Grad school started off like dreams do. On orientation day they stared at us, smiling with all of their teeth and telling us we deserved to be there, each and every one of us. It felt like some sort of miracle that I was there at all.
I’d strolled across campus less than two months prior, the snobbish stench of the social psychology department still lingering. The troll of a coordinator had practically laughed at me from behind his dusty stacks of paper, rolling back and forth in his chair giving me half of his attention. UCLA’s PhD in Social Psych was a top ten program and I — with all of my dazzling charm and 10 years of experience with the most important fashion houses in the world! — had no academic achievement to speak of.
When I left him, I didn’t care. I ogled the palm trees, breathed in the smells. New York had starved me of natural beauty. I stopped in one of the prestigious courtyards and looked up in the direction of the sun. I might not belong at UCLA, but I definitely belonged in California. A sudden awareness of time passing snapped me out of my trance. I had one more meeting and I didn’t know how to get there. When I dipped my hand into my bag to fish out directions I felt the silhouette of the one-hitter I’d borrowed from my friend’s coffee table that morning.
I’d heard tales of friends who could smoke weed, deliver a C-level presentation, prepare a dinner party for 40, and find a cure for cancer. But that was not me: I was anxiety-prone.
It wasn’t for now, I resisted. It was meant for the end of the day, for the I-did-all-the-things-I-needed-to-do-and-impressed-everyone-so-now-I-can-relax time. I loosened my grip. I’d heard tales of friends who could smoke weed, deliver a C-level presentation, prepare a dinner party for 40, and find a cure for cancer. But that was not me: I was anxiety-prone. Cannabis was a recreational toy. I never considered that it could play a part in my academic or career successes.
I left it in my bag.
Walking up the stairs to the social science department, I was greeted by three women who wanted to know about me. They were warm. They asked me questions. I told them I was interested in human behaviors, I was a creative writer but not an academic one — yet. When we were done, I announced that I would apply for the following year. They said they still had a spot open for September, that they would consider my application if I took the GRE by the end of August. By this time, it was the middle of July and I was working 80 hours a week. My plan had been to take the exam in November, but I looked each of them in the eye and agreed to their timeline.
I’d become one of those people who could smoke, and do things. Great things. Smart things. A scientist might argue the placebo effect. And a scientist might be right. Maybe I’d imagined the flow state, but who cares?
When the acceptance letter came, I cried.
I packed up my New York life, had a party on a rooftop, and gave up everything I knew for everything I didn’t know. It wasn’t the first time I’d done something like this. (I’d moved to Italy on a whim when I was 22.) I craved the growth that came with change. I was exhausted by New York. I was also exhausted by my career. Getting my master’s would be a welcome relief — a sort of break, I thought. What beautiful and profound naïveté.
UCLA is what they call an R1 research institute and to some people, especially to the people at UCLA, this means a lot. This means that at UCLA you don’t just learn things: It means that at UCLA you are responsible for producing knowledge. Which is to say that we, the very deserving first cohort of the Master of Social Science program, were in training for the very serious business of “knowledge production”. My 31-year-old self, complete with great hair and an illustrious capacity for loud and comical bullshit, would be valued for nothing more than whatever I was able to squeeze out of my assumedly very serious brain. Terrifying, but I was smart.
In elementary school they’d placed me in what they called the “intellectually gifted” program — the one with all the socially inept kids. In high school, I got straight As — even in my AP classes — and I got a perfect score on the SAT (verbal, obviously not math). At Syracuse, I’d hardly studied. I’d smoke weed all day, go out every night, and still graduated Summa Cum Laude. Or maybe it was Magna.
There were to be three quarters in the UCLA school year. By week two of Q1, the assignments had begun.
Hundreds of pages of reading, group work, studying, exams — all the things that someone with any single awareness of academia, someone entirely unlike myself might have expected from a school of this caliber. I scrambled. I fought my way through blindly, assuring myself (aloud) multiple times a week that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. My undergraduate solutions were of no use here. I didn’t even think about smoking weed this time around. I was nervous and assumed that it would only make things worse. Two and a half months later, when the winter break arrived, I thanked the universe for my emotional survival. I told myself to rest because in Q2 I would do better. I had two As and one B+. But I wanted better.
Somewhere between the end of Q1 and the beginning of Q2 came the legalization of cannabis in the state of California.
A few days after the laws were announced, I trotted down to one of the tacky shops on Santa Monica boulevard, waited in line for an hour or more, and picked up a few gorgeous looking nuggets of a flower called Tangerine Dream. I smoked them out of a phallus-shaped pink pipe. It felt exactly as it sounds.
When we reconvened for the new quarter, I was both refreshed and energized. Maybe it was the Tangerine Dream or maybe it was the month of doing nothing at all. I was ready to throw myself into the work. I had classes Monday through Wednesday, which was an exceptional schedule by any standard of scheduling. I’d plan properly. I’d get ahead of my weekly tasks. I’d keep my pipe in the drawer. I’d take the academic world by the patriarchal balls or whatever.
Q2 was the Q that changed everything.
Readings from Charles Taylor, Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway, and more contemporary philosophers like Jaron Lanier, Tiziana Terranova, and Judith Butler jazzed me — sent my mind flying in directions I didn’t even know it could go. I felt things when I read their words: They juggled the questions that I’d juggled myself, the questions that dragged me out of a perfectly good career and across the country to learn. I’d read a paragraph, highlight it, stare at it, highlight it again, make a star next to it, tear it out, and put it up on my wall. I was like the John Nash of West Hollywood. Then came paralysis.
As quickly as the thoughts would arrive, I would expel them onto the screen in front of me. I didn’t obsess over sequence or syntax. I didn’t stand up to pace between paragraphs. I didn’t fantasize about my own Wikipedia page or a phone call from the Pentagon. I just wrote.
Simple weekly reading responses became my own personal Communist Manifesto. Two pages that might change society forever. In my fantasies I was an undiscovered prodigy just waiting for her chance to converse with the greatest contemplative minds in the history of the western world. But I could barely write one sentence. It wasn’t smart enough. It wasn’t insightful enough. No one would care. I’d spend hours piecing together eloquent language to sound like a real intellectual. I’d submit the final product and receive notes back from the T.A.: What do you mean here? This doesn’t make sense to me, can you explain in more simplified terms?
My scores were mediocre.
One free Thursday morning I ventured out to Venice to see an old friend who’d transitioned from fashion to cannabis. She spoke masterfully about the science behind her new endeavour. She introduced me to something I’d never heard of, a lovely place she referred to as the flow state. With the right balance of CBD, she said, our minds were capable of lowering their psychological inhibitions and entering a place where we stop questioning and just, go figure, flow. All of this over a picnic table in the sun in February. I loved California.
I thought about the flow state and my looming homework. I imagined what I could do if my stresses, my inadequacies, my absurd fantasies melted away. That Sunday afternoon I took my phallic pipe out of its drawer and then I took out my laptop.
She was right. As quickly as the thoughts would arrive, I would expel them onto the screen in front of me. I didn’t obsess over sequence or syntax. I didn’t stand up to pace between paragraphs. I didn’t fantasize about my own Wikipedia page or a phone call from the Pentagon. I just wrote. Thirty minutes later, I did a quick spell check and submitted. I didn’t even bother reading it over.
The following week my paper came back with a perfect score. The T.A.’s notes shifted from confused questions to positive affirmations: This is very insightful! A very interesting question you pose.
I was delighted.
The mind controls behavior and it’s up to us to create the optimal conditions for our minds to work. Cannabis helped me do that. And it wasn’t about the As, because really, those letters meant nothing to anyone.
I began incorporating Tangerine Dream into my weekly repertoire for all of my classes. I even experimented, leaving the pipe in the drawer any random week and noticing the difference. Inevitably, the papers would take longer to write, my scores would be lower, and the comment bubbles would be far less enthusiastic. The variable was the flow state.
At the end of a challenging Q2, grades were published. I got all As. At the end of a gruelling Q3, grades were published again. And I got all As. I’d become one of those people who could smoke, and do things. Great things. Smart things. A scientist might argue the placebo effect. And a scientist might be right. Maybe I’d imagined the flow state, but who cares?
The mind controls behavior and it’s up to us to create the optimal conditions for our minds to work. Cannabis helped me do that. And it wasn’t about the As, because really, those letters meant nothing to anyone. It was about trust. And it felt better than any dream, tangerine or otherwise.
Photos: Jamie Arendt