Health Class

January 5, 2011

Post-Museum Trippy Lessons on Drugs

Last Sunday, I took my 11-year old to see the recent exhibit at our local museum called “Psychedelic Art: Hallucinogens and their Impact on the Art of the 1960s.”

I could hardly have been less prepared….

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The other day Monkey came home wanting to know how old I was when I learned about HIV/AIDS.  (He’s learning a lot in his 6th grade Health class.)

I told him I learned about HIV/AIDS at the end of high school, that I vividly remembered the Surgeon General at the time, the white-bearded C. Everett Koop, coming on television in 1985 to talk to the American people and explain how scientists believed the disease was being transmitted.

“It was a scary time,” I said. “People were getting AIDS from blood transfusions and worrying you could get if from kissing.”

Monkey started schooling me about how HIV/AIDS was a virus that attacked the immune system, that it was not passed via “kiss-spit,” but by blood and urine and other bodily fluids, like sperm. Frankly, I was pretty impressed by what he had learned in school.

“You know,” I said, “HIV/AIDS is still a huge problem in Africa and in other communities. It hasn’t been cured.”

But Monkey didn’t want to talk about the world’s AIDS crisis. He had other designs. Squinting at me from the opposite side of our kitchen island, he turned on me.

Monkey: So when you met daddy you both knew about AIDS?

Me: Yeah, it was pretty big news back then.

Monkey: And you met in what year?

Me: We met in 1990 and started dating in 1993.

Monkey: And when did you get married?

Me: In 1997.

Monkey? So you were together for 4 years before you got married?

Me: Yup.

I could feel his wheels turning. He was going to ask me something big. I held onto to kitchen counter trying to steady myself. Was I going to have to confess that his father and I lived together in New Orleans, that we shared an apartment before we married? And where would that take us? Would he assume we had separate bedrooms? The questioning continued.

Monkey: Did you get AIDS tested?

Me: Can we talk about this when daddy gets home?

Monkey: Answer zee kveschun!

(Actually, he didn’t say it like that. It only felt like I was being interrogated by the Gestapo.)

Me: Yes, we both got tested.

Monkey: Before you got married.

This came out of his mouth as a statement, not as a question, so I didn’t feel the need to tell him that his father and I were AIDS tested about 3 months after we started dating –  waaaaay back in 1993.

But Monkey was satisfied and announced we had acted responsibly and added he planned to wait to have sex until he’d married, too.

I smiled at my 11 year-old son who had grabbed a plum and wandered off to do his science homework. Here, I thought he was about to grill me about safe sex practices and demand to know if his father and I had remained chaste until our wedding night.

I am not ready for that talk.

That same night, I saw an episode of Glee where the father, Burt Hummel talks to his gay son, Kurt, about sex. His monologue was short and sweet and brilliant.

Frankly, I think all parents should be required to memorize this speech before leaving the hospital on the day their child is born so they can use it later.

Here is what Burt Hummel said to his son (with a few gender changes):

For many people, sex is a thing we want to do because it’s fun and it feels good, but we’re not thinking about how it feels on the inside or how the other person feels about it. But it’s more than just the physical. When you’re intimate with someone in that way, you gotta know that you’re exposing yourself … You gotta know that it means something. It’s doing something to you, to your heart, to your self-esteem, even though it feels like you’re just having fun.

When you’re ready, I want you to be able to do everything. But when you’re ready, I want you to use it as a way to connect to another person. Don’t throw yourself around like you don’t matter, because you matter.

Here’s a link to the whole video, if you care to see it.

Watch: Kurt and His Dad Have a Gay Sex Talk on ‘Glee’ Video.

At some point, probably sooner than I think, Monkey might ask me to clarify the status of my virginity prior to marriage. Lord knows, that boy can ask me answer any question that might be roiling around in his brain.

I think I just bought myself a little time.

And next time, we are definitely waiting until his father gets home.

art by Will Goodan

I like museums. Monkey and I have been visiting them since he was very small. When he was around 5-years old, we brought sketch pads and colored pencils and, together, we would roam around local museums until one of us found a piece of something or other that we particularly liked and then we both would sit down and attempt to sketch it out. These days, we leave our paper and pencils behind, but we still like to go to the museums and check out what’s going on. Together, we’ve seen lots of good stuff.

Recently, Monkey’s middle school art club took the students on a field trip, which I had to cut short as he was double-booked and had a conflict.

“I never even got to see the special installation,” he complained as he climbed into the car.

I didn’t know anything about the “special installation,” but I promised him that we would see before it left the museum.

Last Sunday was our last chance to see the show before it left town.

So I inadvertently took my 11-year old to see “Psychedelic Art: Hallucinogens and their Impact on the Art of the 1960s.”

I could hardly have been less prepared.

Space Chase (2006)

For those who might not know, “Psychedelic Art” refers to any kind of visual artwork inspired by psychedelic experiences induced by drugs such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin (i.e: “magic mushrooms”). Inspired by the 1960s counterculture, psychedelic visual arts were a counterpart to psychedelic rock music. Concert posters, album covers, light-shows, underground newspapers and more reflected not only the kaleidoscopically swirling patterns of LSD hallucinations, but also revolutionary political, social and spiritual sentiments inspired by insights derived from these psychedelic states of consciousness.

In the museum, little laminated placards set next to each piece of art explained what inspired the artist and the materials used to create it.

“Look,” announced Monkey pointing to one multimedia collage. “That one has red pills set into it. And little leaves.”

I said little, wondering if, in fact, I should have been saying more.

“What’s that smell?” Monkey asked, sniffing the air.

Somebody had clearly smoked a doobie or two before coming to the museum. It seemed obvious that the scent was coming from the dude standing behind us. I glanced at him as he looked dreamily at the canvas that listed the materials as acrylic paint and hemp.

“Ohhhh,” said Monkey as he read the information card. “Those leaves must be dried out marijuana. ‘Hemp’ is another name for marijuana.”

And weed and blunt and spliff and reefer, I thought to myself, smelling the pot that lingered in the air around the dude’s coat. And ganga and cannabis and a million other synonyms that you don’t need to know about yet.

art by Stella

On the way home it happened.

It always happens in the car.

Monkey always asks the big questions in the car.

“Mom,” Monkey asked. “Everyone says drugs are really bad for you. That you should never do them. But the art people created while they were on drugs was really interesting.”

I braced the wheel, white-knuckled.

“What am I supposed to do with that?” he asked.

I explained to Monkey that the drugs of the 1960s were much weaker than today’s drugs. Since he had recently seen about two minutes of a disturbing episode of Intervention where a man was smoking crystal methamphetamine followed by an OxyContin chaser, I made a point of telling him that neither of those drugs even existed in the 1960s: that in the 1960s, drugs were kind of “home-grown” and meant to mellow people out, while today’s drugs have been designed in laboratories to get people hooked.

I know this is not 100% accurate. LSD was manufactured and (initially) distributed not for profit, but because those who made it truly believed that the psychedelic experience could do good for humanity, that it expanded the mind and could bring understanding and love.

I did not tell this to Monkey.

I did tell him that the art/music/drug experiments of the 1960s went along with the whole counterculture movement that was going on at the time. We discussed the Vietnam War and the Hippie movement. I explained that the people who chose to use the drugs were attempting to enter a kind of mystical world to explore a new kind of art, and – in many cases, they were successful as the drugs helped them to see a different dimension, a world where space was filled with multi-colored geometric shapes and surreal images.

I told him that while some people had good experiences with these drugs, drugs could be dangerous as well. I told him that some people who used hallucinogenic drugs had “bad trips” and that things that were bothering them became exacerbated and all they could do was wait for the drug to wear off – and that sometimes that took up to 8 hours.

Monet's Waterlilies

“I can’t deny that psychedelic art is interesting,” I stressed, “but to me it’s more culturally interesting than artistically interesting. I’d rather look at a great Monet. There is a lot more going on in a Monet than in, say, that random piece of plexiglass we saw on the floor. You know, the one with the piece of wood coming out of it?”

Monkey was quiet. “So just because a few artists made cool art while on drugs doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use drugs.”

“I’d go along with that,” I said breathing again.

I’m not sure I said the right things.

What do you say to your 6th grader when he or she asks about drugs?

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