Drugs Part 4: Meth

There was a friend of ours growing up who did meth (we’ll call him “R”). We didn’t see him very often as he was busy tweaking, but we heard stories. Stories of lying and stealing. Tales of explosively violent episodes. Whispers of local police involvement time and again. And over the course of his usage, we watched R waste away, becoming thinner and thinner with each passing, sleepless week. This was the closest experience I had to any hard drugs growing up in sleepy Tonopah, Nevada.

I was visiting friends in Las Vegas in summer 2001 for no other reason than to get out of town. My friend “K” had expatriated from Tonopah years earlier and was living in Vegas her boyfriend “B.” I stayed with them for what was originally a planned weekend trip that became a week-long one. During my stay, I met K and B’s circle of friends and several times while hanging out at their apartment they and their friends would take turns vanishing into the bedroom for long periods of time. I learned later they were retreating to smoke crystal meth.

One friend of theirs didn’t feel the need to hide their usage. He felt no sens of shame or need to shield me. “P” sat in the dining room holding a homemade meth bong (called a “quag”) in one hand and a campfire torch in the other. The intense flame kissed the end of the glass bowl briefly and he blew out thick, white smoke that completely enshrouded his head. It was one of the coolest-looking things I’d ever seen. He asked if I wanted to try it, likely noticing amazement on my face. I told him I was tempted. Very tempted. In the end, I declined.

Memories of R’s downward spiral into his own meth usage was nowhere near me when I admitted my temptation. Here was an actual friend of mine, her boyfriend, and their group of friends. All were using meth. All were happy, healthy, clean, fun to be around, and generally seemingly awesome individuals. There wasn’t the slightest hint of the negative aspects one would associate with “speed freaks” and “tweakers” within this group.

At this point in my life, I was in love with electronic music, baggy rave clothes, neon rave clothes, rave dancing, and pretty much everything indicative of the “raver lifestyle.” I was essentially a dumb rave kid that had never been to an actual rave and I lived in a tiny town where one would never take place. The drug aspect of raving wasn’t important to me (although I desperately wanted to try ecstasy after learning about it). In Las Vegas, raves happened all the time and I was surrounded by a group of people who raved all the time. They were everything I’d imagined a group of rave friends could be when I’d fantasize about going to raves. I had such a phenomenal time hanging out with them that K and B agreed I could live with them if I ever decided to move to Vegas.

On the last day of my week-long Vegas trip, K and B were in their bedroom. I knocked on the door to chat them up for a minute and say goodbye. They invited me in. I knew they were smoking meth and told them I didn’t mind. In fact, I was interested in trying it.

Meth was the only thing you could say I was peer pressured into trying, but not intentionally. No one forced me to try it. No one told me I should try it. No one said “you’d be cool if you did it” or any such nonsense. It was simply their lack of behaving and appearing like drugged-out losers that influenced me. Both K and B specifically went out of their way to keep their usage hidden from me and when I said I’d be willing to try, K repeatedly asked if I was sure. I was. She held the pipe for me and lit it. I inhaled a little bit, then blew it out quickly (as instructed – leave meth smoke in your lungs the same way you would with cannabis was a bad idea). I didn’t feel much and hit it a second time.

Again – and I can’t stress this enough – K and B and their friends were nothing like R was. What I heard about what R went through were the same types of stories I was fed about all drugs. This commercial was what meth heads were purported to be like:

 
K and B were nothing like that. The only negative I could spot in my time spent with them was their apartment was a disorganized mess, but no more a disaster than most of my non-meth-using friends. After learning firsthand that marijuana wasn’t the dangerous drug I’d been cautioned about and meeting people who used meth and were nothing like the above commercial, of course I was going to try it.

One of the many abuses I suffered under my father was a severe lack of parenting. I was left to my own devices when it came to learning how to function in the real world. What wasn’t taught in school I learned from television, movies, and friends. A friend has to teach me how to ride a bike. A friend had to teach me how to shave. A neighbour had to teach me how to drive. I learned nearly everything in life from those who knew and were willing to guide me. Why would drugs be any different?

Here’s the weird thing about meth: it doesn’t make you feel high. At least, not in the way cannabis or alcohol or cigarettes do. Meth just makes you feel… great. You’re in a good mood, you’re alert, you’re confident, you’re energetic, but at no point do you actually feel traditionally “high.” Part of that can be talking a lot, which apparently I did. Non-stop. During a nearly 4-hour car ride back home. In my mind, I was simply talking about all the fun things I’d done on my week-long Vegas holiday (like being introduced to the greatest video game of all time, Conker’s Bad Fur Day). In reality, I was tweak-talking.

I got home, unpacked, did all the normal things one does after a trip. When night fell, I laid down to go to sleep and simply couldn’t. I’ve always had trouble sleeping. Since as far back as I can remember in childhood, it’s always been difficult for me to fall asleep. My mind races too much for me to simply be able to close my eyes and drift off. Sometimes even sleep aids don’t help. The only thing guaranteed to help me sleep is watching a movie or TV show. Something about distracting my mind with the visual and audio stimulation never fails to relax me into unconsciousness. Once in a rare while, music alone does the trick. So when I couldn’t sleep the night after I first tried meth, I attempted a movie, but it bored me. No matter what movie or show I chose, I was unable to be interested in it. I tried just shutting my eyes and focusing on my breathing, but after a few minutes, a lightheadedness overcame me. I felt like I was falling while laying still. It was a terrible and strange sensation. I ended up going on a long walk for a couple of hours, came home and drank some NyQuil, and finally slept. And because meth didn’t make me feel high, I never once attributed my sleeplessness to smoking it.

I ended up moving to Las Vegas on July 26th, 2001 and lived on K and B’s couch. They’d actually made by hand a huge banner for me that said “Welcome Home.” No one had ever done anything like that for me before. For all its quaint charms, I hated living in a small town and K and B knew it. With this simple gesture, it made me feel like I’d made the right decision. I felt like I had finally found a home and found friends that were unlike anyone I’d known before. These news Vegas friends weren’t afraid to show their emotion or affections the way small-town folk were. We’d hug hello and goodbye. We’d lay on each other watching movies or hanging out. There was a physicality and an intimacy with these friends I’ve never known before with friends or family. I’d known K for many years and her boyfriend B for a little over 1 year, but the rest were new and made me feel right at home instantly.

At first, my meth use was limited. I was more interested in ecstasy (which you can read about in part 5). But they smoked meth regularly and because I lived with them, I smoked it with them. They’d also snort the stuff at times, which I’d only do on occasion (I didn’t much like snorting things). Shooting it up was completely out of the question. There was this idea in the group that shooting up drugs was going “too far.” That people who shot up (any drug) were the true junkies and since we only smoked and snorted our meth, we were superior to them. I had no job and nothing else to do, so I did it as frequently as they did. I was living a party lifestyle, filled with experiences I never dreamed of before and sensations I’ve never felt before. I was introduced to my first rave. I did drugs. I met fascinating new people. I got to explore Vegas and all its glorious neon gauche. I was taken under several wings and shown a life I never could’ve had in Tonopah. I had amazing friends and felt amazing because of them.

That’s the deception of methamphetamine I only learned years after quitting. The “amazing” feelings were more so the result of the meth than the people I was around. While I didn’t necessarily feel “high” in the classic sense, I was amped up because of the meth. That’s what those cleverly-jingled commercials don’t tell you. You feel amazing on methamphetamine, not “high” and not “drugged out.” You’re carefree and experiencing the happiest of emotions. Every interaction is spectacular and meaningful. And I was someone who never really got to feel happy growing up. I was emotionally stunted for the longest time. I thought moving to Vegas and being surrounded by these amazing new friends was why I was feeling so good. It never was about the meth for me. I never once put 2 and 2 together.

Another thing I didn’t realize at the time, was that I was gay. I’d convinced myself in my teenage years I was asexual. I wasn’t attracted to women and, of course, I wasn’t attracted to guys therefore, I wasn’t into sex in general.

I was lying to myself. Back then I was a little liar in general. I lied about anything and everything, just to make myself seem more interesting. My sad life was full of shame, so I said things that made it seem better. My lies were painful and obvious and told to everyone. One example of my meaningless deception: my new Vegas friends were taking me to my first rave and I lied, saying I had been to a rave before but that I simply “didn’t go in.” My falsehoods were never done with intentional harm or malice. My lies came from shame and a need for attention. As much as I lied to everyone around me, I lied to myself even more.

Eventually, I experienced my first comedown. I don’t know how long I’d be awake for or how little I’d eaten beforehand, but the comedown was excruciating. I knew the remedy was as easy as smoking more meth (and my friends offered me that remedy), but I refused. To me, doing so would’ve made me a “junkie.” I needed to have the strength to say “no,” even in the face of a crippling comedown. My body ached. I was hungry but couldn’t eat. I was restlessly tired. I could assume no position that was comfortable. My feel-good emotions replaced with the dread of depression I’ve known most of my life. After hours of torment, I managed to fall asleep while listening to Nirvana’s “Unplugged” album.

The first time you comedown off of hard drugs is the worst. Every comedown after that pales in comparison, but they can still be loud and dramatic. One particular comedown had me angrily smoking a cigarette in the living room while B and 2 other male friends “J” and “N” were in the bedroom. I could hear them joking around behind the closed door, giving N tips on how to kiss his newfound girlfriend in his first relationship. I could hear J and B making out, to show him (random making-out happened frequently for everyone in our group but me, regardless of gender). I was furious. I left in a huff. Storming past everyone, shouting some nonsense about moving back to Tonopah. My comedown-inspired trek landed me at a park, on a bench, and I thought long and hard about why I was enraged. My internal monologue went something like this:

“Why are you mad?”

“Because J and B were kissing!”

“Why does that make you mad?”

“Because I want to kiss B!”

“Why?”

“Because I love B.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m gay.”

It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes. I not only finally admitted to myself that I was gay, but that I was in love with K’s boyfriend B. I don’t know if I ever would’ve come to terms with this facet of myself if it wasn’t for using meth. The emotional devastation that comes hand-in-hand with coming down allowed me to break down my own walls in a way I’m uncertain anything else could’ve.

The months following were tumultuous at best. Having your very first crush at 21 with your female friend’s boyfriend that you live with while using meth and ecstasy regularly isn’t an ideal environment. Add to the mix the fact K and B would break-up regularly and the straight man I was in love with when left alone with me wasn’t 100% heterosexual. All parties involved treated each other terribly, which the meth enhanced.

My friendship/relationship with that group came to an end at the beginning of 2002 and so did my meth use. Pretty quickly, I met a new group of friends who also used meth. This new group was less bombastic and emotional but still had its explosive moments. My personal methamphetamine usage was still limited to using with other people. I didn’t really actively seek it out. Not until after my first breakup with my first actual boyfriend. “P” and I dated briefly and surprisingly, despite both of us using meth at the time, the relationship itself didn’t really involve that much meth consumption. It was nonetheless an intense relationship and I took the breakup hard.

This was the only time I turned to meth to make myself feel better. To use it as an escape. For the last few months of 2002, I was what you would consider a tweaker in the classic sense. Doing as much meth as possible to not feel anything and to avoid feeling anything in the comedown. I smoked it. I snorted it. I packed pill capsules with it. Sometimes all 3 at the same time (still not shooting up, because that would be beyond the pale). Not only was I doing it often, but I was also doing copious amounts. Dangerous amounts. As much as was being fed to me by someone I had moved in with (who I later discovered had feelings for me). I was so geeked out of my head on crystal because of this new roommate that I never retrieved my possessions from my old apartment and I ended up losing nearly everything I own. But I was high at the time, so it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

One day, mid-December of 2002, and I can’t explain why or what caused it, I realized what my surroundings were. I had been awake more days than I could remember, scribbling some nonsense down in a notebook, and it felt like I suddenly took a big breath after not breathing at all. An epiphany. I became aware of what I’d been doing, why I’d been doing it, and was filled with profound shame. I decided I was done. Right then and there, I vowed to never use meth again. That mindset lasted until 3 days later when a speed-laced tablet of ecstasy lured me into using meth once more. That was December 22nd, 2002.

I told everyone around me I was done. I told my still-using “friends” not to offer it to me. Not to talk to me. Not to even think of me. If they were using and they did any of the aforementioned, I’d call the cops on them. The fear of police intervention secured my sobriety as not a single one of them ever offered it to me again.

I didn’t need rehab. I didn’t need meetings. I simply decided I was done. I don’t even remember much of a comedown from my last bought with crystal meth. I stayed with a friend who didn’t use the stuff and provided a safe environment. I still consumed other drugs, mostly ecstasy and marijuana, but I never touched meth again. The only reason I ever tried meth in the first place because the exhaled smoke looked cool (this was a major factor of why I smoked cigarettes). In the beginning, it was a thing to do because it was around. I was blind to all the symptoms of using. I was already skinny and been so all my life. I’ve always had trouble sleeping. I was naturally hyper. I was lying all the time already. And the emotions were new and spectacular to me, honestly, in retrospect… even the negative ones were thrilling.

When meth wasn’t around, I didn’t need or want the stuff. The 3-ish months in the fall of 2002 (post-breakup with P) was the only time I truly desired it. I lost a lot during that brief time. Practically everything I own. Several decent, non-using friends. And a part of myself.

I often wonder what life would’ve been like had I never tried that first puff of speed. Would I have ever opened up emotionally or would I still be repressed? Would I have come to terms with my own homosexuality or still be in the closet? The only thing I’m certain of is I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t spend approximately 1 and 1/2 years using meth, for better or worse.

Drugs Part 3: Tobacco

I don’t recall the specific details about the first time I smoked tobacco. I’d already had my first taste of alcohol and smoked weed for the first time and neither had a detrimental effect, so it’s very likely I simply asked one of my many cigarette-smoking friends if I could hit one of theirs. I truly remember nothing about the non-event outside of the fact it occurred during the summer of 2000. I do however remember the first time I actually inhaled a cigarette.

My friend Jeff and I were sitting on the patio, smoking cigarettes. Well, he was properly smoking a cigarette, I was mouth-inhaling the thing. As we were talking about nothing in particular, he was performing the coolest looking tricks with the smoke. He’d casually blow out perfectly-formed smoke rings. He also had the smoke seep out of his mouth and zip up in his nose in a manoeuvre called a “French inhale.” Jeff did his best to teach me, but try as I might, I failed to replicate those same tricks.

He seemed to notice something and told me to hit the cigarette like I had been, but then take a big gasp of air immediately afterwards. I did as instructed and coughed my lungs out. He laughed like there was no tomorrow. This was the first time I ever inhaled a cigarette. It was honestly pretty horrible. Inhaling cigarette smoke correctly was disgusting, burning, ashy, dry, but it gave the brain a nice tingling effect.

Once the initial grossness of smoking went away, the nicotine buzz was rather pleasurable and much more enjoyable than the one from alcohol. Marijuana, once properly inhaled into the lungs, was pretty fun as well (as I’ve mentioned in part 2), but you couldn’t really walk around in public smoking weed. A cigarette you could enjoy virtually anywhere without fear of breaking any laws.

It’s taboo to say, but I thoroughly enjoyed smoking cigarettes. I learned to do neat tricks like the aforementioned smoke rings and French inhale. There was something really cool about smoking. Something dangerous. The way smoke would dance in the air was spellbinding. I oftentimes would smoke just to watch it lift upwards into the air.

Camel cigarettes quickly became my brand, with Kamel Red or Camel Menthol being my smokes of choice in the beginning. Then Camel came out with flavoured ones I thought were fantastic. “Mandarin Mint” was an orange-mint flavour. “Twist” was citrus. “Dark Mint” was chocolate-mint. Then there was “Turkish Jade.” Goddamn, I thought those were delicious. Turkish tobacco with a light menthol that left a minty aftertaste in your mouth. “Turkish Jade 100’s” were my go-to for many, many years. Towards the end of my life as a tobacco smoker, I moved on to Nat Sherman Mint cigarettes and Eclipse Mint. Regular tobacco flavour didn’t delight me the way mint/menthol did.

I smoked about 10 cigarettes (half a pack) each day. If I was stressed or out drinking or dancing, more would be obviously consumed. I too enjoyed cigars (which were meant for a good old fashioned mouth inhale). In fact, one of the finest things I’ve ever smoked was a genuine Cuban cigar (back when it was illegal to possess one within the U.S.). A friend of mine, Bill, used to own a hotel/restaurant we regularly hung out at (Bill was an amazing, talented, and generous man who is unfortunately no longer with us). Upon learning how much I enjoyed smoking, Bill gave to me a fine Cuban cigar from his private stash. I can’t recall exactly what brand it was, but it was astoundingly good. Thick, hearty flavour. Beautiful smell to it. It’s been well over a decade since I’ve smoked tobacco, but if that same cigar was placed in front of me today I would be seriously tempted.

I was also introduced to shisha/hookah and loved that even more than cigarettes. The variety of flavours was astounding and delicious! While smoking lent itself to being a social activity pretty well, hookah smoking was a truly communal one. Smoking a hookah felt more like an event or party than cigarettes did. I became quite good at creating flavour combinations and preparing the shisha (even moonlighting at a hookah lounge on occasion). I owned a large, beautifully ornate hookah that lasted me for many years before I gave it away.

It was fairly hypocritical of me to be smoking whatsoever. My father smoked around me constantly from when I was born until the age of 13 or 14. Every time he would grab his pack of cigarettes, I started coughing. Loudly. Annoyingly. He reminded me of that fact when he eventually discovered that I had taken up smoking.

One of the reasons I enjoyed smoking was because I never noticed any side effects. There was no smoker’s cough. I never had to expel mountains of phlegm. All the negative things the commercials and health warnings beat into my head never came to pass. I did experience the occasional heart palpitation, but I’ve since learned those were a result of my pectus excavatum (concave chest) rather than the smoking. After a while, I still wanted to quit. Despite no visible signs, I knew it wasn’t good for me or my lungs. Negative effects were bound to spring up if I continued smoking. My grandfather had massive lung problems due to smoking most of his life and my father’s decades of smoking eventually caused him to develop lung cancer. Both suffered the same concave chest as me and smoking almost certainly exacerbated their lungs.

Quitting tobacco was initially difficult. I tried nicotine gums, lozenges, and the patch. Fun facts: the patch gives you intense, strange dreams and if you smoke weed while wearing the patch, your high is intensified. I even tried a nicotine hand sanitizer. Instead of reducing cravings, all it did was make my hands smell like I’d dipped them into a wet ashtray. How that’s supposed to help you quit is something I’ll never understand. Eventually, I was successful in quitting by doing 1 simple thing: going cold turkey. Lingering on with “quitting aids” simply prolonged the inevitable. When I finally quit, I quit. I was never “quitting,” I had “quit.” I still smoked weed and hookah at the time, but neither was something that could be done the same ease and regularity that cigarettes could be. I also didn’t tell anyone I had quit. Nothing spoils your mood more when you’ve given up cigarettes than people constantly harassing you with, “How’s the not smoking going?”

My last cigarette was sometime in the summer of 2008. Just about 8 years of smoking. Once I was a full-blown “quitter,” I never noticed an increase in my lung capacity or any other real improvement in my overall health, save one. My sense of smell and taste increased dramatically (realistically, those senses returned after being diminished by smoking). I also came to realize how disgusting I smelled as a smoker and how god-awful every smoker smelled. I was ashamed to think that I reeked like a mobile garbage fire for all that time.

2 years of no smoking ensued. Then in 2010 a bunch of us were out to dinner for a friend’s birthday. Sat outside at a restaurant, my friend Sol was holding a thin, black pen to his lips, then exhaling smoke. He said it was an electronic cigarette and there was no nicotine in it. Curious, I tried it. The flavour was a miscellaneous fruit blend than left a vaguely plastic-y sensation in my mouth. I was delighted and mystified by it, so I quickly got one of my own. Vaping was touted as being healthier than smoking.

As vaping became more popular, the units that delivered the vapour became bigger and more powerful. What was once a small pen-shaped device that farted out a minuscule amount of vapour became a huge, hulking box that allowed you to expel monstrously large clouds. Part of the initial allure of vaping for me was the newness and mystery of it. In the early vaping days, you could literally vape anywhere because there’s virtually no secondhand smoke/vapour. At the office, at the grocery store, at the movies, at restaurants, everywhere. Unlike smoking, vaping left little-to-no evidence afterwards, so it became incredibly easy to get in the habit of hitting your mod constantly.

Once electronic cigarettes gained momentum and started appearing everywhere, it started feeling more no different than regular cigarettes. People started posting “No Smoking/Vaping” signs. The FDA slapped it in the tobacco category. Studies started coming out stating that while vaping is healthier than cigarettes, it was still bad for you. Those who vaped started becoming militantly interested in it. Angrily proclaiming how safe and healthy vaping was. I was starting to experience more heart palpitations than usual after vaping for some time. When I smoked (and when I didn’t smoke anything), I’d get a palpitation rarely. Near the end of my vaping, I would feel one every couple of days.

Quitting vaping was ridiculously easy. I quit cold turkey in May of 2018 (coincidentally 8 years after I started, the same amount of time I spent with cigarettes), gave my vape away, and didn’t tell anyone I was quitting (same procedure as before). It took some time, but I’ve come to realize that I was more addicted to having my hands occupied than I was with the actual cigarettes (analogue or electronic). My hands need to be busy and whenever I was physically bored, that’s the time cravings popped up. Since you could vape more places than you could smoke, my hands became more accustomed to being occupied than they did with Camel cigarettes. My hands became addicted to the physicality that smoking/vaping engendered. They’re satisfied currently with a Lego fidget cube.

I still don’t remember why I ever tried smoking in the first place. Copious amounts of ads highlighted how destructive smoking is to your health and it is quite a disgusting habit to be around, but still, I smoked. Maybe I felt invincible (as the young often do). Maybe my disillusionment over pot and alcohol having no ill effect tricked me into thinking smoking was likewise harmless. Personally, my overall experience with cigarettes wasn’t all that negative, but after 8 years of smoking I’m either a rare case that lucked out or the damage caused has yet to fully reveal itself.

Drugs Part 2: Marijuana

It was early 2000, a bit after my 20th birthday. The sun had fallen to darkness. My father was asleep at the other end of the house. I was up late, watching television. There was a tiny, little knock on my window. I looked and found my friend, Dan, bleary-eyed and reeking of a strange, foreign burnt smell.

At that time, I’d known Dan for 2 or 3 years. We were in high school together and friends post-graduation. He was someone I grew close with very quickly, a rarity for me even to this day. We were dumb punk kids who served our small-town sentences with in-depth conversations, listening to music, making music, and general teenage shenanigans. 20 years later, I’m honoured to still consider him a friend.

Dan was already well-travelled by the time I met him in the late ’90s. He’d recently returned to our small desert town from a trip out of the country. He’d been staying with us for a couple of days and was tap-tapping on my window because he’d been locked out (and not provided a key by my father) once night fell. Dan had spent the evening doing whatever it is Dan does and came back looking worse for wear.

He knew, as virtually everyone in my peripheral knew, that I did not do drugs. One could even say I was vehemently anti-drug. It didn’t matter what the drug was, I was against it (as I had been trained to be), even pot. I was aware Dan smoked pot, but he was courteous enough to not mention it while around me or even be noticeably high around me. But here he was at my window, drenched in a skunky odour I wasn’t familiar with.

Dan lied and said he didn’t smoke any weed, but that he’d been in a car with people who were and they “hotboxed” it. That’s why he stunk. He, of course, had to explain what hotboxing was and the nature of getting a contact high. During the course of the night, we stayed up hanging out as we oftentimes did, but it was remarkably different for me. I was giggling more. I felt happier, lighter somewhat. Being kids, we believed that I had contracted a contact high from his clothes (we even swapped shirts because of this belief because, you know, kids).

I’d asked Dan if this is what smoking pot was like. Giggling and having fun. He essentially said yes and that it also made you hungry, then sleepy (in that order). Dan eventually confessed he had indeed smoked it earlier in the evening and I eventually confessed I was now intrigued instead of repulsed.

The D.A.R.E. and “Just Say No” campaigns painted with huge, broad strokes when talking about drugs. They grouped all drugs together and proclaimed loudly they all were equally bad. Scare tactics that championed “Drugs make you feel good for a moment, but then they ruin your life forever.” They had disingenuous, infamous commercials like this:

 
It’s scary stuff. Brains are important! But here was my friend, one of my closest friends. He’d smoked weed since he was 13 and his life wasn’t ruined. His brains were still good. He’d already visited more parts of the world than I could name at the time. He didn’t steal. His life wasn’t wrecked in any way I could see. All I saw was my friend, in fine shape, giggling and having fun.

Without an iota of peer-pressure, I said I’d be willing to try pot. The next day, Dan procured some, fashioned a pipe out of a Coke can (just as had been done for his first time), and we crouched behind the garage at my father’s house. He lit it for me and I smoked marijuana for the first time. We traded off a couple of times, but he ended up smoking more of it than I. The weed had little-to-no effect on me. The assurances he’d made of cottonmouth, being hungry, being tired, never came to pass.

Come to find out I didn’t actually inhale. I didn’t know how! I did what’s known as a mouth-inhale. Essentially, you take the smoke into your mouth instead of your lungs, then blow it out. I repeated this incorrect way of smoking pot until taught correctly while smoking a cigarette (which I’ll elaborate on in part 3).

When I did finally learn how to smoke it properly, good times were had all around. Those memories are pretty hazy, but I distinctly remember trips in the desert outskirts, hiking up mountains, playing copious amounts of video games, and generally amazing times with my friends. Most of my time in the year 2000 was spent in a glorious cloud of pot smoke. I thoroughly enjoyed being high. The lightness. The relaxation. The lack of worry. My life at that point was already pretty lax and the weed simply complimented that fact. It pleasantly enhanced already pleasant times.

I never committed any crimes to get pot (unless you count the act of buying it). I never lied to anyone about it (although I didn’t really volunteer my newfound hobby to my abusive father). I held down my job. My brains were as uncooked as I could perceive. I quickly learned that all the anti-drug hysteria masqueraded as education was complete and utter bullshit. Marijuana didn’t ruin my life, in fact, it made it all the better. I never felt compelled or addicted to smoking it. I smoked it whenever I wanted to get high. There were plenty of times where I didn’t want to be high and no amount of pot I smoked changed that position. The only negative side effect I was cognizant of was that pot made me lazy sometimes.

I had been lied to by every commercial, parent, teacher, police officer, etc. I couldn’t figure out why. What was the motive? Were they keeping all the fun stuff to themselves? Alcohol (which I’d only tried 5 months before pot) made me feel good. Marijuana made me feel good. Neither had a detrimental effect on my life. I was always told I could have alcohol when I was 21, but Marijuana was a drug and all drugs are terrible (and will cook them brains). Well, evidence proved that to be a lie. So, naively I believed that must mean they lied about all the other drugs, too.

That’s how marijuana is a gateway drug. Scare tactics that conflate all drugs and profess they are all bad is the worst possible way to go because more often than not, a kid will try pot and be perfectly fine afterwards. For most people, pot has no adverse effects. To equate marijuana with something like heroin is not only disingenuous, it’s dangerous. Scaring, instead of informing properly, had a deleterious effect on me and I’m certain on many others. Not all drugs are created equal. I learned that the hard way, during some pretty wild times, when I should’ve learned that in school or D.A.R.E. classes.

But it still is a drug. It can still affect your life in the negative if you allow it. I had one friend growing up (name omitted) who was seemingly addicted to pot. He smoked way too much of it way too often. So much so, that he lost his job and started engaging it truly deplorable behaviour. To this day, I don’t know if there was something extra going on. All that any of us knew and saw was that he only smoked pot. He became the addict the commercials warned of. His brain was properly fried.

People like him are a rarity, though. Most are people like Dan and I. We’re both in our 30’s now. We still talk. Separated by distance, our conversations almost exclusively via text. Both living in states where marijuana is legal for recreational use. Neither one of us compelled to smoke or consume the stuff much anymore. Neither one of us ruined by the Devil’s lettuce. Both graduated onto harder stuff because of poor education and poor decisions but never once blaming marijuana.

There was only even one other period where I habitually consumed marijuana. Between the years of 2003-2004, I met my dear friend, nicknamed Guido, who at the time only smoked pot. He and I got on instantly and spent an insane amount of time together, where smoking pot was a regular occurrence. Our adventures dabbled into various other drugs, but his main squeeze was the pot, so my main squeeze was the pot. When the intensity of our friendship ran its course, so did my nearly everyday use of marijuana.

Outside of the 2000 and 2003-2004 time periods, I didn’t really smoke much. I’d take a hit here-and-there, but it was never habitual. I was never addicted to it. To this day, it’s a rare occasion for me to consume marijuana, for no other reason that I simply don’t want to be high. I don’t actively avoid it or even think about it much. It holds no real weight in my life and, looking back, it never truly did. Marijuana was a fun distraction with little-to-no side effects.

It did prove to be an unfortunate gateway for me to much harder drugs. Being a gateway drug wasn’t marijuana’s fault. Poor education was firmly to blame. If instead of teaching “Marijuana is a drug and all drugs will completely and utterly ruin your life,” they taught “Marijuana’s fun and won’t really harm you, but smoking it too often can make you lazy,” my life might’ve gone in a completely different direction.

Avengers: Endgame Review

The following review contains spoilers. Do not read if you have not yet seen Avengers: Endgame (or any MCU films, really).

I would say the greatest character in Marvel Comics is Captain America. On the surface, his powers are enhanced strength, stamina, healing, etc. but his true superpower is his unwavering morality. That sense of morality makes him not only the greatest Marvel superhero, but one of the greatest superheroes of all time. He doesn’t just exude American sentimentality as his namesake might imply. His morals are stronger than any one country, than any one religion. He cares about what is good and true, regardless of the situation.

One of the best examples of this in the comics was his ability to wield Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer. He was one of the very few who were worthy of such. In the Age of Ultron movie he nudges the hammer when no one other than Vision and (obviously) Thor can pick it up. It was a missed opportunity to realize a powerful moment from the page that comic book films oftentimes like to do. They like to tease and hint. Easter egg and imply. At least, they used to.

Comic books movies from the old days were scared to go “full comic.” Everything had to be explained and over-explained and re-explained, so we see the deaths of Peter Parker’s uncle and Bruce Wayne’s parents a few times too many. Things needed to be realistic, so the vibrant, colourful costumes of the X-Men had to be ditched for bland, matching uniforms. Villain origins needed to relate to the hero in some manner, so the Joker becomes the one who shot Thomas and Martha Wayne and the Sandman becomes involved with the death of Uncle Ben. The villains also oftentimes met their deaths at the end of the films to clear the way for new villains in the sequel(s).

These decisions are often made in the hopes of bettering the films, to make them more palatable for the casual, non-comic book audience. Sometimes the director has a specific vision that creatively drives the film away from the source material (Ang Lee’s Hulk and Tim Burton’s Batman Returns come to mind). In any case, the goal of the changes are to make a movie that makes the studio money and to franchise it out to make even more money.

MCU fell into these sorts of trappings early on. The hero had to have a love interest (who often found herself in need of being saved). The villain had to have the same power set as the hero (and still meet their maker by the time the credits rolled). And several comic book moments needed to be teased, but not realized (Tony Stark’s battle with alcoholism, Captain America almost being able to lift Mjolnir, and more).

But after Guardians of the Galaxy and the massive success it ended up being, Marvel Studios started trusting the audience more. Things that were once throw-away references eventually get fleshed out. Directors like Taika Waititi and James Gunn are able to leave their indelible marks on their films. Films without the standard white male lead such as Captain Marvel and Black Panther are released to great success. The films stretch out beyond the “comic book” genre and become more. Winter Soldier is a spy thriller. Ant-Man is a heist film. Captain Marvel is a 90’s action film.

Then Marvel took the biggest leap in trusting their audience with Infinity War. We’re thrown into a heavy story with very little reintroduction to the characters. The breakneck pace allows the Russo Brothers to take us on a whirlwind that results in us seeing the heroes we’ve watched for a decade lose for the first time. And they lose big. Half of these characters we’ve grown to care about over 10 years are wiped helplessly from existence with a snap. It was and still is a bold move for a film franchise of this size. Not since The Empire Strikes Back has a studio made such a big emotional and financial gamble.

Infinity War is one of the most comic book-y comic book movies ever made. The comics didn’t spend a lot of time reintroducing the reader to the characters. The heroes and villains often referenced things from previous issues without over-explaining the details. It was expected that if you’re reading this issue, that you’ve read the previous ones. If not, you could always go back and read the back issues to get caught up. The comics also regularly featured huge battles with various characters that films usually stayed away from, in fear of confusing the audience. Even team movies like X-Men somehow got the characters whittled down to fight the villain one-on-one. Infinity War was the first comic movie that took these attitudes from the printed page and put them on the screen. It is the closest thing I’ve seen that resembles what I used to read on the page. That is, until I saw Endgame.

It stayed away from most of the bullshit comic book movie tropes that’ve been established over the years and carved out a film that was as close to an actualized comic you could imagine. As a standalone film, Endgame fails miserably. Its entire success relies on your knowledge of 22 movies-worth of history. It acts more like a season finale than it does a singular film in the same way that Return of the King and Return of the Jedi do. A serialized movie based on a serialized comic.

Endgame delivers on virtually every promise made in the MCU thus far. The 6 original Avengers are given fitting, happy endings. Hulk’s happy ending comes early in the film when it’s revealed Bruce has finally accepted his hulking half and merged his two disparate selves into one body (Hulk body, Bruce mind). Hawkeye is reunited with his family. Thor accepts his unburdened destiny. Black Widow gives up her life to save her family. Tony Stark is shown happily married with a daughter, then fights for and dies saving the entire universe, and can finally rest. And Captain America himself finally gets a life and has that long-promised dance with the only woman he’s ever loved.

There are plenty of moments that bring genuine tears. The moment Captain American finally says “Avengers Assemble” and leads his army against Thanos is a cinematic moment for the ages that sends shivers up the spine simply remembering it. The words “I am Iron Man” are now simultaneously inspiring and heart-wrenching. The moment when the mantel of Captain America is passed onto Sam Wilson, a black man, is inspiring on every feasible level. When Black Widow and Hawkeye fight each other at the cliff on Vormir because neither wants the other to sacrifice themselves is one of the greatest shows of a loving friendship you could ever imagine. The closing shot of Captain America finally dancing with Peggy Carter to the tune of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” induces eyefuls of joy, ready to burst. And if you don’t tell someone that you “Love them 3000,” do you even really love them?

But before Captain America dances his way off to retirement, in the heat of the battle with Thanos, he is shown to be worthy and wields Thor’s hammer. It’s a moment met by cheers in audiences around the world. Thor exclaims “I knew it!” when he sees our boy Steve Rogers holding Mjolnir. We all knew it. Not because he was strong enough to lift it, but because he was worthy. His morality, his heart, proved him capable of possessing and using Mjolnir. It’s a moment I’ve been wanting to see for most of my adult life and my eyes well with tears thinking about that moment as I write this.

That’s the magic that is Avengers: Endgame. It, in all its unabashed comic book glory, presents fan service to the max, while at the same time delivering on a decade’s worth of cinematic promises with genuine affection for both the source material and the audience. There are a few hokey scenes and lines here and there, but they’re easy to forgive in light of all the fantastic parts. This film is a satisfying conclusion to 22 movies that is as emotional, uplifting, awe-inspiring, and miraculous as anything you’re bound to see. Time may very well prove this to be the greatest comic book ever made.

Drugs Part 1: Alcohol

I want to talk about drugs. I want to talk openly and honestly about drugs. Nearly everything I see swings heavily either into the “Drugs are terrible” or the “Drugs are amazing” category. Both are true and false at the same time. It depends on the drug, the amount, the environment, your mindset, and other contributing factors. We hardly ever hear honest, informative information about drugs, drug use, and their effects.

When most people talk about drugs, they do so in hopes of persuading others to their opinions of it. Pro-drug people will purport positive stories while diminishing negative stories. Anti-drug people will exaggerate the negative while dismissing the positive. I too want to push you towards my opinion of drugs. I want you to know there is a giant grey area when it comes to drug use that cannot be easily slapped into the “they’re all great” or “they’re all bad” piles. My agenda for this multi-part series will be to inform as unbiased as I can, based on my own history of drug use.

The first thing I ever tried was alcohol. I was the December before my 20th birthday and I was at a house party. A small, intimate gathering of about a dozen friends hanging out, listening to music, talking, and having drinks. I’d been asked what I wanted to drink by one friend and I confessed I didn’t know because I’d never had any alcohol before. The reaction to that news was mild surprise.

Growing up in a small, desert mountain town with a population in the low thousands, there really isn’t much for high school age kids to do besides fuck and drink (and not necessarily in that order). I was one of the rare ones who did neither. An irregularity among his peers. I hung out in many different cliques without ever really belonging to any of them. Some cliques smoked, some drank, some did drugs, some fucked like rabbits. I was able to weave in-and-out of them all without being peer pressured to participate in any of those activities.

In fact, I was staunchly anti-drug. In my formative years, I was inundated with D.A.R.E. classes and “Just Say No” commercials, like this one:

 
The D.A.R.E. classes made drugs seem cool in a strange sort of way. Police officers telling a group of 8-year-olds that consuming PCP will make you think you’re bulletproof isn’t quite the right strategy for making them not want to someday try drugs. But for an 80’s kid who looks up to people as influential as Pee-Wee Herman or Michael Jordan and they sorrowfully warn against drugs, you take that message to heart.

Took it to heart I did. If people wanted to put whatever they wanted into their bodies, I didn’t care. Their body, their choice. I simply didn’t want to be around it. For the most part, everyone in high school was respectful of that. There were seldom times I was offered drink or drugs and I was never peer-pressured into trying anything.

That’s why my friend was only slightly surprised when I said I’d never tried anything. Sure, I’d said that all throughout high school, but I’d graduated a couple of years prior to this party. I was almost 20 and I’d never tasted so much as a single drop of alcohol. He asked if I wanted anything and I said, sure. We agreed after a little explanation of my options that a screwdriver would be the first drink I’d ever have.

And it was… okay. The taste was good. It was strong. I felt lighter than normal after consuming some. Looser. I had a total of 2 drinks during that party. The second drink was consumed more slowly than the first. This drug didn’t affect me in any particular way. I didn’t have the best night of my life, nor was I doubled-over vomiting the night away. I was simply more relaxed and more malleable.

Over the years, my relationship with alcohol has essentially remained the way it was since my first drink. I’ll have a couple, but rarely to excess. I’ve never blacked out from alcohol-consumption. In fact, I’ve only ever vomited once from drinking. It was another house party when I was 23. I’d already had some fruity wine cooler before the host of the party busted out some absinthe. This was before you could buy what passes for absinthe in liquor stores and bars. The host had been brewing his own wormwood-based green fairy.

Served in a vial and poured over a sugar cube, I tried true absinthe for the first time. It sure was a tasty treat and the promise of hallucinations was intriguing. The stuff was strong though and I sipped it slowly. By the time I’d finished the first vial, a fresh second one was in my hand. I was already light on my feet and consuming the second helping much more slowly. Then everyone in my group (and also my ride) said it was time to go. I had no choice but to down an entire vial in a rush and head out the door with them.

I’ll spare the graphic details, but suffice to say when we got home everyone else fell fast asleep while the toilet and I became very well-acquainted (and there were no hallucinations to report). I’d never gotten sick from alcohol before or since that singular occasion. I learned that I don’t like being drunk. I’ve also learned that beer is gross, rotten wheat water. That tequila can fuck me up faster than anything else. That I prefer vodka and can drink it straight with little issue.

When I’m heavily buzzed or drunk, I become clumsier, louder, and incautious with my words and actions (none of those traits are desirable to witness or to act out). I also dance more. Alcohol numbs the senses and relaxes you. That’s its attractiveness. That’s how it seduces people. It helps pull down barriers that in a public setting can make you more personable and fun. It numbs the mind and the body. That’s where the danger lies because simply put, it’s fun to be numb. It’s fun to dance and be social and not be bogged down with worries about work or responsibilities. It’s a “socially acceptable” drug, despite it causing more damage than several, more illicit ones.

Because alcohol is “acceptable,” it wasn’t painted in the same bad light that marijuana, heroin, and others were. The lessons of D.A.R.E. and Just Say No were “When you’re 21 alcohol’s fine, but everything else will ruin your life.” I was trained by society to not view alcohol with the same lens I was supposed to view all other drugs. This is why I had no issue trying it shortly before I turned 20. Sure, it was before I was legally allowed to, but the legal drinking age overseas is much lower than here and I was born in Germany, so I didn’t see the harm.

Alcohol, like most things, is fine in moderation. I never really drank to excess in my life and to this day, my drinking is limited to the infrequent occasions when I go out. Rarely do I consume more than 1 or 2 beverages and I don’t drink at home to “relax.” Alcohol’s simply never had much of a presence or importance in my life and as I get older, I find myself consuming less and less of it.

Alcohol was the first drug I’d ever consumed. It didn’t rip the doors open to a brand new world of drug use for me. That came from marijuana, the “gateway drug” I’ll talk about in part 2.

Infinity

It’s no secret that I didn’t have a very good childhood (if this is news to you, let me tell you about the voice). My father didn’t like being burdened with the responsibility of caring for me (which he primarily relegated to the television). We moved around a lot, so I didn’t develop the normal social skills one usually develops in childhood. I was abused to the point of fearing for my life. My escape was the aforementioned television, who raised me with all the saccharine morals 80’s/90’s television engendered. I had some toys. I had some video games. But all those escapes were external forces bringing me into their worlds. I had no world of my own.

Then in the grocery store in 1991, in the magazine section, was something I’d never really seen before. A dazzling drawing of several colourful characters hidden behind a golden glove with 6 brilliant gems shining out. There was an angry green guy. A silver guy on a surfboard. A red and blue guy with webbing. A devil. A skull. And more. It was Infinity Gauntlet #1. I looked it over and my world was rocked by the contents. A story of an oppressive, seemingly undefeatable villain wrecking unspeakable acts that were so heinous, disparate people from all over not only the world, but the entire universe, had to band together to stop him. I related on every possible level. This comic gave me something television, toys, video games never did. It inspired me. It ignited my imagination.

I had to own this comic. To read it over and over again. To study it. To buy more comics with these other characters. To learn their stories. Their loves. Their hates. Their triumphs. Their defeats. To learn what drove them to their heroic acts. To understand why their opponents fought so viciously. These comics made not only the heroes relatable, but made you understand that the villains were once people too. And seldom did they actually view themselves as the villains. These “bad guys” often didn’t commit acts out of malice or for the sake of being evil. They often saw nothing wrong with their actions or were forced into them by circumstances that were often times tragic.

Those Marvel comics (sorry DC) helped me understand my own situation and helped me cope in ways nothing or no one else was able to. It invited me to start crafting my own stories. I was no longer restricted into escaping through someone else’s imagination. Now I was shown how to create my own worlds to disappear into. Now I could create my own stories.

I used to write a lot and create a lot after I got into comic books, but when I moved to Vegas in 2001 all that was put aside for an exuberant drug habit. My life started getting back on track around 2008. I sobered up, started writing a novel, started playing and making music again. And 2008 is coincidentally when Marvel, once again, returned to my life with the release of Iron Man. I’d stopped collecting comics by the mid-90’s and lost my collection ages ago. But here Marvel was, back in my life, reminding me of a world of possibilities I’d forgotten. Iron Man and the movies that followed, reignited me and helped shape my new path forward.

The stories of my childhood were being brought to the screen to massive success in the MCU. The legendary heroism of my childhood was being realized in my adulthood. No longer were these tales private affairs that only a select few understood and appreciated, the entire world was able to share in the same awe and wonder that I had growing up. The hopes for something better. The chance to make something of yourself. To do good against insurmountable odds. That good could win over evil.

Last year, Marvel Studios released Avengers: Infinity War. The first part of the 2-part culmination of their massive cinematic universe so far. It was a loose adaptation of the very first comic book I ever saw, owned, and read. Infinity Gauntlet #1. The comic that came into my life when I needed it most and rocked my world. Seeing that film on screen was an experience I’ll hold dear for the rest of my life. I cheered. I wept. I screamed. I was happily transformed into a child again, reading that comic book for the first time. Reinspired and reinvigorated. And when I looked around the theatre on opening night, I saw fellow children of all ages being ignited and reignited, the same way I was.

In less than two weeks, Avengers: Endgame will come out. A continuation of Infinity War and, presumably, a loose adaptation of the Infinity Gauntlet saga. The entire world will get to fully experience what I experienced in 1991 and again in 2018. I hope it gives hope to those who need it most, as it did me.

Endgame will be a culmination of everything that’s come before for the MCU. A marvelous achievement for the studio. For me, it’s a deeply personal one.

Art vs. Artist

Can we appreciate art, but not the artist who created it? Can we fairly choose a side when becomes art vs. artist?

I thoroughly enjoyed the revival of Roseanne when it first came back. Some people complained she wasn’t the same character they remember from over a decade ago. That she changed. Who hasn’t changed over the years? I found that Roseanne (show, not person) gave us a fascinating glimpse into an area of America most don’t have exposure to, not unlike what she did when the show first premiered. The character of Roseanne never shied from controversy and what could be more controversial in these tumultuous times than to be an open ape-clown supporter?

Roseanne Barr is a crazy garbage fire. She always has been. I remember stories from long ago about writers quitting the show over her behind-the-scenes antics. I remember her firing producers constantly. I remember her “singing” the National Anthem and going on crazy rants on television. But, damn it, the show back then was great, either because of her or despite her.

People always knew Roseanne was “off”, but we endured it because it never really broached the area of being truly offensive. Then she tweeted an offensive, racist comment that ostracized her from her own show. The decision of choosing art over artist easy, especially since the show lives on sans Roseanne as The Conners and it’s still a pretty good show. People didn’t have to make a moral choice of liking the art over the artist, because ABC cut her off from the show that was synonymous with her as a person.

It’s not so easy when it comes to most recent examples. I’m not a fan of R. Kelly’s music, so I’m not going to speak on that. But Michael Jackson? Who doesn’t love the music of Michael Jackson? He made some of the greatest songs of all time. His voice and his dance moves were unparalleled. He was and still is often imitated. His charity work and generosity were also very well-known.

But he committed some of the worst crimes imaginable. He sexually violated innocent children. And the thing that hurts most about what Michael Jackson did is that he essentially did it out in the open. He was obvious and we were oblivious. He always traveled with young children in his entourage. He turned his home into an amusement park, for fuck’s sake. He was so blatantly brazen about his behaviour that it sort of makes us complicit.

15-ish years ago, I was managing a haunted house here in Las Vegas. I only missed working one day and that was Halloween Day. By sheer coincidence, that is the day Michael Jackson actually visited in person. In a story I was told the next day by every single person who worked there, he arrived with several bodyguards and a couple of young children. One of his bodyguards asked the scare actors to simply stand there and not jump out to scare Michael and the kids. Michael and company just wanted to walk through and see the haunted house. Michael enters the house holding hands with children and, of course, the very first scare actor jumps out, screaming and scaring the piss out of Jackson. Michael and children screamed and rushed out of the haunted house, leaving the property entirely.

My first thought upon hearing this story was “Damn, I wish I would’ve been there, so I could’ve met Michael Jackson.” It never occurred to me to think about why he arrived with children. Why he was holding children’s hands. This was Michael fucking Jackson, the king of Pop. If he was doing something illicit with those kids, surely he wouldn’t hang around with them so much. Surely he wouldn’t be so open about it.

It’s the same thought the vast majority of us shared. Until the allegations. And the court cases. And now the Leaving Neverland documentary. The more evidence that comes out of his heinous crimes, the harder it is to dismiss them. But does this affect the music? Can we morally, justifiably, still enjoy the music he created? With Roseanne it’s an easier choice, because her offence, still irreprehensible, wasn’t as downright evil as what Michael Jackson did.

It’s hard to hear a Michael Jackson song now and not be reminded of his crimes. But the music still exists. He doesn’t exist anymore. He’ll never hurt anyone again, but his music is around. The Simpsons has pulled their Michael Jackson episode from airing in reruns. The producers don’t feel it’s appropriate anymore. I don’t know if they’re right or not, but it’s the right to do so. We can’t erase the past by omitting it. At the same time, it feels weird to celebrate the music he made.

If we decide that no, the music of Michael Jackson is no longer worthy of affection and attention, what art can we appreciate? Kevin Spacey, Jimmy Page, Steven Tyler, Woody Allen, Elvis, Tupac, Alfred Hitchcock, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roman Polanski, Chuck Berry, Louis C.K., Iggy Pop, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, and more have created tremendous works of art, yet their private lives have some truly troubling accusations and admissions.

It’s not to say all creative people commit these sorts of acts, but if we scrutinize the past, what will we be left with if we try to erase it? Can we, knowing what we know now about these and other people, still legitimately enjoy the art they created? If so, what does that make us? If not, do we have any art left at all?

Paradox of Being Alive

3 people I know died yesterday. Unrelated to each other. While I didn’t technically “know” them, each played an interesting part of my life.

The first was actress Katherine Helmond. I never met her. Being a child raised by a television instead of my father, she was one of many parental figures in my life via the other side of the screen. I knew her from “Who’s the Boss” as most of us did, but I grew to love her on the brilliantly funny “Soap” as Jessica Tate. A groundbreaking and hilarious show that I caught on reruns on Comedy Central. There was a gentle kindness to her performance that can’t be easily faked. The entire show was phenomenal, but out of a large, talented, madcap cast, she always stood out to me. She was 89.

The second person who died was someone I wasn’t too fond of. It was a friend of a friend situation. It’s bad form to speak ill of the departed, but I truly don’t have anything nice to say about this person. I only met him once and it was an excruciating experience. His behaviour resulted in me being embarrassed in public for the first time in my life. I didn’t know him and didn’t want to get to know him. I’m sure he touched a lot of people’s lives and will be sorely missed by family and friends, but my one interaction with him was one of the worst I’ve ever had with another person. He was 29.

The third who died was a friend of mine I’d known for 15 years. He was another one I’d only met once in person, but we got along pretty well. Well enough to continue a long-distance friendship via Facebook (and initially MySpace, before that went extinct). I, unfortunately, didn’t know him very well, either. Outside of mutual meme-sharing via Facebook Messenger and him sending me the worst dad jokes you can imagine, there wasn’t much to our relationship. He was a pretty great guy from what I could tell, though a bit troubled. But who among us isn’t? He was 38.

3 different people. Unrelated to each other, except for my passing connections to each of them. One died in her old age. One died rather young. The third died at the same age I am. I’m 38 as I write this, soon to be 39 in a week’s time. I will be older than he will ever live to be in a week’s time.

It’s a sad fact that in my short life, I’ve already outlived so many people. I’ve lost family to the ravages of time. I’ve lost childhood friends to various accidents, overdoses, and suicides. Just 2 weeks ago, another person I’ve known for a decade passed away. Each life snuffed out seemingly far too soon. Life is a strange and bewildering thing. It is too long and dull as it is at the same time too short and momentous. We have so much time to do all the things we want to do and somehow not enough to do all the things we want to do. It’s the paradox of being alive.

When I was a kid, I thought that turning 30 was far away. It was a milestone so distantly out of reach it didn’t seem real. 30 was old. 30 was when I’d stop having fun and start feeling old. Like an adult. Then 30 hit and nothing really changed. 40 then became the far-off landmark of “old age.” Now 40’s just around the corner and still, nothing really has changed. No revelation. No discovery. No “oh shit, I’m old” moment. I feel essentially the same I as I did when I was younger. The only changes have been a few wrinkles, a few grey hairs, choosing to stay in more often instead of going out, and a growing graveyard where my friends and family used to be.

I used to think with age came wisdom. A sudden realization that suddenly transforms you from child to adult. An epiphany. But none comes. You just keep on going on, until the one day you don’t. The older you get, the more of the people you care about you will lose. No afterlife. No second chances. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200.

We accept this cruel fact and live on with regrets. We regret not quitting a job that treated us like replaceable drones. We regret not asking that certain someone out on a date. We regret not calling up an old friend who’s voice we haven’t heard in years. We regret not apologizing to a loved one for sins both real and imagined. And every time someone we know dies, we regret something about our interactions with them.

I regret never getting to meet Katherine Helmond and telling her how much her performance meant to me growing up.

I regret the unkind things I’ve said about the 29-year-old friend of a friend. I never bothered to look past a singular experience and get to know him.

I regret not being closer with my 38-year-old friend. We only hung out once in person and that was desperately not enough.

3 people I know died yesterday. It has me thinking about my own mortality. My own regrets. Decisions both good and bad. What I can do (if anything) to make more good ones and what I can do (if anything) to repair the bad ones. But that’s the tricky part of life. That’s the shitty part of life. That’s the beautiful part of life. The unknown. It’s the unknown that truly drives us. That gives each day the opportunity to be either special or tragic. And it’s that unknown we focus on when we lose people and as we think about our own end.

Around the World

Many years ago, I was standing in line for EDC (“Electric Daisy Carnival” for the uninitiated). A guy much younger than I, decorated much more vibrantly than I, and wearing much less clothing than I, struck up a conversation. Nothing too weighty. “Who’re you excited to see?” – “How many EDCs have you been too?” Commonplace banter virtually everyone engages in while uncomfortably waiting in line outside a music festival.

I had fairly flippant answers for his questions. The type of quasi-funny sarcasm that comes with age. But my answer to his last question was sincere. He’d asked “What kinda music you into?” and I reflexively answered, “Anything that moves both my body and my soul.” He didn’t much like that vague of a reply. He’d been hoping I’d name a specific type of electronic music, so we could then further discuss the minutiae of the various subgenres that’ve erupted over the years. Instead, I provided him with the sort of wide-ranging, non-specific answer that stopped the conversation dead in its tracks.

While I fired off the reply “Anything that moves both my body and soul” glibly, I did actually mean what I’d said. I meant it then and I mean it now. But that wasn’t always the case.

Growing up, my father’s idea of parenting (outside of mental and physical abuse) was to sit me down in front of the television. That’s unfortunately where I learned a lot about life and morality and all the things that parenting should have taught. That’s also where I was primarily exposed to music.

Television was fun and all, but it was its music that really spoke to me. Theme songs and commercial jingles. Classical music and opera in Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse cartoons. Disco and pop on dance shows like Soul Train and The Grind. Musicals like Wizard of Oz and Little Shop of Horrors. And various genres of music via music videos on MTV (back when the “M” in MTV still meant “Music”). I responded more to the audio than the visual of television.

I loved music. All genres. I didn’t discriminate. No one genre really spoke to me more than any other. Naturally, I went through phases every time I discovered something new. First, there was a classical phase. Then I went through a punk phase (listening to bands like Dead Kennedys and Social Distortion). That gave way to a grunge phase (with bands like Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots). That gave way to an alternative phase (Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins). That gave way to an electronica phase (Prodigy and Crystal Method). There was even a brief period when I was very young where I listened to nothing but Weird Al Yankovic.

During each phase I thoroughly enjoyed the music I was listening to, but nothing really shook me. Nothing I heard was transformative. There was never a “My life changed after I heard [insert song here]” moment. Until one morning, watching MTV while getting ready for school, this music video came on:

 
I’d never before heard something so repetitive, so hypnotic, so fresh, and so simple yet melodic. I’d never seen a music video that was so silly and weird and inspired and married to the music so perfectly. Other electronic bands on this growing new “electronica” wave didn’t move me as Daft Punk did. Their stuff didn’t touch me.

The world was on pause. I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. I was hypnotized. Mesmerized. Spaced-out melodies and a driving four-on-the-floor beat filled an emptiness in me I didn’t realize I had. That funky bassline. Those robotic words. Nothing else I’d ever heard was like it. The electronic songs of the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy leaned towards rock. Aphex Twin was experimental and chaotic. Disco was almost vapid in its simplicity. All paled in comparison to the sublimity Daft Punk displayed.

When that video ended, and the world unfroze, I had my new obsession. Music was always an important part of my life, but it wasn’t the main driving force until “Around the World” entered it. That song was my transformative musical moment I was subconsciously waiting for.

No longer would I sit idly by as any old music weaved in and out of my life, like the tide coming in. I had a mission to find more songs like this. To fully immerse myself in this newfound audio experience. But living in a small town with a population of just over 2,000 wasn’t quite the hotbed of musical availability I required. My pursuit had to be done over the internet, primarily through Napster.

I learned about different genres of electronic music: house, techno, trance, breakbeat, jungle, drum and bass, downtempo, hardcore, and all the genres that splintered off from there. Each one had its own power. Its own magic. I wanted to listen to it all. I wanted more.

There was a culture, an underground landscape that awaited exploration, that I didn’t have access to. Events where this music was played for hours for people to dance to: raves. I always knew small town life wasn’t for me. My heart beats to metropolitan rhythms and nothing in a small, mountain town could fulfill me. I moved to Las Vegas as soon as I was able and went to my first rave the very next day.

It was on the outskirts of Vegas, in the desert, miles and miles away from the shining neon of the Strip. Two makeshift booths set up at opposite ends of a faux-campsite, each with bright flashing lights blasting out in circular directions. I don’t remember a lot of that night in July of 2001, but I distinctly remember when a remix of Daft Punk’s “Around the World” was played by a DJ. The serendipity of that moment. The momentous coincidence cementing my place in this world. It was replaced only by hearing Daft Punk play that track live in Los Angeles 6 years later as part of their “Alive 2007” tour.

Over the years, electronic music has evolved (as all things eventually do). Even the catch-all term has evolved, from techno to electronica to the currently used EDM. But as the music grew and expanded, it started to lose its specialness. A lot of the electronic music coming out today feels diluted. There was a magic to it that’s no longer present.

There’s an emotional weight that’s been lost. As more and more electronic genres fractured off, they became more formulaic. Before, you could be listening to a DJ’s set and hear a broad range of musical styles. There could be vocal clips ripped straight from movies or TV shows appearing suddenly in a track. You’d be dancing to a driving techno beat and all of a sudden a loop from a country song would be playing. There was a time where there was no limit to what you’d hear under the umbrella of electronic music. But now, most of the songs are more of the same.

Perhaps when electronic music went from the soundtrack of dirty warehouse raves to main stage festival music, it lost its power. Decades ago, it was nearly unheard of to think about a career producing electronic music. People were doing it for the love of the music. Now it’s as much as money-making machine as pop music is.

Perhaps when the tools to make electronic music went from heavy, expensive hardware to cheap software, it lost its uniqueness. There was still a necessary musicality to producing electronic music and quite a financial commitment. Drum machines and synthesizers weren’t cheap. Now you can buy affordable software that emulates all the machines of old for a fraction of the price. And most of those programmes come with presents and loops that require little experience or musical knowledge.

Perhaps it’s simply a factor of electronic music losing it’s “cred” by going mainstream. We fans of electronic dance music were part of an exclusive club. The outside world didn’t know what to make of this strange, repetitive, mechanical, soulless music we admired so. They labelled us druggies. They thought we couldn’t appreciate real music. We used to comb through forgotten sections in the back of record stores for the slightest electronic trinket. Now Daft Punk is a Grammy-winning duo and colleges have courses in DJing.

Electronic music is still a major factor in my life. I did choose to go from a passive observer to an active participant and produce my own songs, after all. But it’s not as important to me as it was 20 years ago. I find myself listening to jazz more often than house music. 80s synth pop finds its way into my ears more often than drum and bass. Classical music accompanies me as I paint more often than techno.

Daft Punk’s “Around the World” woke me up. It put me on the path that shaped my life for the better. Sure, there are other songs I like more. There are other songs that are better made. Or better quality. There are greater musicians who create masterpieces for the ages of all genres. But without Daft Punk’s influence, I never would’ve been able to appreciate other music the way I do now. It took synthetic music created by a pair of robots to make me appreciate all forms of music. I was a light switch eternally turned off until “Around the World” turned me on. It was the first song that moved both my body and my soul. And every time I hear it, I’m brought back home again.

Mountain of Faces

Imagine you’re out at the grocery store. Wandering through the produce section, looking for just the right tomato. The first one’s a bit too soft for your liking. The second one is better, but it’s lopsided in such a way that cutting it would be more work than it’s worth. The third one looks perfect, but before you grab it someone calls you out by your name.

They’re friendly and cordial and definitely know you, but you have no reasonable idea who this stranger is. They ask about some specific about your personal life that only someone close to you would know. Maybe something about your family, about your pet, or about your significant other. The friendly sort of “check-up” friends do when they see each other in public. You’re friendly and cordial in return, answering their questions with a feigned smile of familiarity. Eventually, the encounter ends and you return to tomato hunting with no clue of who this complete stranger was.

Now, imagine this happens almost every time you go out. Go catch a movie and you run into an unfamiliar face that knows you. Dinner at a restaurant and you bump into another personable stranger. Get invited to a close friend’s house for a party and it’s filled with people you simply do not recognize, including the homeowner who invited you. Imagine not recognizing the dentist you’ve been visiting for years. Or the doctor. Or your coworkers. Imagine watching a movie or television show and sometimes losing track of which actors or characters are which.

Even worse, imagine that there are some faces you do recognize with ease. Certain faces stick to you like glue, some after only meeting them once. Certain other faces that you’ve known for decades are new every time you see them. There’s a frustrating lack of rhyme or reason to which faces you can remember and which you cannot. Some memorable faces are quite unremarkable while other typically memorable faces find themselves lost to the wayside.

The main fact is, you cannot remember most faces. You can remember your own along with an interesting array of people both close to you and not close to you whatsoever. You teach yourself tricks. You adapt. You take notice of other traits. Piercings, clothing, hair colour and/or style, any moles or deformities, skin tone, height, weight. Essentially, breaking the cardinal rule of “judging a book by its cover.” You intentionally critique the shape of someone’s nose, make note of how close or how far apart their eyes are, what shape their teeth are in, if they’re overweight or underweight, and so on. It isn’t done to criticize or demean anyone in the slightest. It’s done merely to help make them stand out so you can remember them on next chance encounter because otherwise, it’s just another face in a mountain of faces.

And sometimes even those tricks do little to facilitate remembering. When you find yourself in the situation where you run into another faceless face, you smile and are as friendly as you can be to this stranger-friend. Basically, you fake it. You master the art of the courteous smile. The slight squirting of comfortable, warm eyes. The relaxed posture. You keep your responses slightly vague, yet still affable. You don’t do anything to incriminate yourself. You mustn’t let the person know you simply do not remember their face.

People like being remembered. To forget someone, especially someone you care about or who cares about you, is a grave insult indeed. People take it personally. They think they’ve done something wrong or that they are somehow insignificant because you don’t remember their face. It’s difficult for some to wrap their heads around, so they become offended, despite the fact it has nothing to do with them personally. You still remember times spent with people, you just can’t quite remember which face goes with which memory.

While you’ve adapted to faking familiarity, you also learn to not approach people. A lot of times you’ll see someone in public you think you know, but you don’t approach them because you honestly aren’t 100% certain you do. You covertly sign into Facebook or Instagram and check their profile to ensure it’s them, in case they do come up to you. But you never, ever make the first move in speaking to someone. This creates a paradox where you either risk offending people you know by ignoring them in a public setting or you risk offending them by not remembering their faces, at no fault of their own.

That’s me. It’s taken me years to understand what was going on. For a while, I thought this phenomenon was due to memory issues. Maybe I had ADHD. Maybe I had autism. But it seems I have facial blindness. Prosopagnosia.

It’s a strange sort of thing, living a life where almost everyone looks the same. At times, it’s disheartening how I have to force myself to notice people’s differences and flaws in order for me to remember what they look like. It’s a discouraging fact that the tools some use to belittle and degrade others I must use to get by in everyday life.

But other times, it is a rather nice sort of notion that, when I’m relaxed and not pressuring myself to remember faces, I get to see the world through a lens of “we’re all of us the same.” That, in a way, we are all one.