Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dionysus Shrugged

This morning a neighbor, who is a freshman at nearby community college, found herself wheelless and asked if I could give her a ride to the campus – she’d hitch a ride with a classmate for the return trip, she said. I rarely decline doing simple favors for pretty young women, even though these days I neither ask, nor expect, nor receive anything other than a cursory wave of thanks in return, so she got the ride. She wore a Nirvana tee shirt which she values for its vintage/nostalgia aspects.

Nirvana was founded 25 years ago in 1987; “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the band’s signature hit from the Nevermind album, was released in 1991. Both of those events were before my neighbor was born. Last September I blogged that nostalgia fads typically peak at +- 25 years, specifically mentioning Nirvana as ripe for revival (see; if only my stock market picks had been as good.

Unlike my neighbor, I do remember 25 years ago. In 1987, I was reasonably young and trouble-free. My immediate family was alive and well. I had a satisfyingly close-enough/far-enough relationship with a young lady on Long Island. (She ceased to find the close/far balance satisfactory in 1989.) Yes, 1987 was a fine year in my book. It was a fine year for lots of people until the stock market and housing market melted down in a spectacular fashion unseen since 1929; on October 19, the Dow dropped over 22% in a single trading session and, in the days afterward, went on to lose 36.7% overall before hitting bottom. A similar crash wasn’t seen again until 2008 when the market lost 18% over five days and 44% overall, though the Dow then recovered enough to end 2008 with a 34% loss off the year’s high. In 1987, however, I didn’t own any stocks and didn’t plan to sell my house, so I escaped all but a little personal damage from the economic events. Had I been asked on December 31, 1987 if anything substantive had changed in my lifestyle since January 1 of that year, I’d have said no.

Yet, something had changed, and it is brought to mind by my DVD selection last night, Song of the Thin Man (1947), a movie which preceded my birth about as much as Nirvana’s foundation preceded my neighbor’s T-shirt, and which (along with the other 5 movies in the series) I sometimes watch for the vintage/nostalgia aspects. The movie features the bibulous husband-wife investigative team Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy); this was the last film of the series, so Nick and Nora never again overindulged in dry martinis on screen.

As it happens, 1987 almost surely was the last time my own blood alcohol level ever exceeded the legal definition of intoxication. Oh, I might have skirted close once or twice; I’m not a complete teetotaler, and the limit is lower than most people imagine. By US standards, “one drink” is 1.5 ounces (44.36 ml) of 80-proof (40%) liquor, which is equal to a 5-oz. glass of wine or a 12 oz. bottle of beer at the usual alcohol concentrations; two drinks for a 200-pound (91 kg) person or only one for a 100-pounder will be enough to exceed the limit, and drinks wear off at a rate of only one per hour. Still, I very much doubt I’ve passed it since then; a dedicated binge drinker would have little trouble exceeding my usual annual intake in a single night.

This tilt to sobriety was not some big choice; it simply followed of its own accord from a lot of little choices made without any sense of a plan. I had been fond of spirits for more than a decade previously (Southern Comfort was my brand of choice), and still liked the flavor and initial kick; I wasn’t ever fond of the aftereffects, however. By the mid 80s the morning-after often loomed as too much to pay for a night-before. I don’t just refer to an out-and-out hangover, but also to the sensation of being off – of not being altogether sharp – that always lingered into the next evening after even only relatively modest amounts of alcohol. (I concede that my constitutional robustness with regard to booze might not be as great as that of many – perhaps most – other people.) So, increasingly I ordered club soda, and soon grew to enjoy being the sober (and undrugged) guy at rock concerts, raves, and afterparties – these have grown less frequent for me, too, actually, but for rather different reasons. The un-stoned un-buzzed condition at such events provides a different perspective – almost a unique one in the 80s – and ever since 1987 it’s the perspective I’ve maintained.

If that sounds like advocacy, it isn’t meant to. Drunkenness is a bad habit (as is any artificial high), but it actually is of value in some contexts, and I’d never go all Eliot Ness and argue against it per se. Some people find alcohol clinically addictive, of course, and these should handle the stuff gingerly if at all, but the ancient Persians were onto something when, according to Herodotus, they considered important questions both sober and drunk to see if they reached the same conclusions both ways. The Greeks were onto something, too, with their revelries in honor of Dionysus. Nietzsche argued that the greatest art arises from a tension between the primally ecstatic Dionysian in human nature and the rational ordered Apollonian. More recently, Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae) went further by saying that civilization itself is built on the tension, and that there is a biological basis for the division: the higher cortex that overlies the more primitive limbic brain. We need to be in touch with both to be complete people, and a few substances (alcohol the oldest and most venerable among them) can help to break the barrier between them – even without full-blown ancient style Bacchanalia to attend.

I broke down those barriers quite enough earlier in my life by that method, so I don’t feel a nostalgic need to do so again. I’ll attend that Bacchanalian festival though, if anyone cares to throw one, and I bet I still could get in touch with my Dionysian side even with serum level below 0.08.

Tickling the Limbic Brain: Dragnet (1987) 

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