THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 4

15 Sep

SEPTEMBER 15, 2009 :: BOBBING FOR APPLES: A SPIRITUAL ACT

FORECAST: heavy precipitation

TOPICS: new columns by Jack Pendarvis, rain’s bleating, Jonathan Harris, starting my own religion, the pros and cons of TOMS, cleaning pots the way you clean wounds, the iconic language of song titles, Kevin Drew, Ho No Hana, broken necks at Sandy’s, 12 red badges of courage, symptoms of pneumonia as a sign you aren’t paralyzed, water bars in Waikiki, Icelandic life spans, little Hindu deities

::

1. “WAY TO GO, CLOUDS!”

It’s nice to find universal things. We’re constantly searching for them, but it’s still energizing to realize an experience is felt across the globe and throughout time. In Jack Pendarvis’ new column in The Believer, he discusses clouds. “Clouds are just about the same now as they were in the time of the dinosaurs. Think about it. A dinosaur could look up and see the same clouds you are looking at right now. For this reason scientists agree that clouds will one day help us in our studies of dinosaurs. Way to go, clouds!”

Rain is the same. It hasn’t rained here recently, but that isn’t necessary to remember what it feels like. Smells like. The way it patterns a window. The way it hammers the car roof, bleats as it drips past our ears, hums on the shingles. It’s the same in Tibet as it is in Kansas. Every child knows what it is to stand under a roof, a gray-blue screen obscuring whatever usually greets him from his window. Whether the roof is leaky thatch or well-insulated tile, the rain outside is the same.

Like our reactions to all external stimuli, our emotions and memories are triggered by a particular day’s weather. I noticed the connection in the social experiment We Feel Fine [wefeelfine.org], orchestrated by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar. A web interface that “collects feelings,” it searches blogs for the phrase “I feel…” grabs the sentence up to the period, and retrieves as much information about the author as it can. Interestingly, you can explore the collected emotions in a view option called “Weather,” where the feelings are categorized according to the weather when it was written.

“I am writing you this letter to let you know that I love the way you made me feel in your last letter” — from someone in Worcester, Massachusetts, United States when it was sunny.

The clouds roll in.

“I really am confused as to why this person feels it necessary to make everyone involved absolutely miserable” — from someone in Everett, Washington, United States when it was cloudy.

And unleash.

“I feel that the people I already applied to are probably looking at me like I am a joke just because of my email address and they don’t even know me.” — from someone in Portland, Oregon, United States, when it was rainy.

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2. LOTS OF SWIMMING, AND ICE SCULPTURES

For weather, the common denominator is precipitation. Among its definitions—a headlong fall or rush, abrupt or impulsive haste—is “any form of water that falls to the earth.” Thinking of weather’s effect on humans and water’s great role in weather, it wouldn’t surprise you that if I ever started my own religion—decided to throw in the towel and just wing it—I would put as my central deity: water.

Most of us have probably pondered its power—it gives life, and it taketh away. We gulp it down, but are terrified of drowning. It makes things grow, but a waves can destroy entire villages in seconds. We bathe in it, we use it to cook, clean, and put out fires.

I was thinking of this as I finally tossed a particularly decrepit pair of TOMS.

If you don’t know what TOMS are [tomsshoes.com], they’re brilliant but have their drawbacks:

Pro: For every pair you buy, TOMS donates a pair to a child who doesn’t have shoes.

Con: They disintegrate rather quickly.

Pro: They’re relatively cheap.

Con: Wear them without socks and they smell like rotten cantaloupe rind after a while.

Pro: They’re very stylish, mainly because social consciousness is stylish.

Con: Later in life you will have back problems.

The right shoe of this pair of TOMS developed a quarter-sized hole in its sole last spring. I continued to wear them for months. Finally, four weeks ago a piece of glass hit a bulls-eye in that skin-colored target. Later, as I stood in our shower washing the wound, black with dirt and tangible smog, I was in awe of water. I was cleansing a wound with the same thing I would use to clean a skillet. The same thing I could boil to kill nasty bacteria. The same thing we run out of when it’s cold and run in to when it’s hot. One might conclude that water is the source of life (something agreed upon by NASA scientists).

When I want to research a topic, I go to my iTunes library. You can deduce a lot about cultural values through the iconic language of song titles. In my library alone, which is probably representative of 0.23% of all the music written in the last century (but certainly has no bias toward water-related songs), there is 3.8 hours worth of music whose titles refer to water in some form. It exists in every potential fashion. Jack Johnson says drink it, Dave Matthews says don’t. Rachael Yamagata says meet her by it. The Henry Clay People warn there’s something in it. Feist wrote a song called “The Water,” which inspired Kevin Drew to make a film called The Water, which was shot almost completely in silence.

From Counting Crows (“Rain King”) to Justice (“Waters of Nazareth”), Anathallo (“The River”) to Tom Waits (“Rainbirds”), everybody’s crooning about it.

My religion wouldn’t be the next Raëlism, purporting we’re the genetic engineering of advanced humanoid extraterrestrials, or Ho No Hana, pretending to diagnose illnesses through “reading feet” while pocketing $900 per session. I’d keep it simple. Lots of swimming and ice sculptures. We’d be the most hydrated congregation on Sundays. We might even bob for apples, enjoying, literally, our god’s bounty, floating right on top of his vast, ethereal being. In a bucket.

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3. SALT WATER

I first experienced water’s enormous power in Hawaii. There were six of us crammed into a two-bedroom for a summer. One day we went to Sandy’s, a locals-only place famous for bodysurfing. Even though we technically lived there, we stuck out. Not only were we vibrant specimens of the Caucasian race, we were visibly in awe of the gigantic doomsday devices that were masquerading as waves a hundred feet before us. These were bulldozer blades, every few seconds crashing into the shore and plowing the sand up toward the sunbathers.

The lifeguards approached us. “Are you planning on getting in?” We looked at each other. Finally someone said, noncommittally, “Uh, I don’t know. Maybe.” The lifeguard seemed to take this as bad sign, like he knew the waves would smell the fear on us, like dogs can. “Well, just so you know. Yesterday somebody broke their neck here. So be careful. It’s really dangerous.” We shrugged him off and staked out a plot of sand, unfurling our towels and kicking off our flip-flops lazily to prove how not terrified we were. Maybe I was the only one terrified. But I doubt it. How often do you do something that recently caused a person’s neck to snap in half?

I wasn’t the first one in. Derek led the way. You got thrashed a few times just trying to get past the break; if you planted your feet and resisted the oncoming surge—imagine a skinny kid with his hands outstretched as a bulldozer barrels toward him—you were swept off your feet, flipped upside down, and dragged up the beach where you were eventually deposited, choking, looking as Haole as they come. Instead, you had to dive straight into the wave and push hard until you reached air.

Once you did that, all you had to do was bodysurf. Piece of cake.

Already slightly paralyzed after a few run-ins with the bulldozer, I was scared to put myself at the precipice of any of the larger waves, but it’s the only way to really get it. So once we’d mustered up enough courage (we deserve about 12 red badges a piece), we positioned ourselves so the next one almost came down on top of us—you feel like your top-half is sticking straight out of a vertical wall of water—and swam like crazy. When we caught it and torpedoed through the wave’s tunnel into the plumage of white water and sand, it was amazing. Still terrifying. But amazing. And we got up and ran back in.

However. When we caught it wrong, it hurt. If you were too slow, you were fine. It was like missing the bus. You just wait for the next one. But when you overshot, when you got ahead of that rushing blade, you looked down as you rose higher and higher, the ground sinking away below you, seemingly being swallowed by a beast, and you knew it was about to swallow you too. The bus was coming, and you were in the middle of the street.

At the breaking point you’re about as high above ground as if you were lying on the roof of a one-story house, peeking over the side. You can see straight down because of the arc, and there’s suddenly nothing between you and the sloping sand. Gravity gives a sharp tug, and, using our heavy machinery metaphor, it is extremely like being a little kid and falling off the front end of a moving bulldozer. Hitting the ground hurts enough, but a split second later the blade pushes two tons of soil and brick and fractured rebar into your face and pummels you up a hill. No matter how determined you are to keep yourself right side up, you’re thrown every which way and you wind up with salt water gushing down your throat and out your nose and your head feels instantaneously pneumonic. But the pain in your head is each time a relief. As is motion in your limbs, because these are signs you aren’t paralyzed. Your vertebrae are still intact, your spine has not splintered, and you feel up for just one more.

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4. FINAL NOTES

A final few notes on water. First, it is thought to be the cause of Icelanders’ lengthy life spans—something about volcanic purification.

Secondly, water bars exist. In Waikiki, they exist in bright white lights and curved, slick architecture, futuristic like Hollywood does the future. I remember thinking, “If desalinization of ocean water is possible (for this is what they were selling), why all the water scarcity stuff? Just scare tactics?” Then I read that it’s simply too expensive to be a viable option for creating drinking water for 6 billion people.

And thirdly, if I ever decide water deserves my undivided spiritual attention, I want to write two books: 1) The Little Book of Water Deities, based off Pixar animator Sanjay Patel’s The Little Book of Hindu Deities, without doubt the cutest religious tome ever published; and 2) Divining the Divine, because what a witty and perfect metaphor for searching for God: you hold out a forked stick and wander aimlessly. Sounds about right.

READ: Tapped Out, by Paul Simon; The Little Book of Hindu Deities, by Sanjay Patel.
RESEARCH: The Eastern Garbage Patch.
WATCH: The Water, directed by Kevin Drew, starring Leslie Feist, David Fox, and Cillian Murphy.

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