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.
Getting stuff in the mail is one of the great pleasures of life. Sometimes, when you order something online, you even forget about it until it shows up on your doorstep. A few weeks ago, I placed a small order from Walden Surfboards in California: a Wax Buddy surf wax comb (for my as-yet, non-existent surfboard), a St. Christopher medal (the protector of, among others, travelers), and a diner mug (shown above). I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a thing for that California bear, and the single star above him. I certainly didn’t need another coffee mug, but it was payday, and sometimes you have to live large.
These little daily surprises are the fuel of my life. I don’t need to go skydiving to cultivate peak experiences. For me, it’s enough most days to wake up on a crisp fall morning, knowing that there’s coffee in the pantry downstairs just waiting to be brewed. There’s joy in opening an unexpected, kind email in my inbox. Reading a friendly facebook comment. Taking a shower and realizing that I might just have a good hair day. Getting to work to find that Weekend just posted a new video online, or that Cut Copy came out with a new album.
Maybe my new copy of New York Magazine will come in the mail today? Or better yet, Surfer’s Journal. Tonight I might get the chance to watch my son at swim practice, or my daughter play basketball, or have a quiet dinner with my wife at our cozy kitchen table, and maybe watch a show on Neflix once the kids are asleep.
Louis C.K. famously quipped that “everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.” I would like to counter that sentiment by saying that every day I wake up and put my feet on the floor is an amazing day. I look forward to all the little miracles and surprises of daily life to keep me going. We only have one go-round on this Earth. How can we not cherish every moment? How can we not look forward to the coffee in the pantry, or the package that might come in the mail, or the kind word from a true friend? How can we not be happy, knowing all this?
Record shopping yesterday, I finally found an album I’ve been looking for: The Hissing of Summer Lawns by Joni Mitchell. It was released in 1975, right after what has over the years become my all-time favorite record, 1974’s Court and Spark. If Court and Spark is my water, a daily, life-giving necessity that I can’t live without, then Hissing is my homemade unsweetened iced tea; bitter, bracing, and mildly uncomfortable, yet just as necessary as its sweeter cousin. As Pitchfork said it in its review of Mitchell’s studio albums from 1968-1979, “the era of Mitchell doing no wrong was over.” This is a more difficult listen than Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, or Court and Spark. The jazz influences are still there, but her lyrical hieroglyphics are denser and more inscrutable. I’ve listened to the album on CD and Spotify over the years, but I’ve never owned a vinyl copy until now. One of the beautiful things about albums, and especially Mitchell’s early works, is the gatefold covers, many of which are decorated with Mitchell’s own drawings and paintings. She also created the cover art for CSNY’s de-facto greatest hits album, So Far.
So imagine my surprise when I opened the fold and saw this image above. I was so struck, I had to take a photo of a photo. I was sitting at my in-laws’ dining room table in Camden, Maine as the afternoon sunlight streamed through the window and cast shadows on the image of a young Joni in a black two-piece, executing a sultry backstroke in what I imagined to be a nighttime California pool. This was not the shy, mildly geeky folk singer from Alberta, Canada. Not the turtleneck-clad Joni Mitchell I knew from The Last Waltz. No, not at all. I even took another photo of a drawing on the back cover of the album,
drawn by Joni herself (you can see the artist’s signature). I don’t know whose house this is. Hers? David Crosby’s? But I do know that I want to swim in that pool, the pool that perhaps the bikini-clad young Joni is swimming in in the photo above.
As the Maine summer turns to fall, and the chances for any swimming at all dwindle to nothing, I’m also thinking of another California dreamgirl, the writer Joan Didion. I can’t claim to be as familiar with her work as I am with Joni’s but her collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, remains one of my favorite books for its diamond-tipped analysis of a Sixties counterculture and rapidly changing society that no one, least of all Joan, can begin to understand. But she tries. Oh, how she tries. On Keeping a Notebook, On Self-Respect, On Morality, On Going Home, all from that collection, are the Tangerine/That’s The Way/Bron-Y-Aur Stomp/Hats Off To Roy Harper quadfecta of my literary dreams. There’s also just the way she looks. The long flowing dresses, the sandals, the ever-present cigarette, the cocktail in hand, the wry smile or scowl, the languid West Coast affect, her white Stingray. All these things drive me crazy.
In my coming-of-age in the 1970’s imagination, the three of us would take a ride in Joan’s white Stingray. The T-top would be open, the night air cool on our faces. We’d find a quiet Italian place just off the Pacific Coast Highway for dinner; all dark wood, twinkly lights and candles. After, we’d go back to Joni or Joan’s house, have some imaginary cocktails and cigarettes, take a midnight swim in an underwater spotlit pool. We’d be perched on the pool’s edge, under the warm stars, looking out at the water from a cliff above. Troubled children, breaking, as Joni sang, like the waves at Malibu.
Is it wrong to think these things? Joni is seventy years old now. Joan is almost eighty. Neither woman would have any inclination to take a car ride and then have a skinny-dip with a shaggy-haired married father of two. The chances of a chimpanzee writing a sequel to Hamlet are far greater. But at least in my mind’s eye, I can imagine such a time. This is my Seventies, shag carpet, sunset, Going To California fantasy. (Sorry, Robert and Jimmy; you’ll have to wait in the tour bus.)
And I realize none of this makes sense, but I have to write it down before we all forget. That’s what blogs are for.