I started this column so that I wouldn't miss the opportunity to say what I wanted to say to people before one of us passed. One of the people I immediately put on my list "to be showered upon" was my childhood best friend, Miles Plarisan.
It is with very deep remorse that I acknowledge I have missed my chance to share the full gratitude in my being for our time together as kids, with him directly. This appreciation has swelled as I've found myself many years into adulthood, so far removed from the days of swimming for hours in his backyard pool, playing Donkey Kong all night and building gingerbread houses.
Miles passed away on January 24th, 2017. I found out about a week later as I was scrolling through my phone lying in bed waiting for sleep to take me away. I saw a post for his memorial and felt my stomach drop.
In the years after high school when our paths diverged, I learned through social media that Miles had come to struggle with addiction. Looking back on our Facebook message thread, feeling wave after wave of both bittersweet nostalgia and an anxiety that I should have reached out more often, I found a message in which I told Miles how much I appreciated him. Though this brings a small amount of relief, I am haunted by the fact that these two boys went on to experience such drastically different realms on Earth, and that Miles' ended as it did.
While my life has not been without heavy (and common) human depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, sadness and all the others, Miles seems to have drawn a darker hand. And, as often happens when recognizing the abundance I have been surrounded by for most of my life, I cannot understand why I have been gifted such a fortune while others appear to have been so jilted by fate.
This always leaves me feeling a disturbing amount of guilt, realizing directly the meaning of the phrase, "embarrassment of riches." And I do not mean this with regards to monetary wealth, I mean it with regards to my family, friends, community, and the general karmic luck that seems to have been the wind in my sails since birth. But I must acknowledge, with the help of The Great Alan Watts, that even this position is fraught with suffering. Awareness of the impermanence of all things immediately gives way to a fear of the day my luck should shift. And thus, the more I possess, the more I am possessed.
To this point, while I feel at times an impulse to have traded paths with others, to take on their pain and suffering, the honest truth that causes even more inner turmoil is that I do not seem willing to trade my great prosperity away. Still I throw most of my extra coins into a Roth IRA and not into the extended hand of the woman on the train. I'll deny the man in need today so that I may guarantee myself another meal tomorrow. This well may be financially wise, but it is troubling to acknowledge the ramifications in the present. The pain of turning away from myself in these moments has become so stinging, I am not sure how long I can keep the act up.
I can't actually recall when Miles and I started spending time together, but I know it was in elementary school. I know that the first place I was allowed to ride my bike outside of our tract housing development was to Miles' home "in the county" about a mile away. I know that he and I played for hours on end, and that undoubtedly, some of the most joyous days in my life were spent goofing around with him out in his backyard.
His family lived on the perfect little piece of land, that was probably just an acre or less, but felt like an unending territory for us to explore. I am forever grateful to his adoring parents, as well as my own, that they really let us boys be boys. We were constantly getting ourselves into something, chasing critters around in the yard, shooting his bb gun at targets and teasing our younger siblings.
The greatest high we felt as youth was far and away, fireworks. For years the Fourth of July was my favorite holiday and I would save up my money so that I could buy as many fireworks as possible for us to play with. In middle school we began sitting on his back porch at a table, taking apart each firework, and then combining the gunpowder to create new explosions. Much to our disappointment, mortars, bottle rockets and all the really cool explosives were illegal in California, so we spent hours trying to recreate them. Our greatest success one year was somehow getting a piecemeal firework to launch into the air and explode. We were thrilled and terrified, absolutely beside ourselves that we had made something so cool. We were never able to repeat it, and that's probably for the best. Writing about this now causes some concern for our well-being, but an honest reflection would lead me to say I have rarely felt that kind of pure, wild excitement in my adult life.
One of the aspects of our friendship I am most grateful for, is the many worlds that Miles opened my eyes to. Looking back, so many of the things I've most enjoyed in life came through an introduction from him, and by extension, his family. Though I was always quite confident socially, I was often a bit skiddish trying new, edgy things, but not Miles. He had a courageous fire in his soul at a young age, that was infectious, eventually taking root in me as well.
The first time I can remember seeing falling snow was in the back of the Plarisan's Suburban driving up to Tahoe to go snowboarding for Miles' birthday. I'd never been snowboarding or skiing before, but his family invited me along to experience it with them. Miles was allowed to invite one friend to go on these trips with him and I consider myself the luckiest sonofabitch that he chose me.
Getting on the mountain, I was particularly scared. The whole process of walking in snow boots with the snowboard attached to one leg was so clumsy, and there was the lift and I was afraid of heights...and the worst part was getting OFF the lift. Inevitably I fell down, not only looking like a complete asshole, but then I would awkwardly crawl out of the way for fear of being hit by the next person getting off the lift. But Miles was cool. I remember him encouraging me on the lift and eventually giving me a mantra/superstition that if I sung "Goodness gracious Great balls of fire!" to myself before getting off the lift, I wouldn't fall down. Miraculously it started to work and I used that mantra for years on the mountain as I got off the lift.
Among the many things Miles introduced me to was the game of golf. In middle school, we began hitting balls in his back yard, trying to drive them into Lloyd's lot over the fence. After hours and hours of this, Miles' dad eventually took us to the Woodcreek Golf Course to play our first nine holes for Miles' birthday. The man's patience must be commended! There we were, hacking away at the course, completely unaware that golf IS A SERIOUS GAME. We were loud, laughing hyenas, and enjoyed finding lost balls in the brush nearly more than we loved hitting them. I still remember us coming up the path of the ninth hole, barely any sunlight left as we made our way past a pond that had dead fish floating in it.
The last year of middle school and first two years of high school found us at the golf course quite often. It was close enough to walk to, and the Jr. club we were members of made playing a round super cheap. In those challenging years when we began to seek independence from our family units before we were able to drive, the golf course gave us a place to be.
Reflecting on the countless days spent with Miles, I recall such pure, innocent exploration...we had no idea what we were doing, and we didn't care...we were spontaneously following our curiosity. Miles from a young age had a more natural knack for technology than I did. In middle school, he and his brother had a computer in their room which was my first real exposure to THE INTERNET. Miles had figured how to download things and introduced me to AIM (AOL Instant Messenger). We created matching nicknames, PyroManMiles and PyroManMitch and talked online constantly. We played the very first version of Grand Theft Auto, and hung around chat rooms asking for "a/s/l," but the best thing we figured out how to do on the computer was....Napster.
I don't know how Miles found out about Napster, but as soon as he showed it to me we began downloading as much music as we could. At the time it took hours just to download one song, so we'd set it up and go out in the backyard to play for hours while we waited for it to finish. We'd return to see it was taking more time than indicated, then frustratedly run downstairs again to kill more time.
It was those afternoons spent downloading music in which I was first introduced to The Beatles. Miles couldn't believe that I didn't know what "The Beatles" was, and went on and on about how amazing they were. I assume this came from his parents playing their music, but the connection he felt with it was deeper than favoritism. This music spoke to Miles on a soul level, which at the time completely baffled me. I heard it and thought, "yeah, okay...it's cool." But it didn't move me. However, Miles loved it, so I was determined to love it myself. We spent afternoon after afternoon downloading one Beatles' song at a time until we had enough to "burn a CD." Miles had an external drive that could burn CD's which was the coolest, most futuristic thing I'd ever encountered. This process took forever, but Miles was willing to take the time to make sure I had the music he believed in.
While I continued to listen to The Beatles, and enjoyed some of their songs, I'll admit I never quite "got it." Why the obsession? Why were they the biggest band of all time? I didn't understand. Fast forward about a decade. I'm driving home from my fourth Burning Man after taking LSD for the first time when the inspiration hits to put on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Greg and I were still processing our first dip into infinity and as this music entered my mind, I felt an instant awakening. How could I have been so blind? Suddenly I completely understood why The Beatles were THE BEATLES. This recognition dawned on both Greg and I at the start of the first track and the entire album from that point on was a joyous exploration of consciousness through sound, set to the visuals of the dusty, dry, high desert mountains of Nevada. As I happily grooved along with my fellow dharma bum, something deep in my being said, "I get it, Miles. I finally get it. You were right, The Beatles are IT."
Of the many things that Miles seemed to encounter much earlier than I did, darkness was one of them. For better or worse, through ignorance or willpower I'm not sure, existential dread did not enter my world until much later. Miles had a darker sense of humor in our early teens, and a bit of a draw towards the grotesque. In our Sophomore year of high school, as we frantically sought identity, at some point he casually asked if I knew how one slit their wrists. I acted as if I did, and he promptly corrected me. Supposedly one should not slice not against the veins, as I intuited, but with the veins as to ensure the body would bleed out. To this day, I do not know the accuracy of this statement, but took it on his word that it was the gospel truth. Inspired by this conversation and a need to create our own in-group, we began wearing electrical tape vertically on our wrists. Pretty fucking dark for 15-year-olds. Looking back, I should have seen this as a sign that my friend was encountering things that could have used therapeutic assistance, but I simply didn't understand. Not for a second did I think that something might be wrong, didn't even phase me that this could be considered a little off.
This was my best friend Miles! Just a few years prior, in sixth grade, we planned to wear our matching "woodie" button-up t-shirts to school together once a week...we spent our holiday breaks with his family making arts and crafts. At that point I couldn't fathom what might have been lurking in my friend's mind.
Later that year the choir and band went on a trip to LA together. Miles played trumpet in the band, and I was a tenor in chamber choir, so we decided to room together at some cheap hotel in Orange County. As we arrived on the buses, Miles was extremely upset. I tried asking what was wrong as we got into our room, but he stayed aloof. All of my playful efforts to connect were met with melancholy until he exploded, saying that George Harrison had just died. My best friend burst into tears. I didn't know what to do, and he knew it. I couldn't understand why this was so upsetting to him. Looking back now, he was probably having a more intimate awareness of our mortality, and nihilistically wondering what the fuck the point of it all was...Feeling overwhelming compassion and devastation at the loss of a life he looked up to. And what was worse, his friend couldn't begin to understand it, so he was left alone with those deep feelings. I don't remember how things calmed down, but we eventually turned on the news to watch memorial pieces celebrating Harrison's life as Miles made tea for us.
I didn't realize it at the time, but that incident marked the beginning of the end of our close friendship. I started eating lunch with the kids in choir and spent my time after school at practice in the pool; after years of being inseparable, suddenly we rarely saw each other. As I sought more playful social experiences, success in water polo and attention from girls, Miles appeared to drift further into a more morose mindset. Months had passed when his girlfriend at the time reached out, asking me to talk to him. She was under the impression he had marijuana and thought that I, his childhood friend, could plead with him to throw it away. Immediately I was filled with concern, and went home to call Miles. Shaking with nerves, I called him from my upstairs bedroom. We hadn't spoken in a long while, and I'd never confronted a friend in this way before. I was also still of the mindset that marijuana could immediately ruin someone's life. He answered the phone sheepishly and I asked if what his girlfriend said was true. The conversation is hazy, but I remember being nearly in tears as I begged him "not to do drugs." Eventually he said that he wouldn't, and I hung up the phone feeling like I'd done my duty. I checked in with him more often at school over the coming weeks until the summer came and everything seemed perfectly fine.
Knowing that Miles ultimately struggled with addiction makes that interaction even more painful in hindsight. I feel deep sadness knowing that such a young man was already looking to substances as a way to find existential relief. And yet, I also understand it. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we've all got coping mechanisms to deal with life. Most of our society drinks "to take the edge off," yet we still damn people who seek other kinds of substances for relief. The fact that the United States government regulates tobacco and alcohol while banning other substances is hypocrisy at the highest level. With regards to legal sedatives, in 2014, nearly two million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids. Between 1999 and 2015 more than 183,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids.
At this point I do not find it odd that humans seek relief from the relentless onslaught of existence. Be it alcohol, opioids, sugar, marijuana, television, movies, social media, sleeping pills, shopping, or religion and spirituality...most of us are seeking something to help us get through the days and nights. Socially we judge some of these things to be acceptable, and others unacceptable. Unfortunately, we're so caught up in the debate of which belongs on which side of the line that we miss out on having compassion for everyone altogether as we experience subjective and universal suffering.
While I feel strongly that there are helpful and not helpful substances, after a few years of more closely observing my own patterns and behavior, I do not think they themselves are the problem. It is what we are experiencing internally that drives the desire to use substances of any kind: we're either craving a feeling that we're not currently having, or we're averse to the feeling we're currently having. In either case, we resist what is happening in the present moment.
In my own world, running into Eastern Philosophy has been quite helpful when it comes to this topic. Though I wouldn't say I'm a Buddhist, the practices in that tradition have been quite insightful. The above conundrum is addressed directly in the very foundation of Buddha's teachings: The Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth, Dukkha, often interpreted as "Life is suffering," or "There is suffering," (which isn't quite accurate) is intended to bring our awareness to the temporary and conditional nature of our world. While painful mental and physical phenomena are obviously not enjoyable, even if we are temporarily satisfied or overjoyed by an experience, accomplishment or interaction, it too shall pass. There is no permanent refuge to be found in that which is impermanent. Up and down we go on the endless pursuit of happiness.
This noble truth in itself can be a surprising source of great relief for westerners, and certainly was for me. Having grown up watching movies, television and commercials that promote the "happily-ever-after" life model, it was earth-shattering to learn that the numero-uno idea to be understood in this 2,500 year-old practice is, "Brah, ultimately you're not going to be satisfied by these sensations."
The last time I saw Miles in person was at least thirteen years ago before leaving for college, so we never had the chance to connect as grown adults. I wish he was here today so that we might have a productive conversation about this very topic, I have a feeling it would be enlightening for both of us. Then afterwards we could sneak out of our parents house again, late at night on bikes, and go TP somebody's house.
In this moment, I can still hear his voice in my mind doing Cheech and Chong impressions in a corner of the open quad at lunch as we watch a vortex of wind mysteriously carry pieces of garbage into the air. I cherish the years I spent with Miles, and I am left feeling nothing but gratitude for the laughter and inquisitive exploration we shared.
Rest in Peace my friend, I hope you found those strawberry fields, forever.