Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Read this preview chapter of a new memoir, promised in the review of "Running With Scissors" in our Nov. 20 print issue

Here is Chapter Four of the memoir-in-progress, My Life and High Times, which loosely emulates James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, in covering about the same period of my life as his memoir did his--my life also serendipitously suggesting chapter titles that, again, echo Thurber's. I wish I could also say the writing is similar and, especially, that the humorous touch is as light as his. I tried, but alas, my style is my own, such as it is. And it's my life, anyway. Welcome to it ...

The title of this chapter alludes to Thurber's "The Day the Dam Broke." I dedicate it to my two wonderful, more or less drug-free children, now that they are adults and the question of obtaining custody is entirely moot.

Chapter Three

The Day All Hell Broke Loose
© 2006. All rights reserved.

In “those years,” my friends and I, like all subcultures, had our own little set of code words and specialized slang. In addition to articulated grunts, squeaks, clicks, whistles, whoops and burps, we also used a number of made-up words (or regular words with special meanings), the general import of all of which was that we were really cool. (We didn’t do too much with secret hand gestures or handshakes, though Colby Pressley and I did get in trouble once in 7th grade for what Mrs. Koontz oddly assumed were some kind of sexually suggestive finger motions. Actually, here’s what was going on: There was some odd bit of wispy lint or fuzz that I had noticed floating across the room toward me among the thousands of more minute motes and dust specks visible in a broad shaft of sunlight stabbing though our English classroom one slow afternoon. Now distracted from the blackboard exercises in grammar trees, I snatched the lazily wafting piece of fuzz, and, by rubbing my thumb and forefinger together, managed to re-release it, in Colby’s direction. We played “catch” for a few slo-mo back-and-forths with the amazing wisp of fuzz, but meanwhile, all Mrs. Koontz could see was that we were intermittently rubbing our thumb and finger together across the room at each other. After we failed to take the import of her deadly glare, she called us to her desk, where we cleared up the misunderstanding. I suppose we produced the fuzz-bit as evidence, though in my view, her guess that we were making some kind of dirty gesture was more outlandish than the real story. Jeez.)
Some of our druggie-era slang included “berry-face”: an allusion to someone having a beaming, perhaps even flushed face, though the beatific grin was the real clincher. This term was drawn from our fascination, when tripping, with the ripe dogwood berries ubiquitous around our landscape. These autumn adornments are a shiny bright scarlet as ordinarily beheld--and incandescent little drops of immanent godhead when you’re hallucinating. Another, more made-up term was “neckle-nozle peacock-eyes,” which referred to the eyes of someone having an LSD experience--luminous, shiny, and with telltale dilated pupils. Stan, one of the more creative, and correspondingly unstable, members of our little clique, came up with this one, among others.
So, just as smoking pot itself is kind of child’s play, the slang that comes from that part of stoner culture is clearly infantile compared to mature expressions such as this highly abbreviated version of our LSD-related lexicon. As for getting initiated into that subcultural niche, there’s a first time for everyone.
Mine came on an otherwise inauspicious Saturday, during the year when I was already seeing a counselor as part of a small group with some other “troubled but salvageable” kids. I suppose I was sent there as the outcome of a series of misadventures beginning with the time I didn’t come home till 3 a.m., which was about two days past curfew when I was 14. You see, as the youth theater’s “Fiddler on the Roof” opening night party wound down (I played one of kids betrothed to the younger girls, a non-speaking part--and worked behind the scenes on sets and lighting), Gordon, the lighting designer, and Wayne, another really cool older guy, asked if I wanted to go to some girl’s house where we would “get laid,” they promised. (It was a big gyp, of course; and moreover, the night’s featured coquette, Karen Hyde, was, years later, a thorn in my side in a Philosophy of Religion class at the local U., where I was an East-leaning atheist, and she was at that juncture a born-again Baptist. Gordon, who lived in William Jennings Bryan’s old home, actually somehow ended up coming over to my house to go to bat for me against the more dire punishments my parents had in mind. As a ressult, I ended up grounded for a month, sans the eight hours of rock-bustin’ on non-school days.)
I think the event immediately triggering the counseling, though, was when Stan, Drew, Steve Ward and I ended up having to be picked up at the police station at 1 a.m. by our parents, who were a little peeved about it. Drew and I had been spending the night at Stan’s and we snuck out and met Steve, and all went over to Robin Young’s, and we were throwing pebbles at her bedroom window, to get her to come out too, except we actually had no idea which was her window. Perhaps her parents thought it was a light shower of very small meteorites--although if I thought that, I would probably turn on the radio for a civil defense message, rather than calling the police. Jeez.
One of the other counseling participants was a girl with trichtilomania, which means she pulled her own hair out in handfuls. I think it was was whispering offensive come-ons in her right ear. She would have been kind of cute, too, except ... you know those dolls that little girls play with, with the synthetic hair, and after a few years, you can see the pattern of holes in their pink rubber scalp that the hair no longer hides?
There was another kid in the counseling, too, whose misdeeds I was never clear on. I hung out at his house a few times, and I think it reassured both sets of parents that our activity together never went beyond “listlessness.”
Our counselor was Don Boone, M.S.W., an early “tough-love” advocate who looked kind of like Dr. Phil except his shaved head and ears were shaped more like Henry’s, the silent kid from the comics. He comes into this story again later, in peanut-headed cameo.
So, this one Saturday, I was to meet this black kid named Daniel at Montford Park, in the once stately but now seedier part of town that my sister now lives in now that it’s getting gentrified all over again. I waited forever ... the kind of forever that, the longer you wait, the more sure you are you’ll just have missed the guy, and after all that time invested, too! He did eventually show up. From my own commerce, I later understood how little it may have been worth it to him to meet some suburban nerd just to sell a $3 pill.
The pill was, I think, Purple Barrel acid, which is just like the name sounds. I took it then and there, and that was the fatal mistake.
I already knew academically that LSD trips could last twelve to sixteen hours or more. I knew this from reading Dr. Joel Fort’s books about treating wacked-out druggies in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the ’60s. That’s where also I learned Valium could keep me from going over the bright orange edge into the rabbit-hole of irreversible madness, if I had taken anything labeled “Eat Me.” I also checked the overdose level and “contraindications” of various fun pharmaceuticals such as Obedrin LA (a form of prescribed amphetamine--a white pill infused with flecks of red fun-crystals, and called “Strawberry Shortcake” by the depraved) and oxycodone (Percodan, or synthetic morphine), in my girlfriend Jennifer’s decased father’s Physician’s Desk Reference before lightly and casually abusing them.
I was a rebel, a bad kid--but also a Nice Jewish Boy. OK, I was a nerd.
Anyway, I took the acid, then started walking toward the east side of downtown from Montford, where I would be able to more directly hitch-hike my way to Jennifer’s house. This was about 3 in the afternoon.
Jennifer’s mom was one of those “pal” kind of parents who make their home a hospitable hangout for her daughters’ friends--in the spaces between shrieking at one or both of her female offspring, driving them to tears (and booze, drugs and the comforting embrace of horny young boys). Tina drank Champales all day with no evident effect except that it made her oblivious to our oblique derision. By the time she switched to vodka tonics in the evening, teasing her became a complete waste of breath, but she took up the slack by berating her friend Edward, who could also often be found hanging around the Vernon house. The tragedy of his having been a lobotomy patient made teasing him a little too guilt-ridden an exercise for outsiders, but at least we could watch the Vernons, including elementary-school-age Betsy and Billy, mess with his head.
Edward wasn’t there that day, but Don Boone, who also had a therapeutic relationship, separately, with the Vernons, dropped by. I smugly, breezily said “Hi” to Don, who himself kind of breezed in and out, and that was about the last breezy thing to take place that day, as my trip then moved from the phase of fascinating and peculiar physical sensations to one of total, tongue-tying, jaw-dropping mystical awe. So, had we run into one another a few minutes later, Don would have had the advantage. Even Edward.
The physical effects: First, “electric teeth.” Speed, I later learned, tends to make you clench your jaw and grind your teeth with an involuntary, pit-bull-like resolve. Acid has a similar effect, except your teeth tingle tantalizingly even before you, if instead under the influence of amphetamines, would have loosened them from the jawbone. So, you commence to clack them lightly together, and on contact, they seem to conduct the tingly electric current emanating from the big brain starting to wiggle and writhe nearby, elsewhere in your skull. And, as you slowly separate your choppers, or bring them nearly back together, uppers seem to repel lowers, as if like poles of a magnet. (I bet that happens even if you have ceramic, not metallic, fillings. It would be interesting to see what would happen if old people did acid: What about when they take their dentures out at night? Remember that old novelty toy, the wind-up clattering teeth? The idea must have come from somewhere ...)
This “electric teeth” phenomenon could occupy you for hours if not for the other things that begin to happen. These “other things” represent the transformation of perceptual distortions limited to one’s own body, into ones that start to involve the outside world. (Though these also start to raise the old question, left unanswered by most people back in infancy, and forgotten, as seemingly obvious: Where does my “self” end and the “outside world” begin? On acid, perceptually, the question regains some fascination, if not urgency ...)
One of these effects is “trails”--stubbornly persistent after-images of things in motion. Such as your arms--looking like they’re still where they were at the same time they appear to be where they now are (and at all points in between)--which you may begin constantly waving across your field of vision, watching the “trails.” If otherwise supple, you may be able to trick sober observers into thinking you’re practicing belly-dancing, with its accompanying, meaningful hand movements, while you’re actually watching “trails.” And even if you’re not too supple, and don’t fool anyone, this still might be good exercise.
(See Appendix A for a discussion of the phamacological basis of “trails” and other perceptual distortions caused by LSD, which occupies the receptor sites of the inhibitory neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain’s synapses. See Appendix B for what this implies about modern-day SSRI-type antidepressants, and how the confident social functioning they promote in many patients represents the opposite pole from profound insight into the nature of the Self and a mystical attunement with the Tao. In so many words, Prozac is firmly at odds with dedicated navel-gazing.)
As for this story, you may be worrying that not much hell has broken loose yet, and it is already almost, oh ... about 7 p.m. on The Day All Hell Broke Loose. That’s all right, it’s about to.
What happened was that my dinnertime absence triggered some implacable calling around to my friends’ houses by my Mom. She finally called Jennifer’s, where Tina informed her that I was there. This betrayal is distressing; given my condition, she could at least have informed her that I was not all there. Actually, I think the news was that I had been there; then I had walked over to Stan’s, and was picked up by my Mom en route back to Jennifer’s--this made all the easier by the fact that walking the black asphalt road had begun to seem like slogging though wet but shifting sand, the way the novel, geometrically shifting composition of the paved surface seemed to be trying to convert the substance of my tennis shoes likewise, to absorb them into itself. So, when my mom drove up, I couldn’t get away very fast, and she got me into the car.
(The “crystalline, geometric” thing is another characteristic perceptual effect that, fortunately, is there to take over when the novelty of “trails” may begin to wear off. That “crystalline, geometric” appearance that all surfaces begin to take on, at the same time renders everything as seemingly alive, organically interconnected, so that boundaries between things seem less significant. And, ordinarily nondescript things can become intricately beautiful. At Jennifer’s for instance, the wall-to-wall blue carpeting with yellow stains of dog pee here and there appeared like a splendid Oriental carpet--and their dog wasn’t even a Pekingese (much less a Shar-Pei or Shih-Tsu), but rather a regular old American Standard poodle.
With everything also pulsing, shimmering, undulating and so on, this is when things--such as your face in the mirror--can seem to the ill-prepared to be melting or morphing into Yourself As an Old Man, or a decaying corpse, or your cousin Joey who everybody used to say you looked so much like, while pinching both your cheeks. This is a good time to try NOT to freak out. It’s not OK to punch a feeble old aunt just because she’s pinching your cheek, no matter how much a painful pinch interferes with your cheek’s organic oneness with the All. (A warning, though: In this condition, when you may begin to feel “one” with Joey, or that you really can’t tell where you end and Outer Reality begins--neither of these realizations is conducive to acing midterm exams.)
Upon arriving home, I was ushered into my parents’ bedroom, where my Dad was waiting, kind of irritated, I suppose. His blood pressure, barely controlled at the best of times, was pounding in my supersenses. His face appeared to me livid, bloated with blood, like a rotting tomato filled with noxious gases and about to burst. “Nice berry-face, Dad!” I thought. At least, I think I only thought it, though he then lashed out at me, knocking off my glasses. I picked them back up and put them on, inarticulately indicating I had something of great importance to say. This at least forestalled further blows. I don’t think my Dad really wanted to hit me; he was just acting out the pre-programmed robot-like motions of a straight, unevolved mortal, so my Buddha-nature showered him invisibly with my compassion.
Thus, we all became aware of the futility of the interview, and I was allowed to go to the kitchen for the supper they had saved for me, oh boy! I was transfixed for a while, gazing at the awesomeness of the last few bits of soap suds valiantly hanging in there against the ravages of grease in the hamburger griddle, soaking in the sink. Then I sat down to contemplate the hamburger. Every sensation--biting, salivating, chewing and swallowing--was greatly magnified. Occasionally, even flavor wormed its way into my consciousness amid all the other, preoccupying sensations, like an orgasm achieved in haste, and accomplished despite an uncomfortable position.
That hamburger seemed to last forever. Not that I wanted it to.
I went and started running a bath, whereupon my Mom called me back into their bedroom. She handed me a book for parents about drug abuse and pointed to a paragraph about LSD and suicide. Somehow, though, I must have conveyed the incorrigible joy I took in being alive and that my “lightness of being” was entirely bearable, so they let me take my bath while they went on preparing for a party they were going out to.
In the bath, I again exulted and mourned the desperate travails of the suds against the grime, seeing in it a metaphor for all wordly, Darwinian struggles, and happy to be transcendent over all such petty, temporal concerns even as my trip was hitting the downhill slide. So it didn’t matter to me how water-puckered my hands and feet were by the time I got out of the bath; if it meant I was actually, physically regressing into Salamander Man or Toad Boy, then that was just my karmic fate. Was it not?
I think my little brother Sam wisely avoided me the rest of the evening, and my sister was out having her own thrills somewhere, having earned them by participating in the family dinner at the appointed hour. But my grandmother, who was living with us at the time, cornered me in the hall. “Why can’t you be a good boy?” she wailed, crying. “I will be, Gram,” I said, hugging her reassuringly--yet with the emotional remoteness of my amphibious nature.
A little later, I felt human enough to hop across the street to Nobby’s. Even though the LSD was now quickly wearing off, I was able to enjoy observing the trails, the persistent parabolas left by the ping-pong ball, as Nobby and his dad, Nobby Senior, played a couple of games.
I stepped up to play against Mr. Riedy, but my confidence that literally being able to visualize the ball’s trajectory would give me an insuperable competitive edge was sorely misplaced.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hilarious, Buddah-loving amphibian. I can see it all!