This summer, I will:
1. Make more tie-dyes. If you want one, let me know.
2. Sit in the backyard, in the sunshine, listening to the Dead. Neighbors beware that 8/27/72 will be set to repeat.
3. Swim in the pond. If you want to join me, let me know.
4. Go to the beach. Target sells spray-on mineral sunscreen now. Thank me later.
5. Spend some down time with the wife and kids on an island off the coast of Maine, where there’s no internet unless you visit the library, no cell service, no television, and a lot less problems.
6. See family and friends near and far, both here and there.
7. Take photographs. Maybe paint and write.
8. Ignore the scoffers and the internet shamers.
9. Avoid commerce.
10. Not listen to the experts.
11. Drink my berry/kale/chia smoothies and do my barefoot running and yoga.
12. Create my own life. Do good not by politics but by being myself.
Tonight, I slid into the pond and threw my swim trunks up onto the rocks for the last time this summer. Not many people would go skinny-dipping at dusk when the mosquitos are still biting and the air temperature is sixty-three degrees. No one, in fact. I was alone.
As we hurtle once more around the sun and wonder where summer went, let us take a moment to honor those places that sustain our soul. For me, it’s this pond, this scared body of water that only becomes more special and more sacred the older I get. I’ve lived in Maine for almost twenty years and I’ve seen and experienced many amazing sights. But I always come back this place. So close, a ten-minute drive from my house. Over a bridge and yet light-years away from my workaday existence.
Here, I can be who I really am. I can shake off the dust of the world, and for about the time it takes a pot of pasta water to come to a boil, immerse myself in a silky, clean, clear slice of eternity. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond, I take a bath not just in water but in spirit. The green moss of the forest floor is my bath mat, the breeze rippling through the branches my opera. I saw a loon, heard its call. I saw a heron swoop down from the sky and land on a log a few yards away from me. I held a frog in my hands. I adopted a forgotten Swiss Army knife. I never found the mythical snapping turtle, the one that’s rumored to be as big as a Volkswagen. Thankfully, he never found me either.
To those of you who shared these special evenings with me, I thank you. To those who didn’t or couldn’t, perhaps I will see you here next summer?
We live in Maine, so we know what happens next. The leaves fall, the snow falls, the roads freeze, the snow piles up, we clear a path for the oil guy, we huddle together in living rooms and YMCAs and cafes and saunas, staying warm, living life close to the bone until the sun, instead of just blinding us, warms us again and allows us to find our special places once more.
Tonight, I drove home from the pond past dark, my wet towel drying on the back of my passenger seat. Music played softly on the radio. I saw the lights of the iron works as I crossed the bridge. I came home, made dinner, raised a toast to my special place, thought of the water on my skin, how it held me up, carried me through this summer, buoyed me. I gave thanks.
Tomorrow I’ll look for my fleece jacket, my wool socks. Tonight, I’m going to bed with the pond water in my ears and the bug spray still on my skin.
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 live in Maine, where no matter the season, people complain about the weather. In winter, it’s always too cold and the price of heating oil is too high. In spring, there’s too much rain and too much mud. In summer, it’s too hot and will never be bikini season. To my mind, complaining about the weather is like arguing balls and strikes. In all my years watching baseball, no umpire has ever reversed his call because an irate manager stormed from the dugout, threw his hat on the ground, and kicked dirt. In much the same way, our celestial umpire won’t change his or her mind once the course of the seasons are set, no matter how much bellyaching we do. The weather is what it is. This complaining reminds me of a joke they tell up here: “Do you think it will ever stop raining?” a tourist asks. “Always has,” the Mainer replies. I grew up in Syracuse and lived in Rochester and Buffalo for many years. Live in Buffalo for a few winters and believe me: you’ll be cured of bitching about the weather anywhere else.
Tomorrow is June 1st, and no matter what the calendar says, in my world it’s the first day of summer. On my personal Maine Mayan calendar, summer lasts exactly ninety days, from June 1st to August 31st. Ninety days, or to put it even more bluntly, twelve weekends. That’s what we got, friends We decided to live in Maine and not Miami Beach and that’s what we got. So take advantage of every single solitary ray of sunshine or drop of rain. If you’re cold, shiver like there’s no tomorrow. If you’re wet, be as wet as the bottom of the sea. If you’re hot, feel the sweat pouring off your body and know that you are alive. We’ve got the ocean for cooling breezes and bodysurfing. We’ve got lakes and ponds for swimming. We’ve got forests to go hiking in, mountains to climb. Savor your ninety days, your twelve weekends, in all their hot, sweaty, rainy, muggy, foggy glory.
During a semester break in college, I was driving home with a friend down Route 17 in New York State. Right around Roscoe, NY, we stopped by the side of the road to visit an old cemetery. I don’t know why we did it. I remember looking at all the old gravestones of the people who had been born and died, as far back as the 1800’s. Some of the names and dates you couldn’t even read anymore, such were the effects of time. But one image from one of the markers has always stayed with me; that of an hourglass with wings. Maybe this was a popular image around the time these folks were buried. I don’t know. But since that visit to that graveyard in Roscoe almost thirty years ago, I’ve been in more cemeteries than I care to count, and I’ve never seen the symbol of the winged hourglass again. A Zen master once said to go to sleep at night like it’s your final rest, and to get up in the morning as if your bed is on fire. That is; do everything fully, giving your all, all the time. There is only this present moment, no other. If not now, when? If not the beach today, then when? You’ve got ninety days, my friends. Twelve weekends. Stop arguing balls and strikes and play the game.
When Henry started this blog five years ago, it was an attempt to record the simple, everyday joys of life. A virtual cabin in the woods, as my subtitle says. As blogs go, it was all over the map. It could be about anything, which in the blogging world really means it could be, Seinfeld-like, about nothing. Successful, syndicated blogs usually do one thing very well. They become time-tested, predictable products that readers can rely on day after day to give them exactly what they want and expect. It could be cooking, music, politics, sports, etc. You know exactly what you’re going to get that when you go to Politico, Deadspin, Daily Beast or HuffPo. Here, Henry tried (and tries) to do something different. Like the Ming Dynasty text called the Caigentan, or “Root Vegetable Discourse“, I’ve tried to offer up varied bits of wisdom based on my experiences enjoying the simple pleasures of life. The title of this text comes from the Chinese proverb that “One who has eaten vegetable roots for lack of anything better can accomplish anything,” or perhaps more succinctly “One who has gone through hardships can do anything.” The way I’ve understood this text is “You will be unable to find joy in this lifetime unless you can find joy in the simple pleasures of living.” I’ve written about decaying Pocono resorts, creepy naked guys, shoegaze bands, snakes falling from the sky, Bruce, and Buddha. One of the easiest ways we can enjoy the simple things in life is to take a trip to the beach. No person can stand before the ocean and not feel reborn. Now that summer is here in Maine where Henry lives, he would like to give his advice for a perfect day at the beach. There are only a few rules you need to follow. 1. Buy a State of Maine park pass. If you can afford it. This year it costs $70 and lasts all the way until December 2012. Considering the fact that it costs about $10-15 every time Henry takes his family of four to the beach, you only have to use it about five times before it virtually pays for itself. 2. Eat a big breakfast. And drink plenty of water. That way, you start the day fully nourished and hydrated and you won’t have to schlep the entire contents of your fridge to the ocean’s edge. 3. Pack light. This is ancillary to #2 above. The bigger your breakfast, the less food you’ll need to bring. Henry knows this might be tough when you have kids, but parents don’t need to give their kids snacks every fifteen minutes. It’s OK to be hungry. Additionally, if kids don’t ask for food, don’t offer it to them. Pack only what you need. In my case that would be water, an apple, sunscreen, and a towel. Maybe a book, although strangely enough, I usually don’t read at the beach. Under perfect conditions, everything you bring should fit in one medium-sized backpack. 4. Pick an old favorite… You know where your favorite beaches are. Going back over and over to the same spot is not necessarily a bad thing. Shifting ocean currents can remake a sandy shoreline overnight. Temperature, wind, humidity, and the quality of sunlight can make two different visits to the same beach radically different experiences. 5…or try something new. Take a chance. Branch out. Hike to a deserted beach and take your clothes off. It doesn’t even have to be a beach. Tap into local folklore. Don’t be afraid to ask the guy at the general store about the secret swimming hole. Go skinny-dipping in the rain. Cultivate peak experiences. Thoreau moved into a cabin and went swimming in Walden Pond in order to live deliberately. You can too. But watch out for the snapping turtles.
Andrew Walsh, the producer and co-host of my favorite podcast Too Beautiful To Live, has been on a quest lately to retrieve some lost childhood memories in the guise of four free cassette tapes that McDonald’s gave away in the summer of 1986. You can read about his search and his success in finding most of these tapes here. You can also get exact track listings and download the MP3s, which I just did today and burned to a CD for some most excellent summer cruising music. But Andrew’s journey reminded me of the music of my own youthful summers past, and I grew nostalgic. Here’s a story.
When I was a kid growing up in Syracuse, New York in the mid-eighties, my uncle bought a small camp on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack region of New York State. Every summer he would load up my cousins, my sister, myself (and a few other adults for backup) into his big red Chevy van and we would drive north into the woods to spend a week or more swimming, hiking, canoeing, and trying not to get eaten by black bears or bitten to death by black flies. He would also advise us to avoid what he called “crotch rot” by making sure we changed out of our wet bathing suits as soon as we were done swimming in the lake. Maybe this had something to do with acid rain. I’m not sure. But it was an idyllic time. Occasionally we would take trips into the booming metropolis of Old Forge to visit the hardware store, pick up some Archie comic books or eat some soft-serve. The thing I remember most about those trip to camp, however, was the music we played in the red van on the way up and back. As I remember it, my uncle only had three or four 8-track cassette tapes for the van’s sound system. They were, in the order in which they were most frequently played: Eagles Greatest Hits, Fleetwood Mac Rumors, Elton John’s Greatest Hits, and an album by Linda Ronstadt. There may have been some Santana thrown into the mix as well. So now whenever I hear any of these artists I think back to summers past. And I smile. And I’m thankful I never got crotch rot, although I was chased by a black bear once. Which may have led to something else crotch-related, but that’s another story.
I have been on a quest lately to find a swimming hole within biking distance of my house. Living in Maine, and with the multitudinous rivers, streams and ocean inlets in my general vicinity, this would seem to be an easy task. But not so. Of course there are various places to swim, but I’m looking for a place a little more secluded, if you know what I mean. Thoreau and Ben Franklin are on my side in this quest for a place where I can indulge in an “open-air bath.” But there’s always the chance that I might get caught and viewed as some kind of freak. I had an experience last summer where I drove out to a secluded pond near my home. I hiked about a mile into the woods, and jumped into the water. Not seeing anyone around, I took off my bathing suit and threw it onto the rocks onshore. It was dusk, and the chances of anyone happening along were slim. And yet, who should appear out of the woods but four women. I was floating about twenty yards offshore and they called out to me, asking if I would mind if they joined me. Of course I agreed. What else could I do? They didn’t notice my state of undress, and, clad in their various swim attire, they jumped in as well. So here we have a great moral dilemma. Does a man, floating naked in the middle of a pond, admit to his newly manifested female companions that he is in fact naked and that perhaps they would like to take their leisure elsewhere? Or does he pretend that everything’s fine, just fine, nothing to see here? Well, I opted for the latter choice. But when the sun started to go down and the water got chillier, I had to make a decision. I slowly paddled towards shore, and gingerly retrieved my suit from the rocks at the water’s edge. You probably don’t know how difficult it is to put on a swimsuit while you are trying to tread water, but let me tell you, it’s not easy. As I climbed out of the water, clothed, I heard giggles behind me. They knew what had happened. I distinctly heard one of them say, “That must have been a thrill for him.” As if I was some kind of pervert. As if it was my plan to go skinny-dipping in a remote pond and hope that some women came along. Please. And yet, they had come out of nowhere, intruded on my privacy, and here I was, feeling like the creep. I remember swearing to myself that I would never let this happen again. But here I am, one summer later, looking for some kind of swimming hole utopia. I’m a married father of two, not some weirdo hiding in the bushes. All I want is someplace where I can be alone and feel close to nature. People can legally go off into the woods, drink a few Buds, and fire shotguns at innocent animals, or tear across frozen lakes on loud, belching snowmobiles, or plow through the woods on ugly, dangerous ATV’s, and all this is legal. And yet I, with my low carbon footprint, am some kind of freak. A man who goes into the woods with a gun to kill animals is called a sportsman. But a man who goes into the woods to swim unencumbered in a secluded pond is just a creepy naked guy, apparently.