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.
Summer has come to Maine which means, as discussed earlier, about twelve weekends worth of fun. Since the Internet loves lists, here are three of Henry’s suggestions for the warm pleasures to come.
1. Cover yourself. You’ll probably be at least half-naked a lot this summer, so pick a good sunscreen. One that contains minerals and not chemicals. Zinc and/or titanium is all you need. Every year, the Environmental Working Group releases a study that analyzes hundreds of commercially available sunscreens and picks the best brands based on current scientific research, not advertising. Stay away from brands that contain retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, and other chemicals. Treat your sunscreen like your food: if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, you probably don’t want it in or on your body. Or, make your own here.
2. Cultivate your biome. Fun facts: microbial cells in and on our bodies outnumber our human cells by a ten-to-one ratio. If you could extract all the microbes from our bodies and weigh them, they would measure about three pounds; the same weight as our brains. Microbes have a completely different genetic code from human DNA, making our bodies super-organisms. Without our microbes, our ancestors never would have survived, and we would die. As you are reading this, millions of microbes are swimming in your eyeballs. Millions and trillions more are in your mouth, on your skin, in your gut. No matter how much you wash, wipe, and scrub, you’ll never be able to get rid of them all, not even a fraction of them. And you wouldn’t want to. Despite the fear that’s been instilled in us by the chemical corporations and the antibacterial gels and wipes they peddle, we need our germs. It’s OK to be a little dirty. Actually, a lot dirty. Rinse off in the pond, if you must. Read the label on the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap if you get bored.
3. Change your mind. As a corollary to #2 above, you didn’t wake up this morning the same person you were yesterday. On every level (emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and molecular) you are a brand-new being compared to yesterday’s model. Thank the universe for that. The longer I live, the more people I meet who seem to have made their minds up about pretty much everything. That’s too bad. Attaching to thoughts can be a cause of great suffering. One of the ways I keep myself young in body and mind is to cultivate a sense of wonder about everything in my life. I wake up every morning excited that I might discover something new. New music, new books, new art, new swimming holes, new foods, new beliefs. Summer is the time to try stuff on and take it off if it doesn’t fit.
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.
It’s been a long time since college, when I wrote my Marxist critique of It’s A Wonderful Life. I’ve been out of the film review game for some time, so I don’t feel particularly qualified to talk about the cinematic merits of Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s re-imagining of Michel Faber’s novel, a film that blew me away to the point I was almost in a coma afterwards. I haven’t felt this way about a movie since I saw Apocalypse Now for the first time. On that night, over thirty years ago, the film was shown in a large auditorium-style lecture hall, one where a 300-student Psych 101 class might meet. The lights dimmed. Right from the first scenes of exploding, Napalmed trees and helicopter blades whirring and morphing into Martin Sheen’s hotel-room ceiling fan while Jim Morrison sang, “This is the end…beautiful friend…the end…”, I was mesmerized. When the movie ended, I walked back to my dorm room in Eastman Hall in a daze. I couldn’t speak. People may have walked past and said hello, but I saw no one, spoke to no one. My roommate was away. I remember turning on my twinkly Christmas lights, putting some Doors on the stereo, and just staring into space for what seemed like hours. I didn’t move, I didn’t speak. Even for days after, I thought about little else.
Walking out of the Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland last Thursday on a foggy night, close to midnight, I felt the same way. My physical body, right down to the cellular level, had been irrevocably altered. As I walked back to my car, drunks shouted and spilled out of Old Port bars. I was an alien among humans. A stranger. While I watched a movie, Earth had been made new. I was discovering rain-soaked streets, buildings made of glass and steel, televisions flickering through bar windows, trees lit from behind by street lamps, as if for the first time. There was a deep silence to the world that I hadn’t noticed before. I drove the almost 45 minutes home with the radio off and the windows up, quiet in my pod. A few days later, I was working outside in some woods near my house. The wind whispered through the tall trees, and I thought I saw Scarlett Johansson’s alien moving through the undergrowth, a dark shape among darker shadows. But it was just some branches rustling.
Like thirty years ago, I haven’t been able to think of much else since. Talking about it seems futile. No one would understand anyway. Like any deeply personal reaction to Art, it would have to remain my little secret. And although I don’t have the vocabulary to discuss the theoretical aspects of this mesmerizing, truly visionary film or the hypnotic, cliché-busting, unexpected, typecast-smashing, insert-superlative-adjective-here performance of its star, as a man of a certain age in late period capitalist America, I do feel somewhat qualified to talk about one aspect of the film with some degree of competency: boobs.
Scarlett Johansson is our movie-actress version of Beyoncé: larger than life, reputation slightly out of proportion to talent, looks really great in clothes. An unobtainable Hollywood sexpot starlet, object of volcanic desire for men and women alike. Men want to possess her; women want to look like her. Or at least that’s the story we’ve been sold. Because here’s the thing. Johansson’s nudity in this film is almost completely asexual, almost anti-sexual. True, to the (also nude) men that she lures to their death, the alienized version of Scarlett is the slightly-out-of-reach ideal sexual partner. The genius of the film, and of Johansson’s performance, is that she takes this Hollywood fantasy, the one that she herself has been so adept at creating and cultivating these past years, and, like the poor men she seduces, completely and utterly sucks the marrow out of its false, bloated body. As the director said in an interview, “I think if people go there to get their rocks off, they’re better off going to see something else.”
The truth is Johansson’s naked body in this film looks rather, well, normal. If there even is such a thing as a “normal” human body. And that’s the other thing. There is no such thing as a normal or perfect human body. Anyone who has ever met a “movie star” in real life, as I have, will probably tell you, as I will, that they have way more wrinkles and much less hair than they do on screen. I’ve also been to quite a few clothing-optional beaches and have seen literally thousands of naked men and women. And let me tell you: there was nothing special about any of them. Beautiful and infinitely varied, yes. But none normal, none special, and none perfect.
Commerce and commerce alone has sexualized the human body. The only reason sex sells is because we let it. Men and women have bought into the fantasy of human perfection, but what Scarlett shows us, in her brave performance, is that the whole shebang is one fat lie. It’s the covering-up that seduces. The revealing holds no power. When we realize this, we will be free from the lies that constrain not only our physical bodies, but our emotional ones as well.
Once we realize that we are all flawed beings walking around on the surface of this rainy, stony earth in imperfect coats of flesh, we can truly become human. In and under our skin.