One spring morning long, long ago, in a faraway land called Tumwater, Washington, a young dentist walked in the back door of his clinic, joyful to be alive, employed, and soon to celebrate the first sunny warm weekend of Spring! After all, in the Puget Sound area, that first day of Spring often didn’t arrive until July. But this Friday, the good doctor, while rolling down the driveway, lowered the top on his aging red 1966 Plymouth Fury convertible clipping low hanging branches from the neighbor’s trees, anticipating the year’s first road trip at the day’s end.
On lunch break, he came out to the back lot and discovered neither his ride for the weekend, nor the keys in the ignition, were where he left them. A later phone call from the local police confirmed that after a high speed chase on Highway 101, the California Highway Patrol arrested a couple ‘kids’ in Eureka, who like me at that age (which I was), could not resist the temptation and stupidity.
I write this in March of 2021 while boondocking by the tracks at the Redding, California rail station. I’ll be sleeping in my van. On the streets like the rest of the houseless, unsheltered, ‘travelers,’ gypsies, ‘outdoorsmen,’ and otherwise displaced humans. Into the wild as we welcome another spring. It’s my biannual trip to the Golden State, and I figured I would add a special touch by slumming at the now-tattered Amtrak depot where I stepped off the Coast Starlight at 3 a.m. one morning decades ago.
The insurance guy said they would simply pay me for the car, but the adventure of trying to recover it assured me the getaway I had been longing for. Just like Roy Rogers on the trail of the horse thieves, riding hard to recover Red Fury.
The next day I called in “well” for work and got myself to East Olympia for the midday departure on the Coast Starlight. I chuckle when I remember getting aboard with only a backpack, a sack lunch, and a pillow. A nudge on the shoulder in the middle of the night sent me stumbling onto the platform and into the dark deserted waiting area. I fluffed the feathers on the end arm of an old wooden bench and managed a couple more hours of sleep.
Leaving my pillow behind for the next overnight guest, I walked out to CA 299 and stuck out my thumb while gnawing on a wrinkled cold peanut butter sandwich. This was Trinity County, California in the seventies. My driver was smoking a dose of their main cash crop most of the way to the coast and was quite funny and chatty. It was a lovely scenic drive when we managed to stay in our lane and he stopped talking long enough for me to take in the view.
I was dropped off at the Eureka cop shop, signed some papers, and was given the keys. I didn’t ask, but wondered if the bad guys were behind bars in the back somewhere. I urged to slap these punks around and snarl, like the detectives on TV, but thought it wise not to make a scene. So I jumped in the Fury, fired ‘er up, and headed north.
The engine blew up a third of the way into Oregon spilling oil, water, and dreams all over the highway. Triple-A towed the two of us into Coos Bay, and State Farm eventually sent me a check. The Greyhound stop was in front of a tavern where I passed a couple hours for the bus to Portland and got back to Olympia on the Amtrak. Once home I found the car keys in my jeans. A lesson learned too late, but a memory worth sharing nonetheless.
The fairly recently built Kennedy Center court was all of 250 steps from my dorm room. Even so, if it was raining or sleeting in the slightest, we were likely to skip the game and continue to study or watch the new color TV in the dorm basement instead. I’m just guessing at this many years later, but I think the ASB card that admitted us to the home games was all of $1.50 for the season. Our freshman year, the Bulldogs had a good team and a winning record. My buddies Jim and Francis and I did manage to make most of most of the games, sitting courtside scattered among maybe a few hundred other students and Spokanites. Yes, things have changed.
The Administration Building was another option on those cold winter evenings. It was never locked night or day. You could roam the marble floors, maybe sliding in your socks singing aloud or shouting echoes to past ghosts of Gonzaga. In later years, still underage but with nowhere else to go, we would gather around six packs of Ripple in the 4th floor botany lab with the lights out.
On the first floor we would visit some of those ghosts. Along both walls were glass-framed displays of GU’s athletic history from the 1800s to 1966. A whole panel was dedicated to Frank Burgess, our lone basketball All-American at the time. Uncle Jim, my dad’s roughshod delinquent brother was a star on the last Gonzaga football team when the world took him and his teammates off to war.
My dad was pictured on the opposite wall with the five man boxing team of 1938-39. He’s the skinny curly headed little guy on the right. He had a fierce look on him though. Perhaps he was pretty good, I wouldn’t know. He later bought gloves for us boys and we would meet in the basement to try to knock each other’s blocks off. Soon after we switched to piano lessons. He matriculated college early to head to Portland and a hurried start on dental school at the behest of the United States Army.
That’s about it for a Deviny sport legacy, unless you count my intramural basketball team. We would take the court in the evenings when the Zags were done practicing their brutal stall offense and impenetrable “Zone D”. Our dorm vs. dorm team was much more clever than effective. The day before the season began we walked the rail tracks downtown to the Bon Marche men’s department and purchased an assortment of oversized boxer shorts and white-ribbed wife-beater undershirts on which we wrote numbers with a Magic Marker. “The Undies”, while losing all their games, were definitely a crowd favorite.
The men’s college team was certainly imposing, but surely not like today. Their “big man,” Army veteran Gary Leachman, was only 3 inches taller than me, and they never made a 3-point shot all season! (Of course, it wasn’t invented yet…) They beat Weber State to win the Big Sky Conference and face UCLA in an early version of the NCAA Tournament. If I have his right, they were soundly dominated by a young man named Lew Alcindor from New York. (New York!) Mr. Alcindor, as we all know, went on to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and of course, most famously, as Roger Murdock in the movie Airplane.
The Final Four is a chance for any and all us Jesuitized alumni, and also those GU grads who don’t know a backdoor cut from a backwoods fiddle, to show a little pride. It’s always really special when your basketball or football team provides you with more than just an excuse to throw a kegger. If you don’t know what a kegger is, go ahead and cheer for Houston or Baylor or, God forbid, UCLA.
The 2021 Astrology Calendar arrived yesterday with 365 doses of daily destiny for the coming year. We Libras, we never know what we’re going to get. But for January, my wife, the house astrologer, relays to me: “Your brain is in overdrive. Try not to let it spin out of control. Instead, use this mental energy for creative problem solving, original thinking and unusual solutions.”
I’ll begin this first blog post of the year with a reflective letter to me, to you, and to the world, as we rebuild our attitudes, relationships and values around the ‘novelties’ of recent months. Here’s a tasty hit of wisdom: What if the world and everything truly real about our lives is free, loving, and subject only to what we choose to think and choose to see. That’s my story — the guiding principle — and I’m sticking to it.
Step back. Breathe. And we’ll all kick holy butt with curious smiles and self-satisfying compassion as we move on.
In humble appreciation for the life privilege that has blessed our household and circumstances, I can do nothing but both hope for fun and fulfillment in 2021, while accepting with grace whatever good or bad that the coming years hold. I begin with a new right hip, a dashing pair of lounging sweats for Christmas, a feeble but consistent workout schedule in our multicolored rubber band and hand weights living room gymnasium, and a huge urge to flap my skinny arms and fly.
Despite doubts and doubters, I have chosen December as indeed the turning point. It was a good month. We’ve had the neighbor refill the firewood cradle with some plum and willow logs harvested last summer. In spite of dreary chill weather, we have entertained bold and beautiful friends in our newly installed propane-powered porch and patio Leaky Tiki Lounge.
I’m not a guy for routine, but late fall had me in a groove of afternoon meditation on the bed, inhaling deeply with Yoga Nidra (whatever that is) music in the headphones trying to count backwards (often in Spanish) while slapping the monkey-mind away. Surviving that (without dozing off), it was time to build the evening fire, open a can of beer, and strike up the guitar.
For nearly twenty evenings I rehearsed the same Christmas song I have practiced every December since 2015. This year I sufficiently conquered the walkdown from D to B minor and declared mastery of “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Alas, just in time for Christmas to be over. Then it was on to hopeful thoughts of longer days, fewer restrictions, and more hugs. So I turned the page to James Taylor’s “Mexico,” which still needs fingering polish. But just me singing off-key of brighter and warmer days ahead was a real shot in the arm. If you get my meaning.
I am committing myself to think big and do right in 2021. I’m sure I have exactly as much energy and luck left as I need to keep dreaming a while longer. Schemes of being exactly where I’m called haunt the meditation soundtrack on these boring rainy days. And rainy day schemes are exactly what we were told as kids to save our pennies for.
“I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.” —Samuel Goldwyn
As I close out this humble memoir, I’m drawn by the need to write the ending. It seems so critical to me to close the loop so to make my dubious legend whole. So you ask, how do you write the end of the story of your life when, according to low-whispered rumors, you still walk the earth? The best I can come up with is that you make an agreement with yourself that there is no more to write. And then, you know….end your life.
Travels With Lefty
I woke slowly in the van, warm and rested after a parade of inscrutable dreams. I had made the exactly 1000 miles to Death Valley from home in 2 days. The October sun was rising over the Armargosa Range as I brewed coffee in the back of the rig. Just like John Steinbeck would as he roamed the country with his dog Charley sixty years ago. I shared my morning brew break not with a dog but with a faithful stuffed octopus named Lefty. Lefty came from Catalina Island and is a ‘rescue octopus’. I saved him from a sale rack at the end of the tourist season in 2017. A great traveling companion, he protects me from intruders and evil spirits, doesn’t shed, never needs to be taken outside in the middle of the night, and is flealess, barkless, and pensive. Always watching silently with his big plastic eyes as the miles go by.
After two propane pour-over lattes, I stepped outside as the sun began to warm the desert. Surrounded by the vast illogical beauty of Death Valley, I began to ponder the prominence of this most interesting of years. Today I would co-opt the world’s confusion, fear, insecurity, rage and insanity with denial and transcendence. I will finish myself as I please. Not literally of course, but in writing. Because who better than oneself to assure their story ends happily?!
Tearing Down the House
I therefore testify that I am the most peaceful and content, awakened and saved person I know of. I wouldn’t trade my life with anyone. Never have I wanted to. Never will. That said, disclosure requires me to fuss about aging and other derived and self-inflicted maladies. Sharing health status is what we elders do after all. (A friend referred such conversations as “the organ recital.”)
Running down the ‘preflight checklist’, in no particular order of importance, we have arthritis, dermatologic ‘oddities’, neuritis, neuropathy, fatigue, thinning hair, and presently a stuffy nose from the dry heat. My hands are shakin’ and my knees are weak. I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet. I have ‘aged out’ of regular physical exercise and eating properly. In fifty years I have consumed enough beer to, as the old saying goes, float a battleship. I’ve no tattoos or piercings, but sport (so far) one artificial knee.
It gets better: I’m due for a new right hip next month. I took a photo of my pelvis x-ray in the surgeon’s office while he shook his head and stared at me over his thick glasses. He told me the left hip is also trashed, but that since the right joint was only barely identifiable as such, we better swap it out first. The ball on the top of the femur looked like it belonged to a blind golfer. It was covered with those golf ball pimples as well as scabs and scars at being repeatedly mis-struck by a flailing sand wedge.
A Stitch in Time
I have no shame in using tired metaphors, so here we go: My wife Cheryl has become a most expert quilt-maker. Her eye for color, shapes and style, along with patience, precision, and ability have filled our house with rectangles of fabric masterpieces worth framing. Just a side note: We joked the other day about the few quilts she has gifted to others. It happens that all those people have now passed away. You would be wise to note the size and shape of any shipment you get from our address; maybe lightly squeeze the packaging…
Pieces are cut out one at a time and connected in a prescribed or random sequence as the tapestry grows. Then comes the finish work of batting, backing, border, quilting and binding. Bringing it all together, once everything is in its place, the quilt is washed and hung to dry awaiting final appraisal. Lovingly accepting the errors and missed steps, we glory in how elegant it looks now complete and inseparable. Exponentially grander than its many different parts, we see the beauty in the oneness—a product of both our industry and creativity.
At some point we must accept ourselves as we have been assembled by ourselves. Because then can we settle into a rich life of ‘knowing peace.’ Too together to fear others, too lazy to do anything but live love and help those who are still fumbling over their scattered little pieces.
Rising Above It All
The second leg of my lone journey took me to Joshua Tree National Park. I arrived at sundown and cruised the 45 miles border to border through the sharp high desert scenery smiling and singing out loud. I found a campsite at Cottonwood Springs and tucked away. The next afternoon I rattled to my feet, grabbed my trekking poles and ascended a small ridge at days end. I carried my well-seasoned body up the trail as the sun lowered in autumn orange, brightening the cactus, yucca trees, and creosote bushes.
Grateful for my still sturdy heart and lungs, I reached the top of a ridge to watch day’s end. I whooped a salute, and headed back down on painful rickety hinges with make-believe balance. My gait was just like a half-inflated football rolling down a dry water slide. I chunckered back to camp in the dusk for a half Vicodin, two gabapentin, and several rapidly consumed Budweisers as Lefty looked down from his perch with reproachful silence.
Life Is Short. And Then We Try
It is said this world is but a fearful fiction, and we can get a glimpse of the loving dream beyond this life while we are still here by awakening just enough to the truth of who we truly are in spirit. This is a time we can step back, look at all the fragments and that see real truth lies in the perceptions, intentions and values that stitched everything into one.
My best teaching ever was the most simple of parables. It was so clearly obvious, I was incredulous it hadn’t been put before me sooner. Steven Covey, in his hugely popular book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” led into his advice on living a full and purposeful life by advising the reader as follows: Close your eyes and imagine yourself on a quiet hillside where you are witness to your own burial….and to listen closely to what those at your graveside are saying about the deceased.
Y’all can take it from there.
And, as for a written obituary: “John died. Boat for sale.”
As I continue my telling my story, especially as the clock winds down on what I choose to declare a most excellent life, I often like to ‘slip into something less comfortable’. Daring to be more edgy and brazen, it feels good to stir the waters, as they say. And stir the waters today we shall.
I am speaking of course about being naked. Yes, naked. Not just any kind of naked, but a special naked. The kind of naked required to skinny dip.
In digging up my past, the first reference to this was on page 36 in Book VI of my journal collection where I wrote, “My hot afternoon was free so I decided to go swimming since I had nothing on.” Haha! Did you catch that play on words? I can be quite clever when uninhibited by clothing. And so it came to pass that I would make a hobby out of jumping into rivers wearing only what nature provided. It wasn’t really shameful public nudity, because—as Washington’s preeminent backroader— I have always been able to find a the perfect private pool to engage my passion. Still shameful, you say?
It may be news to you, but this is a most sacred spiritual practice. There are four things in life. Only four: Me, You, God and Nature. Skinny dipping, even if it is unconventional and perhaps a bit risquė, covers three out of the four—Me, God, and Nature. And three out of four ain’t bad. Since it’s then only “You” that stands in my way of redemption and eternal salvation, I’m sure my path, enlightened and self-serving as it is, can take it from there.
Blissmarks and Johnny Spots
Back in the early days of the internet, when it was running on internal combustion engines, hydropower, and dial up connections, I became something of an early-adopter of desktop publishing. Along with my backroad stories and newsletters about our quirky parties, I decided to create a photo diary listing the rivers I had ‘experienced’ (however briefly). I titled this enigmatic and quaint display “River Splash.”
Recently I tracked down the folder for what might have become my second book. Tags of paper with snippets of clever wisdom fell out on the floor when I opened the file upside down. There was a printout of the webpage I had run back in 2002. Each entry was a small picture of the river, a short descriptive vignette of my shoreline visit on that (usually summer) day, and, on a sidebar, essential data such as the location of the swimming hole, the temperatures of the outside air, and of the water, which was usually cold and bracing. Sometimes there were short relevant notes to remind me of the highlights of each particular spot. For example: “…pool directly under rail trestle”, “…hung swimming trunks on poison oak bush”, “…busload of kindergartners on far shore hurried by teacher back to parking lot”, and of course, “…forgot towel, but remembered beer.”
I’ve brought this nonsense to several dozen bodies of water over the years. With only a beach towel, sandals and breakaway hiking shorts, I have dared and documented streams, fjords, punch bowls and backwaters along with a number of lakes, ponds, and even an irrigation ditch. I got into this skinny dip groove so much that I also wrote a song about it. As you would expect, it’s a silly, clumsy, but frolicsome song. A white boy blues tribute to the sacred art of dousing disrobed. It goes like this here:
“If heaven is your goal you’d better gain control. And get on down to the swimmin’ hole. Wiggle out of your clothes and let your sins hang out. A naked dash, a splash, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”
Of course there must be a life lesson in all this childish behavior. I had to work hard to find any deep thoughts in those shallow pools of the past, but here goes: While I choose to be light-hearted about it, most folks prefer to consider the subject of eternity and what the hell happens after we are no longer here to be serious stuff. Yet I maintain that enjoyment of, respect for, and immersing oneself in the awe of the natural world is the one sensory/emotional connection we have to the next life. (If there is one, I will surely go there with tongue in cheek.)
“Let’s get high in the summertime in the sweet woods. Feel the heat, it’s no time to be meek. Get out of the mainstream and show ‘em what you got. Drop ‘em all by a waterfall, a river, or a creek….”
So then: Nature. In all its shapes and sizes, powers and frailties. The visions, randomness, precision, smells, tastes, temperatures and colors. The outdoors is a most worthy savior from our pathetic, cluttered, graffiti-scorched urban surroundings. We can’t survive without a deliberate connection, at least occasionally, to our elemental source. Which brings me back to the odd obsession I’ve chosen for seeking temporary nirvana. Assuming it’s a warm day and courage has replaced what little shame I have, a full immersion in clean clear wetness is a most ecstatic awakening.
“You’ll be splashing like an otter with a fish-eatin’ smile. Naked as a jaybird, got your own special style. There may be times you falter and you slip into sin. Just take off your clothes, baptize yourself, and start over again…”
Only recently did two kids from Seattle chronicle this enterprise as I set out to do years ago. If I have now convinced you of both the spirituality of nature and how simple—and cleansing—it is to transcend from the ordinary to the godly in just one splash, I recommend you order “Swimming Holes of Washington” by Anna Katz and Shane Robinson well in advance of next summer’s salvation season. They say nothing about how to dress or not dress while enjoying the many benefits of the 58 no-fee, rocky-shored personal spa treatments featured in the book, but I’ll bet it occurred to them.
As it occurred to me last week on a final summer visit to the Ohanapecosh River at Mount Rainier, which is depicted in the book as perhaps the top swimming hole in the state. As you can see in the accompanying photo which I took standing next to a sign that warned about steep slopes, dangerous rapids, hypothermia, blah, blah, blah….
What I saw were blue-eyed blue pools and gently swirling clear glacial waters surrounded by jump cliffs that wisely prevent second thoughts as you plunge into the soul-shaking icy water. Go for it! No better practice for living in the moment.
My brother and I signed the real estate papers and handed over the 10% down payment of $4500. We had been wisely advised to make this investment by a clever friend and fellow Olympia homie who went on to owning much of Seattle. We drove out Boston Harbor Road and proudly pushed open our newly purchased door to the displeasure of the soon to be displaced renter. The battered house looked every bit like its forty years of relative neglect. But since the times were calling for us kids to find our roots and go “back to the land,” the more tattered and bucolic, the better. And I’ll be damned, there was a greenhouse and a chicken coop.
Once it stopped raining that spring of 1975, Terry and I bushwhacked down the gully to fell and buck a dozen and a half good-sized alder trees and found there was indeed a waterfront view. I had never worked so hard in my life with a chainsaw. But then, I had never used one before. And that was not the end of the work; only the beginning. I would not have believed how three humble muddy little acres could spawn such a load of leaves, limbs and logs year after year. Yet all the outdoor labor of forty-five springs have been well repaid in comfort, contentment and inspiration.
Sense of Place
North Olympia, Washington has a relatively brief yesteryear as written history goes. The rocky saltwater shore in front of this old farm house was browsed by native peoples for centuries where the bays would feed them clams, oysters and fish all year. It was only a hundred years before my birth the white settlers came to this area. They cut the timber, cleared the land and built the first community in the state where the Deschutes River tumbles into the lowest tip of Puget Sound exactly five miles south of here.
In the early nineteen hundreds folks didn’t give a whit about waterfront views, but were into feeding their families and making enough of a living to occasionally ride into town for manufactured goods and other sundries. Apple orchards, berries and hay for the cows did pretty well in the dense glacial-till soil. Small gardens survived the clay just enough to fill the canning shelves in each basement. Most every ravine north and south of us held a concrete block cistern to capture spring water. There’s still an old frayed wire and broken pipe running out of our cellar that once led down to a shed with a primitive electric pump.
For two decades after the war, dozens of huge cargo ships were lined up on our side of the inlet, initially to store surplus grain, then left to rust until being scrapped about 1970. The uplands have remained rural and agricultural even now, with the exception of the pretentious ego-affirming erections that front the shoreline. Our humble octogenarian cottage hides in the shadows up a draw so as to arouse neither envy nor ridicule.
Hazen and Violet Fauver lived next door. They had moved back to Olympia when Hazen retired from the shipyard in Bremerton at the same time my girlfriend and I moved here. Janine soon left me for reasons that would be clear if you knew me in my late twenties. Hazen however somehow found me to his liking. It didn’t take long for him to drop by or stop me on the road to share everything he knew about everything. The only route in and out was our common gravel drive, so I either had to move fast and pretend not to see him or consider swimming into work. Mr. Fauver had a need to talk, talk some more, and talk to anyone who would or wouldn’t listen. He was near deaf from years working in lumber mills and shipyards. His wife was near deaf too. No surprise there.
Together we bought an ancient diesel steel-track bulldozer and worked a forested ten acres he owned up near Boston Harbor. The old guy who could barely hear or see would notch and start the back cut, and his young neighbor who had more guts than sense would, if the dozer didn’t suddenly die first, yank the high-roped fir away from us and our trucks as it fell. Then we would yard the trees to a clearing and admire our work. When it was my turn to use the machine, I would trailer it down to my gully and push stuff around for bonfires or just to feel manly.
In conversation Hazen never minced words. He cussed and complained and used early 1900s slurs for foreigners and the most demeaning derogatory for females, his wife Violet included. A few years before he died he handed me a thick file of typed pages and asked me to look them over. I was holding sheet after double-spaced sheet of quite literate and thoughtful narrative poetry. Including — which shocked the socks off me — the most syrupy sweet and tender love ballads. Whether written for his wife or his muses, it was, if not eloquent, very honest and endearing.
Following my editing and preface, he had a small press print several hundred copies of “Memories and Poems of Jarshime Kimmel”. There is no doubt that my own urge to stare down and record my feelings flows in great part from this unique and inscrutable old coot. Who would have figured this guy, or at least his pen name, understood what a quatrain stanza was?
Old Hazen was the real deal. He knew two wars, social and civil unrest, countless storms, the Great Depression, and hard manual labor. During WWII he built his house in an orchard from free scrap wood he brought home from the mill. It still stands today; I can see it from here. He survived simply and frugally. Mr. Fauver didn’t own a phone for seventy years, he raised their own food, burned and buried their garbage, let their cattle and dogs run free, and he could fix anything that broke.
One day he told me about sharp pains in his midsection and asked for a diagnosis. Being a dentist was apparently good enough for him. It was rumored he hadn’t seen a doctor since he joined the Merchant Marines in the thirties. Violet, who never drove and was now mostly blind, asked that I arrange and take him to an appointment where they discovered the cancer that would take him within a year. Something he finally couldn’t cuss away or repair himself.
Scents of Place
Brother Terry purchased a house in Seattle in 1980, and I bought his share of the ranch. The mortgage was paid off 25 years ago, and, after numerous parties, upgrades, shrub trimming afternoons and a marriage, I’m still here. Somebody once coached me with these wise and financially sensible words: “One house, one spouse.” Maybe it was my dad as he sent me off to college and into the world. He has become a lot smarter than I remember when I was fourteen.
A decade and a half as a lone bachelor permanently shaped me just as I tried to shape the land. My bare feet grew roots in the summer when I was blessed to have a generous amount of time off. If I needed to briefly wander to chase dreams, I would put on shoes. Always returning to celebrate a long afternoon in lazy meditation under the sun. No shirt, no shoes, no sunscreen, no problem. Then to roam about the yard until dusk, beer in hand, listening for the silent sounds of isolation.
And the smells of spring and summer! The flowers and grasses, the firs and the locust trees, the laurel, pink hawthorn, funky shasta daisies, the pungent sweet scent of buttercup being mowed! And, keeping with my Emily Dickenson moment, the intoxicating scent of the japanese and trumpet honeysuckle vines that embroider the surrounding hedges, fences, and telephone poles. A most gracious and welcomed invasive plant. In my next life, I pray to return as a lonicer japonica. You’ll know me by my fragile beauty and head-turning scent as I run and twist wild and free, climbing toward the sun. Sounds just like something I would do.
“I write to find out what I’m thinking.” –Joan Didion
My career shift away from tradition and obligation was not complete until I could define whatever Calling was leading me into the wild. I knew my search was powered by dreams of Fulfillment. I was sure all would be validated once my choices set me free to be Authentic, whatever that was. And thanks to cultural hypocrisy, my upbringing, and a liberal arts education, I had to figure Creativity was in there somewhere.
I had simplified life with a presumptive commitment to Enoughness. I possessed generational privilege that I more kindly called Confidence. And I was humbly blessed by the support of my wife and key people in my life. I listened to all voices and conveniently ignored those that implied I couldn’t be lazy, free and fun-loving AND be wholehearted and wise in the same lifetime.
Whatever insights and lessons awaited, I knew that writing would serve not only as a new ’occupation,’ but also as a refuge from the inevitable doubt and self-pushback I would entertain. As the philosophers and sages have cautioned, I did not want to end up with a “life unexamined.” So it was with pencils, pens, notebooks, dictionary, thesaurus and good intentions I set out.
Mindfulness in Metaphor
A French-born journalist and novelist with a leaning toward the romantic and risqué named Anaȉs Nin once noted, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” We like to think we shouldn’t live in the past, but let’s be honest.
The medium may not be important however. We can sketch, shout, sing, and post memes in an attempt to become meaningfully immortal. Voice recordings, photographs, letters written and received, and notes-to-self or graffiti on a boxcar. Whatever. Any type of chronical that might weave emotion and clarity into a later moment would likely have Ms. Nin nodding approval. The idea is to live fully in real time embellished by the subtle touch of the past. Once more with feeling. And ideally with depth, wisdom and color.
All Truth Is Fiction Is True
I seriously considered starting a book about dentistry. Nothing academic, just a guide or how-to manual about dentists and dental treatment written to inform the consumer. Maybe some anecdotes and humorous experiences. But that came down to me needing to believe that our profession was uniformly solid, responsible, and accessible and to presume that patients’ attitudes and frequent complaints might not be valid . But me being me—a cynic and a critic and a life-long troublemaker, I would either piss off my cohorts or condescend to the reader—more likely both. So I dropped that.
Which denied me the opportunity to share the story of my young student Jennie nervously administering one of her first dental injections to a courageous patient, a retired army colonel, while I observed her technique. It was flawless except for the part where she held the needle up and tried to ease the man’s apprehension by giving him advance warning. “Now sir,” she said, “you’re going to feel a little prick in your mouth.”
Zen And The Art of Noticing the Ordinary
Write what you know, it is said. So I became a “travel writer.” For years I had been roaming the countryside, learning about the geography, history and natural wonders of my home state of Washington and shaping stories about my experiences. Scribbling impressionistic nonsense into a journal, taking 35mm slides, and imposing narrated slideshows onto friends at weekend parties and my poor students during lectures when I should have probably been teaching.
At first I wasn’t following any format or refining my observations and reflections beyond snippets and scribbles, but after those early years patterns began to emerge. I started looking deeper and finding satisfaction and reward in relating what I experienced. Over time, I began returning to the same routes and scenes every summer to better shape my sense of place and relive previous feelings. Now on a migratory path, I convinced myself I had grown to be an expert of sorts on rural back roads in Washington State.
About this time a gentleman named Bill Trogdon released a book titled Blue Highways. Writing under the name William Least-Heat Moon, he reported on a thirteen thousand mile “journey into America” that declared the premise that “everything man experiences will make and remake him.” He banked on his curiosity to teach him who he was, and set out paying attention to people and their points of view as to provoke revelation of and redemption for his own unsettled situation.
Now after forty years on the shelves, Blue Highways—named cleverly for the color of the nation’s secondary roads on printed maps at the time—remains a bible for road trippers everywhere. It is prominent on the serious vagabond’s reading list with Henry David Thoreau, John Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac’s surreal On The Road. Having seen this in print assured me there must be a segment of readers that would be interested in hearing and reading stories from the roads less traveled. Professor Trogden referred to this yet to be carved out audience as “The Secret Society,” and either exposed or created a niche of folks who wished to vicariously travel along while someone wrote their own story of self-discovery on the open road. Now I was all set. Now I had a pretext to continue my wayward ways.
From Windshield To Coffee Table
I gathered up my road trip stories from the 1980’s and 90’s, sorted through my best Washington landscape photos, scribbled some paragraphs, drew some maps, and dug into my savings account. I sent it to some fine folks at Farcountry Press in Helena, Montana who put my name on the cover of a slick, glossy, souvenir-quality paperback titled, Exploring Washington’s Backroads.
I had a real managing editor, copyeditor, printer, distributor and marketer. I was the publisher, the financier, and company president. Three thousand copies on the first run. I had done it, gone over to the other side. For the price of a new car, it was all mine. No longer a dull, predictable and dutiful dentist or someone you might want your daughter to marry, I became nearly overnight a bohemian seeker of truth, a renegade dilettante, and a traveling salesman to boot. I was reinvented, justified, validated and set free. Always are we, he reminds us, what we pretend to be.
Hard Cover – Soft Bound
It was in this realm I learned the key to successful writing, and, coincidentally, to leading a blissful life. And that is: If something doesn’t suit you, or you don’t know an answer, make shit up. It’s your story. You own it. Tell it any way you want. We introverts and writers work hard to live in a world of our own making. That’s why some of us on occasion sport a sly soft smile and wink a lot.
By getting to the truth and mystery of your story, you can be granted a certain divinity. With shrugging acceptance you can no longer refute the facts. “You are as you are,” it says here. And you are this unique invention of now and then, this and that, subject, object, the doing and the done. This is why we write. To mark our place and show off our caricature such as it is. To dance alone using our eyes, ears, feet and souls. And pens, pencils and keyboards. To dance, as they say, like nobody’s watching. To make us our own leading man or woman. To taste life twice.
Having taken leave of my own employment I set out to impress myself with my perceived capacity for succeeding at something more carefree and romantic. In the summer of 1997 Cheryl and I gathered with my soon-to-be-former office staff at a nice restaurant adjacent to the Seattle Convention Center to celebrate parting ways. We were attending the state dental conference as a team for the final time.
I had tried all the respectful deceptions I knew to avoid conversation about deserting these fine and loyal people to another dentist so I could become someone else. Having kept the office sale on the down-low for months, I told myself it was best for everyone. Whether they shared that sentiment or not, I believed them when they supported me in following my dream.
The next day I drove the floating bridge across Lake Washington to a Bellevue hotel where I registered for my second convention of the weekend. I paid a year’s dues and an enrollment fee for the Northwest Writers Association annual meeting and took my seat and a deep breath. My lungs filled with the air of anonymity and possibility. No more ‘just one way’ of doing things. No more ‘standard of care’. No one spitting on my fingers. No more Friday night phone calls. Just me and the notion that we all are no more or less than what we pretend to be. And I wanted to pretend to be something else.
Being a dentist is a fine and rewarding career. There’s a lot to be said for the respect, lessons and character-building that come with the job of being a teacher, a practitioner and a business owner. I mastered skills, managed challenges — sometimes well, often not — and gained perspective and empathy through humbling experiences. At the same time I always felt hanging onto one’s job/career/profession as your sole identity wouldn’t check off enough boxes when the final exam came.
Unsettled, middle-aged, and–as if I felt it important–left-handed, I granted myself the keys to the kingdom where, if you could put some effort into getting over yourself, the only choices left are to cultivate the soul and live life like you mean it.
I still recall the late summer day I signed the papers, gave the new owner the code to the door and went home to write a letter to our patients saying farewell. Then I put the top down, bought a six-pack, found a lake and jumped in. Possibly without a swimsuit. I would spend the coming weeks entertaining visions of the greatness I could achieve as I wrote out my homemade guidebook of dreams and dares. Having stumbled into the most wonderful of marriages, I had my wife’s blessings. She was taking a masters degree career counseling class at the time and oddly enough this all made sense to her.
It sounds so noble and confidently directed now. But it soon became apparent that following my bliss was going to be anything but easy. Eventually, we try and fail at enough to know ourselves literally inside out. My guideposts were the moments alone in stressless serene emptiness. No worldly distractions, just the opportunity to be free and at peace with nothing.
I read books. Whatever fell to my open hands, heart, and hopes. I read Thoreau, Castenada, Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass. Pop Psych, New Age, Quit Lit, Crime Fiction, Travel Essays, and occasional Cookbooks. One of those, “Manifold Destiny”, taught me the unique and ancient art of cooking full meals on your car engine. Never learned that in dental school.
I gathered answers and inspiration from titles like, “The Purpose of Your Life,” “The Artist’s Way,” “Callings,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe,” “Blue Highways,” and, while sipping cheap whiskey, Hank Williams’ biography.
I took a weekend workshop in Marin County on becoming a Life Coach, and everyone but me was truly woo-woo weird. That opinion came the minute they asked us to pair up, hold hands, and make 90 seconds of continuous eye contact with a total stranger. That night I also got rousted in my van and kicked out of the host hotel parking lot. Living the dream, I was.
I set out to run a half-marathon, and settled on a 10K. I built a desk in my van, printed up business cards that declared my reinvention as a freelance travel writer. I bought a primitive laptop for my on-the-road ‘dashtop publishing’ career. I would roam the backroads looking for my true identity and climb hills to raise my consciousness. I would become ‘authentic.’ I would write flowery inspirational and timeless phrases. Of this I was certain.
I joined the Northwest Earth Institute which led me to the The New Roadmap Foundation. I studied their book, “Your Money Or Your Life.” I joined the speakers bureau and held trainings on ‘financial intelligence, financial integrity and financial responsibility.’ Where once I burned my draft card (well, after I was excused from military service), now I was cutting up my credit cards. I hugged trees in the spring and felled them for firewood in the fall to save money on nonrenewable heating oil.
I was notoriously good at pinching pennies. In the past I had dated a wonderful woman for over three years who learned to always bring her wallet. She deserved better. In time I learned one could value fiscal responsibility without being a stingy jerk.
Time: Time is finite. Money and luxury are not. I got it. By now I was determined to purchase Time by un-spending the Money that I chose not to have. What I now wanted to be and where I now wanted to go required relatively little: Food, clothing, shelter, an old camper van, and a pair of rose-colored glasses would suffice.
I soon realized I was far less than expert or enviable. I went back to my ‘day job’ on a limited basis and that fit just fine. For the next twenty years I would be a freelance part time ‘drill for hire.’ I needed better balance (and cash flow), and it worked out nicely.
The Final Word
Transcendence is inevitable. I believe in whatever guides us awaits us. You choose it, or you pass away and it chooses you. All too often all too soon. I was certainly no prodigy or prophet. I just ducked and dodged when parents, society, banks, or women (even quite attractive women) invited me to get in line, tow the line, fall for their line, or sign on the dotted line.
You need quality time to find the truth about who you are. And, as I learned by watching society and the obituaries, that time is elusive for many. In re-engineering retirement you can grab a handful of remaining youth with still enough deftness, sassy and madness to learn to ‘live inside out’ with power and relevance.
It takes time for us slow learners to realize our job is not to change the world but to change ourselves for the sake of the world. This is what makes time so precious. You don’t have to work your butt off to ‘have it all’, you just have to have enough. And a Calling. We all have one. And if you’re not following your calling, whose life are you living?!
It was a chilly and thoroughly wet day. Far more like Puget Sound than México City. I had brought some warm layers from down on the coast but was unprepared for cold pelting rain. For ten pesos I bought a piece of plastic the size of a small slice of toast that unfolded into a thin film which was supposed to be a parka. My cotton cap and clothes took little time to sop up the weather sitting on a narrow concrete bleacher seat high above the bullring. I understood that if the arena sand got too wet, they would cancel the corridas because the beautiful and no doubt expensive horses might fatally slip during the daring skillful work of the rejoneador.
I was primarily here as a writing exercise. An appropriately debatable setting for an immersion teaching on how we can choose to frame and react to what goes on around us. A canvas for a study in optics and the attempt to subdue the opinionated mind. My objective was to call out and shame my inner critic by confronting him with written testimony.
In an earlier story I commented on attending a bullfight in the past when traveling with the family. I prepared for this second experience with some prerequisite study. It was not a thorough study of course. As you should know, I’m more inclined to just scuff by with feeble research and more content to just make stuff up. But I got through Hemingway’s “Death In The Afternoon” and recalled how taken I had been with Michener’s “México” years ago. I browsed TripAdvisor and Wikipedia, and discussed bullfighting with my friends on both sides of the border and both sides of the controversy. With level consideration I took in opinions as confusing, colorful and sharp as a Picasso painting.
There is a teaching that we see nothing through our own eyes without hastily inventing a story to explain it. And further, that the stories we perceive are likely untrue. Once compiled, those inventions become the projection of ourselves back onto the world to create the make-believe movie of what we think we know. You’re going to have to read that through a few times, but we’re in no hurry here.
This is a lesson you can accept or not, but we veterans of so many completely useless past battles and meaningless incidents find such explanations to be the key to peace and clarity.
Every waking minute and every setting is an opportunity to choose peace instead of misperception. Every living moment is a chance to practice and become more aware of this truth. Being a drama hound, I decided to carry out some on-the-job ‘awakening’ training where they offered colorful pre-event music and dancing among exotic and chaotic food and beverage stands. Kind of like a writers’ workshop and tailgate party all in one.
The Moment Of Truth
To share our personal narrative is simply to ask, “Where, What, Who, How.” This applies to all storytelling – written, spoken, sung, painted, mimed, or whatever. As follows: Where were you? What happened? Who was there? How did it make you feel? With this outline we can unpack, analyze, and then color events to suit our audience. Even so, what is real is only real for us. While we can take ownership of the circumstance, we don’t hold sole ownership of the truth. The real story is only how you felt because it’s all you own.
So we judge a lot. Based on fixed ideas, biases, customs and the habitual. With these judgments we video-edit the unique projection we throw at the screen. Our own precious unique movie. And we watch and we see our life on a stage of our own making. And our friends, lovers, admirers and critics see a projection as well. It’s their movie of us. And it is nothing like ours.
So here I sat high in the Plaza México. In several thousand different theatres watching what I knew were several thousand different movies. The horses danced, the bulls charged, the bandilleros flew. The raindrops fell. My feet felt numb, unfeeling. I strained to consciously transcend surroundings as much as I was able by meditating. (“Close your eyes tight and try NOT to think of an animal being stabbed.”)
The crowd roared as the images and descriptors of images taunted me, attempting to invite my praise or criticism. Thoughts and sensations neither necessarily good or bad, I told myself. Flags, fanfare, history, bravery, perspiration, precipitation, blood, hoof beats, pride, poverty, power, ignorance, bliss, and so on.
The Uber driver scowled in Spanish as my fully-flooded Sketchers sloshed into the passenger side. I sheepishly winced back in English, and he pulled too fast into traffic. I had ‘participated’ in three of the traditional six coursas of the afternoon and was eager to return to the airport hotel to dry off. The sight of the elegant buffet in the lobby dining area lured me immediately. I noticed the smell of fresh rare beef.
Back at the room for the final act of my literary assignment, I considered how to conclude the creative essay I would write. Maybe a bit of subtle irony would have my readers throwing their hats, wine skins, and seat cushions into the ring. Something contrary and poignant, I thought. But instead, finally warm and dry, I sat on the bed and watched my home country’s broadcast of the NFL playoff game. Flags, fanfare, history, bravery, perspiration, blood, pride, poverty, power, ignorance, bliss, and so on….Olé!