After reading these I realized that I had heard an early version of this stuff when I was part of a plenary session with Tsuchiya in Tucson back in April of 2016. The title of his talk is the same as the title of the Philosophy Compass paper and some of the ideas are floated. I had intended writing something about this after my talk but I apparently didn’t get to it (yet?). I am in the midst of battling a potty-training toddler so it may not be anytime soon but I did want to get out a few (inchoate) reactions to these papers now that I have read them.
Both of these papers were very interesting. The first was interesting because it is the first time I have seen proponents of IIT acknowledge that they need to examine their ‘axioms’ more carefully. Are these axioms self-evident? Not to many people! Might there be alternate formulations? Yes! At the very least there should be some discussion of higher-order awareness (or awareness at all). There ideally should be an axiom like:
Awareness: Consciousness is for one. If one is in no way aware of oneself as being in a mental state then one is not consciously in that mental state
Of course they don’t want to add anything like this because as it stands the theory clearly assumes (without argument) that higher-order theories of consciousness are false. This is a problem that will not go away for IIT. But I’ll come back to that (by the way, the first ‘axiom’ of IIT sometimes seems to me to suggest a higher-order interpretation so one might assimilate this to an unpacking of the first axiom).
The central, and very interesting, idea of these papers that they are presenting is that category theory can help IIT address the hard problem (and some of the issues I raised in the previous post). There are a lot of mathematical details that are not relevant (yet) but the basic idea is that category theory lets us look at the structures that mathematical objects have and compare it to the structure of other mathematical structures. They want to exploit this by making a category out of the integrated information cause-effect space and one for quaila and then use category theory to examine how similar these two categories are.
First, can qualia form a category? They address this issue in the first paper but (to use a low hanging pun) this looks like a category mistake. Qualia are not mathematical objects. I suppose you could form the set of qualia and that would be a mathematical (i.e. abstract) object. But if you show that this structure overlaps with IIT have you shown anything about qualia themselves? Only if the structure captured in this category exhausts the nature of qualia, but that is highly controversial! My guess is that there will be many categories that we could construct that would have some functors to both the category of qualia and the category of IIT structures. So, take the category of the set of Munsel color chips (not the experience of them, the actual chips). Won’t they stand in relations to each other that can be mapped onto the IIT domain in pretty much exactly the same way as the set of qualia!? If so, then IIT is Naive Realism? That is a joke but the point is that one would not want to claim that this shows that IIT is a theory of color chips. All we have shown is that there is a similar structure that runs in common in these two mathematical structures that at first seemed unrelated. That is interesting, but I don’t see how it can help us.
To their credit they recognize that this is a bit controversial and here is what they say about the issue:
In the narrow sense, a quale refers to a particular content of consciousness, which can be compared or characterized as a particular aspect of one moment of experience or a quale in the broad sense (Balduzzi and Tononi, 2009; Kanai and Tsuchiya, 2012). Can category theory consider any qualia we experience as objects or arrows? Some qualia in the narrow sense are straightforward to consider as objects: a quale for a particular object or its particular aspect, such as color. There are, however, some aspects of experience that are apparently difficult to consider as objects. For example, we can experience a distance between the two cups, which is a relationship between the objects but itself has no physical object form. Such abstract conscious perception can be naturally regarded as a relationship between objects: an arrow. Further, there are some types of qualia that seem to emerge out of many parts, such as a face. A whole face is perceived as something more than a collection of its constituent parts; there is something special about a whole face. Psychological and neuroscientific studies of faces point to configural processing, that is, a web of spatial relationship among the constituent parts of a face is critical in perception of a whole face (Maurer et al., 2002). In category theory, a complicated object, like a quale for a face, can be considered as an object that contains many arrows. Considered this way, any quale in the narrow sense can be considered as either an object, an arrow, or an object or arrow that contains any combinations of them.
But even if this is ok with you (and you set aside questions about whether ‘to the right of’ can be an arrow in category theory (will it obey the axiom of composition?)) what goes into the qualia category? They seem to assume that (at least some of) it is non-controversial but that isn’t so clear to me. Even so, what about Nagel’s bat? In order to use this procedure we would have to already know what kinds of qualities, conscious experiences, the bat had in order to form the category. But we have no idea what kinds of ‘objects’ and ‘arrows’ to populate that category with! That was kinda Nagel’s point!
To hammer this point home recall the logic gates that serve as simple illustrations of IIT. How are we to use this approach on it? We know what IIT says and so we can form that category without any problems. But what goes into the category of ‘qualia’ for the logic gate system’? We have no idea. In response to a question about Scott Aaronson’s objection Tsuchiya says that the expander grid may have a huge conscious field but would not have any visual experience. But what justifies this assertion?
They conclude their paper with the following remarks:
We proposed the three steps to apply the category theory approach in consciousness studies. First, we need to characterize our own phenomenological experience with detailed and structured descriptions to the extent to accept the domain of qualia as a category.
This may prove to be a difficult task and not just for the reasons having to do with higher-order awareness. Phenomenology is tricky stuff and it is notoriously hard to get people to agree on it (N.B. this is an understatement!) and since that is the case this general strategy seems doomed.
Another frustrating assertion with minimal evidence comes in the second paper linked to above and it has to do with the No-Report paradigm.
No‐report paradigms have impliedthatcertainpartsofthebrainareas,suchastheprefrontalareas,maynotberelatedtoconsciousness,but moretodowiththeactofthereports(Koch,Massimini,Boly,&Tononi,2016).
IF one buys this then one will see the IIT irreducible ‘concepts’ as corresponding to phenomenally conscious states but if instead one thinks that these results are overrated then one will see these irreducible IIT ‘concepts’ as picking out mental representations that may or may not be conscious. Thus we cannot extrapolate from the results of IIT until the debate with higher-order theories is resolved.
And that cannot happen until the proponents of IIT actually address the empirical case for higher-order theories. This is something that they have been very reluctant to do and when they discuss other theories of consciousness they studiously avoid any mention or discussion of higher-order theories. Higher-order theories need to be taken as seriously as Global Workspace, local re-entry, and other theories one finds in neuroscience and for the same reasons; because there is a significant (not decisive) evidence in favor of the theory.
But ok, what about the limited claim that we could in principle know whether the bat’s phenomenology was more like our seeing or our hearing? If we could generate the relevant category for the human conscious visual experience versus auditory experience and then if we could generate the IIT category for the bat’s echolocation we could compare them and see if it resembles our visual or auditory categories. According to Tsuchiya if we found that it resembled the IIT category for our auditory experiences (instead of our visual) or vice versa then we would have some evidence that they experienced the world in the same way we did.
But this seems to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Nagel’s point. His point was that there is no reason to expect that the bat’s experience would be anything like our seeing or our hearing. To know what it is like for the bat requires that we take up the bat’s point of view (according to Nagel). It is not clear that this addresses this issue at all! Even if we found that the bat’s brain integrated information in the way our brain integrates auditory information, and which results in the conscious experience of hearing for us, even if (stress on the IF) we discovered that why should we think that the bat’s experience was just like our experience of hearing? The point that Nagel wanted to make was that conscious experience seems somehow essentially bound up with the idea of subjectivity, of being accessible only from one’s own point of view. This is entirely missed in the proposal by Tsuchiya et al.
Just in case you are not aware Hakwan Lau has started a blog, In Consciousness we Trust, where he is blogging his work on his upcoming book on consciousness. He has lately been taking fire at the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness and has a nice (I think updated) version of his talk (mentioned previously here) in his post How to make IIT (and other Theories of Consciousness) Respectable. I have some small quibbles with some of what he says but overall we agree on a lot (surprised? 😉 At any rate I was led to this paper by Sasai, Boly, Menson, and Tononi arguing that they have achieved a “functional split brain” in an intact subject. This is very interesting, and I enjoyed the paper a lot but right at the beginning it has this troublesome set of sentences:
A remarkable finding in neuroscience is that after the two cerebral hemispheres are disconnected to reduce epileptic seizures through the surgical sectioning of around 200 million connections, patients continue to behave in a largely normal manner (1). Just as remarkably, subsequent experiments have shown that after the split-brain operation, two separate streams of consciousness coexist within a single brain, one per hemisphere (2, 3). For example, in many such studies, each hemisphere can successfully perform various cognitive tasks, including binary decisions (4) or visual attentional search (5), independent of the other, as well as report on what it experiences. Intriguingly, anatomical split brains can even perform better than controls in some dual-task conditions (6, 7).
Really?!?! Experiments have shown this? I was surprised to read such a bold statement of a rather questionable assumption. In the first place I think it is important to note that these patients do not verbally report on what it ‘experiences’. I have argued that these kinds of (anatomical) spit brains may have just one stream of consciousness (associated with the one capable of verbally reporting) and that the other ‘mute’ hemisphere is processing information non-consciousnesly.
This is one of the problems that I personally have with the approach that IIT takes. They start with ‘axioms’ which are really (question begging) assumptions about the way that consciousness is, and they tout his as a major advance in consciousness research because it takes the Hard Problem seriously. But does it? As they put it,
The reason why some neural mechanisms, but not others, should be associated with consciousness has been called ‘the hard problem’ because it seems to defy the possibility of a scientific explanation. In this Opinion article, we provide an overview of the integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness, which has been developed over the past few years. IIT addresses the hard problem in a new way. It does not start from the brain and ask how it could give rise to experience; instead, it starts from the essential phenomenal properties of experience, or axioms, and infers postulates about the characteristics that are required of its physical substrate.
But this inversion doesn’t serve to address the Hard Problem, (by the way, I agree with the way the formulate it for the most part). I agree that the Hard Problem is one of trying to explain why a given neural activation is associated with a certain conscious experience rather than another one, or none at all. And I even agree that in order to address this problem we need a theory of what consciousness is but IIT isn’t that kind of theory. And this is because of the ‘fundamental identity claim’ of IIT that an experience is identical to a conceptual structure, where ‘experience’ means phenomenally conscious experience and ‘conceptual structure’ is a technical term of Integrated Information Theory.
This is a postulated identity, and they do want to try to test it, but even if it was successfully confirmed would it really offer us an explanation of why the experiences are associated with a particular brain activity? To see that the answer is no consider their own example from Figure 1 of their paper and what they say about it.
The true physical substrate of the depicted experience (seeing one’s hands on the piano) and the associated conceptual structure are highly complex. To allow a complete analysis of conceptual structures, the physical substrate illustrated here was chosen to be extremely simple1,2: four logic gates (labelled A, B, C and D, where A is a Majority (MAJ) gate, B is an OR gate, and C and D are AND gates; the straight arrows indicate connections among the logic gates, the curved arrows indicate self-connections) are shown in a particular state (ON or OFF).
So far so good. We have a simplified cause-effect structure in order to make the claim clear.
The analysis of this system, performed according to the postulates of IIT, identifies a conceptual structure supported by a complex constituted of the elements A, B and C in their current ON states. The borders of the complex, which include elements A, B, and C but exclude element D, are indicated by the green circle. According to IIT, such a complex would be a physical substrate of consciousness
So, when A=B=C=1 (i.e. on) in this system it is having a conscious experience (!), as they say,
The fundamental identity postulated by IIT claims that the set of concepts and their relations that compose the conceptual structure are identical to the quality of the experience. This is how the experience feels — what it is like to be the complex ABC in its current state 111. The intrinsic irreducibility of the entire conceptual structure (Φmax, a non-negative number) reflects how much consciousness there is (the quantity of the experience). The irreducibility of each concept (φmax) reflects how much each phenomenal distinction exists within the experience. Different experiences correspond to different conceptual structures.
Ok then. Here we have a simple system that is having a conscious experience, ex hypothesi, and we know everything about this system. We know that it has these concepts specified by IIT, but what is it’s conscious experience like? What it is like to be this simple system of 4 logic gates when its elements A, B, and C are on? We aren’t told and there doesn’t seem to be any way to figure it out based on IIT. It seems to me that there should be no conscious experience associated with this activity, so it is easy to ‘conceive of a physical duplicate of this system with no conscious experience’…is this a zombie system? That is tongue in cheek but I guess that IIT proponents will need to say that since the identity is necessary I can’t really conceive of it (or that I can but it is not really possible). Can’t we conceive of two of these systems with inverted conscious experiences (same conceptual structures)? Why or why not? I can’t see anything in IIT that would help to answer these questions.
If IIT is attempting to provide a solution to the Hard Problem of Consciousness then should allow us to know what the conscious experience of this system is like, but it seems like it could be having any, or none (how difficult would it then be to extend this to Nagel’s bat!?!?). There are some who might object that this is asking too much. Isn’t this more like Ned Block’s “Harder Problem” than Chalmers’ Hard Problem? Here I suppose that I disagree with the overly narrow way of putting the Hard Problem. It isn’t merely about how this brain state is associated with a particular phenomenal quality rather than none at all, it is how it is associated with any physical, functional state at all that os the Hard Problem. Sure brain states are one kind of physical state and so the problem arises there but more generally the Hard Problem is answering the question of why any physical state is associated with any qualitative state at all instead of another or none at all.
IIT, and Tononi in particular, seem committed to giving us an answer. For instance, in his Scholarpedia article on IIT Tononi says,
IIT employs the postulates to derive, for any particular system of elements in a state, whether it has consciousness, how much, and of which kind.
The Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness has been garnering some attention lately. There was even a very high profile piece in Nature. Having just listened to Hakwan Lau’s talk on this (available at this conference website) I thought I would write down a couple of reactions.
Like everyone else who is interested in consciousness, I have been interested in the integrated Information Theory. I attended a talk by Tononi back in 2012 (and wrote about it here) but I also attended a workshop at NYU on it back in 2015. I had always meant to write something about it (John Horgan did here) and thought I would do so now. I wish I had written about this sooner, but to be completely honest I found out about the Paris attacks as I was leaving the workshop and it shook me up enough to distract me from blogging.
I had a couple of take-away’s from that workshop and these have really influenced how I have thought about IIT. I suppose I would sum it up by saying that IIT doesn’t look like a theory of consciousness. In the first place it purports to be a theory of phenomenal consciousness, what it is like for one to have a conscious experience, but it starts from the phenomenon of fading into a dreamless sleep. This makes it look like the main phenomenon is creature consciousness. Is IIT trying to give an account of the transition(s) from sleeping to wakefulness (and vice versa)? This is where ‘levels of consciousness’ talk seems most at home. Is being in hypnogogic reverie ‘in between’ sleeping and wakefulness? Probably yes, but does that translate to phenomenal consciousness being graded? There it seems less clear. You either have phenomenal consciousness or you do not (pace Dennett). It is the contents of consciousness that can be graded, distorted, etc. So right from the beginning it seems to me to be off on the wrong foot: the comparison is not that between waking and dreamless sleep, it is the comparison between conscious (i.e. reported) and unconscious (denied) states that one should begin with if one is looking to explain consciousness.
Another of the main ideas that came out of the workshop (again, for me) was that the ‘axioms’ of IIT seem to encode assumptions about conscious experience that are controversial. For example, is some kind of higher-order awareness necessary (and/or sufficient) for conscious experience? The axioms are silent on this, seeming to suggest that the answer is no, but a lot of people seem to think that there is a kind of higher-order awareness that is manifest in our phenomenology (old examples like Aristotle, and newer ones like Brentono, and even newer ones like Uriah Kriegel). So could we have another version of IIT that adds an axiom about consciousness requiring higher-order awareness? Can this axiom be mathematized? Or could we interpret the first axiom (i.e. consciousness exists from *my* perspective) as implying higher-order awareness?
The current defenders of IIT clearly have a first-order theory of consciousness in mind when they discuss Sperling. They say in their Nature Neuroscience Reviews paper,
In short, the information that specifies an experience is much larger
than the purported limited capacity of consciousness
But there is no argument for this other than that IIT predicts it! Doesn’t it seem the least bit fishy that a theory that starts off with axioms that encode first-order assumptions about consciousness ends up ‘predicting’ first-order readings of controversial experiments? There is nothing in IIT that seems to indicate that we should not instead say that the Sperling distinctions encoded in the integrated information are unconscious and what is conscious is just what the subjects report.
Thus it seems to me that IIT is best interpreted as giving an account of mental content. This mental content may be conscious but it may also be unconscious. To resolve this debate we need to go back to the usual debate between first-order and higher-order theories of consciousness. IIT seems to have added nothing to this debate and we would need to resolve it in the usual way (by argument, appeal to phenomenology, and experimental evidence).
Finally another of the main ideas to come out of the workshop, for me, was that IIT, can be interpreted differently from the metaphysical point of view as well. Is IIT physicalist or dualist? Well, it seems you could have a version of it that went ether way. You could, like David Chalmers seems to incline towards, view IIT as giving you a handle on what the physical correlates of consciousness might be, and then one would posit, in addition, a fundamental law of nature connecting states of physically integrated information with conscious states. This is clearly not the way that Tononi wants the theory to be developed but it is a consistent way to develop the theory. On the other hand one might end up with a physicalist version of IIT, identifying consciousness with the physical implementation of the integrated information. Or you could, like Tononi, claim that consciousness is identical to the ‘conceptual structure’ which exists over and above the parts which make it up (conceptual structures are irreducible to their physical parts for Tononi). So which one of these is the real IIT? Well, there is Tononi’s IIT and then there might be Chalmers’ IIT, etc.
This is not even to mention the problems others have pointed out, that it is hard to know what to make of a grid being ‘more conscious’ than a typical Human, or which of the many (many) different ways of formulating phi are correct, or whether it is even possible to measure phi in humans at all. Even if one wasn’t worried by any of that it still seems that IIT leaves open all of the most important questions about the ultimate nature of consciousness.
I am concluding my series of memoir-notes posts. The last of these will probably be it for a while. I have been focusing on the time up until I was officially awarded my Bachelors degree in philosophy which was January 7th 2000. I was at the time 28 years old.
I first had the idea of writing something like a memoir back in my Sartre class in 1998 (when I found out about Existential Psychoanalysis). I was by that time scouring SF book stores trying to find interesting philosophy books. I remember coming across The Story I tell Myself and I was instantly jealous that I had not thought of that title first. But I felt extremely uncomfortable actually doing anything about it. People I talked to seemed to have had very different experiences from mine (in differing ways) but I thought it was presumptuous to think about writing something like this. Who would care? Maybe once I finished my PhD, I thought, it might make an interesting story. And so I put it on hold.
I didn’t really do anything about it until I moved to New York in 2003. I moved in the summer and had some time to kill before the semester started so I thought I would use that time to start writing a rough draft. I still thought that if I ever did actually get my PhD then the story might be worth telling. I wrote quite a bit of what is in these posts that summer. But doing so brought back all kinds of bad memories and actually made me doubt myself. It really forcibly brought home to me that it was just me, the runaway juvenile delinquent burnout trying to pretend to have profound ideas. I had to stop writing.
I started writing again in 2011 or 2012 but the same thing happened, this time worse because I was doing pretty well professionally. It wasn’t like I was trying to hide my past but I was trying to ignore it and I don’t remember thinking about my past much those days. With the help of Facebook I rediscovered some of my past self but at that point I was worried about getting tenure and I did not want to advertise my past too loudly. I was asked to do an interview for a documentary to accompany a book on education after incarceration by a colleague of mine at LaGuardia and after that I felt kind of obligated to get serious about the project. Plus I realized that I was forgetting some stuff. Even getting this far has been difficult and I am sure there are many errors. Once January 2017 came around and I realized it had been 20 years since I left the mortuary and transferred to SF State I figured it was time to stop stalling and face up to my past.
I had at one point been thinking of this series as part 1 of a larger work. At this point I plan on coming back at some point and writing about the time between January 7th 2000 and roughly September 3rd 2018 (the 10 year anniversary of my successful dissertation defense). That would cover my two years of graduate school at SF state (and the forming of Mob-L), one year of graduate school at the University of Connecticut (and my stint in a Hindi band), 5 years of graduate school at CUNY (and my helping to found the New York Consciousness Collective) and then 10 years of being ‘on the scene’ in New York philosophy (and the Qualia Fest in the New York Times). That is a very different story than the one I have been telling!
But I probably won’t get around to that until sometime around 2038!…In the meantime I’ll be editing these posts and trying to turn them into an actual narrative (and correcting the five billion typos), maybe even look into doing it over a Sabbatical…ah, that’d be nice!
As always if you know anything about these events let me know! I am sure half of this is wrong and the other half is misleading!
I am continuing my series of memoir-posts. At this point we have caught up to where I began this story, which was my transferring to CSU San Francisco in January of 1997. I still can’t believe that was 20 years ago! Back in those days you did not know how you did in your classes until the next semester was about to begin. On top of that I had had a rough summer so I did not get my grades until I was back in SF.
Despite all of the other stuff I had done ok my first semester at SF State. I earned an A in my English Composition class (I wrote my final paper on A Rose for Emily by Faulkner…fitting don’t you think?), an A- in my ‘philosophical analysis’ class (basically a pro seminar for all new philosophy majors). I earned a B+ in my Intro to the Study of Language class. I also earned a B- in my philosophy of language course with Kent Bach. I really liked that class. At that time I was really interested in language. I remember Dr. Bach came into class one day and says that he had been at a conference with John Searle and had in his presentation said he wanted to define a new speech act that he named the “Absearle that P” speech act and he said he would symbolize it with a middle finger. I instantly liked and respected him but he did not like my final paper which was pretty much the entire basis of our grade. I was feeling very at odds with Putnam’s intuitions bout Twin Earth. It seemed obvious to me that there was water on Twin Earth in some sense but more importantly Putnam had argued that if we found out that what we call ‘cats’ were really Martian robots in disguise sent to spy on us (or whatever) we would have falsified ‘cats are animals’ and so it wasn’t analytic. I argued that we would have discovered that there were no cats on planet earth. I had the very strong intuition that we should say “those aren’t cats! Those are Martian robots!” because I thought ‘cats are animals’ was analytically true.
In my Space, Time, Relativity, and the Universe class I earned a C-. I was upset by this because I felt like the class had consisted mostly of stories about Einstein, which I enjoyed, but they were unrelated to what showed up on the test and there was no book for the class. I went and complained about my grade and the professor basically said ‘oh well’. I remember I said it would be a shame if I had to complain to the chair and he sat there looking at me, dispassionately, and said he didn’t think it would be such a shame. I gave up on it at that point.
So a bit of a mixed bag my first semester but even so though I did pretty good and I definitely did better than I had been doing at Cuesta (averaging about a 3.0 my first semester at SF State versus my 2.27 cumulative for Community College). What was most important to me was that I had done ok in my philosophy courses. Dr. Bach had a reputation for being a very difficult professor (rumor on the street was that he had studied with Quine, who apparently was some kind of famous philosopher) and so I actually thought that B- wasn’t a bad first grade from him. In addition I had received very positive feedback on my paper on C. S. Stevenson and contemporary philosophy of language connecting what I was doing in my other class with the philosophical analysis class. So I was happy with my progress and ready to get back to business.
September 19th 1997 (California ID photo). I am around 25 or so in this photo
By that time my Driver’s License had been suspended. My car (the Nissan Pulsar) had been ticketed many times for illegal parking (I was clueless about the parking regulations in SF) and shortly after I moved up there it had been towed. I just ignored the whole thing. I vaguely remember that I found out it would cost as must to pay off the tickets as it had cost to buy the car in the first place, so I let it go. They told it would be auctioned off if I didn’t pay and I said I hoped they got a good price for it and walked away. The car had served me well but you did not really need one in the city and I was struggling just to stay in my classes at that point (I don’t know when this was but sometime before March 1997). That was before I moved into the dorms and then I had got a ticket for rolling through a stop sign and had never taken care of it (someone begged me to drive them somewhere, borrowing a car from someone else in the dorms, I forget the whole scenario but I vaguely remember the borrowed car was a VW bus, and that it kind of reminded me of my Baja bug). As a result I ended up obtaining a California ID in September of 1997. I did not get my Driver’s License back again until 2002 when I was getting ready to move to Connecticut.
Just before the Fall 1997 semester begins I move in with Annamarie, who everyone just called Anna, and her friend Lisa (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure). I had met both of these girls in the dorms and at the time I thought that Lisa was very attractive. Anna was from somewhere up in Northern California. Her mother was from Panama and her father was a white guy. She had dark curly hair and brown eyes that shined with a mischievous twinkle. Lisa is a freckled red-haired Irish girl with thin lips. Anna is short, about 5′ 2″ and Lisa is tall, about 6′ 1″. They made quite the pair. Apparently they had been roommates in the dorms and had this place with another roommate who left. That is why they needed another person. I had money from financial aid and so they let me move into the room. Anna was a photography major and she took amazing pictures. I thought she was really talented.
Their apartment was in a complex that was a bit south of the SF state campus in a town called Daly City. This was much nicer than living in the dorms. I had nothing but a few clothes so I went to Burlington Coat Factory and bought a bunch of bedding. Then I went to Thrift Town and bought a whole new set of clothes. I remember they had all kinds of polo shirts so I bought like 7 or 8 of them, and a bunch of corduroy pants. In addition they had this London Fog trench coat that I loved.
It was also right around this time that I saw South Park for the first time. This show blew my mind. People were big fans of Bart Simpson but at that time I found it a bit tame. He was a bad boy? Not really! These kids were bad in a way that I recognized but I could not believe that the show was actually on the television.
Anna and Lisa are really into ecstasy and I try that for the first time at this point. It is really a great experience but I do not like the way I feel afterwards. Anna and I did E and went to a coupe of shows (she even took me to some underground Rave) and eventually we ended up dating. She was also a vegetarian and I think actually this may have been the first relationship I had ever had with another vegetarian.
I am taking a very full load of classes this semester. I have registered for Existentialism (with Helen Heise), Nietzsche and Post-Modernism (with Sandra Luft), Ethics (with Peter Radcliffe), Ethics and Medicine (I can’t remember who taught this but I think it was Mary Anne Warren), History of Christian Thought I, and Ancient Philosophy (both with John Glannville). Six classes all together and all upper division philosophy courses.
Professor Heise was very intelligent and I ended up taking a lot of classes with her, but she had this English accent that sounded as though she were faking it (and the rumor was that she was an American so that she was faking it). I didn’t care. I loved that class and one thing I remember very clearly is that we read Doestevesky’s Crime and Punishment and I loved it. As usual that started me down the path of trying to find and read all of Doestevesky’s books (which led me to a whole Russian author phase, and I ended up reading some Bulgakov, especially The Master and Margarita). I then read The Brothers Karamazov and was very impressed. The problem of evil that had so haunted me was very nicely laid out. The suffering of one child was enough to falsify the existence of God; A-fucking-men, brother! The most interesting thing, to me, at the time, was that it was very hard to tell which character was ‘speaking for’ Doestevesky. They all seemed like distinct people with distinct psychologies. Of course we also read Camus and The Stranger and The Plague were really fascinating.
At some point mid-way through the semester I remember Anna is telling me that she wants to stop taking E because it is interfering with her school work (at that point she was doing a lot of E). She says she promised that she would stop and she hopes that is enough. I remember we argued about that for a long time. I was holding the “there is no momentum in consciousness” line from Sartre. I was finding the ideas I encountered in the Existentialism class to be very convincing. Previous to this I had found other philosophers and ideas interesting but this seemed to relate directly to my lived experience. I thought that the idea that in order to quit something (or keep doing it) one must quit anew every moment, consciously re-choosing to continue, very profound. It is not enough to simply quit and to have that decision carry forward some force into the future. One must choose again to quit when one is tempted. Anna and I used to argue endlessly about Sartre and personal responsibility!
On Halloween of that year I remember everyone was getting dressed to go out, Halloween in San Francisco is a big deal, and we had all taken E and were going to the Castro, when suddenly I had what I thought was a good idea for my final paper for the Existentialism class. I had had this idea that everyday actions require Bad Faith. I cannot get into a car without the assumption that it is safe and that I will make it through. I forget exactly how I developed it but it may have been that unless we explicitly acknowledge that we could die in the car we weren’t being authentic. We must face up to the possibility of imminent death at any second, yet society is set up to systematically avoid engagement with death, thus making most of us in Bad Fait most of the time. Or it may have been that doing this was impossible and therefore inauthenticity was unavoidable. I forget (I wish I had a copy of that paper!) but I do remember that at the time I felt like I had hit on a big idea and this is probably the first time that I had thought that I was contributing something of my own in a paper. It felt really good to be sitting there getting my ideas out (ok, I was on E but still) and when everyone was ready to leave I said I was going to stay and work on this paper (I remember vividly the sound of the keyboard and the way the keys felt on my fingertips, it felt amazing). I ended up getting an A- in that class.
The class on Nietzsche and Post-Modernism was really frustrating for me. Professor Luft had us reading a lot of Derrida and he seemed to be arguing that everything is a text to be interpreted and that there is no fact of the matter about its correct interpretation. As a newly minted Grecian I find this position laughable. I argue in my final paper that metaphors depend on literal meanings which have definite truth values and so it is pointless to say that everything is metaphor or that there is no literal meaning or no objective answer to the question of what a given author intended by saying or writing something (this sounded like sophistry to me at the time). Professor Luft was very critical of my paper and actually returns to me a 3-page typed response! She ends it by saying that she is sorry to have to be so harsh but she is only doing so because ‘she thinks that I am actually trying to learn’. I respond by going to her office hour and arguing that her comments actually support my paper, or at least that is how I interpreted them. She was not amused, but I did earn an A- in the class.
I am also taking an ethics class taught by Peter Radcliffe. I remember that I wrote my final paper trying to reconcile an evolutionary account of the truth of moral judgements with emotivism (which I had discovered the previous semester) and Radcliffe wrote “you have a thesis, you make an argument…but why emotivism?”I remember laughing when I read that comment (after noting that I earned an A, of course)…I didn’t really have a good answer. Emotivism just seemed to me to capture something important about moral judgements. It resonated with my own experience of moral judgements but I rejected any kind of moral relativism so I was looking for a way to supplement what I thought was good (emotions play a role in moral judgement by partially constituting them and that is what we express when we say ‘this is wrong’) but I wanted to be able to say that some moral judgements are true. This project ultimately became my dissertation.
That is also the semester I have two courses with Dr. Glanville. I have spoken about this a bit in another place so I won’t dwell on it too much here but I will note that I earned an A in the History of Christian Thought class and an A- in Ancient Philosophy. That was six intense courses and three As and three A-s, and I had even made the Dean’s List. I remember being completely shocked by that. The Dean’s list?! I had never achieved something like that before and I was feeling like studying philosophy was what I was meant to do. As a side note I can say that I really enjoyed the close textual analysis that Dr. Glannville provided us. We read through important dialogues of Plato and Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Dr. Glannville would stop every word or so and fill us in on all of the context, all of the detail in the background. It was truly amazing that someone could know as much as this man did.
At some point around the end of 1997 I find out that some people I had known briefly from the dorms (and from my Wild and Crazy Summer) were looking for a roommate. I find this out through a guy who is in my Nietzsche class, named Joe. He was a really cool guy that was a good artist and we used to talk about Nietzsche a lot. It turns out he knows Noah and they are looking for one more person to get this house they found. At that point I am starting to feel weird about living with my girlfriend (Anna and I had started dating by that time and it was strange starting as roommates and then becoming a couple that lived together). They had four people and were looking for a fifth. Once I was on board they took me out to the candidate place to check it out and we were all excited.
This house was pretty close to the campus (a 10 minute bus ride) and was located in the Sunset district of SF. It was large with a huge living room and kitchen and three bedrooms. Downstairs was a garage and a big back yard. At that point I had bad credit. I had been evicted from several apartments and I had bills from my trips to the emergency room that I had never paid. But we had enough people to get the lease signed and so we moved in. I lived in that house for the rest of the time I was in San Francisco, all in all about four years which is, I think, the longest I had lived at any one place in my entire life up to that point.
There were five of us in there at the start. At the beginning I was sharing a room with Noah. He has a bed on one side of the room, and I have a bed on the other just like in the dorms. In the back room we have Jessie, who has her own room. And then in the very back room, past the bathroom and through the kitchen, we have Joe and Henry. Noah is in the film school at SF State which has a pretty good reputation. Joe is in the fine arts school (he is a painter) and Henry is studying music composition. Jessie wants to go to law school. The best thing about this, for me, at the time, was that there was a communal bookcase in the living room and everyone put books out there. That is how I discovered Kurt Vonnegut. Time Quakes had just came out and so I read it, and Slaughterous 5. And as usual I started to read all of the stuff I could find by the author I liked. I had two favorites that stood out to me. The first was Player Piano which I thought was his absolute best piece of work and the other was Bluebeard which I really liked as well. In addition I read Philip K. Dick for the first time. I had always loved sci-fi but I had never read anything by him. Needless to say it was very cool to discover that stuff.
The spring of 1998 semester begins sometime in January and I am also taking six courses again. I take Communication Theory (I forget who taught this but it was a communications class), Metaphysics (with Helen Heise), Theory of Knowledge (with Anton Anotole), Philosophy of Mind (with Kent Bach), Cognitive Science (with John J. Kim), and Modern Philosophy (with James Syfers).
Noah, my roommate is in my metaphysics class with me. He was not a philosopher but he was a filmmaker and he wanted to be exposed to strange ideas to inspire him. We read a book by Bruce Aune. I enjoyed that class and it was my first sense of philosophy as debate. Heise was all about arguments and we tore that book to shreds in that classroom.
I found the communication theory class to be dull and boring. They mentioned some of the philosophy of language but it was offered as something to know, not something to think about and discuss. SF State had as part of their General Education requirements that you takes classes in a series of designated ‘clusters’. These clusters were thematic groups of classes that you would spread out over your time in any order you wanted. When I had arrived I was very interested in language and so I had signed up for the language cluster (hence in my first semester I had the Intro to the Study of Language class which was part of it). This communication theory class was part of that ‘cluster’ as well so I had to take it but I hated it. I had to give a presentation and I chose to talk about Pierce and the theory of signs. As part of my talk I had a friend of our, a guy named Jack, and my roommate Jessie burst into the class in the midst of a loud and angry (and fake) argument. You could hear them yelling in the hallway and then he shoved her into the classroom calling her a name or something like that. She stumbled in the classroom as I am in the middle of explaining Pierce’s theory of sign and I pretend to be surprised like everyone else. Even the professor was stunned and hadn’t reacted yet. Then I said ‘freeze’ and they stopped in mid-motion like a freeze frame. I then walked over and pointed out the signs and what they signified. Wife in curlers, dude in wife-beater complete with stain. I got an A on that but my professor had a stern talk with me in his office.
I was also finding out that I wasn’t into epistemology. We read Plato’s Theatetus and I remember feeling like it was a joke compared to the way we would have read it with Dr. Glannville. We also read Linda Alcoff’s Real Knowing, and I remember not getting it at all but a lot of my classmates were really excited about that book.
February 13th 1998 I see the Greyboy Allstars at the Elbo Room in the Mission District and they instantly become my new favorite band. This was a great club and I would go there quite a bit. The place was packed and the band was awesome. I remember being really drunk at some point and grabbing a shaker off the stage and shaking it. Karl Denson, their amazing saxophonist and band leader, came over and grabbed it from me, saying “c’mon man, that’s not cool!” and I slurred back that I was sorry and they were awesome. I remember I had their album A town called Earth and I would play it while I worked at the on campus coffee shop, where, incidentally, I learned how to use an expresso machine. People would constantly ask me who the band was. I had already been introduced to Medeski, Martin, and Wood through Ethan at the mortuary but this was something else. I remember going to Amoeba Records on Haight Street and combing through their collection looking for anything by Karl Denson or any of the other members of the Allstars.
I also remember watching the Seinfeld finale live (this was May 13, 1998). Before that time I had not really watched TV very much. I mean I had as a kid but even then we couldn’t afford cable (my mom’s boyfriend at some point had HBO and that was awesome!). There was a TV at Anna’s place but we had not had one in the dorms, and we didn’t have one in the mortuary. At my other places we had a TV but no cable. In Arroyo Grande we had a VCR and used to watch Monty Python almost everyday, and I was sucked into Days of Our Lives for a brief period but here we would all watch TV on Thursday nights and then at night before we went to bed we watched the syndicated reruns. Simpsons, followed by Friends and Blind Date (the first reality show besides Cops I had ever seen!). That is where I learned to love both of those shows.
At that point I had broken up with Anna and had met Sarah. Sarah was a psychology major and we got along really well. In fact I think one of our first time hanging out after class may have been to watch the Seinfeld finale. I remember arguing with her about Frued’s notion of the unconscious and Sartre’s argument that repression makes no sense because it requires you to know what you are repressing (how else could you explain the fact that you repress only the right cognitive states and desires?) and thus requires that you be in Bad Faith (inauthentic). Sarah was really cool but we were very different people. She listened to Tori Amos while taking a bubble bath in candlelight, and that combination of things seemed alien to me. I also remember one night laying in bed listening to Nora Jones and feeling really sad. Why would anyone want to feel this way? Much later when I actually say Nora Jones I was flabbergasted by it. That woman was the one singing like that?
At that time I worked at the various coffee shops around campus and I was usually super amped on coffee a lot of the time. The campus coffee shop was a lot of fun. It would get unbelievably buy and with the music and the fast-paced flow of the customers the time flies by in an instant. I remember coming home from the coffee shop and everyone in the house would be super high and paying video games and I would come in a be vibrating on a different level. They would all be sitting in the living room playing video games and I would be tidying up around them and it felt like time had slowed down and I was moving at light speed
After seeing Karl Denson I started to miss playing the drums so I used my financial aid money to buy a cheap CB 700 drum set. It was a real piece of shit but it got me back into jamming. We would also play music in the garage. Henry was a composer and keyboardist and Joe was a guitarist and I was the drummer. We had a lot of fun down there just messing around. Henry was also a very weird guy. He had composed a final piece that was to be performed by student musicians and he had noted it very strangely. At one point he wrote “play as if running away” under one series of notes. I wish I had seen that performance!
Except for the boring classes everything at school was good. The philosophy of mind class was amazing and that is where I first really became aware of the philosophy of mind as its own thing. We were using the new The Nature of Consciousness anthology edited by Ned Block, Owen Flanagan and Güven Güzeldere and I was instantly hooked. We were reading selected essays out of the book but I was reading all of the essays in the book. Language seemed less interesting to me now that I knew about issues related to consciousness and how neuroscience was trying to command the attention of philosophers. This was another class that paired a graduate seminar with an undergraduate class. It turned out that this was Bach’s deal. But I liked it because the class discussion was sometimes pretty good and I was really starting to see that philosophy was still being done and that I could keep up with the graduate students. At that point I was buying books on philosophy in my spare time and I was reading Searle a lot and even went and saw him give a talk down at Stanford. I think that may have been the first philosophy talk I ever attended (if you don’t count Jello Biafra’s talk way back when!)
After we had read David Rosenthal’s chapter on Higher-order theories of consciousness Kent asked us what we had thought. I said that it was about the dumbest thing I had ever read since the last thing we had read and Dr. Bach (and the class) laughed. But Bach surprised me by saying ‘I’ll tell him you said that’. I was getting the sense that the professors at SF State were actually pretty connected and that philosophy was still an ongoing endeavor. That is when I realized that there was Graduate School and started thinking about where I wanted to go. I don’t have a computer back then but we did have a computer lab (Anna had a computer (but no internet) at her place) and I remember going online and trying to find out about the authors of the papers we were reading.
This is also the first time I was exposed to Dan Dennett’s work and at the time I was enraged by it. Quine Qualia? What the fuck was this guy talking about? A lot of people seemed to think that qualia were mysterious. I knew them as the shit that changed when hallucinating. I very rarely had the sense that my visual hallucinations were real. Sure, there were exceptional cases where I got sucked up into the hallucination, and there was the very exceptional cases of the overdose on sleeping pills, but mostly I could always tells that my experience was shifting, not the actual word. Even when I had momentary lapses, and took the breathing lines of the table as indicating that the table really was morphing into something else, I usually was able to come back to the realization that this was a hallucination. If I grabbed for the table my hand would make contact, etc. I took LSD (or whatever) so of course things are trippy right now, I would often think to myself. In that class I wrote my final paper on Time and the Observer and accused Dennett of being a verificationalist (pretty low hanging fruit).
I was also taking a class on cognitive science, which focused mostly on Chomsky and his theory of an innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This class was taught by Dr. Kim, and rumor on the street was that he had a PhD from M.I.T and had worked with Stevan Pinker (who apparently was some kind of big psychologist). At that point I only knew Chomsky as the author of Manufacturing Consent, which by the way I loved and greatly admired. It finally gave a principled reason for my studied avoidance of sports! Dr. Kim was always hanging out in front of the Psych building smoking a cigarette before class and I still smoked at that time so I would stand out there and talk with him. I really liked him and I learned a lot from him.
At the same time I was also enjoying the Modern Philosophy class. But this was the second time that I had read the Meditations, and I was starting to doubt them (get it? ;). Our professor asked us to try to think of something that Descartes had never doubted. I wrote that he had never doubted that he had conscious experience. He never entertained the idea that he might be a zombie. If Descartes had met Dennett would the Meditations have turned out radically differently or would ‘I think therefore I am’ still come out true?
I was coming back from one of my cognitive science classes on my way to philosophy of mind. In the cognitive science class (offered in the Psychology department) we were talking a lot about how language would have to be processed, and constructing a flowchart (Boxology at its pinnacle) but no one was talking about the physical implementation of these ideas. In my Modern Phil class we were re-reading Descartes and there too we were arguing about whether the mind was identical to the brain or not, but without any real mention of the brain. Even in the philosophy of mind course there was a lot of lip service to the brain but there were no details (C-fibers anyone?). Isn’t it important to understand how the brain works, I thought, I mean if consciousness produces physical activity then really mustn’t it just be some kind of brain activity?
I stopped walking and took a deep breath. That was hard for me to accept. That meant that the scrawny asthmatic feeble meat bag that my intellect was chained to really was me. That is what I was. I am meat. This was incredibly depressing to me because I have always felt alienated and hindered by my body (in fact I used to think that I could have been born from different parents, and actually wished that it had happened when I was younger, but now I was realizing that my other beliefs required me to rethink this). But over time I have made peace with it. At any rate the point is that this really influenced me to start taking neuroscience courses, which I started doing the next semester.
Sometime in 1998 I hear that Derrida is going to be giving a talk at U.C. Davis. I had read a lot of him in the postmodern class and I thought it would be fun to drive up and see what was going on. We drive up and it is ridiculous. The conference title itself is very long. It is,
Culture and Materiality: A Post-Millenarian Conference — à propos of Paul de Man’s Aesthetic Ideology — to consider trajectories for ‘”materialist’ thought in the afterlife of theory, cultural studies, and Marxist critique
At the time I had no idea what this meant but I had started to think that I should see some living philosophers and had kind of thought of this like going to a concert. I am pretty sure this was sometime in April of 1998 (maybe around Spring Break?). This concert-esque feeling is enhanced when we get there. People are wearing Derrida T-Shirts. It felt like a really awkward Dead show and I half expected someone to be holding up their finger looking for a ticket into the festivities. One tee-shirt had Derrida crouched over a TNT detonator in the midst of plunging the handle. The detonator is connected to a bunch of TNT that is piled around the word ‘Modernity’. Holy shit. I had never seen something like this before! Derrida comes out and he is the best dressed philosopher that I have ever seen. As I remember it he had some kind of pinstripe suit on and a canary yellow tie. This was not the look I was used to from my professors at SF State! He says his talk is on Augustine’s confessions but I would not have known that from listening to him. I left thinking that a lot of bullshit had happened but the people I was with were very excited and we argued about it the whole drive back to SF. I can’t verify this but as I remember it Derrida went over his allotted time and the next speaker had to be bumped. IN doing some research for this post I found out that they apparently published these talks as a book!
I think it was over the summer of 1998 that I started playing with George Adelson. I would see George when I picked up my mail and we would always chat. Nothing exciting just small talk but he was really funny. Eventually once I had a drum set and I knew he was a guitarist we suggested that we get together to play sometime. I was looking for someone to play with so when he said he played jazz and funk and rock and that he just loved to play and didn’t care how good I was (or wasn’t) we decided to do it. We began playing with some bassist he knew and then another bassist that he knew (this guy was a local lawyer, doing corporate law, and this is the first time I saw someone like that smoke weed. It was a shock!). George was a local kid who was born and raised in San Francisco. He was a really good guitar player but he had a difficult time writing his own material (or so I thought). He was always futzing about trying to think of some ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ way to ‘tweak the chords’. The end result was that not much was written and/or what was written sounded really smooth-jazz-esque (to my inexperienced ear). One day we were down in the garage jamming and I had just got the new John Schofield album with Medeski, Martin, and Wood as the Rhythm section. It was called A Gogo and I was really into it at the time. I pulled it out and played one of my favorite tunes, Hotntot, and told George to learn it. He did, right there on the spot just listening by ear. I was like, oh it is on! After that I went out and bought an expensive drum set (the one I still have) and we formed Maggie’s Pacifier. I don’t know why we chose that name but I think it is a testament to how much I loved the Simpsons at that point. I do remember that at some point we started calling ourselves the Sunset Players Club, which was good. I think we even made little Club Cards that I printed out and distributed at parties. If you brought one back to the next party you could get a free keg cup. I wish I had one of those cards left around!
I think this may have been my first attempt at computer art (picture downloaded illegally from the nascent internet)
Somehow we met a bassist who was also a percussionist. At that time he was in music school (the same music school George had gone to). We had a small collection of covers that I was calling ‘new school favorites’ and I had convinced George to think of them as like playing standards. Among them was the Schofield tune, and FunkFoot by Grover Washington Jr. In addition we had two Greyboy Allstars tunes and some other ones that I don’t remember. We played some house parties and eventually recorded a demo in the garage. We were just a three piece and we recorded it all live. There were originally four or five songs but they are all lost except for these two. I think they almost hold up! George’s playing still sounds great! My drumming makes me cringe at moments but I think it is a pretty good representation of what I sounded like back in 1998 or so. Not bad for just a year or so of trying to play jazz-funk (without knowing anything about jazz or funk) and just under 10 years playing the drums altogether (at that point I still only officially practiced three rudiments: the single roll, the double role, and the paradiddle). Our plan at that point was to use the demo to try to move from house parties to bars.
Happy Friends; a cover of a Greyboy Allstars tune
Fire Eater; another Greyboy Allstars cover
George and I after playing one of our house parties (I am on the left holding a giant (and empty) bottle of tequila)
George had been playing since he was very young and he was really very good. The songs we played were mostly just an excuse for him to solo over them. He told me that is what he did at home. He used a sequencer to record chord changes and then practiced soloing over it. I used to love to listen to him solo while we were playing. The bassist also played congas and eventually he would have the bass and the congas set up and we had a lot of fun playing together. I loved playing for people and watching everyone dancing. We were getting good feedback from people and some of my classmates thought we sounded like the Grateful Dead which surprised me. George and I used to endlessly argue about music. He was a jazz head and knew everything about music, I knew nothing at at all but had a lot of opinions. He always used to talk shit about death metal saying it all sounded the same and then when I said the very same thing about jazz he got all upset. Each solo is so different! So was each riff on a Cannibal Corpse album!
It was also in the summer of 1998 that Something about Mary came out and I remember seeing that with George. People were laughing so hard in the theatre that we had togo back and see the movie again because we couldn’t hear all of the jokes! I also got a job at a coffee Shop/cafe in the Richmond district. It was called Cafe Muse and I remember there was an earthquake when I was working there. This place served food as well as coffee.
In the Fall of 1998 I again took six classes (my third semester in a row of taking six classes, and I took five my first semester, making 23 classes in 4 semesters!). I had made the Dean’s list the previous two semesters and there was so much interesting stuff out there! I took Introductory Latin (I had come to believe that it would help with all the philosophy lingo), a class on ‘Words, Culture, Change’ (for my language cluster). I learned about proto-indo-European the way they think they discovered it by regressing words back through time and cultures to find common roots and then extrapolating from there), a seminar in ‘Basic Metaphysics’ (another with Peter Radcliffe. This was a graduate class where we read a book on freedom and moral responsibility), a class in Cognitive Neuroscience in the psychology department, a Cellular Neuroscience class in the biology department, and a class on Sartre.
The cellular neuroscience class was very difficult and involved a lot of mathematics. In particular we learned about the Hodgkin-Huxley equations which model neurons as electronic circuits. I had an ok time with the mathematical part but I was at a severe disadvantage because I had never taken a basic biology course (or any biology course at all, actually) so I did not know a lot of what was taken for granted by the professor. I spent a lot of time in the library trying to catch up. I didn’t do great in that class (getting a C+) but the professor was impressed that I had done that well (he was skeptical that a philosophy major should be in that class and told me to drop it early in the semester).
In the cognitive neuroscience class I saw a brain for the first time and I was introduced to the interdisciplinary home I was looking for. At that time I was talking to my mom again and I remember her being very upset by my decision to study the brain. She told me that as a vegetarian I could not be a part of such a discipline because of animal experimentation. I made the argument that without that experimentation I would have been dead (I had bad asthma as a kid) and then she launched into a tirade about modern medicine. I know that it is horrible to think about what animals go through but I believe that there is no other way to proceed.
The Sartre class was another with Helen Heise. This time we were reading Being and Nothingness and I remember scouring the bookstores of San Francisco looking for any books by him. My final paper for that class argued that Sartre’s notion that the fundamental attitude toward the other was conflict (because they turn you into an object instead of a subject) was itself a choice. Some may choose to become an object, like Emily had in a Rose for Emily (or so I thought).
In non-academic related things I take Noah to see P-Funk at the Fillmore in 1998 and he is hooked. He ends up taking a History of Funk class at SF state and George Clinton came to the class to give a talk/Q&A and I got to go. It was so cool to see him in the classroom. He was mostly talking about how he hadn’t made any money from all of those songs because he didn’t license them and let people sample them but that he felt it was important and that it kept Funk music alive (by letting hip-hop sample it). I found that very interesting.
I see Dave Matthews band October 31st 1998 with Sarah. I was never really into their albums but these guys are amazing live.
I made the Dean’s List again in the Fall of 1998, making it three this semester in a row.
Over the break between classes most people went home to their families but I stayed in SF and played Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time (released in November of 1998). I loved that game and spent months playing it. Another thing I remember related to Zelda is that my roommate used to make these movies using a video camera. He had a nice Macintosh computer (a G3 I think) and we used that a lot but he was always coming up with shit for us to act out. I was working at the coffee shop and we had had an expresso machine in our house after that and it had exploded. Somehow as a result we used to make big bowls of expresso and then we would ladle it out into individual cups. Somehow we got the idea of doing a horror film that we called Ladlehand. It was about someone who worked at a coffee shop and the expresso machine blew up and in the process fused a ladle to his hand. He was also hideously scarred and mutated and so wore a mask. He then went on a killing spree. I played Ladlehand and wore a hockey mask and used the ladle. It makes no sense to anyone who didn’t know that we were using the ladle to scoop coffee but it was fun to make. I used my best death metal growl and we came up with all kinds of creative ways to have death scenes. It was a lot of fun and the end result was a big hit. In fact I remember sometime later meeting some people who knew about Ladlehand, and I didn’t know them which was strange! Anyway the reason it is related to this time is that in the movie you can hear the Zelda theme song playing in the background because they were filming some scenes without me and I was playing it in the other room (and we never re-tapped and overdubbed the audio). Man, I wish I still had that, I’ll bet it is ridiculous!
On New Year’s 1998 I went with some people from school to Tahoe, which was a lot of fun. I had never been there and it was a pretty cool experience. One thing I remember though is that we were driving up there and I was in the back seat and I remember listening to them talking in the front seat and they were talking about how good Christmas dinner had been. The duck so succulent it fell of the bone, etc. I sat back there overwhelmed with sadness. These were nice people but their lives were fueled by the death of innocent animals. I sat in the back seat trying to hide the fact that I was softly crying. We got up there and we ended up meeting some other people from SF State. One of them was a girl I knew via Anna, her name was Gabriella (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure). I really liked Gabriella. She had a quick wit and she had very curly hair with a slender nose that made her look somewhat like an elegant bird. I really liked her and we got really drunk and had sex.
I wanted us to hang out and date but she said no because she was friends with Anna and Anna could never know. I remember feeling really frustrated by this. Anna and I ended up getting back together shortly after that and I was feeling guilty because Gabriella was around and we were keeping this secret. I felt like we had done nothing wrong because Anna and I were broken up at the time. The day after Valentine’s day I was feeling especially bad and I came clean. I think this was the first time I noticed in myself a strong urge to tell the truth and confront the consequences rather than lie and avoid it. I was becoming a different person, the kind of person who wanted to be good and didn’t want to lie and hide things. Anna was pissed off but we worked through it.
However, she talked to Gabriella who denied the whole thing. She said that I was making it up. This infuriated me and I remember thinking this must have been how other people felt when I lied to them as a kid. Anna believed me because I had told her some details about the night and it turns out that Gabriella had come back from out Tahoe trip and told Anna about this ‘really cool guy’ that she had met up there and even told her some of the details about our sexual encounter. When I told her this, without knowing about what Gabriella had said a while back, Anna knew I wasn’t lying but it was a very dramatic experience and it really interfered with my semester.
In theSpring of 1999I was scheduled to take Intermediate Latin, Philosophy of Art (with Anita Silvers), and Neural Systems, a biology course. I remember starting the semester January 27th and then all of the Anna/Gabriella drama was unfolding and I only needed one more class to graduate anyway. So I withdrew from all but one class. Pretty soon I was too distracted and just withdrew from the remaining class and then I mostly worked and saw a lot of music and played with Maggie’s Pacifier/The Sunset Player’s Club.
My roommate was a waiter at Olive Garden and his tips compared to mine from the Cafe were no comparison. I applied for a job at the Olive Garden but did not have any experience. I asked my girlfriend if I could give this restaurant her number. The restaurant was called Organicity and it was a vegetarian place. I really wanted to work there but I had no experience so I listed my girlfriend as a reference and said she was the manager of a restaurant that had gone out of business. They called her and she gave me a good reference. I had no idea what I was doing! I loved working at a vegetarian restaurant but the chef was a real asshole. One thing I remember is that one of the girls I was worked with quit because she went on tour with Macy Grey as a back up singer. I really sucked at this job at first but I picked it up pretty quickly.
March was a really cool month. I saw the Greyboy Allstars March 27th at the Filmore. I loved the Filmore and these guys were at their peak at this time (or so it seamed to me at the time). I was up front alternately dancing my heart out and being awed by the performances of these guys. I had been in this same room to see Luna but this was way better! I remember thinking about seeing all of the people sitting on the floor, the band sucking the energy from the room. This was the polar opposite.
March 31 –The Matrix released. I won’t go on and on about how awesome this movie was for a philosophy major to see but I will say that it was cool because you really had no idea what the movie was about. All of the ads simply asked ‘What is the matrix?’…I also developed my theory that the reason Keanu Reeves was chosen to act in the film was because the movie was so deep that they thought even he couldn’t ruin it.
May 5th we have a Cinco De Mayo party at Anna’s house and the Sunset Player’s Club is playing in the living room. We have by that time found a trumpeter/ keyboardist named Paul (remember no real names unless they are a public figure). This guy was really good and we would play Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay which I absolutely loved. He set up a four track and recorded our session that night. For a long time after that I listened to it. I thought it came out amazing. I remember I was taking Epinepherine pills (for asthma) and drinking way too much. I ended up passing out after our second set and waking myself up by chocking on my own vomit. People said I was walking around after that but I have no memory of it.
Maggie’s Pacifier broke up shortly after that. As I recall it it was over an argument about vegetarianism where I had become overly agitated. The trumpeter, who was a really nice guy actually, tried to get everyone to reconcile afterwards saying it was just the alcohol and let’s keep playing. I think that maybe this even took place over email! Anyway I remember not having it at all. We had been out by the river after jamming at a gig (I think it was the SF Boat Club) and George was saying that he sort of knew that eating meat was bad but it just tasted too good to stop and that just sent me over the edge. Of course it tastes good (I assume), but we have reason and we don’t shit in the street even though it feels good. So I quit Maggie’s Pacifier/The Player’s Club. I remember the bassist was very upset but that was a hot button issue for me. To me it sounded like someone saying that they knew rape was wrong but just enjoyed it too much to quit. I thought it was funny because after being all indignant and arguing from a Kantian and Utilitarian moral high ground, the trumpeter responded with “well, sometimes you drop the beat when we are playing and I was overlooking it because we were having fun” and I laughed out loud because I already knew that and it wasn’t the same kind of insult at all but it did inspire me to get a practice pad and a metronome.
May 19th –The Phantom Menace is released. Needless to say I was a huge Star Wars fan and I was very excited for this movie to come out. When I found out that they had (veggie-)beefed up this famous theatre in SF to show it and that Lucas was going to be there to give a little talk before the showing I was like, we GOT to go! So we decided to camp out in line (they were not selling pre-tickets). At the time we had this awesome R2-D2 cooler that we had stolen from a 7-11. They had it out front with ice in it and we just wheeled it away. We used to keep it in the garage and put kegs in it when we had house parties. We brought R2 with us to the line and it was a big hit. I forget how long we camped out but it was definitely a couple of days. I think I went home one night and slept in my bed but the other night I slept on the concrete. The line itself was a lot of fun, like a very ultra nerdy Dead show parking lot. We drank vodka and ate Red Vines and at night we ran through Golden Gate Park and had a massive light saber battle.
The showing was at midnight and soon they started letting us go in. We were not actually all that far back and actually got good seats. Obviously we couldn’t take R2 with us so we stashed it over behind a dumpster and went inside. George Lucas was there and everyone was in a raucous good mood. I forget what he said but he said some stuff and then the movie started. Everyone cheers and then a hush…and then there is some CGI underwater scene which isn’t too bad but then fucking Jar-Jar Binks shows up. We get out of the theatre and R2 is gone! Man that sucked.
Somehow I got a job selling candy. I think I saw the advertisement in the newspaper or something. It was advertised as a way to make money and see free music. I called them up and went for an interview. Basically they hired you as a sub-contractor and you had to wear this uniform and carry around this tray of candy that you bought from them. The candy would cost X amount of dollars and at the end of the night you would have to pay them for any candy that was not returned. Anything extra you got to keep. This was a very strange job but by that time I was the King of Strange Jobs and I took it. The first concert I worked was June 5th and it was the Guiness Fleadh in Golden Gate Park and I sell candy and see Ben Harper, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and Jon Lee Hooker, plus a bunch of others. I really liked Ben Harper after that.
July 1999 we see Blair Witch Project. At the time I didn’t really like this movie. I had heard that people were getting sick while watching it but I didn’t experience that. I also didn’t find the movie very scary. I had seen much worse. I eventually did come to see what was scary about that movie and it was the putting oneself into the place of the hunted people. I remember thinking that you have to have achieved a level of security in your life to feel threatened by that and I felt that maybe this was me progressing.
Joe takes me to see Ween at the Warfield in August of 1999. It is a great show. I was never a super huge fan of Ween (Joe was a super huge fan) but that show was amazing. They had this drummer who was killing it and they had actually developed into pretty decent players! Their edition of Party Like its 1999 rocked the house. They were up on stage passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels (or something) and they were chugging it straight from the battle and then playing a song. I was impressed.
In September 1999 I am ready to finish up. I just need one class and I will be able to graduate. I take Philosophy of Natural Sciences and we read Quantum Mechanics and Experience and it blows me away and inspires me to learn more about quantum mechanics. I had read about string theory all those years ago in juvenile hall and I had taken the physics class at SF State but other than that I had not payed much attention. I remember finding the Official String Theory website and learning about the Second Revolution and the various dualities that had been discovered. This was exciting stuff! I also take Law and Society (which I found boring. The method of arguing from Stare Decisis is stifling to me), The Nuclear Revolution (from which I withdrew), and a graduate class preparing students for a big M.A. exam on Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Kant (this was my second time officially enrolling in a graduate level course while I was an undergrad). I was not a graduate student and I wasn’t taking the exam but I wanted to prep for it because I was applying to graduate schools.
Another concert I sold candy at was at Shoreline and it was a Bridge School Benefit show. This one was in October of 1999 and had an amazing line up of Neil Young, The Who, Pearl Jam, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Billy Corgan & James Iha, Tom Waits (Day 1 only), Lucinda Williams, and Brian Wilson. That was a really fun concert. I remember standing there with the candy strapped around my neck and at first everyone sees you but avoided you. A few beers and joints later and you are mobbed. I had a lot of fun that night and ended up trading candy for drugs (I had to pay for the candy out of pocket which was fine with me). I also sold candy at a Gay Pride event in the Castro and that was a wild experience! I remember standing there and seeing all kinds of naked people, some guys some women. That was fairly normal for San Francisco (in the Castro). I saw one very attractive women walk by and I couldn’t help staring. As she walked by she looked over her shoulder and said “this isn’t for you, breeder”.
The semester ended and I got a job at an Italian restaurant out in North Beach. The owner is a short Italian guy named Giuseppe (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure). Giuseppe is a real piece of work and there are so many crazy stories about him, but I’ll come back to this some other time because I worked for him the next year as well. The point here is that on New Year’s Eve 1999, which was a Friday, I am planning on working that night at the Italian restaurant rather than going out anywhere. I wanted to work because you get a lot of money in tips and I wanted to buy my own computer. (By the way that was a fun night -all of the waitstaff were getting hammered while we were working and I made more money than I ever had in a single night before!)
By that time I had heard about the Tucson conferences and the Philosophical Gourmet and I knew that Rutgers and NYU were the best schools for philosophy of mind. I used to drool over the webpage for the 1997 NYU seminar on mind and language (the 1998 one wasn’t bas either). I applied to both of them and was rejected. NYU sent me something from the Tisch School of Interdisciplinary Studies and I could have possibly gone there and taken classes at NYU in their philosophy department (so said the material) but that isn’t what I wanted. I forget when this was but I had only applied to those two places and then I did not know what to do. Some person was calling me saying they were from Berkeley and I was suspicious of that (they were leaving messages our communal answering machine, remember those?), so not knowing what to do I applied to the Graduate Program at SF State. Besides which I never felt at ease at Berkeley. The campus was beautiful and I had audited a couple of classes there once I found out that we could do so (one in bio and one in philosophy with Searle) but I always felt out of place there. Anyway so I applied hastily to the M.A. program at SF State. I remember I wrote my essay in the little box on the form and it was total last minute BS.
But I had been accepted. So I would be starting the Spring 2000 semester as a graduate student in the philosophy program. I thought that if I was going to be serious about being in grad school then I should have my own computer (and I had already enrolled in four classes: two in the biology department, Neural Systems (from which I had withdrawn in the spring of 1999) and Human Sensory Processes (a graduate seminar in the biology department) and two graduate level philosophy seminars, Wittgenstein (with Peter Radcliffe), and Early Medieval Philosophy (with Glanville)).
I didn’t go to my graduation but I did feel an immense pride. Nothing much really changed immediately after that. I was still living in the same place and I was still going to SF State but on January 7th, 2000 I had crossed an invisible line. I had earned a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and I was soon to be a graduate student in philosophy. I was especially proud that I had earned my way into SF State after having been there and gotten to know the philosophy professors. These professors knew me, not very well admittedly, but it had been 2 and 1/2 years and that is plenty of time to fuck up! But no, I had excelled and they had wanted me to continue in their program. I was sad that I wasn’t going to New York but I was also excited to continue at SF State.
Through one of the classes I was in I met this dude named Guido (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure). He was a beginning bassist and I was a freshly out of the death metal scene drummer. He suggested we get together and jam, which we did a few times. One time we even took mushrooms and jammed together and we had a lot of fun. I remember that we recorded the whole thing and while we were playing I felt like I wasn’t moving my arms. I had this feeling like they were rubber bands with vibration in them. When we listen back to it the next day we were surprised to find that some of it sounds pretty good.
After we had known each other a little bit Guido tells me that he lives and works at a mortuary/funeral home. He says that he doesn’t unusually tell people this right off the bat because people find it weird and off putting. Guido is a nice guy but he also a total hippie. I am pretty sure he is studying holistic medicine or something like that at this time at Cuesta. He has a black belt but he also stops when he sees road kill and says a Buddhist prayer for the spirit of the animal. In short not my kind of person but we got along well and I needed a place to stay. He tells me that they are looking for a roommate at the mortuary. He said it was a cool gig, free rent and good money. I needed the money and I was crashing at a friend’s house who lived with his parents so I jumped at the chance.
I went over to meet the rest of the people at the house. Driving up to the mortuary there is a huge parking lot and then a big white building, looking very nondescript. This place is right downtown San Luis, and right next to a place I used to eat at all the time, but somehow I had never noticed it before. There is a main entrance I can see but we go around to the side entrance. I can see that in back of the main building there is another building, and off to the side another. There is, on the side, a little alley like entrance way that leads to a short concrete flight of steps. Going up those steps puts you in a semi-enclosed area where there is a single door. Guido opens the door with a key and we go inside. Once inside I see a normal living room. There is a kitchen off to my left in front of me and further to the left another door. To the right is a hallway that leads to a short flight of steps. On the left just before the steps is a door and I can see a sink and some toothbrushes in there. Right after that is another door and I can see that it is a bedroom. Some guys are hanging around sitting on one of the three couches. Directly across from where I am standing is a desk with what looks like an office phone on it. It has a lot of buttons and lights.
“Hey everyone,” begins Guido “this is Richard, they guy I was telling you about,” as he says this the two guys on the couches nod at me. “That is Bill” Guido continues pointing to a shortish guy with dark hair. He is wearing a Cal Poly shirt tucked into jeans and a very large belt buckle. Bill was from somewhere near Santa Barbara and is going to Cal Poly studying civil engineering. Bill nods as though he is used to wearing a cowboy hat.
“And I’m Zach” the other guys says. It turns out that Zach is the one leaving and the one I am going to replace. They give me a tour of the rest of the place. Up the short flight of stairs I had seen earlier there was a corner and the building turned to the left. On the right hand side was a small room and that became my room. It was big enough for a bed, a small dresser, and it had a window. It really reminded me of the room I had had in juvenile hall. Turning left at my room there another short flight of stairs and then further down the hallway another room at the end. That is where Bill lived. I would get the little cubby that Zach had been in. It was funny that he had the smallest room because he was a tall lanky guy.
I moved in on New Year’s Eve 1995. The folks had a big Bar-B-Q to welcome me and I moved my stuff into my room. The room was small but I didn’t have much of anything. I had recently sold my drum set in an attempt to distance myself from the death metal scene and to attempt to focus on school. So all in all the move was pretty easy! Zack’s band played that night and I found out that he was a good drummer. I also got a tour of the rest of the facilities. There was the chapel where they had services, funerals, etc. This place had an alter and a bunch of pews and best of all a giant pipe organ. There was the business office where they met with grieving families and worked out the details. There was the coffin display room where they had all kinds of caskets and urns that people could choose from. In the back there was the embalming room where they would do autopsies and embalming as well as other things like applying make up and doing hair. Out back in one of the other buildings I had seen there was the ice box which is where we stored the corpses and the furnace that we used to cremate the bodies. A one-stop death shop.
It turned out that the apartment which we lived in was attached to the main building. The door I had seen in the living room, by the kitchen, opened directly into the coffin display room. That door always creeped me out and the first few weeks I was in there I did not want to have my back to that door; “that is where the zombies will come from,” I used to joke.
The way the thing worked was as follows. We always worked in two man shifts with one man off. One person was “on duty” which meant they were the designated person and their job was to hang out at the house and to answer the mortuary phone, which we had a line in our house. That was the office-looking phone I had seen when I first came in. While you were on duty you could not leave the mortuary unless there were a death somewhere. During the day we would ignore the phone and be alerted to anything we needed to do by the office staff but after 5:00 p.m. it was our responsibility to answer it. People would call for one of a few reasons. One would be to arrange some kind of funeral service or to arrange a time to bring in the clothes or other personal items for a recently deceased loved one. The other was to report that there was a body. In most cases the people had been into the mortuary to make arrangements and then when the person died we would transport the remains back to the chapel. However the mortuary also had a deal with the sheriff’s office. Every other month we would handle all of the police needs (at least I think it was every other month).
While one person was always at the mortuary on duty the other person in the team was free to come and go as they pleased. They only had to carry with them a beeper and be within 10-20 minutes of the mortuary. The reason for this was that if we had a call that meant we had to transport a body then the home person would beep the pager alerting you to the fact that there was a body in need of pick up. You were then supposed to immediately drop whatever you were doing and head back to the mortuary. We called that beeper ‘the Grim Beeper’. The person who had to stay at the mortuary was in charge of any paperwork and dealing with the police/family members. The person with the Grim Beeper was mostly there to help physically move the body. Both of the people were required to wear a suit and tie. And since we often had to go into people’s homes with them still there we had to very professional and respectful.
Once the beeper went off you would go back home, change into a suit provided by the mortuary and then get in the official mortuary van and drive out to wherever the body happened to be. A lot of times it was a home or a hospital but it could literally be anywhere. Wherever there was death we would go. Rent was provided and on top of that we got paid by the body (I forget the actual rate per body but it was different depending on where we had to go) and to work funeral services (handing out programs, being an usher, etc). These two man teams would work for two weeks straight while the other was off. At the end of the two weeks the person on duty would be off duty while the previous holder of the Grim Beeper went On Duty and the person who was off got the beeper. This meant that we had one month of work and two weeks off and mostly worked at nights (though there were daytime deaths as well).
I am very nervous about the job at this point because I have never actually seen a dead body but I have seen lots and lots of horror films and death metal lyrics. I remember at some point during my moving in party the office phone started ringing. It was late by that time and the band had stopped playing. We were mostly just hanging around telling stories and talking shit. The phone rang and everyone became silent. Bill, who was on duty that night gave everyone a stern look to ensure total silence and then picked up the phone “Such and Such Chapel and Funeral Home this is Bill speaking how may I help you?” he begins in a very professional phone voice. I was impressed. He starts nodding and saying ‘ah ha, uh uh” and then writing something on a piece of paper he says “we will have someone from the mortuary over very soon. Please be on the lookout for our van, and our condolences at this very difficult time.” He hangs up the phone and says “we got one! Let’s suit up!” In a way that reminds me of Ghostbusters. Guido has the Grim Beeper that night but he is already there so they go off to their rooms to put their suits on. They tell me I should wear Zack’s suit and come along just to observe. By this time I am drunk and so say ok.
The suit is much too long for me. Zach is at least six foot three and this has been his suit for a while. The van is a two seater and the back is empty except for the gurney. I had to sit in between in the floor. I really hated that van. I would sit in the front seat and could hear the creaking of the gurney behind me. I always half-expected to feel an icy cold hand on my shoulder as the corpse on the gurney bites into my flesh and I swerved off the road into….but in my time at the mortuary I experienced 0 supernatural events. We show up at this guy’s house and the corpse is in the bedroom still in bed. It is an older gentleman who died of seeming natural causes. Guido shows me how to get a sheet underneath him. Roll him on one side (grab by shoulder and hip and pull), insert sheet. Roll him on the other side, pull sheet through. Once the sheet is underneath then we can move them onto the gurney. Once on the gurney we strap them down and cover them up. Then we move them to the van and load them up. We check with the family for any paperwork and give them a card.
I was standing by the back of the van waiting for Guido when this young kid comes up to me. He looks up at me and says, “Gramppy is in heaven now, right?” I am standing there looking at this kid wondering what to say (what I am thinking is that Gramppy is in the van) when Guido comes over and grabs me. “We gotta go man,” he says and pulls me away. I look back and the kid is standing there crying. I get in the van and look at the silent lump on the gurney. What have I gotten myself into? We drive back to the mortuary and drop the paperwork off in the office. We then unload the body from the van and take it into the back where the ice box is. We unload the body from the gurney and heave it onto the slab. This person died in an expected way and so there will be no autopsy. The doctors already know what happened. There will be funeral services shortly.
Since I didn’t do anything I only earned partial pay for that ride. $26 for the loss of my innocence.
I eventually worked one of the funeral services for some extra money. I handed out programs and stood by the door. This was a very strange experience. I had never been to a funeral at that point and this was a Catholic ceremony so there was a lot of call and response. I was really caught off guard by how well oiled the whole process was. It reminded me of a very sad P-Funk concert and I realized what they meant when they said that kind of music had taken gospel and made it sexy.
Balaram lived down the street from the mortuary and we would spend a lot of time smoking weed and paying music and playing street fighter 2. He would continually kick my ass but I would never give up. It was a good working relationship. His father, Shival, had a place at the end of the block. During the day Shival was locked inside his house. He could be seen in the morning on his way to the liquor store and returning with a six pack of beer. He would then go inside and smoke, practice guitar, do yoga, and pray. He would come out in the evening to play whatever gig he had scheduled and hang out. I really liked Shival, everyone did, and when he was drunk he would tell the most amazing stories. The downstairs of his building is where Balaram lived. He had a nice set up down there and we would jam down there sometimes.
I really sucked at the drums back then, much more than I do now! But still Shival would let me sit in on the drums every once in a while and eventually I got to play a couple gigs as the main drummer. One was a night at the local club Tortilla Flats and the other was at a wedding. By the time I moved away he was suggesting that maybe I should stay. He said I didn’t have any technical skills but that could be learned if he worked with me. But what I did have, he continued, was a strong sense of rhythm and he could play with me. He said he knew that I was a real drummer because when I played I played the beat and didn’t add in a bunch of fills all over the place. I agreed that I liked to play the beat but I just didn’t know how to do fills! He didn’t like to rehearse much and if I needed to learn anything Balalram would work with me on it. Shival really only had one rule and that was that he never wanted to have to look over his shoulder at you and if you didn’t fuck up the rhythm he wouldn’t look at you.
Their regular drummer at the time, a guy who worked at Cal Poly by day and drummed with them by night named Maurice. He was really really good. He offered to trade drum lessons for weed and I agreed. My first lesson he wrote down single strokes, double strokes and paradiddles and showed me what they sounded like when played well. He told me to practice that. I kept that paper for a long time and really that was the only drum lesson I ever had. He wanted to keep it going but I lost my weed connection and couldn’t afford to buy it and give it to him. I heard he took it personally and thought that I was some young upstart who though he was too good to be taught by an old burnout like Maurice. Not the case at all! But then when he found out that Shival was even considering working with me he was really mad. It turns out that he had a pretty serious drug problem and I think that is why Shival wanted to find someone who could play without the drugs. I wish I had continued studying with him but I did realize that drumming was an art that involved manipulating these two pieces of wood in time. I would bring that with me to San Francisco.
I ended up playing with a dancehall reggae singer known as Mellow Max and we played a couple of gigs. He was from Jamaica and had a thick Jamaican accent. We called ourselves Mr. Roper (from Three’s Company). We actually opened for another reggae band at SLO Brew and had a really good recording of it. It actually sounded pretty good. Authentic even. I was surprised. Mellow Max was a terrible rapper but with his accent you couldn’t tell that his rhymes were no good.
The Spring 1996 semester would have started in January 1996 and I was officially working at the mortuary during the next two semesters. That semester I took a class on government (a required class), and a speech class, and I also took my very first Introduction to Logic course. The professor was Peter Dill who apparently still teaches out at Cuesta College. We used an early edition of Hurley’s Concise Introduction to Logic and I really loved that class.
At the time I was dating a girl named Amanda who was a local girl from Atascadero. She was beautiful. Strawberry blond hair, freckles, slim and a nice body. Great personality. I really liked her a lot. I heard that P-Funk was playing up in San Francisco March 9th 1996 at the Maritime Hall and Amanda and I decided to drive up and see if we could get in. We drove up and the concert was sold out so we hung around outside not knowing what to do. I eventually see that there is a back door where they are loading equipment in. We wait until they are done and then sneak in. There is a stair well and we hide in there for a bit. We then go up stairs and we end up coming out into the hall where the concert is going to be taking place. We are in! And we are early. The band is on stage warming up. We are sitting on a bench and I start talking to this crazy looking guy next to me. He is the bus driver and he assumes that I am a roadie. He has this giant 7-11 Slurpee Big Gulp cup and he hands it to me. Inside it is filled with mushrooms. I look back at him and he is looking at me like ‘hurry up!’ so I grab a handful and pass them to Amanda. Amanda and I eat a handful and we enjoy the concert. It is amazing. They do the entire Mother Ship landing and Bootsy makes a guest appearance. I realize this is as close as I will ever get to seeing that historic event. This is like an echo of that cosmic funky groove in spacetime left by the Mothership tour.
Afterwards Amanda is too fucked to drive so we decide to hang around in SF for a bit. We end up over by the Sutro baths. This place is really cool and I remember jumping from rock to rock and feeling like spiderman. I also remember seeing the foam on the beach being blown by the wind. It looked like some kind of translucent slug creatures moving in herds across the beach. Eventually I start to feel like I can drive. She is sleeping with her head in my lap and I am shrooming hard. As we drive down the Pacific Coast Highway I am watching the moon over the ocean and almost drive off of the rode. This wakes her up. We sit in the car until a cop pulls over and asks us what we are doing. Just coming home. He tells us to move along so I am driving again. We make it home but it is a wild trip!
I really liked Amanda but she had had a hard life. We dated off and on and I told her that I loved her. She told me that she had heard that a lot and that people were in love with how she made them feel about themselves. I thought that was sad. We ended up breaking up and I remember I wrote her a letter where I tried to lay out the reasons for our breakup in a series of valid syllogisms. She wrote ‘WHORE’ in lipstick on my Nissan Pulsar and I remember leaving it on for weeks and driving the car around with it.
One day I was hanging outside of Barnes and Nobles and I saw this girl there. I started talking to her and told her I lived in a mortuary. Her name was Carrie and she was instantly into it. There are two kinds of people out there: Those that are interested in the fact that I worked in a mortuary and those that are not interested in that fact. She was interested. I took her back to my place and gave her the tour. We ended up having sex in a coffin in the coffin display room. She lived in Santa Cruz and I would drive up to see her every now and again. One time when I was up there she wanted to go see Luna in San Francisco. I had plans to see Primus the next day but figured it couldn’t hurt. I was on break and so had a lot of time.
We both took acid and drove up to S.F May 3rd 1996. The plan was to stop by her friend’s place and get some weed before we went to the concert. She told me to drop her off and then circle the block and come back and pick her up. By that time I was frying pretty good and as I turned right and then turned right again I was suddenly on the freeway. I did not mean to get on the freeway but it had happened. I drove until I could get off and then I had to find my way back to Carrie. I had been in SF before but did not know it well at that point. I thought there was no way to know where I had dropped her off. I started driving in concentric circle-ish patters until, randomly, I saw Carrie on the corner. She was so mad at me. She thought that I had ditched her. We went to the concert.
It was so trippy. The music was not my scene at all. It was very melancholy and slow. At that time I really did not like melancholy music. My view was that life was difficult enough and that music should inspire energy not suck it from you.
The very next day I was supposed to see Primus in Santa Barbara so I drove back to San Luis after dropping Carrie in Santa Cruz. That was May 4th 1996. We take mushrooms and the show is amazing. The opening band is called Weapon of Choice and they become my new favorite band. They were a heavy-ish funk group who liked to sing about doing nutmeg. We tried doing it, as I found out some famous jazz musicians were into it, but it never had any effect one me. At any rate they opened for Primus in Santa Barbara and we loved the show.
Afterwards we are walking back to the car but I keep hearing this weird noise and I start following it. It leads me to a tattoo parlor where someone is getting a late night tattoo. The door is open so I come in and ask how much to get my tongue pierced. He tells me and I decide to do it. I was sitting in the chair and he grabs these forceps and grabs my tongue. To me it seems like he pulls out my tounge to an impossible length and then he stabs me, I mean pierces the tongue. It hurts and my head explodes into tiny fragments and is re-assembled into an exact replica. I get up and no one seems to notice that I am a replica. I worry that they will notice because the real me does not have a tounge ring.
The next morning I wake up and my tongue is swollen and I cannot eat any food. I try to put a can of soup into the blender and suck it through a straw but it is so thick that the sucking hurts just as bad.
After the concert we head over to Haight Street and we are walking around checking shit out. I have a can of Pringles and after a while I start shaking it and saying ‘Pringles for doses’ to anyone who would pass by. “Pringles for doses’ shake, shake. ‘Pringles for doses’ shake, shake. Most people ignore me or laugh but I persist. ‘Pringles for doses’ I say in a louder voice. Shake, shake goes the Pringles can. After a while some guy stops and says ‘open your mouth” I do and he puts in a whole strip of acid. That is 10 hits of paper and this is by far the most I have ever done at one time in my life. It was only blotter and who knows how strong it was but I had the trip of my life. I gave the guy a stack of Pringles and walked away happy at last. The acid started to come on while I was playing chess with some street kid. He beat me and we started to play again. He was starting to beat me again and I felt like all my options were closing in on me. I felt like I had no chance. I saw a bus across the street and I literally got up and ran away and jumped on the bus. I did not know where my friends were that I came with. On the bus I swore I kept hearing this eerie music. I would learn later that it was simply the noise these electric buses made. But at the time it was creepy, like a sci-fi electric opera sung by a corpse with decaying vocal chords.
I wanted to find the hotel but I had no idea where it was. I knew it was close to the park and I was asking the bus driver if he knew where it was. Some random guy sitting in front of the bus started talking to me “Oh, you mean that hotel on the corner?”
“Yes, on the corner!” I responded.
“Oh yeah, it’s got a tree out in front?”
“Yeah, yeah it does!”
“The tree is by the sidewalk?”
“Yes! That’s exactly right!”
This went on for a while. To this day I don’t if this guy was fucking with me or not but I did eventually make it to the hotel. Everyone else was there and passed out but I was still frying balls. So I sat there in the dark all by myself and I started going through everyone’s bags. Every so often I would find a beer and drink it. Eventually people woke up and there I was. “Oh hey you made it!” They had not known what had happened to me and by that time I was beyond the use of words.
I was still tripping but not as bad as the night before. But I felt like this was going to be a never ending trip. I could not shake the felling that my brain was short circuiting.
We headed over to the concert but somehow I get separated from the rest of my group. I saw a guy I knew from SLO there and he was tripping too. We were over in the pit for Rage against the Machine and I was instantly a huge fan of those guys. So we hung out. I couldn’t find my friends. I found out later that they looked for me but eventually went back to San Luis without me. Whoever I was with said they had hitchhiked and so I said I would hitchhike back with him.
That trip back was a wild and crazy trip and it ended up taking three days to make it back to the mortuary. One of the nights we ended up sleeping on top of a McDonald’s roof and eating food out of their dumpster. This was in Gilroy or some such place south of SF. We slept by the heating vent to stay warm and in the morning we were back on the road. One night we slept in the back of a church in a little play land they had for kids. We huddled up in the playhouse to keep warm. It was not fun. By the third day I was near my breaking point. All I could think about was that I was desperate to be home, to sleep in my own bed, but that my home was a fucking mortuary filled with death. How in the world did my life end up with me feeling safe in the house of the dead? I couldn’t help feeling like I had asked for this. My curiosity about death had led me here. Most of the time I wanted to get away from the mortuary and now I was desperate, I would do anything, to be back there. This really fucked with my head.
We did eventually make it back and everyone was like “we thought you were dead!” Nope, still alive but my brain was fried. Years later when I reconnected with a lot of these people on Facebook, Ethan (remember no real names) said he felt bad for that. I had actually forgotten that they left me there and just remembered it as one of the times I was hitchhiking. After that incident, which I eventually came to refer to as The Incident, I was not interested in taking acid anymore. I think I did one more time in the mortuary and I just felt like I skipped the fun part and went to the feeling of being a computer with water thrown on it (probably it was just bad blotter with some strychnine or something in it). I do remember arguing with someone about a Tom Robbins plotline. In Another Roadside Attraction Robbins depicts a scene where someone walks past the bones of Jesus Christ and just ‘feels’ their presence. They know that someone important is buried there. Somehow this came up and this guy was really emphatically in agreement that there would be some special kind of feeling where I argued that you would just walk by without any special feelings at all. We could be sitting on the bones of Jesus right now, I said, and we would not know it. This actually led to a heated argument (I don’t know why, we were both on acid) and I remember associating that feeling of frustration with being on acid at that point.
In the fall of 1996 I took a World Cultures class (a repeat of the anthropology course I took my first semester and earned a D in; this class was as boring the second time as it was the first and I got a D in it again), an English course that I really liked and where I read Noam Chomsky for the first time. I also had a human sexuality course (the only class I earned an A in my entire time at community college!) and a stretching routines course. And finally I took another class with Mr. Dill. This time it was World Religions and I really liked that class. I was very surprised to find out the relationship between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Balaram and Shival were Hare Krishna and so I especially enjoyed learning about Buddhism and Hinduism. It was around this time I got my large eyes of buddha tattoo. I remember when Shival first saw that tattoo he said “oh man, you’re in service now!”. By the way this is also when I got the big tribal piece on my left leg.
I felt I had learned everything I could from Cuesta and I wanted to continue. I was also sick of San Luis Obispo. It was the same shit all of the time. Everyone knew everyone (it had a population of about 40,000 back then I think). There were only so many things to do. Farmer’s market on Thursday, drinking on the weekend, play a gig on third Thursday’s etc. repeat. I wanted to be in a city. And I really wanted to be in San Francisco which I had really come to like. I applied to CSU Long Beach and San Francisco and U.C. Merced (I think it was Merced). I hated Fresno but they had an awesome Cog Sci program that I was interested in. I ended up getting into Merced and SF State (Long Beach requested my High School transcripts, and I was like “which one?” and wrote that school off) but I chose San Francisco. Plans were made. I would move to S.F. to start the Spring 1997 semester in the philosophy program there.
During all of this I was doing my month on/two weeks off routine at the mortuary. At some point Bill graduated and my friend Ethan moved in. He was a drummer who played in my friend’s death metal band. He also had a drinking and meth addiction problem, most of which he had kept hidden at that point (his parents were Mormons (his dad was one of my professors)). I don’t remember all of the calls that I had to go on and I certainly do not remember the order that they were in so instead of trying to work them into the stuff I do remember I am just going to go through them below. Some of it is somewhat gruesome so you could just skip this part. I also don’t know anyone’s names here. My roommate Ethan used to very curious about these people, who they were, what they left behind. I never wanted to know that. I tried as much as possible to think of them as couches that needed to be moved. They were just physical items. I joked with my mom at one point that I had seen too many zombie movies to be living here and she said that any spirits would leave immediately. Why would they stick around their body when they just discovered the astral plane? Insert double eye-roll here. Anyways, I know that that is a calloused way of thinking, especially to their loved ones, and I apologize for that but this was a tough situation to deal with and that is the way I dealt with it.
One thing I remember was that at night we had to go through the mortuary and turn off all of the lights. We had to go through the coffin room, through the chapel, and into the business office and then work our way back checking all the lights, and all the doors. There was one light that would turn on and off randomly that really creeped us out. I have to admit that I got the shivers a few times down there but I used to force myself to walk slowly, and calmly through there. I didn’t really believe that a ghost was turning that light on and off and so I refused to scurry past it like the others did.
Ok, so here goes, here are some of the calls that I remember during my time. I really don’t remember when these occurred. They could have been at anytime during the year. These are not all of the calls I went on but this is what still haunts my dreams.
If I were you I would stop reading now.
The Time we Almost Hit a Deer
Needless to say this job was very stressful. We could get a call at any hour of the day, whether noon or midnight or anywhere in between. Sometimes we would get a call at 2:00 a.m., and then I would have class the next morning. It was surreal.
One night we were up late drinking vodka and shooting bottle caps at each other. I finally passed out at 3:30 in the morning. At 4:00 I am awoken by the roommate. “we’ve got one”. I am pretty tired and still kind of wasted but I get dressed and we head out. It is an out of town call and we drive out past Cuesta. We get the body no problem and we are on our way back to the mortuary. We are on a tiny two lane road and there are no streetlights. It is pitch dark out and there is nothing around in sight. All of a sudden I see these two glowing points in the darkness. “what the fuck?” I start to say and then we are swerving. We swerve to the left. We swerve to the right. The gurney in the back is locked down so isn’t flying around but there is a tire jack that was left back there and that is flying around back there and it flies up and hits me in the back of the head. I see a bright light and I am not sure what the hell is going on. Finally we get the car under control. I am bleeding but not too badly. It was a fucking deer and my roommate had swerved to avoid it and kept his cool and did not flip the van. We look in the back to check on the body. It is fucked. The guy’s face was bashed in and his legs and arms were broken. For a guy who died of a heart attack this was not good. We got back an explained what had happened. The owners convinced the family to have a cremation instead of an open casket service and they agreed. They never knew what had happened to their loved one.
The Time I got a Call While on Mushrooms
We partied a lot at the mortuary. One time I was taking mushrooms and Balaram, Max and I were playing at some open mic at some bar in downtown SLO. I had the Grim Beeper but it had been almost two weeks and there had been no calls, what are the odds we would get one? I was up there when the beeper went off. “Oh shit I gotta go” I said as we cut the tune short. I left and everyone in the club seemed a bit confused. I was shrooming pretty good by the time I got back and I told Guido that this was so. He told me to get my shit together and get dressed so I did. We went out to the place and it was a home. The family was all gathered in the living room and they had like 6 or 7 little dogs. There were wiener dogs, and some other kinds as well. My roommate was handling the family and I was standing there and the dogs kept looking at me. One of them was growling softly under its breath and I was telling it to shush under mine. It started barking. They know! The dogs are on to me. They were yelling “he’s tripping! Hey everyone look at him he’s tripping’ No one else noticed and the owners told the dogs to shush. We went into the room where the body was and asked the family to wait outside. As we began to get the body ready to move to the gurney I thought that I saw the person breathing.
I said “hey man this guy is still alive”.
My roommate looked at me, “what?”
“he’s still alive look he’s breathing!” I tried to pull him off the gurney and back onto the bed. “He’s not dead! What are we doing? This isn’t right!”
I was starting to loose it. My roommate grabbed me and looked me in the eye “he’s fucking dead” and the he pounded on his chest with both fists “dead! He’s dead! Get it together!” I snapped out of it and we got the hell out of there.
I made it back to the club and we even got back on stage and played a bit more!
The Time we picked Up a Baby
On this particular call we went out to a hospital. We had the stretcher and we were ready to transport the body when we went into the room and saw a newborn baby. It’s head had not properly sealed and it had been torn open during childbirth. It’s skull was split in two and looked like a split melon. We looked at each other. This thing wouldn’t fit on the gurney. What should we do. Bill wrapped it up in swaddling and picked it up. He held it like a football player holds a football on a long run and we walked out. The thing was gruesome and he was trying to hide it from the other people in the hospital. We would later jokingly refer to this kind of thing as a sneak-a-touchdown. And we would only send one person.
More money that way.
The Time we picked up my Roommate’s Grade School Teacher
One call we went on was to a house that had the doors locked and the windows shut. The neighbors had called because of the smell. We had the sheriff out there and they opened the door. Inside was a heavy man who had died at least a week ago. Apparently he was cold just before he dies so he turned the heater on full blast. As a result he was in an advanced state of decomposition. As we walked in I saw that my roommate stopped dead in his tracks and was starring at the body. What’s the matter? I asked. He said that’s my fifth grade teacher MR. So and So. Holy shit!?! Really? Yep he said, so lets get to work. The guy was really decomposing and was full of gas. His body was really bloated. We went to roll him over so that we could get the sheet underneath him. As Guido was turning his head his finger sunk into the skin. Guido jumped back shouting “oh fuck!” the guy fell back on his back and his stomach split open and a great big WHOOSH! of putrid air came gushing out. As Guido was inhaling and jumping back he takes a big bong-hit like inhalation of the gasses. HE blanches and instantly vomits. ‘Reek of putrefaction’ indeed I thought! We eventually had to put the gurney at the foot of the bed and pull him down. It was disgusting.
The Time we picked up a Suicide Victim
This call was out in Los Osos near where I had used to live. This person had put a .357 into his mouth and pulled the trigger. We walked in and he was sitting in the back yard facing the fence. “Probably watching the sunset one last time” I thought. As I approached his back was to me. I could see a huge hole in the back of his head where the bullet had exited. I could see all the way down to the back of his teeth. Something I will never forget. He was up on the second floor and it was a real pain in the ass getting the gurney down.
The Time I had to Deal with the Police
There was one call we went on where we had been right smack in the middle of a huge party at our apartment and I was kind of liquored up. I was on duty and so I had to run point. I had to handle the paperwork and talk to any police/family members. We showed up and there was a large police presence there. Cops were standing around everywhere. Lights were flashing everywhere. I was sort of panicking but there is nothing I can do. I try to keep a straight face. I pull up and roll down the window. “Where should I park?” I ask the nearest officer. He points to the driveway and tells me to back in. Remember this is a van. It is a large vehicle and I am three sheets to the wind drunk. I am going to have to back this huge van up and into a small drive way with about 30 or so police officers standing around.
It was very strange for me to be dealing with police in a positive way. In fact though one time I was so drunk and I was driving back to the mortuary from the 7-11 and I was driving the wrong way up a one way street. A policeman pulled me over and he immediately recognized me from the mortuary. He told me he had done the same thing when he was in college and told me to walk home and leave me car. Sleep it off! he yelled at me as I stumbled down the sidewalk. Really a very different experience with the police!
Bring Out yer Dead
We developed a very dark sense of humor at the mortuary and I was having recurring nightmares. I would dream that my roommates were trying to strap me down to the gurney and I would yell “I’m not dead! I’m not dead!” my roommates would hold me down chanting in unison ‘you are dead! You. Are. Fucking. Dead…D…E…A…D” over and over again. I would wake up with my heart beating fast.
We had this dry erase board in the bathroom. One month we were kind of broke and we started joking about how it would be nice if a bus full of children would go off a cliff or something because we would make a lot of money without much effort that way. I went into the bathroom and wrote ‘Bring Out Yer Dead’ on the wall in honor of Monty Python. That weekend we had a record amount of deaths. We filled up the entire walk in freezer and had bodies in the embalming rooms as well. There was a murder victim we found under a house (very decayed, had been there a while), a kid who drowned out a the river (carrying that kid to the van was enough to make me cry), a car accident that killed 7 people (I remember the driver had hit the steering wheel so hard that it had embedded into his frontal lobe about two or three inches. I had to pull his head off of the steering wheel). We made lots of money but I couldn’t help but feel that we had tempted fate somehow. We decided not to make those kinds of jokes anymore.
I’m Not Dead Yet!
One call we went on we show up at the house and the person was not actually dead yet. That really bothered me a lot. I had not ever seen anyone die before. They were always long dead by the time I showed up. This person was still (minimally) alive and laying in a hospice medical bed in their living room. We are talking to the family who is explaining that they thought he had passed but he just was breathing very shallowly. I am saying that we will have to come back later when this guy in the bed suddenly blurts out ‘now begins the great teddy bear’ or at least that is what we all thought we heard.
Other not Fun Stuff
I also saw some organ harvesting and “helped” to perform an autopsy. The organ harvesters came for somebody’s eyes. They have to act quickly while the body is still fresh. I held the eyelids as they extracted the actual eyeball. During the autopsy I saw them make the Y incision and I got to use the bone saw to open up the skull. Afterwards I saw them put all of the organs into the stomach and sew them up. Obviously I had no business doing that and I should not have even been allowed back there but this guy thought it was funny to see my reaction.
There was also a call I went on where we went to the hospital and picked up someone who was still on the operating table. They had tubes and wires attached to them, their shirt was ripped open. They had tried to save this person and failed.
There was another call where we discovered someone who died of cancer. They hand an enormous tumor.
The Saddest One Yet
At some point I started working as a flower delivery guy. It is funny how working around death makes you crave feeling alive. We did lots of stupid stuff like that and now that I look back on it is seems to me that we just wanted to feel alive. For example I remember we had a cooking contest to see who could make the spiciest spaghetti dish. Everyone made a dish that others had to eat. You lost by not finishing the dish. I was at one point dating two girls, one of whom worked at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and who would bring me a box of caramel apples and candy every night.
Anyway somehow I got the chance to do this flower delivery gig and I jumped at it. It was part time and not very stressful. I drove a van provided by the flower shop. They loaded it up and I simply drove around town delivering these flowers, I liked it because I was usually the best thing that happened to these people. I would drive up in my van and knock on the door and there would be no death and no sorrow, just a person whose eyes would light up.
One time I delivered something for mother’s day to a kindly old lady. It was sad, I thought, how her kids didn’t visit her and sent me instead. But she had been happy. About a week later I had to come to that same house in my other van and there she was. The flowers were dead and so was she. It was really depressing.
All in all if I had known then what I know now I would not have taken this job at the mortuary. Death is incredibly sad and disgusting. After leaving the mortuary in January of 1997 I lost my taste for violent horror films pretty much all together.
I am continuing to write a series a memoir-notes. In the last of these I left off right when I had decided to enroll in Community College. I know that my first semester began in August 1994 but it is not totally clear what I was doing the first part of this year. I am pretty sure I was living at the preschool for part of that time, though I don’t really know.
I do know it was during that time when I reconnected with my immediate family. I hung out with my sister and my aunt a bit and I found out that both had a pretty rough time while I was gone. My sister had had a brain tumor. My sister had always had dizzy spells and fainted a couple of times when we were young. We had taken her to the doctor many times. She was unusually big for her age, her eyes bulged out of her face a bit and we knew something was wrong but the doctors never found anything. They tried to do a CAT scan and my sister would not stay still long enough. She fought it very hard. Anyway, after I had ran away from home she was out riding a horse one day (my sister was very much an equestrian) and the horse threw her. She hit her head and as a result went to the emergency room. While there they discovered that she had a massive brain tumor. As she described it the tumor took up over three-quaters of her skull cavity and her entire brain was squashed into the front 1/4 of her cranium. She said it was very scary having brain surgery and that she was on medication but felt fine. She was still riding, showing, and competing on horseback. I was amazed by her story. And here I had thought my appendectomy was hardcore. She came out and heard Mortalis, my band at the time, play and she was impressed by how ‘energetic’ the music was (she herself was into country at the time).
It was good to see her and I was impressed by her story but we didn’t really get along very well. She wanted to rehash everything that had happened with our mom and to catch me up on what she had done to her since I had left. She thought that I would be as happy to bash our mom as she was and was eager to find someone to bond with over the experience. At the time I was not interested in rehashing. I was looking forward not backwards (it took over 20 years for me to start to look back on those events! And some of them I still don’t want to look back on!). My mom felt hurt by what my sister had done and my sister was hurt by what my mom had done. I wanted to stay out it as much as possible.
I heard that my uncle was getting remarried so my sister and I drove down there with my aunt. My aunt had been shot by her ex-boyfriend when I was 11 or so and had been paralyzed from the waist down as a result. She was in a wheelchair but had recently bought a car that was rigged up to allow her to operate the pedals with her hands and so she could drive. She needed help getting her chair into the the trunk after she got in (and getting it out) but other than that she was good. Oh, how angry she got if she ever found someone parking in the handicap spot! Anyway we went to the wedding down in LA. My uncle had been in Vietnam and had come back a very different person. He had had an aneurysm in his brain after he returned and had another personality change. He was an air traffic controller but after the aneurysm he became a born-again Christian and went to clown college, where he met the woman who he was now marrying.
The wedding was interesting (involving crystals and a harp players). My mom was not invited because she was not getting along with my uncle over something or other. I found the inter-family dram to be very off putting and for the most part I tried to stay out of all of it. My sister had wanted to be a vet at some point and had started school but never finished. No one else in my family had gone to school and they all seemed to think that studying philosophy was a waste of time. They also wanted to bash my mom, and I had a lot of anger towards her as well, but I wanted to try to get to know her as a person. She seemed sincere at the time that she had changed and wanted a second chance. I was willing to give it to her but the rest of the family was not. As a result I tended to keep to my own business. I had a lot going on in my own life at the time!
From what I was saying before you may be thinking that I was probably taking a lot of acid during this time, and that is correct, but it is not like acid was the only hallucinogenic I did back in those days. I really enjoyed taking LSD and had done paper (all with funny names), liquid (dropped on Cheetos, and once a Tums antacid just for “irony”), and gel tab LSD (black pyramid being among the best I had). I had also taken Orange Sunshine which was a designer drug supposedly like a combination of LSD and mescaline. And of course there was mushrooms. I really found that LSD and mushrooms were very different. Mushrooms gave me more of a body high and to be honest I think I had more “Bad Trips” on mushrooms. They seemed to put me more in tune with my body and nature and at the time I did not really enjoy that.
By the way, I am breaking one of my past self’s cardinal rules by talking about all of this. I used to be pretty vocal that it was uninteresting to hear about other people’s hallucinogenic experiences. Listening to someone talk about their experience on acid, I used to say, was a bit like listening to someone tell you about their dream. To the person telling the story it is all very interesting but to the rest of us it is just a random sequence of events. And I recognize that this is all a bit self-indulgent but I am for the most part just trying to get stuff straight in my head and going through this stuff helps. But I am also leaving a lot of the details out of what I would call “workaday” acid trips and just focusing on ones that stand out in some dramatic fashion.
At some point Jay had got some mushrooms, and much like those magic fungi, he has popped back up out of no where. I hadn’t seen him in a long time and as I remember it he just showed up randomly with some mushrooms. I don’t know exactly when this was but I am thinking that this must have been sometime in early to mid 1994 but before I started Cuesta. We ate them and went wandering around town. I really liked the period after taking the hallucinogens and before them kicking in. There was a nervous excitement that was addictive and then after a while the shadows began to flicker and the world took on a subtle glow somewhat like concrete in the early morning sunlight just after it has rained…and then who knows what would happen?
In California at that time there were many homeless people populating the downtown area. They would eventually try to get them to move out of the downtown area, and this was a big controversy in the city of San Luis Obispo, but at this point there were a number of them on their cardboard, huddled in doorways of shops, and especially by the water fountain in the Mission, which is where we were. Jay got super paranoid and started thinking the homeless people were undercover cops and that they were watching us or at least that is what he was saying. Jay liked to fuck with people and it was hard to tell if he was serious, especially on drugs, but the homeless people did look menacing. And the eyes on that tree were looking at us a bit funny. I felt as though I was walking down the sidewalk and that as I was doing so I was stretching out like a long worm. I was leaving a trail of myself like the bikes in Tron. I see a movie theatre and the tree seems to say that we should go in and get off the streets. Point of No Return is playing but for some reason I think it is going to be Point Break, which I thought of as a funny movie (my favorite movies at this time were Bad Taste, and the Evil Dead series, along with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and I’m Going to Git you Sucka), so I was totally unprepared for what happened.
As we are sitting in the theatre waiting for the movie to start things are moving and dancing and I am starting to see images on the screen even though it is blank. But the images slide off the screen and behind the thick red curtain that lines the wall. I wonder what they are doing back there? I think that but I hear myself saying “Hot in here?” as I start to take off my shirt. “You can’t do that!” Jay says, but I am already staring at my stomach by that point and as I start to think “I am not here, this is not me…” the movie starts.
The movie begins with a group of kids walking towards a drug store. The sign out front should read ‘pharmacy’ but instead it says ‘drugs’ and I start thinking that the movie knows that I am tripping. Yes, I think that the movie knows that I am tripping. How could it know? I wonder. Then all hell breaks loose. I won’t describe the whole movie but anyone who knows the plot knows that she becomes a super secret agent that is contracted to kill at a moment’s notice while living a seeming normal life. She seems so normal but then she goes and kills a bunch of people. This movie is insane and it is very violent. But by the end you realize that she just wants to be free. She is no longer the kid that they brought in at the beginning. She is a normal person. By this point I am really invested in the movie and I really want her to be free.
We come out of the movie and we are talking about how trippy it is. “Anyone one of these people could be undercover like she was” I say pointing at a random stranger walking by. “Yeah, I know” says Jay. We are heading over to this party that we know is happening and somehow we end up in a Taco Bell. I guess I had to use the bathroom because I am in there peeing when I notice some guy comes in and take the urinal next to me. There are other urinals (a seeming infinite fractal expanding series of urinals actually) so I am wondering why he is standing right next to me (but then I start thinking that maybe he isn’t close to me and I am tripping). We are both standing there peeing and not looking at or talking to each other and I start to wonder if he’s under cover and perhaps has been sent to kill me. He looks normal but so does she. I start thinking that I could easily kill him before he kills me. I wonder what kind special training he has had? He looks over at me, sort of worriedly, and I realize that I am losing my mind. Holy shit, he can tell that I am insane. I have to get out of here.
We make it to the party and there are a lot of people there. I start to make my way to the keg and it feels like I am swimming in the crowd of people and I worry that I will inhale some of the people and need CPR. I finally make it and cling to the keg while getting a beer. As I am standing there I look around and it looks like I am in a horror fun house. Everyone’s faces are twisted and distorted. Their exaggerated features a grotesque imitation of personhood. I figured out later that drunk people and Shrooming people are a bad mix. Drunk people are slurring their words and making all kinds of sincere facial expressions and it is really too much for someone who is hallucinating. At some point I end up talking to a friend of mine and after a while I say that I am tripping balls. He says ‘really? I can’t tell!’ and I had an epiphany. I realized that no one else could tell what was happening in my mind and that as long as I acted like they did and made appropriate noises at appropriate times people would assume that I was normal. I went around the party making noises and and trying to imitate the grotesquely exaggerated facial expressions I saw. People made seemingly appropriate noises in response. I wondered what the noises I was making meant and then I wondered how I knew what I was wondering?
Of course I wasn’t just taking drugs. I still loved to read and I remember that I was reading Red Dragon by Thomas Harris around this time. I remember vividly one night being so terrified by this book that I had to go to a Denny’s to continue reading it. I just wanted there to be other people around (and I didn’t want to stop reading the book). I was also working and playing in my death metal band. After Mutilation recorded it’s demo (in 1992) we had some line up changes. There is a lot of personal drama that I won’t go into but you can fill a lot of it in yourself I am sure. At some point the bassist and guitarist left and we met another guitar player and his playing reminded me of Deicide and so I thought he was very good. Way better than our previous guitar player (I thought, anyway). But at that point we were still Cannibalistic Mutilation.
Eventually Mac, the singer, for Cannibalistic Mutilation, got a girlfriend and this caused a huge and stupid fight over how he spent his time. I think we may have been supposed to play at some house party in Fresno (and had made flyers etc) and he said couldn’t go. His girlfriend didn’t think it was a good idea (or something). So after our fight he was out of the group. The new guitarist said he knew a singer and thus Mortalis was formed probably sometime in 1993/1994 though I really can’t remember the exact dates. Sadly there are no records of Mortalis that I know of. There was some video and we had some pretty decent recordings but they were all lost in the Great Storage Place Fiasco of 1997. We found a new bassist who used to play for another local band (and who went on to found Neighborhood Creep) but he eventually left and was replaced by Jonathan Boyle who was usually a guitarist but played bass in this band. We played a lot of house parties but we also organized several outdoor shows. One was in Cuesta Park and we had to get permits for amplified music. Another was at Pirate’s Cove, the local nude beach, and we had to pack all of our gear and then lower it down to the beach on ropes (the beach was at the base of some cliffs).
It was in the midst of all of this that I started community college in August of 1994. Cuesta was a two-year college and it was located out just past the juvenile hall that I spent time in just a few year ago. I would often reflect on how strange it was to be going down that same road but heading out to the Cuesta campus instead of juvy. Incidentally the prison and the pound were also out down that road. I loved the Cuesta campus it was beautiful. I was a bit older than the average freshman (I was about 23 at the time) but I looked young and no one seemed to really mind.
I also remembered Cuesta from when I was a kid. My mom had taken one art class out there and she did not really like it. She had been painting since she was a child and she had won several art contests (you can see some of her work here) but she did not like studying art. She claimed that she wanted to learn how to paint in her own voice and she did not want to be turned into someone else. She had this idea that by studying painting she would become unoriginal because she would adopt the techniques of the teacher and therefore not really be expressing herself. I never really thought about it but this is probably part of the reason that my first semester at Cuesta I did not take any music classes. I saw that they had music theory and even a percussion class but I never thought of music as something that you could study in school (possibly also related to the fact that I went to a so-called ‘Basic School’ that focused on the Three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic (and please don’t point out that only one of them actually has an R in it, that is frowned upon!)). Music and science were optional).
Before the semester started I had to do several interviews with the program that was helping me, and I had to take an aptitude test. I forget what the results were, but they were good enough for them to help me. They would set you up with the financial aid paperwork and give you a book voucher. At that time tuition at a community college in California was inexpensive. It was something like 10 dollars a unit, meaning you could take a class for about $30 (plus fees). I could afford that but books were expensive so the voucher was welcome. Plus I took advantage of it and would shop for as many books as I could find. I did not know it at the time but California has as part of its history affordable higher-education and I was incredibly shocked when I came out to New York and found tuition to be very different!
I enrolled in World Cultures (an anthropology course), Humanities: Western Culture 1A, which was a yearlong class on the history of western culture. It featured an art professor, a history professor, and an English professor. It met three times a week and each week we would focus on one period of time, getting an overview of important historical events and then the next day seeing art from that period and then the next day reading some important piece of writing from that period. I remember that we started with the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I had never heard of before and I was blown away by it. In fact I still to this day discuss it in my intro to philosophy class. That class was a very cool class and I really think there should be more courses like this. Putting art, history and literature together helps make the past real, or at least it did for me.
I also enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy course and an Introduction to Psychology class. My philosophy professor was an adjunct (of course I had no idea what that meant at the time!) and I am pretty sure his name was Mr. Knight and that he owned a local sausage factory as well. He was always telling us how practical philosophy was, how it could help us avoid being taken in by advertising, etc but honestly that made me less interested in it. I ended up dropping the psychology and declaring philosophy as my major. I didn’t like the psychology class because it felt more like therapy than an actual class. Whoever the professor was, I do not remember, would let people go on and on about their personal problems. It seemed like every time he said something someone would raise their hand to share an experience. Meanwhile I was reading Descartes’ meditations in the philosophy class (we used an early edition of Elements of Philosophy by Enoch Stumpf, a book I used when I first began teaching intro to philosophy at Brooklyn College many years later) and he says that he is sitting by the fire and he does not know if he is awake or asleep. “I’ve been there!” I thought to myself. But then from there he proceeds to draw some fairly controversial conclusions. That the mind is separate from the body being chief among them (in my mind). I was pretty convinced by that argument at the time. Of course I am not my body, I thought. My body is weak and I am strong. My body holds my mind back. I felt shackled to my body, alienated from it.
I liked going back to school but in those early days I was not taking it very seriously. I did not take notes or fully devote myself to the classes. But I did meet a bunch of non-death metal people. One group of people were from out of town and they liked to snowboard. I took mushrooms with these guys after class one day and we sat around playing a game called Asshole. It is a card game designed to get you very drunk. I had never been snowboarding but they invited me to go so I went (I think this may have been in the winter of 1994 but am not sure). I had no gear but they said I could rent it when we got there. I had never really seen snow before. Living in Los Angeles as a kid we were inland and I didn’t even know there were mountains near us until after I moved away from L.A. In Pismo it never snowed and my mom hated the snow. We get there and I do get a snow board and boots but I don’t think I need any snow gear. These guys are impressed because they think that means I am confident I won’t fall because I must be good. But I am just stupid! The first day out I did fall a lot but I picked it up pretty quickly. It was like skating but with the board strapped to your foot. Being in snow was different than concrete but it was not too hard. I was sore by the end of the day though and I was also soaked. I hadn’t really realized that since I was warm I would melt any snow I came into contact with and my pants and shirt were soaking wet by the end of the day. By the second day I bought some snow gear and then was getting pretty good. We did a night session where we all took mushrooms and I remember gliding down the mountain and I could veritably feel the power of the Earth as I hurtled down this majestic mountain (ok so we were in Big Bear but still it was pretty majestic to me). I remember thinking about gravity being the curvature of spacetime and I felt like I was bending and carving spacetime itself with my snowboard. After our session we watch Disney’s Fantasia, which I had never seen, and I found it very creepy. I actually ended up buying a snowboard from these guys and I went a few times before I moved to San Francisco in 1997 and lost everything in the Great Storage Place Fiasco of 1997.
As I recall it I was experiencing a real clash at this time. The guys I hung around with in the “death metal scene” thought I was wasting my time going to school. They didn’t like these people who came into town and trashed the place and then left. But I had rediscovered my love of academics. It was like I had forgotten that I enjoyed school. But now I remembered.
It was also at this time that I started having real panic attacks. The first one I had was on acid. I was frying and having a good time and suddenly I felt like my heart was beating too fast and I felt a pain in my chest. I became very dizzy and I went to lay down and don’t know how long I laid there but I felt like I was floating above my body and that I could see myself dying and decaying right in front of my eyes, but at the same time I was paralyzed and could not move at all. It was my first really bad trip on LSD and it was only much later that I realized that it was a panic attack. Looking back on it before this I had really only ever worried about external threats. Even when I had to have emergency appendectomy I didn’t feel too worried about it. I was confident my body would heal if I let it. But now I felt attacked from the inside.
I had another incident that was so bad I called my mom from the emergency room. I thought I was having a heart attack. They did cardio tests on me and everything. I found out later, by talking with my mom, that she had panic attacks as well and that she was diagnosed with agoraphobia.
One other time a bunch of us we’re going to see Interview with the Vampire which had just come out. I really liked Anne Rice and was excited. I remember that during the scene where Lestat is trying to get the other guy to kill the prostitute and she is crying and covered in blood. I suddenly yelled out loud “somebody help her!” And stood up and ran to the bathroom. I wanted to wash my face but my hands were already wet. I looked down at them and could see my vision start to tunnel. I hadn’t taken anything except marijuana that day so this feeling was odd. I stumbled out of the bathroom and fell back against the wall. I woke up sitting on the floor with my back against the wall. A small crowd had gathered and people were asking if I was ok.
I started drinking coffee for the first time in my life in the middle of my first semester (prepping for finals in Barnes and Nobles with a group of students was my first coffee ever!). I had always been against coffee drinking. It’s funny now but when I was young I used to criticize my grandma for always drinking coffee. Anyway I was studying for finals with a group from class and I had had a lot of coffee. I was also planning on sleeping in the park (I was couch surfing at that point after leaving the preschool) and so I got some sleeping pills from the 7-11. I thought it would help me get a good night’s sleep before the exam but I took too many (I never got sleepy so kept taking them) and started to feel very funny. I got very nervous and took myself to the emergency room. I don’t really remember when this was but I associate it with finals and with Half Asleep in Frogs Pajamas, which I was reading at the time (It had just come out and I would sit in Barnes and Nobles and read the book without buying it). I forget how I discovered Tom Robbins but I loved his books and I read all of them in this period. Back then I liked to pick an author and read all of their work. This particular book was a real trip because it is written in the second person and so really puts you into the story, or so it felt to me at the time.
But anyway I had the most vivid hallucinations I have ever had, including watching an entire episode of Dukes of Hazard on a cabinet door and having a full conversation with a nurse who turned out not to exist. I had by then hallucinated quite a bit but this was truly realistic, fully immersive hallucinating in a way I had not experienced. And just from coffee and sleeping pills! They made me drink charcoal and kept me overnight. They thought that I had tried to commit suicide and the scars on my wrist were not helping my case.
My right forearm, taken in 2015 when I got my neuron tattoo but also visible are what’s left of the scars that have caused so much trouble
My story that I was a new coffee drinker (at age 23) and had tried to use sleeping pills to come down before my test was not sounding convincing to them. Homeless-kid-tries-to-commit-suicide-in-the-park was a story that they knew. They had a psychologist come up and talk to me and I explained what had happened and that I had an exam that I wanted to get to. They let me go but it was not a fun experience. I remember I showed up to the final exam a little late but mostly on time but I was not prepared at all. It was an in class blue-book exam. I had no idea what the questions were about. As I recall they were about some war or other and some policy or other. I had nothing to say so as I sat there I formulated a plan. I wrote an introductory paragraph ‘in this essay I will explain why the policy had the effect of causing this war, etc’ then I went to the last page and wrote, ‘so as I have shown this policy has had this effect’. I then undid the staple holding the pages in and took but all of the middle pages. Because of the way these things are made the first and the past page are really the same piece of paper so what I had wrote was still there. I pocketed the papers and turned in the exam. Of course the professors were not fooled at all and were not buying my story but I stuck to my story (that I had written the whole essay and it must have fallen out) and they agreed to let me take the exam over again. I earned a C.
In January of 1995 the spring semester at Cuesta starts. I take Humanities 1b, the second half of the year long course and a computer/typing class. The humanities class met in a giant auditorium and we had little direct contact with these professors but they were the same ones from the previous semester. I never knew if they remembered me or not. I also take an epistemology course, which is my first philosophy class officially as a philosophy major. I remember that it was in that class that I first encountered someone who really believed in skepticism, that we did not know that the external world existed, and we used to argue endlessly about this. I was a staunch realist at the time. I also remember thinking that Jay would love this stuff. He had already formulated the thesis of skepticism on many acid trips.
That semester I ended up meeting a guy named Arturo (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure) and his friend Lydia. They were major potheads but also into the Grateful Dead. They were both fairly well off and Arturo didn’t mind too much if I mooched off of him. Arturo was a very jovial very large and round hispanic guy. He talked as though he was out of breath and was always mischievously charming when he interacted with you. At first it might seem like he is faking it but that is just him. Lydia was the daughter of someone who ran a big name brand company (I forget exactly what it was but chances are you have used this product) and she is a very attractive blonde, with a somewhat midwestern-hippy vibe about her. She had a credit card from her parents and had already dropped out of school and was just hanging with Arturo. We would try to smoke as much weed as we could. We would try to overdose (though as it turns out you can’t overdoes on marijuana). I remember seeing Pulp Fiction with these guys and being so high that we later forgot we had seen that movie and got all excited to see it (for the first time), went back to the same theatre to see it and then we remembered about halfway through the movie that we had already seen it, and seen it together!
Sometime in my second semester at Cuesta I moved into a house with a bunch of roommates. Among them were Lydia and Arturo and a guy named Balaram who was the bassist for a local reggae band called The Shival Experience (fronted by local legend Shival Redwine, who was Balaram’s father (incidentally Balaram is still currently playing in a band called Boombala). And some other guy who I can’t remember. This was big house that had an upstairs, a downstairs, a backyard, and a garage out in front. I had my drums in the garage and we would practice out there. We also had many parties there and the bands would play in the living room. This place was fairly close to Cuesta, but not really. It was still at least seven miles out the country road.
Mortalis played on KCPR’s metal show and we got quite a good recording from it. KCPR was the radio show of Cal Poly but it had a fairly esteemed history (Weird Al started there). I wish I still had the recording. I remember they interviewed us and the singer at the time said that we were engaged in a kind of sonic guerrilla warfare in that we would show up anywhere, house parties, the park, etc, and play violent extreme music. The singer for Mortalis opened a T-Shirt shop and had a giant professional silk screening set up. At one point we had three or four different Mortalis shirts. They were awesome and I wish I still had one!
We had a big house party where Mortalis and Emetic played. There used to be some video of that show that was unbelievable. It showed the mosh pit in our living room and people stage diving off the second story balcony. At one point someone gets slammed into the sliding glass door and the entire door comes off its hinges (but didn’t break). I remember that Balaram was out of town and we put all of the living room furniture into Balaram’s room and someone stole something in the process or something got broken, or something happened. Shival had to come over and adjudicate. He sat there smoking a joint and listening to both sides and then, like a Rastafarian King Solomon he solved the problem. I don’t remember the details but I do remember being impressed with how fair and even-handed he seemed to be, trying to understand all sides before coming to a decision.
I had to hitchhike to Cuesta for my classes. Usually this wasn’t much of a problem. If you left at the right time most of the traffic out that way was going to Cuesta and I was never late because of hitchhiking. One time I was picked up by this guy who had some hash and we smoked it on the way out to class. I showed up and it was art day in the World Culture 1B class. I sat in the auditorium high as could be looking at the art. Amazing, the history of the world. Amazing how far we have come since then. Amazing how far we have to go. I was floating, and then the light came on. Class was over.
That semester I also had a computer/typing class and that is where I found out that no one really cared about BASIC anymore. Everyone was talking about C+ and C++ and I didn’t know anything about those things.
We all took a trip to Disney Land and did black pyramid LSD gel tabs. It was amazing and my mom tells me I came back very impressed by the ‘smog sets’. That must have been in March or April of 1995 (or thereabouts) because I remember it was right when the Indiana Jones ride came out. Our first ride on that was a dramatic experience. Waiting in line on acid is an interesting experience and then add on top of that the strange distractions they have in there and that was quite an adventure in and of itself. The ride is even crazier though and at the end, they have this animatronic Indiana hanging from a rope and my friend thought he was a real person. He was crying and screaming for someone to rescue this guy and then the big boulder came. It was dramatic. Once we were done we hurried to Space Mountain, and then quickly back to Indiana. We must have done that 5 or 6 times that day.
At some point the semester ended and I completed my final exams. The end of my freshman year of college! In retrospect I think I did ok for all the other stuff going on in my life. I earned mostly Cs with an occasional B (in computers/typing!) and D (in anthropology). I was not really applying myself but I was learning a lot. And, more importantly, I had acquired a checklist of what I needed to do in order to get my General Education certification and then I could transfer to a four-year college as a junior. I was taking out loans and working when I needed to but I had finally found a way forward. At the time I remember thinking that it was a good thing I had played so much Zelda because graduating from college was just like playing a video game. Instead of three quests before you get a key to unlock a sword it was three classes before you get a certification that unlocks the next course (or whatever). Video games, at least of that sort, were like training for bureaucracy. Very different from the Last Strarfighter plot where they train us to become star fighters, I thought.
During the summer I hung out with Arturo and Lydia a lot. I saw the Grateful Dead with them a few times. One time I remember was June 4th 1995 at Shoreline Amphitheater. I can’t remember if I went in this time or not. I saw the Dead a couple of times in this period but only went into the concert once. I vaguely remember that it all felt very commercial. Everyone was in the parking lot selling stuff, people were holding their finger’s up looking for tickets. From inside you could hear them play Fire on the Mountain. It seemed to me like an amusement park ride, like something from Disney Land where you go to see vaguely menacing half-alive figures repeat their programed motions. I do remember being inside at one of the Dead shows I went to and seeing the drum intermission, which really blew me away. I also saw the spinners for the first time. These people would just spin and spin and spin and I remember thinking it was like the world’s most gentle mosh pit.
Ballarom introduced me to his father’s reggae band, The Shival Experience, and I remember a bunch of us going up to Big Sur to hear them play. I don’t remember when but I am guessing it was sometime in the summer of 1995. I had met Shival already but never heard him play. I had only just recently been introduced to reggae music and was interested to check it out. We took orange sunshine and danced in the mud while the sun set behind the band. Shivel was an amazing guitarist and Ballroom was an amazing bassist and Maurice was an amazing drummer. And together they made amazing music. And dancing in the mud was amazingly fun. As we jumped and splashed in the mud I looked around and saw all of the smiling faces, cute girls and happy guys, jumping, clapping, the deep tones of the reggae bass pulsing, with the one-drop beat from the drum accenting the downbeat of the rhythm; this was an experience I had never ever had before and it was amazing. I loved music but I had never experienced music’s power to bring transcendent joy and happiness. It sounds stupid now but I had always found it to express rage and power or silly fun (like Weird Al and the Beastie Boys) or melancholy. Sure there was a majestic beauty to death metal, a lot of it is inspired by classical music, believe it or not, but it is not the same. After that I really wanted to learn how to play the drums like Maurice, the drummer for the Shival Experience. I wanted to be able to make people move like I had just been moving. I wanted to make people feel what I had just felt.
My CA Driver’s License photo from July 11th 1995…just after I shaved off the “cat turds” and started working at Ross (I am wearing my Ross outfit)
Because I was friends with Balaram, who had had dreadlocks since he was born, and since I saw all the white hippies with dreads at the Grateful Dead shows I went to, (and because I am an idiot) I decided to grow some as well. I remember getting some Rain Oil and rubbing it into my hair. And I eventually did get dreadlocks, which my friends called ‘the cat turds’. Talk about cultural appropriation! I was clueless but someone did call me a ‘race traitor’ and another asked me if I knew which race I was in. I remember I had some kind of carved bead in one of the dreads and as it grew it would whack me in the forehead when I head-bangged. I needed to find a job and so I eventually shaved the dreads off. I really resented it because people looked at me like they thought I was a skinhead, which I was not!
On one memorable trip we went to see the Jerry Garcia Band (I am pretty sure that is who it is though I could be wrong…it may have been RatDog who I remember seeing at some point), as it turns out this was just before he died but we did not know that at the time. I think this was in 1995 but I don’t really remember exactly wen. Arturo was driving and we had this plastic inflatable swimming pool in the back of his hatchback car. It was filled with ice and beer. We were hauling ass down the freeway drinking and passing around a pipe full of weed. Arturo was steering with his knee while lifting the pipe and holding a beer between his legs. Do not try this at home! We made it to Ventura and went to some place that either Lydia or Arturo had friends at. There we continued to pre-party. We made Flaming Dr. Peppers and took a bunch of Xanex. For a while I sat on the couch and was simply unable to recall how one’s face ought to be composed when one was not talking. How does one hold one’s lips? One’s tongue? It was crazy but it was time to go to the show. We show up and the parking lot is hopping as usual. People are selling burritos and beer and grilled cheese, and everyone is smoking and dancing. Good scene. That’s when I try Nitrous for the first time.
Arturo sees someone with a tank and some balloons and says “oh, let’s get some Nitrous!”
“What’s that?” I mumble/splutter in reply.
He looks at me and says “oh, you’re in for a treat!” and rushes over to the guy. “Will you trade some smoke for two balloons?” he asks in his breathless but sultry way. He is moving his eyebrows in a way that suggests the answer should be yes.
“Yeah man” the guys responds. I get the balloon and Arturo tells me to inhales it and breathe it. He demonstrates. So I do so as well. Immediately I feel light-headed. My vision starts to narrow and I hear this pulsating sound WAH-wah-WAH-WAH-wah-WAH… And then I am lying on the ground. Everyone is looking at me.
“You just phished!” I was informed by the crowd. That’s when you pass out and start violently shaking and twitching. Like a fish on the ground. Arturo holds out his hand and helps me up. Then he says ‘open your mouth, I scored some doses’. “Cool” I say and open my mouth.
Things after that are a bit hazy but somehow I end up separated from Lydia and Arturo and I am wondering around the parking lot fucked out of my mind on drugs. Everything looks the same. There are row after row of cars and people with dreads and they all look the same. I stop and talk to some of them and then wander on. Smoke here, drink there, wander around. At some point I see this van and for some reason I think that Arturo might be in there. So I walk up to it and slide back the door. Inside there are what appears to be infinite people writhing around. All in various stages of undress and in the midst of various sexual acts. It looked like a scene from Caligula mixed with the scene from Indiana Jones when they open the snake pit and see all of the writing snakes down below. This van was a portal to the Ancient Roman times and I was witnessing a long past event. But I wasn’t and I noticed that some guy was yelling at me
“What the fuck are you doing?!?! Shut the fucking door, asshole”
“Romani Ite Domun, fuckhead” I blurt back (quoting a line from Monty Python for some reason…it means ‘Romans go home!’) and then I turn and start running in the other direction. I see Arturo off in the distance. He was a very large Hispanic dude with a big floppy hat. How could you miss him? I am yelling “hey Arturo” and he sees me and waves. And then I run full speed into a car hood that I had not seen and face plant right into it. Finally some violence at one of these shows!
Arturo had come up with the idea that he could make some money by selling Nitrous balloons at a show and that we could steal tanks of nitrous and then take them to shows to sell. He found a welding supply place that had a bunch of tanks sitting around. They were heavy so at first they were just left out in the open. He jumped over the fence and dragged one of the tanks back. We had to help him get it over the fence. After that they started locking them up and building enclosures around them so we had to stop but we did have that one tank and he did take it to some shows and sell balloons. By that time I was over Nitrous. I had learned that when you inhale it the lung prefers nitrous to oxygen and so you are actually suffocating. I could not get it out of my head that doing Nitrous and drowning would feel about the same and that made it no fun for me.
I get a job at Ross as a cashier and I am fairly good at it. It is funny because old ladies are asking me if I know their granddaughters and one of the guys who I work with tells me that ‘I clean up nice’ after I tell him a bit about my history. Ross is funny because they don’t have any security system in the store. What they instead have is a tapped recording that comes on at random intervals. The recording says ‘Security to shoes’ or ‘security to women’s dresses’. The idea is that this gives the impression that there is security and that they are busting shoplifters, but really they aren’t. So cheesy. I let my friends come in and get clothes for free. Basically if they come through my line I will let them go with paying a minimal amount. Needless to say this makes me popular. Eventually I am set up and busted as part of a sting. They have someone come through my line and buy something that is 9.99. They give me a $50.00 and as I am counting back the change they leave. I look up and they are gone. So I set the money on the side of the register. They don’t come back and at the end of my shift and so I pocket the money. As I clock out and prepare to leave I am approached and asked to come into the back. What for? Well, that lady was a set up and I stole her money. What? She never came back! How is that stealing. I should have left a note in case she came back. Ok, I thought, but I have done way worse than this. Either way they fired me and I was told that I was banned from Ross forever. I laughed. Really?
When I heard that Jerry Garcia had died and that there was a big memorial going on up in San Francisco I decided it would be fun to go. It was scheduled to be held August 13th 1995 in Golden Gate Park and I had never been there. So I decided to hitchhike up there since I had a few weeks off. It was a great trip. The ride up there was fairly easy ad I got picked up by some deadhead in a bus. We drank and smoked the whole way up there. We got to the park and I got dosed with acid. I was in the drum circle when these rose petals started falling from the sky. It was a trip. To this day I cannot tell if those rose petals falling from the sky were real or not. I especially remember that there were a lot of people crying.
After the drum circle died down I remember there were these two hippies playing together and they motioned for me to sit down and join them. I did and I was trying to play along but I really did not know how to play these kind of hand percussion instruments. One of them stopped and said “we are trying to have a conversation and you keep interrupting us and yelling” at the time I was very embarrassed by that but it did make me aware that I wanted to learn how to drum in different styles. I had never thought of percussion as a language and the idea that different rhythms could have a back and forth was very intriguing to me.
Getting home was a bit tougher. I sat for a long time sort of coming down from acid in the middle of nowhere until someone stopped. It was this white guy who was clearly tweaking on something. He sad that he saw me there and had to get me out before some “fucking [expletive deleted]” saw me. I was shocked that he said the n-word to me but he automatically assumed that I would be cool with that (my hair was just beginning to grow back and I still looked somewhat like a skinhead at first glance). I was like, yeah, good thing. He offered me a line of something and so I snorted it. Then he started telling me that he had just got out of prison and was looking for a job, his girlfriend had cheated on him while he was in prison and he didn’t know if the kid she was pregnant with was really his. I made small talk about being in the group home and he drove me for a bit and then dropped me off about half an hour later. I sat at that point for a good long while until some black guy picked me up. He was a copy repairman and we smoked a big fat joint and made small talk. He told me that he drove a lot and picked up hitchhikers for company on the drive. I didn’t tell him about the guy that had just dropped me off but it was an interesting pair of experiences. The white guy had only picked me up because of how I looked, not like the black guy who picked me up in spite of how I looked. Each of them had liked me and made for interesting conversation but you could not put those two people into the same room without a large problem. I found that to be really sad at that point.
I still wasn’t all the way home so I still had some hitchhiking to do. I got picked up by some guy and by this time it is late and I am tired. He tells me it is fine if I sleep so I doze off. I wake up and we are pulled over and he is rubbing my inner thigh. As I come to and access the situation I elbow him hard in the face. He is sputtering and yelling and blood is flowing down his face as I scramble out of the car. I realize that we are at a rest stop and I start running towards the highway. He is yelling after me “fuck you anyways, man! I was doing you a favor, you ingrate!” I am flipping him off over my shoulder as I book it towards the onramp. I made it back ok after that without any problems. I rarely had any problems while hitchhiking and that was one of a small number of cases where things went bad for me.
The fall semester would have started in late August of 1995. I take Environmental science, where I write my paper arguing that we should Pave the World and grow all plants on the moon (and import oxygen from the moon and export carbon dioxide to the moon, etc; I got a B in that class!), chemistry, and algebra. I really liked the chemistry class and was pleasantly surprised that it was mostly physics. The professor was the father of a friend of mine who was a drummer in another death metal band. My friend told me that his family was Mormon and I thought that is was odd that someone who had those beliefs could teach a science class. In the algebra class I did not really apply myself. I had already made it through calculus and so felt this was a bit remedial.
September 6th 1995 –P-Funk at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. I think this is the first time that see P-Funk. I think I may have gone with Arturo and Lydia but to be honest I cannot remember. But what I do remember is that I was blown away by this concert. I was instantly turned into a huge P-Funk fan.
On my 24th birthday Lydia tells me she has a surprise for me. We are going up to see Phish and she has a quarter ounce of mushrooms in the form of one big mushroom. We split that one big mushroom. We drive up there and I am shrooming good and hard. I was never really into Phish and I felt bad for the Deadheads who were trying to find a new home. I had heard that Phish was breaking up their tour dates to make it very hard to follow them like people did with the dead but then when we got in and the band started a chess game with the audience. I was very confused.
At one point during the show, in between songs, everyone all at once starts to sing happy birthday and I lose my mind. It is my birthday and the entire Shoreline Amphitheater is now singing happy birthday. At this point my birthday is a closely guarded secret that I reveal to only a select few. I really don’t want people to know and so I am very unnerved by this experience. It turns out that I have the same birthday as one of the members of Phish, which I found out when the crowd got to ‘happy birthday dear…Phish band member’ and then I found the entire thing very funny. How easy it is to slip into the assumption that you yourself are the star of the movie! I was just an extra in this production.
I start to panic, my palms are getting sweaty and then Phish sing ‘we’re glad, glad, glad that you’re alive’ and I agreed and calmed down. I also remember vaguely liking ‘run like an antelope out of control’ but I mostly felt that their music was not fun to dance to.
I really don’t remember how any of this came about but at some point we all have to leave the house we were living in. I think we were evicted from the house but I actually don’t recall. I do remember that I was getting sick of the death metal scene and all of the meth that was showing up there. I had done meth a few times and I was always very impressed with my drumming ability while playing on it but I had seen people really hit rock bottom on it and I didn’t like how long it lasted for. After seeing Shival on Orange Sunshine and the happy mud covered faces of cute girls and then comparing that to the blood soaked faces of angry men slam dancing to a band called Suffocation (or whatever) I wanted the former. Death Metal seemed like a dead end and school was opening up new horizons. I did not want to stop and so I quit my death metal band (which did not go over well) and decided to focus 100% on school.
I had a friend who told me about a job opening up at a local mortuary. It was free rent and decent money, and at a mortuary? I was intrigued.