It was summer in New Jersey and our home had no air conditioning. The sky was white and the air so thick you'd get no farther than the front stoop before pearls of sweat would grow on your skin. Birds sat out the midday sun leaving the airspace to the blue bottle flies.
My mother hung wet sheets in front of the windows, but the stagnant air simply pooled like warm syrup. The sheets did little more than block the ventilation.
I was twelve, on summer vacation, and reading everything I could. The only thing I lacked more than athletic skill was the confidence to build it. So I collected armloads books in excursions to the library. Stacked them next to the bed, and read through the pile one by one.
There had been a Ray Bradbury story read in class. It was about a Godzilla-style monster that lived in the ocean. It had been attracted by a fog horn at a light house. The story didn't excite me very much, but the the moody style of the writing caught my attention. I found "Golden Apples of the Sun" at the library. It was full of similarly moody stories that seemed to have no beginning or end. A lot of them bored me. Some were gems. In summer's furnace the Bradbury tales were priceless air conditioning.
"All Summer in a Day" was about people who lived on the planet Venus. At the time he wrote the story, Ray had no way to know that the temps at the surface of Venus were hot enough to melt lead, and that the pressure was greater that of the deepest ocean, and that the atmosphere of Venus was corrosive sulfuric acid.
Bradbury's Venus was full of intelligence like Lowell's Mars. It was an inhabitable place, shrouded in perpetual storm clouds. The surface was blanketed in dense rainforests. Save for one day a year Venutians never saw the sun, only storm clouds. And they lived their lives in anticipation of the one day per year they could play in dry air and feel the sunlight on their skin.
It was hot enough for me on planet earth when I read the story. It was an interesting concept, living under eternal clouds. I probably thought about it for a few minutes, then moved on to the next story to take my mind away from the muggy summer atmosphere.
Today I put new license plates on my car. They are yellow and blue and remind me of the ones they issued in the state of New York in the 1960's.
The motto of the license plates is "North to the future!" although it doesn't say that on the one I have. It just says "ALASKA". The older plates have the state motto.
The state flag is a night sky with a starry representation of the big dipper and the north star.
The state flower is the forget-me-not.
A year ago if you had told me I'd be living in Alaska by the summer of 2006 I would have said you were barking up a very silly Doctor Seussian tree. As my father would have said, "North to the future! -- my eye."
Yet, here I am. Life has led me in inconprehensible directions. My friends say that I reinvent myself every couple of years. As I write these words a bald eagle sits on the tree branch of a yellow cedar a couple of tens of feet from my eyes. Whales breech in the bay just beyond the cedar. The radio reminds us that bears will be attracted by our garbage, so we must wait till the last minute to put it out by the curb. I am alone in the southeast Alaskan rain forest having not seen the sun for two weeks, wondering when I will see it again.
When your marriage ends, it's death.
You go into marriage thinking only about goodness and bright futures. If you don't plan on brightness and goodness, you execute a prenup. As a young man I met people who implemented prenuptual agreements. To me, that move was akin to going on a vacation and banking on having the plane crash. Making the funeral arrangements, picking the date and prepaying the caterer while you pack your sunscreen.
A marriage is an emotional thing, love being the operative emotion. As logical as I am, the logic of finance need not apply to marriage, in my world. And I don't know a single couple with a prenuptual agreement who stayed together.
Basically, they executed their plan.
Divorce, was not in our plan when my wife and I married. Though the lawyer who oversaw our divorce congratulated us on making it to the plus-two-sigma mark. Seventy percent of all marriages are dissolved by the time people are married as long as my wife and I were.
We made it really far. Huzzah for that.
The death part, though, is still a robed character with a scythe who reminds you life is impermanent. The universe will outlive you by billions of years, and speaking in percentages, you'll be around for only a gazillionth of the life of the world. If the world's lifespan was the same as a human's, you'd be able to fit everything you are and know in a fraction of a baby's eyeblink.
I couldn't keep my marriage going longer than a baby's eyeblink. Now it's gone and death sits at my left hand reminding me everything ends. I know he's a part of the world. He serves an important role and we should honor him as we do birth and invention of laughter.
Instead, we're full of illogical emotion. I hate the bastard. I'm in the club; Death to death.
Death reminds me I am imperfect and transient. Everything I do will be swept away by the almighty bulldozer of time. I am finite and miniscule. I am tiny and meaningless.
Fuck you, death. You should feel like I do now. That would be a great punishment for you.
I lived in California, where it is sunny over 300 days per year. It is warm and it never snows. It never rains in the summer, only the winter. The temps rarely go below freezing, even in the depths of winter.
I moved to Juneau, Alaska, where it rains over 100 inches per year. There are over two hundred sixty days of rain, and most of the days it does not rain, there is no sun. It snows in the winter and in the depth of winter it can be only a few degrees above zero, fahrenheit.
The Native Americans who have a heritage in this region have adapted all of their living to exist in perpetual gloom. Their art is bright and bold. They have no sun gods. Their clothing sheds water like a duck's feathers.
Cruise ships dock at the port right outside the window of my office. Thousands of tourists disembark every season, hundreds per day. They're issued raingear by the cruise ship companies who encourage them into the gift shops downtown.
They take tours of the glacier and raft on the glacier meltwaters.
But many of them never leave the ship where it's warm and dry. "Why, oh why," they wonder, "would anyone disembark at such a gloomy place?"
the place where I now live.
Because I planned on goodness and light and not money-grubbing misery and death, I did not have a prenuptual agreement.
In the end, I did not need one. Loving someone means you love them at the end and the beginning. My wife and I simply agreed on everything, including splitting up. We agreed on where all the money and possessions should go even before we sat down to figure it out. That's because we had the same goals. We had the same goals because we cared about the same thing. Keeping everyone safe. Keeping everyone happy. Making a path for a good life for all of us.
How could it have been any different?
People say, "You're so lucky. It turned out so well."
I say, "I failed at the one thing I promised in front of God that I would do. All I had to do was stay with one woman till I died. It should have been trivial. The fact my wife and I agreed on everything, including divorce, simply attests to the truth that we loved each other then, and we love each other now. That's the way it's supposed to be, in case you didn't listen to the words."
When I moved out of my house I packed my stuff myself. I was unemployed at the time, so I had lots of spare alone-time to do it.
I found the Ray Bradbury books I bought when I was twelve. My signature was on the cover of each, embossed pencil scrawl.
The pages of "Golden Apples of the Sun" were brittle and yellow. The DelRey paperback bore the price, $1.25. I had taken great pains not to break the spine, so net my thirty-seven year old signature on the cover, it was pristine.
The price of shipping things from California to Alaska is $1.55 per pound. At those rates, I could not afford to bring many of my things with me from the south.
I donated "Golden Apples of the Sun" to the library the way a family drops a troublesome pet at the humane society.
I suspect it met the same fate as most unwanted pets.
One day I woke up in Juneau and I though to myself, "I feel like I am on Venus, waiting for the sun." And then it struck me that perhaps I'd taken my death literally, and buried myself alive in rain.
In case you weren't listening to the music, to the prophets, to the priest in the pulpit or the guy on the apple box at the street corner: to the apparitions that appear to orphans or the pilots of the lights in the sky -- to your mother or the voice in your head -- in case you need to hear it from someone else, here it is:
If you base your self-worth, your marriage, your friendships, your life's work, or your family relationships on the acquisition of material wealth, you will fail. You will fail at everything good and useful. And it will feel like death.
It is not what you are supposed to do.
Take my word for it.
I came to Alaska because a road opened to the north. I came to Alaska because the signs led me this way, there was the promise of life ahead for my broken family as well as for myself. So far things are working out in Alaska.
Last week my oldest daughter came up to visit me and my lady in my new place. I was worried that she would see Juneau as the claustrophobic surface of Venus, and so the sun began to shine. For a week the temperatures were in the 70's and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The natives complained about the heat and the cruise ship tourists donned their sunglasses and window shopped with wide smiles on their faces. The snow melted on the Chilikats and humpbacks made loud whale noises so close to the house the windows rattled.
Here was this person that I held at birth. Whose eyes first saw mine as the person welcoming her to earth. Whom I could hold in one arm while I spoke on the phone or roamed the house -- she she was at nearly 21 years of age, standing with me on a rock beside a massive glacier of blue ice, trying to understand me.
There were wheels in her head turning as mine had done.
And she did not hate me for leaving her mother or moving away. She did not hate the woman who took me in. She tried to understand what I myself find incomprehensible. That life is a road and there is all kinds of magic on it if you look. It leads you here and there and you don't get to enjoy all the answers to your questions. You almost never get what you want out of it, not because it is vindictive or cruel, but because we rarely know how to want the right thing.
It reminded me that my wife and I were right about at least one thing - it was never about who was righteous, right or wrong or who got what.
Pretty much, it was all about love. All the time. It's the only thing you can actually have. Everything else is material illusion.
When my daughter left Alaska yesterday she gave me and my new partner a painting. It was a piece of Native American art, from a Tlingit painter right here in Juneau.
It's a painting of the Tlingit symbol for a whale. It's for my Alaskan home, so I will remember she was here, and that for one day it was sunny and the whales breeched so close the splash sounded like thunder.
Today the clouds roll across the sky, covering us in Juneau's familiar cloud blanket. Tomorrow the rains will begin again.
The natives are smiling and the cruise ship tourists wonder why they paid money to stop at a place so gray and gloomy.
And I wear a raincoat.