slut, an Apple Pucker Fucker or a Blue Motherfucker. These drinks are too sweet. Don't be in such a hurry to be an adult that you drink like an 18-year-old. (If alcohol is such an "adult" thing, why does any girl ordering a Johnny Vegas need to be carded again?) What's more, they're loaded with fattening ingredients. And none is more deceptive than the Long Island Iced Tea: Of all bar drinks, the LIIT is probably packed with the most calories — sometimes more than a Big Mac — and loaded with enough liquor to cause epic hangovers. On the other hand, never refuse Champagne.

Wincing is good — The thing is, liquor shouldn't be all that easy to get down. It's deceptive. There's a trickiness to the peachy smoothness of Southern Comfort and the black licorice belt of Jägermeister. On the other hand, you can trust booze that tastes bitter or like medicine; it's not sugaring itself up for your palate. These are the sorts of drinks that help us appreciate booze for what it is, in small doses a mild stimulant, in large doses an irritant.

Celebrate, don't medicate — In a recent poll, Americans' top association with the words "chocolate cake" was "guilt." For the French, it was "celebration." This neatly sums up the difference between the hedonistic French and our puritan nation. Similarly, the French see drinking as celebratory, festive and fun, meant to be enjoyed with others. But for many of us, drinking is a guilty secret we indulge in alone. But it doesn't have to be that way. Puritans aside, it's still a part of our culture to drink the right way, together, raising our glasses in a toast after a hard day, loosening up a little and sharing each other's company. So drink only if you have a person to toast — and the more the merrier. Try to sing "Auld Lang Syne" more than "I Drink Alone." And if you're drinking alone night after night, it could be a sign that something's wrong.

Mad Dog et al. — Bottom-shelf liquor is best kept a one-night-stand. Yeah, we know that bottle down there is really cheap and you don't have the money, but move up at least a shelf or two. Some of the very cheapest liquors have fusel oils that impart a dirty buzz and a deadly hangover. Though you shouldn't really drink wine for a buzz, some "Three-Buck Chuck" (Charles Shaw wines, for the uninitiated) will do you on the cheap. If you don't like liquor and don't know what to get, buy a mid-range vodka, because vodka is vodka, no matter what it's made of. As for that bottle of MD 20/20, well, get that as a present to bring to the party.

For heaven's sake, eat something! — You should never drink on an empty stomach. And you should periodically take in some food to keep yourself from falling face-down. Vegans have no excuse: The best culinary antidote to too much alcohol isn't meat, it's potatoes. Anybody hosting an event that involves exhuberant drinking absolutely must have at least a tray of bites that can be continually replenished. They will pay for themselves in agonies avoided.

Hang up on hangovers — The best way to avoid hangovers is to drink better-quality liquor and beer, avoid sugary drinks and mixers, and have plenty of water and food while you drink. Of course, there's going to come a time when it's 2 a.m., you're wasted, and you have a crack-of-dawn test in the morning. That's when you need this emergency regimen: Drink at least two large tumblers of cold water, take two or three aspirin (not acetaminophen), and take a hot shower or bath long enough to get a good healthy sweat on. You'll still feel like ass in the morning, but not as bad as you would have.

Be a moderate — If you've been unlucky enough to go through adolescence without a drink, don't get in over your head. Taste many things, but drink few. Follow the rules. Don't do anything you don't want to. You don't have to drink beer so cold your teeth hurt. You don't have to drink until you run out of beer. You don't have to close the bar. Try to learn as much as you can without getting smashed and you should be fine. Cheers! mt

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