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Waterfalls, Synesthesia, Union Square Travel Agency
On Friday afternoon I drove up to the Catskills for a friend’s bachelor party. It was more of a hallucination weekend than a blackout weekend.
The peak of the trip was an 8-mile hike to Kaaterskill Falls, an upstate New York gem that became the object of affection for “The Hudson River School” (of landscape painting) 198 years ago. From a 10 foot cantilevered wooden plank I saw the canopies bend and swirl in exaggerated motions. I wasn’t on drugs though; the waterfall itself generates illusions if you look at it right.
August 12th, 2023 11:33 AM (ET)
Whenever at a waterfall, I’ll stare at it for 1-2 minutes. Instead of seeing it as a whole object, I try to see it as hundreds of individual currents of water. It takes focus. Then I look away and the woods look like they’re breathing. There’s definitely a technique to it. Sometimes it only lasts a second. Sometimes a minute. Sometimes it turns my gaze telekinetic where anything I look at propels 60 feet up into the air. It’s a visual puzzle. A perception hack. I feel like I’m at a James Turrell exhibit.
This is called the “motion aftereffect.” It’s nature’s version of those YouTube videos where you stare into a spiral for 60 seconds and then look away and everything looks trippy bro. It’s a mushroom simulator, but only for the shallow visual distortions. It’s a rational and explainable optical illusion; but it can’t recreate the “self-transforming” objects from the subconscious. For that, you need to actually get stoned.
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Around a campfire the night before, we passed around “Gazzurple” and “Poddy Mouth,” strains of weed legally grown and sold in New York. I have a long and tricky history with weed. It’s rarely a chill-and-relax situation. I’m blessed with weak tolerance, and so a few hits can spiral me in good or bad directions. Marijuana has given me both life-changing introspections and delusional thoughts, creative breakthroughs and physical discomfort, transcendent visions and multi-day panic attacks. Usually the good outweighs the bad, but I’ve been in a weed funk since the pandemic (less insight, more paranoia). I haven’t smoked in 6 months, but I was eager to give it another chance.
August 11th, 2023 9:23 PM (ET)
2-3 hits off the Pax. Was doing a simple, soft beatbox with my mouth (something I often do without realizing) but then the “rendering engine” kicked in. I could hear my lips as a full drum set. Other sounds came in, and it started warping, from a Ty Segal grunge song, into an acoustic Grizzly Bear picking pattern in open-tuning, onto the next thing, and the next thing. And as it changed, I could see it: colors, forms, and motion, fast and erratic, like some kind of synesthesia. I wasn’t actively daydreaming songs, it was just this wild beautiful self-transforming thing I could hear and watch, warping time signatures, and shifting through inconceivable timbres. It was alien. It wasn’t a “song” with repeating motifs. It was this sonic self-destructive force that would shimmer for 5-10 seconds before collapsing into the next thing. It was like a sonic collage, or an extra-terrestrial radio. Imagine a beautiful pattern mutating into violent nuclear noise, but then it all converges into a tight sliver, a blue highway in dark silent space, that grows forward to the sound of a silky-falsetto-out-of-tune cello, resetting time so a straight 4/4 krautrock beat fades in, with a face popping through the road on every snare hit. It’s impossible to transcribe. The second you think, or the second someone talks, it disappears.
“How is it?” [Short pause. Reaching for words. Cycling through explanations.] “I’m hallucinating music?”
I immediately thought, alright, I need to go to the dispensary and get this exact strain so I can test it in my writing practice. When I enjoyed weed (college and beyond), I typically did it with intention. Similar to how people will have a cup of coffee before a day at the office, I would take a few hits before a 3-hour jam session, or the night before an architectural deadline where I needed a design miracle. All my publishing in the last 3 years (other than this post) have been written and edited sober (as far as I can remember). If I commit to a daily weed habit over the next 3 years, would my craft evolve differently than if I stayed sober?
People are quick to label weed with universal effects. The couch-lock. The auto-munchies. The lazy-poison. To my mother, it’s a “drug,” in the same class as heroin, roach-poison, and Tranq. People will tell you with certainty that weed does this or that, but it’s actually a shape-shifter. The dose, the strain, your age, your health, your genetics, your highly intricate endocannabinoid system that I won’t pretend to understand, your setting, your mindset — these all fuse together to create specific experiences. Meaning, weed is half-chemistry and half-hypnosis. Weed doesn’t inherently breed creative epiphanies, but if that’s your expectation and goal, it might. To the self-suggestible, weed is programmable.
But the chemistry is real, and hard to pin down if your source is some faceless 17-year old who baked an indeterminate amount of weed into an indeterminate amount of butter, and the only data you have on it is the second-hand promise: “this is good shit.” It’s a different world with dispensaries.
I headed to “Union Square Travel Agency,” one of the first places to source weed from New York farms instead of California. The space was surrounded by a construction fence because they’re working on a triple-height “Apple Store for weed” destination. This was the moment the younger version of myself dreamed of. It’s been a long 95 years of weed prohibition, and I’m lucky to have caught the end of it. In “Tales of Beatnick Glory” by Ed Sanders, he writes about police raiding NY poetry cafes in the 50s to arrest artists for marijuana possession. Now here I am, surrounded by helpful pot clerks, branded weed in every consumable form factor you can imagine, light displays, tablets, and credit card machines.
August 15th, 2023 12:07 PM (ET)
Even though I’ve bought weed through a tablet before, this was my first time doing it through a 35” vertical touch screen in my birth state. On the left was an intricate set of filters where I could search by delivery mechanism (flower, wax, edible), potency (20% or 70% THC?), brand, strain, and even effects (”creative,” “focused,” “inspired”). Through an Amazon interface, you get to design your consciousness. I appreciated the control you had over quantity too. I got an 1/8th oz. of Poddy Mouth, a dime page of Sour Glue, a 2 pack of edibles, and 2 loose cans of infused lemonade. Laughably restrained, but since this place isn’t far, I can get low quantities, try different things, log the effects, and build a practice around it. $71.85 total, with $9.34 in taxes. For the price of 1 night of stupid cocktails, I have weeks worth of low-grade mind-altering writing lube.
After that I met up with a writing friend passing through from Milwaukee to Brussels. We had winding talks and winding walks that ended up in a Barnes and Noble; my first time back to a big chain book store since the GPT craze. I took pictures of books, and pictures of tables of books, knowing I could get 180 gists per hour without having to cram my backpack. I did leave with 4 physical books though; books with great prose, short lengths, or daily intervals:
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (a Kurt Vonnegut book, 27 pages in, a riot)
Be Here Now (source material from the 60s, wisdom rendered in hippy lingo)
The Daily Stoic (Ryan Holliday)
Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions
The books cost more than the weed. For under $200, including the train tickets, I went into the city, stocked up on a month’s worth of inspiration, and commuted home. Associating weed with books makes it feel less like a hooligan hobby. The irony is that in high school the codeword for sneaking out to smoke was “going to the library,” except nobody read anything.
Let’s riff about:
Perception hacks (from waterfalls, visualizers, to James Turrell)
Weed (legalization, effects on you, in the creative process)
Bookstores (strategies, in the age of AI, physical vs. digital)