Very Well Then

Contradicting myself, always contradicting myself

Archive for the ‘The Heart on My Sleeve’ Category

Personal Essays

You’re My Favorite Thing – The Canyon Lands

Posted by verywellthen on March 28, 2010

While waiting for baseball season to hurry up and start – I slipped away to the canyons of Southern Utah – a place I try to get to every couple of years.

Top of Barrier Canyon, Maze District, Canyonlands National Park

I just returned from explorations of a few canyons in Southern Utah.  In this trip:

  • a hike down Horsehoe Canyon, to see the glorious rock art of the Great Gallery;
  • the up-and-down funhouse of the slot canyons of Bell and Little Wild Horse Canyons in the San Rafeal Swell;
  • walking among the gobbledygook of Goblin Valley;
  • up to the heaven-eye view toward the Navajo Knobs on the cliffs above Capitol Reef National Park.

I am in awe of the canyons of Southern Utah and all the sandstone layers of the Colorado Plateau.    So much that I’ve dropped hints around my family that I want (at least some of my) ashes carried to Southern Utah to be scattered in the canyon lands.

Do you recall in the Larry McMurtry novel where Captain Call is burdened with fulfilling the wish of Captain McCrae to be buried back at Lonesome Dove, Texas?    Captain McCrae inconveniently dies in Montana (by poison-tip arrow), but Captain Call is determined to see the task through.

I kind of think my youngest brother (and maybe others) has enough of Captain Call’s belligerent  (i.e. blind, stupid) loyalty to trek my ashes out to some remote almost-unreachable place just because I happened to mention it in a blog entry way back in 2010.

So listen up, you Captain Calls.

The place I choose for my ashes is the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.   When I first descended into the district so many years ago, I felt the contrary feelings of being more alive than I had ever known and feeling more insignificant than even the fullest night of star-gazing could ever bring.   When I looked up one of the uncountable canyons of the vast plateaus that lined the many horizons, I could see a dozen side-canyons, maybe more.  And I imagined each side-canyon to hold to a dozen more offspring canyons of their own, and on into infinity.   In a few trips back I’ve explored just a few of the Needle’s canyons, each possessing variations on impossible wonder borne of the permutations of sedimentation, compression, uplift and erosion.

My current election for the specific place within the Needles for my ashes is a place I have yet to make it to myself, Angel Arch.    The name is perfect, of course – it might even help to get this plan past my Very Catholic Mother who a) is armed with dogmatic knowledge that frowns upon the scattering of ashes and b) has so much life-enthusiasm that she will likely outlive me, and therefore be able to monkeywrench this plan.

Angel Arch is also extremely remote – which largely explains why I have not yet been there.   Most of the year there is no water and the hike is a distance greater than you can comfortably carry enough of your own water.    (There may be 4WD tours that can bring you closer – but that’s cheating, Captain Call.)

Or just get them to an easier hike nearby, maybe Chesler Park.  (Mom, I won’t even suggest Druid Arch.)  Or seal them in a marble urn and bury them in a road-side field for all I care – after all I will be gone.   The living’s wish of burial place is more a statement to self-identity than it is an unbreakable covenant.    Just nod your head, Captain Call, next time I ramble about where I want my ashes.

“Yes, Captain McCrae.   I’ll be sure to do that.”


Posted in The Heart on My Sleeve, You're My Favorite Thing | 3 Comments »

That’s My Boy

Posted by verywellthen on February 26, 2010

The following essay was sketched out recently  on an airplane on the way to my father’s funeral.

When a father is appraised, he is often given great credit for the time he spent showing up for his children’s sporting events.    My father, being given his due this week, has been lauded for his greatness in this regard, and rightfully so.    He was at almost every sport event that I or any of my five brothers ever suited up for.  That’s a lot of boys.  That’s a lot of cutting out early from the office.

I know it was a gesture of love, but there was nothing he ever did that embarrassed me more.  He wasn’t a belligerent father shouting from the stands at refs or demanding from coaches more playing time for his son.  No, he just sat silently in the stands.  What embarrassed me was that he was there — and that I was on the bench.
In the earlier grades, there was more of a let-em-all-play spirit, and it wasn’t so bad.  He saw my collective 20 or 30 points of grade school basketball (over 4 years, mind you).  But as I got older, the playing time got more sparse.   I would cringe when I heard my father was going to be at the game.

Now, in football there’s a buffer.   The parents are way out there in the stands; the players, covered up in helmets.  My mother once showed me a photo she snapped at a junior high school football game she attended.   She climbed down to the sidelines to get a shot of me in my football uniform on a clear fall afternoon.   When the photos game back from the developer a week after the game, she handed the photo, to me.  “There you are,” she said pointing to a guy wearing the red school jersey and a white helmet with a red stripe.  I looked at the photo, deep into the cavern of the helmet, and then down at the jersey number.   It wasn’t me.  It was my teammate – Dan Campbell, who was about my size and had a number one more than mine.  Who could tell with those pads and helmet on?  I hope my parents watched that whole game thinking I was Dan Campbell.  Dan Campbell was the well-toned athlete that we all called “the Specimen”.  He started every game and made all the tackles and sacked the quarterback and caught slant passes from the tight end position.  I hopefully imagine that my father had the joy sitting up in the stands, just that one game, and nudging another parent and saying “You see number 81 down there?  That’s my son. Unreal. ”
In basketball there is no hiding.  The gymnasium is much more intimate and the players are wearing nothing but shorts, knee-high socks, and tank-top jerseys.  There’s no mistaking who’s me and who’s the Specimen.

But he was there.  He never commented on my lack of playing time and said supportive things about the things I did in the limited time I played.
But where I want to give him his due is that he also knew to find other things to support — things that I was better at.    There was one thing I remember he commended me on.  It was encyclopedia reading.    This was decades before the internet and that’s what I had, kids, for insights into the facts of the world.  I would drag 3 or 4 volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia to my bedroom many an evening and digest the information contained within.   The seven wonders of the ancient world, check.  The flags of every nation, check.  When there was playground banter about this thing called sex, it was to the World Book that I went for explanations – it is amazingly silent on the subject, much less so than the internet.
But my father, he was supportive of such things.  He told me on more than one occasion that he bragged to his friends about his son who read the encyclopedias.  Now that was something where he could nudge his friends and say, “hey, look at my boy”.

I imagine that there’s an alternate universe where there is a thing called the National Encyclopedia Reading League.   And I’m there, on the field, after the Championship match.  There is a reporter there from ERPN (Encyclopedia Reader Programming Network) with a microphone in my face.  In the background, the fans are still cheering.  There is a man in a suit nearby holding one of those really large checks with a number written on it with lots of zeros.  And the reporter claps me on the back and says to me, “Wow, that was incredible.  How did you ever know that North Dakota was the number one flax producing state?  What do you have to say?”
And after pausing to throw my jersey to a kid with a Coke bottle, I’d turn to the reporter and say, “I’d like to thank my father.”

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Running Under the Radar

Posted by verywellthen on October 26, 2009

Below is a piece I wrote just before I ran my only Marathon — four years ago this month.

Running Under the Radar

On Sunday, October 9th I am running the Portland Marathon.   It will be my first and only marathon.  All the training leaves plenty of time to contemplate deep questions, none more reoccurring than “why am I doing this?”   In the pain of a double-digit run last weekend, I dredged up a suppressed memory which offered some explanation.

I remembered back to second grade, when a kid named Jeffrey challenged me to a race across the playground.  Jeffrey was the cruelest kid in the class and I was the slowest.  Hence, the terms of the race were that I was to run it forward and Jeffrey was to run it backwards.

As I stared at Jeffrey’s cool tennis shoes and then at my geeky Buster Browns, I contemplated for the first time in my life what a no-win situation looked like.  If I won the race everyone would say – well, jeez, Jeffrey had to run it backwards.  And if Jeffrey won the race, well, even no-win situations have worse-case scenarios.

Technically, I finished “in front” of Jeffrey —  which wouldn’t have been so bad except, remember, that he was running backwards.   So being “in front” of Jeffrey meant that he was crossing the finish line stepping backwards and pointing his finger at me in ridicule.   As I suffered the jeers and taunts of my classmates, I accepted right then that fitness, for me, would never be about competition.

The childhood notion that “running is playing” ended that day.  Running – as well as jumping, catching, throwing and even playing itself – was no longer playing.  It all became something to be judged.  For graceless boys like myself, it became a school-day fear to be picked deep in the gym-class draft.   I continued to join team sports all the way through high school, which I don’t regret.  But I have no delusions that I was ever more than practice fodder.  My father should be granted sainthood for all the games he sat in the stands to watch me sit on the bench.

The desire to play or stay fit never went completely out, but I would only do it below the radar screen of others.  My fitness choices as an adult have only been things I can do alone.  The community of me ran, hiked and pedaled long, slow and lonely routes in solitude.

If I dared shared the road or trail with anyone, it was under spy-like rules of engagement.

Rule #1 – Never invite anyone more judgmental than my dog.

Rule #2 – Make those that extend invitations to me feel uncomfortable by insisting that they wouldn’t want to exercise with anyone as sluggish as me.

Rule #3 – Even if someone made it past rules 1 and 2, the deal was off if the other person looked athletic.

If I were Rudolph, I would have withdrawn myself from any reindeer games.  I know the bumper sticker says that no one can make me feel inferior without my consent, but, when it came to fitness, I had pre-signed consent forms stashed in my wallet.  My running garment of choice would be an invisibility cloak, in moisture-wicking polyester, of course.

There has been no one to push me in my adult conditioning, and that has been by design.  There has been no taunting classmates or hot-collared coaches, nor the expectations of a father’s voice.  Instead, my miles of spinning wheels and shuffling shoes have been accompanied with more self-exploration than Gandhi.

Not only have I not competed against others, I also don’t compete against myself.  I have vowed to treat all personal bests, personal worsts and personal in-betweens the same.   The bathroom scale and the stop-watch are just other forms of judgment I don’t need.

Maybe I’ve taken the concept of “personal fitness” a little bit too personal, but I don’t think I am alone in my self-consciousness about exercise.  The jogging paths are filled with lonely runners.  There is a whole niche of “women’s only” gyms, in part to get away from leering eyes, but also to deemphasize competitiveness and tap into the supportive spirit of sisterhood.   There are always video workouts if even personal support is too much scrutiny.

As I worked my way through a low blood-sugar crisis deep into last weekend’s run, I considered that there was a third possible outcome to that second-grade playground challenge long ago.  I could have chosen not to have run at all.  It wasn’t really an option, even a grade school nerd knew enough not to turn down a playground dare.  I am proud that I grew up into someone who has continued to choose to run, with the only condition on my conditioning being that there be no expectations by anyone, including myself.

Why then, a three-mile-at-a-time runner suddenly electing to run 26.2 miles, and not even at gunpoint?  Well, several months back my niece emailed to tell me she was registered for the Portland Marathon.  I decided to throw my hat into the ring too, and convinced my brother to do the same.  If there is any family competition going on, I’m not channeling it.  I just decided that my running résumé needed to include one run, and only one, at running’s signature distance.

And maybe I’m recovering from the trauma of childhood ridicule.  I’m starting the race with family, though we’ll each settle into our own pace.  I might even go so far as to say that I’m challenging myself in this race and have even thought about my finishing goal (though I’ll be damned if I’m going to tell anyone).

So if the crowds come out to taunt me, I’m only going to hear it as cheers.  If a runner passes me running backwards, I’ll only smile straight to his face.  It’s not going to be pretty, but I’m not too concerned with the beauty of it all.  Running is only playing, after all.

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A Winter Sound

Posted by verywellthen on February 25, 2009


Photo by Serge Arsenie

Photo by Serge Arsenie

Below is an excerpt of an email I wrote at least a dozen years ago, in the early days of the internets.  I stashed old mail messages on a floppy disk.  I was going through a few disks before throwing out the disks and before giving away the last computer that I’ll ever have with a floppy disk drive.  I found (and slightly edited) this excerpt to a friend who stayed behind in the old country — the Land Next To The Land of Sky Blue Waters — while I headed west, young man.



When you’re an old lady and if I’m living in an “easy” climate, send me a letter (or an email or whatever medium exists in those future days) every winter reminding me how harsh your winter is.  

You know what distinctive North Dakota sound I miss?    A week into one of those fuckin’ freezin’ cold spells the top layer of snow forms an inch thick layer the consistency of dry-wall, with dry, crystallized loose snow beneath.

 Walking over that snow late at night when everything else is quiet is a sound that still echoes deep in some crevasse of my brain, even all these years I’ve been away.  The breaking of the top layer is a percussive scrunch, followed by a feather-silent poof on the powder beneath.  It’s a sound deadened by the plasterboard snow all around.  And between each step, except for the wisps of  steamy breath and snorts of wet sniffles, there is not another sound in the world and your brain has nothing to do but echo those big scrunchy sounds around in your head until the next step comes along.  

I’ve walked through a lot of Western snow since then but never heard a sound quite like it.    Maybe you, as an old lady, could record that sound for me and send it, at attachment to your email.   I’ll hit the play button on my computer and a sound from my speakers will call a sound from the netherworld of my brain and the two will harmonize, like long separated friends reunited.  Then I will know that the internet has lived up to its promise.

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Reading and Drinking Alone in Public Places

Posted by verywellthen on September 23, 2008

It was Friday afternoon a week ago and the weather was only beginning to retreat from hot to a comfortable warm. I had my book. I had my dog. I wanted sun and I wanted a beer. I chose the brew pub not too far from home that had an outdoor patio full of picnic tables.

Being a beautiful warm Friday afternoon, everyone else had chosen this place too. But everyone else who had chosen it, had chosen it with friends. There were no open tables, nor any open “halves” of tables. But there was a slot in the middle of a table, right between two conversations. I asked politely left and right if the spot was open and got permission to settle in.

Going out alone to a social place can be difficult. I’m probably in the lower percentile of conversationalists, though I’d gladly have joined any one in the bar that afternoon. But conversations tend to be closed circles, invitation only. But I like being out – somewhere besides my empty house. I like seeing new places, drinking from the many fine taps of my town.

So to get myself out there, I have my defenses. First, is my dog. I am not alone, I have a friend. From the masses, she gets affection. I get some conversation. In college the start up conversation was: name, hometown, major. With a dog the start up conversation is: name (of dog), breed, how old? Seldom do the humans exchange names.

The second defense is the book. I just don’t have to stare off into space or try to wedge my way into a conversation that I’m not invited to. I have a task: to read. A task I enjoy. That day, I was three months (or half way) into Moby Dick. The open air was filled with noise. The clamor made reading difficult and Melville is (was, will always be) obtuse.

The couple to my left waved over a friend who had just showed up. The newcomer sat across from me, and it dawned on me that if more people were joining this couple, I had over-encroached upon their space. So I sought re-confirmation of whether I should be sitting there.

“If you can read Moby Dick in this bar, you can stay right there.”

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. But sometimes you don’t get that. So take a dog and a book and you can stay right there.

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Voices in my Carport

Posted by verywellthen on August 18, 2008

My weekend project was painting my carport.  Whenever I take on a project I become gripped in an “I’m going to screw this up” anxiety.  Painting is within my limited handyman skills, so I don’t know why I got so tense about it.  Depending on my neighbors’ attitudes about swearing they must have either been laughing hard  or completely disgusted early this morning as I encountered a few hitches.  

The overall results are bright.  I own a Northwest Bungalow and wanted muddy.  The carport is a test-drive for the color conversion on my house.  Yesterday at Home Depot a customer was complaining that her newly mixed paint didn’t match the color of the earlier batch she had already painted onto her walls.  “It’s too yellow,” she complained.   Well the Home Depot color-mixing computers must have been operating yellow yesterday, because my carport is a few shades too “Dill Pickle” than the “Tate Olive” paint chip card I ordered off of.   It did darken up a bit as it dried, so I’m hoping for a cure of yellow fever in the cure.

In honor of my carport project, I am posting an article the Pre-blog me wrote after an earlier house project.  

Voices in my Closet


“You are not someone who should own a power saw.”

 This is something that my old friend Jerry said to me upon learning that I had bought one for a few house projects in my newly-owned home.    I had not yet cut off any of my fingers, so I was still able to fling a couple of certain ones toward Jerry in my defensive response. 

 Jerry, however, has some basis for that comment.  Back in the beginning of my junior year of college, I undertook a project to build a loft for the bed in my dorm room.  I intended to use the freed up floor space under the loft to place a sofa, with some vague motivation, I’m sure, to create a little love cove in anticipation of the big school year.   I also pretty much remember the love cove as being a wasted effort.

 My design for the loft was basically four 4×4 pillars holding up a frame of 2×4’s held together with nails and somehow some planks were involved.   Jerry, a farmboy who I barely knew that lived down the hall, passed by my room when I was hopelessly deep into the project.   He casually mentioned that maybe I should use braces on the frame and add some cross support to the pillars and anchor the whole thing into some studs in the wall.  Pretty soon, Jerry had taken over as prime contractor of the project and brought the whole thing up to code.  I consider that day to be the start of our life-long friendship.  And, in retrospect, I realize that my design probably wouldn’t have served as too stable of a bed and would have had catastrophic results had any action in the love cove ever moved upstairs.

 Still, that was years ago and I’ve learned a few things since.  And it’s important to me to work through achievable goals by myself to learn life skills, gain confidence, save some money, and, apparently, wrestle with my demons.  My most recent project was to redo my bedroom closet, and with every cut of wood I made with the power saw, there was the voice of Jerry in my head telling me I really shouldn’t be doing this. 

 My project was nothing more than a very minor construction project.  Half of the closet was a pre-fab system from Ikea (even I can follow Ikea instructions), and the other half was using Ikea closet components integrated into a frame, which I designed and had to build myself.  Still, I suffer from a bit of construction inferiority complex, and I had to battle the voice of Jerry in my head, as well as the voices of many others.

 For example, during this project I often heard the voice of my friend Monica.  Monica bought a vintage bungalow about the same time that I did.  Hers was in much worse shape than mine, but in the course of a year and a half of ownership she has made wholesale upgrades throughout her home that has brought it near the design-catalog level.  She gets more excited about light-switch plates than anybody I know.   When it came time to paint the newly installed closet frame, I used leftover satin-finish wall paint, despite the fact that Monica’s I have heard Monica routinely and harshly judge anyone who has used non-enamel paint on woodwork.  

 But I already owned the non-enamel paint in the color that I want.  And I used wood scraps in my basement and the ripped out shelving from the previous incarnation of my closet (talk about a crappy job).  And I’m dirt cheap necessitated by the mortgage that got me this house in the first place.   I was proud of my recycling.   In arguing against Monica’s voice, I intoned the voice of Sister Claire, my fifth-grade teacher, who drilled into me that it was a sin to waste.  Though I won’t get Sister Claire’s full approval unless I send the $20 that I would have spent on the enamel paint to an orphanage in Guatemala. 

 Oddly, I also hear the voice of Fight Club’s Tyler Derden.   That’s because the closet components come from Ikea.   Tyler taunts me, “Hey Ikea Boy, is this the closet system that defines you?”  Tyler is proud of me, however, that I re-used paint and wood.  I find it very strange that Sister Claire and Tyler Derden agree on the same point.

 I also heard the voice, in a derivative way, of Monica’s father, a professional tradesman.  I know that in Monica’s rejuvenation project she hears the voice of her father, who throws temper tantrums whenever he sees amateur carpentry.   His trademark criticism of substandard professional or amateur tradework is “it looks like a homeowner did this.”  Monica’s father is never allowed to see my closet. 

 Curiously, one voice I did not hear when redoing my closet is my own father.  Somehow he managed to keep a house full of six kids in operating condition without me ever seeing him once perform a home repair.  I never saw him do anything more involved than hanging Christmas lights.  He was too cheap or restrained by mortgage and the expenses of six kids to hire a contractor.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure if he ever owned a power saw.  Of course, no upgrades over 20 years of owning the house meant for some hellish out of style fashions.  If my parents could have lived in that house for another ten years they could have sold it at top dollar when its Eisenhower-era charm came back around in fashion. 

 My father’s voice is a voice I do hear often hear in my head, just not during house projects.  His is the voice with which I argue politics.  Maybe it’s me that has shifted, but I recall my father being Eisenhower-esque in his Republican politics, as well as his interior design.  But ever since the rise of fair and balanced propaganda, he eschews the very points of view that he used to dismiss as Birch-ian.  Whenever I see him these days, he’s fully armed with RNC talking points and unloads one after another toward me, like those clay pigeon hunting practice devices.  And every time I take the bait and go try to shoot down one of his clay pigeons.  After I do so, instead of defending his position, he simply lobs another clay pigeon for me to go snipe and pretty soon I’m angry as hell and we seldom enjoy our time together.  I hate Bill O’Reilly for doing this to him.

 As I put the final touches on the closet I say it looks pretty good.  Yes, enamel paint would look better and will ward off the chips, but that frame is in the back of the closet, along with all the jagged-cut sides of the shelves I cut.  As long as you don’t look too close, it doesn’t look too bad.  It’s certainly better than it was before, I rationalize.

 “The road to hell is paved with rationalization,” some voice inside my head says.  I’m not sure who, but it is one thought on which they all agree.  Tyler, Jerry, Monica and father, Sister Claire, Bill O’Reilly in possession of my father’s head.  Don’t take short cuts, don’t settle, don’t adapt to the situation,

 I meekly argue back, “but it’s an improvement.”  That is my only standard in my house projects.  To improve things.  They are called Home Improvements for a reason.  If I had to achieve Home Perfections I would be paralyzed in bed every morning.  So I bless my imperfect closet with my approval.  I declare the project done in what amounts to some sort of political statement. 

 And as soon as I can figure out some half-ass way to install doors on my closet, I’m going to close them on all of those voices. 

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