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Adult Books

By Andrew Fort

Wild GiftOne of the great mysteries of my adolescence involves a book. Not a musty, leather-bound book hidden away in some cloistered library, but a cheap, mass-produced hardback. It was one of these so-called “Adult Books” referenced by John Doe and Exene Cervenka on their album Wild Gift.  The song itself was not the instigator of the mystery, but rather an artifact around which all of the other mysteries of adolescence began to coalesce, and a confirmation that if you wanted to, you could categorize the things of the world into Child and Adult. 

Never mind the fact that adults often behaved like children, and children very often behaved like adults. Never mind the fact that most movies labeled “adult” were in actuality the most emotionally immature movies in existence–though I had no direct experience of this at the time, I did know, based on a free adult newspaper that a female friend brought to school one day when we were much too young to be looking at such things, that naked women seemed to enjoy lollipops every bit as much as my friends and I did. And I don’t mean that as a double entendre. This was clearly part of photographic procedure for this particular newspaper.

Do You Like MeI don’t think my experiences in first learning about sex were any different from anybody else’s of my era. We were clearly moving out of the sweet, innocent phase of notes tossed across the classroom when the teacher wasn’t looking: DO YOU LIKE ME? CHECK ONE. YES. NO.

But we were clearly not adults. And what did adult mean? And why were all the adults so secretive about it? The only straight answers I got were from other adolescents, and these sounded patently ridiculous: You put WHAT WHERE? 

Due to the uniform silence of the adults, things began to take on a sinister sheen, like in a sci-fi movie where the protagonist suddenly uncovers a vast conspiracy. Where aliens have taken over the world and everyone is complicit, and every child is doomed to be indoctrinated into the conspiracy and there’s no going back, ever.

DoloresThis song came out when I was about eleven years old. My sister, who was then seventeen, played it all the time and ran around the house singing the lyrics:

They’re all in a line, like
Adult books
I don’t understand Jackie Susann…

What did it all mean? I didn’t understand it either. Even more puzzling, my grandmother had a copy of a Jacqueline Susann book–DOLORES–on her book shelf. My Grandmother, who lived by herself in a little house in Long Beach and only rarely dated. (When she did, it was usually a guy named Dick Tracy. If ever there was a reason to believe that adults were just putting us on, that name had to be one of them.)

So when John and Exene sing Clifford shackles Jane, throws her on the floor she says no, no, yes, what was my eleven-year-old mind supposed to make of it? And was my seventeen-year-old sister now an adult, or what? Did she “go for Tomata?” Whatever that was supposed to mean? Did my grandmother? Did Dick Tracy?

I never really received satisfactory answers to these questions. And now that I’m older and have children of my own, at about the same ages, I really have to wonder if it all seems like a vast conspiracy to them. That sometimes, at night, adults slink around in the darkness and pull off their masks and do depraved things to and with one another.

And even if they asked me point blank whether or not this was the case, I’m unsure whether my answer would be YES or NO.

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Sunshine on my Shoulders–John Denver

By Rebecca Sonnenshine

When I was very small–maybe three or four–I often had the unsettling feeling that I was standing at the precipice of sanity, just about to fall into a bottomless chasm of crazy. At least that’s how I characterize those feeling as an adult currently wading throughRebecca Quote middle age. At the time, it simply felt like I was being chased by big scary emotions–happy, sad, scared, angry–that were waiting to swallow me whole.

Now, of course, I have come to the conclusion that all toddlers are mentally unhinged. Part of the human growing and learning process, I guess? So I was normal. The only part that probably wasn’t normal was my self-awareness of said toddler insanity. Am I crazy? I would think, as I was carried out of Bambi or Charlotte’s Web, sobbing inconsolably as if the world had ended. My mother soon put an end to movies— “Until you’re older”–and also the Sunday night Disney shows about wildlife families (wolves, bears, deer, whatever) in which a baby was separated from its mother, then reunited a commercial-break later. It was Just. Too. Sad. Even Sesame Street had to go.

But here’s what couldn’t  go: music. Music was the only thing that was everywhere, back in the day. You didn’t see movies playing in car DVD players. You didn’t see television blasting in every waiting room or nail salon or store window. But the radio was always on: in the car, in the coffee shop, at home. And I soon became obsessed with a song by John Denver called Sunshine on my Shoulders. Here is the first verse:

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

John Denver was pretty popular in the 70s (even before he was on The Muppets). I think my mom might have had a t-shirt with his face on it. He looked like a pretty nice guy to me: sweet, smiling, with straight blonde hair that was a little long and cut like mine. When he sang, he sounded like he understood me. Also: I liked anything that had to do with sunshine, since that was my last name (close enough). But what I liked most about the song john-denver2was that it made me cry. But not uncontrollably. Just enough to be enjoyable. That little swell of the heart, that tiny tear falling from the corner of my eye. Every time I heard it on the radio, I would press myself up against the speaker, basking in the melancholy of the song. And finally, I asked my mother if I could HAVE THIS SONG. I needed it. I needed to hold it close and let it be all mine. And for some reason, she agreed. Maybe because it was so damn cute, but probably because I wouldn’t stop asking for it.

This was a big deal. We lived in a tiny town. I’m not even sure there was a record store. We had to drive to the nearest big city (Chico, if that tells you anything) and go to the mall. There, my mother bought me the 45 of the song. I don’t remember what was on the B-side. I’m sure it was my first record that wasn’t a read-along story or Captain Kangaroo collection of songs and jokes. A real single. All mine. Little kids had record players back then. Even three year-olds. And once we bought it, I had to wait the rest of the day AND the 35 minute drive home to listen to it.

But once I put it on the turntable and lowered the needle, it was just as wonderful as I remembered it from the radio. John Denver was singing this song about me. To me. I started to cry. I probably listened to it until my mother wanted to hurl the whole damn thing into the garbage. But a funny thing happened: the more I listened to it, the less it made me cry. There was something about listening to the sad song over and over again that gave me the power to control my emotions. I didn’t feel so crazy anymore. Eventually, I got bored of Sunshine on my Shoulders. I put it next to Captain Kangaroo and moved on to another obsession: a weird cover of the ballad One Tin Soldier.

Recently, I heard Sunshine on my Shoulders. It came up streaming in my Pandora station: singer-songwriters of the 1970s (an excellent station, by the way). It was amazing how moving the song still is. Sweet and sad and simple. It took me back to that record store in the mall, holding my mom’s hand as we walked through the aisles in search of my treasure. I still love things that make me cry. I still love that song. And when I heard it, out of the blue, I might have cried. Just a tiny bit.

Official Website of John Denver

Sunshine on my Shoulders–John Denver

The Handsome Family

Weightless Again

By Andrew Fort

Paul BunyanThe first truly adult trip I remember taking—just me and my girlfriend—was to the redwoods in northern California. It was part of a gradual growing into adulthood—first a job, then college and living away from the home I grew up in, and it felt like the final cutting of the cord. Northern California’s geology and biology of mountains and forests are completely different from southern California’s of deserts and date palms, and that also gave the trip the feeling of a rite of passage. Still, I was not really prepared for the mystery and majesty of the redwoods. As a newly-minted adult, the unexplored forests and coasts and the kitschy little roadside attractions and the fact that we were in motion meant that we could suddenly do anything. The future lay ahead, as unexplored and thrillingly mysterious as the forests themselves.

Among the must-see roadside attractions in this area was the Trees of Mystery, a grove of trees with unusual features and names to match: the Elephant Tree and the Cathedral Tree, the Brotherhood Tree and the Candelabra Tree. In case you might drive by without even noticing it, giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox stood outside.

For me, the appeal of roadside attractions has always had something to do with their proximity to the sublime. A little tumble-down antique shack, or a chainsaw bigfoot, no matter how clumsy, humanizes the landscape at the same time that it provides a reminder of the insignificant scale of human endeavor when set against the majesty of nature. And the name, Trees of Mystery, seemed to be speaking to me at the time. Whatever mysteries adulthood held, I was ready for them. I was certain they were every bit as majestic and beautiful as the redwoods.

Then life happened, and I was confronted with realities.

Sky TrailThere was another trip to the Trees of Mystery, under different circumstances. This time I was en route back to Southern California with a young child in tow. At the time I was a newly-minted parent; new as well to the pressures and pleasures of working, home-ownership, and raising a demanding, intelligent four-year-old.

This time we needed to do the trip on the cheap. We packed everything in the car and stayed in ratty motels. We ate out of a cooler. But we couldn’t resist another stop at the Trees of Mystery.

In the intervening years things had changed. Instead of a grove of loosely-protected trees with a mist-swathed pathway through them and a kitschy gift shop adjacent, the Trees of Mystery had now been fenced off and an enormous gondola to the top of the mountain, dubbed the “Sky Trail,” had been erected. And the prices had tripled.

The majesty of nature was suddenly subject to a surcharge, and it excluded us as a matter of economy.

While we deliberated whether or not to pay the steep entry fee, which included the mandatory Sky Trail ride, we sat in the new restaurant across Highway 101. It was totally empty except for us. The room was decorated as if we were underwater in a lake, with the underside of a bobbing duck just above our table. It was cold and foggy outside. I mentally counted the dollars we had available to spend on the trip while I chewed on the unbearably salty French dip which I had allowed myself as a luxury.

After lunch we drifted through the gift shop. We bought my four-year-old son a little box made of burlwood and a pressed penny, still trying to decide whether or not to spend the money on the admission fee. It was about the same amount we would pay for a night in a motel.

Eventually I caved in. It seemed like there was a memory of something good there, and outside we were just touching on the fringes of it, afraid to take the plunge. We paid for the tickets, got on the gondola and went up.

The gondola went higher than I expected it to. I remember gliding above the tree tops, enclosed in the little bubble of the gondola car, over deep valleys lined with gigantic firs. The earth was a pincushion below us. At that moment, it didn’t matter how much we had spent, or how much we had left to spend. All I remember is feeling free—our little family in a bubble, high above the world.

sky trail 2Every time I hear the beginning of the Handsome Family’s song, I’m whisked back to that ride, high above the pines. It reminds me that out of all the mysteries in life, those fleeting moments of joy that come in the midst of stress are sometimes the most mysterious of all.

The Handsome Family