Adventures With Max Maven
Photo: Piero Sierra
1. The Drug Electric #
It was at one of the conventions. I don’t remember which—maybe TAOM. I stumble upon Eric Mead, Michael Weber, and Max Maven in light conversation. We exchange secret handshakes, then Eric excuses himself for a bit while Max runs to the restroom. Weber and I chat about his family while waiting for Max to return. Shortly thereafter, we’re all discussing Greek philosophers. Max quizzes me about the origin of some particular idea. He seems impressed when I attribute the concept to Epictetus—or maybe it was Erasmus. I get those two confused. Weber laughs and excuses himself. He’s probably going to catch up with Eric.
Out of the blue, Max asks if I’d be interested in experiencing an altered state of consciousness. The answer is, of course, yes.
So, we leave the alcove of the lobby for the relative privacy of the men’s room. From a small pill box, Max dumps a few white tablets onto the vanity. Then, he produces some electrodes. That’s right—electrodes. This looks promising. He asks if I am allergic to any medications. I say that I’m not even though I do have some drug allergies. He must have read my mind because he immediately crumbles one of the pills, mashes it into a paste with the help of a water droplet, and rubs the mixture on my inner wrist—which becomes irritated almost immediately. “I guess you’ll have to take a lower dose,” he says. That sounds a bit risky, but who cares. If anything gets out of hand, there’s a doctor in the building. Probably.
So, we both ingest what I assume is some form of black label narcotic. Then Max explains to me that we need to attach the electrodes to the sides of our foreheads—just above the temples. I’ve used TENS for physical therapy before, so this doesn’t alarm me at all. Plus, I’m curious about transdermal cranial stimulation, and this seems like a great time to jump into the deep end of that pool. I’m starting to piece it all together: the combination of the substance and transdermal cranial stimulation will simulate some sort of psychedelic or hallucinogenic experience. Here we go.
We calmly leave the restroom—sporting the latest in electrode fashion—and return to the cushioned chairs at the end of the lobby. I’m facing the wall; Max faces the lobby. No one seems to be paying attention. Great. He instructs me to close my eyes and relax into the chair, then turn the knob on the pocket-sized device connected to the electrodes until I start to zone out. I’ll know when I reach that point, he says. I slowly begin to turn the dial, and sure enough, I start to feel somewhat kinesthetically removed from the situation and I’m not able to visualize anything in my mind. It’s hard to describe, but it was like someone turned off my imaginative faculties—like a black screen in my head. Interestingly enough, I can still hear Max speaking.
He’s describing his first visuals, but I’m only halfway listening because I’m a bit frustrated that nothing really cool is happening for me yet. Maybe it’s the lower dose. Then, out of nowhere, I see in my mind something like a photo in a frame. It’s a picture of dark water with purple highlights and columns of rock standing in a small lake. Not exactly mind blowing, but it’s a start. I describe this out loud, and Max tells me to make it black and white, which I am able to do with a minimum of mental effort. Immediately after I desaturate the image, the photograph vanishes and a new scene emerges that feels much closer.
I’m not quite immersed in the scene, but I feel as though I’m right on the edge. The experience is of me climbing to the top of a grass covered hill, and upon reaching the top of the hill, seeing a wide and respectably tall waterfall on the other side. This is more interesting, but I’m not sure it’s any better than just using my imagination without the drug electric. Once again, I make the image black and white, and it fades away. Then for a brief moment, I see the Sun in black and white before that dissolves too.
Photo: Ray Morris
There’s a short interval and then instantly I’m in the Australian outback on a perfectly clear night. I’m not actually there—my brain is still aware of that—but it’s quite convincing nonetheless. I have 360 degree access to the vision and I can move around inside of it. I stare up at the night sky and I see the stars and the Milky Way. It’s breathtaking.
And then the stars begin to move.
Everything else stays fixed, but the stars begin to move and dance, coalesce and spiral symmetrically—slowly at first and then faster and faster. That might not seem impressive to read on a page, but the experience of being in that environment is so incredible that I become giddy and start to laugh uncontrollably—in the hotel lobby. Everything must have kicked in simultaneously. And just like that, I’m now sold on this electrochemical chimera.
The peak experience lasts only a couple of minutes, but I am one with nature for these few moments. Then my body begins to stabilize its chemistry, and the whole thing fades away. I turn down the knob and unsnap the wires from the electrodes that are stuck to my head. Max has already done the same. He is smiling from ear to ear, as am I, and we head back to the loo where we rinse our faces, trade stories, and wipe away the sweat. Yeah, you sweat a little. But the main effect is worth the side effect. To this day, I have no idea what I ingested or where to find one of those devices.
Maybe it’ll be in the lecture notes.
2. The Secret City #
The flight to Russia seemed to take forever. I’m excited though, because I’ve never flown across the Atlantic. I arrive in Moscow and meet up with Brad Henderson and Max Maven. We’re all participating in the same event. There’s a full-sized van with a driver waiting to take us into the city. Off we go. There isn’t much to see in the beginning—just a few tenement buildings in the distance. Then we hit traffic.
Now, I’m no stranger to traffic. I know Houston traffic, Atlanta traffic, and Austin traffic (which is worse than you might imagine). I’ve even driven through New York City during rush hour. But Moscow has the absolute worst traffic imaginable. There’s a vehicle over every square inch of pavement. There are so many cars that drivers are using the four lane highway as a six lane highway. If the Russian winter wasn’t so cold, I’d open the window and touch one of the cars—just because I can.
After a couple of hours, we aren’t even halfway across town, so we stop for coffee. It’s a café and restaurant; we are the only customers. Everyone else must be in a vehicle on the street. Nevertheless, it’s a nice break. Then we get back into the van and continue to inch closer to our hotel. The Sun is starting to set and it is getting colder (because the van lacks heating,) so we strike up a conversation about magic theory to take our minds off of the cold. Max is prismatically insightful.
Photo: Alexey Kljatov
Darkness sets in and the conversation dies down, and just as everyone is nodding off, we are hit from behind by a big man in a little car. Our driver parks at the point of impact—right in the middle of the massive thoroughfare. He assures us that everything will be OK and exits the vehicle to negotiate with the offender. I guess this is how it’s done—you try to reach a deal that doesn’t involve insurance, and if that doesn’t work, you call the police. This is going to be a very long day—and I have to pee.
I tell Max and Brad that I’m going to go find a place to relieve myself—in the middle of Russia, on the side of the interstate, knowing maybe three or four Russian words. I exit the van, carefully cross all lanes of traffic and jump over the concrete barrier into the grass. I’m still within eyesight of motorists, so I look around for an impromptu bathroom in a secluded spot, and I spot a trail leading off into the woods. Lacking common sense, I decide to follow the trail into the Russian forest at night.
After walking a hundred feet or so, I notice the shadows of two people approaching me, so even though I’m far enough into the woods to take care of business, I keep walking so I don’t alarm them by stopping abruptly. At this point, I am of course preparing for my imminent robbery. I left my money in the van; I hope they aren’t too upset. When they are about 30 feet away, I lock eyes with one of them. Maintain eye contact; that’s my strategy. If it’s good enough for great white shark encounters, it’s good enough for Vlad & Boris here. Needless to say, once the pair are within striking distance, they give an almost imperceptible head nod, and pass to my left. Strangers in the night. Exchanging glances.
The adrenaline has temporarily shut down my urge to pee, so I keep walking for half a minute or so, then turn around to check on the duo, but they’ve mysteriously vanished. Odd. So, I water the forest and return to the van. Brad immediately informs me that the grass in this part of the world is known for having some sort of disease-carrying tick or flea. This concerns me only mildly, for I’ve just thwarted an imaginary robbery, and I’m still in the afterglow of a nice pee.
The police arrive, the accident gets sorted out, and we’re back on the road. It takes over seven hours to go from the airport to the hotel. We could have driven from Paris to Munich in less time. Well, at least we made it. The hotel is three or four stories tall and is equipped with a tiny elevator—like something from the French Quarter of New Orleans. We’re told not to drink the tap water or shower too long. There’s a strange feeling in the midnight air.
The next morning, I find Max in the lounge checking his email on a tiny laptop. He’s using AOL, which is geographically amusing to me. Brad arrives. Back in the van we go. There’s one more of us now. He’s a mime and a juggler. He doesn’t look like a juggler. He looks like a fisherman. The four of us are driven out of the city, past checkpoints on back roads, and into a secret municipality on the outskirts of Moscow.
We are told that the city was once a Soviet secret and didn’t appear on any map until long after the Cold War ended. Even today, the people who live there almost never leave—and very few people visit. Max is dressed in loose-fitting black clothing. He looks a little like an Orthodox priest, so he turns quite a few heads.
For lunch, we eat some form of meat and potatoes, then stroll around the miniature city. This is the home of the Russian space program. There are statues, a museum, and training facilities for cosmonauts. A friend of mine has been living here for a metric year and has arranged this get-together to celebrate and thank the people who have helped him train for his mission.
That evening, at the community center, we stage an evening of entertainment for the proletariat and some dignitaries. There’s magic, mind reading, and fishing—I mean juggling. After the show, we drink vodka with the locals, then return to the dormitory of my astro-cosmonaut friend to eat dinner in the lobby restaurant and bar. Everyone’s having a good time. A bottle of Tawny port makes an appearance. Everyone’s having a better time. I keep the bottle—the year on the label is significant to me.
Things get a bit blurry here. Fast forward to the end. My flight back to the States is in just a few hours. I’m at the hotel conveniently located on the opposite side of town, and my driver is over two hours late. Brad and Max have already departed, so I have no backup plan and an expiring visa. Finally, the driver arrives—rather groggy and mildly apologetic. Last time it took us seven hours to cross the city. Hopefully this time we’ll have better luck.
We dart off into the city at high speed. The soundtrack for the ride is Russian pop-punk duo TATU—singing in Russian, of course. I’m in the backseat slightly worried about being pulled over and forced to pay a bribe to avoid a lengthy detainment. Thankfully, the streets are mostly abandoned in the middle of the night. Just as false dawn arrives, I see the airport in the distance. I thank the driver, give him my leftover Russian currency as a tip, and fly back to the United States—where I have a 9AM class in Constitutional Law to attend the next morning.
I sit in class and patiently wait for someone to ask me about my weekend.
PS: Only one of the above stories is true. The other is nothing more than a vivid, melatonin-fueled dream that I had recently.