2.15.2006

Spill the wine




Wine and I, we don't get along.  Wine has its own agenda, and I have mine, and rarely do our agendas match.  I want to drink and be merry, and wine wants me to contemplate death. 

I don't get drunk when I drink wine.  I feel dizzy and nauseous, and I feel like I'm going to die.  I feel like my brains are going to slowly bleed out of my eyes, in a mellow, wine-drunk kind of way.  I can't trust myself to not collapse on the ground and flap my arms like some prehistoric arm-flipper creature from the sea. 

The irony is that I really want to like wine.  Who doesn't?  There are so many varieties.  So many pretty bottles, and so many indelible shades of grape.  It's a lot of fun to go to a restaurant and order a bottle of wine.  There's no way you'd order the cheapest ten-dollar bottle on the list, but you don't have to feel cheap when you splurge and aim for the low-twenty dollar range.  You can ask the waiter what's good, and they'll suggest a bottle for you, and when you drink it you can feel like you got the best bottle on the list.  When they serve it, it's fun to watch the routine of uncorking the bottle, and be offered the initial pour, as if you're going to reject the bottle and send it back.  In Chicago, every other restaurant is BYO, so you can feel boho and carry your five-dollar Riesling in a sack to your corner Thai place, and sort of imagine that you're in some boho Thai place in Bangkok.

But all of those little peripheral, ritualistic elements to drinking wine become irrelevant once I actually drink the wine and start realizing my inner psychopath.  That brain-dead psycho nearly set off an international incident once.

When I was in college, I took two years of French, because I needed to have that much proficiency in a foreign language in order to graduate with a bachelor's degree.  I had taken two years of French some six or seven years earlier in high school, but I quickly resolved to forget every word of it on my last day in French class.  I was certain that I hadn't retained enough to test out of it in college, so I decided to start from scratch, now that I wasn't such a callow youth and actually saw the value in appreciating a culture other than my own.  Why I didn't direct that newfound international bonhomie towards Spanish, a language I might conceivably get some use out of, I don't really know.

All of the French professors at the college took part in something called French Table, or le table Francais, for those grading at home, every week at a local pub called Charlie's.  Basically it was a chance for all of the French professors and a few students to get together, get drunk on wine, speak French and listen to accordion music.  So one night I actually decided to go to the French Table, mainly because a couple friends of mine were going.

Things started well enough at the French Table. I was speaking tortured French with my friends and drinking wine.  I don't know what kind of wine; I just kept asking the bartender for white wine.  The more I drank and the longer the night wore along, the better I felt I was speaking French.  The atmosphere quickly reached that fever-pitch of the most frenzied kind of intoxicated evening.  The whole thing took a turn when I decided to dance with one of the professors, a slightly kooky middle-aged lady with white hair who was actually French.  I have no idea what prompted me to do so, but she said something to me, and I said back to her, "that's a very French thing to say."

I meant well, but long story short, it wasn't received well.  The way I knew I had lost the favor of the aforementioned French professor was whenever I met her in the hallway of the foreign languages building; when previously she would pass me with a congenial "bonjour, Jacques," she would thereafter meet me with a terse "hello, Jake". 

I spent the remainder of that evening lolling around blazing-drunk and paranoid.  The drunkenness was easily explained--glass after glass of anonymous white wine--but the paranoia was subtler, though certainly warranted.  When the evening had begun, they were heatedly discussing an incident that had recently put the French Table in the local paper.  Seems one of their students had fallen over dead soon after an evening with le table.  It turned out that he had some rare heart disease that quickly grew fatal after an evening of allegedly copious wine and song.  Something about wine made his heart simply stop beating.  The group was concerned, and quite rightly so, about the negative image that the incident would cast over their collective.  But in hindsight, I do not remember equal concern being waged over the recently departed.

Thereafter, and following many other surreal incidents, the drinking of wine has become entwined in my mind with death and mayhem.  There was once a time when I longed for the invocation of such qualities in concert with the ingestion of intoxicants, but too many times staring cold-blooded at death has convinced me that there will never be a way that wine and I will be drinking buddies. 

Getting drunk, getting wasted, getting high, getting stoned, those are all things to reckon with, things to do, and those all have their qualities.  But getting your brain strangled by death is another thing.  Hand me a can of Pabst, split a fifth of Seagram's 7 with me, pass me cool Manhattan, sure, I'm game.  Let's drink until we aren't thirsty.  But when it's time to envirez-vous, I'm afraid I'll have to pass.  It's for everyone's good.

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