by Jason Tougaw
My mom has married Stanley, and we are now The Messins. By 1974, Ralph has a new wife and is long gone. Midge is living in La Jolla, surviving on sporadic alimony and the sale of an antique or piece of art now and then. The Neves children—Gary, Craig, and Cathy—have dropped out. We’re all part of an experiment, a generation of southern California hippies raising kids on sea and sun instead of plastic and microwaves.
The Neves wealth and celebrity elevate them beyond the establishment, so dropping out comes easy. Their friends raised in traditional homes send chills through the spines of their family trees when they announce their plans: play rather than work whenever possible, expand the mind with drugs and explore the body through sex, grow hair until it tickles the ass, and reject the tract home futures springing up alongside San Diego highways. Despite the spinal shivers epidemic in the county, the dropouts are joining communes, renting fixer-uppers full of character and potential, and renovating school busses into roving homes. They’ll cultivate a generation never hampered by the bullshit rules, fear, and dogma that have led the world into war, conspicuous consumption, and soul-numbing conformity. Gary, Craig, and Cathy associate luxury with the aforementioned bullshit, even though it rescued them from the status quo.
We, the Messins—Stanley, Cathy, Jason, and Aaron—are scions in the experiment. We’ll live aboard a school bus, which Stanley has converted into a home on wheels. We’ll travel Stanley’s map of the world, which starts at Baja runs up the California Coast, to Big Sur, the Santa Cruz, and ends in Portland, Oregon.
The Pondo, short for Ponderosa, is a key point on the map. Anchovie’s place is a big rocky hill of dry dirt named after the ranch on Bonanza—pure desert just two miles from the sea. Everybody knows the Pondo. The house, white paint flaking, tin roof rusting, sits at the top of the hill, shaded by a giant Pepper Tree, branches dangling like the tentacles of a tired octopus, pink peppercorns swinging with the wind. We park here when it gets chilly at the beach.
Anchovie’s Love-ins are living mythology. The Pondo is his Olympus, haunted by the soaring psyches, liberated souls, and naked bodies who have gathered to mark the coming of the age of Aquarius. You can sense them in the landscape, spirits whose ecstatic reception of an enlightened future has left an indelible imprint in the rocks and brush and cactus.
But life is not one long love-in, not when you’ve got a kid like me in the bus, who keeps pissing the bed. Stanley’s going to put a stop to this.
We’re in Santa Cruz, three-hundred miles north of any place I’ve ever been, and I’m soaking in my own pee. After the border incident, Stanley decided it was time for a trip north. He’d been wanting to do it anyway, and it seemed like a good idea to get some distance between us and the border. My mom had to agree, so they pulled me out of school. I was there for less than two months. Kindergarten and Stephanie are my past.
To break me of the habit, he hauls me out of the bus each morning before dawn and forces me to bathe in the coldest water he can find. I lie in my piss, checking now and then to see how much there is, how wet the sheets feel. They’re drenched. I practice my evaporation skills. I conjure my ether force field and think myself inside it. But thinking so hard keeps reminding me that I’m here. When Stanley gets up—to take his own piss outside like a normal person—I am ready.
He strides by and runs his hand over my sheets. “Fuck. You fuckin’ baby. He pissed the fuckin’ bed again.” He’s loud. “Get up.” I just lie there, my body tight like a corpse.
Stanley grabs me by the neck, the way he grabs kittens and yanks me out of bed. I’m filthy in my own piss, disgusting to touch. Stanley climbs down the stairs of the bus, and I feel the burn of cold air on my face, feet, and hands. “You’ve gotta fuckin’ learn. Hear me? Huh?”
“Yes,” I say. Stanley has to walk down a hill slippery with frost to get to the stream. He dunks me a couple of times. “Wash,” he demands. The water is icy. I hate him. “Take off your pajamas. Wash them.” I whoosh them around in the stream. I’m shivering, but I keep busy.
“Do you think it’s any goddamn fun for me, to go outside when it’s freezing cold?” Stanley asks. “Do you think it’s fun for your ole lady to clean the goddamn sheets everyday?” He knows that if he’s consistent, I will stop the bedwetting. He’s right.
Here’s where I get to use the neuroscientists to get back at Stanley.
A perceptual signature is the unique way an individual brain processes sensory input. Our signatures create the world in our heads, like Stanley’s map. He didn’t even know about it, but it shaped his world, and therefore my world.
Genes predispose us to our perceptual signatures, but people who spend a lot of time together will pick up each other’s habits. Genes plus habit make for shared perceptual tendencies among family members. You can pick out common ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling within a family. It took me a long time to admit it, but my fascination with the almost seen—vanishing sand crabs, Anchovie’s Love-In Ghosts, the ether world—is a product of my hippie childhood. I learned to trust hallucinations.
Signal and noise are basic concepts in cognitive science. Neurons send constant signals, whenever they are electrically stimulated by the chemical message of another neuron, as much as several times every second. The neuroscientists call this constant random firing noise. A meaningful signal, they postulate, is one that breaks through the noise and become perception. Thought is the ability to synchronize the electrical activity of the brain. How we synchronize depends on our perceptual signatures. For Stanley, the coast from Oregon to Baja was signal and the rest was noise.
My New York apartment, where I’m typing now, was so far off the map it may as well have been another planet. As I type, I glance to my right, out my apartment window, and focus on the four black-capped towers of the power plant near the East River. I hear a faint siren. Then I’m distracted by the geraniums on the windowsill. The big one is in a green pot and the little one, originally a cutting, is in glass, its roots visible. They both sprout magenta blooms. I’m surprised to see that the cutting has grown enough to bloom. Their leaves strain toward the light, so my view is of their undersides, bright green like grass in full sun. The petals give the illusion of transparency. But my aesthetic meditation shares space in my head with Stanley’s image. I’m recreating him by writing about him, giving him a new kind of life when what I really want to do is kill him. Let’s face it: he’s signal for me, not noise. My perceptual signature was shaped by and through him at a crucial moment of development. I’ll never escape that.
Each of these perceptions—the black-capped towers, the sirens, the light through the leaves and petals, the specter of Stanley—cuts through my mental noise to become a signal. Why? Maybe because my brain, fatigued from an intense focus on finding language to describe itself, was looking for a distraction that would give it time to rest. But another part of my brain, the conscious motivator, overruled the impulse to rest and transformed my daydreaming into an illustration of the idea I was already writing about. An idle perception is not noise; it’s a signal without a clear motive. The neuroscientists postulate that the constant random firing of neurons is functional: a neuron already in motion will react more efficiently when it’s needed than one at rest. Those signals often produce order by accident and come to feel meaningful. As I write this thought, I’m aware how much life with Stanley primed me to think it.
Living on a school bus was an education in accidental order. Mornings became afternoons became nights. Stanley drove, parked, drove. We slept, woke, ate, swam, argued, laughed, slept. We stayed in some spots for weeks, others for hours. The bus was the roving center of our universe, the place from which we looked out onto the world, the place we went to escape its input. When we drew the curtains, the interior was shady and cool. When we opened them, it was bright and hot.
Mexico is just a border away when you live on a bus. Baja is on Stanley’s map of the world. The rest of Mexico is blank white space, but not scratched with black marker the way most of the U.S. is. “Bores and Prigs” is scrawled vertically along the east coast. The Midwest is a mass of messy black smiley faces with blocky horn-rimmed glasses. There is just enough of New England showing for me to imagine where everyone is educated, rich, well-mannered, and snobby. It scares me to think about, but I picture living a clean, luxurious, snobby life there. Instead, I am absorbing the soft desert sand, chipping paint, and scrubby vegetation of Northwestern Mexico.
No one can explain how, in 1975, a bunch of hippies and their stringy-haired, dirty-faced kids on a school bus are not detained every time they cross the border. Usually we aren’t, but today we are.
“Pull over to the side, please.” Stanley puts the bus in reverse and backs up at an angle, trying to maneuver through the small detaining lot. My mom is wheezing. A car honks behind us. “Shut the fuck up!” Stanley yells. “What the fuck is going on.?” he asks JP, a friend who tagged along for the trip.
“Goddamn pigs are harassing us,” JP replies.
JP is 6’3”, 300 lbs, with black hair. His initials stand for James Polk. His great-great grandpa was President of the United States. He never stops laughing. “That JP is a character,” Nanny likes to say.
We are escorted to a beige linoleum waiting room, with hard, plastic chairs. Ominous female heads ignore us from behind a high counter. Aaron and I are seated next to each other. The adults disappear through a door behind the counter. “Everything will be okay,” my mom said between coughs as they were escorted out. Hours pass. My butt hurts.
“Just sit tight,” one of the ominous heads says at one point.
Finally, my mom and Stanley emerge back through the door behind the beige counter. JP’s staying. He stashed—Stanley’s word—a trash bag full of pot in the storage container under the floor of the bus. He’s going to jail. Miraculously, the police are satisfied that my mom and Stanley didn’t know about the pot.