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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Stirring the pot: my cannabis chronicles

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman signals reasons why drugs and alcohol are such a treacherous threat to our culture.  They take from us the supremely talented.  James Lipton, who noted Hoffman's genius and contributions on Morning Joe, angrily condemned drugs.

Hoffman's death occurs at a time when our attitudes and policies toward drugs are changing.  Our attitudes toward alcohol,  not so much.  I have worked with and known people of great talent and potential who were destroyed by their addictions.  Some of our greatest artists have struggled with addictions and lost.  As a culture, we have never fully explored the motives.  We have regarded addictions as extreme self-indulgence--which some cases may be--but we have not confronted what it is that makes highly intelligent and talented people systematically destroy themselves through addictions that take possession of their lives. 

My first experience with pot was as a member of a garage band.  We had a tenor sax player at one point who was clearly the star of the  band.  He was a kid from a Mexican shanty town by the tracks where many of the houses had dirt floors.  His high school (there were four public and three private high schools in the area) band teacher let him borrow records that he listened to over and over and then tried to play what he heard.  He particularly liked Ben Webster, and he was learning the art of the tenor sax very well.  

Living where he did, there was this lovely weed growing along the tracks and in the ditches.  I've since been told that the plant grew from seeds of industrial hemp that dropped out of rail cars and was not a smoking grade of cannabis, but Manny and his neighborhood friends didn't know that.  So, they blew it.  A lot.

Most of the time when Manny played in the band, we did not know whether he'd had a toque or two, but some nights we did.  Life for blacks, Latinos, and anyone else who lived in poverty or on the edge of it was a constant struggle.  On some nights, Manny needed to mellow out to get in the right frame of mind to make music.  On those nights, he blew what looked like cigars.  That didn't bother us.  But on occasion, Manny would get mellow to the point of being off rhythm and tone deaf.  We used to stop the band, hustle Manny off the stand, and tell the audience that something went wrong with his instrument.  It wasn't our band that Manny was playing with on those occasions.  He was in a different world.  

One night when it happened, we had an old wire recorder along and taped Manny's performance.  A few days later during a rehearsal, we played it for Manny.  He said, "Holy Christ,  don't ever let me do that in front of people."  We didn't.  

I have had musicians tell me that pot did affect their playing, but not to the degree it did Manny.  I don't know the explanation for it, but it made me and the other band members very wary of weed.  We worked very hard to control our instruments in the most musical ways, and we feared losing control.  Manny's ventures into cacophony and rhythmic failure convinced us that any kind of substance menaced our abilities to play.  The stories of many of the musicians we listened to and tried to emulate being sent to prison on drug charges also made us avoid contact with drugs and alcohol.  

Somewhere about his junior year in high school, Manny just disappeared.  Our guitar-player ran across Manny's band director and asked if he knew what happened to Manny.  The director, who fronted some very good combos on weekends,,  said, "No.  And I'm afraid to ask."  He had seen too many promising young musicians disappear in clouds of discouragement and despair.  In those times,  it was not unusual to have schoolmates simply disappear and never be heard from.  (Once when I was writing about a very poor classmate from junior high, I tried to track him with the help of the school district.  There was no record, no trace.)

Over the years, I have seen addictions nullify the talents and opportunities for many people.  Once when a group of us tried to intervene in a particularly tragic case, the people treating him said it was a choice he made.  I don't think anyone would make such a choice.

I have studied the cases of many people with addictions who managed to accomplish great things.  F. Scott Fitzgerald took to bed and did not get out of it while working to avoid the alcohol that made him incapable of writing.  Musicians Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster (who earned the nickname The Brute for how alcohol transformed his personality),
Lester Young (the Prez) and a host of others were in a constant struggle to keep their addictions from destroying their playing.  Their art did not save them, but it was the thread they clung to in order to make some kind of contribution to humanity and its creative aspects.  Their struggles are much like Philip Seymour Hoffman's.

One of the things that is very clear to us now is that the punitive war on drugs did absolutely nothing to halt or alleviate drug addictions.  We also know that alcohol addiction destroys the ability and talent of many and condemns them to lives of disappointment and despair.  That knowledge has much to do with the legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of it.  Branding people as criminals for seeking some kind of solace or escape through over use of substances has done nothing but create a huge stigmatized class of people.  As a professor, I witnessed many students get convicted for drug usage and in nearly all cases the conviction merely exacerbated whatever drove them to seek some kind of refuge in the overuse of substances.  Criminalization destroyed and effectively ended many otherwise promising lives.  The smarmy programs in schools to encourage kids to avoid drugs merely entice many of them to try drugs.  Those programs demonstrate that educators and the authors of the programs have little understanding of the social psychology that drives children.  They do not understand what creates bullying and the effects it has on children.
Drugs are often the result of bullying.

As for the legalization of pot, I wonder if we fully understand its potential to take possession of young minds.  In the sixties, students would sometimes come class after a smoke break and were beyond communication.  I saw many simply give up on class and retreat into pot and potato chips.  There was something very unhealthy about it, but there was no effective way to refer them to help and convincing advice that could bring them back to productive study--in most cases.

I have long been convinced that one of the factors in substance abuse is the way we regard competition and comparison.  Anyone who has presided over a classroom knows that providing students with a comparative assessment of their performance in their studies is essential to their getting their personal bearings on the work they are doing.  But we also know that we will lose those students who feel designated as mediocre.  It is one thing to  engage in competition in recreational pursuits, but it is another to make it a driving factor in education.  Our stupid division of people into winners and losers is probably the biggest factor in the flagging performance in our schools.    Intelligent and effective teachers know that using grades to brand students like sides of beef rather than to offer diagnostic opportunities to improve their work is destructive.  When students find themselves compared unfavorably to their peers, their impulse is to disassociate themselves from their peers and identify with another cohort.  Their new cohort more often than not centers itself on the use of drugs and alcohol.

I will go so far to say that the most destructive force in education is that notion that education should be run like a business or an athletic program.  This notion is prevalent in school boards and legislators and those who have no clue of how kids learn and what psychological environment keeps them trying and working and valuing what they do learn.  The very people who decry America's competitive ranking are the very ones who created it.  The most ill-informed and stupid people in our society have taken over the direction of education, which is geared more to the creation of class-rankings than to treating all kids as equal but unique.  Until education is turned back to the teachers and administrators who act as team leaders, not corporate bosses, it will fail.  If you live in a district where the superintendent calls him or herself a CEO, you live in an educational dud district.

Some students who retreat into the drug and alcohol cultures may find ways to assert their talents and become geniuses at their chosen crafts, like Philip Seymour Hoffman.  But like Philip Seymour Hoffman the scars to their souls will never fully heal and will lie in wait to destroy them.  His death is a reminder of why we have to rescue our education systems and our culture from the fucked-up retards who are making America stupid. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States