I wasn’t familiar with the story of Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz until I watched a preview (on that Mount Olympus of all internet time-wasters, Apple Movie Trailers) of a forthcoming film called Surfwise. This is the story of a man who left his successful medical practice to travel around North and South America with his wife and their nine kids in a 24-foot camper so that they could surf full-time. This idea of becoming a “businessless person,” as Zen Master Linji says, is a seductive one. Wild nature is shrinking and as a society we (and our children, if we have them) don’t spend enough time romping in the woods or combing the beaches anymore. I was watching HBO a few nights ago and George Carlin was on, doing his usual routine, when he started talking about how our kids are so overscheduled right now, and how something that used to be spontaneous – play – has now been transformed into “playdates.” What happened, Carlin wondered, to a kid sitting in the backyard in the grass, just sitting there, digging a hole in the ground with a stick? “Do they even make sticks anymore?” he asked. I laughed because it sounded funny at the time. But I wonder. If you look at Doc Paskowitz’s story, you might conclude that he was crazy. His children certainly criticized him for handicapping them in life by not sending them to regular school, etc. When Thoreau moved out to his cabin at Walden Pond, he was stepping outside of what society at that time thought was normal behavior. And yet, his example, his rebelliousness, serves as an example for us today. I wonder sometimes how far I would be willing to step outside of cultural norms to pursue a life of true independence. Would I ever have the courage to sell everything I own, take my wife and kids to the Caribbean, and live in a grass hut, digging in the sand with a stick, eating fruit we picked from the trees that morning? Is that really crazier than working in a basement cubicle for the next twenty years? Which scenario is more normal, more human? I don’t think humans were meant to live in boxes. Sometimes I’d rather get myself to a tropical beach, find a stick, and start digging.
I was vacuuming out my car at the car wash a few days ago, dumping all my empty Dunkin Donuts cups into the trash can when I saw a few rubber stretchy bracelets on top of the pile. Garbage-picker that I am, I reached down and put one on. It was black with bright yellow lettering that read GOARMY.COM on one side, and gave the 800 number for the Army on the other. The bracelet fit snugly on my wrist, and I liked the way it looked, despite the message. I’m always trying to find the right piece of body adornment. I used to wear a yellow Livestrong bracelet (which I also found discarded, on the ground) until my son, who was one at the time, ripped it in half. Among other things, I’ve worn prayer beads, magnetized golf bracelets, and those smelly things made from nautical rope around my wrist at various times in my life. So I kept the black Army bracelet on because I liked the way it felt on my wrist and because my children, who were with me at the car wash that day, thought it was funny that dad was wearing something he found in a trash can. But as the days since my discovery progressed, the bracelet has taken on a much different meaning. I was watching the Daily Show with John Stewart two nights ago, and he showed a clip of Tony Snow, the White House Press Secretary, explaining quite smugly I thought, that the Iraqi Parliament was taking the entire month of August off because “it was 130 degrees in Baghdad.” I started thinking about all our troops over there, standing on street corners in Baghdad or Fallujah, wearing 30 pounds of gear in that 130 degree heat, unable to take the month of August off. I have always felt, and continue to believe that the invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy decision this country has ever made. I hope someday I’m proved wrong. But even though I might be against the war, I do feel solidarity with the troops. Here we are, leisurely enjoying our summer, swimming and picnicking with our families, but the fact is that we are at war. We shouldn’t ever forget that, as much as we would like to push it out of our minds and think it’s happening “over there.” It’s not much, but my salvaged bracelet helps me remember those men and women standing on those blazing hot corners. I’m reminded of Matthew Modine’s character, Private Joker, in Full Metal Jacket, who has “Born To Kill” written on one side of his helmet and a peace symbol on the other. When a general asks him if it’s his idea of a sick joke, Joker responds that he is expressing “the duality of man, sir.” The general, uncomprehending, asks “Whose side are you on, son?” Maybe I’m on both sides.
“Despair is just worn-out joy.” This is a realization of one of the characters in the film Old Joy that I watched last night. I never want this blog to turn into a book, movie, or music recommendation site (even though I probably have a few thousand of these that I could mention), but once in awhile you may catch me putting a plug in for something out of the ordinary that catches me off guard. This film is slight, both in its aspirations and its running time (72 minutes, give or take), but it is a fine example of what I would call a “feeling film.” That is, after watching it you’re not left with any Big Ideas, but you do feel as though you’ve followed these two characters, Kurt and Mark, on their hike into the Cascades of Oregon to find a hot spring and to rekindle a lost friendship. The music in the film is provided by Yo La Tengo, and is a perfect companion to the lush, rainsoaked Pacific Northwest scenery. This is a gentle film, but touches on issues of male friendship and alienation. (That’s my Film 101 jargon surfacing). See this film if you’ve ever felt a distance between you and someone you thought you knew. It may also make you want to take a walk in the woods to search for a hidden hot spring.