Old Tricks, Repackaged for a New Generation

“Yvette!  WE’RE GOING TO THE POT STORE,” my dad shouts from the driveway up to my bedroom window over the garage as if the message was in the all-caps print he favors.

“Great Dad. Now I and the rest of our neighbors know where you’ll be for the next hour or so.” Looking down, I can see my mom climbing into the passenger seat of Dad’s jumbo-jet sized, luxury SUV.

“And no one says pot anymore, by the way.  Say weed.  Or better yet, just dispensary.’”

I sound so like the snarky teen I once was that I have to do a mental check.  My dad’s awareness of marijuana had its foggy beginnings during my middle school years, when he shifted from beat cop to narcotics, grew his hair long, donned a uniform of loose peasant shirts, suede boots, and bell-bottom Levis, and played The Guess Who in our tangerine-colored family van.  He might have adopted the trappings, but he was miles from cool.  Shouting out his destination in our smartly landscaped, ethnically diverse, Tesla-littered cul-de-sac reminded me of his past indiscretions.

I surmise that properly identifying cannabis and recognizing its psychoactive effects might have posed a bit of a challenge for a small suburban police force back then, mostly because my oldest brother had the actual plants growing in our backyard that my dad routinely watered every weekend when he did yard work.  Dad could never tell when we were high, which was more often than not during those years.  I do remember him spouting the inflammatory prophecy of it being an evil “gateway drug” which would inexorably deliver its users into full blown heroin, cocaine, LSD, and/or psilocybin addiction.  (Though my siblings and I dabbled in those substances, most of us ended up in thrall to sporadic quantities of crystal meth – oh, the all-nighters studying, cleaning, organizing, writing!)

Now my parents are rabid, copious consumers of all things THC- and CBD-infused – cookies, gummy drops, oils, lotions, and patches.  Their dispensary expenditures routinely exceed $300-400 per month.  Nothing I would’ve ever predicted in 1975, but probably the most mind-altering consequence of living in a state where recreational marijuana use is legal.  (And heavily taxed, I might add.  HEAVILY.  Another example of liberals putting their money where their mouths are, I’m just saying.)

I reflect on this reality whenever I open my desk drawer and see my vape pens rolling around with the Pilot G-2s and Sharpies.  Getting high is such a mundane aspect of life these days, for many reasons preferable to imbibing alcohol, which used to be my go-to relaxant until I suffered a (very) scary bout of elevated liver enzymes a year ago.  Mostly I employ it as a soporific, taking a hit or two prior to shutting off the lights for bed.  Zonk – menopausal insomnia cured!   Occasionally, I’ll take it along for a coastline jog; nothing corrals the chattering distractions of the running brain like the hypnotic, looping effects of a little THC. But mostly I don’t think about it.  Unlike high school, I don’t have to deal with shady strangers on corners or someone’s lascivious cousin with his own apartment in Downey or the manager at the local pizzeria who charged a 200% markup over street prices but gave you a free pie as a cover.  I just drive the 2.6 miles to the local dispensary, park under the watchful gaze of the armed security guard, wait in line behind five other convivial senior citizens to present my ID to the woman at the front desk, and am buzzed through to an emporium of products presented in myriad flavors, sizes, strengths, and delivery mediums.  Capitalism has transformed the War on Drugs into a surprisingly pleasant shopping errand.

Subsequently, I don’t know if the high itself has changed or its integration into the routine of life has tamed its tantalizing qualities, but it certainly doesn’t hold, at least for me, the cachet that it once did.   When I was fourteen, my relationship with psychoactive substances sprang from the nascent desire to fathom the teleological difference, if there was any, between mind and brain. Suffused as I was with Buddhism, Beatnik writers, Schrödinger’s cat, Platonic ideals and rudimentary Catholic theology, one can imagine how effectively a marijuana high could contribute to my efforts.  Now, I just want to go to sleep.  Same feeling, different outcome.

I imagine that by fifty-seven I have followed all the less strenuous, non-academic, quasi-spiritual paths towards figuring out life’s meaning; the mental vistas currently afforded me by THC have become a bit mundane and claustrophobic. Is it maturity?  Monotony?  Resignation?  Smoking weed no longer promises the (wink-wink) mystical elevator into the absolute it once did.  By virtue of their legality, THC and CBD products are heavily regulated to be content verifiable and consistent.  Does this affect the nature of the high itself?  Certainly, smoking dope of this type is not the roulette’s wheel of my youth, when the whispered gems “Mexican Sinsemilla” or “Humboldt Indica” conveyed deluxe, transcendent properties sure to send the mental explorer catapulting into deep space but more reliably, come to think of it, fizzled out into blank stares and ill-advised snacking.  And there were a few, definitely uncomfortable occasions early on, after legalization but before I got the dosage right, when my thoughts caromed off into cramped and circular orbits that recalled the “bad trips” of my youth, anxiety-fraught treks through ricochet-laden mental environs that are even less enticing after so long abiding in the world of forethought and consequences.

Perhaps what I am really yearning for is that breath-stealing, soul-melting experience of magic mushrooms or E(cstasy) kicking in, when the boundary between mind and brain dissolves, liquefying into a non-question, any answer irrelevant to the numinous revelations pouring from within and without. But, of course, when one is fifty-seven there is a larger context underpinning the choice of what to ingest into one’s corpus: will this kill me? Weaken me? Make me healthier? Live longer, stronger, wiser?  Increasingly, the risk associated with most drugs outweighs their various temptations. I see now that death will always have the upper hand, catch me soon enough and provide all the outstanding answers to life’s Big Questions, anyway.

It does amuse me that, after all these years, I am coaching Dad on the socially appropriate way to reference his ‘gateway’ drug in the driveway of the same house where squad cars would periodically deposit my two truant younger brothers after they were caught smoking ‘pot’ in the flood control channel behind their high school.  How times have changed.  What was once the stuff of dire parental warnings and government propaganda has transformed into an AARP-touted pain-reliever and  a sleep-inducer for the Boomer generation.

Perhaps that’s what makes the high substantively different, in the end: anything your parents condone can’t be that much fun, right?

Story to Be Told

This one’s for you Maryam….

I’m one of those people who have spent a significant portion of their lives thinking about how to live, trying to ascertain what ‘happiness’ is, if it’s even something one should aspire to attain, and whether a goal-driven existence is conducive to remaining present, aware, and appreciative of what is.

For years, the conundrum presented by the role of time in shaping not just our experience of life, but how we orient ourselves toward it, has confounded me. Despite my perennial inability to grasp the mathematics that describe them, the theorems of quantum physics fascinate me, especially those that deal with time as a dimension contributing to our particular perception and subsequent construction of reality. We are, in essence, three-dimensional beings who conceptualize time as a separate force that moves us from point A to point B, even though quantum physics has shown us, time and time again (yes, pun intended,) that such is not the case and that time is merely another aspect of space. At the speed of light, the “flow” of time is arrested; one reaches the continuous, undifferentiated present. Nirvana, some might say.

All my life I have experienced moments – sometimes weeks and months – of existential panic: what am I doing, where am I headed, what is the purpose of my life? Am I applying myself diligently to becoming the best I can be? Should I be working harder, giving larger, eating better, exercising more, saving money for a rainy day, fretting about my health, perambulating the globe to see every little thing I can see? I remember, clearly, a definitive demarcation, a tipping point that shifted my internal monologue irrevocably: the moment I knew I was pregnant and heretofore responsible for another human life, my own interests and predilections were summarily shelved. Raising a child, to the best of my abilities (and that did ebb and flow throughout the years) became the plot of the narrative running through my head. I fall for this man because of his huge heart that embraces both me and my daughter; we move here because of the superior school system and safe neighborhoods; I take this job because the hours are conducive to child care; I pursue a graduate degree and further promotions to provide ballet lessons, cheerleading camp, soccer uniforms, ski vacations and chauffeured birthday trips to Disneyland; we create a decades-long routine of unwavering predictability, weather marital storms and abusive bosses, watch our waistlines expand and our alcohol consumption increase; celebrate milestones and mourn the passing of our own youthful energy and exuberance – all to realize the “goal” of raising a child.

Still, there would be nights, usually after a bottle of wine and a desultory attempt to distract myself with a novel, when I would lie staring at the four walls pressing in on me and my heart would begin to flutter, my pores would emit a sheen of cold sweat, and my breath would go in but not out of my chest. That rising panic, the sense that my life was infinitesimally small, that I would live and die in such an incredibly insignificant, flat, colorless and static space, that all the flagrant wanderlust and burning curiosity of my youth had fizzled out and come to nothing – eventually, these crescendo-ing concerns could be countered and soothed by reciting the mantra of parents the world over: I’m doing all this for him/her/them.

Of course, I know now (and probably knew even then, but couldn’t acknowledge it) that this was a just a storyline, a plausible justification for having lost my impetus for adventure and becoming averse to risk, for staying in a stultifying situation that oftentimes did not excite or delight me but provided steady progress toward commonly recognized and respected aspirations. And it did work, remarkably well, actually. We raised a mentally healthy, relatively well-adjusted and emotionally secure human being. It stopped working, however, once she fledged and left me squatting in the abandoned nest, fat and featherless, confronting a wide-open sky that suddenly terrified me in its boundlessness. It is dramatically fitting, I suppose, that it was the baby bird who called it: when I floated the idea of joining Peace Corps, of making a leap of faith into the prevailing winds, she retorted “Well, of course – what in the heck is keeping you here?”

I worried, during the final months of my service, that the existential panic might find its way back to me once I landed stateside. It had been effectively silenced in Moldova by the dramatic arc of overseas service; I had left my country, my family and friends, my language and culture and geography, all that was familiar and routine, to embark on a voluntary adventure that was socially worthy and required a long-term, steadfast commitment. Peace Corps was my new plot, the next volume in the story of my life. It was exciting and challenging and provided a plausible explanation for abandoning an unrewarding job search and depressed economic forecast. I was morally “excused” from any existential fretting for the next three years. It was glorious. Even though, sometime during my second year as a volunteer, I did acknowledge – honestly and without trying to color it differently – that this path I had chosen was just another story, a way of living harmoniously with the circumstances life had thrown at me.

Coming home, I was very conscious of the need to find a new story. My husband had relocated to Ohio – close to his family but far from mine – and I had no clear job prospects, nor any burning desire to have one. I knew my own tendencies, though: I would find some hypothetical timeline or yardstick marked by cultural-, demographic and/or gender-specific goals and then begin reactively taking my measurement against it. If I found myself lagging I would feel like shit about myself for a little (or a long) while and then find the least-stressful and most convenient way to prop myself up. Meanwhile, I would be projecting into a future when I would be decades older yet still alive and healthy and the country and the economy would still look the same and the money I had diligently earned and saved would be sufficient to allow me to live a worry-free existence. Or…I could just stop worrying. Stop measuring myself. Take my eyes off the road ahead and look around me. I could write myself a different story. Volume three. (I AM a multivolume set.)

I admit, I have been waiting for an existential panic attack like one waits for the other shoe. A bad thing happened to me: I lost my job. Then another bad thing happened: my husband lost his job. We were unemployed together for a year; he experienced additional months after I escaped to Moldova. Now I am back, still unemployed and likely to remain so for the unforeseeable future. What should I tell myself? That I need to climb back on the tired horse I’ve already ridden? Adopt the same plotline I had before? (But wait a minute – no child to blame it on…)

I’ve begun to realize that the story is absolutely mine to narrate. I can add in somber music and stormy clouds, a cast of indifferent characters, or a little wizard behind a curtain. I can pitch it as a comedy, a drama, or a cautionary tale. Before, I was a white, middle-class, educated, professionally employed, middle-aged parent who’d gone thick around the middle and a bit dull in the head but had attained the appropriate markers to deem myself a success. Even though I was virtually indistinguishable from so many others around me, I was comfortable that way. Until I wasn’t. Then, through a series of (what I now deem) fortunate circumstances I began to see the outline of a different narrative, another means of interpreting and integrating my circumstances. I could make up my own markers. (I think that’s one of the beautiful revelations of aging: one begins to see through the pre-ordained prescripts of society for what they are: a means of ensuring that a diverse, over-large population can live in close proximity without killing each other while stoking a centralized economy.) But as long as I continue to play by the meta-rules – don’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or murder people – I am not required to mindlessly adopt the values or life trajectory that a 21st century, capitalist, technologically-oriented, Western society proscribed for me in order to measure my own worth or the satisfaction I take from my experience. I am my own narrator, the arbiter of how my story is told.

In support of my expressed wish to further practice the craft of writing, my husband once presented me with a marvelous little book called Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau. In it, he tells the same innocuous tale – of a crowded bus at midday where one man accuses another of jostling him and subsequently moves to a different seat – ninety-nine different ways, employing, amongst a host of widely varying styles and interpretations, the sonnet and the alexandrine, a Cockney flair, a rhyming slang, pig Latin, an interrogative punch, and permutations by groups of 5, 6, 7 and 8 letters. It is a fascinating display of talent and a perfect illustration of how one seemingly insignificant episode can be cast in distinct molds that change one’s perception of the material.

I used to see this with the kids in foster care: the measure of their resiliency was often demonstrated by the nature of their narrative, what they told themselves about how they ended up where they were. Mostly, there were two or three variations on a victim ideology and these were generally the kids who were depressed, furious, or numb. But there were a notable few who took preternatural hold of their own script, who refused to adopt or fall back on the patterns of behavior that being abused, neglected, emotionally flayed and love starved typically generated. For whatever reason, they were exceptions to the rule. They captained their own ships; even though they did not sail their chosen seas, they decided when to hoist the sails, batten down the hatches, heave ballast, or correct their course. One definitely had the sense that they were in a position to both combat severe weather and soak up sunny skies. I admired them greatly and took courage from their buoyancy.

Currently, I have cast myself in the role of peripatetic celebrant, finding reasons to recognize, honor, and nurture my body, family, friends, skills, and curiosity. I’m not sure of the specific soundtrack yet, but know it has a lot of bass drums, trilling violins and maybe an accordion or two. I haven’t written any bad guys into the plot: perhaps I just haven’t reached that chapter yet or maybe this particular volume won’t call for them. But if some dramatic, unanticipated plot twist should occur and I find my current circumstances profoundly altered, I trust that – having owned and honed this remarkable storytelling ability that all of us time-driven beings have been gifted – I will continue to write my own lines and guide the development of my character.

I still ponder the nature of time and how it propels us seemingly forward but actually just enlarges our circumference, allowing us to take in and incorporate even more diverse aspects of experiential space-time. In occasional flights of existential fantasy, I sometimes extrapolate this to what the other side of life might be like: time-warp velocity to reach the speed of light when the point A to point B narrative is experienced in its totality and there is no distance between the moments and life becomes the iridescent, fabulous coalition of melded pointillist interpretations, kind of like those celebrity portraits comprised of hundreds of separate photos of the same person. When the “I” that is me and the “I” that is you are realized, finally, to be stories told from kaleidoscoping points of view by an unimaginably creative and powerful pulsing of possibility, in and out, in and out.

So many stories to be told. It’s good to be a writer.