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5cense

Confessions of an everyday wino: On vertigo, cruise ships, control, self-organization, heroes, blood chemistry & the ark as a bed to lie in

wine corks

Just over a year ago we for some reason got into the habit of throwing cashed wine corks into the above drawer of one our cabinets. I'm not about to count the corks but i'm guessing there's a least a few hundred, about one for every day we've been home. And this doesn't count the bottles of wine in restaurants, at friends houses, drinks at bars, on the road, wine that comes with metal screw-caps (which seem to be more & more common) & the dozens of bottles of grappa, sambuca, limoncello, fernet, amaro, etc. By European standards this is fairly average (the French for example drink almost 14 liters of pure alcohol a year per person, which if your average bottle of wine is 750 ml at 12%, is the equivalent of 156 bottles a year or just under half a bottle a day). Most Europeans might call it «living well». Hold that thought.


Vertigo terror

A few days ago i had a reality check that made me think about some things, habitual drinking being one of them. I was jolted awake with the horrible sensation that the bed i was sleeping on was falling. It wasn't really a dream, there was no context to it, but probably qualified more as a night terror—a very vivid feeling that the bed was being pulled out from beneath me, falling at a tilt, like the entire room & building was collapsing. I woke up clutching the mattress & when i opened my eyes the whole room was spinning out of control & i couldn't make it stop. If i closed my eyes things were still spinning, i just couldn't see where i was spinning to. As happens to me when anything out of the ordinary happens to my body, i then had the impulse to puke. I rushed to the toilet but couldn't throw up. I kneeled on the floor dry-heaving & sweating for a while & every time i tried to get up & eat or drink something i would get dizzy & sick again. The vertigo wouldn't pass. The only way i could keep it at bay was to go on a long walk around the city. But even later in the afternoon i kept getting dizzy spells & waves of nausea, especially if i laid my head down horizontal. Many of you would probably scoff at this & say, «that's nothing, once i blacked out & woke up in a gutter in Tijuana sleeping with a donkey... ». But for me, losing control of your senses, if only for a brief second is the most terrifying thing i can think of, perhaps why drugs never appealed to me.


Cruise (out of) control

When i first flashed about this vertigo episode in the 5cense quotidian, i mentioned maybe it had something to do with the Costa Concordia. I know there's more to it than this, as well as the wine cork thought i asked you to hold. But this whole cruise ship thing really did disturb me on a fundamental level. In so many ways it epitomizes Italy in a nutshell. Sometimes living in Italy is like being on a cruise ship—Italians & foreigners all living the good life, on the surface, floating along having a good time, not caring where we are going or who's in control. Meanwhile you have some idiot at the helm who decides to do a «drive-by» of an island to pay tribute to some other idiot comrade. It doesn't matter the captain's name, he's just many one of many—we may as well call him Berlusconi to fit the metaphor.

And whatever, shit happens. It's more of how it was handled after that deeply disturbs me. It frightens me & embarrasses me to even live in a country where such a thing could unravel. Rather than admit something was wrong & ask for help, they (those in position of control) panicked & tried to cover it up. Not just the captain, but when the coast guard called others on the ship they said they were just having an electrical problem & not to send help. Basically, how guilty children would react. And then an utter breakdown of communications took place on all levels. The captain famously «fell into a lifeboat» before the boat was evacuated, which everyone knows about at this point, just as everyone has no doubt heard the phone call where the coast guard captain yells at Schettino to «get back on the damn boat» & help with the evacuation. What's even more puzzling is that everyone in italy is declaring this coast guard captain a «hero» (I can't remember this guy's name either, but lets just call him Mario Monti to complete the metaphor). I mean, the guy had the right idea, but don't you need to actually do something to be a hero? (& shouldn't Obama have done something first to get the Nobel prize?). Schettino didn't return to the ship & save anybody, an orderly evacuation did not occur, so nothing was accomplished, amusing as it is to listen to the language of the phone conversation or use sounds bytes from it for your ringtone. The only «hero» is the deputy mayor of Giglio (Mario Pellegrini) who, if you believe the story, went on the first return lifeboat back to the Concordia to help rescue people. & i'm sure there are other unsung heroes we will never know about.

Costa Concoria wreck at night


Who wants to be a hero?

Not to be all America fuck yeah & preach about the merits of heroes, but let's compare Concordia with the World Trade Center. Not that I'm advocating for or saying i'd rush into a burning building to save people, but i certainly don't think i'd pull a George Costanza, which pretty much sums up Schettino's reaction. & i'm not thinking about things (blame-placing) so much on a personal level as on a systems level, a country level. I've been thinking some (thanks to the starlings & David Byrne's recent «You da Boss?» post) about self-organization & collective behavior—how a society, like birds or ants, act or react to further the cause of the group as a whole. I probably wouldn't rush into a burning building because it's not my duty—i think about things too much before doing them. I'm not sure what my role is in whatever self-organizing system i belong to, but i've never had ambitions to be a firefighter or a boat captain. I don't know what chemical signal i got when i swiped my antennae against other comrades' antennae (perhaps it was something like «go forage»), but i certainly know it wasn't «be a firefighter» nor «be the captain of a cruise ship», because presumably (as theory goes) there were already enough people filling that niche. I wasn't born with sea legs & certainly would never willingly set foot on a cruise ship (though i did have an interview/trial once to work on one of those gambling cruise boats off the shore of Georgia & was sicker than the seasick passengers i was supposed to be tending to). One thing i do know, probably from reading Moby Dick or some such book, is that staying with the ship until the end is at the top of the list in a boat captain's job description. It might seem idiotic to someone selfish as me, but for the collective system (in this case, the boat) to properly function, there needs to be at least one person who «owns» the boat as if it were a part of him or her, otherwise all accountability for every individual in the system below him breaks down—which is what happened with Costa Concordia.


A history of vertigo & falling

Sorry to spin off on that tangent. I'll get back to why i started this post with a drawer full of wine corks. Actually i set out to write this post about running, but that seems to have been derailed, for now. The lesson i learned from Concordia, what frightened me & perhaps contributed to my «falling bed night terror» has to do with trust in the framework i live in, the necessity of unquestioning selfless discipline & the evident lack of control & faith in the powers that be i must feel in order to have a night terror like this. The interpretation of the dream is not rocket science (though i don't find the «falling bed» category in Jung's Dreams, which currently graces my bedside). And it wasn't so much a dream as a feeling in between sleeping & waking (& perhaps has to do with the tenuousness of the connection between the two). To me, what a bed-falling night-mare/terror means is that i'm losing control, or fear i'm losing control of the fabric/framework of my subconscious mind.

I used to have a lot of your standard falling dreams when i was a kid, but stopped having them when i took up rock-climbing (in fact this was one of the reasons i started climbing was to conquer, to control, this fear of heights). Now, more often than not, if i'm mid-air in a dream i'm flying, in control. Except for this bed-falling dream/terror, which i've had a few times now (though never before as frightening & prolonged as this). And it's not the first time i've had vertigo, though this was definitely the worst spell. On all three memorable occasions, drinking was involved, but on all 3 occasions not anymore than any other given night. Robert Lopez & anyone who was at AWP in Atlanta in 2007 witnessed the first episode. I had 2-3 glasses of wine somewhere & the next morning i woke up, my head spinning, reeling for the toilet. I had to man the table at the bookfair & every 20 minutes or so i had to abandon the table (into the capable hands of Cooper Renner, who thankfully was at the neighboring table) & run for the bathroom. I'm sure everyone thought i was your typical literary lush with a hangover, scoring points for me in many people's eyes. The second time it happened, last fall in Brooklyn, i'd had even less to drink, one or two beers if i remember, but someone brought us some sort of specialty rock candy (basically pure sugar). So i ate a bunch of blue rock candy right before going to sleep. The next morning i woke up early & worked out, ate something, then my head started reeling & i went back to bed & slept it off. This most recent time i had a half a bottle of wine, but then towards midnight i ate a large almond cookie with powdered sugar that our neighbors brought us from Spain.


C6H12O6

This said, perhaps sugar had something to do with it, screwing with my blood chemistry, which is sort of how i felt, high or low blood sugar, i wouldn't even know the difference, except that i felt imbalanced (hence the vertigo & feelings of falling). Eliminating sugar from the equation is a no-brainer. I don't even like sugar or sweet things (with the exception of ice cream). If people offer me candy or cookies or cake i eat it just because i'm a pig & will eat anything & everything that's in front of me. But i never like the taste & i certainly don't like how it makes you feel after. Done, sugar eliminated. Just please don't bake cookies for me or put candy in my stocking.


C2H5OH

Addressing alcohol consumption gets a bit trickier because, well, wine is good. And i love to eat & alcohol is tethered to culinary appreciation (what's sushi without sake, or tacos without beer?), not to mention one's social life & the general feeling of unwinding at the end of the day. And living in a land with abundant good cheap wine exacerbates the issue, especially with all the good food that goes so well with the wine. While Italy doesn't have the bingeing pub culture that the UK has, Italian culture has justified drinking as part of enjoying the fruits of life & if you're not drinking wine, you are not living. Same in France. I lived in France for a few months & came out of it feeling like an alcoholic. Had to stop drinking for a few months just to prove to myself i wasn't. In France & Italy, drinking is part of eating, part of life, la dolce vita. Especially since moving here, a meal at the end of the day doesn't feel complete without a bottle of wine. In fact, a day doesn't feel complete until you've had a glass of wine or two, or beer, or whatever alcoholic drink. Just like most of us can't start the day without  a cup of coffee (a whole 'nother subject... i have «quit» coffee before & there seemed to be no difference in my physical or mental well-being except life just seemed a bit more boring—for runners in fact, i think coffee is a good thing.)

There's basically been three 10-year stages to my history with drinking:

  • ages 15-25—i didn't drink. Not a drop (nor drugs). All through high school & college. I drank some & tried drugs before i was 15, but hated it & everything it stood for. And then my dad commit suicide when i was 15, as a direct result of his alcoholism i think you can safely say. And then I discovered Minor Threat (see the above) & the straight edge movement, which not only helped to rationalize this abstinent behavior as not only acceptable, but possibly even kind of cool. And to Ian Mackaye it wasn't so much about abstinence as control & accountability for your actions—something that struck a chord with me (except for the bit about not fucking—that made it seem like some moral code).
  • ages 25-35—i started drinking some. I prided myself that i could drink occasionally & responsibly, that i didn't feel like such a killjoy deadbeat when i showed up to the party & didn't drink. Ever notice how people seem to get uncomfortable when others don't drink with them? I didn't have much of a social life when i didn't drink except the one or two straight edge skaters i knew. Now i was accepted as «cool» if i could throw back a few beers, or «cultured» if i had a glass of wine with a meal. & then i got married & my drinking habits became tethered to j's, as happens.
  • ages 35-45—not sure how or when it happened, but we started drinking nightly. Not a lot, say a bottle of wine or less a night for both of us (with me drinking the lion's share). Never binged, but drank habitually, religiously with a good meal.

Not that i don't think alcohol has its merits or health benefits, especially wine. But i'm not going to go into the virtues or harmful side effects as alcohol affects everyone different & it obviously enhances a lot of peoples lives. Like there seems to be studies about how red wine has anti-oxidants or whatever. But lots of things are good for you, like blueberries, why not just eat blueberries? I can only speak as to my personal experience with alcohol. When it gets habitual & you don't think about it is when it gets to be a problem. For me it's a more an issue of having control over your life & not getting into habits that can spiral out of control or that conflict with other habits (namely running, which i will get into last).

Salvage divers in Concordia's dining hall

salvage divers in Concordia's dining hall [source]


Do winos dream of flying sheep?

One thing i'm sure of is that drinking screws with your sleep & dreaming cycles. These past years of habitual drinking my sleep has not been very restful. I spend 8 hours laying in bed, but often don't feel like it. And i tend to drink a lot of water to compensate for the alcohol, so i always have to get up to go to the bathroom at least once or twice a night. And lately during the day i've been feeling fatigued & often in need of a nap. And more depressed than i should be—the kind of depression that seems more due to chemical imbalance than psychological factors.

Another thing i've noticed in the years since i've been drinking habitually is the more i drink the less i dream. I used to dream & remember my dreams almost nightly, but when i look at my dream journals from the past 5 or 10 years there's very few entries. And dreaming used to be an important activity for me. All the «fictions» in my first collection, Poste Restante, were based on entries from my dream journals & they were mostly dreams from the 90s. The only dream i've had recently of interest was strangely about abandoning a cruise ship & a scorpion disguised as Fela Kuti wielding a fire hose. Now, after a few days of, dare i say, sobriety, i've already started dreaming again. In fact here's a dream entry from last night that i suspect also has something to do with the cruise ship & being a hero:

Brian Evenson was giving a lecture in the stairwell outside of our apartment (not sure where) at 1 a.m. His students were coming & going into our apartment without even knocking, making themselves at home, one even walked in on me as i was sitting on the toilet. Word went around that a neighbor up the road was having a problem & everyone mobilized to check it out. I started to go, then some woman shouted «don't come if you don't have a gun!». And I didn't have a gun, so i stayed behind, reluctantly but feeling justified. Then i saw j & some other women retreating back. J had an uzi which i took from her & told her to wait back in the safety of the apartment. I started going up to where the trouble was & these guys saw me & said «look, there's a guy with a gun» which i guess made me fair game. They came after me & i tried to hide & at the same time i was looking down at the uzi trying to figure out how it worked. I'd never fired a gun & didn't know the first thing about how to use it. There were all these switches & levers—there was a lot more to it than just pointing & pulling a trigger. I couldn't even fire a test round as it would've given myself away. I saw a guy coming toward me about to round the corner & was panicking, trying to figure out how the gun worked & whether to shoot him.... Later, we were clearing away corpses, and their appendages were bloated, making them look like pigs' feet.

Why Brian Evenson, I'm not sure. Sometimes i use him as a litmus test when gauging whether a bookstore is any good (if they stock him)—he's one of those writers on the cusp of being indie & «popular». He also stands, in my mind, as the godfather of literary horror. That & someone who has renounced his religious upbringing. The rest of the dream is pretty self-explanatory—me being okay with being a pussy, except when j was in harm's way, in which case i'd take her place, with the anxiety of not knowing what to do, not having any experience whatsoever with tools of violence. This also probably has something to do with her being attacked the other day by some crazy homeless man with a stick & a bottle of milk (don't worry, she got away, scared but unscathed) & she called me & i felt hopeless to do anything about it, knowing calling the police would be futile (tying back to my lack of faith in the Italian system).

Another thing worth noting is that when i had this bed-collapsing vertigo, i was sleeping alone (if you can call it sleep). J was traveling. She's been talking lately about cutting down on our drinking for her own reasons & it's come up the past few New Years & we perhaps «cut down» for a few weeks but then we gradually fall back into old habits. It is a habit we got in together & it's a habit we have to get out of together, but inevitably the decision to change needs to come from within, both need to independently make the decision & then the execution of your own will is something you do together.


Ark Codex ±0 & «letting it go»

«Finishing» the Ark Codex book also seems to be tied into all this, both as cause & effect. Ark Codex ±0 has been a product of this recent habitual behavior as these were the conditions the ark was built under (not that i typically write or make art while drinking—i usually write & make art mornings, under the influence of coffee).

And this episode of bed-collapsing vertigo was perhaps viscerally induced by the filming & editing of the video for Ark Codex ±0, which i was doing while i was drinking wine & eating that damn sugar-coated cookie from Málaga. The camera work is obviously shaky (sorry) & perhaps a bit jarring to the senses.

Perhaps watching this footage repeatedly while editing jaded my senses, triggering the vertigo—a sort of photosensitive epilepsy, fueled by the accompanying alcohol, sugar & lack of proper sleep. I was also reading somewhere that vertigo could be migraine-associated, that some people get migraines without getting a headache, just dizziness. I don't think i've ever had anything that really qualifies as a «headache» so i might fall into this category.

Or maybe it's Freudian—in some ways, an ark is a symbol of a bed & vice-versa. So me fearing the bed collapsing beneath me & waking up clutching it symbolized me not wanting to let it (Ark Codex ±0) go. My fear of its failure. I had control over the making of it (not that i'm claiming responsibility), but i have no control over others perception of it (which is a reoccurring theme in/of the book). This is all to say i need to exorcise it like some mutant child & let it live a life of its own.

The ark is a general symbol for a lot of things, at least in my mind. The ark could be a cruise ship (as evidenced by the referenced cruise ship dream above, which found its way (disguised obviously) into Ark Codex). The ark is a gene bank. The ark as holistic niche deconstruction. The ark as a coffin. The ark as collective death or a suicidal exodus. The ark i've been sleeping on the past few years, now slipping away from me. And now that Ark Codex ±0 is «finished» it's time to turn over a new leaf—to turn the page to another chapter. It's not so much a matter of «quitting» a habit, but focusing on another more productive one. Regaining control of your life. Some things you can't control (especially if you're stupid enough to book passage on a cruise ship)—have the serenity to accept that shit, or however the fuck that saying goes. And look to yourself, not some god, for the courage & wisdom bits.


Running on ethanol

Long before i started drinking, I was a runner. I started running in high school & have been running consistently ever since (except for my rock climbing/hiking period, or periods in NYC when we had gym memberships). If i don't run on a given day then i'll do something else physical & aerobic (i.e. listen to Fela Kuti & let my body do what it will). Running used to be something i wanted to do, that i looked forward to doing, while doing it. Lately it has been something i force myself to do. I like how i feel afterward, but sometimes it's hard to motivate myself & i just have to not think about it & do it. And there's this feeling that running somehow makes up for the drinking & eating, running as a sort of atonement.

If you saw me, you might think i look healthy & in shape. My lungs & my muscles feel good, I'm not fat. Just got back from the dentist this morning after not going for two years & he took one look in my mouth & called me a «bad patient» (for not giving him anything to fix). It's more the blood coursing through my muscles that feels off, imbalanced, when in a habitual drinking cycle. And this blood is what filters into the mind, that feeds into your psyche & sense of well-being.

In my mind, drinking & running (or any exercise) are mutually incompatible. Sure, people will talk about those French cyclists that guzzle wine while riding but that's cowboy bullshit. And i was reading some study about how drinking large quantities of beer helped in recovery for long distance runners. The problem is you have to drink insane quantities to get those benefits, so the only way to do that & not suffer all the other effects of that much alcohol is to drink non-alcoholic beer & what's the point of that? Why not just eat a fucking bagel? Again, i'm sure all sorts of claims can be made about this & that, but in my view all the benefits of habitual running are negated by habitual drinking, in a vicious cycle where one justifies the other (you feel good so you drink & then you feel bad so you run).

I know there are those haggard artist types (you know who you are, G) who are gonna give me crap about advocating exercising & clean living, but i promise not to judge you if you don't judge me. I'm not saying one way is better than the other. You could just as easily make the argument that running is hard on your body. If you do drink or smoke or shoot heroin, that's fine, just do it well & enjoy it. And if you don't enjoy it, well, change the channel. Even though it's been 20 years since i've seen Fisher King, a scene jumps out at me where Robin Williams' character, after hearing Jeff Bridges' character keep complaining about how he's trying to quit smoking (as he lights up another cigarette), tells him something to the affect of: «there are 2 types of people in the world, smokers & non-smokers. Decide which one you are & just be it.» Long ago i identified with being a runner (a straight-edge one to boot) & ever since i've been swayed in other directions to fit in. Now it's time to yield to old habits, to be true to myself.

Anyway, thanks for listening. I started this post with the intention of mapping out some running routes in Rome that keep me inspired to run, that i was going to share for anyone here needing running motivation, but it seems i've run out space so i'll save that for another post...



5cense
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