The Belly Of An Insect
We are a Microwave Culture. We track time by weekends, holidays and life events. We love The Quick Fix, The Cliff Note, The New York Minute. We want immediate gratification, rapid appreciation, and hockey stick growth.
Few things in the natural world, though, are actually immediate. Nature tends towards cycles (like tides), stalls and starts (like seasons), and increments.
It took four billion years for protozoans to evolve into homo sapiens, and at least 300,000 for dead plants and animals to form the youngest oil fields. Notre-Dame took 180. The Sistine Chapel took Michaelangelo ten — lying flat on his back, on rickety scaffolding, nearly 70 feet above marble floors.
I have grown to love the increment; progress starts small: cell mutation, seed germination. A brief foray beyond its environment and a frog becomes a lizard.
And though this epiphany of increments continues to strike me as new, profound and ever-unfolding, its sentiment was embedded in my favorite song by my long-defunct, briefly-resurrected college band, Smokey Junglefrog.
I was the youthful singer, often clad in second-hand wingtips; green, Guatemalan knit pants; a bright-yellow rain slicker and a brown, pom pom’d, macrame cap. Over a ponytail.
I chewed up the stage with fearless, foolish clowning, careening cattywampus over crushed, red Solo cups. I could sing, sure, but with little precision or nuance. Or restraint. And my bench was shallow: REM, The Police, Pink Floyd. Very bourgeoisie.
Jamie was our brooding guitarist: long, jet-black hair, piercing eyes, sharp features. He played circles then around most guitarists I know now. And he delivered unto us The Pixies, The Smiths, The Jesus & Mary Chain. He introduced me to Elvis Costello. He refused to play “Smell’s Like Team Spirit,” but cleared rooms with our “Drain You.”
Bass Player, Pablo, kept it light, playful, curious. He was brand-new to bass, and played odd, one-of-a-kind, serpentine groove grounded in The Ramones and The Alarm in equal turn. Paul was an art major. He dated printmakers, repertoire theatre actors and potters. He grew up in a big, warm, multi-generational Catholic family and was nearly unflappable.
Behind the drums, Fish played the jester: lending rim shots; and mid-set, bug-eyed, crazy faces. More Margaritaville than Meat Puppet, he was a Classic Rock Chameleon: wristbands, stick twirls and double-bass with the best of ‘em.
The four of us lived together, and recorded, released and toured behind three albums (cassettes, really) in two years. We opened for The Samples, Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Chucklehead. We mailed demos and headshots to New York City, thinking we were on the cusp of being signed by a Major Label.
It wasn’t easy. And in the end, it was strained. Our finances got jumbled. Our personal lives got confused. Our egos grew outsized. And, perhaps, our adolescent pain was too great to recognize in one another.
I wanted Smokey to be my band. I wanted the hits to be my songs. I wanted the stage to my stage.
I got the pronouns wrong.
We broke up and struck out on our own.
For years, Jamie and I talked rarely and tentatively, while Paul and Fish walked a razor’s edge between us.
In 2017, the four of us culled some 50 recordings to ten in order to repackage, reissue and remaster our greatest (ahem) hits, “Ashes & Ghost.” Debate on which to include was lively.
“Autumn of an Insect” was the band’s sole, unanimous decision; the song is anthemic and cathartic. The lyrics are killer.
And the song is 100% Jamie’s.
“I’m alive without regret,” he sings. “Worlds change in the belly of an insect.”
It took until Monday for me to sort through the more than 10,000 photos on my Facebook laptop. FedExing it back to Menlo Park this morning was my last official gesture.
I still can’t quite believe I left a stable, corporate day job to collect and share stories and strategies about transformation in order to help individuals and institutions live more meaningful, substantive lives. (Nope, didn’t workshop that at all.)
But for many of my closest friends, neighbors and colleagues, the move came with no surprise at all; they have been coaching me for years. This was a transition catalyzed by a thousand tiny conversations, reflections, observations and asides.
It is a transition of increments.
Just a few weeks after Smokey’s last performance, I drove myself to The Animas Valley Institute in Durango, Colorado, where I spent a week vision questing in the high desert.
As part of our preparation, we learned the Lakota Medicine Wheel, in which the four directions reflect the life cycle itself: beginning in the East (birth), through the South (youth), into the West (adulthood), and North (old age).
These days, my home office faces the Northeast. I often peer out over the roof and treetops, consider that orientation, and feel the second hand slowly sweeping around the clock face.
A few days ago, after rolling Jamie’s lyrics over and over in my head for days, I texted him and — for the first time in 28 years — asked what “Autumn of an Insect” was about.
“I had to make some big changes,” he told me. “But I didn’t feel like I had it in me. That line was me telling myself that it was ok to start small; I had a sense that those small changes would ripple out and have a bigger influence.”
Later, I shared an idea I’d had while mowing the lawn: An “Open Letter To My College Band.”
In it, I said “I will apologize for a) bad lyrics, b) singing all over everything and c) my clownish stage antics and chalk it all up to youthful exuberance.”
It wasn’t quite an apology, but it shared the same air. It was an admission, a concession. A relief.
“I could say the same,” Jamie wrote back. “Although I would add, d) being a bit of a jerk.”
Like exhaling deep into Revolved Chair Pose, I felt my chest open, and my heart soften in an immeasurable but perceptible increment.
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