We had been drawn to stay together out on the streets while we had a common destination, but now here in the museum with its random array of rooms full of Van Gogh’s works, it was a very different dynamic. It really didn’t work for four people, even in a kind of stoned peas in a pod mode, to experience each painting together. The level of interest in a particular canvass was bound to vary, and the more personal one on one with a work of art, particularly when one was high, which was such an involving and intimate experience. Also a lot of Van Gogh’s paintings were on the small side, making it hard for more than one or two people to look at a canvass at the same time. So we soon drifted apart, each of us drawn to different canvasses in different rooms of the museum.
Van Gogh had such a unique style and look to his work. Many of his paintings were flowing waving lines, particularly when you got up close to them. His portraits seemed very intense and intimate, like the subject of the painting saw you and was about to say something profound. Even his ostensibly placid country scenes had so much motion and energy in the fields and the skies, a sense of great tension in some of them. The ones I liked best were the scenes with the little buildings, tiny people, and big waving fields of grass and violent sky. Maybe they seemed tranquil to some because the human element, the houses and people, were so peaceful contrasted to the intensity of the lines of grass and sky.
With my love of interior spaces, my buzzing brain was captivated by and drawn into “Bedroom in Arles”. The simply laid out room looked so cozy and inviting. As I gazed at it my mind wandered to my own bedroom upstairs in our house, with my own casement window looking out across the street at the park and my old elementary school. The thought danced through my brain that just a week from tonight I should actually be sleeping in it again. It was an invigorating thought, I so wanted to get home.
Then “Wheat Field with a Lark” captured my attention. The energy of the blowing grain and the sky full of tiny clouds. I recall my mom showing me many of these paintings in her various art books, and telling me that though Van Gogh painted scenes of real life, his paintings “worked” at an abstract level as well. I remembered her showing me a print of this painting in particular, noting the three bands of form – cut grass, tall wheat, and sky – each of increasing height relative to the band below, and noting how crucial the tiny black form of the lark was to giving the painting its synergy of form, line and “negative space”. She would hold the tip of her little finger over the tiny black shape of the lark, and then note that the painting no longer “worked”. But seeing the actual painting now, with its raised strokes of paint on the canvas, and not just the flat representation on the page of her art book, seemed to incant the thing with incredible energy.
I knew you were not supposed to touch the paintings, but with my ever craving for sensual intimacy I could not resist just once. I waited for when the docent and no one else was looking as I moved in close to the canvas, the paint piled on it seemed positively geographic. I reached out with my finger and gently caressed a little stroke of white cloud, the hardened, brittle old pigment like a scar on a wound that had not yet healed.
Then I came across Gwendolyn, with her back to me, standing alone in a room staring at “Wheat Field with Crows”, maybe just a foot in front of her. She had pinned her big mane of hair up into a fairly tight bun on the top of her head, so I could see the shape of her head, neck and her broad shoulders, her head slowly oscillating from side to side as she pondered the thing. Her hands were on her hips, her butt nicely pear-shaped in her jeans, and her left leg and butt cheek quivered as she tapped her toes on the floor. Some sort of nervous habit, like the way I would bounce my heel when I was sitting on a chair with both feet on the floor. I thought it gave her character, a sort of pensive energy, not unlike Van Gogh’s portraits, that I found intriguing, and a thrill to watch unnoticed for the moment.
I could see the tiny tensing of muscles in her neck as she sensed someone behind her. She rotated her head just enough to identify me in her peripheral vision, and without turning to actually look at me or speaking and smashing the quiet thrall of the place, she held out her hand and waved me up to join her. I walked up next to her, choosing to come in close, my left shoulder just a half inch from her right, hoping that she might adjust herself and our shoulders would touch. I paralleled her exactly, staring at the picture. Still buzzing from the hash and now walloped by all the beer, and though we were not physically touching, I could feel our energies prickle against each other as she straightened up and rolled her shoulders slightly back in reaction to my approach.
I sensed she liked me and was comfortable having me physically close to her. I certainly was developing a thing for her, particularly since she so brazenly grabbed my poncho on the walk here from the brewery to get my attention, and then was willing to own up to her assertiveness. Of course she had her boyfriend Burton, but that was not an issue, since I wasn’t going to actually hit on her, but with both our shields down there was still an opportunity for some sort of deeper connection.
Being shy me, I don’t recall ever “hitting on” a young women I was attracted to, even the ones, unlike Gwendolyn, who did not have a boyfriend. I had my patented subtler approach of listening and saying the right thing to acknowledge a female comrade, more like a trusted girlfriend than a prowling male, even a friendly prowling male. Of course, even if the female type person didn’t have a boyfriend, my approach wasn’t on any sort of path to getting in their pants, but it did often lead to at least some moments of real intimacy which I craved. I approached Gwendolyn now hoping for a dose of that sort of intimacy.
Still staring at the picture but tilting her head in my direction conspiratorially, she asked quietly, “Did your mom ever tell you about this one, ‘Wheat Field with Crows’?”, then indicating it was her all time favorite of his body of work. She said “about” with that faint Canadian drawl that sounded more like “a boot”, making her seem that much more exotic, and endeared her to me that much more.
I almost lied and said yes, just to draw her in more, wanting to hear me share my mom’s artist wisdom, which I would then have had to make up. Instead I went with the more honest no, but then invoked my mom anyway, saying that if she were here she would have her face right up to the picture studying the paint strokes, trying to determine the technique, if they were rendered with paint brush or palette knife. I moved into the painting even closer and Gwendolyn followed suit. It was barely big enough for both of us to engage it so intimately, and the wannabe artist’s shoulder pressed against mine in the process. That contact was electric, and the libidinal energy shot through my body and continued to percolate in my inebriated brain. I was careful in that moment not to acknowledge the contact in any way, either verbally or nonverbally, as attention to it might break the spell and cause her to pull away. She deliciously did not acknowledge it either. The hashish still messing with my time sense, it seemed forever that with our shoulders touched, and we studied the surface of the painting together, the content of wheat field, sky and crows giving way to the pure form of strokes of now hardened paint piled on top of the canvas, our shared intimate voyage of discovery through the terrain of the artist’s work.
We were now, at least for this moment, kindred spirits, until the spell somehow would be broken. We proceeded together to move about the gallery and engage the various self-portraits of Van Gogh. He seemed obsessed with painting his own face, and there were at least eight of those likenesses of him on display, and apparently many more in other collections around the world. In each he stared at you from the canvas looking like something was definitely on his mind. Along with paint brush versus palette knife, Gwendolyn and I debated in hushed voices whether that intense look of his was more fear, menace, questioning, or deep understanding.
Apparently while she and I had been exploring the intimate geography of the great artist’s painted canvases, Butch and her boyfriend were continuing to indulge in their fundamental political argument about privilege, in hushed voices and that playful overly esoteric way that stoned people can. As we reengaged with them after our own less contentious exploration of Van Gogh’s obsession with himself, Butch explained to us that their argument had rekindled around the artist’s “The Potato Eaters”. The painting depicted five rather homely, salt of the earth white peasants at the dinner table, presumably eating the fruits from their own toiling of the soil, the artist’s homage to their unpretentious and honest labor.
According to Butch’s blow by blow, delivered in what seemed like a practiced quiet modulation appropriate to the place we were in, Burton had noted that though the peasants were obviously white, what “privilege” did they have as lowly peasants. With that “gauntlet flung unceremoniously at my feet”, Butch made the argument that they indeed still had the privilege of their race, and though low in the pecking order, they still were above a black laborer, who even in the late 19th century would still be viewed as little more than a freed slave.
Really lampooning himself at this point, Butch said that he proceeded to “harangue” Burton on W. E. B. DuBois first framing the concept of white privilege in his essay “The Souls of Black Folk”. That while black and brown people were very aware of racial discrimination, most white people did not give it a second thought. Further, Dubois spoke of the “wages of whiteness”, which included at least a minimum of courtesy, unimpeded access to all public functions, leniency in court, plus access to the best schools granted to, in Butch’s words though not Dubois, the “pale of skin”. Listening and grimacing at Butch’s recap, Burton rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Noting Burton’s response, Butch winked at him and put his hand on his Canadian comrade’s shoulder, proceeding then to call out (still in quiet voice) Burton’s “well played” argument that it was Americans, particularly white Americans, that were infatuated with being a “chosen people”. Canadians were not so “infected by that disease”, and being much more down to earth, and less vulnerable to the “addiction” of privilege. Butch looking at me now, me obviously the only white American in the conversation, and eyes twinkling said, “Present company excepted of course!”
The only thing I could think to do was laugh, and it kind of bubbled and burst out of me, way too loud for the museum, a docent and various other museum visitors looking askance in our direction. I was more and more impressed with Butch’s knowledge and facility with words, despite having ingested as much hashish and beer as the rest of us. I pondered whether it was just his exceptional mind, or if this was the sort of rigor of discourse one learned in an elite private school like the one he had attended.
Pondering me now chastened by my noisy outburst, he seemed to read my mind and chuckled, saying, “Well forgive me, I’ve been too well trained by my taskmasters at school to be all bark, while I am at heart your obedient lap dog!” He then bowed to us theatrically, throwing out the olive branch but with his patented dose of sarcasm.
Having listened to his whole monologue, the alcohol still juicing her brain and egging her on to inject herself somehow, Gwendolyn sauntered up to Butch and gave him a gentle slap on the face, saying, “Quit harassing my boyfriend!” Burton laughed, again like me, too loud and drawing the docent and others’ attention, and seconded his girlfriend standing up for him with a “Yeah!”. I followed suit with a “yeah” as well, to playfully pile on. I could see Butch basking in the attention, plus the touch of this vibrant young woman’s hand on his face.
There we were. Four budding young adults, with our various configurations of big hair, in the last throws of the second millennium of our species’ Common Era, enjoying the pleasant effects of the two most popular recreational intoxicants of the age, in a friendly live and let live city, on the delta of one of the planet’s largest rivers, near the eastern shore of one of its great oceans. Together, connected, in the moment, for the moment at least. I of course imagined us all naked together, but that scenario was going to have to play itself out in my own fantasyland.
Butch, ever the alpha setting the agenda, suggested that he would buy us all candy bars if we would just find him a vending machine in the museum or a store right outside the place. We searched the premises as a four person team rather than fanning out, not wanting to separate and break the spell of connection we were all feeling. No vending machine was found, and we donned our colorful ponchos and made our exit of the place, back out into the cold but friendly and now familiar wet kiss of Amsterdam’s drizzle.
We found a newsstand just down the street from the museum that sold candy bars. They had some American classics, like Snickers and Payday, british Cadbury items, and several local chocolate bars. Butch lit up when he saw they had his childhood favorite, the Cadbury “Picnic”, and he insisted that he buy one for each of us. Experiencing that craving that sets upon you towards the end of a cannabis buzz, the three of us unanimously and enthusiastically agreed. It had a red wrapper with a yellow rectangle with the word “PICNIC” in bold black all caps sans-serif type (in a font that decades later I would know as “comic sans”), followed by a cross section view of the candy bar with peanuts exploding out of it. Our thankyous to Butch were telepathic, well at least nonverbal, as we ripped open the wrappers and bit into the nubbly things, not unlike the american Payday, but covered in milk chocolate. Our teeth bit through layers of sweet chocolate, peanuts set in chewy nougat, salty caramel embedded with puffed rice, and in the deepest interior of the core a crunchy biscuit like in an american Kit Kat. Stoner ambrosia indeed.
Butch suggested we smoke some more hash, and Burton and Gwendolyn were immediately on board. Loving the intense in the moment space we were all sharing, I agreed as well, forgetting about my key chore of visiting the BOAC office to reserve my spot on my flight home. We continued walking in the direction of our hostel and found a mostly secluded spot out of the drizzle under a canal bridge along a walkway where the boats were tied. It smelled deliciously dank and nautical and we all sat in a row against the brick side wall of the canal. Butch pulled out the small baggie containing his little metal hash pipe, Bic lighter, broken cigarettes for the tobacco portion, and the little chunks of the concentrated cannabis. He made a little nest of tobacco in the pipe bowl and then set in it a single small chunk of hashish. He lit the tobacco and it burned bright with each of his drags on the pipe, until the resiny chunk began to faintly glow itself. We took our tokes and passed the pipe down the line, Burton on the other end reminded to take two before passing back to Gwendolyn.
We sat there, the four of us in our ponchos, communing quietly with each other and the goddess of this canal city, waiting for the new round of THC to insinuate itself into our brains and the consciousnesses that inhabited those organs. This time I was the first to giggle, my vocalization getting a similar response from all my comrades. A conversation ensued about the boat tied up in front of us, a houseboat with round portals across the front and sides, with steps down to a door into the interior in the back. Was the metal hardware, the hoops and hooks, aluminum or tin, or maybe a silvery brass? Burton and Butch, on either ends of our group, debated that one. Were the sides of the boat’s “house” azure or cyan? Gwendolyn and I argued that one back and forth until Burton burst forth with, “Shut up already!”, and we all laughed. Again, no time sense when you’re stoned. We could have been under that little bridge for twenty minutes or two hours, either would have seemed plausible.
Suddenly I finally remembered that I had to go to the BOAC office and reserve my ticket home, sighed and said, “Ohhhhh shit!”
The three of them looked at me, and Butch then remembered himself that he had suggested we visit the museum to sober up before he accompanied me on my day’s chore. His expletive, “Fuck!”, was delivered with more self-directed anger and guilt. Butch reminded our other two comrades of my unfinished chore, complicated now by being way stoned again. The three of them all agreed to accompany me and help me make my reservation. Of the four of us, only Burton had a watch, and he noted that it was 3:30pm. I had the address of the BOAC office but not how late they were open. If I knew they would be open later, we could have waited to go there, but not knowing when they closed we agreed to head right over and get the task done somehow.
Luckily, it was maybe a twenty minute walk from our little bridge to the office, so we did not need to try and figure out any bus routes. When we got to the place it was open but closing soon. It was a storefront little office with a couple of agents behind a counter and a handful of people waiting in line to take care of their business. My three comrades got in line behind me. I felt that we stuck out like sore thumbs with our bright ponchos and wild hair, though Gwendolyn’s was more restrained today in its big tight bun. Other than my comrades, I tried not to look at the other people in line for any length of time for fear that they would divine that I was high. Those other people seemed not to give us too much notice, the city I guess being always full of our ilk.
When the agent finally called me up, I could feel my discomfort level spike. I recalled the anxiety I had felt when I had made the mistake of getting high in college before a play rehearsal, and how I had messed up my lines several times and the director gave me a hard time, just short I thought of figuring out I was stoned and perhaps throwing a fit or even kicking me out of the show. After that I had vowed to never do a rehearsal or go to a class high.
The agent was a twenty-something woman with short well coiffed hair and a natty blue BOAC uniform and a little blue cap. My three comrades, all in their ponchos like me, Butch with his two wild exploding pigtails, approached the counter and arrayed behind me.
“How can I help you?” she asked, pleasant enough but with what I thought was a very aristocratic british accent, scanning all four of our faces and then focusing her attention on mine. I stumbled over my words but composed myself and said that I wanted to reserve my flight home from London on December 11th. I was conscious of not wanting to stare at her for fear she might realize that I was stoned. Butch nodded at the agent as if vouching for me. She looked at him quizzically.
Looking at me again she queried, “May I see your ticket please?” a bit too officiously, which caused my anxiety to rise. I suddenly couldn’t remember if I had my ticket with me, and looked at her dumbfounded for what felt like a long time, mumbling “umm”, until it suddenly struck me that my ticket was in my money belt with all my travelers checks, passport, rail pass, and other important documents, strapped around my waist and tucked in my pants. Damn, I thought, if only I had gotten that ticket out before she called me up to the counter, now I have to untuck my shirt and reach into the front of my pants to get it.
“Just a sec, I need to dig it out”, I said and turned from her, fiddling under my poncho to untuck my shirt and reach down towards my crotch to pull up the money belt pouch. Butch tried his best to cover for me, saying to the agent that it was a cold rainy day out there and that we were at the end of a long day. The agent nodded and smiled, a bit stiffly, I thought perhaps discomforted by Butch’s unorthodox visage, wild hair and all, plus maybe not having that white privilege we’d been talking about. My hands under my poncho, I successfully pulled the pouch of the money belt up out of my pants and unzipped it, but I couldn’t by feel alone figure out which piece of paper in the pouch was my plane ticket. I did not want to pull up my poncho to see because then she could see as well with my untucked shirt pulled up and the belt against my bare stomach. So I decided to pull everything out of the pouch – passport, railpass, student identity card, hostel card, travelers checks, dutch paper money – and put the handful on the counter, including hopefully the ticket, which turned out was at the bottom because I had not accessed it since after I arrived ten weeks ago.
My hand shook a little as I fumbled with all the contents of the pouch and I glanced up at her and she said the words I feared she might, “Are you okay?”, which in my altered state, sounded more like, “Are you high?”, and I was nearly in a panic.
I said “no”, then it immediately hit me that that was the wrong answer to the question she had actually asked. I quickly tried to recover, saying “I mean yes… I’m okay” and I nodded my head vigorously to try and reinforce that that was the actual answer, feeling like if she hasn’t figured out by now that I was high she must think something was really wrong with me.
Gwendolyn came to my rescue, the most respectable looking of the four of us at this point, looking at the agent and saying, “We’ve all had a long day, please bear with us!” which caused the agent to focus on her, another young attractive white woman, smile and nod, lessening my anxiety several levels. Gwendolyn continued, complimenting the agent on her hair. The woman blushed, but seemed to appreciate the compliment, nervously starting to fuss with her hair.
I finally found my ticket and slid it forward. The agent took it and still a bit flustered now herself, in her most practised voice said, “Just a moment please!” It seemed like forever she was punching at her keyboard, waiting for a response, then punching buttons again.
The agent returned and looked at me, which made me anxious again. She asked for my identification. I stared at all the pieces of paper, plastic and plastic laminated paper, arrayed on the counter, the former contents of the pouch of my money belt. I was used to, back home, giving my drivers license as ID, but here, was that what she wanted?
After a moment of my hesitation, the agent gently tapped her light blue painted fingernail on my passport, and then drew her finger away, like she was giving me a hint what the right answer was.
I felt stupid, and said, “Of course, my passport, I’m sorry!” and pushed it forward toward her.
She took it with another practiced, “Just a moment please!” and went back to her keyboard again. I looked at Gwendolyn who was standing next to me now, she rolling her eyes sympathetically.
Finally I heard the printer clunk and buzz, spitting out my confirmed reservation. The agent handed me back my passport and set this new document, that all this fuss had been about, in front of me on the counter, next to the pile of contents from my money belt. Again falling into a practiced patter, her manicured finger delicately pointed out each bit of information on my reservation. I nodded like I was following, but I was really fixated on her beautifully painted fingernails. Finally she stopped talking and I looked up at her nervously and said thank you. I grabbed all my other documents on the counter along with my new reservation and moved away, thinking to myself that this was something else I would never do again high.
Sitting now in one of the line of chairs across the room from the counter, and finally out of the line of fire, I took a deep breath and exhaled it. With only my comrades around me now, I lifted my poncho and then my shirt and replaced my passport, my reservation and all my other documents into the pouch of my money belt and slid it down inside the front of my pants. I felt like I had just been through a surgical procedure and was now reunited with my friends in the waiting room.
Butch plopped down next to me, and putting his hand on my shoulder said, with the requisite deadpan for sarcasm, “Piece of cake!” I spit out a laugh and I could feel the anxiety release from my shoulders and the rest of my body. My three comrades all laughed as well, happy to have me back.
We headed back out of the BOAC office in the general direction of our hostel. It had gotten dark and it felt like the middle of the night to me but it was barely past five. I was happy just to feel the cold drizzle on my face, enjoy all the lights of the city now transitioning to evening time, and push one foot in front of the other in the direction that Butch was leading.
Still feeling responsibility for my distressful encounter, Butch insisted on buying me dinner. He led the three of us to a little unpretentious diner in the basement of a building near our hostel and ordered kibbeling and fried potatoes, the dutch equivalent of britain’s fish and chips. We dipped the deep fried bits of fish into a warm creamy garlic sauce which was delicious, doubly so given how stoned we were. As we ate we rehashed (ha ha ha) all the moments of our long day together. The quivering clinking bottles at the Heineken brewery. Van Gogh’s work, including all his obsessive self portraits. Butch’s killer hashish. My near meltdown in the BOAC office, the agent’s meticulously coiffed jet black hair without a single strand out of place, and her dazzling pale blue fingernails matching her natty uniform, including that “jaunty little cap”, as Gwendolyn said in a mock English accent.
In the middle of everything a new John Lennon song I had not heard before, “Mind Games”, came on the radio over the speakers in the diner. I immediately recognized his voice, and the lyrics were clear, even on the first listen. As I continued to listen to my comrades talk, my mind wandered with phrases in the song…
We’re playing those mind games together
Pushing the barriers planting seeds
Playing the mind guerrilla
Chanting the Mantra peace on earth
We all been playing those mind games forever
Some kinda druid dudes lifting the veil
Doing the mind guerrilla
Some call it magic the search for the grail
I had not heard the phrase “mind games” before. It tantalized my own intoxicated mind with possible meanings, the idea of playing such games in the interior of one’s thoughts and consciousness, together with someone else, suggested a very cerebral sort of intimacy that excited me. My libido’s perspective was something akin to, I don’t just want to have sex with your body, I want to have sex with your mind too. That definitely would be moving the needle of what it meant to connect with other fellow humans, and defining a new level of intimacy that could exist between us. Not “mind fuck” in the pejorative sense, but instead an invitation to enter the other person’s thoughts and give and get pleasure from the friction of the interaction of those thoughts until both parties had achieved some cerebral sort of orgasm.
And it didn’t strike me, until the second use of the word in the verse, that he was of course referring to “guerilla”, the stealthful insurgent, and not “gorilla”. What it might mean to behave like a “mind guerilla”, a cerebral insurgent in other people’s minds, shaking up thought as usual, challenging the established order of knowledge and societal expectations. Or even an insurgent in one’s own mind, a tantalizing possibility indeed.
So keep on playing those mind games together
Faith in the future out of the now
You just can’t beat on those mind guerrillas
Absolute elsewhere in the stones of your mind
Yeah we’re playing those mind games forever
Projecting our images in space and in time
We would commit ourselves to reinventing our species through a campaign of insurgency in our own and each other’s minds, in an “intercourse” that was as sexual as it was cerebral. And what were the “stones of your mind”? Hardened ideas that, like kidney stones, interfered with the free flowing of thought, or suggesting something mind altering, as in “getting stoned”.
Yes is the answer and you know that for sure
Yes is surrender
You gotta let it, you gotta let it go
I knew that for sure. Did I know that for sure? Surrender and say yes to everything. Everything that is has a purpose. But how do you continue the mind insurgency if you are always surrendering? Don’t the most successful insurgents never surrender?
So keep on playing those mind games together
Doing the ritual dance in the sun
Millions of mind guerrillas
Putting their soul power to the karmic wheel
Keep on playing those mind games forever
Raising the spirit of peace and love
The ritual dance in the sun. Shining a light on everything, making all transparent. No conceits, no hiding, intellectual nudity. Millions of my age cohort challenging the existing order of our parents, fighting our insurgency of peace and love and transparency.
Later on that evening, lying on my bunk in my sleeping bag, finally sober once more, I rehashed those thoughts triggered by Lennon’s song, finding them a bit hyperbolic and perhaps naive in the light of a now more rational unintoxicated mind.