This week we bring you Chapter 18 of HIGH Confessions of a Cannabis Addict By Leonard Lee Buschel. Leonard Lee Buschel is an American publisher, substance abuse counsellor and co-founder of Writers in Treatment, which supports recovery and the arts, and executive director of REEL Recovery Film Festival, focusing on stories of addiction and recovery. This week, we bring you the Preface to whet your appetite. Follow us weekly for more delicious chapters of this incredible story.
Two Eyes to See, One Ear to Hear
Only in art will the lion lie down with the lamb, and the rose grow without thorn.
No doubt, joining the merchant class in my late teens allowed me to shape my reality into living passionately for the arts. This fire was ignited during my youth; it burns strongly in me today. Frankly, it is unquenchable. Of all my romantic interludes, my number-one mistress has always been Lady Cinema.
A life well lived is like a good movie. Like a movie, life has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. A great movie has conflict, a turning point and a resolution and so does life. During an exciting film, you sit on the edge of your seat, and you don’t leave early. A life well lived is just as engaging and just as riveting and memorable. Such a life is even more satisfying when you’ve spent time watching great movies. Put a silver screen in front of my eyes, and I have no use for a silver spoon in front of my nose.
Movies provide more than entertainment and diversion. The process of making motion pictures involves craftsmanship. The outcome often elevates the craft to artistry. The arts are powerful, reflective, inspirational and motivational. For those reasons, the arts play a pivotal role both in societal changes and in the process of personal transformation. Seeing your own shortcomings and egregious behavior on the screen is profoundly helpful to understanding your life—and deciding to make some changes.
Nothing compares to the experience of surrendering to a motion picture, as it was meant to be experienced enveloped in the darkness of a theater with close friends or surrounded by strangers who are equally transfixed and sharing a collective dream.
Yes, movies are powerful tools for altering perceptions, challenging assumptions and uniting us with universal issues of identity, longing, transformation, coming of age, sin, redemption and vindication.
It’s no surprise that there are a lot of excellent films about great artists who died untimely deaths due to their drug and alcohol use. These films are all worth watching and rewatching. I am thinking of Basquiat, about Jean-Michel Basquiat, with an astounding star-making performance by Jeffrey Wright. Why did Jean-Michel do too much heroin on August 12, 1988?
Then there’s Jackson Pollock, with Ed Harris splashing his talent all over this fantastic and heartbreaking biopic. Why did Jackson have to drink and drive his car into a tree and die on August 11, 1956?
And how about the television production of The Rothko Conspiracy, on American Masters. Mark Rothko (born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, oy vey) brought darkness into the light through art. Sit in the middle of the Rothko room at the Tate Modern and see if you don’t wonder what it’s (life) all about. What made him take a handful of barbiturates and cut the artery in his right arm on February 25, 1970?
In Alcoholics Anonymous, people are often encouraged to write a gratitude list. Books have always been at the top of my list (after family, friends, and pets). Some of the best lessons I learned came not from a classroom but from my favorite authors. They taught me about everything.
With a good book, you can go anywhere. Many years ago, I had an experience waiting in line at the American Express office in Amsterdam. The line was unusually long. As boredom was setting in, I took out my paperback copy of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. Suddenly, there I was with Valentine Michael Smith going on adventures with the human-martian. I didn’t know that the title was from Exodus 2:22, until I recently saw Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston (Moses) says it when he is taken in and comforted by some hip Arabs. The Library of Congress named Heinlein’s Stranger one of the 88 “Books that Shaped America.” And for me, I realized I never had to be bored again as long as I had a book in my hands.
Conversely, two weeks later, I was suffering from a three-day asthma attack, and I found a bed at the free clinic run by student nurses in the Vondelpark. The only book I had with me was H. G. Wells’s Pocket History of the World. It was first published in 1922, right after WWI. I realized the history of the world was about one war after another. I never looked at history like that before, but I guess it’s man’s inhumanity to man that always gets the most attention and not the kindnesses shared between people.
I’ll never forget the experience of reading Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, sitting under a tree on the lawn at Emily Dickenson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. I’m sure the pot I smoked enhanced the moment because I thought I heard Emily inviting me in for tea. As the fickle finger of fate would have it, years later I was the guest speaker at an AA meeting in the Alan Watts room at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. How ironic that there would be an AA meeting room named after Alan Watts since he died of liver disease as the result of too much booze.
I also always had with me Nine Stories, the book of short stories by J. D. Salinger. When he died in 2010, my brother and I were on the phone in tears. Salinger was our adopted father. I’ve adopted quite a few fathers along the way. Not all Jewish. Though I have fallen in love with Philip Roth lately.
Of course, great books also taught me a lot about great people. In December of 1980, I was given a copy of Naked Came I, only because the party host forgot to buy me a proper Christmas gift, and she just removed the book from her library and presented it to me as my gift. I pretended I was thrilled with it. Never intended to read it. You can’t blame me . . . it’s 623 pages long.
On the train home, tired of looking at the passing scenery, I retrieved the book from my luggage on the metal rack above me. It turned out to be a gift from the gods. It’s a fictionalized biography (historical novel) about Auguste Rodin. It portrays Rodin as someone who was driven to be an artist because his desire and temperament would allow him to be nothing else. He was a “born artist.”
Biographies and autobiographies had never really fascinated me, even though an old friend from Logan, who had done some time, told me that the only books he ever took out of the prison library were of this genre. Now I saw why he loved them so much. I read and loved that giant book! I learned about sculpture, life in France in the late 1800s and Rodin’s friends—Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas (not too fond of Jews). I still appreciate how every time Rodin and his wife moved, the first thing she would do on the first day at their new home was plant their vegetable garden (not a single Whole Foods in sight). And when they occasionally had a piece of meat to add to the stew, it was a holiday of gratitude.
In any event, Naked Came I started me on my tear of reading historical novels about artists. I soon discovered Irving Stone. He wrote biographical novels about the three artists I mentioned and about Sigmund Freud, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abigail Adams, Charles Darwin and others.
My favorite Irving Stone book is Depths of Glory, about Impressionistic pioneer Camille Pissarro. After I read this masterwork, I wanted to see every exhibit of Impressionist paintings I could. Knowing the artists’ back stories and their struggles for legitimacy brought the paintings to life. Cézanne said about Pissarro that “he was like a father to me, a man to consult and a little like the good Lord.” (Well, he was Jewish after all.)
It felt as if I were with Camille Pissarro as he influenced his fellow artists to exhibit at the traditional venues and exhibit halls. After being rejected by upper-class society, Pissarro encouraged his poor friends (whose paintings would one day sell for millions) to start an alternative exhibition, the Salon des Refusés, but only after little art lover Napoleon Bonaparte gave them his approval. Later on, during WWI, Germans were walking all over many of his drawings. Oh, those Nazis bastards!
What I wouldn’t have given to have lived in Irving Stone’s mind. My other two favs by Mr. Stone are The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michelangelo) and Lust for Life (Vincent van Gogh).
I never read about George Seurat, but I did see Sunday in the Park with George on Broadway (a couple times). I read that Stephen Sondheim devised the whole play in one day during an epiphanic rush while looking at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte at the Art Institute of Chicago. I accepted the whole premise as fact. Why not? Or maybe it was James Lapine who wrote the book for SUNDAY who had the epiphany.
Paintings are a passion and a pleasure. Early in my sobriety, I was in Chicago for the 1996 BookExpo America at the McCormick Center, playing hooky and going to the Art Institute to see Sunday. Before going in, I had two shots of espresso at a café across the street.
As I entered the hallowed gallery of Impressionism, I was enveloped by Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte. The painting was done in 1877 and is seven-by-nine feet. I burst into tears. First, because I realized I had not been in a museum sober, not high on weed or coke, in 25 years. And because I really thought the couple in the painting was alive. And the street they walked down had just been rained on, or I had fallen into H. G. Wells’s time machine.
What an extraordinary work of art! Was it only now that I could finally see extra lucidly, with no pot in my brain? I used to think I could see more clearly when I was stoned. Clearly, I was mistaken.
And there I was, chilled, goose bumps all over, knowing around the corner was Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Dot dot dot dot dot . . . too many to count. What I saw in the painting and in my now sober soul was akin to some lyrics from Sondheim’s perfect musical:
Standing unadulterated in the windy city, I felt a calm pass through me that defies human understanding. I felt like I was home. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. I’d been high since I was 18. I mean like every-day high. The calm was smooth and sexy to me, like an aphrodisiac. It wasn’t the serenity in the famous Serenity Prayer, which always sounded boring to me, and still does. In fact, I replaced the word serenity with “surrender.” Sounds more proactive.
For reasons mostly apparent to boys in Philly, my first most favorite artist was, and still is, Marcel Duchamp. His major work was the installation piece Etant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, (yes, where Rocky runs up the front steps and raises his hands in victorious jubilation). The English translation of the Duchamp work is The Waterfall and The Illuminating Gas.
At first it just looks like a large wooden barn door. When you approach the piece, all you can see “is a tableau, visible only through a pair of peepholes (one for each eye) in a wooden door, of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, holding a gas lamp in the air in one hand against a landscape backdrop.”
Now slow down your reading, for a second. The point is, in case you missed it, “nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread.” This was the first vagina I ever saw. I had kept my eyes closed during my birth passage.
Thank goodness Mom was very discreet. (Although she did have me fasten her garter belt to her thigh-high stockings before she went out on date night. I was after all the perfect height at six years old. I didn’t have to be on my knees, like in later years.) Once, I engaged with a woman of the night in San Francisco and when I asked her name, she said:
“Rose. Will you help me with my stockings?”
Imagine a class of twenty 15-year-olds on their school trip to the Art Museum. I’ll bet the teachers never had the time to look through the peephole. For you creative types, I must list (again, thank you Wikipedia) the guts of the “assemblage”: [(exterior) wooden door, iron nails, bricks, and stucco; (interior) bricks, velvet, wood, parchment over an armature of lead, steel, brass, synthetic putties and adhesives, aluminum sheet, welded steel-wire screen, and wood; Peg-Board, human hair, oil paint, plastic, steel binder clips, plastic clothespins, twigs, leaves, glass, plywood, brass piano hinge, nails, screws, cotton, collotype prints, acrylic varnish, chalk, graphite, paper, cardboard, tape, pen ink, electric light fixtures, gas lamp (Bec Auer type), foam rubber, cork, electric motor, cookie tin, and linoleum.]
I could tell that Duchamp was different. He didn’t shop for art supplies at Michael’s. No, he shopped at Home Depot. If you ever get to Philly, don’t miss it.
I have a little secret for you. I have my own amazing collection of Impressionist art: Manet’s The Ragpicker, Degas’s Woman Ironing, Van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant. My favorite is by Matisse, The Black Shawl. His Italian model, Lorette, wrapped in a sexy mantilla. Definition? It’s a lace or silk scarf worn by women over the hair and shoulders, especially in Spain. She is lying on an oriental carpet composed of the most exotic red I have ever seen. By the way, I also have The Thinker by Rodin. I keep that giant paperweight outside. It never snows in Pasadena, so in any season, I can sit and gaze at the statue and think about how blessed I was to get that copy of Naked Came I years ago.
I live only 13 miles from Pasadena, which is fortunate because that’s where I keep my collection . . . at the Norton Simon Museum. I could never afford the insurance. I visit that collection when I have guests in from out of town, after I have been sacked from a job or after a love affair has gone to seed or imploded. The collection offers me solace when I feel defeated and reminds me that reality is still just what you make it.
So, I have saved this next part of my reality until now because I hate to admit that my love of art probably started in the 1960s with psychedelic posters. Peter Max, anyone? When I would go to Jerry’s Records, there would be posters lining the walls. They cost a dollar or two, and they jumped right out at you. Some were reprints of famous paintings. Yes, there were some done in Day-Glo. Yes, I had a black light. And then came the artists from San Francisco, whose concert posters were artworks dazzling, colorful and phantasmal. This was the first time I ever bought a work of art—unframed, of course. For a dollar.
The first fine art I ever bought was years later at the historic, monumental and sorely missed Sausalito flea market. It was an original photo by Ed Buryn, taken to illustrate his best-selling book, Vagabonding in Europe. It was several hundred dollars, but thanks to drug dealing, I could afford to splurge. It still hangs in my living room today. The photo is of a large poster of Count Basie, glued to a wall in Copenhagen, and he’s pointing toward the wall next to him, which has written on it, “jaz,” next to a woman and her bike. Her face, the bike and “jaz” are hand painted by the photographer. Looking at it reminds me of so many of the things I hold dear in this lifetime.
Rounding out my cultural passion is . . . let’s not forget . . . music, and not necessarily of the siren’s kind. While the mythological sirens were dangerous creatures who lured sailors with their enchanting music only to cause shipwrecks off the rocky coast, music has never shipwrecked me. The right music can move me to tears or play with my emotions like a fiddle. The right music can free me from the reality of death and remind me of my mortality simultaneously. And music can, in a timeless instant, connect as one, a sea of concertgoers who start out as strangers, creating in them a bond that lasts well after their ears stop ringing. Collective unconscious made into a conscious oneness, through music. What wouldn’t you give to have that experience, unless feeling the oneness is just not your thing? It’s scary to lose your ego, even temporarily.
It’s even scarier to lose your hearing. In 2014 I learned I was growing a tumor on the left side of my brain. Countless MRIs later, the brain surgeon told me if the tumor hit my brain, I would stop breathing because that part of the brain controls the functioning of the lungs. Eventually I had to have brain surgery to remove the acoustic neuroma before it removed me from existence. It was necessary to cut a hole in my head to pluck out the little bastard. I was concerned that my brain was about to get fresh air, (no, not Terri Gross interview radio show). I wasn’t sure it really needed fresh air. I really didn’t want to get the surgery, but I knew how much it mattered. Gray mattered. It was never a question of black and white, unless you consider living and dying black and white.
When they took out the neuroma, they removed the hearing mechanism (the hearing canal) from the left side of my head. Completely. I have no hearing in my left ear. NONE. You could shoot off a .38 special next to my ear and nothing. The lone critter on Earth that has only a unilateral hearing system is . . . the praying mantis. I am in good company. I hope people know it would be bad luck to kill me too.
When John Taylor, cofounder of Duran Duran, heard about my surgery, he was kind enough to give me a complete set of Beatles CDs, all originally mixed in mono (except Abbey Road).
Few days goes by without mourning the fact that my love for music has been seriously diminished. It’s no longer enjoyable to go to a concert, symphony or jazz club. The right ear has over compensated, so I hear things louder than most in my good ear, which makes me recoil at sirens, backfires, noisy people in restaurants, and overly loud trailers in movie theaters.
The left side of my head feels numb at concerts. I still go occasionally when a friend is performing or someone needs a ride or company. I haven’t stopped seeing Broadway musicals. Thank God the deafness is not so noticeable in movie theaters or at stage productions.
Some of the absolute best times in my entire life were at rock and jazz concerts. Not just Hendrix, Bob Marley and Miles Davis but amazing bar bands around the world. And blasting music in my car for inspiration and spiritual salvation. It just doesn’t do that for me anymore. When I try, it just makes the left side of my head feel dead. Bummer.
Van, do you have anything to say about this?
Rave on John Donne
Tonight, ‘neath the silvery moon, tonight
Tonight, ‘neath the silvery moon, tonight
And the leaves, shaking on the trees, in the cool, summer breeze
And the people passing, in the street
And everybody that you meet, tonight
You will understand the oneness
Tonight, you will understand the one
Tonight, ‘neath the silvery moon, tonight
Tonight, let it all begin tonight
You will understand
WORDS and MUSIC by VAN MORRISON Caledonia Music
I’ve seen Van Morrison dozens of times in small clubs and large outdoor venues. He is like a God to me. My favorite composer, singer, curmudgeon musician of all time. I will mourn his passing like losing a best friend. When Dylan kicks, I will just feel sad.
My first concert after rehab was the Rolling Stones playing outdoors at the Oakland Coliseum, with Seal as the opening act. I had bought the tickets before going away to Betty Ford. The night of the concert, I was in a bad mood because my girlfriend, Melissa, had broken up with me again that afternoon. I was also afraid that even one whiff of weed might make me start craving marijuana and reach for a random joint being passed around near me. Before I got there, I wrapped a thick winter scarf around my face so I wouldn’t breathe in the marijuana smoke. I was only 35 days clean. I didn’t know how easy it would be for me to return to my 26-year-old habit of daily pot smoking. How much did I love pot? Let Cole Porter answer that:
Night and day, you are the one
Only you beneath the moon and under the sun
Whether near me or far
It’s no matter, darling, where you are
I think of you night and day, day and night.
Now, I can walk around a reggae club, and the smell of pot doesn’t faze me at all. The gift of long-term sobriety. You don’t have to avoid anyone or anywhere.
After getting clean and sober, the second concert I attended was Carlos Santana at the Fillmore West. By the time a couple of songs were played, I started crying, streaming tears of joy. I was stoned every other time I had seen Santana. This time, I was sober and amazed that the music still sounded as beautiful. I felt a neighborly connection to Carlos because we both frequented the same breakfast diner, Bubba’s, in our little cozy hamlet of San Anselmo. Other regulars included Ram Dass and Ron Kovic of Born on the Fourth of July fame. I heard while I was at Betty Ford, Ron was constantly cruising up to my girlfriend Melissa and trying to pick her up. Fat chance.
Music has been my companion on my journey to recovery. Reality is indeed anything you can imagine, anything you can make it. Once in a while, I will click Anonymous 4—An English Ladymass on my playlist and set it on autorepeat. Anonymous 4 was an American female a cappella quartet. Their main performance genre was medieval music. Surrounding myself with Gregorian chants for five hours does indeed make my reality my reality.
You can buy a copy of Leonards book HERE