Letters from Berkeley


My weekend could not have been more quintessentially “California” had I dreamt it up. Still, it confirmed what I have realized since returning to my home state: No matter where I am, I feel like an outsider.

My father came to visit me on Thursday. On Friday night, we attended two parties. The second was a meeting of psychoanalytic researchers interested in the use of psychedelic plants (what we called “power plants” in my undergraduate “Drugs and the Brain” class). I had the good fortune to be privy to a conversation between two chemists over which plant manufactures the most sacred drug. I also got to meet the man responsible for manufacturing what my father and his friends claim was a very popular and renowned batch of LSD in the late 1960s and early ’70s. I was awed and interested by the people, but I felt like they were beyond me.

The first party I went to that night was hosted by a friend of my father’s, an attorney famous in the criminal defense universe. If there was any setting in which I should have felt I was in my element, this was it. But I found myself getting very irritated by the egos at the party. When my father’s friend told me I should make sure my desire to do criminal defense work emanated from my emotions, my heart, rather than just my intellect, I realized that by leaving Harvard I had not succeeded in escaping presumptuous lawyers. It was only the context that was different here, and the way in which the presumptuousness and arrogance played out. I found myself with an attorney who was not so much trying to impress the world with his intellect (Harvard-style) but with his martyrdom. In challenging me about my desire to do his line of work, he was appointing himself the ex-officio bar.

The last party we went to that weekend took place at the home of a doctor in Tiburon, a forest-covered area outside of San Francisco, and was a San Francisco NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) party. The party was stimulating and the crowd was receptive to me. Ironically, it was here that people seemed interested in my ideas and in me. It was here that I finally felt “NORMAL,” maybe even special. Even so, I realized that no setting is divorced from politics. I was surprised to hear that one marijuana law reformer tells the press (s)he doesn’t smoke weed, but in fact does so regularly.

I am learning that I am an inveterate outsider. Perhaps I first happened on this realization when I found myself beginning to like the taste of Diet Coke more and more after coming to Berkeley, the mecca of au-natural and granola-minded health. I guess in some sense it’s disappointing to find that even in a group of “like-minded” people, I still take issue with so much. But at least I can bemoan my situation while standing outside without a jacket on. In the end, maybe the only real difference between the East and West Coasts is the weather and the avialability of avacados. But for now, those are enough for me.

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