As we slide into home plate on this rough and tumble year, wanted to share a few thoughts on what was an especially weird week.
Nevermind the political storm und drang, plenty of hottakes covering the unraveling of democracy...
A couple of bright lights died recently, Chuck Yeager and Tony Hsieh, and we need to talk about it.
I grew up with Yeager as a legend in my household. Tom Wolfe immortalized him in The Right Stuff as the test pilot who broke the sound barrier and set the stage for the Apollo space program. The Society of Experimental Test Pilots was a small fraternity, and my dad who was a Royal Naval pilot and he used to cross paths fairly often.
There are old pilots, the saying goes, and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots. Same can be said of mountaineers, big wave surfers, astronauts, and increasingly, psychonauts too.
Which brings us to the tragic death of Tony Hsieh. Tony and I knew each other a bit socially––I spoke at the inaugural year of his Life is Beautiful festival, we kicked around his efforts to implement Holocracy at Zappos and the Downtown Project (I'd been a part of one its earlier failed rollouts at a marketing firm and had some cautions to share) and we'd connected at mutual friends' camps at Burning Man. But nothing much more than that.
At first, news of his accidental death by fire seemed random and tragic. Then the damage control stories started spilling out. Unnamed close sources started blabbing, and talking about how his love of nitrous oxide and candles conspired to accidentally undo him. The singer Jewel's early warning from the summer to Tony said something to the effect of "when everyone around you is on your payroll, you know you're in trouble, and you Tony, are in trouble." She spoke of his excess dabbling in "dissociatives."
When people mention "dissociatives" that's usually code for ketamine. Not always, and technically, in medical concentrations, nitrous is also a dissociative, but in general, ketamine is the one to watch out for. It's hard to protect your airway when you're sucked down the K hole. And as everyone's rushing into the ketamine therapy space, and touting it as a cure for depression, anxiety and all else, there's something undeniably spooky about this compound that needs to be addressed. It's not that people die from it, like an overdose on heroin or cocaine, but a non-zero number of folks die on it or near it. There's a dark pull we need to start factoring into our cost/benefit equation of this compound.
But nitrous isn't harmless either. If you're not a Fast and Furious fan, you may not know that nitrous is also used to "juice" the horsepower of drag racers––it works like a Super Mario turbo button on the Strip, but its benefits come with costs. "Speed freaks have added it to just about every sort of engine you can name," one online motorhead forum explains, "Proceed with caution, though, because nitrous can damage engines if improperly fitted or used, and can hurt people if the vehicle fails catastrophically."
Indeed. Burn too hot for too long and you can melt your engine block. Same goes for recreational use.
In reality, Tony's miscalculations were likely more complex than huffing whippets, and many of those most culpable for enabling his downward slide are doing everything possible to divert attention and blame from a co-dependent scene that did not remotely serve its Wounded King.
Just a few days ago, another member of that Vegas tribe died, in similar circumstances. Six months ago, we lost two other community members to a drowning and a car accident that were not unconnected to their aggressive and sustained ventures into the Aether. At the end of the summer, another legendary psychonaut, James Oroc died, but he met his maker due to a paragliding accident, not to a miscalculation of intoxication.
Which brings up a key point in all this. When folks venture beyond the Pale and fail, everyone huddled safely behind the walls of Consensus Reality tut and cluck. "See, that's why we should never go out there. They should've known better, it was foolish, or selfish of them to even try." But really, it depends.
In Chuck Yeager and my father's realm of military test-pilots, there were fatalities all the time. And beyond the immediate tragedies, the unspoken question within that brotherhood always waited until the accident report. Was it bad luck, and he died with the Right Stuff, or was it pilot error, and he should have known better?
When Alex Lowe, arguably the greatest mountaineer of his generation, got swept by an avalanche that ripped out 3000M above him on the otherwise fairly mellow Shishapangma in Tibet, it was an unvarnished tragedy. He hadn't been pushing past limits he should have respected. It was a warm-up climb and he really was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When Eddie Aikau, legendary Hawaian big wave surfer and lifeguard paddled into the stormy seas of the Molokai Channel to try and rescue a capsized Polynesian catamaran, no one doubted his skills or judgment. He wasn't doing it for ego, he was doing it in service. Quicksilver sponsored a big wave surf contest in his honor and bumper stickers and t-shirts spread around the world stating simply "Eddie would go." (with the implication, that perhaps sometimes, so should we).
We don't circulate petitions to close beaches or abolish trailheads when these kinds of deaths happen––we acknowledge that courting Kali has consequence, and from time to time, even the best must pay the price.
But there's one last thread on this theme of pilot error to tie together here.
This week a Bee Gees documentary "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" on the famous crooning disco brothers comes out on HBO, and Barry Gibb, the eldest and surviving member, who lost all three of his brothers to addictions to cocaine, alcohol and amphetamines had this to say about their journey, "There's fame, and there's ultra fame, and it can destroy you." I couldn't help but think of Tony Hsieh, burdened as he was with extreme wealth and the gilded cage of "delivering happiness," even when he struggled discovering it for himself.
When asked how he had managed to avoid getting killed by the ultra fame that claimed his brothers Gibb assigned it to one simple thing. A fifty year marriage to the girl he met backstage at the Top of the Pops back in the 60's. "My brothers had to deal with their demons, but I was married to a lady who wasn’t going to have it," he says. "I could bring drugs into the house but they would end up down the toilet. She never allowed me to go in that direction. I had to deal with my brothers being pretty much out there, but I was lucky."
And that got me thinking. Because in all of these recent tragedies, of people reaching for the Secret too Soon, of rappelling into the Screaming Abyss but forgetting to tie their stopper knots, there's one thing they all share:
They were untethered males. Every last one. And while that's correlation, not causation on a small sample size, I can't help but wonder if that fact is a bit like the famous "no green M&Ms" clause in Van Halen's concert rider––a canary in the coal mine for deeper issues. You tend not to see women making these same mistakes. And you tend not to see men, yoked to dedicated relationships, encouraged or enabled to make these same mistakes.
So when it comes to Staying Alive, there are medicated men, and there are dedicated men, but there are no dedicated, medicated men.
Because it's not just the ultra-fame of the BeeGees or Tony Hsieh that can distort a man's judgment, and ultimately end up destroying them. When you feel like a Golden God (but really, you're just on drugs), that sort of ego-inflation can be fatal. In hyperspace, everyone's kind of a big deal. Ron Burgundy: DMT Edition.
As things heat up around the world, this dynamic is only likely to get more intense. The harder it is to make sense of current events, the more fraught our civic discourse is becoming, the more tempting (especially, though not only for men) to latch onto some Heroic Purpose and overheat. Alt-right militias and incels are longing for a chance to redeem their lives of quiet desperation, but so are psychedelic anti-vaxxer podcast bros, boldly telling their fans they're "willing to die for freedom"––which apparently means hosting maskless yoga retreats in Costa Rica.
So not sure where this leaves us, other than slip-sliding further down the rabbit hole of the Intertwingularity. But as things get more intense, and as mortal consequences seem to be piling up faster than we're adjusting, will leave you with this excerpt from my new book––the Cheat Codes to the Infinite Game. Think of it as a pilot's pre-flight checklist before blasting off into the Multiverse. A user guide to Staying Alive. What's as important as what's said here, is what's not said. No grandiose explanations, no false certainties––just provisional guidelines for navigating the meta-dynamics of the Mysto.
If this isn't terrain you're already exploring, it will likely sound banal or inscrutable. But if you are wandering and wondering, this can serve as a trail of breadcrumbs to get you (or someone you love) safely back Home.
Becoming a Homegrown Human is a bold path, filled with consequences. But if we keep our wits, and look out for each other, maybe, just maybe, we can all grow old together.
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