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 – Part 1

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 practice.  I look back gratefully at the circumstances and curious wisdom it took for me to bend life backwards and, while still young, treat whimsy, mindful play and a connection to nature like there might well be no tomorrows.

To be continued:   It Wasn’t Me – Part 2   Voluntary Complicity

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….”

 

 

Desperately Seeking Despair

guitar photo edit

Street Cred

When he was six years old, Willie Nelson’s grandfather bought him a Stella guitar purchased from a Sears Catalog and he taught himself to play.  Music was a way of life in the Hill Country of Texas in 1940, and he was in good company.  His parents had split into different lives and left him on a farm with his grandparents.  In spite of family disruption and austere beginnings, Willie’s love of melodies, poetry and the fame that came with performing was the key to everything that mattered — a sense of belonging, a job, a belief in a higher power, and, importantly, chasing the girls who chased the guys on stage.

It’s all about the backstory. You say you’re writing a memoir? If you’re going to court those who would share your life, you must be quick to show them how unlikely it was that your name could ever famously grace the front of a book considering your early years. You must, they say, beat unbelievable odds to tell a compelling story that will sell.

Willie, and so many other of our unlikely guitar heroes rose above mortal mediocrity with the simple act of picking up, you guessed it, a guitar. Once they saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan and they made that vow, hell itself couldn’t stop ’em. A further example of improbable transcendence is the prodigious child who took to reading to escape family chaos – the loser youngster who would trudge daily to the library barefoot in the freezing rain where the kindly librarian gave them understanding and encouragement where there was none.  And lastly, of course, is the tale of growing up poor. Not just poor, but “dirt” poor.  Dirt poor with neglect, abuse, and family dysfunction sets the stage to any worthy biography.  Because you can’t have a rags to riches story without the rags.

Though I also got a Stella guitar from Sears, learned how to play four chords, and was peeking around the corner in my pajamas the night Elvis swung his hips in black and white, I never won any Grammys, or talent shows, or even for that matter, Employee of the Month. I read, but not neurotically. And I never grew up in poverty, ran away from home, was physically or deeply emotionally abused, possessed a life-changing deformity, stole food so we could eat, or moved from town to town to hide my shame. How then could I dare presume to write the life story of ‘despair to destiny’ without any despair?

The Childhood Less Traveled

I can’t. Memories of my youth and adolescence come with no regrets.  No implausibilities, resentments, scars, or warning labels. Two working parents, two younger brothers, one older sister. Nice schools, nice house, nice neighborhood. To use an ironic twist on the line from the rags-to-riches biographies:  “We were all quite well-off, but I was too young to know it, and too happy to care.”  My parents were a product of their times, and so were we children. Okay, the folks smoked and drank a lot. Maybe even fooled around. They argued fervently, and, depending on where addictions took them, they confused and ignored us. All true, but I  learned that I cannot change the past, only my thoughts of the past. And thus would I abide.

Because we were taught obedience, values and respect. And as we grew into the world we would learn critical thinking, balance and grace. Whether rich or poor, loved or unloved, most of our mid-century generation survived our circumstances and so-called childhood wounds. No blame, no shame. For when it came to parents, good or bad, we had one of each, and their failures were offset by their dedication to the cause as we all reached adulthood with an education only minimally bought with emotional scars. Sure enough and eventually, with some guidance and hope and time, I learned Forgiveness. More powerful than redemption, more sensible than regret, and easier and more attractive by far than victimhood. Forgiveness of myself, and thereby of others. It all starts with the knowing that once you surrender to your true self, you see that your past has nothing on you, and you had nothing to do with it. You are the cause and effect of your own experience. Forgiveness is the holy water in the church of true meaning.

Altared ConsciounessI

If I had a votive candle for every memoir author who took a shot at their days as a young Catholic, I could light up the night sky over the Vatican! Oh. My. God! How could a kid not be ruined for life? How is 17 years of going to weekly Mass and memorizing the catechism and fingering beads on aching knees not in itself a set up for prize-winning biography?! Fortunately, in truth, I never took the liturgical circus at all seriously. With my apologies to Scientologists, fringe Mormons and Christian cult survivors, I would suggest that the cartoons I watched on Saturday morning had the same lasting anguish as the one I prayed at on Sunday.

Being a mid-century Catholic was just something we kids did. Like staying out late on warm summer nights and throwing snowballs at police cars in the winter. There was mystery and magic, singing and ceremony, genuflecting, and fresh doughnuts in the church basement after Mass on First Friday morning from Wagner’s bakery across the street. I was baptized, confirmed, and confessed until I took to making things up. We loved having macaroni and cheese with fish sticks on Friday instead of meat. And although, like you, I have heard the stories of treachery, there were a lot of perks to being an altar boy. And perhaps, just perhaps, whatever values I hold could be among them.

So for me, there is no lingering doubt or spite, and no smoldering mental scars or guilt. I came to know that Grace is not something to be begged for from afar and above, it is our birthright. I have merely curious childhood memories from the joyous hypocrisy of that particular organized religion. Move on, folks, nothing to see here!  Maybe if I had been Jewish…

The Young, The Innocent, and The Tenth Street Hustle

After leaving Saint Michael School (Home of The Tykes) and departing the parochial life for junior high school, we former Tykes were all required to attend ‘Catholic classes’ on Wednesdays after dinner. That got old real fast. But I do remember discovering the more ‘enlightened’ public school girls. The name was Maria, no kidding, and she was a dark-eyed beauty who surely had come to sit next to me from the set of Westside Story. She looked at me until I gulped air. She then seduced me into an awkward kiss in the shadows behind the school gym after our “Love and Marriage for Young Catholics” session, which was referred to in whispers as “Virgin Class”.

That was the last formal religion course I attended. Maria scared me to death, and dad, to my relief, was tired of driving us there after bourbon and supper and a little more bourbon.  Besides, if I had really wanted to impress the girls, I would have worked harder at learning more guitar chords. Like Willie did. Or I might have starred on the football team instead of getting an after-school paper route. And so there you go: “Kinda well-read, sorta guitar-strumming, must be dirt-poor school kid has to work until dark to help support the family!”  Paid my dues, I did!    

Being Real – Part 1

“Success, they say, always begins with the end of mind. But if that’s true, I’ve news for you:  We’re born to die, that’s what we do. Life is what we seek, not what we find…”

being-real I jeremy-bishop unsplash border

Mazatlan, 1974

The driving directions I had gotten from the embassy office were difficult to follow.  I had written them down at the phone booth in the mostly abandoned beach side trailer park where we had been camping.  I held a crude map surrounded by scribbles from a broken pencil in a shaking hand. 

Somehow I found the dusty road that wound up the hill at the very back of town.  Tattered shacks came right up to the shoulders.  They appeared unlivable and vacant, but the dangling electrical wires, roaming chickens, and strong odor of garlic and cooking meat told me that some kind of life went on day to day.

Our old van swerved slowly to the top of the hill and broke above the crude cluttered neighborhood just as the Mexican sun peaked in the white hot sky.  We pulled over and parked next to the cemetery grounds at the edge of a sea of white crosses that haphazardly stretched off into the distance.  The proprietor of the mortuary greeted us with a solemn introduction and led David and I around the back of the building.  I could feel the radiating heat as I walked aside the chipped adobe wall.

My friend’s body lay face up under the sharp sun on a thick granite slab, just about shoulder level.  His lifeless form was bloated and chipped by fish bites suffered during the three days before he washed ashore on a remote beach up the coast.  Were it not for the blue swim trunks he wore, and his small mustache that once framed an often mischievous smile, I might have attempted to avoid confirming recognition.

I felt a strange awe that melted into a stranger peace as I stared at the sight.  This was not a memorial service, just an identification visit so the police could wrap up their work.  It was the first of a number of formal and unpleasant transactions that would be necessary before I could hope to leave the country, much less seek closure.

David and I stood with downcast eyes and nodded when the proprietor asked his question in Spanish.  “Tu amigo?”  I nodded, then somehow found the words to inquire if there had been a necklace on him when he was recovered, though I knew  the answer before his reply.  I was there when his girlfriend Paula had given him the solid gold eagle charm exactly one month ago.  She had said it would protect him until he returned home to her.  I felt a chill in the rising heat thinking that on some coming day, in another country, I would have to be the one to tell the tragic story and answer the questions.

El Camino del Gitano

It was the great getaway and every young man’s dream.  The trip down was to be one of those gypsy adventures we had heard about, and we were ready to test our freedom, courage, and manhood. A late autumn wander in a borrowed Ford Econoline window van with sleeping bags and cut-offs and no timetables or deadlines. We were a good team. My friend Kansas seemed to able to solve anything with his spirit, good looks and charm. I could read maps and was more mechanically and practically inclined. We left Bellingham, Washington in late October and drove east through Spokane, Missoula, then Yellowstone and into Denver where we hit a snowstorm, repaired a failing steering shaft, and replaced the brakes that we apparently had installed backwards. I also had carelessly cracked the window with my shoe, and someone forgot to fasten the oil drain bolt properly.

Once fit to fly, we then rolled eastward over the plain to Lawrence, Kansas. We stayed with my buddy’s folks for a few days where I got used to hearing him addressed as Bobby. My calling him his Pacific Northwest nickname would have only confused things. On leaving I promised his mom I would do my best to watch over their only son. We packed some leftover home cooking and pointed south, crossing Oklahoma, Texas and over the border into Mexico at El Paso. 

This is what a lot of kids were doing in the seventies.  It was either the San Francisco area, with its fading flowered counter-culture, a winter ski resort to wait tables for a season pass, or somewhere – a beach preferably – in México.  Laid back and lawless, mysterious and welcoming, we heard one could live for weeks on just a few dollars. That was the story anyway. Kansas temporarily traded his Camaro for a van to camp in, and I headed to the Triple-A office to get some maps.  We met at the Beaver Inn Tavern later, and between games of pool and dime-night beers, we settled on a route to Mazatlán.  Departing as soon as we saved some cash, quit our jobs, and the autumn nights began to turn cold. We left a girl or two behind, which of course added to the drama. No one promised to write.

Cultural Diversity

It was a long and carefree ride south from El Paso into the central plain.  We spoke no Spanish, but were blessedly naïve and had no fears.  All we needed to negotiate were gas stations, food stands and tiendas for beer and ice. When hungry, thirsty, or low on fuel, we just pointed.  Our auto club map showed the route. And we simply accepted the prevailing notion of the Mexican people as gentle, helpful, and non-threatening.  And so it came to be true, because we never presumed otherwise.

Two days of driving across the Chihuahuan Desert brought us to Ciudad Torreón.   Ahead rose the Sierra Madre range – wide, high, remote, and daunting.  A day later we arrived in Durango, and, as darkness fell, found a hotel just off the city square.  This was our first true taste of the authentic México we envisioned.  The México of sombrero and serape-wearing movie stereotypes. 

After dinner we walked about in the cool mountain air and joined the crowds in the brightly lit plaza. Packs of young men cruised in the backs of battered trucks, and like them we found the exotic dark-eyed girls strolling arm-in-arm particularly interesting.  My pal was approached by a smiling young fellow as we sat on the hotel steps.  He attempted to befriend us with his few words of English, but soon it became uncomfortably apparent he had an eye for Kansas and was hoping for a date. We escaped to the hotel room; our night was over.  When the guy later knocked on our door, Kansas completely freaked out and chased him away as I laughed uncontrollably.  The two of us knew as much about homosexuality as we knew of the Spanish language, which was near nada.

Life couldn’t have been better or showed more promise when we arrived on that secluded Mexican beach ten miles north of Mazatlán.  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 ways down the shore, out in the high surf. He and some guys we met the night before went for a swim, and he just never made it back.

Next:  Being Real – Part Two

Header Photo Credit: @jeremybishop

Song: “Being Real”  ©2005-19

 

 

 

 

 

The Transcendentalist – Part 1

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Claymation

‘Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit. You can’t fire me, I quit. Seems I don’t fit in.’

–Hermey the Elf, 1964

When I finally saw the animated Christmas program “Rudolph” thirty years after its production, I took notice of the quirky idea that one of Santa’s elves, Hermey, wanted to become, of all things, a dentist. He felt himself different, and questioned very earnestly in song why he didn’t fit in. Looking back on my life from its middle, I didn’t miss this ironic lesson. It was with reflective amusement I realized that ‘back in the day’, still made of clay, I was a dentist who wanted to be, of all things…..an elf.

The best part of dental school was when I wasn’t there. It wasn’t awful and I did very well as a student, but where I really came into my own and learned a thing or two was out in the real world. Weekends and summer breaks were not to be wasted. The world was delightfully crazy. Society was in a glorious upheaval, and it was a good time for a coming-of-age story. (If only I had.)

Party Parking Only

From June to September in the early seventies, I joined a rowdy band of wily mischief-makers working at the state park near Ocean Shores on the Washington coast.  Though it was summer, the sun rarely shown and the clammy damp would have made it a very grim place to earn $359 dollars a month cleaning restrooms and campsites, hauling garbage and registering visitors, were it not for the “side jobs” we picked up in our off hours. These included your usual gang-related activities such as goofing off, chasing girls, drinking, pranking the campers, stealing beer, and raising our own special brand of hell.

Each summer there were four to six of us college-kid delinquents who bunked in a noisy, moist, ant-infested garage. We were joined by a few young ladies who commuted from Aberdeen and several gifted local boys who were in their late teens to early twenties still struggling to graduate from the nearby rural high school so they could get the hell out of there.

It was quite the experience and I learned lessons there that go a long way to explaining the questionable life skills and character anomalies that are with me yet today. In spite of all the shirking and slacking, “work-arounds”, playing hooky, hiding from the boss in restrooms, and raiding the walk-in beer cooler in Patton’s Grocery down the road in Oyehut while patrolling the beach, we managed to get the necessary park work done. These were the days of federal ‘generosity’ in supporting employment opportunity, job training, and government social programs. The Great Society was throwing grants around like birdseed.  As a result, there were three of us for every one job, and everybody was happy.

One night, perhaps a bit bored and certainly a bit sideways, someone – I’m pretty sure it was Pete, who eventually went on to put in his thirty years as a state park ranger — had the brilliant idea to build pipe bombs. Oh, HELL, yes! The park shop had all the plumbing fixtures and tools, and the trunk under Brumley’s bed had black gunpowder for his antique rifle. We would sift off what we needed in small quantities, much like sneaking your dad’s whiskey and replacing it with water.  Packed powder in galvanized pipe, a firecracker for a fuse, and some fool to strike a match. Simple!

On the third volley we nearly decapitated a guy walking his dog up by the sewage lagoon. He wouldn’t have known what hit him. We told the head ranger it was Doug’s car backfiring. That broken window? It was always like that. Every time we lied and went on to almost destroy his park, I think he liked us all the more for being clever enough to get away with the shit I’m sure he wished he had done as a kid.

Fun While It Lasted

After four years I completed my dental education, and also managed to matriculate out of Ocean City State Park without getting arrested, married or maimed. I was single and highly degreed with friends in low, low places. I was succeeding in rejecting expected lifestyle and behavior, though in retrospect, all I was doing was choosing to be “different, like everybody else.”  But I did feel wonderfully liberated and unstoppable.  Naïve, self-centered, and arrogantly unpretentious.

I was so directed, or misdirected, I seriously thought about signing on for a fourth summer’s employment at the park after graduation. The wage had risen to $456 a month (!) and these were my people and this was my party. You can believe my poor father, who put me through eight years of college, was not at all happy. But he said little. Or I heard little. Receiving no direct orders, I was left free to project my choices onto him, and I justified those aberrant wishes in my favor. I’d like to say it all worked out in the end, but our relationship is another story.

This good young doctor was into country music and smoky taverns and sidelong looks from petite feral young women who had a taste for beer and the unknown. I had no commitments and no idea how to make them. The country western sound became part of my wannabe persona: simple, rough around the edges, and somtimes well-intentioned. No regrets, mind you. I was just full of myself. And you know what else. Acting like a grownup for-real dentist in the mid-seventies to me was like the rising sound of disco music – uncomfortably jerky, confusing, and too flashy for my style.

Next: The Teacher

 

29th Birthday

 

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Catching Out

I jumped on in Spokane.  It was late December and the middle of the night.  The boxcar was dark, dirty, and damp, but empty. The south-facing door was half-open, which was enough for a view and for keeping out of sight.

This was my first go. I came to learn later that there is a diesel-stained esoteric code to this dim-witted activity, and ‘asking around’ might give you advice (however dubious and untested) about choosing cars, tracking routes, and trusting more than luck to keep from being maimed, killed or arrested.

Best to heed unwritten laws such as: jacking the door open with a board or pallet so you won’t lose dangling legs on a sudden stop, checking out the whole train before jumping on to see if there are indeed engines attached, and maybe even bringing along food, water, and sufficient boxcar-appropriate clothing to keep from ending this manly excitement as a smiling corpse in some far-flung sub-zero siding while the engineers keep warm a mile ahead sipping cheap wine and waiting on the midnight train to Omaha, now five hours late, to pass through. Absent such wisdom, however, I endured. And by 4 a.m., we were racing over the winter sagebrush landscape, headed west under a bright full moon that lit up the frosty land for miles around.

Catching On

I knew enough geography to place myself. The mainline tracks roughly parallel U.S. Highway 2, but I had no idea when or even if the freight would stop before the Cascade Mountains. At daybreak, around 7, we squealed down a long grade and soon banged across the Columbia River on an ancient steel bridge. I gathered up my blanket, pulled my stocking cap down tight and jumped off at the switch yard in Wenatchee. Somehow, I got around the back end of the train and managed to avoid attracting the attention of the bundled-up yard workers going about their business. With just enough money for breakfast at the old Owl Café near the tracks, I washed up and then devoured an order of ham and eggs – clearly a meal for a sure-enough gypsy tramp hobo, or whatever I was. I then found the highway to hitchhike back to school and my empty dorm.  I could do this.

The Tunnel of Death

In the years to come, I would take several more freight rides. Some of my friends, also eager to re-frame their stupidity as skillful impetuousness, would choose to sign on.  Pete and I almost got to the Canadian border late one night drinking whiskey and bellowing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” with our feet dancing and waving over the boxcar’s edge.  We first had to change trains in Everett to keep from possibly suffocating in the Stevens Pass rail tunnel.  We were smart enough to know about the eight mile long passage but not enough to know if there was enough air to breathe during its passage.  We imagined a big pile of dead tramps on both sides of the track with open mouths and their eyes popping out of their head. When we jumped off to find a train north to Bellingham, a runaway teenager who had been standing by the tracks climbed aboard. He looked confused and not too bright and said he was going to go wherever the train took him.  We wished him luck, but looked at each other and shook our heads.

To our surprise we sped right through Bellingham that night.  We had been warned by the yard worker in Everett we ought not get caught when the mean and unforgiving Canadian customs agents go through all the boxcars at the international border, so we bailed out north of Ferndale as soon as the train slowed enough to allow the liquor to convince us it was safe to jump.  Clearly, the British Columbia immigration jails are full of booze-sotted fools singing old country western songs.

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Birthday Present

On my 29th birthday brother Terry, friend Scott and I rode an auto carrier car south on the Burlington Northern line from the Seattle Interbay yards to Tacoma. We rattled hell-bent down the valley through Duwamish, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn and Puyallup on a clear autumn day.  “Automotive Racks”, as these rail cars are properly called, are now all steel-sided to prevent vandalism, but back in the day you could climb the outside ladder at sixty or so swaying miles per hour to the top deck and get a hell of a view.  Just don’t try to stand up.

On that trip, two honest-to-god hobos got on as we waited by the old Kingdome.  Davey and “Loose.”  Loose carried a scented, well-traveled duffel bag.  Davey had a jar of mayonnaise and a loaf of bread in a pair of crappy old boots slung over his shoulder.  I noticed one of the boots had a heel missing.  Davey said that those boots got him arrested in Colorado the past year as he was walking in circles and the cop hauled him off to jail for “weaving with the intent to fall over.”

We jumped off in Tacoma then took them out to the 24th Street Tavern across from the yards and bought them drinks. They sure could drink.  And they sure could tell stories – real goddamn hobo stories.  I bought a pack of Camel cigarettes for Davey, though from the way he coughed I was pretty sure he had tuberculosis.  Just our way of saying thanks.

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We phoned my friend Paul who lived in Spanaway. He came over and drove Terry, Scott and I back to my 29th birthday party in North Seattle where my girlfriend Sue was waiting somewhat impatiently. She was thankful in spite of my reeking and reckless condition that I was still alive.  A guy couldn’t ask for a nicer gift.  Some time later I became convinced that chicks dig idiots.  I’m in.  Life is good.

Zihua Bay — Part One

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Asi Es La Vida

It is said that you should begin with the end in mind.  The guide for memoir follows no particular script, but it makes sense that without a final resting place in mind, there is no flow, no life, no learning or legacy.  I choose to end my story with a place that has inspired and centered me since that first look fifty years ago.  México has become my sacred place and a life beyond life; my touchstone and testing ground.  It is here that the Muse plays, where the stories are written, the songs crafted, and the colors are found that fill in my ‘paint-by-number dreams’.

Zihuatanejo came to me when I had run out of beaches.  Decades of almost annual getaways to Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, and the like, taught me the ropes and survival skills with trial and error.  Through tragedy and comedy, under-preparing and over-reaching, misgivings and missed connections, I picked up some wisdom…and a few words of Spanish.  Fifteen years ago, I rolled the dice, shuffled the pages in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and concluded Zihuatanejo sounded like the must-see last stop since it was exotically difficult to pronounce and, since I began in Acapulco, I could now round out the alphabet A to Z.

Castaway

I’m hoping those of you reading this have found your personal special place to be a center-point for your growing self-awareness.  If you are unsure, it could just be it has escaped your immediate notice.  It certainly doesn’t have to be thousands of miles south.  It is said that it is enough to sit, close your eyes, breathe, and be there.  I have been fortunate.  I have found that the echoes of life’s joys and successes and moments of love sound sweeter and glow brighter in sunny warm air, and I found a way to get there.

I am often asked, “Is the country safe?”  I can only give you my opinion, given that I am somewhat travel-wise, male, and able now – but certainly not always – to stay in more secure places.  I have been adventuresome, but not foolish.  The same common sense that you use at home will serve you just fine in the tourist areas of México.  Now you know.  The last thing one needs in a life-well-lived is fear; certainly not in their holy refuge!  In Zihua, surely there is the unconventional and inconvenient:  sometimes killer heat and humidity, a foreign language (that is not difficult to work around), baffling and uneven infrastructure, madcap driving, and of course a whole different world of money.  Money which can go a very long way if that interests you.

The Rest of Me Keeps Leaving, But My Heart Wants to Stay

Despite that, you may want to know also why I love to visit here:  I love unhurried peace.  I love the red sunsets and hot sand.  I love the people, the authenticity you can read on the faces, the kindness they show their families and others, their happiness in spite of their relative lack.  I love when everyone says “buenos dias” when you climb on the bus to town.  I love saying “buenos dias” back.  I loved having had the opportunity to join with friends from home and friends from here in helping the needy with their dental care for a number of years.  I love the food!  I love having dinner with my wife with our toes in the sand and a perfect margarita (rocas con sal por favor!) in the hand.  Finally, I loved when Brian and Cheryl and I got up with the band a couple years back and sang “Zihua Bay” to a crowd of presumably appreciative gringos at Rossy’s Restaurant who obviously had had their share of perfect margaritas!

Asi es.  And so it is.  That’s all I got. Nothing left but the song.  ¡Salud!

“Zihua Bay” on Soundcloud:      https://soundcloud.com/john-deviny/zihua-bay

“Zihua Bay” on YouTube  —   Music Video with Subtitles

Cincuenta Años Pasados

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The Olympic Summer Games were held in México City in 1968 – Fifty Years Ago.  It was an amazing time in history in the United States and throughout the western world.  A radical social change like no one had seen.  Everything became colorful, vivid, outrageous, unsettled and psychedelic overnight.  At these Olympics, the black power fist salute by two U.S. track athletes on the winners’ podium remains an indelible image for many of us now a half century later.  But this was the year our parents decided to take their three boys on a Christmas vacation in México.  At age twenty, it was my first journey out of the country.

Our mother Dorothy was a lady of some style; well-educated and well-read.  As I was growing up she brought me the classic library books such as “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” and “Heidi” (really!) that were must-reads for well-bred youngsters like she had been.  When I was older she apparently adopted a fascination for the currently trendy destinations far from her life as a wife and mother, and she convinced dad that we had to become cosmopolitan.  She then gave me a contemporary and engaging Mexico travel book to read in preparation for our trip, which I devoured with a born-gypsy’s fascination.  And the Devinys jet-setted south of the border.

We were four of us kids. Mike, the youngest, was a junior in high school.  Terry and I attended Gonzaga University which we left under a blanket of snow during what would end up being one of the most severe winters in state history.  Oldest child Kathie was not invited to join us as she had gotten married that year to the son of Stockton, California’s largest J. C. Penney’s store and became disenfranchised from family vacations.  She swept from a fairly uptight white-dress-and-tuxedo summer afternoon to the University of California Berkeley.  Flowers and beads, radical protests, the Free Speech Movement, and thoughtfully vague classes on the lawn where you were free to come and go as long as you wore sandals and hated the establishment.

Apollo 8 was circling the moon on our black and white Spanish-speaking TV as we moved into our vintage hotel on Alameda Square which was lit brightly for the season.  Rather than wait in suspense for the spacecraft to reappear from the dark side, I snuck out with my brother to explore the narrow backstreets of México City.  The blocks were poorly lighted but the air was warm and filled with glorious smells that could not be translated. My more timid sibling Terry watched me order a couple fish dinners and my first legally purchased cerveza. No I.D., no Spanish, no problem. We got somewhat lost but made our way back to the hotel. The next week I learned my very first foreign phrase as we departed the room.  I closed the door and read the attached card which said: “favor de no molestar”.  ‘Please don’t disturb me,’ I am out to conquer the country!

Dad was raised in the thirties and forties, and why he couldn’t master the stick shift on our rental car, I’ll never know. We ground our way south through Cuernavaca to Taxco for the night then motored into Acapulco where I became infected by the hot sands of December.  It’s a terminal condition that flares up as frequently as I let it.  We attended an amateur bullfight at the plaza out of town.  These were young kids and young bulls learning the craft.  I was captivated by the entire event, having read the details, history and culture around this beautiful dance.  The bullfighters would move on to higher levels of competition, perhaps someday to the Plaza de Toros in México City.  The bulls, sadly, not so much.

The 707 idled on the runway to take us home two days after New Years. (You thought 1968 was wild, wait’ll you see 1969!!)   As we waited to board, who comes sauntering through the first class gate but Dean Martin himself?!  Mother swooned as he cast a sleepy-eyed look her way, a cigarette dangling from his dulcet lips.  Dorothy’s cigarette dangled also, then flipped and bounced down the front of her white blouse as her jaw dropped.  She soon regained composure, snuffed out her Salem 100 on the boarding gate floor, and lit another as we walked onto the runway to head home.

Next: The Quaint Little Mexican Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.