Reading CNN’s news account describing the medical examiner’s findings regarding the cause of Amy Winehouse’s death made me realize again why I love the British. Their expression of the English language is so precise and efficient and gloriously formal. I love interviews with British citizens…even their lowest ranks articulate in a manner most Americans can’t approach.
Blood alcohol level, what the hell. In the U.S. this figure is commonly expressed as a percentage of alcohol in the bloodstream. A lot of people express this incorrectly because they don’t grasp the true nature of alcohol’s physiological effects and the pitifully small amounts required to cause the intoxicated wonders we see or read about in others (never in ourselves, of course). For instance, the legal driving limit in most states in the U.S. is 0.08 but I hear many people describe it as “.8,” or even “8.0” which is such a lethal dose that no one can ever reach that milestone, short of direct intravenous alcohol injection, because they would be dead long before. It is important that the “%” symbol not be used because “0.08” is a direct expression of the decimal value. Technically, adding the % symbol reduces the figure to a
tenth (oops, HUNDREDTH!) of what you intended. Try to explain to a drunk that 0.08 represents 8% of 1% of your blood.
According to CNN, “Winehouse’s blood-alcohol levels were 416 milligrams per 100 milliliters of blood, the inquest was told. The legal limit to drive in Britain is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood.”
So taking my rudimentary NAM arithmetic skills, I consider that there are 1000 grams in 1 liter (water, since not all substances have the same density, but water is a common basis). Essentially, 1 gram is equal to one milliliter (the milli- prefix denotes a thousand of something). By reducing the description to milligrams per milliliters, we are essentially maintaining the ratio, but expressing in micro-measurements which is the best approach used to describe alcohol’s presence in our blood in understandable terms we can relate to while eschewing a preponderance of confusing zeroes. Zeroes are not good. Not good at all. As perceptive, land-dwelling, three-dimensional-sensed humans, zero is not an instinctual concept we trigger throughout our living reality.
Now since blood alcohol level as represented in ‘Merica is expressed in the form of a percentage, the “milli” British description doesn’t trigger instant familiarity for most of us. However, armed with the knowledge that excruciating low levels of alcohol are responsible for tragedies such as Winehouse’s, and knowing that such low levels of alcoholic human assault can be described in terms of fractions of 1%, it is obvious that using milligrams as a default measure for alcohol “weight” present in the blood per milliliter allows us to describe and extrapolate the phenomena in comprehensible values as related to human alcohol toxicity.
By describing a milligram as a proportion of a milliliter, we are cementing the unit of alcohol intoxication as .001. Now if someone has 1 milligram of alcohol in their blood, they can be described as having a blood alcohol level of .001. At this BAL, you can legally operate a car in all states except Utah. By the way, I would venture to guess everybody has at least a .001 BAL since ethanol is a naturally occurring chemical reaction in all living humans, even those who haven’t touched a drop of booze since their birth (which is not living, IMO).
In Britain the legal limit for drinking and driving is 80 milligrams per milliliter. Using my previous conversion factor of mass/volume, we can now calculate that this is equal to 0.08, a legal BAL driving threshold apparently common in most of the civilized Western world.
Amy Winehouse’s BAL, at 416 milligrams per milliliter, simply meant that her blood alcohol level was approximately 0.42, which is certainly high and borderline fatal. Many people attain this staggering level without dying, but Winehouse’s history of alcohol and drug abuse and the resultant weakened physical state probably left her vulnerable to the lethal nature of such an alcohol level.
Another thing about the British.
“Death by Misadventure?”
I love that!
I think we need to bring that official terminology to America. Death by misadventure is such a biting indictment of life abused and defiled by the overzealous youthful shenanigans of misbehavior. Death by misadventure seems comical and glib considering the end result. Death is always serious and must be described in the gravest manner, isn’t it? Supplementing it with with the “misadventure” clarification makes it seem like a frolic in the park gone wrong. It is a very revealing glimpse into our appraisal and expectation of life and its abuse in this modern, death-aversion society, isn’t it?
Well, I’m here to announce life is one big Goddamned misadventure.
Why must we single out Winehouse or any of the other drug-addled misadventurous youth who routinely flee this mortal shitfest called Life? This life is one big oozing sloppy misadventure, my friends. We are lucky to be born, we are lucky to live, and ultimately, we are lucky to die. Our personal blip in this parade is a misadventure truly and completely.
Embrace the brevity and hollow symbolism of this foray on Earth and make it one grand misadventure worth telling your children about!