I was the guy in high school whom each of my friends blamed when their parents found their bongs.
I wasn’t exactly my high school’s Dr. Braino, but by age 15 I was headed in that direction. I talked about cannabis, read about it, listened to songs about it and evoked it all directly and indirectly through my personal style. If nothing else, I presented myself as someone more than willing to buck conventional wisdom, question authority, and open the doors of perception so that I could be free…without being hassled by the man…and get loaded.
I was a bright kid and a pretty good high school student, but I’d also come to embrace the rebellious and iconoclastic ideas I’d been discovering in underground music, books, magazines, art & culture. I found these themes and messages to be far more interesting and meaningful than what I was learning in school, and the promise of self-realization and existential authenticity made my connection to these messages personal. Admittedly, I was a pretty typical – almost cliché – self-obsessed, aspiring intellectual/teenage rebel with my love of the Beats, Camus/Sartre, Zen, Salinger, Ken Kesey, and counter-culture in general. I had a fantastic record collection of 60s garage and psychedelia, 70s hard rock, punk 45s & new wave galore. During the week I was with my school friends, but on the weekends I went with my counter culture comrades to clubs & concert halls to get wasted and see live music. These were not the friends my parents knew well, and these were not the friends who would rat me out to their parents about cannabis. Cannabis was central to our weekend adventures and to our vision of a different kind of world than the one we inherited. In contrast, my high school friends waxed poetic about the herb, but it was with a wink and a nod, and fell short when challenged by their parents. When their rigs and stashes were discovered by mom and dad, their poems turned to pleas as they caved, hypocrites all, and blamed a scapegoat, your humble scribe, as the source and owner of their contraband.
I wholly embraced the notion that mind-altering agents like cannabis & psychedelics were essential for attaining a deeper, more meaningful understanding of life. That is what set me apart from those high school friends who fingered me when their parents found their stashes. They flirted with a more superficial & cosmetic association with underground culture, taking a bong rip or two on weekends and wearing a Hendrix or Sex Pistols t-shirt to the mall, whereas I was a true believer and lived it every day. The contrast didn’t occur to me at the time – I just thought of it as being at different rungs in the evolutionary ladder. It never occurred to me that my less evolved friends would use my openness to exculpate themselves while burying me under what ought to be their parental juggernaut.
It surprised me at first to hear from time to time that one friend or another had falsely ratted me out to his parents. It seemed like my high school pals had all agreed on a readymade conspiracy to blame me should they get caught. To their parents, each of them reflexively disavowed any connection to marijuana other than that I, a supposed friend, had convinced them to try it. “It’s not mine! It is HIS!” they lied. “HE pressured me to do it”. Another lie. And yet it was convincing because it was exactly what their parents wanted to hear. “What a relief!” they silently exclaimed. “No thugs in our house!” . Their parents actually took a bit of delight in my scapegoating, a little schaudenfreude at my downfall, because I lived the counterculture life and didn’t care about consequences. They were quick to differentiate between their own innocent, destined-for-greatness kids, and me, for whom they imagined a wifeless, childless life of minimum-wage earning obesity, kind of like the Comic Book Guy.
My high school friends’ parental discoveries should’ve awoken me to the prospect of what I might say in the event my actual wares were discovered by my own parents. But for some reason, I hadn’t thought about it at all. Did I not imagine my folks one day finding my bong in the house, or my pipe or stash? Didn’t I need a scapegoat to blame when the inevitable happened? I was avoiding the issue. I definitely had enough friends outside of school that my folks would’ve accepted as bad influences, since they really didn’t know them. So why hadn’t I picked one to be my scapegoat? It was a question I would ponder following my parents’ inevitable discovery of my herb smoking.
That inevitability became reality one Tuesday evening when my mom knocked on my bedroom door asking about the burning smell wafting down the hallway, a question I was totally unprepared to answer. The burning smell. The. Burning. Smell. The odor that arises when matter is consumed by fire. In. My. Room. I had stupidly and unforgivably exposed my clandestine consumption, and it was now my turn to face parental inquisitors. In the milliseconds it took to collect myself and formulate a response, I wondered how I had become so arrogant? What had I been trying to prove by sending out smoke signals…from my bedroom…on a school night? Wasn’t it enough to rebel by blasting the entire so-called “anti-parent” Damaged album? Apparently not. For some impulsive, arrogant, careless reason, I had lit up the bong in my bedroom, effectively revealing to my parents that I smoked marijuana.
But just as soon as I had accepted my fate, in that instant, I realized that I had an out. See, mom hadn’t asked specifically about herb. She hadn’t come in my room and she hadn’t seen a bong or a pipe. She hadn’t seen anything, standing on the other side of my closed bedroom door. She had asked only about the burning smell. So in my unplanned for, instantly conceived and blurted out response, I quickly
blamed…matches. I lied and said that I had been burning matches. Not my fault. It was the matches. I felt like an idiot for proffering such an obvious lie, but as I stood at my door and steadied myself for invasion and investigation, I only heard a bland “Oh” and the sound of my mom walking away. I was stunned. How, I wondered, was I able to get away with blaming an innocent book of matches, when all my school friends were getting nailed and blaming me?
In retrospect, it isn’t so hard to figure out. First of all, my mom didn’t come in my room – she just knocked on the door – so matches were plausible. Second, my mom had only been exposed to cannabis once, decades before, and had declined to partake. That piney, citrusy, skunky aroma just wasn’t familiar to her. At first I was relieved that my mom’s passive response had made the deception easier. But then I began to have doubts. If my mom had been more intrusive, cornering me with the goods and exposing my guilt, I could’ve blamed it on any of my friends. Might not have been as believable as when I was the one blamed, but my parents would want to believe the best about me and would probably accept my excuse. But unlike my high school friends, I didn’t blame anyone else for the burning smell or anything else. It didn’t even occur to me. Even if mom had burst in and caught me in flagrante delicto, I wouldn’t have named names. It would’ve felt worse to malign a friend than to own the moment, myself, and deal with the fallout. Perhaps most significantly, even though I was only 15 or so, I had already rationalized marijuana indulgence as a benign (my grades were good) and believed in what I was doing. When my friends were looking for outs to escape punishment, I was looking for more ways to make cannabis a part of my personal journey.
And yet when I was caught and had the opportunity to admit, if not champion, my embrace of herb, I caved, too. I lied. Didn’t plan it or think deeply about it. Just a reflexive lie. But in caving, my lie was of a very different sort than that of my tattling friends. My mom hadn’t found my bong, pipe or stash, nor did she catch me in the act. Thus, even if I were the type to rat out a friend, there wouldn’t have been anything to rat out. I lied with the matches excuse to save my parents the headache of confronting the cannabis issue. Or perhaps I lied to save myself the headache of having to explain myself to my parents. If I was only burning matches, then it was like nothing happened. I could’ve left it there. But, being the hyper-analytical guy that I am and have always been, in the seconds that followed my clever deception, I was overcome with the realization that my lie seemed to me a pretty weak and obvious lie. I wondered to myself why on earth I would be burning matches in my bedroom on a Tuesday night when I’m supposed to be doing my Geometry homework. Who would believe it? The stupidity of it all floored me, but my mom had just said, “Oh”, and walked away. That was it. There was no follow-up from mom. No skepticism. It was as if the reality of me smoking marijuana in the house – or perhaps at all – just hadn’t occurred to her.
My mom’s muted response was overwhelming in what she didn’t say, or accuse, and it really threw me off. I felt like a junior Dupin, overanalyzing my adversary’s strategy through reverse psychology and double-deception, coming up with the explanation but then second-guessing it and choosing the opposite. A fake out of a fake out of a fake out. But as much as I’d have loved to find that mom was deceiving and in fact trolling me with a sleek 3D chess move, leaving me feeling like I’d gotten away with something only to trip me up later, it just wasn’t like her to play the game that way. There was no way she had outsmarted me. And yet by quickly walking away and leaving me to my thoughts, she left me in grave doubt of the legitimacy of my match-burning excuse. It was so preposterous, such an obvious prevarication, that I felt the need to come clean. Thus, in my stoned overthinking, I decided to clarify my remarks to my mom and not sound so lame with that flimsy excuse. It was a brilliant plan, I thought. Either way, I believed that marijuana was positive and productive, and I wasn’t down with the prospect of playing cerebral ju-jitsu with mom in the event she had outsmarted me.
In feeling the need to come clean with mom, I was motivated by paranoia and guilt about my lying rather than anything to do with cannabis, per se. Preparing to clear the air, I took some deep breaths and, after a few moments of calm reflection, built up the nerve to own my activities and my identity…to be accountable for whom I was and what I had chosen to do. I took a final deep breath, marched straight across the hall, knocked on my parents’ bedroom door, and went in like George Washington after the cherry tree, proudly and firmly announcing, “I cannot tell a lie, I was smoking pot in my bedroom.”
It was hard to believe what I was hearing as the words tumbled forth. I stared at mom as she took in my admission. She thought about it silently for a moment and then another “Oh”, and after a brief pause, a request not to smoke in the house anymore. I couldn’t believe the calm reception I was getting and quickly responded, “O.K.” It didn’t feel like all of a sudden I’d earned parental approval of my marijuana use, but it did feel like this was an issue that could be discussed without fearing retribution. Mom talked about the one time her cousin and some friends were going to smoke, way back in the 60s, but that she declined the offer to partake. And that was it. My parents didn’t realize what I was up to because they had absolutely no familiarity with it, and perhaps because they didn’t realize how ubiquitous it was amongst kids my age. Mom ended the chat with a, “I’ll have to talk to your father about this,” which I accepted and then left. I can’t recall when I first spoke with my dad about it. I do remember arguing that my good grades demonstrated my ability to handle marijuana and my dad frustrated and disappointed at my inability to see the big picture – that all drugs were bad. Period.
I don’t think I was ever punished for my crime. Don’t they say the cover up is worse? Transparency seemed to be my advocate, and I always tried to be honest with my parents, up to a point. There are some things parents just don’t want to know. I suppose mom and dad could’ve grounded me, but I was getting too old for that. I’m not sure they ever found my foot high sunburst plastic bong, whether hidden in the little attic off of my bedroom, or in the trunk of my Chevy. I probably kept it in the Chevy after ceasing the in-house hot-boxing, and my folks never did catch me in the act or find anything in the house. Looking back, I’m happy to have outed myself rather than scapegoat a friend. Mom & dad were born a couple of years too early for the 60s counter-culture movements and thus were not prepared for that counter-culture coming home to roost with their kids in the 80s. I’m grateful they weren’t the kind of parents to enact heavy discipline, or the kind that would leave me feeling like I had to scapegoat a friend to save my ass. In hindsight, I wish I’d focused on school a little more and stayed high a little less, but my life as it is now couldn’t be better, and I wouldn’t change a thing. And if the day comes when there’s a burning smell coming from either of my teenaged kids’ bedrooms, I won’t pressure them to scapegoat anyone, but I will talk about adolescent brain development, about the law, about choices that we are empowered to make as adults, and about being accountable for those choices. I would not be as passive or as clueless as my parents were. I would be skeptical and want to see the source of the burning smell, myself. But whatever I found, I would be understanding and supportive, just as my parents were and are. Ironically, as cannabis has become legal here in California, I don’t see the same kind of counter-culture embrace in my kids that I experienced in the 1980s, and I don’t see the same kind of fascination with drugs in general. At least amongst the kids in my home. And that’s a good thing for now.