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№ 1: Tripping Out, Drying Up, and Unearthed Soul

Alex Payne
Alex Payne
5 min read

Table of Contents

Welcome to Payne Threshold, a twice-monthly newsletter from yours truly, Alex Payne.

In each issue, I’ll offer something for your mind, your body, and your soul, inspired by oft-sampled track The Realm, a house classic by a trio of producers operating under the alias C’hantal.

Why a newsletter? I never figured out a healthy way to relate to social media. Today's blogs appear to be mostly content marketing, and the ones that aren’t feel eerily out of time, like strip mall video stores still selling LaserDiscs. The fully asynchronous, no-worries-if-it-gets-lost-in-your-inbox newsletter may be the sole remaining humane method of one-to-many communication.

Why start one now? You may know that my main pursuit for the last while has been writing fiction. I got prissy about writing only fiction, but that narrow attitude hasn’t increased my output—if anything, it’s put more pressure on my stories to hold everything that interests me. A newsletter, I thought, could be an effective cognitive release valve. Also, some of you straight-up asked for this.

What's with the owl logo? Purely aspirational.

Let’s get into it.

Leery of Leary?

something for your mind

Therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs has transcended the media cycle. The story, per this recent one in Wired, is now the story about the story.

In any piece about psychedelic therapy, there’s usually a history section that goes  like this:

  1. In the first half of the 20th century, compounds were discovered that, in addition to making people trip balls, showed promise for hard-to-treat issues like addiction and mood disorders.
  2. Research was going fine until showboaters like Timothy Leary decided that widespread acid-dropping to foment social revolution was more important than helping individuals in pain.
  3. The Feds cracked down, research opportunities dried up, and psychedelic therapy all but disappeared for decades.
  4. Motivated by a growing mental health crisis, interest in these drugs has been resurgent. Michael Pollan and other public figures have re-legitimized psychedelics, while activists around the US are pushing for decriminalization and winning.

In this common telling, Leary is an utter villain: a self-aggrandizing academic turned clownish countercultural impresario whose antics salted the soil in which psychedelic therapy could have germinated. Whenever I see such tidy demonizing, my assumption is that there’s more to it.

Last summer, the soundtrack to our cross-country drive from Oregon to our new home of New York was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, one of those omnipresent books you think you’ve read (in high school, maybe?) and then realize you actually haven’t. Serendipitously, it was a perfect book for our journey. The book’s primary subject, novelist Ken Kesey, hails from Oregon, while New York stands in for a stubbornly un-wavy establishment.

In Acid Test, Leary comes off nothing like the tiresome LSD grandpa of his malign legacy. Holed up in a swanky estate in Millbrook, Leary and his colleagues explore psychedelics with a combination of scientific rigor and spiritual devotion that bores and disgusts Kesey and his bus-mates. Who, I wondered, was this Leary, who comes off positively patrician by comparison?

My interest in psychedelic therapy is personal. I hope we’re past the moment of so brave mental health confessionals, and that I can say without it being a big deal that I’ve dealt with depression for much of my life.

I do what's advised to manage depression. Even so, I still find myself in the pit periodically. A moderate-to-high dose of psilocybin—the magic in “magic mushrooms”—is the best way I’ve found to catapult myself back into the sunshine. My experience aligns with emerging research, which is validating, if only for what that might mean legally.

I’m privileged enough to acquire, use, and publicly write about an illegal substance without significant fear of repercussions. I hope more people who find benefit in psychedelics, like these Black mothers, get safe and legal access to them soon.

But access is only the first step. Navigating the actual psychedelic experience—the trip, journey, session, whatever—ain’t like falling off a log. While traditions exist around the healing use of psychedelics, those traditions are not endemic to my culture. Much of the contemporary WEIRD-world advice out there is so obvious as to be nearly useless, or else so caught up in genuflection to relativism that it amounts to little more than six dozen ways to say, “there’s no wrong way to do it.”

Here is where Leary might be due at least some small redemption. Along with then-colleagues Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass), he authored The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A recent solo trip taken per many of the Manual’s instructions incurred significantly less turmoil, allowing more time spent glimpsing the numinous than some of my previous psilocybin outings.

All Leary and company seemingly took from the Tibetan Bardo Thodol was a conceptual framework. In turn, the authors heaped respect on their source material, never equating psychedelic revelations with hard-won enlightenment. Still, it’s a document from a less conscious era, and I’d be curious to know how someone raised in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition feels about the authors' appropriations.

I share this other Wired writer’s reservations about the commercialization of psychedelic therapy, now fully underway. I’ve looked at investments in the space, but my hunch is that more benefit will come from funding research, policy reform, and training for guides and therapists.

We're lucky to have the Manual as one basis for training, but should we be concerned that a primary resource for a rapidly expanding sub-field of mental health is nearly sixty years old? Consider: the text that inspired its authors dates back to the 8th century. As becomes apparent in the dwindling glimmer of many a trip, perhaps what’s needed now has been there all along.

Nice NA bevs

something for your body

Avoiding alcohol is another tool for keeping the blues at bay. Problem is, many situations demand a beverage in hand, and non-booze options are usually lousy. I’ve slipped back into drinking on more than one occasion for want of something satisfying to sip.

Thankfully, there are now genuinely nice things to drink that won’t interfere with your meds or your next day’s workout.

If you like Italian amari—Campari and Aperol and other bittersweet herbal liquors—then you’ll dig the offerings from Casamara Club. A Negroni used to be my standard bar call, so I’m a fan of the Alta, inspired by said cocktail. The salinity on the finish might be what’s missing from their competitors.

I’ve also been pleased to see Athletic Brewing’s cans on more menus. Their core lineup of a couple boozeless IPAs and a Golden Ale is reliably good. Some of their one-off experiments have been tasty, too, demonstrating that near beer doesn't have to be limited to monotone lagers.

Summer of Soul

something for your soul

Deep into learning screenwriting, there were stretches in the past several years where I watched a movie per day—sometimes two or three. According to Letterboxd, I’ve seen just nine movies so far this year. Lesson learned: a baby will fuck your watchlist cadence right up.

We recently made time to watch Summer of Soul. Taken purely for the music, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t enjoy the lineup, a who’s-who of late ‘60s Black artists. The story of lost-and-found footage provides a neat frame, but the memories of neighborhood attendees elevate it from a concert film to a moving reminder of what representation can mean to a community.

After two years of pandemic caution and nearly a year of new parent constraints, I’m starved for live music. In that respect, Summer of Soul was a hearty meal that still left me hungry for more. Worth the watch, even if you have to split it over two nights, as we did.

That’s it for the inaugural issue! Thanks for reading. I’ll return to your inbox in a couple weeks.