Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Mold, the Dust, and the Bathtub

And other things that trigger powerful memories.

The most unsuspecting activities can produce the most powerful recollections.  The smell of a certain kind of soap can give me a rush of memories from a squat in Copenhagen twenty years ago, like it all happened last week.

The dangers of mold and dust are things I've learned about for the first time, over the past decade.  It may be the case that our apartment complex is particularly prone to mold because of shoddy design, lack of maintenance, and the fetid pool of water that usually lays beneath the building.  But I've also discovered, perhaps belatedly, well into middle age, that mold tends to happen in places where you have, say, a bunch of boxes sitting next to a wall for years.

I have lived a very mobile life ever since leaving home at the age of 18 or so.  A rolling stone gathers no moss, mold, or dust.  Why would anyone live in a small apartment and have boxes of stuff that they are storing in closets and under beds, for goodness' sake?  I certainly never used to do that sort of thing.  In any case, I have learned to make sure there's a bit of space in between the boxes and the wall, for air to pass through, and then the mold doesn't grow.

It's the same kind of thing with dust.  Dusting and other forms of cleaning is surely a fine thing, but again, if you're moving all the time and using all your few possessions on a regular basis, dust just doesn't tend to accumulate much.

I have a couple of friends in Toronto, one of whom developed a very serious dust allergy.  She and her husband are both big readers and book collectors.  They hated the idea of getting rid of their extensive book collection, so instead they put all the books behind glass, and installed an air circulation system in their house.  Even serious readers don't touch most of those books often enough if they have thousands of them, to prevent dust from being a serious problem.

In our apartment it's not the books that are the problem.  Like the mold, the dust is related to the boxes.  What's in the boxes?  There may be a box or two with other things in them, but at least 95% of any boxes in this apartment contain CDs.

When Spotify started their free tier in 2013, I never got the note about it, and I figured I'd keep on selling CDs like I had been doing in 2012.  So in 2013 I ordered another 1,000 copies each of three different albums that I was running low on.  This sort of thing was normal for me at that time, and had been for decades.

I've still got most of those boxes.  Initially, because it was a large re-order of CDs, I hijacked space wherever I could find it.  Beneath our bed, beneath our daughter's bed, in our closet, in her closet, a little in the living room.  Initially.  

But then they just sat there.  2013 was the beginning of the end of touring for me regularly within the USA.  With the CD income gone it was no longer financially viable.  You gotta come home with more money than you left with, or it doesn't work for very long.

There they remained, and remain, as a constant reminder of the death of my performance career, or to be more charitable about it, its transformation from a career that involved constant touring to one that involves producing online content and begging for donations in return.

This would be a painful enough reminder in itself if not for the fact that my seven-year-old son has a dust allergy.  The air filter we got last time there were big forest fires nearby has helped.  But if Yuta is coughing one morning and cleaning the air filter doesn't make it stop, the next thing to try is getting a damp cloth and wiping down all those many boxes of CDs, which will have developed another film of whispy grey matter on top by then.

What reminds me most often and most intensely of the career as a touring performer in my own very large country that I once had, though, is the bath.

I gather not everyone's memories work like mine does.  Many people experience trauma and then get reminded of it all the time and remember it all the time, and their lives are pretty rough.  For me, the occasional traumatic experiences get less painful over time and I eventually largely forget about them.  While the most wonderful memories can easily be provoked with the right kind of stimulation, such as being immersed in hot water.

It's not that triggering the memories makes everything better -- far from it.  These are indeed happy memories, but they last a matter of seconds, before being replaced by the awareness that my reality these days, although full of domestic loveliness, is otherwise so isolated and atomized, the feeling of being part of anything bigger than a nuclear family unit usually seeming like little more than an unrealistic longing now, or something I can only experience vicariously online, or when I leave the USA.

But wow, how good it once was, I'm reminded every night, as I enter the bath.

I take baths so often because of family life.  Reiko is Japanese, and in Japan the whole family takes a bath together every night, when the kids are small.  As with many other Japanese traditions, this is a very nice one, a pattern very easy to fall into. 

Our eldest daughter, now almost 18, still has boxes of my CDs under her bed and in her closet, along with several of my musical instruments.  She's used to it by now.  Though she teases me about it now and then, good-naturedly, she knows it's just the price of having her own room, since that's been the case ever since that ill-fated CD reorder over a decade ago now.

She stopped bathing with the whole family a long time ago, which is good, because it's a small bathtub.  Our youngest two are seven and five, and they still fit in the tub with Reiko and I, just barely.

It used to be, for many, many years of living on the road as a touring musician, playing at protests and college campuses and lots of other places, I would shower regularly, just because that was my preference.  I'd never take baths, unless it were in a hot tub or a hot springs, and generally outdoors, as these generally are.

As a traveling musician I became familiar with lots of different corners of the country, including where to find the nicest and most affordable hippie hot springs resorts.  I haven't been to Harbin Hot Springs in northern California since long before the fire that destroyed it, though I've heard it's back running some form, but that's the place I used to visit most often.

I first went to Harbin in the 1980's, when I was living in Berkeley for a time.  All the local folks knew about it, and if they had a car, it was the sort of place most people could afford to go for a weekend now and then, and they did.  You drive inland for a couple hours, through some very windy roads after you pass through Calistoga, and then you're in the middle of the woods, at Harbin Hot Springs, where there used to be cozy wooden structures nestled between the trees where you could rent a room for less than you'd pay for a Motel 6 for a night, but what an impossible comparison.

Down the walkway from the various places where people might spend the night, which included lots of even more affordable camping possibilities, were the actual hot springs.  

There was a big pool with room for a couple dozen folks at a time, which was around 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius), which in my book is the perfect temperature for an outdoor hot tub or hot spring.  This is also a common temperature for a hot tub, and I've been in many hot tubs, particularly when traveling on the west coast, and they're usually kept at around 104 degrees.  So there are lots of possible memories that might be provoked by a bath that's around that temperature.

Just beyond the big pool at Harbin was another, much smaller pool, with a cave-like feel to it.  This pool was 112 degrees Fahrenheit (44 Celsius), which is much hotter, the kind of temperature that makes your toe nails feel like they're going to curl up and fall off.

Reiko likes to run very hot baths, which our children have long become accustomed to.  They may or may not consistently hit 112 degrees, but they're way over 104.  As soon as I feel that sensation in my toenails, I'm momentarily transported to Harbin Hot Springs.

Sometimes it's like every visit I ever had to the place, from the 1980's to the 2010's, flashes before my eyes, like when you're looking at the light at the end of the tunnel.  Other times I'm struck with a particular memory from a visit to Harbin.  A particularly wonderful intimate moment.  Holding her in the hot spring, floating.  Walking along a wooded trail and feeling the dew from the leaves brushing off on my face.

When most of my touring was in the United States, which was the case for the first twenty years of my musical career, it would be hard to say how often I'd end up in California, but suffice it to say that out of a typical year of touring the country, I'd do gigs all over that giant state at least twice a year, often much more than twice.  It got to the point where even though I might have been ostensibly living at the time in Connecticut or Texas, I had a membership at Harbin, because I was going there often enough that the discount I got through that was worth it.

I remember once traveling on my own, in some situation where I was in fact considering paying for a room in a Motel 6 one night, somewhere in northern California.  Then I looked at a map and realized I could drive to Harbin Hot Springs and get there within two hours, and pay about the same amount, which is what I did.  Usually, though, I traveled with someone, because touring is often more fun that way.

The last few times I went to Harbin, after maybe 15 years of me going there multiple times in a given year, there would sometimes be an uncomfortable moment as I drove into the place with whoever I was traveling with.  As relaxing and wonderful as the environment there was, I began to have a brief sense of shame sweep over me as I'd approach the little structure with a person in it who would check your reservation and all that.  It was a less stressful version of the same kind of feeling I'd have when attempting to cross the Canadian border.

In normal life, even people who know you quite well only know so much about you, in terms of the nitty gritty details.  Certain people will tend to know a lot, about certain areas of your life, which sometimes means knowing more about yourself than you do.  Like when you visit a doctor who might be looking at your whole medical history.  That doctor may be the only person alive other than me and my mother who knows that I had surgery on my big toe when I was 16, for example.

Crossing the Canadian border and handing over my passport, you can see the expressions on the faces of the people from Immigration when they look at my file.  There may be various statutes of limitation on criminal records.  Your past transgressions may not be visible to a potential employer, if it was more than seven years ago.  This is not the case with the border authorities, who are seeing a record of every time you've crossed the border in your entire life.  Which times you were found with a roach from a joint that you didn't manage to find on the floor of the van.  Which times you were turned away because you hadn't done your work permit filing correctly, or you were trying to cross the border without one.

Crossing the checkpoint into Harbin, if the person in the little hut was a woman, as was usually the case, I'd eventually be prepared for the possible momentary glare.  On the occasions when I'd get one of those, I could only guess at what she was thinking, which always remained unspoken.  But the gist of it seemed evident.

Everyone who enters has to show ID, and whether it's a driver's license or a passport, they write down the name and number.  And every time they would pull up my file, they'd be faced with a list of the names of the people I had come to Harbin with over the years, what countries they were from, and their passport numbers.

In my mind I would translate those glares into words, and feel a bit sheepish.  What if I told this nice young lady sitting in your passenger seat that she was the fourth woman you've brought here who had an Australian passport?

My lovers were generally well immersed in the cult of polyamory.  I was happy, though, that this list of names and passport numbers was confidential information.

Here at home in Portland I often get into the bathtub first, and I'm the only one to experience the hottest moments of the bath.  It's not a hot tub or a hot spring, and it's not a heated bathtub like they have in Japan, either.  The water cools rapidly, and by the time the temperature has descended by a few degrees and become reminiscent of more normal-temperature hot tubs, like the ones I've been in frequently with the kids, the memories of Harbin fade again.  

I settle back into the present, deeply appreciating the beauty of each member of this lovely little nuclear family.  It's a wonderful domestic life, so rewarding in so many ways.  But in decades past, living in America at a different time, and maybe more relevantly in different parts of it, domestic tranquility could mix just fine with regular public activities nearby as well.  

That changed a long time ago, somehow or other.  As I soak in the water, and soak in the beauty of the beings in the bathtub with me, I find myself once again reflecting on modern life in the USA for formerly-touring American artists like me -- and, according to statistics, for so many other people out there -- and wishing modernity here did not seem almost inevitably to come hand-in-hand with such social isolation.

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