Thursday, January 17, 2013

Highways to Heaven

Ascension by Arik Roper. Used with permission.
I would  hate to start a rumor that there is a link between role-playing games and drug addiction, but my compulsive search for spiritual meaning really did begin in an essential way with some twenty-sided die, a few sheets of graph paper, lead figurines, and the 1977 boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe it began there because role-playing a half-elf ranger who could hear and interpret the voices of stone, wind, and rippling water, who could see in the darkness of a forest in the dead of night, who could track deer or orc or hobgoblin with equal acuity, who was schooled in various types of magic but was no slouch with a bow and a short sword, was immeasurably better than what I was: a thirteen-year-old boy with a piece of wire (from his electronics workbench) in place of one of the temples on his glasses, his hair hanging down to his shoulders in greasy strands, his clothes from Bradlees, and his sneakers from Caldor. But it more likely began with D&D, because that venerable role-playing game was a perfect storm of the various fantastical narratives that had found their way into every aspect of my consciousness and organized my world in a meaningful way. It was the 1970s, and for a boy filled with nameless, unspoken anxiety and fear, all the weird and unusual pop-culture artifacts—from a resurgent love of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to the black hole called Cygnus X-I on the progressive rock band Rush’s album A Farewell to Kings—reflected and comforted my adolescent existential unease. Uncannily, Dungeons & Dragons distilled it all into a perfect interactive chronicle of my consciousness. 

D&D had its own repetitiveness, to be sure (enter room, check for traps, fight monster, get treasure, repeat), but it was the eternal quest that was so attractive, the never-ending cir cular campaign in search of that elusive something, some hidden power, some great magic item that would make the users like gods, give them control over demons and fair maidens alike. Beyond the most obvious sorts of desires, there was something else that kept compelling me toward the game. I had fellow players who didn’t make me feel like a freak, but there was something else that had me up every night studying the rule books, going over each statistic, creating dungeons and maps, rolling and rolling and rolling forever those many-sided dice. It was that the game understood, at its core, something about the value of hidden treasures and the even greater value of having to fight your way toward uncovering them. 

I grew up around hidden things, hidden fears, hidden wor ries. It was the suburbs, after all, and despite their origins, which were a promise of new beginnings and open possibili ties, mine was a familial and social culture built on the barely hidden restlessness of the generation that preceded mine. We had all arrived here the same way: on a highway through history, encouraged by the end of a great war and the spiritual fortitude that was a result of being victorious.

After World War II, thousands of veterans were educated on the GI Bill and the country produced the first postwar genera tion of engineers, tradesmen, salesmen, and financial executives that would ultimately shape the economy and the culture. One of the perks of a good job was the once unaffordable automo bile. Making deals with the car industry and oil companies, the government built highway after highway, making it possible to travel easily from city to city, as well as to flee the city where you did business and reside elsewhere. One of the most important results of the highway was that what had once been rural areas, accessible only by long and winding routes, were now easily tamed by asphalt. The suburbs sprouted up like pastel flowers, and the homogeneity of America began in earnest. All it took was a steady job and a plot of land, and you could have a house of your own away from the cities and their crowded apartment buildings, exposed trash, exposed poverty, crime, and destitu tion. The suburbs offered protection from all of this.
But the life of the suburbs wasn’t all that it appeared to be. Schools offered nothing more than textbook responses to the world’s ills that the suburbs promised to be ballast against. The suburban sense of security and prosperity was built on the sac rifices and success of World War II. The defeat of Hitler and the Axis was one of this country’s greatest sources of pride, but underneath the glory was something dark and ugly. As images and testimonies of the Holocaust and Hiroshima became more and more disclosed, the veil was pulled away, and on the other side were human folly and human-constructed doom. Even our greatest ally, the Soviet Union, had become not merely a threat but the vessel into which the United States poured all its own fears. Despite the reality Leave It to Beaver depicted, the struggle for civil rights was a sad shadow behind a very white window dressing. Many people asked if that great promise of the postwar American suburbs was nothing but an illusion or, worse, a collective self-deceit.

But there was another highway, the symbolic highway, which represents the American spiritual journey that brought the Beats and hippies streaming out of the suburbs back into the cities to create the legacy I would inherit. It was the highway that not only bridged cities but pointed the way beyond the cities, as Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” 

Young men and women fled the suburbs on those same high ways that had made possible what angered them. But they also journeyed down other roads. Be it through jazz, abstract expres sionism, marijuana, or myriad other avenues that led away from the confines of middle-American existence, the broad and open plain of consciousness beckoned. Eastern religion stood out as the visionary philosophy that would ultimately underpin much artistic and personal expression. Allan Ginsberg’s Howl stands as the testament of the Beat generation, but there is another Ginsberg poem that better captures the flight from church and steeple to monastery and mountain. In his 1955 poem “Sun flower Sutra,” Ginsberg writes, “A perfect beauty of a sun flower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!” 

It was this emphasis on experience, on being in the world, on recognizing the unassuming holiness that exists in all of existence, that led young people away from what was perceived as static, conformist, and square. While not the food of the gods they would be for the hippies, drugs played no small role for the Beats as a way to elicit the kind of illumination that revealed the truth behind the veil. As early as 1959 Ginsberg was writing poetry about LSD and “the billion-eyed monster, the Nameless, the Answerless, the Hidden-from-me, the endless being . . .”—an image of God that put up a middle finger to the long-bearded daddy in the sky that haunted traditional Judaism and Christianity. Within this tension between the elusive promise of suburban homesteading and the growing agitation that would take flight in the sixties was where I grew up. 

Over the next few years my fretfulness started to become a sense of impending doom. I wasn’t worried about anything specific, but on occasion it seemed as though the world was a haunted place. The comforts of television and Doritos only made this perception more sharp and exaggerated when it came upon me, but it was filtered through Star Trek reruns and Dr. Who episodes. Over time the abstract strangeness of the world became more specific, such as in the form of kidnappings, illness, and all the things that could go wrong with the body. One could fall from high places, get kicked in the groin by girls or punched in the stomach by boys. Or you could end up in a plastic bubble like John Travolta, without any immunity to the invisible hordes of germs. (Once, for no reason, I thought I couldn’t swallow and spent the evening in my bed, forcing myself to gulp air into my throat to make sure I could.) You could end up abducted. You could be run over. You could find yourself in a tall building suddenly on fire, or in an earthquake. You could be possessed by the Devil. Or, worse, you could die from drugs. 

In an episode of the TV series Police Story, David Cassidy played an undercover narcotics agent in a high school. In one scene someone put angel dust into a boy’s hamburger. Later that day, the boy went onto the roof of the school, calling out, “I can fly! I can fly!” before flinging himself to the ground. Drugs somehow had a life of their own. People could trick you into doing them; they could be in something you might drink. (In the film Food of the Gods, a strange organic “food” causes rats and worms to grow into terrible giant monsters. At the end of the movie, after the threat has been eradicated, the camera shows a herd of cows grazing in a pasture containing the food. The scene shifts to omi nously show a group of schoolchildren drinking from their milk cartons. During dinner the night after watching it, I couldn’t eat a bite, worried that our meal was somehow tainted as well.) 

I began to read about drugs in encyclopedias and became an expert on all the various categories and subcategories of drugs and their various effects. I was haunted by all the pos sibilities, and while I vowed never to take them, I couldn’t help imagining how drugs might explain something about the various people around me whom I both avoided and was attracted to. There were the girls with their denim jackets and lip gloss who smelled of cigarettes and some other burnt vegetable, whose eyes glazed over in class but who were not shy about their bodies and didn’t try to hide their newly budding breasts and ever-curving curves. Then there was the music that came out of my broth er’s eight-track player, songs that alluded to something I knew could be understood only under the influence of one of the many drugs mentioned in the pamphlets I collected and whose cartoon panels warned about the horrors and the dangers. So I wrote an essay about drugs for a class project—an objective, fair-minded account until the final sentence, which read: “And for your sake and God’s, don’t do drugs.” 


We went to the abandoned lot behind my house with a six-pack, two thick joints, and no bottle opener. My companion pulled the cap off his beer with the edge of a stone. My attempt cracked the neck, and so I poured the beer into my mouth from above my head, hoping that no bits of glass had fallen into the bottle. I swallowed barely a few mouthfuls, the rest spilling onto the ground as I leapt away so none would get on my shirt. After we clumsily drank the beer, we lit up the joints and I was told to hold each lungful of smoke in as long as I could. The air was clean and cool, and each toke tasted like autumn leaves. 

I had heard people didn’t get high the first time they smoked pot, but whether or not this was true for most, I got massively stoned that night. After we smoked the second joint, we got on our bikes and rode through the suburban streets, yelling and laughing and feeling, at fifteen, for the first moment, free. The stars were out in a multitude, and their light flew off like sparks. Everything was aglow; even the houses winked and smiled at me. Sometime later that night I went quietly into my house, my parents watching television in their room upstairs, and went down into the basement that had been converted into my bed room. The sound of my coming home was all they needed to hear. I was trusted, the kid who never got into trouble, and my comings and goings rarely had to be accounted for, as long as I kept to a fairly consistent schedule. 

The heat in the house made my ears buzz, and I sat on the couch and just grooved without having to reach for anything to keep me satisfied. The moment was my own. I looked around at my comic books and games and models and computer, and they were inconsequential. They would no longer distract me. I had glimpsed the sun behind the moon in the middle of the night and its rays had filled me with hope. 

The weed had chipped away those fissures in my inner mind that were ready to crumble. There were hidden passages on the other side that I had already glimpsed briefly in occult discourses, Tolkien’s imagined world, and even Rush lyrics. Small auditory hallucinations matched perfectly the movement of my hands if I waved them in front of me. New ideas and inspirations burst forth like Roman candles. Everything, everything, was filled to overflowing with significance. 

I got into bed and pressed my fingers to my nose, inhaling the sweet smell of resin as I fell asleep for the first time without having to wait for it, my restless mind coming to a dead stop. 

Copyright © 2011 by Peter Bebergal from Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.

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