My Canada Story

Atikwa_MainLodge

I was born and raised in California, and have never been to Mexico. I have lived in  Minnesota for a total of 12 years now, and just last week finally made it to Canada. Less cheap fireworks, more moose.

Months ago, gathered ’round a table with homebrewing comrades, I was asked by an old friend if I wanted in on a Canadian fishing trip. At the time, it seemed like a good idea so I gave a quasi-commitment to think about it as I hemmed and hawed. I guess that means I was shortening some pants with sewing equipment and laughing.

When I casually mentioned it to my wife later that night, thinking of the infeasibility, she said, to my surprise, “You should do it.”

After passports and draining all my Cabela’s points on new lures I was all set to go. I set off last weekend with a group of 20 – half of them boy scouts. We drove over the border to Fort Francis, Ontario, bought more tackle and weird candy, and stayed at the Super 8.

The morning’s drive put us at Nestor Falls and the float plane docks at Northwest Flying Service. If you’ve ever watched “Flying Wild Alaska,” it wasn’t unlike that. Except with less blizzards and more looking at gift shop sweatshirts. Probably the same amount of waiting.Some planes took humans, some took lumber. I was on the last flight in after 4 hours of literally standing in the parking lot. I also might have sat.

Atikwa_planeshadow

The trip was beautifully mundane in that it was nothing but pine trees and varying shades of blue and green water below. I’ve always loved to fly and I’m not afraid of heights, but between the cabin sounding like a 500 ci engine was sitting on my lap and the pilot appearing to keep us from crashing by incessant turning of a little knob on the ceiling, I was glad when we skimmed down to the dock to see everyone readying their fishing gear.

Atikwa_flyingin

Keeping in mind that the destination, Atikwa Lake Lodge, only exists through what can be flown in on small airplanes, I was thrilled to see that the roof of our cabin didn’t leak and that there was hot water. Although one must get past the frontier-era burlap blankets and composting toilets.

Atikwa_JebsCabin

 

 

 

 

After scrambling to throw on zip-off pants and assemble my rod and reel, we hit the boats for a bright, hot exploration of the lake. Not understanding how the fish finder worked at that point, we jigged blindly until the other members of my boat crew caught lake trout and northern pike, respectively. I got skunked to be sure, but it was nice to get on the water and kick back after dark with some freshly-grilled fish and bourbon.

The second fishing day was my day. On a cold, rainy morning we found a southerly lake segment that was historically promising. Sure enough, within an hour I had caught my first lake trout ever, and a nice northern. Anything could have happened the rest of the day and I would have been content.

Atikwa_Jeb'sFirstLaker1

I ate the trout that night because it needed to be done. The menu was fish tacos and, with some quality cumin, refried beans, Spanish rice and bourbon, my evening was complete. Due to the fact that I would have massacred the flimsy tin bunk bed upon boarding, the staff secured me an available small cabin of my own that promised not to crumple under my weight. Meaning the bed was made of a plywood sheet and milk crates, albeit close to the ground. Also the toilet was 3 feet from the bed, complete with a sack of peat with which to insert after each use.

Atikwa_Lakers3

The third day was insurance. I caught my limit of lake trout, 2, and the one I deemed “Barely Legal” was right at the 24 inch cut-off length. I fileted it and packed it neatly in the freezer while getting drained by mosquitoes and went to bed happy. After eating more fish, venison, and bourbon.

Each morning I had gotten up before dawn and trudged from my one-roomer over to the main cabin to fire up some French pressed coffee and chat with my new friend about the days of yore. Most mornings it was cool enough to wear a jacket but warm enough to stand on the deck staring at the water.

Atikwa_CabinMorning

On Thursday, the last real day of fishing before flying out, we took a peculiar little jaunt. The protocol was to take our boat, along with food, gas and a tiny outboard motor, to a distant bay. Through cutting rain that whitecapped the water enough to rival the Disney Log Ride, we eventually found our cove for portaging. The boat motor across my shoulders, we took a logging road and a trail through dense forest to No Name Lake where an entity that passed as a boat waited for us half-rotted in the overgrown grass. The motor was clamped, the supplies loaded and we jetted off at roughly 0.5 mph across No Name to yet another portage entry. Everything all over again until we got to Rainmaker Lake with the promise of ridiculous Northern fishing. It did turn out to be ridiculous in that we ran out of gas twice, fought incessant wind and caught minimal fish. But then the magic happened.

On the way out, after vowing that I was headed back to the portage, we trolled around an island and caught a Northern. The crew members asked me to make a wider swing, but I basically didn’t. So we risked scraping the prop, but another Northern hit. I then made an impetuous but iron clad oath that I would keep rounding the island until we did not catch fish. We kept catching fish. In the same exact spot. They kept asking me to give some more room. Maybe I should have after the wind pushed us into a fallen tree on the island, but I didn’t. We were catching fish. On the final swoop, giving a wider berth, we did not hook a fish, but we noticed something better. A rainbow ended in the grass 50 yards away from us. That was cool. Until we saw that the other end of the rainbow was on the grass on the other side of the lake, also 50 yards away from us. No big deal. Happens all the time. Then we noticed that it was a double rainbow.

Atikwa_RainmakerRainbow2

After we snapped some shots and conjectured that bald eagles provided golden eggs to supply leprechauns with the contents of their pots, we knew it was time to go. But we weren’t getting out so easily.

On the way out of no name we ran out of gas. After already refilling the tank with the surplus gas. Fortunately I had held back approximately 6 ounces of gas in the red carton and that was enough to sputter us to the end of the lake and get us out of there.

Trolling our way back to the lodge that evening, I tested my week-long suspicion that I could tell exactly when a fish was going to bite. After being told that fish showed up as upside down bananas on the screen, and after figuring out that upside down bananas that appear to be hit with napalm are moving fish, I started doing some amateur physics (I dropped out of high school physics) to guess when an interested fish would be going after lures. Sure enough, once again, the last fish of the day and my last fish of the trip, I said to the others in the boat, “Okay, I see a bright pink fish. Get ready for a strike.” Bam. Fish on.

With that, we cruised home into the sunset.

Atikwa_Sunset3_JamesandAlan

The next day was packing and trying to stay dry and running to the dock in the middle of eating breakfast when the lodge staff told us the plane was leaving. We made it free and clear and Friday was a solid 10 hours of driving back to Rochester, Minn.

I have now been to Canada. This is my Canada story.

 

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Sleep-deprived in Seattle

Rainer_Seattle

Perspective. The final frontier.

No matter how many mind tricks I play on myself (realizing that I count too much coffee and trying to meditate on my couch as mind tricks) there is no substitute for perspective in my personal peace.

And by perspective I mean renting the curtains of domestication asunder and sprinting far away.

I got the chance to visit Seattle last week. I consider anywhere on the West Coast between Monterey and Vancouver my homeland. Pine and salt water are my pills.

Most of the time, after having gotten away for awhile, I doubt the changes. I think no, it’s just that I didn’t have to do the dishes or take kids to various lessons, an obvious break. But it’s more than that for me. Perspective is magic.

Of course I enjoyed all the brewpubs and coffee shops and seafood joints that I could handle, but that’s not what filled me up. Walking the hilly neighborhoods and looking at the sun trying to burn through the marine layer and standing on my balcony on the last day at a straight shot from downtown to Mt. Rainier – it’s endorphin incarnate. But there’s more to it than chemicals.

I will always be West Coast. I will always be NorCal. I will always say hella. As if God slapped down a celestial strip for a thousand miles down the edge of the Pacific, it heals me.

One of my favorite authors, with whom I’ve lost touch in the last couple of years, is Sherman Alexie, a Native writer probably best known for a small film called “Smoke Signals,” if known at all. I don’t know why I have such an interest in Native American culture, but I always have. Maybe the ritual, or what I’ve romanticized as ritual; maybe the struggle, which I know nothing about; or maybe something as trite as my affinity for camping and bow hunting (seldom at the same time). Nonetheless, I seem to find  dichotomous and deep messages when I read about the West, cowboys and Indians alike. Some days I feel like a cowboy, other days an Indian, or I think I do, or I don’t at all. And maybe that’s it – that I just want to know.

Sherman Alexie is from Seattle and I found a lame touristy satisfaction in purchasing one of his books, used, at Pike Place Market in Seattle. Maybe like local seafood it’s the freshest and tastes better. But I got my perspective.

What it adds up to is that it felt like home. Home away from home. Or the room in the home of my mind that is usually closed and the door is stuck so, like the passenger-side slider that’s broken on my van, I just forget about and don’t even try.

The vacation is over and I’ve endured the dreaded “first day back,” but, the thing is, I’ve not only endured that day and several after, I’ve enjoyed them. I don’t resent washing the dishes. I don’t mind taking my kids to lessons. I can see the meaning in it all more clearly. Nothing that getting enough sleep can give me, or regular exercise, or even enough vitamin D. Just perspective. I worry that I will become addicted to getting away, that it will become my crutch, but I see that, if done the right way, it’s not a treatment. It’s a time-released prescription that I simply need to renew every once in awhile.

Make time for vacation. It’s worth it.

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No, seriously, a river literally runs through it.

Camping

It’s finally the time of year- for Minnesota anyway – to get outdoors with a markedly lower risk of frostbite. I’ve repressed my California childhood memories of camping in the mountains in March with a tent and a light jacket to ward off the treacherous 55-degree evenings and replaced them with aspirations of camping for the next seven weeks straight, just in time to beat the approaching windchill. If I can simply endure the tornadoes and flooding.

My daughter’s literary taste has apparently dulled, since she has been foregoing the usual cutesy bedtime books and asking me to tell her stories about when I was a kid. She usually says, “Tell me a story about when you went camping and fishing when you were a kid.” Probably because I always talk about camping and fishing.

It’s been a reminiscent exercise for me as I’m compelled to remember the many trips my parents took me on when I was younger. My parents were both teachers so summers were ours. If my parents had been born about 15 years later like my friends’ parents, I could recount the road trips in the Vanagon, listening to James Taylor and stopping at the communes where they lived in college. But my folks were made of Cadillacs, Chuck Berry and Hiawatha’s burial ground.

Between rivers we stopped at every local Coast to Coast for fishing reports and cheap tackle, and ate sandwiches composed of Wonder Bread and Kraft sandwich spread. If you’ve never had it, sandwich spread is basically tartar sauce with additional relish. My dad replaced his typical precursors of “Damn it” and “By God” with “Looky there” and rear view warning glances. Levity was produced with a small writing pad that my mom and I passed over the backseat to play tic tac toe. And gum.

When we didn’t stay in sketchy motels as our angling base camp, we used one tent, ever. My brother’s orange A-frame. I never remember this tent being new. It was mildewy in all my recollections and I can’t be sure that it originally came with poles, since we seemed to always use a combination of rods from portable sheep pens and maybe some sticks. One time while camping on the Snake River in Idaho, we just slept on the ground with a garbage tarp covering us. It likely had less debris on it than the sketchy motel floors.

I often recite the story of “Treasure Island” to my daughter. She’ll probably grow up thinking Robert Louis Stevenson survived by eating SPAM off of a Coleman stove when he didn’t catch trout, but think about it. Isn’t that really a better story? Isn’t it?

In this instance we drove the Cadillac into a cattle field, after consulting with the proprietor of a local gas station, and set up camp. Meaning the orange tent and one quilt. Then my dad led us to the water. This is my strongest memory of one of the fly fishing rules my dad taught me. We walked along the river’s edge looking for good holes for my dad to fish. He cast here and there and eventually we came to a rope bridge. The rope bridge crossed the stream to an island, which apparently had treasure, meaning ticks. It was a pretty cool scene and the dusky light was the perfect backdrop for imprinting on my eight-year-old mind. I don’t remember my dad landing any fish, but when we were about 200 yards from a fly fisherman he said “Walk around, give him lots of room, and do not talk. That’s a fly fisherman.”

Fly fisherman usually don’t like to be disturbed. Ironically, dudes like me who are rushed to get line in water during a 22-minute window before we have to “help our wives with the kids” again seem to have much more compassion for The Others than crotchety old men who can fish all day, every day. If you ever get one of these coots to acknowledge your existence, let me know. I’m not trying to criticize older fly fishermen. They’ve caught many huge trout on flimsy fiberglass rods before the newfangled technology came into play. I’m just saying – probably don’t talk to them.

I simply can’t remember if we ate trout that night or not. If we did, I’m sure it was delicious. The standard Rainbow recipe from my upbringing is gut it, butter it, salt it, pan-fry on a Coleman stove. But if you fry 30 of them in a public park and the gas line breaks and lights the whole thing on fire, put it out with a gallon of milk. Don’t worry- that was a separate time.

For me, camping has always meant fishing. I’ve forgotten clothes, matches and food and not forgotten fishing gear. I want to give my kids lasting memories like I’ve had – as most of us want to do. But time marches on, and things have changed.

We recently bought a 28-foot travel trailer. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about living in Minnesota, it’s that I require air conditioning. While I’m at it, I might as well have a full kitchen, a couch, hot water and a separate bedroom with a queen-sized mattress. I’ll own up to my weaknesses. Because things can never be the same as when I was a kid. I could sleep in a run-down tent in a rainstorm without a worry in the world, because I wasn’t in charge. My dad promised food and intrigue, and he delivered. But everybody’s different. Despite my strongest efforts, my children have learned what a s’more is. Nothing says wilderness like homogenized horse hooves melted into a sugary wafer topped with bricks of processed cacao from South America. But here we are.

When we camp now, we bring bicycles. We bring a DVD player. We bring puzzles. I think we even bring GoGurt. But my goal is to ease my kids into the camping life. Bridging the gap from posh to primitive through compromise. My kids want to sleep in a tent, but they just can’t hack it. They want to catch their own fish on the fly, but they’re not quite ready (they landed their first trout a couple of weeks ago, after I handed them my rod). They want to build the fire themselves, but they will burn their faces off. Everything has a starting point, and I’m proud to say my children can already recognize deer tracks, and which way they lead. They know what a coyote sounds like. We’re working on not yelling, “I hurt my butt!!!” really loud in the campground. But they know that when we walk past fly fishermen, we stay quiet.

PiperLachlanFishWW

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I no longer weigh 100 pounds more than I did in high school

O Machine, ye Machine of American consumption.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a political post.

Just a nod to the effects of latent Americana. Based almost solely on information garnered from watching “American Pickers,” Americana must mean farm houses, gas station signs and rusty bicycles.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about art either. Just an attempt at an esoteric build up to talking about how I lost 45 pounds in the last two months.

If the American Dream is getting fat, I just woke up. Hopefully for the last time. Like how you press snooze a lot of times and the other person in the bed gets agitated because you #1 set the alarm ambitiously early and #2 the song doesn’t play clearly, and it’s an annoying Top 40 hit. But then the whole scenario is so horrible you just stand up.

15 Years Old

TokayTiger

Here I am as a wrestler at Tokay High School ca. 1992. My head was full of Metallica and my hair full of some magical potion that makes it do what it’s doing here. I weighed 160 pounds, give or take. As a wrestler, you give everything you have, and the almighty pound can take everything from you in a heartbeat.

I didn’t care too much about health or diets or barbers here, only girls, wrestling and Metallica. I didn’t have to, because surviving the gauntlet of my coach, Rod Gaines, was hard enough as it was.

As overweight people will do, I had my ups and downs through the years, crystalline achievements of bodybuilding in college (weight 240) and terrifying realizations of slovenliness when I stopped paying attention (weight 270 a year after bodybuilding). The mid-to-upper 200s have been my playground for well over a decade now, in some cases satisfactory, in others paralyzing sluggishness. In this year’s case, for too damned long.

35 Years Old

Mallet

Observe the rapidly-approaching middle-aged man in his natural habitat. This is what 280+ pounds looks like. Not cool. It’s not that I didn’t know. But I also wasn’t calling Richard Simmons to bust me out of my bed-pallet with a crane. It was a combination of laziness, my brother dying and grotesque anesthesia. Acceptance.

I’m all for people loving and accepting themselves for who they are, but one must know who one is, and recognize that knowledge is relative.

This wasn’t okay, and I decided to cash in on the beloved American novelty of New Year Resolution.

The Build Up

On my 35th birthday last June, I knew the following 6 months would be life-changing. I had accepted that my brother might die and I anticipated the changes. I toyed around with different weight loss plans and saw that it was all a build up to something big I wanted to do, and would need to.

I’m of the personality that physical is tangible. Discipline the body and the mind will follow. It’s what works for me and, though it works either way, I see my power when the strength to manipulate tangible things transforms into clarity of mind. No one can hold an honest mirror up to myself but me, and this winter I found it in the recesses of my spirit.

The Challenge

Surprising as it might sound, many people want to lose weight. And of course the age-old question is how? Ultimately the question becomes why, but we must start somewhere. I saw myself clearly, and beyond, what I could be – but I knew I would not find the impetus alone. I enlisted some friends to humor me, engage in weight-loss competition for money, the competitive nature of which I knew would spur me on. None of this is worthy of the disclaimer *I am not a doctor, please consult your physician blah blah blah* but it turns out that my idea was research-driven.

Stop pontificating

Here’s literally what I did:

1) Made my friends help me lose weight by competing with me for money

2) Got the MyFitnessPal app to track my goals, eating and exercise habits

3) Used the smart idea from my wife to put half our money in the pot for a personal goal, which could be earned back under our own control, and half our money in the pot for highest percentage lost among all competitors.

What followed was one of the most motivating periods of my life, in which I had daily accountability through an app and commiseration with my friends about the tough journey. For the next two months we cut calories, hit the gym, learned about personal physiology and exactly how many and what styles of alcohol we could still get away with.

Literally, How the Weight Came Off

There are plenty of diets out there to follow. I mixed and matched. I am a firm believer in cutting calories. Everybody’s different, and environment, hormones, genetics and specific homeostasis come into play. But I took in less calories than I burned, through cutting and exercise. I didn’t run much. One or two slow jogs a week, no more than a mile or so, with occasional one-lap sprints to stimulate Human Growth Hormone (HGH) naturally. Also, heavy weight lifting which, as a man, induces muscle growth and subsequent long-term calorie burn. Some weeks I ate around the same calories every day and lost weight. Some weeks I utilized Intermittent Fasting (IF) and lost even more weight. I did a 5-day juice fast with primarily green vegetables losing yet more weight. But the moral of the story was switching things up with the intensity of my calorie intake, the nutritional density of my food and my workouts. It was hard–there’s no way around that. It took, above all, mental toughness and it sucked staring at a static scale days at a time. But it worked.

In the end, which was this last Saturday, I didn’t win the competition. I took second place (at 45 pounds and 15.5% body weight lost) to my good buddy, a worthy and fierce adversary. No matter how much I like to win, it became quickly clear that although games are an impetus, my health is not a game. It’s a life. And I want a lot more of it.

The Aftermath

This leaves me over halfway through my end-goal. I won’t pretend that I’ll ever be that 160 pound kid again. I still like Metallica, and I found a barber who can cut my hair for under $15. But the physical is tangible. I hold the mirror and see the changes. And I look around at my friends and say, we did that. And I retreat to my psyche and know that there were times, when it counted the most, that I did that.

What do you want from life? That’s for you to decide. I’ve decided that slogging through days fatigued and weak is not good enough. I’m stronger than that. There is a part of me that wants to hold the mirror one day and see the boy I was, so I could talk to him. Learn from him. Ask him again how I made it through the years before, and how he plans to live his remaining days. I can only pretend. But imagination makes the world go ’round, and if you close your eyes and dream for awhile, you will eventually wake up and see the way ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Year blog. Somebody has to do it.

capitola2012 has taken things away from me with the shrouded promise of giving them back, changed.

I’ve gotten to do many things this year. I went pig hunting in the coastal range of Northern California, in which I unknowingly jumped a mountain lion yards away while my cousin watched from above with interest.

I wrote my second novel, temporarily titled The Surfing Book, which lay in longhand pages across three journals stuffed in my office bookshelf.

I watched my friends surf Capitola, sitting on rocks for hours doing nothing but watching the fluid shapes swell with the tide in slick black suits and gaze at the old couple leaning heads on each other watching the sunset under the ice plant on the shale wall.

I took my kids to Riptide, the Carmel house of friends, and ate too much fresh seafood and got hopped up on mochas at Ghirardelli  with them after walking wide-eyed through the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a morning, before touring the National Steinbeck Center and antique shopping in Salinas.

I spent much time with my brother before he died and, he having died, honored his memory soundly surrounded by family in a beautiful California fall.

I took my first serendipitous long-range buck in the pools of the Whitewater. I agitated many pheasants with shotgun blasts echoing across the solemn plains.

Now I sit in frozen winter, having done these things, and stare in disbelief at spring already unraveling past the solstice. I buy a new fly tying vise and materials, hoping to build something for the water that I haven’t built before, a deferred memory of my father’s affinity to angling in cold waters.

The moon looks full outside whether it is fully or not, and I think of the tides it changes, and how my heart swells, and how the most-lost things that lay dormant have the ability to wash up again to come into view.

 

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What I know about death

 

Six weeks ago, my brother died.

For the last 3 years I’ve spent time with him in his steady decline due to ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease) for which there is absolutely, definitively no cure, or treatment. Yes, I’m sad. Yes, I’m in the throes of grief. A continuation of the swells of frustration I’ve fought in the preceding 36 months. But I’m at a strange calm with the magic borne from at least one man getting to choose the terms of his own death.

Why not write about this before? Nothing metaphysical. Protection from all the questions about how I’m doing, how my brother is doing, recitations of data and feelings that ultimately secure no leverage against what would happen and now has. But I have written about this in the only ways I know how. My brother, Chris, inspired my first novel. And the beginning of my third one. Everything comes in threes. Third time’s a charm. On the third day he rose from the dead. Trinity. But Chris is gone from this earth never to return, and I’ve been working out what’s still here of him these days.

I’ve already given the eulogy and I hope my life now gives testament that I am his brother. That’s all I can do. But how will I do it?

I got to be with Chris as they turned off the machines. As we define our own lives, how lucky we all should be to define our own deaths as he did. My response was one of mixed pagan religion and the grand old sentiments that help humans through. I told him I would remember him every time I petted a dog, or drove a truck, or did hard work. Whether he would look down on me or not, I thanked God for Chris’s part in making me. And I sat with him. And I sat with him again in his last breath.

What I know about death is that I’ve seen it. Part of me feels more like a man because I’ve been there. In many ways watching someone die, the whole thing, is horrifying. But mainly the journey beforehand. Chris knew that his life of breathing and eating artificially, with no muscle movement, was not life. And so when it came time to move on to the unknown it wasn’t as difficult for me as I had thought. So in other ways it’s captivating. I can’t say he had no fear. But he had no regrets and the light of having realized peace broke through the windows of my hardened heart and made me see the things I couldn’t see before, or at least the silhouette of them. And now when I talk to him, knowing he’s not here, and handle his belongings, knowing he can’t use them anymore, I see that his own silhouette has joined the others when I force myself to look toward the things I can’t know. As I typed this, the sun has magnified through the glass corners of my office, shining onto these words, shining onto me. It’s just that type of Minnesota winter day when the sun is in its position, but now I move into how I will get through it all.

Those who do not believe in God must have it easier in some ways. They must find that there’s no wild overarching power to blame for death. Death comes to us all in different ways, but inevitably. I’m caught between it is what it is and why is it? I’m old enough now to not expect answers. I might even be wise enough now to not ask the questions. But if there’s a way to live without thinking about how we die, I’d like to know. The double-edged sword of humans’ advanced intellect. Work hard and play hard. Love gloriously and mourn ourselves into the abyss.

I’ve come to see that the hardest part about my brother dying is not getting what I want. And the hardest part about that is seeing that I have built too much of my theology on it. We only get what we want when our wants work in tandem with what life really is. There are many absurd explanations of why bad things happen, but they happen nonetheless. We project all kinds of well-meaning but invented ideas on God’s character. But what is left for me to grasp now is grounded in the words of a good friend, referencing Martin Luther, that there is a dark side to God – the hidden God. Not that the part is there for us to find in some capricious trick, but that we can’t know. So what do I say? What do I do? I think. I feel. I study, looking for what theological answer I can which of course does not come because, as a saying goes that I read in a picture frame in the hallways of Chris’s last facility, “The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of.” On any given day that has Hallmark card written all over it. But in the campaign of human suffering and clarity of what it means to be alive, words like this stand truest when they need to. And they have to.

What I know about death is-not that it took my brother-but that my brother took it when it was his tragic, unreasonable time. Part of the classic grieving process is bargaining-that if I do this I want to get that. And it doesn’t work. But I now turn the bargaining into commitment: that I will see Chris’s death, and raise it with my own life. That no loved one who’s dead wants the living to be consumed by it to spite life. I can’t know what’s ahead, and what is behind has already happened, but I don’t believe in the shackles of timeline. Each day we wake with a paradox of life and death confronting us and one might just as well happen as the other – but we’re here. And we have choices. And regardless of what they are, we must make them: and that is what remains after we’re all gone from this earth.

Anybody is complex, but what we do is simple. Chris was a caring brother and son, and the most responsible person I’ve ever known. He served in the U.S. Air Force and worked his way up to Staff Sergeant working on classified intelligence projects. He was a race car driver who ran dragsters in several states. He felt the life-death paradox regularly. What we have left of him is memory and the assurance of nothing but mystery, but life is better with some assurances. So take them as you see them and make your move. Such is life.

***

For friends, family or anyone who wasn’t at Chris’s Celebration of Life, it was truly a day of celebration as he wanted it, with the warm sun shining, the Air Force detachment presenting the flag to my mom and giving military burial with honors, and a large group of loved ones gathered at our family ranch with good conversation and 4-wheeler rides. This is the video I put together to honor him:

 

 

 

 

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The Blood Stays on the Blade

“The blood stays on the blade.” – Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), “Gangs of New York”

When I was in the summer before 3rd grade, we moved from an 80 acre sheep farm in southern Iowa to what became my true home in Northern California. The Grapes of Wrath deferred, we packed up our Ford trucks, trailers and dogs and headed out West.

I was born in Clovis, CA, not to be confused with the adjoining “Fresno.” The years my parents had spent in the Golden State after they were married proved silver-lined, and they wanted to give it another chance.

I remember getting the Ryder moving truck loaded off the back door, which was elevated about six feet off the ground dropping into nothing. We pushed in the piano, the furniture, our failed Midwestern dreams. I would miss my friends. I didn’t want to ride with my dad in the truck. I was against the change.

The thing that changed my mind was a knife. My big brother, the one who understands man’s ways and understood the way of a boy beyond his years cut me a deal: if I rode with Dad in the truck, drove 2,000 miles cross-country  through that haunting familial stretch of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and into the homeland, he would give me his knife.

My family has owned a lot of knives and I only vaguely recall the style – faux-bone perhaps, folding, single blade, dull, a ring riveted into the butt…but it changed my mind. That my brother would give me his blade gave me courage to make the journey.

All knives in my family hold memory. I keep a German bone-handle in its cracked leather sheath in the visor of my dad’s truck, Old Blue. It’s had the point broken from who-knows-what-use, but I ground the bevel down and made it passable, because it’s my dad’s. The 110 folding Buck I keep in my deer coat as a backup still has red chalk on it from being used in the sheep barn, marking the vaccinated ewes, infinite bacteria on the blade from scraping out hooves. The 110 is probably the most common knife of all time, but this one’s different.

I went pig hunting with my cousin in the coastal range of NorCal last spring and I brought along a knife I had given to my brother – a King Ranch microknife, the blade 3 inches at best, but I wouldn’t skin a hog with anything more. It’s a family knife.

This week, I acquired a new knife (shout out to my friend Robb who gave it to me for a song and a dance, which I doubt he’ll want to cash in). It’s a bona fide survival knife, serrated cutting surface, black powder coat, polymer grip, a steel butt designed for breaking plexiglass and drilled handle for converting it into a spear. Made in Portland, Oregon – USA.

I intend to carry this knife into my first true Boundary Waters expedition next week, the canoe, camping in the bush, countless walleye and lake trout (may it be so) and the meditation that only comes from such things. The knife in and of itself is not special, but the symbol of it waxes immortal. Every knife has a story.

In a boy’s heart a knife is freedom. It’s tricky to get, I know, but it’s true. Whether for malice or metacognition, it means something. Whittled wood by my hand. Hide and sinew severed to give my family food. Standing alone in the closet as a relic of things primeval. Take your pick.

Regardless. In hand-to-hand or one man’s hand to another, a knife has meaning, identity, and that cannot be changed. The difference between life and death. The difference between surviving the wilderness and demise, or surviving a thought-depraved life or oblivion, a glimmering cobalt edge will never escape my notice, nor where it came from.

And it came from nowhere if it didn’t come from my brother’s hand, a child, a brother, a legacy.

Gerber LMF II Infantry

 

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Slow Survival

I never call them diets, because, by definition, the word means “habitual” – whereas I am habitually erratic in what I consume. I don’t pretend to stick to eating plans, and there’s a certain amount of that mental band-aid that says “It’s not a diet – it’s a lifestyle” that I’m sick of hearing and don’t want to think about. So, I use the word “plan” or “program” to make it sound like it has some purpose. Sometimes it does.

So I’m doing a “juice fast” for 5 days, in which I buy what would normally be 6 months worth of leafy greens and saw through them in liquified form within hours. A couple of weeks ago I cut out all the things that make me happy – after reading “Clean” by Alejandro Junger – just to see what would happen. That means no beer, coffee, eggs, gluten, dairy or really any sugar. It was pretty good for a few hours until I wanted a cheesy omelet fried into some barley. Then it went downhill.

On the third day, in what’s supposed to be some sort of turning point in most of these diets…I mean programs, I in fact did not rise again. I thought I was having a combination of suicidal depression, panic attack and “Chipsandsalsialgia,” in which the patient can only be cured by freebasing Tostitos rounds and pico de gallo. It’s a real condition. Just close your eyes, don’t Google it, and imagine the pain it can cause.

On the afternoon of this third day I tried some of the Yerba Mate tea that I had read about. I guess it’s from a rainforest high in the whatever mountains and a bunch of villagers drink it every day and are about 117 years old when they hit puberty. It’s supposed to have a “roasted” taste, but, as usual (and I’m a heavy tea-drinker), it tastes like dirt, and then I get a stomach ache. But alas I drank some, and something strange happened. I no longer wanted to cause harm to those around me and the fleeting thought of actually changing my clothes after two days occurred. What was this?

It turns out, after deep investigation (reading the label on the box) each tea bag has 1/3 the caffeine of a cup of coffee. My wife had endured my “diligence” for the previous few days on the diet and, when she came home to find me showered and no rotting food and laundry strewn about the floors, she said “please don’t ever stop drinking caffeine.”

Fast forward two weeks: I’m on the 4th day of a 5-day juice fast, so I have, literally, only ingested: Kale, beets, cucumbers, squash, lemons, apples, celery, carrots, cabbage, broccoli and an entire head of what I thought was “endive” as the sign above it displayed at Hy-Vee, but rather was “green leaf lettuce” or something which tastes like a mixture of baking soda and baking soda with bile spit into it. I’m doing it for the children.

I’m reading a book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. Most of my good finds come from the Paperback Book Palace in Rochester, or from reading the ending credits of my favorite ’80s movies to see that a book was made out of it, then ordering from somebody’s basement through Half.com. Deep Survival doesn’t talk about juicing – although I’m only halfway through the book – but I like reading books about survival, what the human body and mind is capable of in life-threatening situations. In modern times (there’s no unaffected way to say that…if you say “in today’s world” you sound like you’re saying you know everything, but if you say “nowadays” you probably live in Missouri) I believe we do feel like not eating…even for like one meal…is a life-threatening situation. It’s definitely a shock to the body. But the body can endure more than the mind gives it credit for, and that’s where fasting comes into play.

“Juice fast” is a misnomer, because it’s one of the slowest things you can do, compared to how you normally live your everyday life. It takes a lot of trips to the farmer’s market and grocery store to get all the stuff. Then you’re supposed to “wash it” and there’s usually lots of cutting involved. Although I’ve found that a 4″ diameter zucchini can fit through a 3″ hole if I put one palm on it while striking the top of my hand with my opposite elbow. My wife looks on, disconcerted. Juicing makes you slow down – not just in the idyllic way of thinking “Yes, this is just what my forefathers did. Right after they milked the sheep and sharpened their scythes” – but it eats up a lot of time, and you feel slow. Apparently you’re supposed to take these slow opportunities to meditate, or “think about what you’re ACTUALLY hungry for,” but I just think about eating omelets.

Through the process (another euphemism for “diet”), though, I’ve gained some things. As of this morning, I think I’ve lost about 13 pounds (I was a wrestler, so I know much of this is water weight) between all the rigmarole I’ve done in the last three weeks, but I’ve gained some things.

1) The assurance that the way I’ve conditioned myself is only an illusion. I don’t NEED coffee. I don’t DESERVE a beer. I don’t HAVE to eat. Bio-feedback is a healthier indicator than an Outback Steakhouse commercial.

2) My body will take anything my mind makes it do, because it has to–I am in control.

3) A reminder that I haven’t always been tired, slow and frustrated. And I never have to be like that again. But nobody’s going to hand it to me. In fact, they might hand me a gift box full of IPAs, chips and an omelet. But no one else gets to determine what my body really needs – only me. And my body mind are me – bigger than my illusion.

Can I survive a juice fast? Yeah. I’m about to. Can I survive a regimen of getting up early every morning to type my latest novel? Yeah, it’s a decision away. Can I survive what most of the time feels like an avalanche of complications flooding down on my anesthetized life? Yeah. But I have to drop the illusion.

And my first step towards doing that is letting my body prove that it’s smarter than my thoughts, and letting it ride the wave to survival .

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What is it that you want?

Fame? Come on. You pay a price you can’t afford. Fortune? What will you do with it? What is fortune? You probably already have it.

To know thyself.

At the end of the day, what do you want more than happiness? It doesn’t have to be bought. But it does have to be worked for. And what price will you pay? You can afford it.

1) Character: Who are you? What makes you, you? That’s all it costs. In a world of false commerce, you don’t have to commerce. You probably only have to commune. With yourself and those who know you. And there is no one who knows you better than yourself. Of course, there are others who know you better than you know yourself in those times when you need help – so you only need to know who those people are, and reach out. If you have those people, they are only a phone call or text away. Pick up the damned phone and make an appointment. The first person who comes to mind is the right one.

2) Reality: don’t delude yourself. Reality is only what you make it. Don’t make the mistake that I have made, believing that reality is some objective force impressed upon you. It is what you make it, and what you have allowed others to make it for you. There’s no problem with having let others make it for you, because you know they are real, they are true. In short, let others love you for who you are. Yes, you are good – but you won’t hurt from improving: let your friends tell you how to improve. If they won’t tell you, they are not friends. Ask.

3) Action: Do something. In your darkest times, the first thing you think to do is often the most beneficial. Hell, even if it seems suicidal, the first steps in carrying it out are raw, and we are made of raw material. Don’t misunderstand. Don’t end yourself – take the first step toward knowing that there is no end to yourself. But this can only come from the things that shape you, which are your collective thoughts, the Collective Consciousness, which for you are your friends, and the thing you are amazed by. You can’t think of your place in the world without first thinking of amazing things. Don’t miss them. You are an integral part in the cosmos.

4) Intelligence: Don’t be stupid. There’s no reason for it. You’re not stupid, even if you think you are. If you’ve ever thought you are, that takes an intelligence beyond average to have delineated your own intelligence among a world of others. You are infinite, and if you can’t grasp that, you are stupid. But, if you’ve gotten to that point, you’re not stupid. You see?

Lastly, ignore the numbers. You are not a number, nor are you one among many, nor are you in any way associated with numeric value. Your value transcends anything that can be captured by integers, whole numbers, or any measurement. As soon as you begin to measure yourself, you have broken away from what it means to be human.

Be you, and in turn be human, and in turn be infinite.

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I hope this isn’t my half-life

Kindergarten

I don’t really take New Year resolutions seriously. I don’t really make them. Egg nog, post-holiday sluggishness, the doldrums of breaking down the decorations and torching the tree–it doesn’t make me too excited. My life is not a calendar.

But as I age, I find more meaning in birthdays, and I am 35-years-old today. I am fascinated by human potential. It used to be because I really, really wanted dragons and elves to be real, and I was convinced I could think my way into that world. But then I realized that’s called Schizophrenia.

No, human potential for me these days is the amazement of what’s possible. I’d like to say…at least to sound like I’m trying anyway…that I’m as fascinated with all human potential as I am with my own, but I’m really not. I want to see what I can do. And I used to judge that by what I have done. But , as Holden says, “How do you know what you’re going to do until you do it?” (Catcher in the Rye). I know that I might. It’s just that I need to prove that I can.

I have my personal goals for this year. Some of them health, some of them writing, but most of them worldview. I have a recurring daydream of what it would be like to never feel worry, fear or regret. What would that be like? I won’t know until I do it.

In writing, you’re supposed to show, not tell; illustrate, not describe; keep the story moving forward; avoid adverbs, adjectives, abstract nouns, ambiguity, aphorisms. All the things that people who read more books than they write, say. But teachers make us learn these things (or they at least teach them to us) to use as tools to express ourselves. It’s what keeps us from all being, essentially, a small group of men gathered around the open hood of a muscle car: “Hmm.” “Mmm.” “Mm-hmm.”………”I s’pose.”… [Dude. No talking.] And I could easily do that. Some of the favorite days of my life have involved silence.

But give me a few key words. We’re human, so we must define. We don’t have to be a certain type of person–we define things to feel safe. We’re not, but we do. So we’re left with doing the best we can. What IS the best we can do? What’s the best I can do? How do I get there? It’s a choice.

If you’ve never seen the movie “The Edge” with Anthony Hopkins, and Alec Baldwin, and….Elle MacPherson..??? you should. People always says you should see movies, but you can’t blame them. The movie has defined something. In the story, Baldwin’s character blows up at Hopkins’ character for having no passion:

Baldwin: “It’s just a decision tree, right?”

Hopkins, without hesitation: “Yes. That’s right.”

Decisions are the sacred power we have all been given, because they give us a choice.

In this my 35th year, I choose to believe. There are many options–God, health, miracles, Global Warming–but I’m starting off with the power inside belief. Belief is a decision. A decision that I’m convinced will lead to that life of no worry, fear or regret. Not floating hidden in the cosmos. Not around the corner. Not even suspended in some aura JUST outside my body – in me now, one decision away from reaching my potential and, after all, arriving there only to see that potential is an end…but we have no end.

We are limitless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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