Telluride Daily Planet, Wednesday, February 17, 2010
We all know that it was distilled liquor made from wormwood (artemesia absinthium) and containing the compound thujone that reputedly made addicts of the avant-garde set living debauched but highly productive lives in Paris in the 20s. The brainy, brawny, beautiful ones who went mad even as they continued to write reams of great literature and paint piles of visionary canvases. Who only made time for smoky meals on café tables because that’s where, eventually, out would come they the ritual accoutrements of their deliciously, indecently potent substance of choice. A substance banned in this and many countries in 1915.
So imagine my surprise, while dragging my finger along the pretty bottles in a liquor store one day a few summers ago, when I discover that absinthe is legal again. I stop at a $50 bottle and pick it up. This is my brain, I think, polishing the familiar furniture of thought. But what is my brain on absinthe?
On my way home, I bump into a seamstress friend busily turning plastic bags into cool belts. When she sees my bottle, she tells me she gets her absinthe online, and, pointing at my purchase and in her husky voice adds, “That’s not the green kind. And it’s a little too anisette-y.” Her eyes never leave the bottle. “But it still makes me want some right now.”
I smile and move on. Right now is not good enough for the blitzkrieg of inspiration I’m imagining. But how then shall I taste it for the first time? Alone? During the day or at night? I can’t really imagine a daytime revelation unless I’m in the forest or the desert. And then … what if I get lost? What if, naked, hammered and confused, I find myself curled into a fetal ball with no revelation except that my body is numb and I’ll be lucky if I can call someone to collect me. If I can find my pants, that is, on the dark forest floor. And my phone, which is black, like small rotting forest-floor things.
I settle on flint-sparking the thujone in my own tiny backyard under zillions of stars on a clear night. Just as soon as it stops raining, I’ll touch the sky. But it doesn’t stop raining. It doesn’t stop and so I have to wait; and when you’re waiting, troubles often sneak in under the door, and the next thing you know you’ve devolved into a naked ape again. A poor communicator. A self-involved and even self-pitying biped. That’s when you forget your plan and pour yourself a shot from the new bottle.
Sure enough, it’s not even green. It’s clear and looks like something you’d pour onto the coals before grilling salmon, or clean combs in, or dab on a nasty cat scratch. Nevertheless, you down the stuff in one gulp. It burns — oddly, sort of like gasoline from a car made of licorice. And then? And then? Nothing. Your life — though slightly out of focus — is still at your ankles, like a small animal — a weasel — about to bite.
Though I’ve enjoyed spirits in my life, alcohol has always seemed rather rudimentary. I mean, because fermented beverages have been around since the Neolithic period 10,000 years ago, part of me believes we should have at least progressed to how it’s handled on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where color-coded beverages make easy science of mood enhancement. Captain Jean-Luc Picard doesn’t belly up for the one-note buzz of tequila or Scotch, let alone something as unpredictable as absinthe. He simply knows, asking for the blue stuff, that he needs a little more perk in his step, or confidence at the helm, or more patience with less perfect creatures.
As a race, we’re not there yet. I’m so not there, I continue to drink absinthe with grilled salmon and zucchini despite good form, good manners and good taste. That weasel is now tightening the bolts of my third eye. Instead of opening up to other-worldly muses, I am narrowing, viewing life through a smaller and smaller lens until it snaps shut and I fall asleep.
The next morning, a rainy one, The Green Fairy has devolved into an ugly stepsister. She’s an ordinary drink that causes ordinary pain. I sigh. Plop an Alka-Seltzer, the one drug I really believe in, into a glass of water. As the tablet floats to the surface, propelling itself with tiny bubbles, I find myself wishing it came in blue, pink, yellow, and green so that I could at least pretend to a color-coded choice of kinder and fizzier moods.
Next time, I tell myself, instead of thujone, maybe I’ll just ask myself, WWJD? What would Jean-Luc do? Because this I feel certain would serve me better in the long run.