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Vertigo, Bacchanalia, and the Art of the Controlled Burn

How to set your life on fire without blowing it up, and why you might want to.

Vertigo is the wobbly feeling you get on the top of a building (or when you’re sick or drunk), often described as the feeling that you might fall. I’ve always experienced vertigo, however, as the feeling that I might jump. Apparently, psychologists have recently recognized this urge-to-jump, dubbed it the High Place Phenomenon, and determined that it’s fairly common, even among us happy-go-lucky, generally non-suicidal types.

I’ve experienced a similar urge when driving at night (the urge to swerve into oncoming traffic), and when holding a baby (the urge to drop the baby). After brushing up on my psychology texts, I feel confident enough in the normalcy of these urges to share them with you, right here in black and white (even though my sister might read this, perhaps while holding my fresh new gorgeous baby niece). 

I’m not actually going to jump off the building or swerve into traffic or drop the baby (fear not, dear sister!); there’s just something in the human psyche that can’t help but ask: what if you went ahead and ruined everything?

For the purposes of this piece, I’d like to extend the metaphor and say that I also experience vertigo as it pertains to my day-to-day life: the urge to blow up my mental health, my career, my money, and/or my marriage. I’ve thought, “what if instead of warming up my voice before this very-important show, I just drank this whole bottle of Jack?” or, “What if instead of paying my bills this month, I bought this airstream trailer off of Craigslist?” or, “what if instead of going home to my husband, I went home with that greasy-looking drummer? We could start a cover band, right here in Johnson City, and have eight kids, and plant an orchard full of peaches, like in that John Prine song.”

And again, it’s not that I really want to play a sloppy-drunken show, or have eight kids. In fact, I emphatically don’t want either of those things. It’s the vertiginous feeling that the workaday banalities of being a pretty happy person with a pretty decent life could be… spiced up, shall we say… by throwing a nice fat hand grenade smack into the garden party.

The Controlled Burn

A controlled burn is when somebody (usually a farmer or park ranger) sets fire to a piece of land on purpose, as a technique for “land management”. Controlled burns have been used for millennia, by all kinds of people all over the world. Wikipedia says, “controlled burning is conducted during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious, hotter fire”.

In other words, a controlled burn is a cute little manageable wildfire that people set on purpose, so that their homes and crops won’t be destroyed later by a bigger, angrier, less-manageable wildfire.

So in the spirit of the controlled burn, folks, I’m here today with a proposal. The next time you get that drop-the-baby, bang-the-drummer, hand-grenade-at-the-garden-party vertigo feeling:

What if you went ahead and ruined a few things?

Orgies, Carnivals, and Bacchanalia

Another thing that people around the world have done for millennia is dress up in costumes and go to parties to drink, fight, bang, yell, and sing all night, in relative anonymity.

One of my favorite historical examples of this phenomenon are The Bacchanalia, which became an “epidemic” in Rome around 200BC. According to some Roman guy called Livy (writing a couple centuries after-the-fact), the Bacchic cult - to the scandal of some echelons of Roman society - held “five, always nocturnal cult meetings a month, open to all social classes, ages and sexes; featuring wine-fueled violence and violent sexual promiscuity, in which the screams of the abused were drowned out by the din of drums and cymbals.”

Sure, we frown upon this sort of thing now. 

But on the other hand, we still have bars, and clubs, and festivals, and internet porn, and sex clubs and theme parks and Halloween. And some of us lucky bastards even have Mardi Gras, which is a direct descendent of the pagan orgiastic traditions of Europe (co-opted and packaged for resale by this other, tres-popular European religious cult called Christianity (maybe you’ve heard of it)). What are these things if not modern society’s attempt to contain and mollify those nasty little anti-social urges?

We humans are prone to revelry: drunkenness, violence, sex, shouting, singing, jumping from high places. We’ve tried for millennia, but we can’t seem to quit.

You can dress up us in suits, give us jobs and families to manage, and wedge us into churches and communities, but those urges still crackle just beneath the surface, threatening to burn us alive. If we don’t have a war to spend them on, you’d better give us a Bacchanal, or, by golly, we’ll make one of our own - and it might not be so elegantly contained.

The Bacchanalia, in other words, were a controlled burn.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a much-needed weekend retreat. We had just weathered a fairly major accidental wildfire, and although we managed to escape with most of our valuables, our ten-year partnership was feeling a bit brittle. We rented a cabin, packed up the dogs, and drove to the gulf coast.

The cabin didn’t have wifi or cable, but they had a TV with a primo selection of DVDs such as The Fast and The Furious, Madagascar 2, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the 2005 one, not the Hitchcock). So, after eating a lot of gulf shrimp, we hunkered down on the couch and popped one into the player.

In case you’ve forgotten this (admittedly pretty forgettable) movie: Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about a married couple who – although they happen to be the hottest human beings on earth (Brad & Angelina, in the role that landed them in an actual marriage) – are deeply ensconced in their domesticity, bored with each other, and no longer having sex.

(I can’t help but wonder, in the aftermath of Brangelina, whether their real-life marriage ever entered the too-bored-for-sex phase. It seems crazy, I know, but you have to admit  the possibility that it did. If that’s not a good argument for the stultifying power of domesticity, I don’t know what is!)

Over the course of the film, we find out that John and Jane Smith are actually both assassins, working for rival firms. Upon discovering each other’s identities, they are assigned the task of killing each other. They don’t, but before we are sure that they won’t, they have literally blown up their beautiful house, their fancy cars, and all their rich-people-stuff, with the extensive secret artillery they both had hidden in the oven/basement/closet. Not that shockingly, destroying their domestic life reminds them that they are married to the hottest human beings on earth, and their passion is re-ignited.

Mediocre though it was, I found myself laughing maniacally throughout the movie, and eventually bursting into tears.

“Bud,” I said (because that’s what we call each other), “I think we need to blow up our house.” 

We’re no Brangelina, sure. But like lots of couples, we’d been lulled by domestic bliss into a kind of stupor, and lost track of the fact that we are both super-sexy assassins. 

A Tiny Hand Grenade

So here’s my proposal.

Perhaps happiness cannot be achieved just by building a perfect domestic life; a life of daily exercise and organic juicing, with zero debt and a “landing strip” by the door with a little basket for your keys. 

Maybe it can’t be achieved even by building a perfect artistic life, full of inspiration and gobs of time to write; the sweet husband, two cuddly dogs, and a little studio in the backyard, with pots of succulents and a hundred-year-old guitar.

Perhaps building these lives of order and comfort will not be enough to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps, instead, we should be aiming to build lives that can withstand a little Bacchanalia.

I’m not sure what your particular Bacchanalia is, but I know this: it’s not something that falls roundly within the boundaries of domestic arrangements and socially acceptable behavior. It’s not a pedicure, or one Mimosa at brunch on the weekend. It’s something that scares you a little, and probably scares your family and your friends. It’s something ugly and shocking, and tantalizing and indulgent, and maybe confusing and inexplicable. It’s something your heart and body wants that your mind probably can’t fathom.

Do you already know what it is?

I’m proposing that true happiness might be found only by making room for that nasty, scary, shocking thing, right there inside your cute little life.

It’s finding a way to pay the bills and buy the airstream trailer, or (my personal favorite) bang the drummer and go home to the husband. It’s throwing just an ever-so-tiny grenade into the garden party, perhaps the itty-bitty grenade of your true personality and your actual feelings and thoughts, such as ‘fuck this garden party, I’m going home to watch Housewives and work on my dinosaur sculpture’, or whatever the case may be.

The point is, my little wildfires, sometimes something has got to burn. Wouldn’t we be better off if we named it now, and lit it up ourselves, instead of waiting until we are engulfed in flames? 



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