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A Brief History of the ‘Lost Weekend’

The naked shark swimmer on the run after a Medieval Times brawl adds to a long history of legendary shitshows

When a man jumps naked into an aquarium shark tank just hours after allegedly assaulting someone outside a Medieval Times dinner show on a Friday night, I realize it’s hard to get past the headline.

But if you read a little further, the story becomes more unbelievable still. The general manager of Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Peter Doyle, having patiently explained why it’s dangerous to skinny-dip with large, carnivorous fish, offered a surprising assessment of the guy who did, paraphrased in the National Post:

“Doyle said the man did not appear to be intoxicated.”

Question: The fuck? Who does this shit sober? Only, perhaps, a lunatic with a purist’s understanding of what it means to embark on a “lost weekend.”

For while it’s true that the phenomenon is typically associated with some type of binge — drink, drug or sex, and often all of the above — the lost weekend is mostly about being a complete shitshow in ways you will undoubtedly come to regret.

Consider the acclaimed Charles Jackson novel (and Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of) The Lost Weekend, a 1944 semi-autobiographical noir that popularized the term. The story follows the descent of an alcoholic writer, Don Birnam, during a catastrophic five-day binge. His bad behavior is fueled by rye whiskey, but more broadly, it’s a metaphor of man’s definitional self-destruction: Birnam tries to steal women’s purses, makes his loved ones miserable, pawns his typewriter for money and knocks himself out on a banister in a drunken haze.

But the Toronto aquarium-jumper and Medieval Times brawler was reportedly not alone in his journey of jackassery. Once he climbed out of the shark tank, he retrieved (some of) his clothes from a woman at the scene, and the pair fled together. If indeed his reprobate antics were not inspired by any chemical intake, it’s nevertheless still possible they were the result of erotic mania. Who among us hasn’t gone way too far to impress a thrill-seeking romantic partner, or even just our friends? I’m thinking of the drunk Welshman now infamous for, in the midst of a multi-day Las Vegas bachelor party bender, becoming the first person to swim across the Hoover Dam without dying — twice. He may have earned his bragging rights, but he still had to pay a $330 fine for the stunt.

If your goal in the lost weekend is to create a timeless memory of foolish bravado, however, relying on alcohol to get there tends to undermine the object: Drinking hard and long enough makes for extended blackouts during which the brain is literally incapable of forming new memories. Alcohol particularly interferes with neurotransmitters in the hippocampus that play a crucial role in creating long-term memories. Meanwhile, your short-term memory is relatively unaffected, which means you will know exactly what you did to make a bunch of dudes at the bar start hitting you with pool cues — you just won’t recall where you got the bruises from later on.

Still, the Hoover Dam case gives another wrinkle to the lore of the lost weekend, however: the occasional positive outcome. In the chaos, there can be triumph. Sure, Mad Men’s Don Draper botches a client pitch for Life cereal and blacks out for an entire Saturday in the lost-weekend episode “Waldorf Stories,” waking only to get chewed out for not showing up to watch the kids the following morning, but he also had lots of meaningless sex and won a prestigious award! Similarly, John Lennon’s legendary “lost weekend” of some 18 months in the mid-1970s, during which he lived and had an affair with May Pang and reached new heights of sybaritic excess, spawned three solo albums and saw him produce many more, and its end was marked by a loving reconciliation with Yoko Ono. But it’s understandable, I guess, that people choose to focus on the night he and Harry Nilsson got shitfaced and thrown out of a nightclub for heckling the Smothers Brothers.

Because, contrary to what we might say, we do want to see that actions have consequences, even for a coked-out Beatle. The lost weekend fantasy is that of a raucous, freewheeling, pseudo-criminal good time unmarred by run-ins with law enforcement or anyone else who might present a roadblock to our vortex of dangerous hedonism. But reality rarely permits such a run of fortune for anyone bent on acting like an invincible idiot. Even when we evade arrest or injury or a bill for damages, we’ll need an entire day in bed just to nurse the hangover. That a weekend can be “lost” at all would seem to suggest that, when it finally winds down, something will have to be found — probably in the form of the shame you jettisoned in order to go buck wild.

And speaking of finding things, the cops still haven’t turned up that Canadian madman; they’re asking the public for help in locating a suspect, David Weaver, whom they believe to be driving a green Dodge Caravan with British Columbia plates. Could he have found a road that leads to a lost weekend everlasting? Doubtful. Sooner or later, that recklessness catches up to you. The next sharks might not be so friendly.