Letter of Recommendation: Hangovers

I used to loathe hangovers. I used to keep my bedside table stacked with bananas, Pedialyte, do-­it-­yourself guides to bootleg saline. Home from nights out, I used to dis- and replace fluids with the verve of an undertaker. I tried every which way to delay the inevitable. Still I woke up hung over, of course. Blanched in the a.m. sun, feeling like death, I used to offer up that childish, transactional petition: I promise I’ll never do this again if you just make it hurt less.

This all changed when I published a book and went on a meager tour in support of it. Over the course of a few months, I traveled to strange places, got up in front of strange people, read from the same passage over and over again until the words went strange in my mouth. I was a ‘‘social drinker’’ most every night. Which is why lately I’ve begun to wonder whether hangovers, while certainly unpleasant, might have value. I’ve begun to think that they could be useful if deployed situationally. I’ve begun to believe that they’re so much more than just the hellish yin to drinking’s yang.

Achieving hangover is a quick, simple way to take one step back from everyday reality. How quick and how simple? A third or so of a $17 bottle of Old Overholt should suffice. Just enough to level off the fill line at the neckerchief of the Ned-­Beatty-­looking Whig on the label. Drink that over the course of two hours, possibly surreptitiously, possibly on the night train to Albany, and you’re halfway there.

And the next day? Do you not so much wake up as get ejected, gasping, into the too-­bright morning? Yes. Is there a dusty thudding inside your head? Of course. Does your mouth taste like a desert sin? We’re all adults here; we know from the physical chastisements of the hangover. But it’s the metaphysical insights opened up by these physical scourges that I’ve been reflecting on lately.

For instance: Physically, a single fritzing nerve might be causing my left eyelid to flutter uncontrollably, and my skull feels as if it has been pitted with a large-­gauge melon baller. Metaphysically, though, I am pretty certain that my soul has been shucked. There’s a weightlessness about my hung-over person, this sense that whatever normally holds me in place, moors me to myself, has been untethered. In this state, I feel as if I can lean away from my eyeballs, treat my body like a deer blind.

Haven’t you ever longed to see your life through fresh eyes? Appraise it from a different vantage? Wouldn’t it be nice if, for one day, you could squint at the world as if through a peephole, asking each and every unannounced caller, ‘‘Excuse me, what?’’ Because you can do that with a hangover. Though you may feel physically incapable of doing anything with a hangover, you can actually do anything with a hangover. You need to meet a random dude at the Memphis airport, sleep on his sectional? You need to be ‘‘in conversation’’ with an audience of eight, three of whom are employees of the venue, the rest of whom are snoring, heads canted back, possibly indigent, because it’s warm in here? Get hung over.

Hung over, you cannot fixate on the nauseating future, because the present is nauseating enough. The day doesn’t overinflate with deferred possibility. You’re freed from those fears of missing out. You’re literally out of sync. What’s more, you find yourself relieved of your cringing niceness, your longing to be liked. When you’re wrung out, you are sprung — momentarily — from the ­prison of postindustrial etiquette.

Your body is in pain, yes; relatively minor pain. But pain now is such a rare part of our lives that reintroducing even the most manageable dosage of it basi­cally neutralizes self-­consciousness. For, you see, self-­consciousness is lily-­livered, and it flees from the mildest pain’s approach. Your problems don’t sound like ‘‘your’’ problems on this day. They sound like the problems of someone else, someone you don’t particularly care for or even want to listen to right now.

Meaning, I think, that the hangover is a little reminiscent of the old idea of genius. Not our contemporary one; not genius as someone who arrives pre­loaded with knowledge or skill. I’m talking about genius as animating spirit. Genius as something that enters you, moves through you — but only after you’ve cleared out enough of yourself to make room. It’s a state in which all these unbidden thoughts and perceptions and associations are allowed to wander in and out and linger, because the manic doorman that is your discretion clocked out early last night and took today off.

Without this discretion, I find that everything in my field of vision reveals itself to be ludicrous, if not vaguely miraculous. I tend to laugh a lot when I’m hung over. Say I’m at a rest-stop Taco Bell, waiting in the runoff line for my $14 worth of meat-­and-­cheese boluses while my airport shuttle idles outside. Look at these people, I’ll think, watching a man in riding pants tear into an Enchirito. Look at this life! I asked for none of this, no, but here I am, accident or not, indebted to a world that was here waiting for me regardless of my gratitude, which is the dictionary definition of a gift, and — ‘‘I’M NO. 263! RIGHT HERE!’’

The next morning, by virtue of not being hung over, I appreciate sunshine and my right mind as I haven’t since the last time I woke up un-hung-over. Maybe I put on the orchestral theme to ‘‘Jurassic Park.’’ Maybe I open a window, extend a finger, let a songbird alight on me. Who knows. Will this feeling last? Of course not. But for one day, at least, I am graced with thanksgiving. Having gotten my foretaste of the grave, I roll away my stone