My Mom

My dad worshipped that woman. When they were young, she was everything he ever wanted in the whole world: she was beautiful, free, smart, funny, she was open to people to a fault, she had absolutely no expectations and was pleasantly surprised by everything, she acted like every movement was a miracle, and she shared everything she had with everyone she could.

She had a new hobby every other year, she’d get good at it, and move on. She knitted for a while, she threw pottery, she cooked for people every chance she got, she wrote poetry, performed her poems as songs, she sang, she danced, she ate, she loved. She sold her crafts when she needed to, she gave them away when she could. My dad was so happy to care for the finances and keep us housed and handle logistics as long as she provided the inspiration. It was natural. They were in love from the day they met until the day my father died.

My mother was always the light, she walk into a room and people felt it. She’d write words on napkins without thinking and whoever found them would be moved by them. She’d perform for strangers on the train who started out annoyed and ended up hugging her body. Whatever job she was ever doing to pay our rent, she was the star employee without trying. Her bosses loved her, her coworkers admired her, customers specifically requested her, for years after she’d left.

When my father told us that he was bored, listless, she told them they had to open a book shop – so they did. She thought every single goal was attainable and I never saw her fail at trying.

There was even a year when my mom decided that maybe Christians were on to something – so they started going to church every Sunday, they avoided sin, they got proper saved. After a year, my mom told us that she really really tried but found more meaning in poetry than church, and we never went back. She was never above trying anything just because it didn’t fit into her “alternative” lifestyle.

She was amazing.

When my father died, the light went out. She stopped leaving her house, she started doing the few things she judged other people for doing: eating garbage, watching TV, cleaning the carpet, reading the newspaper, being mainstream, being lonely, being quiet. She spent her entire life being admired for being the inspiration, but when her own inspiration died – betrayed by the revolution that kept them afloat for decades – she transformed entirely.

And that’s pretty much when I went corporate.

My Dad

There were always people I didn’t know in my house. A friend was explaining to me once that her cat was super unfriendly because she never had people in her home, so when she did the cat would panic and act like a psycho. I’m like a housecat who grew up in a house filled with people, I was always on peoples’ laps, I was always a part of sing-alongs, every adult was an aunty or an uncle, and while I recognized that my parents were mom and dad, there was little distinction to what they could provide as opposed to other adults in my life. They would send me to neighbors’ houses when they didn’t have dinner for me, I’d sleep on friends’ couches when my parents were moving from one apartment to another, and I felt loved by every person who came into our home.

My parents were also very free with love, by which I mean, they were very sexually experimental with all of the other adults coming and going from our apartment. We’d have squatters sometimes – sometimes they’d sleep in the living room and sometimes they’d sleep three-to-a-bed with my parents. This was part of the free love hippie mentality to which they subscribed. They found there to be no danger in sharing love with the world.

In the 1990’s people really started talking about some of the physical side effects of the free love movement and one of them was much scarier and much more stigmatized than the rest. Suddenly, there was this virus that exists only to punish the heathens who dared engage in sexual freedom. It targeted gay men, according to the media, and villainized the entire gay rights movement. Suddenly, the government was telling us that God was punishing us for our lifestyles. In 1990 we saw a child, with HIV+-transfused blood die from this virus. It was no longer just for the gay, just for the hippies, just for the drug-users.

By the end of 1996, there were an estimated 23 million people living with HIV and my father was one of them. He wasn’t sick long, which was something I’m supposed to refer to as a blessing. But suddenly, my free-spirited mother found her revolution and her own free spirit to blame for the death of her partner and she became any entirely new woman.

I like to tell her stories of my dad to try to break this down.

When I was seven years old, my mother was working as a waitress and my dad used to bring me into her diner and I’d rotate around all the tables eating the scraps from the people who had left without cleaning their plates. There was no stigma about it, it was economical and the food would be thrown out anyway. He’d sit at the counter drinking cup after cup of coffee keeping lookout for my mom’s manager, Mister Bob, and we’d have secret code words in case he came out.

If Mister Bob came out from behind the counter, heading towards the restaurant floor, my dad would lean back in his chair, stretch his arms exaggeratedly above his had and exclaim to nobody in particular, “WHAT A DAY!” This usually prompted Mister Bob to take a beat and commiserate while I plopped on the floor with my trucks and resumed play, appearing to have never touched the plates on the tables.

We developed different secret code words for all of our little adventures. If we were working in the book shop and he thought someone was stealing he’d yell out for me, “AYY, WHERE YA AT KID?” and I’d echo back, from wherever I was, “POLISHING THE GUNS, POP!” He thought this deterred thieves, we were never robbed, and it was a fun game for me. This was a win win win. Plus I had this whole fun language and deception that just we shared. Not even my ma was in on it.

If we were up late, sitting on the porch, smoking a doobie, and Carol came home. He’d quickly tell me, “…and that’s how a deaf pianist became the most famous pianist of all time.” Luckily for us, Carol couldn’t tell the difference between the smell of patchouli, nag champa, and cannabis.

In 1996, I was 19 years old and still living with my parents. I had technically completed high school, obtaining a GED after doing a couple of years of coursework to prepare. But I was aimless. I was sitting with my dad on the porch and he casually mentioned that he “has that virus we keep hearing about…. you know, the Tom Hanks movie thing…..” and then passed over a little roach.

We hadn’t prepared my response to this bit, I didn’t know what to say, but I did know that Tom Hanks died in the end of that movie. And so did my dad. There was no script for it, I was unprepared for it, and my mother has still not recovered.

Stoned

I smoked pot a couple of years before I tried alcohol and while alcohol was a non-starter, marijuana remained a large part of my life. It was always around my house, there was never any stigma about it, in fact I was probably twenty before I realized this was even strange. I don’t have any specific recollection of my first time, but I do know that it was a small white joint handed to me by a neighbor named Jimbo. I held it to my mouth, without it touching my lips, and breathed it in for several seconds. By the time I exhaled, I knew this was for me.

I spent the next few hours accomplishing tasks: I cleaned my room, I wrote in my journal, I cooked a meal, I engaged in significant conversations with those around me. There was no crash, there was no hangover, and there was no physical sickness. I was just very relaxed and contemplative, things were brighter and funnier, people were kinder and more compassionate, and I just saw things differently.

I don’t think a week or more has passed since I was fourteen that I haven’t consumed cannabis in some capacity. I preferred joints as a child because of the visual. I moved on to glass pipes for the convenience. I baked it for the health benefits. And I primarily vaporize it or eat it now as an adult.

Funny enough, my parents did not like me smoking pot. This turned out to be where they drew the line and assumed some parental responsibility. Smoking pot, they insisted, was for adults who needed a break from the pressure and responsibility of being an adult. I had no business being an escapist from a life they had so beautifully designed for me. Drugs and alcohol, to my parents, were a form of escapism that they had been using for years to escape a repressive and controlling society. They felt validated in their mind-altering measures because there was some vindication in it for having escaped their parents’ strict homes.

They couldn’t understand that for me, marijuana use was not a form of escapism or a way to ignore my life, but a way of leaning in and better examining my life with new emotional and mental clarity. They didn’t publicly object or punish me, they extent of their discontent demonstration was mostly to skip me in the rotation or dip into my stash. They were very understanding even when they did not choose to understand.

Working in the marijuana industry as an adult, in an increasingly accepted green industry, just kills my mother. That pot is barely illegal anymore, that I work and earn a good salary selling it, and that I still use it makes her feel that she is a relic from a time that doesn’t exist anymore. And she’s right. I try to remind her that non-trads like her, my dad, their friends and neighbors opened the doors for culture and society to grown more accepting and experimental but she maintains that their revolution failed.

When my dad died, my mom resigned herself to the notion that her revolution had failed and nothing I’ve ever said has convinced her otherwise.

Drunk

I hate being drunk. I haven’t had a drink in several years, and not because of any addiction issues or a program or a partner who prefers that I don’t. I don’t drink because I did it once, didn’t understand the appeal, and just never did again.

This is another example, along with non-conformity and marijuana, that was so allowed in my home that it held none of the alternative appeal that it does for many other kids growing up in America.

I was fourteen years old, primarily being homeschooled by my mother (on paper, not really in reality) and treating all of my parents’ friends like they were my friends. I wasn’t very we “socialized” with my peers because I didn’t have any. None of my parents’ friends had kids, we didn’t stay in touch with cousins, I never went to any type of traditional public schooling, and I was never sent away for adult behavior time. So when my dad brought home a keg for my fourteenth birthday, I indulged.

The first thing I remember was that I wasn’t having more fun than I usually had in large gatherings. I found it more difficult to speak correctly which made me extremely self-aware, I felt that I couldn’t relate to the struggles of those my parents’ age – in large part due to the progress they had made in society – and that made me, again, overly self-aware. Drinking, for me, basically meant being embarrassed and incapacitated enough to not know how to deal with it.

Plus, I ended up throwing up, falling asleep on the bathroom floor, waking up to my dad using the toilet and telling me how hilarious I was last night, not being able to remember what he was referring to, and spending the entire day in bed smelling like warm beer and cigarettes.

I wondered why anyone ever chased this feeling. So I stopped forever.

I was, however, and continue to be an avid marijuana-user.

Piano Lessons

Growing up, I had a piano teacher named Carol, a neighbor who could play the piano who babysat me here and there when my parents were out. Carol was old school San Fransisco and had lived in the Bay since long before the hippies moved in and she was not having it. She thought women belonged in the home, gay was a choice that could be ignored, and good literature could only be found in the classics. She owned a three-plex building in which my parents rented the bottom level for a couple of years and while she certainly disagreed with everything they stood for, she just couldn’t resist having a kid come over looking for structure, lessons, guidance, and some sneaky indoctrination.

While my parents would tell me about freedom and non-conformity and pressure and the power of choice, Carol told me about finding a man, settling down, leaving this life behind. She would also tell me how much she loved the gentrification of the neighborhood as it paid her entire mortgage that her now-dead husband took out on the building fourteen years prior.

For so many people, it was the exact opposite: parents and other adult role models teach a child about structure and goals and planning, one valuable adult (usually a “cool uncle” or a “cool aunt” or a “my mom’s cool lady friend who just never settled down”) teaches the value in chaos, in choices and non-conformity. The value that so many of my adult friends have assigned to their childhood chaos role model is the same value I’ve assigned to Carol. What we all seem attracted to is that one adult who teaches us what no other adult does.

I wanted to play Neil Young songs and Queen operas, she wanted me to play Beethoven. I wanted to read leaflets and poems from the book shop, she wanted me to read the Bible. And if you’ve never learned Beethoven or the Bible at home, it doesn’t have the same boredom-inducing rebellious qualities. It’s just awesome, beautiful music and crazy, fantastical stories! Coming home talking to my parents about the Bible was on par with the average kid coming home to his Christian parents to tell them about his new love for the shitty disco outfit KISS.

Carol died alone in her apartment; she fell in the bathtub. I came home from school to find my apartment door locked, which usually meant my parents were out and I should go to Carols. I went downstairs and knocked for several minutes. When I didn’t receive an answer after ten minutes, I just let myself in knowing she would leave her door unlocked for me. It took me about thirty seconds to find her and call 911.

I sat alone in her empty apartment after the ambulance took her away waiting for my parents to get home and I ended up sleeping on Carol’s couch and awaking to the sound of my parents singing David Bowie’s Heroes in the hallway.

I’m (hopefully) the only living formerly cool American kid who can’t stand to hear the song Heroes.