I wake at 4:15 every weekday morning. I creep downstairs and plug in the coffee. I check my email and social media, make sure my swim bag is packed, get dressed, drink one cup of black coffee, then unplug the pot before leaving for the YMCA.
I pull into the parking lot at about 4:50, in time to see the older couple, the man with a cane and the wife with a walker, push through the front doors. I turn off my music, lock my car, and go in. I slide my card through the reader, a computer beeps somewhere, I say hi to Doug or Crystal or whoever is working the front desk and has been kind enough to get up even earlier than me to make sure the lights are on, the door is unlocked and the pool cover is off. I use the boys locker room instead of the men’s because I like the cool tile floor instead of the carpet in the men’s room, and because I can be alone with my thoughts, change into my swim things at my own pace, not have to jostle with anyone for locker space, and can hear all the groans, clanks, and scuffles as the building comes to life.
I shower, walk into the men’s locker room to make sure the sauna is turned on, then wait for the click of the deadbolt when the lifeguard unlocks the door to the pool deck. I see the morning regulars, pull on my swim cap and goggles, get into to the pool and do my laps, usually splitting them between breaststroke and freestyle. I swim for about twenty minutes. I don’t count my laps. I swim until I feel done, then I get out and sit in the sauna for about ten minutes to stretch out and relax. I shower, get dressed, drive home, sometimes stopping to take pictures of the river if the light is right. I get home around 6:00.
I make sure my daughter is up and getting ready for middle school. I plug the coffee maker back in and make my breakfast, usually eggs over easy with toast or muesli. I drink another cup of black coffee. I have an hour before I have to get dressed for work, so I read or do some writing. Around 7:00 I get dressed and drive my daughter to school. I get to work around 7:30, and usually have all my emails read and answered by 8:00 when the rest of my co-workers start arriving. I grab more coffee and fill my water bottle. I have the whole day ahead of me. I help people: students, faculty, co-workers, parents, customers, vendors, delivery drivers.
Most of my work life consists of being the arbitrator of other people’s desires. I measure other people’s wants against my own, and then decide how best to proceed. I do the best job I can with the materials at hand. I subjugate my ego.
I eat my lunch at a regular hour, sometimes treating myself to a soft-serve or a lemon square afterwards. I walk around the campus, deliver packages to the mail center, stop in to the library to see what’s newly published, sometimes I meet faculty or associates on the quad and chat with them, ask after their research, their kids, what they did on sabbatical, what they’re working on now. I’m pleasant, witty, always professional.
In the afternoons I might write some emails, deal with problems that have crept up. By 5:00 I’m ready to go home. I try as best I can to leave the troubles of my workday behind me. At home I help my wife shuttle kids to and from sports practice and games, make sure there’s food for dinner, give homework help, make sure cellphones are charged, forms are signed, teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, and bedtimes happen at a reasonable hour. Then I read a little more, or paint, or maybe edit some pictures I took during the day. I make sure my swim trunks and towel are dry and I re-pack my swim bag, set up the coffee maker for tomorrow’s coffee, place all the things I’ll need in a pile by the door: my bag, wallet, keys, glasses, clothes, flip-flops, iPod.
I’m in bed by 10:00 to sleep for tomorrow’s new day. This is what I do. On Friday nights, I go the local high school football game, if they’re playing at home. I do some yard work on the weekend, do laundry, shop for groceries, go to the beach or for a run or for a swim if there’s time. I take my kids where they need to go, or if they’re travelling by bike or by foot, make sure they check in when they get there. On Sunday nights, my wife and I might turn on Netflix and watch whatever series we’re currently hooked on.
At forty-seven years old, this is my life right now. A Zen archery master, Awa Kenzo, wrote, “Do your best at each and everything. That is the key to success. Learn one thing well and you will learn how to understand the ten thousand things. Ten thousand things are one; this is the secret place of understanding you must find. Then everything is mysterious and wonderful.”
I submit to you that all we need try to do is one or two things well. We live our life, we remain present and cheerful, we make the coffee, we wash the dishes, we fold the laundry, we sleep, we wake. This is all we need to do. Please take comfort in knowing that it is more than enough.
In surfing, one of the first things you learn is to never turn your back on the ocean. All might be calm on the horizon, but the moment you turn your head to see if the seagulls are stealing your Funyuns, a watery fist swings up from nowhere, flips you sideways, cracks your board into your skull, and pins you underwater. You rise, gasping, with ringing ears and angry tears in your eyes, salt mixed with more salt, looking around wildly for the culprit, only to see calm ocean everywhere, the thief of both your balance and your dignity hiding around a liquid corner. Until next time.
Same with your life. Or in my case, my life. I rise every morning like the good citizen I am. I make coffee, shower, put on clothes, drive to work and back, staring into a computer monitor and moving a little piece of plastic with a button on it around and around in tiny circles on my desk. I make decisions that may or may not help people, may or may not bring people happiness, relief, or at the very least, a modicum of satisfaction. Some days I pretend to care. Some days I really do care; about all the young faces before me, all their hopes and dreams, their tan, athletic legs, their sun-kissed locks of hair that would look right at home atop the heads of Thor or Freyja.
I eat when I’m hungry. I eat when I’m not hungry. I talk to myself in my head, make plans for my future. As in, how will I get through the boredom and frustration of the next work hour, day, week? When will I get an office aboveground, with a window, running water, a bathroom, and maybe air conditioning? What will I have for dinner? When will I need to go grocery shopping? Buy more toilet paper? Will I have enough money to buy toilet paper? Will I have to return bottles for gas or steal money from my children to buy gas like last time? Have the hemp seeds I bought a month ago gone rancid, or can I add them to tomorrow morning’s smoothie?
No matter how hard I work, not matter how hard my wife works, we never have enough money. Writing about it or not writing about it has the same effect, which is no effect. I try not to mention I’m poor in polite company anymore, unless I’m making a joke about it. Everyone has troubles of their own, thank you very much, and besides, it must be something I’ve done wrong. I shouldn’t have gone out for sushi. I need to get on a budget. I should have paid off my student loans by now. Why did I rent that beach house twenty years ago? How could I have been so irresponsible? Put back those cookies.
Social media mocks me. Things that are trending mock me. Audi SUVs mock me. Vacation photos mock me. Boats whizzing by on the river with Golden Retrievers barking on the bow while I’m pulling boulders out of the ground on a Saturday morning mock me. Honest work is all I can do, and it’s not enough. I know I have a bad attitude some days. Yes, I should breathe. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Meditate like the Zen masters taught me. Sit under a tree and read my book and let little green caterpillars from the branches high above fall and then tumble down my neck and into the back of my shirt. Yes, yes, yes. I should do all these things.
I’m a man which means I should suffer in silence. Or not suffer in silence and let my feelings out, in which case I’m a crybaby. Shut up, already! No one wants to hear it! Didn’t I tell you in the paragraph above that everyone has troubles and yours aren’t any more special or depressing than mine?
We can only live one life at a time, and as a friend said, the longer we do something, the harder it is to do anything else. For example, I’d like to learn how to be a pot farmer. But obviously that will never happen. So, I could write a story or a book about being a pot farmer. Purge all my wonder. Have all my questions asked and answered that way. Yet, when I write, I would rather be painting. When I’m painting, I’d rather be taking photographs, and when I’m taking photographs, writing. I suppose this is a good thing, although most days it doesn’t feel that way. It’s an invisible circle in my head that no one sees.
All of this is true, some of it is true, maybe none of it is true. What’s really important, and what I started out wanting to say before I digressed into a pity party, is that it’s really, really important to heed the surfing instructor’s instructions: never take your eyes off the horizon. Don’t turn your back on the ocean. Keep your eyes open. Front.
About a week ago, my wife, bless her soul because she tolerates these missives, came up with a genius idea while we were driving. She reminded me of a metal box I bought her for her birthday one year. The box was decorated like a vintage lunchbox and was meant to hold art supplies. What if, she asked, instead of art supplies, we write down our dreams, things that we want and hope for, on little slips of paper, and put them in the box? Then, as we accomplish the things we want to do, we take the slips out of the box. I joked that we’d need a bigger box because it would soon be filled with hundreds of unfulfilled dreams and desires. But I was just being sarcastic. It is a great idea, and we are going to do it. We talk about buying a bus or camper when our kids are in college, outfitting it with solar panels, and driving cross-country, taking our time and following the sun. Maybe that will be the first slip that goes into the box.
If we keep our eyes on the horizon long enough, coming up for air every time the ocean of our lives tries to hold us under the waves, I know we’ll get there.
I woke up and stared at the bedroom ceiling, filled with worry about the never-ending stress of my job. The stress that never ends, even when I’m on vacation. I vowed to myself that this would be the year I would make a change, get a new job, finally do something that stirred my soul and made me excited to get up every morning. Maybe work outside. Get a job on a farm or learn to build houses. I went downstairs, made my first of many cups of coffee. I fed the fish, checked out my new haircut in the mirror, opened the front door and sat on my steps as the sky lightened. I looked left, up the hill, and could see the sunlight I knew was just then rising above the river, the blue-orange light that meant another day hurtling around the sun. I looked at the cracked, uneven boards of my porch, drank the delicious brown nectar of that first cup, smelled fall in the air. Oh, yes. It was coming, if it wasn’t here already. The same smell I knew I would smell three months from now when I stood at the window of the concession stand up at the high school football field as I waited for a booster to set my steaming styrofoam cup of coffee on the sill of the stand’s window. I looked down and examined the cut on my right heel that just wouldn’t heal, the victim of a shoeless summer spent in and out of ponds, climbing on rocks, setting piles of brush on fire, and pulling boulders out of the stingy earth. I thought about this one life that we all share, and how we really have no idea what happens after we die and how anyone who says they know what happens after we die is lying or scared or both. I wondered why I was always trying to get people to go skinny-dipping with me, why I was always telling people about the books I was reading or the great new band I discovered. How I always try, in my own little way, to get people to maybe step outside of their ordinary lives, to turn off their electronic reading devices and maybe join me in something that might at first be uncomfortable but that could, in time, become something new and wonderful in their lives. I also thought about how much I’m up against, with almost everyone I know already in their forties and pretty happy, or if not happy then at least somewhat content with the way things are, and besides, why should they change now? I want to encourage people to try new things, but get knocked back a little when I realize that their lives are just fine without my suggestions. What do I really know, anyway? Do words matter? Do these hundreds of pieces of writing I’ve accumulated over the past eight years mean anything? Will they be lost in the ether like so many of my other words, and my work. In one hundred years, who will remember me? Will the joy I felt swimming in a pond at dusk ripple out into the universe and maybe give someone else the courage to jump in? Or is everyone else just fine, thank you very much? The sky gets lighter, the buzzing of the insects (cicadas? crickets?) quiets down. My stomach cramps from hunger and too much coffee. Should I have blueberry pie for breakfast? Yes. Yes, I should.
In Humboldt County, one of the places you can cool off in summer is the Eel River. I know this because I’ve been reading books about, among other things, the medical cannabis industry in California. Books like Too High To Fail, Pot Farm, and Humboldt. The stories in these books depict a lush, green, dangerous world light-years removed from my own. Although I had a pretty idyllic childhood by 1970’s suburban America standards, my biggest adventures at that time consisted of riding my bike (by myself!) to the P&C in Geddes Plaza, buying a Coke (in a glass bottle) and then maybe stopping in to Dom’s Coffee Shop to play a few games of Asteroids before I got kicked out for not being a paying customer.
By contrast, one of the characters, Emma, in Humboldt, used to hike with her friends down a muddy road in the woods to cool off by skinny-dipping in the Eel River after it had been swollen by the spring rains and was deep enough to swim in. Not to mention that Emma’s mom and the parents of most of her friends were pot farmers.
This is not to say that I wish my childhood was any different from what it was, even if the closest I ever got to Emma’s experience was riding through a mud puddle on my way to the Solvay Pool. I’m only thinking about this now because of my own capacity for being altered by small details. A few words in a book, a minute observation, can send me down my own muddy road of what-ifs. Like Nabokov’s pesky sandwiches, I can’t help thinking about other people, other places, other possible lives. Even though I know the only one I can possibly live is my own.
It’s probably because, as much as I don’t want to admit it, summer is almost over (the breeze that blows through my window as I write this is a decidedly fall breeze) and even though it was a special one (as they all are, really), I can’t help thinking about all the adventures not taken. Of all the things I might have done. Of just one more day on the island. Of one more night with family and friends. Of one more dip in the pond. Of even one more hour, or minute, at the beach. I know we can only lead one life at a time, and to inhabit it fully, without regrets. Still, I can’t stop looking for that muddy road in the redwoods that leads to the eternally perfect swimming hole. And then diving in.
My friends have seen me around town sporting spotty, gray-flecked facial hair, wearing a bandana, blasting a fresh copy of “Winterland 6/7/77” from my car speakers. I’m this close to dabbing patchouli oil behind my ears. As I’ve written elsewhere, this for me is the Summer of the Dead. I’m listening to their music all over again for the first time, reveling in fond memories of shows spent with family and friends. Thinking about how happy and safe I felt there, and how Dead shows proved that, as Henry said, “surely joy is the condition of life.”
The band’s name and iconography, the skeletons and roses reminiscent of a funeral, remind us that this life is fleeting. That any day, as happened to me thirty-some years ago, a car can come speeding at you in the night going the wrong way on an interstate on-ramp. We are constantly dancing the dance between impermanence and karma. Between “nothing matters because it’ll all be over, anyway” and “everything matters for exactly the same reason.” Getting smooshed by a wrong-way driver is always a possibility. So is finding new love, opening a door you didn’t know existed yesterday or even this morning, going back in time to rediscover something you thought you had boxed and put up in the attic long ago.
Yes, my summer flings are back, and I’m letting my freak flag fly. Because if not now, when? Every summer is one summer closer to the grave. That’s not depressing; that’s a fact. Just feel lucky that we have our whole lives to correct our mistakes. That we have this time together to do the things we really want to do, and not the things we think we have to do. So much of life is the “ought.” Summer is a chance to kick all the “oughts” to the curb and start fresh, with maybe just some sunscreen and a towel, or some music, or laughing with friends, or a nap in the backyard. Silence the chirping of your phone. Step outside in the morning to hear the real thing.
Or buy one of these…
…and make a hot tub in your backyard. Run naked from your back door to the tub, not caring what the neighbors say. They’ve seen boobs and balls before, I hope. Find a hidden swimming hole, strip down, damn the bears and the bugs, and jump in. Take Henry’s advice from a few summers ago, and pack light, try new things. Have you really decided upon everything by your mid-forties? Have you spent the first half of your life solidifying your beliefs, only to spend the next half of your life living in their prison? I hope not.
Not sure if you sent a postcard to Brother Esau, he’d respond. But it’s summer. What the hell. Chance it.
I’m rambling. And so should you.
So many memories. Going to Silver Stadium with my dad and my sister in 1988, after turning my dad onto the Dead by playing Reckoning on the old turntable in my bedroom and him walking by hearing Dire Wolf or Deep Elem Blues and thinking it was country music and asking who it was and me telling him it was the Dead and him saying he thought the Dead were a hard-rock band and me saying no they were actually a kind of jug band how they were touring that summer and we should all go see them and so we did and him sitting up in the stands while my sister and I were down on the infield and him seeing a father and daughter sharing a bowl and probably some other things that sent his policeman’s heart racing. And the guy after the show selling yummy veggie bagels he had no doubt made himself, which were just plain bagels with veggie cream cheese wrapped in wax paper and stuffed into a black Hefty bag, for two dollars each and how I bought one and ate it, this bagel from a stranger that came out of a garbage bag because that’s what we did back then, we trusted one another, and how I probably traded a tape with someone, maybe from Buffalo or Foxboro and again, that’s how it went, we were all nice to another and helped each other out because the Dead let people record their shows on tape, in fact there was actually an official tapers section, and Deadheads would trade tapes after the show for maybe tapes from other shows that they hadn’t been able to make it to and that’s how this whole rumbling caravan kept going because this was light-years before the internet and this was how people took care of one another. It was all based on joy and happiness and sharing and even though the Dead weren’t the best band in the world and sometimes they played like shit like they all woke up on the wrong side of the bed and hated each other, sometimes they were so on and full of energy they just blew you away and how it wasn’t even really about the music, it was the space between the notes and the dancing and the scene and the joy that seems to be missing right now. Or the first show I went to at Rich Stadium in Buffalo and how afterwards my friend Kip called me to let me know that Jerry was in a coma but he eventually came out of it and they went back on the road again and the time I saw them at the old RFK Stadium in Washington, DC in 1991 when Bruce Hornsby played piano and the place just took off and how I listened to the show again just recently and wondered how I survived such magnificence, like Arjuna being shown the true face of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and yet still surviving. Looking out across the stands at RFK and actually seeing the upper deck bouncing up and down from the weight and movement of all the people dancing. Yes the Deadheads were slobs and left a ton of garbage behind but unlike Woodstock 99 they never set anything on fire. It all goes back to happiness, for me. To joy. Yes, there was drugs and selfishness and people just being into their own trip and people overdosing and old vans breaking down and kids being stranded on the road between shows with no money or food, with nothing but a ratty backpack and a cardboard sign that read Cleveland or Hampton or Philly. If scientists in the near future can figure out how to bring back extinct creatures, I wish they would please bring back Jerry so we can all get out on the road again and see what love really means. Until that time, I’ll just be growing this beard, embarrassing my kids by wearing this bandanna in public, maybe dabbing some patchouli oil behind my ears, and making tie-dyes in my backyard. Oh yeah, and listening to the music. And yes, sis. The Dead did play “Green Onions” coming out of the break in ‘88. The only time ever. And me and you and dad were there.
I was running around the track a few days ago when I suddenly realized there were just going to be some things I would never get to do. I’ll probably never go to Paris, for instance. Not that I really want to. I’m sure it’s very beautiful, especially in the springtime. But I also imagine it’s a noisier, smellier French version of New York. I suppose this is just some kind of psychic self-defense. A blue-collar provincialism that screams I never wanted to go there anyway. But I know there are some places I’ll never get to, or places that I’ve visited that I’ll never get back to. Like Solomon Beach on St. John, where my wife and I used to go before we had kids and that used to have this laid-back hippie vibe but is now “family-friendly” and a stop-off for small cruise ships. Or Sierra Hot Springs in Sierraville, CA where I spent one idyllic day soaking naked in an outdoor hot spring while redwoods swayed overhead and I could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Or Mexico City, where in college I climbed to the top of a small mountain to visit a shrine where the Virgin Mary had appeared to some schoolgirls, and I looked in all directions and all I saw was city. I’ll probably never be able to take a year off from work, grow (another) beard or not cut my hair and just spend my days surfing. Realizations like this are part of being an adult, I guess. I’m not sad that by Western life-expectancy standards, my life is half-over. I’m certainly not ready to throw in the metaphysical towel. My wife and I are giving serious thought to selling our house once the kids are in college and buying either a VW Eurovan or decommissioned school bus, outfitting it with solar panels and vagabonding around the country while we cook all our meals on a camp stove. Part of the wisdom that comes with age is knowing one’s limits. I’m lucky in that I can take pleasure in the little things. Not just because they are the only things I can afford, but because they bring me the greatest joy. This morning, for example, I drove to work in the sunshine with the windows down, drinking cold coffee, eating a day-old donut, and listening to Ray LaMontagne’s new album, Supernova. I knew I was going to be spending the day in a basement buying back textbooks from ungrateful college students, but my morning commute allowed me to store up enough good vibes to get me through the day. With a bang, summer is here in Maine and I know beach and swimming-hole days aren’t far away. Family trips, finding old vinyl records, time spent with friends, more cold coffee, and skinny-dipping opportunities are in the offing. I look forward to exploring in ever-greater detail my little corner of the world. I don’t feel sad at all I’ll never eat a croissant on the Champs-Élysées. I’ve got Frosty’s twists on Washington Street.
There’s a line in one of Ray’s new songs that goes, “Maybe it’d be best if I just let things lie/Guess I’m never gonna get back to Ojai.” Having never been to Ojai, there’s no way I’ll ever “get back” there. But I hope from there you can at least smell the ocean.