Sunday, January 16, 2022

I Tried Kava And You Should, Too

Originally written for the Grand Geek Gathering and posted January 12th, 2022.  View here.

 I recently visited a kava bar.  A kava bar is sometimes referred to as a “nakamal,” which is a Vanuatu public house.  I wasn’t in Vanuatu, but Oakland, California, and I had never heard of kava before, which is what MeloMelo Kava Bar serves.

Having tried it, I’m going to make a prediction: Kava is going to be a big new craze in the coming decade.  I’m not the first; in 2018, Rolling Stone made the same prediction.  Alas, they could not have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic, which stalled the growth of a lot of new businesses, and in particular, restaurants and bars.

As a result of the pandemic, 2020 saw a big upswing in both anxiety and alcohol consumption, which in turn prompted a big upswing in “dry” bars and a counterculture of consuming non-alcoholic or alcohol-alternative substances.  Kava is the perfect fit for those who want to experience the fun of a bar without the side effects of alcohol, and for those who are looking for a natural remedy for anxiety.

If you’re seeking a new experience, look no further than kava.  I tried it, and you should too.

 

(Raw, unprepared kava root.)

So what is kava?

Tl;dr – Kava is an earthy drink that gives you a very gentle euphoric buzz.

Kava has been consumed by humans for millennia.  It’s the root of a plant called Piper methysticum, a relative of black pepper.  This plant is native to islands of the south Pacific.

 

Kava is a seedless plant that requires human cultivation to propagate.

It goes by many names: yaqona is Fiji, ava in Samoa, and ‘awa in Hawai’i.  There are many varieties.  Kava is the name used on Vanuatu, which is where some believe it originated.  There are over a hundred varieties, which can be roughly categorized into “noble” kava or “tudei” (two-day) kava.

The root of kava is crushed and mixed into a drink that tastes earthy and ashy.  The mild psychoactive ingredients found in kava are called kavalactones. There are 18 different kavalactones in kava, with six being the most important, and every variety has different concentrations and combinations of kavalactones.  In fact, the profile of the six kavalactones acts as a sort of “varietal fingerprint” for each plant.  (Melomelo kava bar, for example, gets its name from the “Melomelo” variety of kava, from Ambae Island.)

 

Powdered kava root.

Kavalactones are thought to act as GABA agonists and reduce the re-uptake of norepinephrine. (* See correction.)  As expected from a GABA agonist, this results in a calm, sleepy, mildly euphoric effect.

In short, it gets you high.

Kava is not regulated at any state or federal level, which is fascinating, considering it’s psychoactive.

 

Kava being strained into its drinkable form.

How does it taste and feel?

As I mentioned, Kava has an earthy, ashy, slightly “muddy” taste.  You can mix powdered kava into any drink (don’t do it with alcohol, please!) but traditional kava is simply made with water.  Served in a polished coconut shell called a bilo, it has a murky, brownish-grey color.

Upon swigging it, the first thing I noticed was that my mouth went pleasantly numb.  You know the feeling when you get Novocain at the dentist and, hours later, it’s wearing off with a gradual tingle?  That’s a bit how this felt.  It’s a pins-and-needles feeling that’s soft as opposed to prickly, and I found it enjoyable.

 

Kava in bilos.

On my first visit, I consumed three drinks, which left me feeling relaxed and friendly.  Everyone’s “tolerance” for kava is different, but as a general rule of thumb, it takes about 20 minutes to feel any effect and that effect lasts maybe two or three hours.  This was my experience.

I have heard it compared to weed, but I am allergic to cannabis (yes, really) so I can’t really tell you how they compare.  I do have a Xanax prescription and have also heard it compared to anti-anxiety medication, but I found it to be far, far milder than any anti-anxiety medication I’ve ever tried.  Certainly, it had the calming effect of anti-anxiety medication, but there was none of the clocked-out grogginess.  I felt perfectly alert and present, just calm.

Unlike alcohol, kava is not addictive and has no risk for overdosing.  After I tried it, I walked home from the kava bar and had a fantastic sleep.  The buzz is the mildest of buzzes; it’s the feeling of going to a really fun party and meeting really cool people you immediately click with.  (At kava bars, everyone “clicks” with everyone else.  Friendliest folks you’ll ever meet.)

It’s no wonder kava has such a long history of ceremonial and social importance.

 

Traditional kava ceremony in Fiji.

What’s the history?

Kava has an incredible culture that surrounds it.  Kava is the national drink of Fiji.  It’s so important to their culture that it’s featured on their one-cent coin.

In pre-colonial Fiji and Vanuatu, kava was consumed by male priests, chiefs, and elders; the ceremonies were often used to welcome visitors and open up trade between tribes.  Colonizers called the drink “grog,” a term you might have heard in old sailing books and assumed (incorrectly) that it referred to rum.  Nope.  Kava.

The kava-drinking ceremony (called yagona in Fiji) is now a major tourist attraction for the islands and open to more than just male elders.  Participants clap once before drinking the kava, exclaim “bula!”, and clap three times afterwards.  (Bula, pronounced “boolah,” translates literally to “life” and is used as both a greeting and as a way to express a wish for another’s health.  In other words, it’s “L’chaim!” or “Cheers!”)

 

Women Preparing Kava, by John La Large, 1891.

It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole when researching kava’s historical importance, and I ended up spending three or four hours reading about it before determining that I simply do not have the expertise required to tell you about kava’s history.

I will direct you instead to Kava: The Pacific Elixir, by Vincent Lebot, or to the Wikipedia page on Kava culture, or to the Kalm with Kava culture page, all of which delve into some of the ways kava shaped, influenced, and impacted various Oceanic cultures.

Learning about something like this made me feel humbled by just how little I knew about Fiji and Vanuatu.  For whatever reason, kava hasn’t yet caught on in Western culture, although it’s getting there, and I did find this ad for it in a 1915 Sears catalogue.

According to Kalm with Kava, there are currently just under 200 kava bars in the United States, and that number is growing.  (It’s nearly doubled since 2018.)

Is Kava safe?  

When people hear the word “psychoactive” they tend to immediately grow concerned (or excited, depending on who it is).  Kava is a suspected GABA agonist, just like alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines. (* See correction.)

But unlike most drugs, kava is, by all accounts, one of the safest psychoactive things you could possibly consume.

According to a statement by the World Health Organization, ““Kava has had at least a 1500-year history of relatively safe use, with liver side effects never having arisen in the ethnopharmacological data. Clinical trials of kava have not revealed hepatotoxicty as a problem. This has been confirmed by further studies evaluating the toxicology of kava drink. Based on available scientific information it can be inferred that kava as a traditional beverage is safe for human consumption.”

 

These 6 kavalactones make up 95% of the psychoactive properties of kava, but every variety has a different ratio.

It’s recommended not to combine alcohol and kava, or kava and other psychoactive drugs, because the effects can compound and kavalactones are highly interactive with other drugs.  You definitely shouldn’t drive on it due to the sedative effect.

It’s worth noting that safety applies, specifically, to the “noble” strains of kava.  The tudei kava is more potent, used mostly for ceremonial purposes (as opposed to recreation), and is not exported or legally sold.  If you are getting kava from a kava bar, it’s the safer “noble” strain.  When buying kava, always make sure you know what you’re getting; some processed herbal remedies have additives that are not safe.  (Note that this is true of any drug, herb, vitamin, or supplement; know your source.)

 

It is rare to see children participate in kava ceremonies, though not unheard of. Generally kava is not recommended for children.

Kava has almost no calories, no hang-over, and no risk of overdose; as mentioned before, it is also not considered addictive.  From my own experience I can say there were zero side effects; when the “high” wears off, there is no residual grogginess or brain fog, as there often is with pharmaceutical anti-anxiety medications.

One mild side effect associated with long-term, heavy kava consumption is a skin condition known as “kava dermopathy” (kani kani in Fiji).  The skin gets dry, scaly, and flaky, especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.  This condition is reversible and, at the kava bar, I met two avid kava consumers who had experienced it and reduced their kava use for a few weeks, reversing it with no ill or lasting effects.  This is not something you need to worry about if you plan to try kava once, or even if you consume it a few times a week.

Where can I try Kava?

I personally recommend that, if you’re anywhere near a kava bar, you go there first.  While you can buy powdered kava on Amazon (as well as pills and tinctures), the experience of drinking it out of a bilo among a group of friendly people, clapping, and shouting “bula!” definitely adds to the enjoyment.  And having it prepared properly by people who can answer your questions about it is also a major benefit.

Kava has been used and is recommended as an alternative aid for anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills, and as a decided high-strung guy myself, kava worked wonders for me.  I was surprised by its effectiveness and delighted to have found it.

This just goes to show the importance of trying new things and learning about new cultures.  If you’re looking for one to try, I humbly recommend kava, whose history of human consumption and effects on the human body make it a unique avenue to explore.

 

Bula!

 

* Correction (January 15th, 2022):

GABA agonist is one proposed method by which Kavalactones, or Kavain, works, but recent evidence shows that Kavain has no affinity for the GABA receptor.  Rather, it interacts with subunits of the GABA A receptor, which would classify it as a “General Positive Allosteric Modulator,” not a GABA agonist.  In recent experiments, the application of a strong benzo antagonist did not affect the effects of kava, implying further that the psychoactive elements of kava do not work on the benzodiazepine allosteric site, and it is not in the same GABA agonist class of drugs as benzos.

Sources:

  • Chua, Han Chow, Emilie T. H. Christensen, Kirsten Hoestgaard-Jensen, Leonny Y. Hartiadi, Iqbal Ramzan, Anders A. Jensen, Nathan L. Absalom, and Mary Chebib. 2016. “Kavain, the Major Constituent of the Anxiolytic Kava Extract, Potentiates GABAA Receptors: Functional Characteristics and Molecular Mechanism.” PloS One 11 (6): e0157700. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0157700.
  • Rowe, A., R. Narlawar, P. W. Groundwater, and I. Ramzan. 2011. “Kavalactone Pharmacophores for Major Cellular Drug Targets.” Mini Reviews in Medicinal Chemistry 11 (1): 79–83. https://doi.org/10.2174/138955711793564088.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Umbrella Academy Season 3 Fan Predictions

Nothing to see here, just offering up some of my latest writing.  

In 2022 I'm going to try to get back to a weekly article and I thought I'd start off easy, which is why I'm ringing in the new year with a fan-servicey fluff piece about the fan theories re: the upcoming third season of Umbrella Academy. 

 Check out my article here!

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Moving onward and upward

It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks as we've moved the family (three humans, a dog, a cat, three lizards, a frog, and 18 houseplants) from Los Angeles to San Francisco.  Or, more accurately, Oakland, birthplace of vice president Kamala Harris and the Black Panthers.

 

Downtown.

When things kicked into gear everything started happening rapidly.  This was, in part, a conscious choice; after Seamus passed we needed to distract ourselves.

We started by driving up to look at apartments.  We viewed three, after which time we determined that the other three on the list weren't worth checking out and we knew which one we wanted.  It's a little on the pricier side but it's in a good neighbor that's within walking distance from a lot of areas of interest, including the Grand Lake movie theater, Lake Merritt, and Morcom Rose Garden.

Morcom Rose Garden.


Grand Lake Theater, now showing Spider-Man: Nightmare Alley.

 

Merritt Lake.

 

A tiny maple grove in the Merritt Garden bonsai garden.

Along the way we stopped by Pea Soup Anderson's, a roadside attraction featuring a huge windmill and even huger portions of pea soup, as well as BravoLand, a surprisingly sprawling and well-kept "old west" town.  Not authentic or anything, but exactly the kind of thing you want out of a roadside attraction, especially when your roadtrip includes a 6-pound dog and a 2-year-old child.


Pea Soup Anderson's


BravoLand

After signing off on the lease, we had to get to the business of packing.  I found this immensely stressful.  Probably not as stressful as the cat, Mabel, who was placed into a carrier called "Whiskey City," where she proceeded to cry in distress for the entire six-hour U-Haul drive north.  We packed in the span of maybe three days, placed everything in the truck in one, and made the whole pilgrimage in a day.  It was like ripping off a Band-Aid.  Our landlady cried when we left.

Packing up.

Actual image of me handling the move like a well-adjusted adult.
 
 
 
The van. 
 

 
Don't worry, Domingo the lizard rode in the cab with me. 
Unlike Mabel she wasn't a huge pussy about it.
Yes, that was a cat pun.
 

 
Bye, house.
 
 
 
End of a chapter.
 
Once we got to the new place we had to go about the arduous process of unpacking everything and finding a place for it.  
 
 
 
Start of a chapter.
 
We had opted to get rid of a lot of our old furniture, which was worn from years of dogs and baby.  If there's one advantage to moving, it's that you get to do a bit of redecorating.  We found an amazing used furniture place called Uhuru Furniture near us (which is also a non-profit!) and scored the best couch ever.
 

 
And it came with a matching ottoman!  And it was like $130!

 
 
Lots of IKEA trips.
 
 

"This IKEA trip is gonna cost us, you guys."

Andrew's mother came to "help" us.  Because that's what you want when you move into a new place: houseguests.  Andrew's mother's version of help was mostly to vaguely hover around in the afternoons.  In terms of actual unpacking she did nothing.  The dog took her on a lot of walks to get her out of her hair while we built bookshelves.
 
 
 
Day one.

 
Not bad, if I do say so myself.
 
Moving in was less stressful but has been far more of an extended process than moving out.  Within the first week we'd gotten the lion's share of the boxes unpacked, string lights up on the balcony, and wall art arranged, but the sense of "home" is still elusive.  Especially at night there's a weird liminal quality to living here.  It's more than a hotel but it's not quite "home" yet, either. 


Did you know the word "uncanny" in German is unheimlich, which literally means "un-home-like?"

It's fair to say that I can't expect a place I've been in for three weeks to feel as comforting as a place I'd occupied for 9 or 10 years.  That takes time.  But there's a lot of things to like about the new place.  It's a fresh start and we needed it.  Calvin now has his own room.  Our floorspace has doubled and instead of a rusted-out gas oven we have a fancy-pants convection, which is really good at burning all the food I try to make with it.

 
So much room!

 
Building new foundations.
 
I've already found a few new haunts, like the kava bar and East Bay Vivarium.  I've been getting my 10,000 steps a day in during my explorations, which is good for my physical and probably mental health, I guess.  Since we moved in we've been experiencing torrential rain, which is not good for my left knee nor for any of my carefully selected drought-resistance houseplants, half of which have had to be dragged inside.  But there's pockets of sunshine here and there, and I'm trying to keep a positive attitude about all this.

I miss my friends and I feel a little directionless, a feeling that does not, apparently, apply to toddlers whatsoever.  Calvin is having the time of his life with all these big changes and I'm trying to catch his sense of adventure and child-like wonder for myself.  Mostly I feel disconnected, and tired.  But hey, who's to say I wouldn't feel that in Los Angeles?  It's not like 2020 or 2021 pulled any punches.  Maybe 2022 will be better.

 
Moving forward!


New directions!


Maybe this won't suck?

Sunday, December 5, 2021

What Is Grief, If Not Love Persevering?

I've always said that the reason Iron Man 1 is the best movie of all time is because of its core message: that broken hearts can heal.

It's been a very rough month for me as the move from Los Angeles to San Francisco looms ever-closer.  We have less than 48 hours remaining in this home, which we've been in almost ten years.  

That being said, part of me looks forward to it, because this house feels all wrong without Seamus in it.  We had to say good-bye to him on November 29th, and since then, everything has been wrong.  Normally I can explain my feelings but for this experience, words fail me.  Seamus was my best friend, my ride-or-die guy.  He was there for my graduation and my cross-country move and my wedding and the birth of my son.  He's just always been there.  A small piece of my soul in a scruffy, smelly, ill-mannered terror of a terrier.

Earliest photo of Seamus, circa 2008.

He passed away in my arms; it was very quiet and peaceful.  He was about sixteen years old.

Unable to process it fully, I cried a whole bunch and have spent my time distracting myself by packing for the move and going to Comic Cons.  I was already committed to the conventions, as tickets had been purchased.  I thought it would be good for me to get out of the house.  Marvel has always been a comforting franchise to me, as well as an escapist fantasy, so I figured it would probably be best to get out there and deal with something a little less traumatic than the death of my dog.  You know, like Thanos trying to genocide half the universe with his magic rocks.  Small-scale stuff that my brain could comprehend.  Y'know?

I attended San Diego Comic Con Special Edition on a press pass and had a great time.

✨  p r o f e s s i o n a l  ✨

You can read my coverage here.  With photos!

On the other hand, L.A. Comic Con was kind of a bust.  The convention center was literally so cold that it was almost intolerable.  Jack and I stubbornly hung out for about two hours before deciding it was a bust and leaving.  


The signage was complicated and we couldn't find anything (including the vendor hall), there was no printed out program, and the whole thing seemed slapped together in a very lackluster way.  We attended one panel in full that had a heckler and a terrible sound system, and peeked in on two more poorly-attended panels, leaving due to the subzero temperature.

The only redeeming feature was stumbling upon the cosplay photoshoot by complete accident and meeting a really cool Hawkeye.

I'm the one on the right.

Now that the Con is over I'm left in my partially packed home and feeling the absence of Seamus harder than ever.

WandaVision summed it up best:

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Content Dump: Reviews and Ponderings on the MCU, MLP, and Squid Game

Content dump time!  In addition to taking a hiatus from my blog, I also took a hiatus from writing (at least publicly).  But I'm back at the 'zine and so here are some of my musings on various fandoms.  Check out the links!

The Squid Game Challenge We Should Have Seen. An idea I had for an alternative ending for Squid Game.  I loved Squid Game but I also really enjoy talking about ways I would have written a series differently.  This article was fun to write and it really got me out of my creative slump.  I'm quite proud of it.

A discussion of Marvel's What If...? and how it ties in to the "Nexus Events" of Marvel's Loki.  Not my best work.

A review of My Little Pony: The Next Generation It's brightly colored but otherwise bland.  Still, I saw it twice and enjoyed it.  But that might just be a consequence of nostalgia; after all, I was born in the '80s.


Ranking the Eternals.  I loved this movie and saw it twice, too, in theaters.  Absolutely recommend.  Andrew also wrote a review for it, here.

Thoughts on the Matrix: Resurrections Trailer.  

Tune in later for news on San Diego Comic Con, Los Angeles Comic Con, and the big move to San Francisco! 

I'm trying to look on the bright side of things!
 
It might be a fine place to have a nervous breakdown!