Wednesday, November 7, 2012


In his new autobiography, Neil Young comes clean.  Because of his recent brain surgery, and under the advice of his physicians, he quit smoking marijuana.  He put down the pipe in January 2011 and hasn’t smoked since.  Not bad for a guy who’s been stoned since the sixties.  Inspired by his adult daughter’s journey into sobriety, he also gave up alcohol.  Any good child of the sixties is naturally drawn to experimenting with altered states of consciousness.  And when you’ve been stoned and drunk for forty years, sobriety is the new high.
            At first he worried, will I be able to write songs?  Will I still want to make music?  But the dam soon broke – he returned to his craft with renewed zeal and ferocity recording two albums in a row with his long time and distortion drenched rock band Crazy Horse.  The first was a collection of folk standards called Americana.  The second, released on October 30, is the first ever collection of originals by the clean and sober songwriter.  Psychedelic Pill put his worries to rest.  Neil Young’s star has never shined brighter.
            I quit drinking eleven years ago, and put down the pipe many years before that.  The pursuit of music was so deeply interwoven with those two activities, I too wondered if I would ever again write and perform music with the same conviction and abandon.  My fears were mislaid.  In fact, the opposite occurred.  When I came out of the fog, I began to write much better songs.  And I became clearer about how to record and perform those songs more effectively.  My entire recording career as a solo artist and the success I enjoyed with my band The Coyote Problem, including all the San Diego Music Awards, happened after I got clean.  It’s like I awakened from a dream, walked outside, and found the courage to take my place in the sun.  The stoned and drunk me was always too tentative, too wracked with self-doubt, too stuck in my own head to dare to live out loud.  I sometimes wonder how many opportunities I let slip by just so I could stay hidden.    
            Marijuana and alcohol are tricky.  One is legal and one is not.  Anyone can see the indefensible absurdity of drug and alcohol laws.  It makes no sense that alcohol is legal, widely available and socially sanctioned while marijuana is not.  It’s perfectly respectable to drink three glasses of wine as your eyes glaze over and your cheeks turn red.  Police officers, judges, governors, mothers and priests do it all the time.  But smoke one puff of a plant you grew in your own backyard and you’re a criminal.  None of it makes any sense.
            Yet marijuana use is not without its personal costs.  It may not be as benign as its advocates proclaim.
            Last year one of my students came to see me in my office.  She was a brilliant, articulate, well read and thoughtful young woman.  I wasn’t sure what she’d come to discuss.  After fidgeting and staring at the floor for a long, uncomfortable silence she said, “I have a drug problem.”
            Then it all spilled out.
            The drug was marijuana.  Not only was she a daily smoker, she stayed stoned from the moment she awoke in the morning till the moment she went to bed.  There was never one single moment of one single day when she wasn’t stoned.  As she told me her story, one word kept cycling around in my mind.  More than anything else she seemed brokenhearted.
            She wasn’t interested in counseling or therapy.  As a college professor I had all those resources at my fingertips, and was ready with phone numbers.  She shook her head.  She only had one question.  “What should I do?”
            “What do you want to do?” I asked.
            “I don’t know.  I don’t think I want to quit,” she said, “but I can’t keep going like this.”
            And that was the crux.  Her restlessness, her anger, her dissatisfaction, her discomfort were powerful messages in and of themselves.  Sometimes suffering is a gift.  It’s o.k. if you don’t know what to do next, I told her.  Sometimes it’s enough to know that you can’t stay here.
            A particularly poignant part of her story was the fact that her mother, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, has a medical marijuana card and smokes to dull the edge of her chronic pain.  It’s easy to see that marijuana is a remarkably effective medicine for certain chronic conditions and used judiciously it can be a highly beneficial component of palliative care.  But every medicine is also a poison.  Her family home was filled with clouds of marijuana smoke.  For everyone in the house, including her two younger siblings, marijuana consumption was as commonplace as breathing air.  How was she going to find the courage to put down the pipe under these conditions?  It’s easy to support medical marijuana in principle, but our passionate public discourse on the issue rarely considers the long shadow cast by these clouds of smoke.
            We talked for a while and looked at it from every angle.  I didn’t preach or tell her what to do.  It was enough to simply be present with her confusion and frustration.  The only suggestion I offered was experimenting with a temporary hiatus.  Why not stop for a week or two, just to see what happens – just to see who you are without it.  Marijuana powerfully and effectively shifts one’s emotional and conceptual frameworks.  It might be instructive to see what the options are.  It might be helpful to see what it feels like to not be stoned.
            When she left I felt frustrated and a little worried.  I wished I could have been more helpful.  But the best we can do for each other is bear witness.  I cannot choose for her.  Her authentic freedom is a Holy Grail only she can find.
            She said she would try to quit for a while just to see how it felt.
            The next time I saw her she was stoned.
            It’s funny.  When you first begin drinking and smoking, you do it because it lifts you over your adolescent awkwardness.  It helps you overcome fear and sets you free to connect with others.  It softens the pain and clears out the clutter so you can more immediately experience beauty and joy.  Then it turns around.  As the consumption becomes habitual, it begins to have the opposite effect.  The life of the addict and alcoholic is a life of increasing isolation and disconnection.  You get stuck in your own little world.  Things lose their luster and turn dull.  It just stops working.  You feel anything but free.  And a small voice inside of you starts asking for something more.
            Drugs and alcohol are neither good nor evil.  I seriously doubt the criminal justice system has any significant role to play, apart from the obviously sensible prohibitions against driving under the influence.  What we put in our bodies is by its very nature a very personal and private decision.  Each of us must bear the burden of our own choices, and take responsibility for crafting our own best lives.  That some are more competent in this task than others is clear.  But we must never dogmatize about how others are to live their lives.  It is hard enough to live our own.  Human beings have sought out consciousness altering substances since the beginning of time and no set of laws or social conventions is going to change that.  But the deeper and more pressing question remains.  What role do these substances have in a fully realized, vibrant and joyful life?  There’s only one person who knows the answer to that question.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Obituary ~ Hilbert Bolland

This obituary originally appeared in the Ventura County Star on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hilbert Bolland (February 19, 1922 – October 26, 2012)

Hilbert Bolland of Ventura, California died peacefully on October 26, 2012 at the age of ninety.  A memorial service will be held on Saturday, November 10 at 11:00 a.m. at Unity Church of Ventura, 740 E. Main St., Ventura, California.  He is survived by his brother and sister-in-law Hans and Ida Bolland, his wife of sixty six years Amy Bolland, their three sons and daughters-in-law Eric and Patty Bolland, John and Lourana Bolland and Peter and Lori Bolland, along with eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Named after his grandfather, Hilbert Bolland was born on February 19, 1922 on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.  His father had taken a position as a school teacher with the government of the Dutch East Indies.  His oldest sister was born in Holland, but Hilbert and the rest of his siblings were born there, growing up in the shadows of volcanoes, running barefoot through rainforests full of elephants, tigers and orangutan.

After Hilbert graduated from high school at the age of seventeen in 1939, the family took the long sea voyage back home to Holland as they had done every six years for their father’s customary six month leave of absence.  As they sailed away, they didn’t know they would never see their tropical home again.  A few weeks after their arrival in Holland, Germany invaded Poland.  Soon after, England and France declared war on Germany.  The nightmare of WWII would engulf everyone’s lives.  The peaceful islands of Indonesia became a distant memory.

Life became even more challenging in May, 1940 when the Germans invaded Holland.  The next five years of Nazi occupation brought horror that would haunt Hilbert the rest of his life.  But it was also a time of tremendous personal and professional growth.  Despite the challenges of wartime occupation, Hilbert completed three years of typographical school setting the stage for his lifetime profession in printing.
In 1943, as life in Holland grew increasingly dire, Hilbert was taken by the Nazis to Germany to work as a slave laborer in a print shop.  Despite the unimaginable terror of war, Hilbert often spoke of the kindness he received at the hands of the everyday Germans who lived and worked alongside him.  It deeply shaped him to realize that even in the midst of chaos and madness there was a spiritual core of goodness in everyone.

When the war ended in 1945 Hilbert returned to Holland.  Soon, in September 1946, he and his young sweetheart Amy Van Niel were married in the Rosicrucian Temple in Haarlem, Amy’s hometown.  Unaccustomed to the cold northern climate after a long childhood in the tropics and eager for an adventure in the new world, Hilbert convinced Amy to leave war-torn Europe.  The newlyweds sailed for America in 1950 with their two year old son Eric and another one on the way.  Their second son John was born in their new home town of West Paterson, New Jersey.  Hilbert found work doing what he loved as a typesetter at the New York Daily News.  Eight years later their third son Peter was born.

In 1962 Hilbert and Amy bought a trailer and a Chevy station wagon and moved their young family across the country to California.  They were aiming for the San Francisco Bay area, but after a swing through Los Angeles they stopped in Ventura, a quiet town just south of Santa Barbara.  Pulling over to rest at Plaza Park downtown, Amy noticed the newspaper building right across the street – the Ventura Star-Free Press (now known as the Ventura County Star).   “Why don’t you walk over and see if they need a typesetter,” she said.  Hilbert came back a half hour later.  “I start on Monday.”

Soon they bought a house on Clemson Street.  Hilbert planted two palm trees in the front yard to remind him of his childhood home in Indonesia.  He lived in that house nearly fifty years – most of his life.

Hilbert was a peaceful, contemplative and spiritual man with an ear for music, an eye for beauty and a deep love of the natural world.  He took great pleasure in being a family man and was steadfast and constant in his love for Amy and the three boys.  He greatly enjoyed his daily cup of tea with Amy every afternoon, as well as the nightly ritual of gathering the family around the dinner table for the evening meal.  Hilbert also took the family on countless camping trips and day trips exploring the America he had loved since he was a little boy in Indonesia where he had seen his first travelogues about the far-off mysterious land of grand canyons and sky high mountains.  His lifelong love of film led him to shoot and edit hundreds of hours of home movies.  He also wrote long letters home to his loved ones in Holland and enjoyed gardening and the quiet life.

Hilbert and Amy greatly enjoyed their decades of service as volunteers at the Ventura County Fair and took particular pleasure in their roles as docents at the Dudley House Historical Museum.  A lifelong learner and a natural born teacher, Hilbert often spoke to civic groups about the experiences he recounts in his self-published autobiography The Nightingale Sings Forever.  Hilbert loved Ventura very much, and gave so much back to the city he called home. 

We are honored to call him our husband, our brother, our father, our grandfather, our great-grandfather and our friend.  We will carry with us his quiet, endless love throughout the rest of the days of our lives.

The Bolland family would like to extend a special and heartfelt thank you to the entire staff of Glenwood Care Center where Hilbert was lovingly cared for during his lengthy stay, and the Rose Room Hospice staff for their compassionate end of life care during his final months.  We are deeply and eternally grateful for their constancy and kindness.

In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America,