I have six nephews and four nieces and don't prioritize time with any of them because I am a terrible uncle. Like a deadbeat dad, I often miscalculate the children's maturity, telling the 7-year-old inappropriate Hemingway stories about hunting lions and infidelity while wondering if the 14-year-old still plays with Legos. My absence brings me shame. Naturally, I try to skirt this emotion (and them) as much as possible, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of avoidance.
But yesterday was Thanksgiving, and as I was chewing on my cranberry-slathered turkey at our semi-safe outdoor family gathering, I had two insights. The first was that cranberry sauce on turkey is delightful; we have been scammed into believing that this scrumptious side dish should be reserved for holidays. The second insight was that I should spend more time with my nieces and nephews. I have been flailing around on our home planet for three decades now. Surely I have some wisdom to impart.
I figured that it will be most effective to educate/brainwash them one at a time. I'll start with Taj. I was there for his birth and felt that my presence in the waiting room was essential to his delivery. I still remember walking into the hospital room, seeing the baby's puffy, mucus-soaked face, and giving his mother a knowing smile that said, "We did this together."
The Taj standing before me now, though, is a 14-year-old young man and nearly 6 feet tall, with more body hair than I have. (Seriously, it's sad.) I offer to take him surfing up the coast the following day. He says yes. My brother, Phil, and his wife, Grace, agree. The next morning, I pick him up in my RV, Starflyte, and we head north for a surf date with Uncle Kyle.
When I drive the stretch of coast between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, I feel physically lighter. To the right of us are strawberry fields, redwood groves and very few houses due to laws restricting development. "Freebird" plays on Spotify. Last summer, a torrid lightning storm ignited the coast, and the mountains are now black with ash. We drive past a charred eucalyptus tree standing tall on the side of the road. It looks like a wounded veteran just back from war.
Off the side of the highway to the left is the ocean. Today, the northeast wind blows offshore, from mountain to sea, holding the wave crests open, allowing for hollow barrels at select spots. The reefs along this stretch produce heavy surf. White shark sightings are common. One day I came across an elephant seal carcass rotting on the beach, headless.
As we drive north, I realize that I don't really know Taj, and I worry about shattering his snow globe of innocence.
"What do you think about DMT?" Taj asks me. "I heard about it from Joe Rogan."
Oh shit, I think. My nephew listens to podcasts.
DMT is a powerful psychedelic that you smoke out of a bong. By your third hit, the room will likely go fuzzy. Then you might blast off into a pulsating honeycomb galaxy where you can meet dead relatives, get "downloads" from aliens, or, in my case, inhabit a friend's body while he has a near-drowning experience, then start sobbing because life is so fucking fragile. The good news is that the trip only lasts about seven minutes. The bad news is that our perception of time is relative.
I'm not sure how to answer Taj’s question and I feel a little flustered. My fingers tap on the steering wheel. Do I regurgitate Nancy Reagan and tell him to "Just Say No?” That seemed to work wonders! How do you tell a teenager that he's not old enough for something without sounding like a patronizing old prick?
Psychedelics temporarily dim activity in a part of the brain called the default mode network. It’s where your ego and sense of self reside. When I say, “I am Kyle, the greatest surfer in the world,” that’s my default mode network (and delusion) talking. Teenagers are still trying to figure out who they are. Their brains are still developing. I went to high school with a few kids who smoked weed and ate mushrooms too often. When I see them now, their eyes look a little dull.
I give Taj my best shot at an honest answer. I tell him that psychedelics can offer insights that aren't always accessible on this plane of consciousness, but I strongly advise him not to mess with them until he is much older and has more practice controlling his mind in a sober state. I add that it’s important to make sure he does it only if he’s surrounded by people he can depend on. I tell him that learning to meditate is the best way to control your mind. He agrees with me about psychedelics. I can't sell him on meditation.
"If you do try psychedelics," I say, "call me first."
We arrive at the wave. It's a dreamy, emerald-green peak, and most of the guys surfing are Santa Cruz locals who I've known since I was Taj’s age. There's a dirt cliff on the other side of the highway that resembles a glacier about to swallow us all. A big chunk breaks off the top, tumbles down and is caught just before the road by a net.
Taj and I put on our wetsuits and paddle out. My older brother Phil (Taj’s dad) meets us. The rest of his family hangs on the beach. To the untrained eye, surfing looks like a bunch of sunburnt dudes playing in the water together, but just beneath the surface there is a complex social hierarchy at work. Allow me to pull back the curtain on this bizarre world.
Taj is Phil's son. Therefore everyone will be friendly to him, but he's still too young to get set waves. If he puts in the time, maybe one day he will become knighted as "one of the boys." I imagine him bending the knee and some grizzled carpenter lightly touching a surfboard to each of his shoulders. But until that day comes, he needs to sit on the inside and pick off scraps.
My place in the lineup is more precarious. I grew up surfing these waves and genuinely like most of the blue-collar locals who control the lineups. I went to parties—too many parties—but still never managed to maneuver my way into the cool-guy club, largely because I’m socially awkward and bring up titillating topics like class warfare. This problem only gets worse when I let my blonde afro grow to its full potential. I tend to hang out in the middle of the pack, and if everyone in front of me catches a wave leaving me at the top of the peak alone, I feel like a beta bonobo posturing as an alpha.
After surfing, we pull my smoker out of the back of Starflyte and have our own small barbeque with skirt steak and asparagus. That night, Taj drives back to town with Phil and his family, but before he does, he tells me that the day was "inspiring," and when he's old enough, he wants to live out of a car, just like Uncle Kyle.
I stay on the North Coast and pull into a parking lot that overlooks the ocean. The rising full moon lights the ocean with a pale, blue glow. The parking lot is usually uncrowded, but tonight it's packed. I turn off Starflyte, get out, and see that in the far corner, a dozen or so cars are parked in the shape of a half-U, creating a small amphitheater for a renegade party. I walk over. Twentysomethings sway back and forth like coastal redwoods on a windy night. A woman points what looks like a taser in my direction. Purple light sprays sacred geometry across my body and onto the dance floor. A few kids sit on a bench playing "Scarlet Begonias" on acoustic guitars. A bearded man who looks to be in his 60s moves his arms like a wacky inflatable tube man in slow motion. I can't tell if he's enjoying himself or signaling for help.
The party is fun for about 10 minutes. Then I realize that I've been to too many parties just like it. I walk back to Starflyte, lay in bed and appreciate the light show from out my window. The lasers are less blinding from afar. In a few years, maybe Taj will start going to parties like these. I just hope he'll know when it's time to move on.
Note to readers: The names of some characters were changed for privacy.
By Kyle Thiermann