It Wasn’t Me

Johnny Skates 1981

To The Head of the Class

As I became wise to the demands of private dental practice, I took to being somewhat critical and cynical of the motives and choices of my colleagues.  I was just that kind of brat.  These uncertain and suspicious perceptions I had of my fellow dentists were probably no more or less valid than their perceptions of me, as I kind of rode my own wild horse and set myself apart by staying single, living modestly, partying a lot, and choosing teaching full time over finding a banker and a wife and maybe someday getting on with growing up.  It wasn’t me.  At least not yet.  Then it was, and then it wasn’t again.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I became a teacher of dentistry.  For a dozen years I mixed part-time practice with my dream job of pretending to know everything.  My days were spent in the company of a few dozen eager, intelligent, motivated, and dedicated female dental hygiene students. That story will be told, but on to the lesson of this chapter.  When the opportunity came, I took the path that felt most exciting and engaging, where I could hold on to my idealistic — if naïve — values.  The story at the time was that it would be unwise to invest in chairside dental practice due to my history of severe back problems.  But in truth, when offered the teaching position, my head let my heart win, and my sciatic nerves went along for the ride.  My lower back was a problem, but my interest in working too hard and making tough decisions was right up there too.

Class of 83 Group at Snoqualmie crop sharp

The photo you see here is of the Pierce College Dental Hygiene Class of 1983, my eighth and possibly favorite.  It was a great and respected program with remarkable teaching and striving leadership.  I was merely the dentist guy necessary to legally supervise the training as well as instruct in duties beyond the cleaning of teeth and gums.  Like giving shots and nitrous oxide.  You know, the fun stuff.  The rest of the time I was giving headaches to the director and being self-important.  But I eventually learned to practice what I was preaching about teamwork.   Whenever I choose to kneel and pray, I am thankful for all these wonderful kids and the education I got as a teacher.

Intention Deficit Disorder

It was all going very well.  I was young, mostly single, adventuresome, and in no hurry to know what I didn’t know.  Since I either didn’t possess or couldn’t abide by more orthodox values related to God, Family, Profession, and Service, I just rousted about loving my work and the young caring students whom I felt I was growing up with.  Outside of work I took to planning goofy and joyful events with other goofy and joyful friends. We would don costumes and jump into Puget Sound in winter, cook on our car engines and eat raw shellfish on the beach in spring, float in inner tubes singing our way down the Yakima Canyon in the summer, and have a chili cook-off in the fall.

I certainly was not my generation’s only incautious libertine.  Far from it.   But I did seem to know that eventually this carefree attitude would serve me well, as I was committed to the notion you only live once.  They say that ‘youth is wasted on the young’, and considering how things were going for the grownups I knew, I fought to keep that from happening to me.  With that, I kept looking for the newest groove so I wouldn’t get in a rut. And just as I turned thirty, along came street skating!

The Oly Roller

Outdoor skating was all the rage when newly invented high-compression wheels rolled out of the rink onto the asphalt.  Often in front of a moving vehicle, which could be rather challenging.  I couldn’t dance or spin or even stop very well, but my pals and I looked quite stunning in our short tight shorts, knee socks and elbow pads!  Someone had to help bring this fad to the Capital City, and I was just the overgrown child for the job.

OlyRoller Sign for Blog

It wasn’t a half-assed effort either.  I made it a lifestyle.  During my four-day summer weekends I traveled the state with my skates in the trunk.  I would stop and lace up at any long, flat converted rail-trail, smooth-shouldered highway, or quiet small town neighborhood with wide tree-lined boulevards.  Looking surely far more ridiculous than I imagined, I prowled the edges of everywhere.  When the first ridiculously huge Sony Walkman personal cassette player came out, my girlfriend spent a half-week’s pay to gift me the soundtrack to my very own movie.  Shot on location.  Woah!  Lock up your daughters!  Some gangly old guy is a-rollin’ down our street singing at the top of his lungs wearing little earmuffs that are plugged into what looks like a toaster oven clipped to his shorts!

Taking this craziness even further, I let two women I worked with at the college talk me into starting Olympia’s first, last, and only street skate rental business.  “The Oly Rollers” of course.  I was the one who put up most of the money, bought the skates, donated the truck that became our rental office, did the books, and eventually all the work.  So there I was in my thirties: a dentist and college professor, sitting in the back of a beat-up truck in an empty public parking surrounded by leather shoe skates with big numbers on the back.  From our fancy colorful camper parked by the lake shore, we would rent by the hour or the afternoon.  Most of the customers didn’t last an hour, and most sunny days we didn’t last the afternoon.

It was a completely unprofitable venture, nobody really came to downtown Olympia on summer weekends, and most weekdays, well, I guess everyone except me was working.  I recall many a slow Sunday afternoon grabbing a few bucks out of the cigar box and rolling into the Brotherhood Tavern in the middle of downtown to drink beer and play the jukebox while the old grizzled regulars stared and ribbed me.  Didn’t care.  I was a respectable downtown businessman after all, as well as a good foot taller on my skates.

The ‘Me’ Decade And Me

On reflection, part of this harmless defiance was just having come of age as a ‘sixties’ kid.  I was cultured to be contrary, and with that I had found a clear on-ramp to imagination’s highway.  They still refer to the 1970s as the “Me” Decade.  With that, I got further and further into highly-capable unconventionality.  I grew easily away from expectations and social norms.  Convincing myself that my own way of seeing and doing things was surely more defining and rewarding than acting my age, playing the game, getting a real job, and starting a family with only a vague promise of happily ever after.  I had neither the talent nor the interest in building the bars of my own cage.

On a Sunday summer morning in 1980, I pulled my eight wheels up to a Tumwater intersection where my father was waiting out the light in his big Pontiac.  We tried to make conversation through the open passenger window, but little was said.  Or could be.  I saw sadness in his eyes.  It was very awkward.

Within a year of that meeting, dad closed his small dental office.  He died shortly after of a stroke.  The years have not been without silent calls to forgiveness and prayers of redemption.  A decade later I married and opened a dental practice.  I look back gratefully at the circumstances and curious wisdom it took for me to bend life backwards and, while still young, approach whimsy, serendipity, and a connection to nature like there might be no tomorrow.

The Edge of the Road

To Sur With Love

The 1962 Cadillac sedan was traveling entirely too fast. And I was behind the wheel. Over the long hood I saw the highway guardrail rapidly curving left toward the nose of my speeding ship. Stuart put one hand on my elbow, the other over his eyes and his right foot on the red metal dashboard. “Oh, Jesus!” was the plaintive sound that escaped him.

We had left the restaurant in Monterey with all our sheets to the wind and were now tacking south down the extreme twists and rolls of California Highway One. Before driving up the coast to dinner we had spent the day getting loose and toasty on beer and Dago Red wine in the warm scented forests of the Big Sur River Valley. Laughing, dancing, daring, climbing, grinning, and apparently, we later discovered, rolling in poison oak.

I’ve traveled that famous stretch of coast road many times since that long ago spring day. Each time I reach that first big set of curves I smile at the memory of us four wild kids squealing down the winding shoreline, sliding side to side unbuckled on the red leather bench seats as the wide white Caddy leaned to and fro in frightening syncopation with the rolling waves below the steep cliffs. Somehow in spite of the questionable brakes, bad shocks, lean tires and deceptively dangerous speed, we survived that squealing curve. Having magically foiled fate, we moved ahead at a slightly slower speed around the next few volleys of turns and made it to Point Sur Beach where we slept in the car.

The Roadtrip Thing

God bless me, but I still hit the road these days. Though often together with the sidekick shotgun love of my life and a stuffed octopus named Lefty. A lot has changed we have noted, and that leads me to some commentary on gypsyhood, the art and science of vagabondage. Turn off your spellcheck. I made those words up.

You may be aware that in our larger cities, where it used to be a real hoot to hide and hangout, we sport a different and more visible kind of ‘outdoorsman’. All you need now is a donated tent and a frontier attitude to claim the streets as your own. Lest you misunderstand, I am admiring and understanding, not judging or demeaning. Since I’ve long shared entitlement to any public or open space as safe harbor for the night, I would be disingenuous to scorn these new-millennium nomads. And though I never littered, panhandled or found a need to mess in an alley, I did busk with my guitar once. The proceeds of that endeavor would fall well short of covering the payments on my ‘stealth van’, which is the name given sleeping vehicles outfitted to be unobtrusive when parked in the dark. My several placid vans over the years would not remind you of “Breaking Bad.”

Of course there are campgrounds and parks for recreational vehicles, and that’s always a preference for safety and comfort. But those of us who are willing to trade those for convenience and spontaneity have found that shopping centers, transit stations, airport parking lots, highway rest stops, Eagle’s Clubs, and residential neighborhoods offer a quaint variety when waking wondering where you are. Living on the edge. The edge of the road.

The Graduate

On a bright day in early June, 1974 an unconventional little dental school commencement ceremony was held by the fountain on the University of Washington lower campus. A sign of the times, it was pompless and lacking in formal circumstance. It was jean cut-offs, T-shirts, aviator sunglasses, and hair to the shoulders. My kind brother Terry and sweet girlfriend Janine were there to send me off to doctordom. My parents somehow missed the opportunity to inspect the merchandise they had purchased. In fact, I don’t recall any parents being there. No dental faculty either. As was often said at the time, you couldn’t trust anyone over thirty in those days anyway. Nancy, the dean’s secretary, handed me my paper, I cracked a couple jokes, and I was on my own.

The following day I cleaned out my locker, boxed up the books, tools, waxes and little balls of gold foil we used to pound into fillings, and hit the road. Once more, I borrowed money from Terry and bought a shiny new Coleman ice chest for the back of my yellow ’57 GMC pickup truck. I filled it with leftover cold cuts and bottled beer, loaded up my Honda motorbike, a sleeping bag and a stolen mattress for the truck bed. I headed east over the pass, over the back roads, and over the diligence and discipline of 20 years of schooling.

I met up with my old buddy Pete in a godforsaken outpost in southeastern Washington where he was stationed with the state parks department. Late June was enjoying a heat wave as we bought whiskey and steaks in Walla Walla. We helped ourselves to fresh asparagus from the field next to his rundown single-wide trailer. Drinking and singing and talking about girls, we dreamed of life ahead. We found some old truck tubes and floated down the Touchet River to Waitsburg on a 105 degree afternoon. We hitchhiked back and drank and conspired some more.

The next morning I carved curves through the greening wheat fields on my motorcycle. Through the tiny towns of Dodge and Dusty and over the Snake River and through the Palouse. That night I slept under the stars in the back of my old truck, eyes wide open to the warm night. I fell asleep breathing the sweet air of blissful liberation.

I guess you could say the future opened on that hot week in 1974 on which I would play out much of my becoming me. At the time it was a mere beckoning to adventure, but after years of feeling the power of cutting loose, I realize now I was experiencing a call to mindfulness. Seeking detachment and learning through fresh observation can keep you in the moment. There is a lot of spiritual self-examination when you’re alone – never lonely, but alone. Willful solitude encourages you to appreciate your company of one. You learn to love the one you’re with. You get to learn that loving yourself guides you on the essential path to loveability. And how the heck are we to find love if we’re not lovable?

Sugarloaf Ridge

As I write this, I’m in Salinas, California on my way again to Big Sur. Last night was spent alone in a San Rafael parking lot overlooking the yacht harbor. After dinner and a live music show at The Terrapin Crossroads, I asked the valet parking attendant if it would be alright to leave my van there overnight, and he was gracious to oblige. It never hurts to ask. My spot was level, quiet and delightfully out of the ordinary. Much like the simple houseboats tethered across the canal. I certainly felt safe, as they secure the gate at closing. I was locked in until this morning, but nothing slows you down like being in a hurry.

The late autumn of 2001 found me wandering around Sonoma County, Calif. I followed a narrow road to the top of a hill painted with fall-colored trees. A lonely state park graced the grounds, and I parked the van beside a small brook. Having recently begun taking guitar lessons, I picked up my instrument and all three of the chords I had mastered, and went about crafting a melodically bland song I titled “Sugarloaf Ridge,” which was the name displayed on the old wooden sign at the entrance. The song begins with the line, “I’m gone again….”