One Job Left

The Departure Gate 

I was out of work, had no prospects, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I had carelessly (or intentionally) overestimated my long term financial situation.  It was the year I first took a shot at guiding myself with my own feelings and instinct.

I stepped off the straight and narrow, made a plan with plenty of room for waywardness and surprise, and hit the trail.  I wasn’t seeking envy or greatness, but to prove to whatever spirits were watching that there is value in questioning convention and a secret sweetness in closing doors behind you.  I was raised being told repeatedly that I lived in the ‘Land of Opportunity’.  It was time for America to put up or shut up.

My pursuit of contentment relied on sourcing the inward call to self-awareness we all possess.  And supposedly defy at our own risk.  Simply put, I learned to trust my gut.  It’s important here to recognize the guidance of my wife in her loving support of my whims and for teaching me the value of intuition.   And if It sounds like I felt I was more enlightened or together than everyone else, it’s not arrogance.  It’s because that was the story I had to tell myself in order to turn my rut into a groove.

All For Nothing

Sensitized by the failed values and intentions of parents, peers and heroes, it became obvious that trading control of my life and wishes for someone else’s standards of success was ridiculous.  Add that to a resolute appreciation for finite mortality, and it made going somewhat rogue and being eccentric was more logic than impulse. 

Along with that, and quite importantly, I sought the mentorship of my own counsel.  Carl Jung suggested that the opportunities for personal growth arise from allowing your unconscious mind to strike up conversation with your consciousness and trust the answers that drop into your imagination.  I further read that to do this you need to step completely away from the source of your discomfort and to exercise ‘creative idleness’ to give space for the dream to flourish.  Good news:  Idleness of any kind was right up my alley. 

The same cautious sensibility that told me that I was free to be anything I wished also informed me I was free to do nothing.  I contemplated the vast difference between work and working-for-wages and how this ‘nothing’ thing could lead to something remarkable if reframed and attended to properly.  

 Snowgrass Flat, Summer, 1997

The sun hung above the Goat Rocks as I strolled into the large meadow below the peaks. I was alone and a mile high in a scene out of Sound of Music.  I stopped and watched the drizzling edge of a large snowfield watering newly sprouted grass and wildflowers as it retreated in the summer sunlight. The down-slope breeze blew across the land and filled my lungs with rebirth and promise.  (As the Sound of Music Orchestra played  “Climb Every Mountain” :))

Finding a boulder to rest upon after the morning hike, I spent an hour in solitary wonder watching frosted spring melt into alpine summer.  I imagined that it was a day just like this one that some wayward explorer named this glorious spot Snowgrass Flat. Perhaps he had walked off his job too.  I further imagined that my good fortune at choosing this high valley and allowing it to inspire and hearten me was a sign that God and nature approved of my recent decision to step out of myself.  

A day later, camping on the shore of the Cispus River, I took out a large left handed lined legal pad and arranged the assortment of possibilities and dreams into some sort of architectural drawing of my castle in the sky.  On the list were these:  To turn weekdays into weekends, to hike and jog, to get fit, to sip cold beer in the warm sun, and to hire out my dental talents as needed (for others, but on my terms).  To preserve and upgrade our sixty year old house and the surrounding land.   To question my fixed ideas and unbalanced values.  To wander and to write.  

I learned early and well that a person could either choose obligation to society’s standards and the bidding of others, or they could master their own fate.  One could compete, or one could create. Make a living or make a life. Dollars or sense. The year I turned eighteen was the year the discipline-laden fables of the Roman Catholic Church crashed against the ‘if it feels good, do it’ flower power of the sixties.  A mind-altering explosion of psychedelia and holy incense.  I grabbed the best of both cultures and set off to find a secret passage to self-discovery.  It helped that I was spoiled, superficial, frugal, and self-centered.  This made the journey possible and (eventually) showed me how much I had to learn.

Food For Thought

My dad would tell us kids at the dinner table that we should enjoy the good food and comfortable lifestyle that came to our family because when we were grown and on our own it wasn’t likely to last.  Whether that was a derisive challenge or a caution about how far the children of the depression had miraculously come was unclear.  When he paid for college for his four kids and never asked anything more of us, I guess it meant he was cheering us on to proving him incorrect.

I have struggled as much as anybody.  Struggle is essential to the release of the authentic highest self.  So say all the celebrated teachers going back centuries, though I had harbored denial about whether or why that has to be so.  One must suffer ‘the dark night of the soul’, and so on.  My experience was not so much hitting rock bottom in a single existential splat, but a more evenly paced series of sucky downfalls and doubts over a couple decades.  Which continues on to this day, God bless me.

I leave you and the world’s offspring with this legacy of parental advice from one who has only parented his own inner child:        Who are you?  What do you want?  Get out there and fall full face down in the mud. Suck at something. Then shine. That’s how we learn. 


This afternoon just before pushing the ‘publish’ button on this essay, I attended the memorial of a dental colleague and past friend of my father’s.  In fact, the three of us shared the same clinic building back in my early years.  He was a wonderful guy.  One of the few fellows that didn’t abandon dad when he suffered through his troubled final years.  At the service much was made of Tom’s love of life and family, his days as a sports star and fan, and warm tales of his support, caring and positive regard for his friends and relations.  We heard how much he’ll be missed and that his life should be a guide for others.  In a full hour of stories, memories and reflections, there was no mention – not one – of his life as a dentist. 


Esalen Song – Paths, Baths, and Empaths

esalen sunset for blog edited

‘Slate Springs’, California

Sometimes life seems like nothing more than thinking about life.  Chasing your tail and second-guessing yourself until work, duty, or sleep kindly break in to put off the inevitable return to the pestering questions.  When ‘sooner or later’ becomes mostly later, we tend to go all in on finishing it off.  And so it was I took to taking instruction in all the things we learned in kindergarten and ignored in college.

Recently I spun the wheel and signed up for “The Art of Empathy – An Exploration of Life’s Most Essential Skill” at a small retreat and learning center on the Big Sur coast.  Some theory, some dialogue, some ritual, some humor, and a few breakthroughs.

In one of our first discussion on emotions it was acknowledged that men in general have long been ‘exiled’ from the world of empathy.  Some are saying it is only culture and upbringing that have denied us boys the understanding and valuing of connection, self-soothing, and healthy intimacy.  Yay!  Off to a promising start!

By midweek I could recite all seventeen of the agreed-upon emotions and had practiced mirroring without rolling my eyes.  So I took a day off.  I slept in, had coffee and fresh baked raisin bread toast with almond butter, soaked in the famous hot springs, and walked the sacred grounds that for over a half century have catered to seekers, healers, thinkers, and yes, slackers like me.

For centuries before that, the Essalen Indians roamed here until the time of settlement when a pioneer/interloper named Mr. Slate homesteaded on this site where thermal springs flow abundantly from under the San Lucia Mountains and spill off into the Pacific.

The Religion of No Religion

Having studied the history of Esalen and being somewhat familiar with many of the innovative methodologies that have been preached and practiced, misunderstood and misused here has added value to my experience of the place.  Experiential, experimental, and transformational are the hashtags that connect Esalen to the modern movement for personal growth that some called New Age a generation ago.  The mission here has always been the ideal of holistic personal development of mind, body, psyche and spirit.  The Institute is not without doubters, misdirections and difficulties, but its international reputation and longevity beg attention, and it got mine.

And so, having curiosity, time and resources, I had to see what all the fuss was about around ten years ago, and I have returned regularly since.  I have been gifted here with stimulating points of view, meeting people like and unlike myself, and verifying my commitment to upgrade my social and personal demeanor – which could certainly stand improvement.  I have also been treated to contemporary alternative behavior, fashion, hairstyles, and some interestingly designed and located tattoos. It’s fortunate that I am now more allowing of diverse ideas and appearances as I attempt to further my effort to at last make something useful of myself.

There is no particular spiritual agenda here at Esalen, and all worldly and beyond-worldly points of view are welcomed.  The realm of higher thinking is best left to the legendary psychologists and philosophers, but given curiosity, bravery and wise teachers, even us amateurs can begin to stare existential angst square in the eye.  Oh, and where the hell does The Divine fit in all this amazing and amusing chaos we call life?  Speaking of which….

I did learn in Empathy School that angrily invoking God’s name, like cursing out loud in general, can be a healthy emotional regulation skill. In polling the two dozen willing foul-mouths in the room, the instructor found the darn f-word in all its colorful variations to be the most favored oath.  No great insight there.

Tears, Fears, and the Seven Deadly Sins

But emotions are serious business.  I learned that managed empathy is far more than handouts to panhandlers or crucifying yourself on everyone else’s needy cross.  Mature empathy allows one to “connect deeply, understand clearly, respond perceptively, and engage authentically.”  I hear it can be difficult, but I aim to try.

Because relationships are also difficult.  And apparently we need emotions and empathy to make them functional and personally fulfilling.  According to the author who guided this retreat, we would do well to broaden our ‘emotional genius’ to understand that creativity, art, nature, animals, and focused activity all can all be objects of our empathy, not just people.  Who can sometimes be real jerks.

As we were discussing our Esalen experiences over lunch, one young woman shook her fork full of kale at me asking, “Since you are in that class, can you please tell me why some guys are so sweet and sensitive and all the rest are just plain assholes?”  I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about.  I had no answer.

Empathy Book FinalBut with an attempt to make the American Male aware of his own unappreciated capacity for this top-tier emotion, the clever suggestion was made that ‘manspeak’ be used to relate to our empathically-exiled gender so manly men can use their might and their ‘tools’, to ‘construct’ ‘hearty’ relationships.  I couldn’t resist mocking up a book cover that would appeal to us guys and placing it on the Workshop Art Table Shrine.  (Shrines, symbols, rituals and expressive movement are “very Esalen”.)  Pictured here is a final rendering of my faux literary ‘manification’ of this ‘woman thing’ called emotion.  One participant in the class actually asked where he could buy a copy.  I’m serious.

Feeling Kneaded

Though widely famous, I had previously not taken my place on the table for an Esalen Massage.  This school of body workers and style of practice is (claimed to be) unique and is branded by the Institute.  Certification has been going on since the seventies, and the reputation has added not only a high-end mystique but also matching prices.  Should you wish to partake someday you should know that the tip alone for an hour massage at Esalen will buy you 75 minutes plus gratuity with my friend Xotchi on the beach in Zihuatanejo.  (Airfare not included)  Tell her I sent you.

Since I had excused myself from class, I thought on this trip I would see if the magic fingers near the sacred hot springs would help align all the emotions I had been learning of and release the unleashed power of my male empathy from its hiding.  The cashier at the main office invited me to state my massage preferences and physical ‘irregularities’ before she chose a suitable masseuse.  After confessing my flaws by including the words arthritic, strained, flaccid and titanium, she told me that the next day at one o’clock some stranger would find me in the tubs, wrap my unclothed body in a big towel and lead me to her bed.

Because my profile now likely said “old and fragile”, I presumed correctly I would be assigned, not to the “deep healing” side of the menu, but rather to “fluff and buff”.  It was like those old cowboy movies where the younger men – fit, fierce and macho – got all the good horses.  Horses that when they snarled blasted smoke from their flared nostrils as they shot from the corral.  Horses that meant business.  Horses with names like Dynamite, Bucky, Firedance, and Rolfer.

Me?  I got to saddle up “Old Buttercup”.  The sway-backed, well-seasoned, apathetic mare leaning against the back fence.  She was kind and capable, but I could tell she was not into roughing anyone up for the sake of showing her stuff.  The masseuse’s name was Amanda, and she looked tired. Closer to my age than the rest of the herd, she sighed as she told me she had been there for decades and had wanted to retire but felt compelled instead to begin harboring stray cats in her apartment, and they were very expensive to feed.  ‘Pet Hyperempaths’ need love too.  Just like us misjudged men.  The lessons around here never stop.


The Song:  I threw together this fun tribute after my first visit a while back. Our neighbor recorded it in his backyard. No disrespect or offense is intended. (Sometimes I just get carried away.)  



Beautiful Island

We Are What We Pretend To Be

“There’s a palm tree highway right outside my door.  Bikes and boats they glide along the shore.  There’s a sun-streaked blue-green sea –breaking on the reef, spreading endlessly.                 Beautiful Island — paradise to me.”

I had occasion to meet one of my musical heroes a few decades ago following a concert in Seattle.  No matter what you may know or think about Jimmy Buffett’s songs and impact on American culture, for a guy like me that always yearned to throw a guitar strap over his shoulder and show off in front of a worshiping crowd, he served as a reasonable mentor.

Most folks my age are familiar with “Margaritaville” and his party-themed sellout shows. But his lesser-known folk/country/Caribbean ballads of the seventies and eighties are honest, uncomplicated and lasting tributes to the simple, insightful, carefree lifestyle he celebrates.  On probably no more than six guitar chords, he made a bazillion dollars.  More than that though, when I was ready to start a ‘musical destiny’ late in life, you couldn’t find more playable tunes to impress your friends and neighbors quickly.  (Like before they leave the room.)

When we shook hands, it’s not like Mr. Buffett slapped me on the back and said, “Take it from here, kid!”  But I do remember sitting around a rather unstylish motel room at the Edgewater Hotel after the show and being impressed and inspired as he and his band mates crafted a song for the next album while sitting on the two double beds.  Bill, Barry and I perched on the floor as Bill’s wife Robin, whose pretty, pleading eyes scored the road manager’s invitation, worked the room and kept the conversation going.

As mentioned in an earlier story, I lacked the credibility (not to mention talent and ambition) to be a big star like Jimmy Buffett, having not grown up in the South, smuggled dope, or busked night after night in Nashville, but I had feelings and a story to tell.  As do we all.  And so I did.

Spiritual Privilege

Humanistic psychology suggests that we all hold the capacity to attain impressive individual awareness and self-actualization – the expression of our best abilities and creativity. I have accepted that we are inwardly motivated to craft our minds, bodies, spirits and psyches to reach our highest potential.

When I set about looking for myself at age fifty, the list of dream jobs came calling. One thing I grasped was that Callings must be honored, or at least honestly attempted.  No way was I going to tolerate regret in my later years. Or (said while chuckling) whether the gift of dementia might solve the problem of remorse for me.

Spiritual privilege is a term which has been assigned to our generation for having had access to the knowledge, culture, social networks, time and financial resources to explore the many worlds of the mind and soul. Those of us that were raised in educated, upper middle class, white, mid-century households amid a youth impacted by social upheaval and the liberalization of religious institutions were perfectly positioned to accept, integrate and design our own personal brand of alternative spirituality.

So it is that many of us are inclined to go deep and perhaps a little goofy. We may be materially blessed, but remain unsettled bohemians at heart. We fan the flames of our neglected creative fire and seek the big answers to bigger questions. We pick up our pens, cameras, carpentry tools, and paint brushes.  We pray, meditate, study and experiment.

Some of us aging seekers will shuffle along our path with songs in our head that just might bring forgiveness to the madness of day to day life. We become determined to climb Maslow’s self-actualization pyramid with an open heart in one arthritic hand and an out-of-tune guitar in the other. We commit to the certainty that six-string music, which has played the soundtrack of our upbringing, can provide musical accompanyment to our self-realization.

The Palm Tree Highway

And so I began my awkward quest to sing my life. Thinking 20 years ago that…

1. I would master any musical instrument easily as of course I had the hands of a trained surgeon,

2. I could write a song every bit as listenable and likable as Jimmy Buffett’s, and

3. I would bravely stand tall in front of 6, 60 or 60,000 people and be spot-on with voice and instrument while cleverly playing the crowd and stunning them with my sensitivity and wisdom in all things essential to a purposeful, feel-good life. 

JD overalls guitar crop edit for blog sept19

Oh yeah, you’re the ‘real deal’ alright!!

At the outset of the journey, along with purchasing a guitar and a series of lessons from ‘Betsy — Olympia’s Blues Woman,’  I bought a book titled “Guitar – An American Life” by Tim Brookes. In the introduction to his story about the legendary significance and iconic status of this simple wood instrument was the following deflating jab at what I had proudly thought was a unique and sacred pursuit:

“Guitar makers have single word for baby-boomers-who-always-wanted-to-be-great-guitarists-and-now-have-the-money-to-indulge-that-dream:  ‘Dentists’. ” 

I did not make that up.

The author’s condescending opinion would be worth a rant if it weren’t somewhat true.  But it seemed more tame to have a midlife-crisis affair with a stringed instrument instead of some seductive minx with borderline personality who would really give me something to sing the blues about.

I learned all the old folk songs, figured out how to fingerpick Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits, stepped up in song circles with my wife’s three perfectly harmonizing sisters, and stepped out on the stage at a quite a few open mics. Alas, I am not now, nor ever will be, a master musician or even close.  I learned that due to my uneven playing, an inability to keep a beat, and chronic stage fright in my fingers, I was no kinda performer. Though indeed I tried. But actually not very hard.

However, I did impress myself, and maybe few others, with the songs I personally wrote. Before long I was scribbling anthems of love, truth and glory. (It didn’t take me long to learn that melody and lyrics, despite a common myth, do not merely manifest fully-written while you sleep.) As an example of my early success, the second epic tune I composed was titled, “If You Won’t Leave Me Alone, I’ll Find Someone Who Will.”  I was on my way, right?

America’s Got Talent.  Me – Not So Much

I never completely stopped doubting that I was but a phone call away from stardom. I submitted songs to country, pop, and Americana songwriting contests, attended serious workshops, read books and studied YouTube demonstrations. I set up a cheap home studio. After hours of confusion and frustration, I figured out how to record capably enough to hire online studio musicians and producers to cobble together some of my “hits”.

I wrote about love, revenge, old age longing, and New Age spirit.  And laziness, peace of mind, beaches, past girlfriends, present wives, the open road and coal trains. I made music videos, opened websites and promoted in social media pages. It was, and still is, a fulfilling distraction. And to this day I’m still my biggest fan.

As promised, this creative melodic  outpouring of opinion and emotion has truly helped in my pursuit of authenticity and perspective. Not to mention humility and self-empathy.

Though I still wince when I listen to much of my homemade music, I have to insist that Jimmy Buffett missed out big time when he never returned my email inviting him to record “Beautiful Island”. If my captivating story of the tropics and finding your peace and joy wherever you are doesn’t out-Margaritaville his Margaritaville, it comes damn close. Just my opinion. Take it with a lost shaker of salt.



Free Love — Part 2


DH 82 Group Cartoon for Free Love 2

Teaching and Learning

After a couple years as a dental practice associate, I took a job in a recently opened community college dental hygiene program.  Being a youngish male in a uniformed swirl of hard-working youngish females seemed to suit me.  When I wasn’t giving a lecture on various tooth-filling materials or allegedly painless injections, I was in clinic supervising the scraping, buffing and upkeep of everything between the lips and larynx.  ‘Supervising’ was a legal term of the board of dental licensing, but it generally meant wearing a white coat, autographing all sorts of paperwork, and chatting it up with the students’ unending line of siblings, friends, cousins, and parents they recruited as patients.

Edna, our rather confused administrative assistant wasn’t really sure what it was I did for eight hours three days a week.  More than once she would explain to someone on the phone in her lazy southern drawl that Dr. Deviny could not talk right now because he was on the floor with one of his students.  There were any number of hilarious stories from those years.  Some bear repeating.  Some not.

Most of the faculty were clinicians, good ones to be sure, but we were not academics.  We received the textbooks for our classes at the same time as the students.  I did well to stay a chapter ahead.  Washington State was among the first in the country to have recently allowed non-dentists to give anesthetic and perform tooth fillings, and I made up the curriculum as we went.  Many of the students had been seasoned dental assistants, and I was more than humble enough to rely on them.  The teamwork and support was so very unlike what I had experienced in dental school.

Considering the background noises of spit being suctioned and handpieces whistling,  it was a most delightful place to work for a crazy low salary.  I loved it.

Job Insecurity

When it came to the classroom or clinical coaching, I probably thought I was more effective and entertaining  than I was. You’d have to ask the dozens of women and several men with whom I shared the experience in those thirteen years. As most teachers do, I loved the attention.  And because of the ‘dynamic’ — yes, that’s what I’ll call it — I was often called upon to fill in as a big brother, confidant, and a shoulder to cry on about boyfriends or the understandably more demanding female faculty.

In a way, I was just one of the girls.  I had sincere respect for them, their profession, their dedication and drive.  Though I made my share of mistakes, I didn’t pull rank with the students, and recall being consciously cautious so as not to lose trust and respect.  Somewhat insecure, I just wanted to belong.  Sort of like a mascot.

Speaking of which, one year I received a most ridiculous looking rooster for my birthday.  A few years later, another class who heard I owned an empty chicken coop brought a giftbox of baby chicks to my annual year-end party we called the “Interdental Stimulator”.  (What were these kids trying to tell me?!)

I remained single or rather single during those years, apparently unable to find any companions as energetic, smart and appealing as most of the girls with whom I spent my days.  What can I say?  In some cases the social connection extended (he confesses) to our ‘extramural program’ which consisted of parties, tavern ‘field trips’, ski excursions, and potluck dinners at my apartment chaperoned by my cat.

Yes, there was the occasional teasing remark and ‘appreciative’ glance.  And hugs.  Who doesn’t like hugs?  And even on the couple situations I was quite certainly – um – hit upon, I don’t remember feeling all that harassed, creeped out, or uncomfortable. 😉   Times are different now they say.

CoinciDentally – he punned – my wife Cheryl completed the dental hygiene program in 1980.  She claims she had a crush on me in school.  Could be she was angling for a good grade.  We had our first date eight years later and have been married going on 30 years.  How about that?  She gets an A.

Not that anyone is interested, but as I pretend to be a (mediocre) poet and (unmusical) songwriter, I will share a chorus from one of my more heart-felt and tolerable tunes.  It is supposed to be a turn of a phrase from the sixties when ‘free love’ meant something much less spiritual than I had in mind when I wrote:

Then it happened to you, and it happened to me.  We fell in love but kept our independency.  We were free to choose then, and we’re free to choose still.  Love loses all its power when you lose your free will.  Now all the world sees you and me — grow stronger as we honor what we’ve come to be.

Love is a surrendering to destiny.  So let this be our legacy:     -Free Love-

Up In The Air

One of the dizzying high points in any relationship is finding out what you didn’t know.   I must here add that considerable thought and household ‘negotiation’ went into how (or why) to recount Cheryl’s fortunes in the 8 years between coy, inscrutable student and not-so-blind date.  Suffice to say, she had been dating a quite successful businessman, an importer with a flair for the finer things.  No problem there, right?  Textiles, wines, unique third-world furniture, hand-woven carpets, ‘botanicals’, you know…such things…

From what I understand, Cheryl did on occasion cross borders with certain items that might have attracted the attention of authorities if she hadn’t been so darn beautiful, calm and unlikely.  Why do I tell you this?  Because I have an amused respect for her adventurous past, and concluded that the combination of naivety, confidence and daring that was required to partake in ‘international trade’ at the time would surely ready someone who had to be married to me!

She was reflecting recently about the night her boyfriend’s twin turboprop ran out of fuel in the skies over western Oregon. She watched as first one propeller then the other stopped spinning, but recalls “just knowing” they would not be killed or maimed as the aircraft repeatedly twisted and banked severely trying to slow its speed to land without dropping out of the sky or running off the runway into a cornfield.  The (thankfully empty) plane expertly touched down and coasted over to refuel. ‘Never a doubt,’ Cheryl says.

That’s the kind of attitude you want in a life partner, gentlemen:  Never a Doubt.

The Last Match

Here’s the deal. Cheryl and I have each been married once – to each other.  We are happy, lucky, and mutually faithful for going on three decades.  We’re free in love, and chances are we’re going to stay that way.  Life together, like all relationships, can only excel when you have the time to choose the self-forgiveness and fearlessness to get out of your own way.  Then it asks only that eventually we both see our own and the other’s perfection.

Never a doubt?  Well, the easiest lessons come hard.  But only because we put off choosing to hold the purpose of love differently.  That’s the Free part.  Only when we get over ourselves and trust in a deeper consciousness are we free to not just be in love but to BE love.  That’s the Love part.  Such was the lesson I came to embrace anyway.

Another lesson I learned, back in the day, was this:  If someone gives you a box of baby chickens, remember to install a heat lamp before tucking them in to spend the night in a rare June freeze.  Not my best day.  


Free Love — Part 1

Shasta Daylight Edited Free Love Pt 1

Hindsight Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

There comes a time in every young man’s life when his thoughts turn to love. There comes a time in every old man’s life that his thoughts turn to those times. I will share with you some of my reflections on affections, having learned much about myself through long ago loves and losts. This isn’t just useless boasting. All of us are students in each of our relationships, however brief or intense, wholehearted, selfish, or just possibly, transcendent. And with that we become enlightened to learning what we already knew about who we already were when it came to love. Later on I will try to explain what that actually means. Stay with me here.

Today’s lesson comes wrapped in a song I once wrote about ‘love or something like it’. A major goal of this life story is to talk about myself honestly and humbly. I know what a turn-off both bragging and self-righteousness can be. You will therefore find me dancing around details and attempting to be clever and self-deprecating. Along with that, the last thing I would want to do is ridicule or put down any of the performers in my life’s play for my own benefit. So if you are one of them, and find I have misrepresented or slandered you in the least, please do write your own damn book and set me straight. : )

Jennie, Get Off The Train

“Jennie, get off the train with me. I know that we just met. But I’ve fallen hard and can’t bring myself to say goodbye just yet. Come with me, our destiny is waiting up ‘round the bend. Jennie, get off the train; let’s see how this story ends.”

The Amtrak Coast Starlight departs Seattle every morning at 10 a.m. as it has for decades. The route takes you south through western Washington, across Portland, through Eugene, Klamath Falls and over into California in the middle of the night. In 24 hours, you’re rolling slowly through the graffiti jungle of Oakland, then San Jose, Salinas, Gilroy, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara at dusk. By 9:05 PM, a mere 36 hours, barring a delay, which are almost daily, you stumble onto the streets of Los Angeles.

I have taken all or part of this journey a number of times over the years, beginning at the age of 11 when I begged my parents to send me to visit my grandmother who lived on the then-respectable edge of downtown Los Angeles not far from L.A. High. I can still smell the exotic scent of smog wafting in the palms and feel the good vibrations of the Promised Land in mid-century. The Union Pacific had started this inquisitive young boy on a life of allaboarding and chasing whatever’s out there.

I was single and free in the spring of 1978 and in the midst of the 20 year long mating season. On a break from work, I grabbed a backpack of clothes, my journal, and a passenger rail ticket to San Jose, intent on joining up there with a few friends also on spring break. They drove, and I chose to do the rails for a change of pace. My solo adventures were ripe with imagination but never expectations. It was enough to feel the tracks snap beneath me while musing out the train window at the clearing skies as we descended from the Pacific Northwest toward the Golden State.

The train stopped on a siding near Roseburg to address a malfunctioning steam heat system that turned all the coaches into 94 degree saunas. The solution was to have a couple obviously stoned crew members jack open some windows. I walked to the lounge car. It wasn’t any cooler, but no one was complaining. Some poor young fellow who had been playing guitar earlier had now passed out somehow wedged between the high-back seat and curved observation window. One eye was half open and his right cheek was pressed against the glass just enough to pucker his lips — as if whistling the final refrain of his last song.

Inviting myself to his guitar and plucking all four chords I knew, I proceeded to take the stage just as Jennie (not her real name) breezed over with a cold beer for me and a here-I-come-hither look. The reason I’m not using her real name is not necessarily out of respect. As happens now and again, I either forgot it or never knew it to remember.

Romantic Comedy

“Bare feet, tie-dyed, bell-bottom jeans; an embroidered peasant blouse. Said you lived in the woods outside Eugene in a teepee not a house. I was trippin’ on your hippie thing as you bought another drink or two. As that train rocked on into the night, I wrote this song for you…”

With a sudden lurch the train leapt forward, but I was already head-over-heels. In my mind, this quaint little romance from then on was like an old black and white movie. The train sweltered as it pitched and swayed up the Siskiyou Mountains. The wind was rushing in the open windows blowing Jennie’s (not her real name) waist-long chestnut hair back like a surrender flag. I turned to look at her and tears filled my eyes — as some dust from a passing northbound coal train struck my face. After a time, someone opened the car door, and we stood with our toes out in the cool breeze watching the moon rise over Mount Shasta. We embraced. We kissed. The wind suddenly swirled and wrapped her long hair around her head. It took both of us pulling and clawing to find her face. At which time we kissed once more.

“By the time they closed the bar car down I knew we were meant to be. By an open door racing over the track I kissed you tenderly. Hand in hand we passed a joint and drank wine with the crew. As that train rolled on into the night, I sang this song to you… “

Love At First Light

My courtships were generally in keeping with the liberal times, but usually in a gentlemanly way. I was not the aggressive type. I fished from the shore. Pretending to be sleeping with my back against an old tree and my straw hat tipped forward over my eyes. I trusted my bait and fishing gear. I was too lazy to get my feet wet in the pursuit. I let the stream do the moving. Could be I was naive, clueless, insecure, and perhaps terrified. Could be.

I wasn’t indiscriminate, mind you. I had a copy of the fishing regulations rolled up in my back pocket. I followed the accepted rules regarding size, sex, length, and species. And ‘catch and release’ was always an option. What would I prefer to see at the end of my line? Shall I dare say it? This would be barbiedoll, surfergirl, sassy, enigmatic, smart-but-not-too-smart kinda gal. Back then I strolled the zoo but stayed away from the lion cage. I was looking for Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. I had a lot to learn about girls. A lot. So I went to school. More on this later.

“Jennie, get off the train with me, my ticket’s to San Jose. My buddies will be there to pick me up, we’re headed down to Monterey. Please come with me, our destiny is waiting when the day is new. Jennie, get off this train, I think I’m in love with you…”

When we last saw our hero, he was crossing the California border as the movie reached that moment where you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. All I can tell you is I wrote the final verse to the song years later with a virtuous sentiment. And with only a mild curiosity of what the heck might ever have happened to her.

“Jennie, get off the train with me I whispered when daylight came. Snoring in your chair with your messed up hair, somehow you don’t look the same. And I don’t feel so well — my head hurts like hell. Good luck, girl, wherever you’re goin’.

I smiled and looked at Jennie—and got off that train alone…”

The End 😉

The Hitching Post

Hood R Bridge and Mt Final

Another Roadside Attraction

A few years back, I was on an assignment in the Columbia River Gorge.  This remarkable stretch of the West’s largest river cuts through the Cascade Range which separates the arid golden east from the deep green, rain-soaked west.  On either side of the gorge, the earth rises up on rusty basalt walls to thickly timbered foothills, upland orchards, wind generators, and snow-covered volcanoes. Over the centuries, this river route has been a passageway for native tribes, the early fur trappers, explorers, the wagon-wheeled pioneers, and finally yielding to rails, highways, wheat barges, craft brewmasters and kiteboarders.

I was driving home after a day’s work and picked up a forlorn young man, maybe in his thirties, standing by the road at the north entrance of the Hood River Toll Bridge.  This structure is the only route across the wide Columbia for miles in either direction.  The vintage steel crossing allowed barely enough width for two lanes, and there was no allowance for pedestrian or non-motorized crossing.

Which is what this poor confused hitchhiker found out the hard way just before he got in my van and took a seat. He had been on his way to Portland to visit his sick mother and was holding a small pack in one hand and his $175 citation in the other.  In his pocket was the fifty dollars that he hoped would get him a return bus ride if he managed to travel the seventy miles one way with his thumb.

It had taken him all of three minutes walking on the drawbridge to earn his ticket and a ride to the Washington side where I found him.  The trooper didn’t even have the courtesy to take him across.  But since he now was in debt, he cancelled his journey and asked me to drive him to a nearby junction from where he could walk home.  I handed him a twenty, we smiled and shrugged at each other, and he stepped out.  Been there.  Lesson learned.

Our minds, trained by our nature and our past and our culture, face an array of choices with every interpersonal connection.  Circumstance, judgment, safety, intrusion, ignorance, mistrust, compassion…  That’s a big menu to sort through when you take the challenge of ‘loving thy neighbor’.  As perplexing  as these emotional plays can be, we should know that in any moment an upward shift in consciousness can make each encounter a wholehearted lesson if you relax into it.  The choice is always there to pause and transcend making it something it is not.

Hitchhiking helped teach me one thing no matter which side of the door you are on.  That would be the value and expediency of making eye contact.  With every human whenever practical.  “I see the you that sees me.  ”Simple and efficient, it may be the best way I know to keep in control of our rarely reliable ego-selves.  Songwriter John Prine had it right when he advised:  “Don’t pass them by and stare, as if you didn’t care.  Say, ‘hello in there…’”

A Shoulder To Try On

Hitching a ride — trading shoe leather for the chance to sit next to a complete stranger holding a steering wheel — was quite common in this country until fairly recently.  Beyond being practical and environmentally sensible, hitching a ride is a statement of self-reliance, a declaration of independence, and an adventuresome art form.

Jim Croce Hitching Text Border FINAL.jpg

In the nineteen seventy-somethings, among us twenty-somethings, thumbing around was accepted, understood, and in many cases, necessary.  It was not a terribly worrisome enterprise back in the day, and for a guy who didn’t own a car until he was 23, I was willing to run the risk.

I was in a hurry to get back to Seattle one Monday morning for a midterm exam and chatting with a driver who took me from Fairhaven to Everett where he dropped me off on the shoulder of Interstate 5. After mentioning my schooling and the two and a half years yet to go, he kindly wished me luck.  As I got out, he offered, “That sounds like a tough row to hoe.”  So far so good, I thought.

Just 25 minutes later a policeman coaxed me out from behind a shrub where I was hiding and proceeded to cite me for ‘Pedestrian On The Freeway.’  I saw him down the road just as he saw me hightail it.  Driving me off the interchange with my hard-earned ticket, we engaged in conversation.  I explained once again my current situation, to which he commented as I got out, “Well, good for you, that’s a tough row to hoe.”

Yessir, getting tougher all the time.

Thumb in Air.  (Tongue in Cheek.)

One sweet spring Friday afternoon, I was standing on the side of State Road 9 north of Arlington, Washington.  Passing cars were infrequent and indifferent in spite of my beaming smile and clean-cut grad student persona.  A newer huge four-door Buick slowed to the shoulder.

A  pleasant, well-dressed woman leaned over the passenger seat to crank down the window and asked me where I was bound.  What luck to find she was headed to Bellingham and was more than happy to share her front seat.  I would make it for the start of all the weekend parties on Maple and Indian Streets after all!

As we rolled north and got to know each other, she introduced me to her two attractive high school-aged daughters in the back seat who had initially escaped my notice.  They were on spring break and on their way to take a tour of Western Washington University.  I knew I was outnumbered three women to one vulnerable preppy kid they found on the road.

This was of course years before cell phones and 911, but they didn’t look too treacherous, so I sat back and enjoyed the ride.  On reflection I can see that as rather unusual by today’s standards.  I didn’t make this up.  Well, it might have been an Oldsmobile.  Could be none of us cared to assume that suspicion was an option.

Life is funny like that.  Who are the bad guys?  Who are the good guys?  You don’t really know, do you?  No, you don’t.  None of us know.  But it’s just as easy to start with believing the best in the other.  And ourselves.  And what if there really were no bad guys at all?

Released On Good Behavior

Several months later, my school lab partner Rob let on that he was leaving after class on Friday to visit his girlfriend across the state in Pullman.  November is a dark time to be out on the open road, but I invited myself a lift to see if I could scare up some old college pals in Spokane 80 miles north.

Night had fallen well before we got to Whitman County, and while shaking my hand as if he might never see me again, Rob dropped me off at the highway junction in Colfax, a sleepy town on the Palouse River that was damp and deserted at 9:30 on Friday night.  I located the best streetlight and waited with my little sign in the chilly air just as the rain began to fall.

The old pickup truck looked like it stood an even chance of making it the 75 miles north, even with its one headlight and dragging muffler, so I climbed in the cab.  My host had recently been paroled out of the penitentiary in Walla Walla and was understandably curious about life on the outside.

I did my best to answer his questions.  As the miles went on, the conversation lagged and I found myself wondering what he was thinking I was thinking he was thinking.  And so it went until we arrived noisily under the late night lights of downtown Spokane.  I’ve a recollection of his asking if I had a place to stay somewhere as if he were hoping to find a free place to crash.

Somehow talking my way out of sharing the rest of my night with a possible cattle rustler or serial stabber, I invited him to pull over.  I gave him a few bucks for gas and stepped out into the rainy streets well short of my destination.

One of my students gave me a small card some years ago.  I still have it, and yesterday I put it in my wallet.  It reads, “If you think you know what’s going on, you’re probably full of shit.”  That’s what it said.

Study Questions:

  • What states does the Columbia River flow through?
  • When did the 911 emergency system become nationwide? Who was the first woman to call and report her cat was throwing up?
  • The old term “tough row to hoe” is used. Was the author really hoeing rows at school?  Are there also easy rows to hoe?
  • Who the hell is John Prine?

Being Real — Part 2

mazatlan bch Final

Beginning With The End

Life couldn’t have been better or showed more promise when we arrived on that secluded Mexican beach north of Mazatlán in 1974. It was Sunday afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. We spent the first evening immersing our youthful awe in the tropical surroundings. The next morning my best friend got caught in a rip tide and drowned. On our first day there, a little way down the shore, out in the surf.  He and some boys we just met went for a swim, and he never made it back.

The days following the incident put me on a path of insight that has served me to this day.  There were dark directions that sought me out, but I somehow stood fast in a commitment to learn and grow from the experience.  Even as I spent those thoughtful hours alone in the camp listening to the immense waves collide to the beach and silently pull back, I knew what happened was not useless or senseless.  In an altered state, my logic and emotion became untied.  I went on instinct.  I surrendered.

There were no shoulders to cry on, just me and the freedom to craft any kind of explanation or understanding that came calling.  I managed to rise above the roles of enabler, denier, or victim.  Initially, I lived in a surreal clarity as if taken in by an unseen spirit, and then, after a few unblinking nights staring at the stars through the windows in the van, I somehow calmly accepted death as far too powerful to deny and too senseless to fear.  I would pull it over to my side, and with it, hopefully, fate itself.  Life doesn’t happen without death.  I would make death a personal savior, embracing confidently its role in making life real.

It sounds rather strange now, but at the time it was a comforting conclusion.  In the wisdom of my grief, I stumbled upon a critical fundamental truth: That the soul does not care about the boundary between life and death, and that fear of death is a self-limiting choice.  Over time, as God and Love have found context and identity for me, I came to appreciate how passing away just may be a gift.  I held all these thoughts as only a rough sketch back then, but I truly I remember a feeling of an unexplained and gently powerful peace.   It felt like wisdom.  It felt like forgiveness.

Angels Rush In Where Fools Fear to Tread

My brother in Seattle put my girlfriend Janine on a southbound plane assuming I would welcome company and emotional support.  I did, but I did not know it.  I told myself I had discovered the needed resilience to reframe circumstance by facing the truth as I knew it.  It was simple survival, as yet to become spiritual transcendence, but it seemed to be working for me.  So of course, I was not well-prepared for the grace that was being sent to me.  A key part of this memory is the reminder that we all have and we all need angels.  Brother Terry and now longtime friend Janine live strong in my heart.  Both charter members of the angels and muses syndicate.  You have yours too.  I hesitate to be pretentious, but mine were pretty damn heroic.

The week following Thanksgiving was daunting.  I recall phoning my late friend’s devastated parents from the embassy, transacting the purchase of a sealed casket and shipping the body back, crying a time or two, and bribing a fat police lieutenant in a dark creepy stationhouse for a typed letter allowing me to exit the country with the borrowed van.  After two weeks Janine and I headed north.  I was the worst of companions.  In my processing of the incident, I came to believe I did not need anyone in my life.  I honestly thought I would just stay in the country and go it alone.  Any reasonable person would have damn well just left me in Mexico.

On the long drive back to the Northwest I tested my new found superpower of invulnerability.  I recall leaning forward over the steering wheel squinting at where the interstate might be as we sped through the December dark surrounded by dense fog in the Central Valley.   Fortunately my spirit guides had advised me to keep awake with a half case of beer that Janine bravely, compassionately handed me one after the other until we broke into daylight at Stockton.

The Me in Mexico in Me

Once home I had a lot of explaining to do.  Clearly, in my mind, I was blameless — other than perhaps underestimating the power of the tides and my buddy’s midwest unfamiliarity with the ocean and inability to swim. I might have been playing lifeguard or testing the surf instead of taking a morning nap on the beach. When David ran up and told me Kansas didn’t return to shore, I pushed through the breakers and treaded water alone for an hour yelling his name until a surfer who paddled from the resort down the beach brought me to shore quite depleted.  Each time I recounted the tale, I again became exhausted.  And again the support of my ‘unwanted’ angels pulled me through.  And I am ever grateful.

Maybe it was because I had experienced and survived as I did as a 26 year old that gave me the urge and permission to return time and again to the Mexican coast.  I truly felt that after dealing with such tragedy I was completely protected from harm.  Seriously bullet-proof.  Every five years for a few decades, I traveled to Mazatlán to reflect and to offer some kind of tribute.  In ritual, I would sit with the long ago event and meditate on the power of the past and the danger of giving in to fear. Some call that just whistling in the dark.  Maybe that’s all it is.  But this is the story I tell myself:  I have accepted that to know death is the key to knowing life, and that the sooner we learn to not hide from the so-called unknown, the sooner we will find the peace of heaven, wherever we are.  We already know what is unknown, we just don’t think we know it.  Trust over fear then.  Love won’t survive where there is fear.  Where do we begin, we ask?  Here’s what I have been taught: You need do nothing.  Love just is.

I’ll wake up each morning and smile at the day.

I’ll live for each moment, put my worries away.

I’ve heard there’s one true way to heal.

Some say we’re just sleeping in heaven – dreaming of hell.

Maybe the greatest gift of living is dying well.

If you can hold that in your heart — you’re Being Real.

“Being Real” jd 2005


Moving On – Part 1

 A Much-Needed Vocation

“I’m gone again. Finding life in all I see, trust and hope are guiding me. The road is free, and I’ll pay that cost, to find myself in getting lost.”  

As the unruly seventies came to an end, a lot of the craziness practiced by our rebelling generation was becoming uncool or passé.  The revolution was aging.  Fashion, hair styles, music and culture changed almost overnight.  It seemed to me that society became less communal and spontaneous and more reserved and anxious…  1980s!  Ronald Reagan.  Cold War.  18% loan interest.  Serious stuff, children.

For me for a fact dating was noticeably different.  The young ladies of the punk decade were sassy and near impossible to charm.  For a guy that has already told you he didn’t like to work too hard, this was something of a problem.  I’m quite sure this had nothing to do with my getting older and irrelevant.  The pretty girls who used to be at least somewhat at ease in noisy smoky taverns moved on to cocktail lounges, marriage, and self-respect.  Sadder still, the smoky taverns began to move on as well.  Every few months another blue and orange neon “Oly on Tap” window sign flickered and went out.  The world was certainly making it harder to live my life like a country song. 

But the wanderlust and self-dependence that I mastered in the 70’s carried me well enough into the new decade, ready or not.  I would just have to go it alone.  I had the time and resources to follow the breakaway allure of any untraveled road within a day’s drive.  I was out there.  I see now it was a part of the learning in the somewhat diverse life I now reflect upon.  My own two-lane Vision Quest.  But at the time it was just me going-gone.  And it was the greatest of adventures. 

I created a mental map of the lesser known and most uncelebrated destinations around my home state.  In my mind this virtual chart looked like the work of some ancient anonymous cartographer on weathered parchment.  Rough boundaries were set purely on guesswork and hearsay, locations were misplaced and named at random.  Rather like a rendering of Middle Earth.  Sketches of sea serpents and mermaids and exotic plant life were sprinkled about in the vastness and out to the torn margins.  I savored the risk of falling off the edge of the known world with every adventure outward.  Always the journey, never the destination.

The Path of Least Insistence

Come Friday, spring through fall, the blue highways beckoned me to tease the unexpected and curious from the geography.  Those were the days that your route would be determined by a whim, not a satellite.  I remained mostly to myself.  People I encountered on the road could be helpful and informative, but I tried hard to keep the cast of my movie to a minimum and largely avoided others so as to claim ownership of all I saw and felt.  I certainly took note of towns and buildings, parks and farms, and other man-made donations to the landscape and its history, but I felt most at ease with the beautiful and simple disorder of nature.  The rushing streams, dusty forest roads, mountain trails, and the rolling fields behind the weathered farm buildings were what captured my eye and camera lens and filled me with serenity.

Trout Fishing in America

I began to stream fish.  Driving a tiny, cheaply-build, used Japanese sports car with a luggage rack on the trunk, I ventured out with a sleeping bag, pillow, tent and duffel.  In my pack was a 35 mm camera, rolls of slide film and my journal. The trunk held a tent and a camp stove for coffee.  A fishing pole, worms, and tackle box were on the bucket seat beside me.  ‘Dude, get a truck!’ you say.  But my speedy drop-top Datsun 1600 roadster and I would climb mountains, ford streams, race freight trains along the Columbia Gorge, camp in the outback, and park behind fleabag hotels where somehow nothing got stolen from the open two-seater with the keys under the driver’s seat..

Author Richard Brautigan wrote several offbeat collections of poetic prose which became cult classics in the 1960s and 70s.  The series of short essays in “Trout Fishing in America” paint a thoughtfully surreal picture of living deeply in life and nature.  Brautigan, unfortunately, eventually succumbed to the disability and death common to those artists who could never achieve the expectations of their deep impressionistic insights.

In the title story he depicts a trout stream in southern Idaho as a metaphor for self-discovery within the flow of nature. That somehow made sense to me — in spite of the fact I was no kinda fisherman of the Zen persuasion. I cast to kill, severed the heads, and ate the prey. In a spiritually ritualistic way of course. Catch and release with no live bait was inelegantly silly and too damn much work, and I didn’t care who knew I thought so. The lesson being it’s important to keep some grip on reality when you’re learning to take trips into untested dimensions. Lest you disappear entirely. Like Brautigan. Like great writers too often do. I only ask that I be spared until I’m ready.

The Call of the Mild

To this day I will swerve off the road on a sunny drive to spend a moment or an hour or a day by a river. It was in simple sacred spots on these shores a half a life ago that I first heard the silent whisper of what would be a ’calling to self.’

I would choose retreats like this, and still do, because it is here I seem to find prayer in the invisible order of things. Unquestioning…just letting the road or the river take me to where I need to go. In those days I was not certain where that call would lead me, but over time I came to know I was experiencing, as my beautiful and occasionally confused lifelong buddy Margo would call it: the carrot at the end of the tunnel.

To Be Continued…

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….”