APHoCiC #2 – “Romancing the Stone”

Welcome to our next stop, phase 2. These first three installments of the series all take place at a point in my life before I smoked pot – grade school and junior high. In APHoCiC #1, I looked back the first time I saw cannabis in a movie. As you might remember reading, I didn’t know what it actually was until I was told. I’m sure there were several movies where it just flew under my little-kid-radar completely. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So in this entry, I look at “Romancing the Stone,” where now I know what I don’t know … I know what cannabis is [in a story], but I don’t know quite what it means … like a word perfectly placed in a Mad Lib, even though I don’t know the definition of that word … get it?

Before, I said ‘are those dots?’; but after a few years of watching “Romancing the Stone,” I was connecting the dots. Beginning, to connect the dots.

Also, I had been watching the two movies in this blog post for years, before I noticed their cannabis content. It wasn’t until I came back to them years later – having learned what getting stoned was – that I realized what was really going on with those characters, and the how that moves the story along.

So let’s jump right in – 43 minutes in, to be exact – to the swashbuckling rom-com “Romancing the Stone.” Our heroine (romance novelist Joan Wilder, played by Kathleen Turner) has eluded her captors for the time being, but now she’s stuck wading through a very rainy rain forest in equatorial Colombia, trailing behind the hopefully expert leadership of Jack T. Colton (played by Michael Douglas). Soaked to the bone, with no sign of any trail, they happen upon the fuselage of a downed airplane – a dry spot to set up camp for the night, and wait out this torrential rain.

Exploring the fuselage’s darkened interior, they make their cautious way up to the cockpit, to find the pilot’s corpse draped over the yoke (steering wheel). Across its back are the readably emblematic words ‘Grateful Dead.’ (The first time I’d heard that phrase, which left me scratching my head.) The next shot is of Jack making a fire, tossing bricks of – what ?! – export marijuana. Kilo upon kilo of Colombian Gold, beh-beh – the best! “Now that’s what I call a campfire,” he smugly jests, as he leans back, tranquilo and kicking off his boots after a long day.

What caught my attention here was an intellectual conundrum I had around Joan Wilder’s grammar. Because when she sees Jack – yes, making a fire – but also making a ton of smoke, in a relatively enclosed space, she grimaces. He notices. She tells him she knows what it is. “You smoke it?” Jack asks her. And this is where I got caught. She responds with a shrug and “I went to college.”

In my 10 year-old brain, I couldn’t figure out if that meant she learned about marijuana in some advanced health class in college … or that she smoked it while she was a student in college. Was smoking pot in college some sort of … rite of passage or development? Hearing her say it that way, did it mean that everybody smoked/smokes pot in college – or that you study what marijuana is, in the classes you take? Which was it? My ideas of what college was [remember those?] were quite young and under-informed. But I figured that Teenagers had sex in high school … sooooo, maybe when they get one stop closer to adulthood, they … do their drugs at college … ? … I didn’t know. And I would lay on the couch, a pleasantly puzzled 10 year-old, wondering if she meant one thing, or the other.

As a film sequence, it’s soft-spoken and unassuming. It’s also, in this podcaster’s humble opinion, one of the great [unheralded] pot-smoking scenes in cinema. First of all – it makes for a great scene to get stoned to. Campfire light, catching up on rock&roll in the latest Rolling Stone magazine. Take a load off, relax-recuperate-heal, reflect on where you’ve been and what lies ahead and where you want to go. That visionary state – of pensively considering one’s potential future[s] – is one that would eventually carry over to my own approach to smoking pot and getting stoned.

Contemplative vibez.

Honorable Mention – “Wargames” was another one of those movies that I watched 4 or 5 times in grade school, and then didn’t come back to it until my last year of college. By that time, I’d been smoking for several years. I thought I knew all the pot references in my parents’ home video library. But one Saturday morning I saw “Wargames” on the shelf and remembered Oh yeah, that’s a good one; I haven’t seen that in a little while. So I popped it in the VCR, rewound the tape, pressed play, and went to the bathroom. The opening credits were just a little bit of plot exposition, right … ? Since I already knew the movie, I didn’t mind missing a couple minutes of it.

A couple minutes later I’m exiting the bathroom and I hear the word “sinsemilla” come down the hall. I immediately perk up. I’d only heard that word used in one context. Sin – without, semilla – seed. The marijuana without seeds was prized as the prettiest, tastiest, and most potent. (This was gleaned from my pre-internet cannabis research). Did something get taped over “Wargames”? Something with pot in it? What new movie had pot in it? I darted back into the living room. Standing in between the couch and television, I recognized that this was indeed the opening to “Wargames” so I re-rewound it and watched as the familiar scene unravelled in front of my new eyes.

Out of the bluster of a windy snowstorm, two people enter a fully-furnished suburban home, toting large briefcases. They remove their heavy coats once inside what appears to be a well-kept – if slightly outdated – living room. As they hold their badges up to the hallway mirror, we see the other side of that [two-way] mirror, where our two characters are buzzed in, to a buzzing, peopled top-secret military post.

In a fortuitous case of human error/folly, it turns out our two entrants are late for a work shift (a clock the wall reads 5:10). Capt. Jerry Lawson* (played by a very pre-“West Wing” John Spencer) is getting ribbed for always being late – snowstorm or no snowstorm. Their small talk is peculiar in contrast to the immensity of all the blinking gadgets – all the wall-space is either a display screen or input switchboard of some sort – not to mention their revolvers whose chambers they spin-check in front of one another. And yet they converse lightly, alarmingly unseriously. Should people be so blase and chit-chatty under such consequential circumstances?

“See you in twenty four,” Lawson bids to a seated coworker, as he heads toward the elevator. “See you tomorrow.” Our two protagonists enter an elevator which takes them down, down, down. As the audience, we are slowly coming to realize that this is a missile silo – a secret, underground missile silo. This realization unfurls so satisfyingly (props to director John Badham and an Academy Award-nominated sound design team) that you would be forgiven for not realizing the subject of their workplace chit-chat, while riding the elevator down.

They’re talking about growing pot – specifically, Lawson is detailing how his dealer chants a Sanskrit mantra (om mani padme hum) for hours over the sprouting seeds of her upcoming crop. Does it work? Lawson boasts that she grows “the most beautiful wandoos you’ve ever seen.” (Ed. note – this is the first and only time I’ve ever heard the term ‘wandoo.’) Plus, he adds, to drive the point home, these plants wind up yielding “primo stuff. Resin city.” Primo? Resin? I know cannabis talk when I hear it.

After clearing a computerized security lock, a very, very thick door slowly opens and the previous team exits – again, ribbing our pot-loving missile commanders for their tardiness. Typical clocking-out crowd vs. clocking-in crowd interaction. Just as slowly but twice as loudly, the 4-ft. thick blast-door closes behind them. They are locking themselves inside a vault.

Their previous conversation continues, the thread picked up by Lt. Steve Phelps, the younger of the two – played by a baby-faced Michael Madsen in his second film role. “So, that was, like, sensemillia, right?” In response, Capt. Lawson re-mispronouces the term (it’s sensimilla – there’s no ‘l,’ no second ‘i’ and the double-l makes a ‘y’ sound). It was this articulation that had me poking my head in from the hallway. Leaving nothing to the imagination, Lawson opines “this grass makes Thai stick taste like oregano.” 20-year-old me’s mouth fell open. ho. lee. shit. That is what they’re talking about.

It’s difficult to stop talking about all the heady implications so artfully & enjoyably laid out over the next 90 minutes. So that’s it for the cannabis references. But if you’d like to entertain some discussion of the weightier topics, philosophies and artistic choices of the filmmakers, then please – read on.

Turns out they are Air Force missileers, ever-vigilant, ever-ready to launch the nuclear warheads under their command, should they receive the proper signal. It’s worth noting that this opening 6 minutes is entirely viable as a short film, all on its own. It bears little stylistic resemblance to the rest of the movie – although thematically, it lays out the core thematic premises beautifully. At this point in the blog, I should point out, it’s very difficult to mention “Wargames” without explicating & exploring these premises.

I’m gonna try to fight that temptation.


I mean, this is a series about cannabis references, not sci-fi implications for humanity …

{oh shit, it’s starting}

{explosive exhale} The smallness of their small talk is expertly juxtaposed with the immensity of not only the byzantine military apparatus (of which these two men are mere cogs), but also the inconscionable magnitude of MutuallyAssuredDestruction. The secrets-of-your-stoniest-weed vibe is killed by a blinking warning light. the younger of the two, leuitenant Phelps notices this blinking and reports it to Capt. Lawson, who advises Phelps to “give it a thump with your finger”. The light stops blinking, everything returns to normal. You don’t have to know rank in order to see that one of these men issues orders, and one complies. It also pinpoints a burning question later posed more graphically – where is man to be placed in relation to machine? What do they really mean when they later discuss keeping men “in the loop” or “pulling them outta the loop” of our increasingly computerized military response / world?

But for now, it’s just a blooping glitch that is alleviated by human touch. The computers are larger than people, more powerful, but the humans control the computers. Right? I mean, a computer only does what it’s told,; I think.

Or is it a harbinger of something more? Their silence is broken by a clear warning alarm. They begin dutifully executing a precise course of action[s] – their near-syncopation illustrating that they have clearly been trained for this exact protocol. The men receive a launch code (from a human voice) and then enter that code into their computers, who confirm their codes, and coldly report that their “target selection is complete.”

At this point, as a viewer, I assumed this was one of those high-falutin’ cinema moves where you open with the ‘final’ scene, and then we watch what slowly leads up to that ending over the course of the movie. I mean, it looked like the end of the world was goin’ down, so … {hunches shoulders}.

The next move for our missileers is to enable the nuclear warheads – 10 total – by individually flipping a switch for each one, which each man does. At this point, a peculiar reversal has occured. Phelps is cool, smooth, efficient and precise. It is Lawson now, who manages to keep up with Philps but is visibly sweating. He appears to be considering something outside the silo, something larger than the immediate environment. Then it hits him – he needs to hear from an outside voice; not a procedure or a computer-generated directive. So he gets on a telephone and places a call.

Phelps, confusedly, reminds (just this side of admonishes) Capt. Lawson that what he is doing (seeking human confirmation) is “not the correct procedure.” Lawson, fully embodying human-ness and humanity, retorts “Screw the correct procedure; I want somebody on the phone before I kill 20 million people.” Phelps, adhering to an implied oath to follow the order [/procedure], fully completes the rank reversal. In perfect Chekovian fashion, we find out why those revolvers were issued & examined on the way in. As the pressure grows unbearable, the scene abrupty ends, leaving the audience to equally ponder both sides of well did he, or didn’t he?

The next scene, the first scene of the ‘movie’ we’ve all come to know & love, is the national security higher-ups arguing about what the previous scenario (played out amongst several silos, we learn; one in five refusing to turn their keys) means for them. It’s presumed amongst them that this was a ‘failure.’ Upon reflection, I personally would classify it as more of a victory – but moving on … … So they all agree something went wrong. The two camps are basically Gen. Beringer, calling for a revision of their psychological screening procedure; versus Dr. McKittrick, who takes the position of removing the men entirely, aptly stating “You can’t screen out human response.” Ironically, it might be McKittrick’s [uniquely human] hubris which leads him to this computers-only position – he cocreated the computer system which stands to command all the nuclear missile silos, should they go fully-automated (i.e. remove humans from the loop). McKittrick is not military, he cowrote gaming software, which the military bought and repurposed for running its nuclear arsenal: troop movements, shifting weather patterns, Soviet missile tests (this is 1983, remember). Technically, he’s a coder, a computer geek – his sense of military strategy is all theory. He’s never served. In a telling exchange, he argues that – in the case of a nuclear attack – we can’t afford to have people who “refuse to turn their keys when the computer tells them to.” His assistant quickly corrects “You mean when the president orders them to.” This notion, of one human in the loop (perhaps at the ‘top’ or ‘beginning’), seems agreeable to McKittrick.

The next scene continues the theme of human-machine interaction from NORAD to the local arcade. We began with adults and their serious arguing – now we see kids interacting with computers on their own terms, for fun, congregation and maybe a mind tickle or two, deciphering code in the language of hand/eye coordination. We can juxtapose how Lawson and Phelps touched their machines (flipping switches, typing, turning keys) versus how the youth touch theirs via joysticks and buttons. These are still wargames, in a way. They’re laser guns on spaceships and bombs of varying explosivity – or at least computer representations of such things. Which is another theme – reality versus its representation. McKittrick’s system (War Operation Program Response – WOPR) crunches numbers all day, approximating something reasonably close to reality. Let’s call it high-probability reality. But it has no human heart at its core. Just floating glitches, allowing humans the opportunity to ‘thump it with their finger’. It was when Spencer trusted his gut feeling – a human instinct which computers don’t have. He was correct – there was no Soviet attack. However, correctness was wrong, according the military apparatus. Ascertaining the situation correctly, has now officially become a liability. Which is why youthful game-brain (fun) is destined to beat adult strategy-brain (M.A.D.)

Children use technological advancement for fun. That’s probably why they are so often at the forefront of it’s trajectory. The pursuit of joy beats war & domination. Humans must stay in the loop; which means ‘human error’ must stay in the loop, as well.

So we see David Lightman – my personal first view of a ‘hacker’ – playing a wargame of Galaga. Most of the rest of the world is still wearing analog wristwatches in 1983, but David wears a digital watch – a small computer – which unfortunately, tells him he is late for class. Another character running late. Of note, in this blogger’s opinion, is David’s next gesture. In a single bodily motion, he hands the game off to another kid, younger than himself. This is the spiritual heart of the movie for me. Sharing, in the spirit of joy, passing fun along with no attachment to where it goes from there. Post-evaluative maneuvering. This spirit of bonhomie is what sets the youth apart from the adults. Their endeavors start off in opposite directions.

The class David is late for is Biology. The instructor is covering seed germination. (No, he does not recommend chanting om mani padme hum over them, but good remembering). The next topic discussed is asexual reproduction – talk about being taken ‘out of the loop,’ amIright? After an expert zing on his teacher, David is dismissed from class to the principal’s office to discuss his attitude. Here at the front desk, we see another security apparatus at work. Granted, the dutch door David passes through is not quite the 4′-thick blast-door we saw earlier in the silo, but it similarly delineates gate-keeping and privilege – past the front desk, into the inner sanctum of administrative authority. And also, where the password to the school district’s computer system is hidden. (Usually, you need to learn the password in order to get in; this time around, David needs to get in, in order to learn the password. Weird.) We see the list of expired passwords, crossed off, with the newest iteration at the bottom. I love that list. Computers are astoundingly secure, and yet they are no match for human ingenuity.

Next, we see two missileers out of a job, chairs removed, replaced by circuit-boards plugged straight into the walls of the silo. David eventually makes a WOPR out of his own personal computer system, in pursuit of the latest gaming software. {exhales, catches breath} So, I won’t take the whole movie beat by beat, and dissect it in order to unpack how all the themes are presented and addressed. That sounds like a novella-sized beast. The themes are actually refreshingly modern: the distancing effect of technology on warfare, the linking of videogames to military technology, youth outwitting a corrupt adult caste, where AI and humanity diverge. I even found myself wondering if Joshua the computer program was a character. Was NORAD?

Actually, there is one more pot reference, about halfway in. David’s been arrested by the FBI and locked inside a spare room in NORAD. Alone & essentially imprisoned, David brainiacs a way out, giving the electronic door-lock a solid MacGuyvering that includes, among other things, a hand-held tape recorder. To make sure the tape recorder works, David presses Play. It’s a doctor’s diagnosis. “Patient’s eyes are dilated, consistent with use of marijuana. And possibly PCP.” He presses stop. Like the rest of us, in so many ways, he’s heard enough.

Since I can’t think of any other character in NORAD who would be diagnosed, I presume it’s a diagnosis of David, and that he knew the tape recorder was in that drawer because that’s where he saw the in-house shrink put it after their hasty diagnosis. It does say a lot about how the cultural fears of the time are weaponized institutionally in the process of othering an ‘enemy,’ in this case a drug diagnosis for a State-threatening savant. At this point in the story, they’re convinced that he’s “working for the Russians.” The irony being that this allegedly dusted teenager just out-maneuvered every single one of them – to get to the WOPR.

Last interesting tidbit – The film’s writers (Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes) claim that the dialogue in the silo scene was written by their uncredited friend, named … … … Wally Green.
Okay – c’mon, guys.

Jerry Lawson

excellent essay

3rd episode – David

Oh, good – you’re here!

This is the last of the three interviews I did the month after legalization, i.e. over two years ago. While I have since refined the trajectory of this podcast, they (the interviews) still do a good job of reflecting those first concerns that come up when yesterday’s crime becomes today’s … hmmm … today’s what? Today’s pioneering? Today’s toleration? There has been very little envisioning of what successful legalization is. The good news is that we (and by we I mean you) get to define what lawful, effective cannabis consumption looks like.

While David is a cis-het white male, he is also a single dad, of a 4-year-old son. While it might be a stretch to qualify him as a “marginalized” voice, it does qualify as a voice that isn’t often included in the Conversation around cannabis use and law reform. David is also a master at empathetic listening (paying attention to another person with emotional identification, compassion, insight) – which is gold in my line of work. Just talking with him helped me tighten up my game.

After 5:17 of introduction, our conversation begins with a check-in about what has[n’t] changed since the full implementation of Measure 91, where we end up sharing stories about interactions with our respective neighbors.  By 15 minutes in, we’ve taken a turn toward the philosophic – what is therapeutic, what is a vice? Because let’s face it, it’s time to move past ‘I know it when I see it.’ It’s time to name it. Once we’re into the narrative arc of David’s booze ⇒ cannabis transformation,  at 28:00 is my favorite quote of the interview – reflecting on the creeping suspicion that smoking early in the day (instead as the topping-off of a night out drinking), David reflects ” … maybe it’ll be great.” The perfect attitude! Our response to cannabis is so often dictated by how we approach it. David’s positive curiosity proves the cornerstone of his advantageous, thoroughly enjoyable relationship to pot nowadays.  At 37 minutes in, he paints a picture of his ‘dealer’ which flies in the face of the negative stereotypes we’ve been taught. After that topic, I wind up walking David through the conversations I’ve had with my own [10 year-old] son regarding marijuana [and my use of it] over the years – what we talked about, at what age, etc. ‘Normalization’ is a bit of a buzzword now, and at 44:00, David points out how an exchange I was describing exemplifies how to normalize cannabis through honest dialogue. Then he tells a story about what consumption looks like in his household. After some speculation on how Washington D.C.’s radically different strategy of legalization might be playing out, we touch on (at 58:00) what I feel to be the heart of this podcast – how the exchange of self-narratives  best prepares us for integrating [with] the status quo. This leads to a humorous tangent about how not to engage across difference. We go a little bit into how much we reveal on social media, until we end with speculations on what else legalization may bring.

Interview date – August 2015 (two months into marijuana legalization)
Recorded on – Tascam DR-05 [handheld] digital recorder
Edited with – Audacity software

Always appreciated are donations in the form of: graphic design know-how, audio recording/editing know-how, website design know-how.

This show is recorded in full compliance with the Cole Memorandum.