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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fear and Self-Loathing in Denver (Part 1)

A Literary Homage from the Depraved Center of a Cultural Revolution

Fear (of Loathing) - 18 April, 2015


“Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”

It’s an easy enough thing to repeat to yourself over and over again. But once in a while you also embark on the kind of trip, where the phrase begins to carry new weight. From the moment the thought first enters your head, you know nothing will ever be the same. There are some trains of thought, where you know from the moment you begin pulling on threads that they are connected intrinsically to the Main Nerve.

It feels overwhelmingly safe, in those moments, to say, “Fuck it!” To stay home, to pour another drink, roll another joint, and not do anything at all; simply watch the world wander past the window, and not worry much about making anything interesting out of the experience. Because why bother, really? Nobody will be listening, no matter how well they could maybe relate… It’s one of God’s hilariously cruel ironies.

But giving up without trying runs counter to the fundamental American spirit. There is no room for such Fear at a time like this. The early Western settlers could have stayed home and stayed wasted like their cousins. But they didn’t. There are occasions of fundamental historic value, in which the participants must recognize the importance of what they are witnessing, and try to fully experience and capture the raw significance of their place in time. Eventually, the terms by which we perceive all of the great moments we did not personally witness are defined first and most fundamentally by the people who lived them. We have the luxury, in our modern time, of consciously defining those terms.

The people who settled Colorado, built the first bits of infrastructure, and drove it to statehood were all hard, determined people. Miners, prospectors, trappers, hunters… the kind of men and women that shaped what is now thought of as the “American Character.” They were independent, daring entrepreneurs, at the forefront of the movement that defined their generation. And in retrospect, we consider their genocide of the native races that previously inhabited those areas among our darkest origin stories.

No matter how much things change, the patterns stay the same. The physical stereotypes of the first official Coloradans could scarcely be applied to many of my peers, and fewer still would survive the former’s living conditions. But here we stand over 150 years later, on the precipice of another cultural watershed, and the demographics and sociological conditions are shockingly similar.

Since the state’s precedent-setting legalization of recreational marijuana use, there has been a massive influx of young people looking for a place to start their lives. Similarly to those who fled West in the middle 19th century, they are emigrating from economically oversaturated places, unable to provide them with futures, in search of an environment where the next “big thing” is emerging. In 1840, it was gold and silver. Today it is weed. But not everyone flocking to this recurring frontier has hopes of cashing in. Many are just swimming with the stream. Most of the people moving to Colorado right now are only tangentally doing so because of the legal pot. They’re moving there because there’s currently an unparalleled economic boom taking place as a result of said legal pot. They’re moving there because, with legal weed, you get an explosion in creative culture; artists in the streets, doing their thing; freaks letting their flags fly. A significant portion of Americans in my demographic age group are moving to Colorado because it’s cool.

So I have to go see it for myself. And I have to tell you about what’s going on there. Because, while I may not have been to the Centennial State in a good while – excluding a hallucinogenic adventure to the curious abbreviated day-span of Ouray last summer, a town situated in a narrow canyon, causing a state of almost perpetual dusk, which is only briefly interrupted when the sun crosses the few inches of sky in even fewer hours around midday – I recognize what is happening in what will one day be referred to as this moment in history. And I realize that now is the time to dive into the heart of the matter, drink deeply of it, and try to relay its significance.

I’m not particularly clever in having come to this realization. Many others have come to it on some level, though perhaps few have been able to distinctly articulate it. I don’t claim some special authority or enlightened right to denote landmark moments in cultural evolution. I simply feel a duty to point out that, regardless of our intent, this is a definitive moment in the development of my generation’s historical identity. And I’d like to try to define that in terms that make sense to me, as a participating member of whatever legacy my peers are forging. The only way to properly explain this paradigm, which my children will one day consider passé, is to fully and personally immerse myself in it and explain it on its own terms. I harbor no delusion that I’m Hunter Thompson, but I firmly believe that something like the Doctor’s brand of absurdist honesty is critically absent from our modern world. As the man himself said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” and full Gonzo seems the only method that stands a chance of explaining this situation in a way that’s relevant to those living it. So, I intend to burrow straight to the center of this newest incarnation of the American Dream, and explain it from that place.

The millennial generation is the burning edge on the fuse of the American Experiment. More so than any other demographical group in history, we don’t identify in any of the traditional ways: nationalism, family structures, career paths, or even conventionally accepted ideas of sexuality, beauty, and gender roles. It’s what happens when you raise an entire generation on television and pop culture references, while simultaneously developing the greatest cataloguing and cross-referencing system ever devised by sentient creatures. We knew all the options in life earlier than most other generations had even traveled beyond their hometowns. Then we spent the better part of the last decade chiseling out a niche for ourselves as the people who catalogued the world and fed it into the internet for posterity. We organize and communicate in ways that are incomprehensible to those who don’t engage in them. We’re independent in ways our parents would have thought criminal and our grandparents couldn’t conceive of. And one of the ways in which this is all very obviously manifesting itself in our society is the inescapable eventuality of marijuana legalization. Colorado is a main nexus around which that storm is converging, so it is there that I will search for my generation’s Truth.

Today I bought the ticket. In two days I will attend the Cannabis Cup in Denver, and face the horror of what happens when you legitimize and commercialize a culture that was until recently entirely built on interpersonal relationships and word of mouth. Now I must take the ride. It is interesting, perhaps, to note that entering into this I feel a great amount of Fear. But it is only a Fear of Loathing; that I will end up Loathing the very culture I have thus far claimed as my own.

But that’s just defeatist nonsense. We must venture bravely forth, and stare down the demons in the mirror. We must accept our place in history and be like those early Coloradans. Only, perhaps we can be aware of any cultural atrocity we potentially stand on the verge of, lest we commit it again.

 Bad Moon Rising - 19 April, 2015

Creedence is a fitting soundtrack for the drive north. The mesa-pocked expanses of shrubbery and yellow grass are less harshly offset by the twangy guitars than the sight of my compatriots reading The New Yorker as we cruise in silent contemplation. The silence is only occasionally broken whenever my window, on the passenger’s side of the back seat, sinks several inches, gradually causing a loud, rushing wind to drown out the music until I notice and push it back up with great effort and greasy fingers. The six hour drive to Denver is not particularly difficult or unpleasant, but when you set out in the afternoon, the likelihood that you will be greeted by anything but a pack of drunks plummets by the hour.

Not that I have any problem with drunks. Some of my favorite people are drunks. In fact, I am deeply thankful to not have to drive on this trip, as it means I, too, get to be drunk. The owner of this vehicle does not drink. Voluntary sobriety is a fantastically useful characteristic in a friend. I offer many things to my friends; Honesty, Loyalty, and even Occasional Reliability… And I would go to fairly extensive lengths to aid most people, but one of the more absurd lines I draw is that I feel very put out when I have to perform any tedious or inconvenient task without a chemical filter. It makes me the world’s worst designated driver, but the flip side is that I’m the first person you invite to accompany you to the Cannabis Cup when it’s being held on the most important day of the Stoner Calendar in the newly-christened capitol of American Marijuana Culture: The Mile High City on the 20th of April. Like a healer in a D&D party, you have to bring me along. If only to roll the joints.

It’s funny, to me, that I probably wouldn’t have been so interested in trying pot in my early teens if I hadn’t already been hearing about it for so long. As a child of the 90s, one of the first and most important lessons the public school system thought I should be informed of regarded the ready availability of a vast array of drugs evil people would soon be cajoling me into becoming addicted to.

Aside from mental health care and programs for the poor, the other major casualty of the Reagan years was the American education system. Schools were repurposed suddenly and without warning, in the 80s, to serve less as centers for education, and more as centers for indoctrination. Arguably, there’s always been an element of that in public schooling, but in the years leading up to and surrounding my birth, the trend became a national mandate. The poster-child for the myriad of ways in which schools of that era were turned into propaganda mouthpieces was the DARE program. Perhaps it was ironic luck that they were terribly funded propaganda mouthpieces. Drug Abuse Resistance Education is one of the many well-intentioned initiatives taken up by our parents’ generation so they would not have to spend so much time raising us themselves, and the only thing most of my peers got out of it was a much earlier awareness of the existence of drugs. Even then, we could tell it was clearly put together by people who knew absolutely nothing about either taking drugs or talking to children.

As we grew and experienced life for ourselves, one of the most repeated extracurricular lessons – even before elementary school was over – was that what we learned out of the schoolbooks and the lectures was never more than half true. So a brief few years later, when even the Beatles were telling me what a great time they’d had on drugs, it was a short skip of conjecture to the notion that perhaps those transparently heavy-handed warnings I’d received for the previous half decade were more than a little bit full of shit. By the end of high school most of my favorite bonding memories with my friends involved sneaking off campus to smoke joints in playgrounds, climbing into the tube slide for a windbreak. To this day, whenever I drive down the residential backroads of Santa Fe, I get the sentimental urge to pack a crude metal pipe full of Mexican brick weed and chase it with a cigarette.

By college I not only knew more people who smoked than didn’t, there were only a select few who didn’t partake in “chuff,” as it came to be referred to by my circle of friends. See, that was the rub of the whole thing. Especially in the period right after we all moved out of our parents’ houses and inevitably (across the board, almost without exception) began experimenting with mood and mind alteration, smoking pot was less about getting fucked up and more about community (there are a lot of wonderful drugs for if you want to be an antisocial asshole, but pot is just not one of them). For instance, in the country of my birth (and generally, across Eastern Europe), it is customary to welcome someone who enters your home with a cup of coffee – or at least the offer. I didn’t find this out until I returned to my Motherland in my mid-twenties, but when it happened, I was shocked at the similarity in tone between these old babushkas offering me miniature cups of Turkish coffee and my friends back home greeting me at the door with a bong.

Full disclosure, I went to an art school, so the student body makeup leaned toward the liberal, experientially open-minded end of the spectrum. That said, I have a lot of friends now that didn’t; friends that went to state and private schools across the country – UMass, University of Colorado, and Seattle University – and by all accounts they participated in more debaucherous brain-cell holocausts than my socially awkward classmates and I could have ever thought up. And while it’s true that college has a tendency to bring out that sort of behavior in otherwise responsible youths, I’d argue that, even among those who didn’t partake, far fewer were intolerant of being around those who did than had been in previous generations. By the time we went to war in Afghanistan, it was an accepted understanding by most people my age that what we had been taught about drugs as children was comprised more of lies intended to scare us than actual facts about drug use.

In this and other ways, my peers were pushed in great numbers toward premature cynicism. The drug lie was just the most obvious; the poster child of the betrayal. We lost faith in the optimistic future we were promised, just like the generations before us, but not because the world was once again ravaged by war – we lost our faith because we realized there had never been a world without such horrors. To hope for anything better seemed like a foolish waste of time. At this point it’s starting to look like one of the things that will define us – just as the hippy movement defined the Boomers and the Depression defined their parents – is our listless extended adolescence. The sad irony, is that while we’re perceived as eternal children, we lost our innocence far sooner than any children who had come before us; the only reason we’re thought of that way is because so many of us refuse (largely due to lack of opportunity) to “grow up” and become productive, contributing members of society.

Zenon hands me another joint from the front seat. I could swear I just handed him the blunt we had been passing around the car for the previous 10 miles, and, looking up I realize that indeed we are now smoking two marijuana cigarettes concurrently, in opposing rotation. Always good to stay frosty; keep the senses sharp, honed, and alert. You never know when you’ll be asked to rub your stomach and pat your head. Wouldn’t want to look stupid.

David Bowie Radio on Pandora. If you ever want a group of picky middle class white people (hipsters, if you will) to stop complaining about the music and changing it every 20 minutes, that’s what you go with. That or Talking Heads. They’re interchangeable. You end up with a lot of your parents’ music that rubbed off on you (making it great for mixed company), without risking being subjected to Kansas or, god forbid, The Eagles, as with most Classic Rock stations.

I hand over the newly rolled joint, accepting the dying blunt, and quelling a moment’s paranoia by reminding myself that I’m not driving, and this isn’t my car, so it’s perfectly reasonable (if not entirely legal) for me to be high. That seems to work. The music seems to cut out for a moment, and then, over the hiss of the wind through my sliding window, I hear the muffled intro to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

Pink Floyd was one of the first bands I seriously “got into,” and it was (understandably) right after I first started smoking pot. I don’t know if it was the music that made me want to expand my perspective or my expanded perspective that made the music better, but the two were integrally connected. Wish You Were Here, in particular, was an album I listened to quite often when I was high as a kid, and I remember always feeling a strange sort of time dilation, much like Kurt Vonnegut describes in Slaughterhouse Five. I wouldn’t say I got totally unstuck in time, but I distinctly remember feeling as though I was observing myself, retrospectively and nostalgically, from some point in the future. Whether through coincidence or metaphysics, I now get a similar but opposite feeling listening to that album – particularly the title track. It’s familiar, like an old pair of shoes; a loneliness that feels like it began before I was born and stretches beyond the path of time on either side, containing all my possible lifetimes within it.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. I’ve discussed this feeling of loneliness with a heartbreaking number of my peers who have felt it themselves. Perhaps it’s a feeling people have always felt, but so far as I can tell, millennials are much more disposed to talking about it with each other than our ancestors were. Perhaps it’s because we’re so self-centered, and everything in our lives has been about maximizing and improving our individual experiences. Or perhaps it’s because we seem, by and large, to tend to engage in that establishment of self (perhaps by necessity) very individualistically. We don’t truly share life-changing experiences with each other, largely because we’re usually busy “sharing” our perspectives on those experiences with the proverbial “everyone.”

We’re more connected on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis than any humans before us could have ever reasonably hoped to be. The most obvious change that has occurred, in the few short years since that became the norm, has been a sudden and massive social disconnect. We’ve become so preoccupied with our virtual presence that our physical presence has become secondary. I’ve watched myself do it; fade in mid-conversation when a text message blinks into my phone. I can’t help it. I know it’s rude, and I actively fight the urge, but during that moment of struggle – even if I then win and snap back to attention – I become at least partially removed from what is going on around me. We have a constant inner checklist going on of all of our various social and professional obligations, almost none of which take place in the real world anymore, without a proxy.

The music is another obvious example of our brave new world. Ten years ago, one major experiential facet of this trip would have been determining and curating the music selection; giant binders of CDs to flip through and feed into the machine every so often. Now we have a robot to do that for us. We tell it we’d like to hear “Life on Mars,” and for the next several hours, that’s one less aspect of our existence we have to worry about. One less thing to pay attention to. One less thing to remember. It will be interesting to find out how we look back on good times when even our best friends are robots, or how we will look back on that thereafter. It suddenly occurs to me that maybe we simply won’t. That’ll be interesting and new.

And we’re back to David Byrne again. And both the joint and the blunt seem to be done for. Good riddance. I’m trying to do serious work here. The Talking Heads. “Same as it ever was. There is water at the bottom of the ocean.” Kind of sums it all up. Our current revolution is only a reimagining of all the ones that came before it. Like our fathers and their fathers before them, we’re flailing against the limitations we imposed on ourselves, learning to live in this world as adults. A lot of those limitations were erected by looking at our world, until very recently, through our parents’ eyes. Which isn’t to say that their perspective wasn’t valid in the time when they were developing it, but it would be silly to think we can live in this world while perceiving it with the mindset of someone from another world. That’s what becoming an adult really is: the act of discarding your parents’ paradigm when it is no longer of use. The world is a startlingly different place than it was when this music was being made, and everything but the core sentiments that make the true hits relevant has changed.

“The Times, they are a-changin’…” Dylan broke through to an eternal Platonic Truth when he wrote that one down. And one day, eventually, it will be the death knell to the cultural relevance of millennials, just as it was for those who came before.

Part II