Taste It Twice

 Passion Over Fashion

“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 my carefree hobby 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 his 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 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.

jjd

The Gypsy Project

Big Sur Coastline. Gypsy Paradise.


Back to School Shopping

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.

Callings

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.

YMOYL

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.  There’s a four-letter word that begins with “J” and ends with “K”, and it’s not “John”.

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 do it.

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.  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?!

Bullseyes

Post Posting Preface: Good writers don’t revisit what they were trying to say with an explanation, apology or critique. So I will. The moral of the parable is to offer a solution to the present-day tendency we humans have to TAKE SIDES on an issue and disrupt our peace instead of 1. taking time to understand the other point of view and/or 2. appreciating we ALWAYS have a choice to SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY for the sake of our personal peace and perhaps the healing of the world. You’ll forgive me for trying to be clever or sound too intellectual. I see the style is a bit heavy on fuzzy nuance and unclear irony. Like this Picasso. 🙂 Do the best you can. I did.

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.

Perception

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 further prepared for this lesson 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.

“Caballeros”

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.  But being a drama hound, I just thought a location with its share of critics that also sported color and intrigue might be fun.  I decided to carry out my on-the-job training where they had colorful pre-event music and dancing among the exotic and chaotic food and beverage stands in a tailgating sort of way.  Kind of like a writers’ workshop and dinner theater 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 lives on stage.  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 a..…”)

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.

Halftime Report

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!