NOTES FROM THE HENGE
The slightest of smells can provoke
Mem’ries both mild and baroque
But if what you recall
Ain’t familiar at all
Was the stench an olfactical joke?
|The Nose Knows|
SMELL ME A STORY
I remember when I was a kid my parent’s book-cluttered, ever messy bedroom always had a very specific smell. Not necessarily a bad smell, just very specific. It was almost like burnt milk, but not quite. A sweetish/sourish/slightly-funky smell. An umami-ish old-sock odor? Nah. That’s too harsh. More pleasant than that. Maybe it was simply the natural smell of an adult couple’s bedroom when the sheets aren’t changed all that frequently. Dunno.
My folks were both artists, and, like many artists, maintaining a tidy lifestyle wasn’t at the top of their list of priorities. Clothes were for keeping the oil paint or typewriter ribbon stains off you while you did your art (certainly not for looking hip or dressy), cars were simply to transport you to-and-from selling and doing your art (certainly not for showing off or driving in style), houses were for protecting you from the weather while you worked on your art (certainly not comfy showplaces or entertaining party centers), and bedrooms were made for sleeping (and, um, assorted other stuff) in those rare moments you weren’t creating art (and certainly not for keeping kempt and fresh smelling.)
I don’t know exactly what the cause of that “my parent’s bedroom” smell was, but there was no mistaking it. Mild Jarlsberg mixed with gently decaying paperbacks? Close, but not quite.
Whatever it was, I recently noticed the very same smell as I walked into my own bedroom. What? Yeah. Wow.
I found this both disturbing and yet somehow strangely comforting. The circle-of-life reek. Or the circle of dirty sheets. Either way, smelling it prompted me to reach for the Febreze and promise myself to wash a load of linens ASAP. But it also made me stop and remember my childhood. Maybe, in the end, it’s the smell of a middle-aged person’s bedroom. A mum and da smell. An odor indicating where comparatively oldish people sleep (oldish people who are both bohemian artists and therefore aren’t super fantastic at housekeeping). I can’t hate that. It is, like it or not, pretty much my life now. My artsy wife and my artsy self.
I am now around that very age my folks were back when I was that kid first noticing their bedroom stank. Older, even. Way older in fact. Truth is, now that I think about it, I’m only nine years younger than my dad was when he died at 64. Jeeze. This astounds me. And upsets me. He accomplished so much in his short life and I, so far, so very little.
Living smack-dab in mass suburbia Levittown, he supported a family of five while consecutively, successfully, traversing four separate super risky, super artsy careers. First he was a prize-winning painter & illustrator of science fiction magazines and pulp paperbacks known as “EMSH.” (Yeah, that Emsh.) He also experimented in abstract impressionism painting during that period. Then, even though he was one of the top artists in his field, he turned his back on all that to chase his bliss and become an award-winning experimental filmmaker (creating, among other things, Relativity, a movie the New York Times referred to as the “best short film ever made”). After that he followed (and led) video innovations and made tons of highly acclaimed avant-garde videos for PBS and elsewhere, launching him onto a global stage and winning him numerous international awards. Finally, excited by even more changes in technology, he transitioned yet again, collaborating with code-writing experts to pioneer developments in computer graphics and create groundbreaking computer art. In fact the stuff he helped invent spawned lots of the modern CGI we see in movies and TV today. Super cool sh*t.
I won’t even go into (at least not too much) how before any of this above crap happened he fought the bad guys during WWII in Italy… or how in his last decades he balanced his personal projects with teaching the next generation as Dean of Film & Video at The California Institute of the Arts (even becoming Provost of the whole damn school for a while). There’s actually, no joke, a book written about my dad and mom that came out a few years back called Infiniti x Two. I know, right? Crazy.
It sounds like I’m bragging. And I guess I am, kinda. Sorry. Hard not to. But the bragging about accomplishments isn’t really my point. He did lotsa amazing stuff, sure. But even if he hadn’t garnered any awards or fame or kudos, I think I’d still be super proud.
What society calls “success” is not the point. It sure wasn’t his. The point is my dad did what he wanted. He focused on his bliss. He didn’t chase money, he didn’t chase status, he didn’t chase “stuff,” he didn’t even chase his own previous triumphs. And he didn’t, I guarantee you, reach for the Febreze when his bedroom smelled a little funky. That was, I think, the farthest thing from his mind.
So, if you’ll forgive a truly awkward aphorism, I offer: Forgo the Febreze. Bag Your Bliss.
Miss you, Dad. (You crazy-assed, tormented genius guy, you.)