Friday, November 1, 2019

How Life Really Begins

August in Nebraska: the wet 95 degree air squats like a heavyweight wrestler on your lungs.

It was my day off, but I was called back to my bar. The air conditioner had gone out again.

I knew what was wrong, the same thing every time. Humidity wrung from the air drips into a pan, and a little pump sends it outside. But the hose clogs, the pump fails, the pan overfills, and a safety switch shuts it all down, checking first to make sure it's right before the bar opens.

I shuffled my feet in dread. Not a hard fix, but it was disgusting work. I looked around at the miserable staff, the saggy customers. It isn't that bad in here, I rationalized. Drink plenty of water, y'all will be fine. A good sweat is healthy. Maybe get naked.

No luck. I had to fix it, and there's only one way. I keep a 10-foot piece of hose around just for this job. Reach one end into the overflow tub, which sits atop the bathroom ceiling. Position a big garbage can below to catch the water. Put the other end of the hose in my mouth and suck hard. Hard, like I can barely do it kind of hard. I have to raise three feet of water up the hose with my lungs hard.

The idea is to create a siphon. As the water falls down the hose it creates its own vaccuum, drawing more water in. Quit sucking the tube too soon, and the water just falls back to the tub. Draw too long, and your lungs are smashed with stagnant water.

Here's the thing: it's not just water. Somehow the magic of nature creates globs of liver-colored, stringy clumps that slap into your mouth like clotted blood. The first time it hit me I ran back to the bar, shouldering aside the innocent bartender, and took a long swig of well vodka. I swirled it around like at the dentist, spitting it into the bar sink. A second swig, this one going straight down my gullet. Vodka is a disinfectant, and a pretty good sedative.

What is this stuff? The water came out of thin air. (Okay, thick air.) It should be pure. But left to its own for more than a week, slimy life will erupt in little blobs that gather together and organize. In a month, globs are high-five-ing each other, electing officers, creating language, telling jokes. The Muck is destined to overtake our support systems, one air conditioner at a time. I fear the government, but I fear the Muck even more.

Today I was vacuuming up long, wispy cobwebs in my basement. I had waited until after Halloween, because why clean up cobwebs before Halloween? I admired their intricate structures, as delicate and floaty as butterflies. What are cobwebs made of? Who makes them? Cobs?

"Dust Bunnies" by Noa Kaplan

It isn't just dust. Dust just settles. If I never cleaned again, dust would spread out evenly until it covered my floor like a gray beach, soft as a kitten thicket. But that's not what happens. In a week, bits of dust start assembling into structures, scaffolding, hanging from my ceiling, reaching towards the water pipes and electrical conduit. It vines around until there's a second, false ceiling, behind which it it free to create a community. It is organized and relentless. It is patient.

What does it want? Who is its leader? Is this where aliens are hiding? Is this how life on Earth began?

I should be optimistic to see Creation in action, but I don't trust it to build a better society. It doesn't look benevolent. We must be vigilant. Clean.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sixties Eve

Tomorrow is my birthday. Today is the last day of my fifties. Happy Sixties Eve to me.

I sure didn't skate through my fifties. I fell in love, got married, published a book, released an album, and recorded a soundtrack. I learned to ride a unicycle, juggle wooden pins, play the bass guitar, and pick a lock.

That sets the bar a little high for my upcoming sixties. Is that why I'm feeling apprehensive?

None of the other decades bugged me. I've always felt younger than my age, although I'm sure everyone feels that way. I read once that 90% of people at their high school reunions think, "Wow, everyone else looks so much older than me!"

I was kind of shy in my teens, and was happy to graduate and strike out on my own. I was independent for about a week, when I met my then-soon-to-be-wife. While everyone else was living the college life and sowing oats, I had twins and dove headfirst into parenting.

Divorced before the decade ended, I hit my thirties with gratitude. A fresh start, new life, a whole new way of liking myself. I joined a band, wrote songs, earned a black belt — all the stuff I should have done in my twenties, maybe — but it worked out better this way. I started my own business. While my friends were lamenting leaving their twenties, I was wiping my brow in relief.

It just got better. My forties built upon the successes and inspirations of my thirties. I had a little money to do fun stuff. My kids were grown and becoming independent. Getting older was fun! I sold my business, opened a music venue, felt like a somebody.

And I already told you about my fifties. [ happy sigh ] I met the love of my life. It changed everything.

We just watched Free Solo, a documentary about Alex Honnold, who climbed 3000 feet up the face of El Capitan without a rope or tools. Just fingernails and grit. At one point, when asked how his girlfriend felt about all his death-defying, he replied, "Well, I could be all cozy and happy, but then I'd never do anything."

"Except be cozy and happy!" I hollered at the TV. That's something a lot of people would like to do.

I remember being questioned at some point during an argument in my first marriage: "What do you want to do?"

"Be happy," I replied. "I just want to be happy."

"Happy?" she mocked. "Happy?!" It turned into a shriek. I immediately felt embarrassed and defensive. But even then I thought, Being happy is what I want to do.

All the careers and hobbies and accomplishments are steps to get there, not ends in themselves. And in my life each step has been measured against, Will I be happier if I do this? My beloved little sister and I quiz each other during difficult decisions: "When you're ninety and you look back, will you be glad you did this?"

Maybe instead of wondering what I'll accomplish in my sixties, I'll focus on nurturing what I have: happiness. It only took me fifty years to get there.