If a blog is, as a friend put it, a magazine of Me, then I suppose it can be about anything. In fact, I’ve often thought of changing the subtitle of this blog from “a virtual cabin in the woods” to “it could be about anything.” One reason I suppose I’ll never be a professional blogger (as in: syndication, advertising dollars, limo rides, drinking Cristal in the VIP room with Jay-Z and Bey) is because I don’t have a niche. I’m interested in everything which, in the blogosphere, really means I’m interested in nothing at all. Most of the time I write about what happened to me. Rarely do I write about what I want to happen. So here goes nothing at all.
I was driving to my favorite beach last Saturday for what turned out to be a life-altering day of swimming and bodyboarding ( or, as the common man calls it, boogie boarding). The waves were high, the sun was hot, the water was cool but not testicle-shriveling cold. I realized that day, even though I had stirrings at other points in my life, that I really want to learn how to surf. Really surf, as in: standing up on a wave. A few friends have offered to give me the 101, and there’s a surf shop with the best name in the world down in Kennebunk that I plan to take a lesson with before summer’s out. I have no idea if I’ll be any good, if I’ll fall, or if I’ll even like it very much. I do know that I love the water, love the ocean, that I’m never, ever bored at the beach, that the beach gives me physical and spiritual sustenance. As Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz said in the film Surfwise, he could go into the water feeling so bad that he wanted to die, only to come out of the water completely reborn. I’ve never felt that low, because usually by the time I can sense the nearness of the ocean, any low spirits or bad moods are already gone.
That day, I passed a house for sale. A weather-worn, brown, wood-shingled affair with a deep, shaded porch, a few outbuildings (that would make ideal workshops or writing studios), and best of all, a view of the ocean with water access. I immediately saw myself on that porch, or lying on my non-existent old leather sofa, drinking an imaginary cocktail after a long day surfing, my board drying in the sun, enjoying my other, newest, obsession: listening to old vinyl records on a vintage stereo system. Maybe one of those old consoles that my grandparents had that resembled a squat sideboard, where the speakers are built into the furniture and there are sliding laminated doors that keep the music collection ordered and tidy. My hair would be long, longer than it is now, grayer. My darling wife would be making jewelry out of sea glass in her studio, a converted garage, in the yard. The kids would be happily ensconced in college, and would love coming home on break, bringing their friends to hang with their surfer-dude dad and their artsy-crafty mom.
The best part about the house, though, was the name. An engraved wooden sign, tacked to the second-floor side of the house facing the road, read “Bright.” Not sure if this was the name of the property, or a family name, or both. But for me, in that instant, the instant I imagined owning the place and living in it and maybe even growing old in it, Bright was exactly what it was. I could hear the surf from the living room, ice clinking in my glass, some Seventies-era Joni Mitchell coming from the stereo, my hair still wet and salty from the surf, bright sun over the water in the distance. I wondered how many dreams one man is allowed in his lifetime. And how many of those dreams ever really come true?
This one wasn’t, apparently. When I got home, I checked the internets. $450,000 and already under contract, even though the interior pictures showed a dump.
Still, I have a few more dreams up my rash guard.
Sea Sled, anyone?
Reid State Park in Georgetown, Maine is my California, my Malibu, my Pacific Ocean. Probably because I’ll never get to any of those places anytime soon. I’ve only been to California once, to a hot springs in Sierraville. I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean. While nearby Popham Beach is Reid’s mellower, more refined cousin, Reid is all temptation and rough beauty. The surf is more violent. The water out past the break both more placid and menacing. The light is more intense, as if God, with his giant magnifying glass, is trying to burn us like ants. Even the sand seems prehistoric. If it weren’t for the bathhouse, little foot showers, and snack bar, you really could close your eyes and imagine yourself as the first human being, newly-formed from the clay, at the beginning of creation.
At a place like Reid, you really don’t need much. You don’t need to schlep a red plastic Radio Flyer full of multicolored plastic beach toys along with you, like I saw a poor, bedraggled father, with three toddlers and a wife in tow, do yesterday. I was at the beach, following my own advice, with my own children and two of their friends, and I watched as this young couple debated where to set up. They vacillated between the “beach” side, which is much rougher and I suppose more dangerous for toddlers, and the “lagoon” side, which is shallower and perfect for young families. I watched the dad haul his little red wagon full of toys over the dunes and back about three times before they finally settled on the lagoon side. Probably a better choice. But it called to mind both the allure and the repulsion we feel about the beach, and about water in general.
The Times just published an article about the importance of teaching children how to swim, even if parents are “afraid”of the water (something I’m glad my parents did when I was a kid and something we did with our two children from the time they were six months old. My daughter is a strong swimmer and fearless rope-swing user at our local swimming hole. My son is on the swim team at our local Y and has actually taught me a thing or two about my own flimsy freestyle stroke).
I’m also thinking about the passages in Leanne Shapton’s memoir Swimming Studies, where she, a pool swimmer and one-time Canadian Olympic hopeful, talks about how pool swimmers rarely, if ever, swim in the ocean, for fear of the “unknown.” Pool swimmers, she confesses, love the regimentation of the lane lines, the black stripe on the pool’s floor, the ability to see the bottom and to actually know what’s in front of and below you. There’s no mystery in pools, no fear of the Leviathan. (There’s also a wonderful passage where she writes about overcoming this fear of the ocean, jumping naked into the surf from a diving platform in Sweden).
The last association I made when I saw the dad pulling the wagon was from, I believe, Kon-Tiki, a book I read a few years ago when I was recovering from some minor surgery. (Actually it might not have been Kon-Tiki but instead from any number of other sea adventures I’ve read throughout the years from Melville, Conrad, etc.) It’s the notion that people who spend their time trying to wrest their living from the sea rarely, if ever, go to the beach on their day off. They know too much, have seen too much. The Polynesian fisherman that Heyerdahl describes have a healthy fear of the ocean. They don’t view it as a place of rest and rejuvenation like we Westerners do. They view at as a wild, sometimes deadly place that they venture out on only to get their food, nothing more. To them, the ocean is full of unseen hazards and murky enemies, ready to rise up and kill at any moment. As a resident of Maine for almost fifteen years, I can guarantee you that I’ve never seen any lobstermen enjoying a day off at the beach.
To be fair, I understand that father’s fear. I understand why he and his wife debated so long about where they were going to pitch their plastic, multicolored camp. The ocean is a dangerous place. Even if you don’t go in the water, the sun can burn you, as it did my son’s face yesterday (even though he swore he reapplied his sunscreen but I should have checked anyway but didn’t and now it’s my fault he has a sunburn, right?)
Sunburn, rogue waves, splinters, broken bottles buried in the sand, biting greenheads, random seagull droppings, heatstroke, dehydration, drowning: all these and more can happen on a simple trip to the beach. I’ve even watched as people had to be rescued by the sheriff’s boat at Popham when they hiked out to an island at low tide with just the clothes on their back, only to be marooned when the tide came in. We leave our cozy homes with idyllic thoughts in our head, and we come back scarred, or maybe we don’t come back at all. Once, when I was a senior in college, I left Syracuse for a short road trip down I-81 to Ithaca. Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance after getting t-boned by a K-Car on the Homer offramp. All for a cup of coffee. There are no guarantees in life, even in our so-called civilization. People in Maine have literally died because they left their house without a jacket and/or a box of matches in their pocket.
So, maybe we go to the beach not just to relax, but to test ourselves against our own fears. Most of us don’t have to hunt for our food, but that hunting instinct still survives, buried deep in our reptilian brains. We go to the beach now not with spears and seaworthy outrigger canoes hewn from single pieces of fallen timber, but instead with red plastic Radio Flyers, shod in weak-ass rubber flip-flops, endlessly circling our ancestor’s killing grounds, trying to find the perfect spot to keep our babies safe.
I still think all we need when we go to the beach (after we’ve eaten a big, hearty breakfast, of course) is a towel, a bottle of water, and some sunscreen.
But I understand.
Made you look. No, I didn’t eat these during my recent trip to Providence, RI. I grew up in upstate New York and have visited New York City many times, but I have no idea what system is being represented here. I’ll leave that for the foodies. However, I did discover a few more crushes while dozing on my bed in my suite at the Biltmore. And some I discovered before I left.
1. The novels of Tao Lin. Despair with a splash of humor and a hope chaser. His new novel Taipei drops on June 4.
2. Adrian Yonge Presents The Delfonics. I heard Adrian on Fresh Air last night and he talked about “dirty” drums and “bass lines like Curtis Mayfield” Not to mention that William Hart’s falsetto is still in business after fifty years. Next up for Yonge, Ghostface Killah’s new album. A man of many talents.
3. The Magnificent Pigtail Shadow, a new film by my friend and multi-talented artist Steven Cerio. I was lucky enough to meet up with Steven when he made it up to Portland a few days ago for a screening of his film at Zero Station on Portland’s East End. It was an emotional, psychedelic ride. Steven also wrote and performed the soundtrack, and the film is narrated by the great Kristin Hersh.
4. Good & Plenty. Not really sure what’s going on here. I’m up to a box a day. Maybe I’m trying to relive childhood memories of matinees at the old Genesee Theater in Syracuse. I used to search for the freshest, but now I crave the stale ones from the office vending machine. They last longer.
5. Vegan Before Six, or VB6 for short. A new book by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman. By being one of the first 200 people to tweet Mark the day he announced his book on Twitter, I got an advance copy from Random House. That was about a week ago and I’ve been following his philosophy ever since. That is, eat no animal products before six o’clock (or whenever you happen to eat dinner). Then, eat what you like, in moderation and still mostly plants, but meat is allowed. It’s good for your health and for the planet. A little more from Mark about this lifestyle here. I’ve been drinking delicious green smoothies for breakfast and even made my own homemade cold breakfast cereal, based on recipes from the book. It’s not radical. It’s rational.
6. The NutriBullet. Thanks to my friend Abbe Aronson, I am now the proud owner of what I can only describe as a blender on steroids. It pulverizes everything you throw into it, and will make the kale/banana/strawberry/flax seed smoothie of your dreams.
7. heavenmetal from Chelsea Light Moving, Thurston Moore’s new band. Not his best, or even close to Daydream Nation, but this first cut contains the line, “Be a warrior/Love life.” Good advice, and worth a listen.
8. The bookstores of Providence, especially Cellar Stories a huge used bookstore with shelves to the ceiling, and Symposium Books, which just sells remainders. They don’t make them like this anymore.
8. Twinkies should be back on the shelves by early summer. And if you have any left over from the last batch, they are totally still good.
10. Reid State Park in March. See below. I took this a few days ago. I’ve never been to California, except for my clandestine trip to Sierra Hot Springs, so I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean, but I imagine it looks something like Reid in late winter.