Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Human Experience

Dear Reader: I write with frank honesty as a way to work through ideas I am wrestling with. I invite you to look for things in my sharing that resonate with you. Our stories may differ but all elements of the human experience, of suffering and of struggling, are universal. I write about mine to better understand my experience; I share it in the hopes that it will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with joy and sorrow, love and loss, hope and hopelessness, faith and uncertainty.

This morning I feel really cranky.

I’ve been feeling unsteady these past weeks, which I can in part tie to the missing plane from Malaysia and the mudslide in Oso, Washington. Human tragedies consume me, and it’s like a part of me is holding vigil 24 hours a day. It is exhausting and heart-breaking and upsetting. I know this happens to me; I know that to protect myself I should not read about these tragedies, and in the early days when the news is breaking I should even stay away from Facebook where I’m likely to see reminders and get triggered.

Sometimes it is a burden to have this struggle going on inside, virtually invisible to those around me. What is it about our modern society, that we feel the need to be private and secretive about our burdens, our wounds?

For several few weeks I’ve had a return of some unwelcome PTSD symptoms – my hands shake, and I feel dizzy and have brain fog. These symptoms were constant companions for a couple years before recognizing my troubles and starting treatment, but they haven’t been a regular part of my life in a long time. Yes they crop up if I’m particularly anxious about something. But a few weeks ago they roared back into my life: a noticeable tremor in my hands; the dizziness and brain fog make me feel sloppy and very self-conscious.

I told my therapist that having these symptoms makes me feel especially broken. She seemed struck by my use of that word. I thought about it, and shared that I have felt broken pretty much through this whole journey. I’m not whole. I don’t do the things that normal, healthy people do. I don’t do the things I used to do. She reminded me that it is a part of the human experience to endure tragedy and trauma. That I do know. During times that I have faced hardship and reached out, others have revealed that they too have quietly suffered life’s hardships. When my son was diagnosed with cancer I got a glimpse into how many people I know who have also struggled with this diagnosis. I know that heartache is a part of being human. I know that pain comes to all of us. And the longer we live, the greater the likelihood that we will endure some awful losses. I know that, I get that.

But somehow I perceive that most others are able to live more normal lives; that their lives haven’t been reduced to basic coping as I feel mine has.

My therapist said just because something feels true does not necessarily mean it is true. That in fact I am not broken, nor will I be fixed, becoming like everyone else or like I was before. Trauma and suffering are human. Yes I am wounded. Yes I hate it how limited my life feels. Yes I want far more in my life than I can now manage. That does not mean I am broken. She held a slinky by both ends, the middle wiggling until it came finally to rest as a metaphor for the human need to rebalance, come back to center, after being unsettled (Peter Levine). We need time to integrate things that have deeply hurt us.

She suggested that this feeling broken is not an aspect of the trauma so much as an aspect of my childhood. That’s where she thinks me feeling broken may have started.

And I’ve read recently that those who develop PTSD, when others exposed to similar things do not, are those who have not learned how to find a safe and nurturing place inside them. And that is something that ideally is developed during childhood when the child is made to feel safe, protected and nurtured.

(How do I navigate healing myself by exploring the missing pieces in my upbringing, while not hurting my parents? How do I reconcile who they were with who I wish they’d been, and who they are now?)

“…trauma takes a big foothold into body and mind… because there wasn’t an attachment relationship to hold and process and integrate the trauma. Two elements were missing: having a relationship which provided a “safe haven” and a “secure base.” … Every child should have had the world come to meet its needs in exactly the right way.

“… Yet time has passed and it’s now time for a different model. As adults our developmental task is different. As adults we need to grow from the inside out.”
– Deirdre Fay
My therapist said that for as long as it takes, for as long as I need to walk through this, she will be here for me; she isn’t going anywhere. I started crying, that was such a monumental thing for her to say. And just as quickly I felt horribly uncomfortable feeling that vulnerable. That moment there, her saying she’s there for me, me aware of my need, was too uncomfortable for me to sit with for long. After a few minutes I requested that she help me pack up all those feelings, pack them away. I had a sense that we had stumbled upon something really big, but I didn’t say anything.

Tonight the crankiness has given way to sadness and tears: for the suffering in the world; for the suffering of each of us as we try to keep our hearts open to love and goodness and joy, while being battered by human tragedy and loss; for the loss of innocence.

I try to believe that the only way to the other side is straight through – only if we walk through the pain and loss and grief can we truly get to the other side. Or perhaps there isn’t an “other side;” perhaps we learn to integrate the pain and loss in such a way that we are open to all of life simultaneously, all of the human experience as a complete package. I would not say that I have faith that things will get better. But I can take the next step.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Friday, March 28, 2014

RANGERING: March 2005

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

A few weeks ago on the drive to work, I saw what first appeared to be a dog running across the road. But rather than loping, it slinked –  stealthily and warily. It stopped on the far side of the road. I checked my rearview to make sure no one was behind me, and came to a stop directly across from him. The coyote was only a few feet away, and locked eyes with me. We stared at each other for some time. He looked healthy, furry and not at all scrawny. Then the coyote turned and disappeared into the woods. A few days later I saw him again, but this time it was just a quick glimpse as he darted among the trees.

I continue to thrive in my new life and at my job as a park aide at Cape Disappointment State Park. Our office manager’s baby is due any day now, at which point I will step into her role during her three months’ maternity leave. This change will include a new supervisor and a more traditional Monday to Friday schedule. And of course it will trap me in the office, which does not thrill me. But I am grateful to have this opportunity to continue working at the park.

I will miss being outside in the spring weather. Yes, somehow spring has arrived. I weathered my first winter at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was a terrifically mild winter, with many clear sunny days, much less rain than typical (so I’ve been told), and just a handful of mornings below freezing where I had to run the car for a few minutes to get the crusty frost off the windows. It seems unreal that winter has already passed. Sure, there were mornings that felt pretty cold working outside, but it really never felt that bad. I was expecting to suffer far more than I did.

A couple weeks ago I received the news that I have passed my initial application and background check for becoming a park ranger. They are even now trying to coordinate the date for the fitness test, which will probably be sometime in April.

For months I have been training six days a week: three days weight lifting (upper body), two days running (a two-mile run one day, and sprints the other), and one day of yoga and stretching. I have upgraded from working with a small collection of free weights at home to using the weight room at the coast guard base that neighbors the park (the base offers use of the weight room to rangers, and when asked extended the benefit to me), and run exclusively on the rubberized Ilwaco High School track. I’ve also eliminated caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol, and dairy from my diet – all foods that alter my levels of energy.

I’m no stranger to working hard and pushing myself mentally or physically. However asking my weenie upper arms to bear significant weight (my body) feels unnatural and wrong! They are so unused to such demands that it has been quite a struggle. The 20-pushup requirement is my single biggest worry about the fitness test. There is no time limit, but I have to keep my body in position until I reach 20.

It took a good couple months to increase from a single pushup, at which point I jumped to four. Then ten. Then one time I reached 14, but it was an isolated event. I was terribly discouraged when for several weeks I backslid and was only able to do two or three pushups. At that point my training ramped up even more. On work nights I no longer socialize; I train. I also leave Jackie alone longer so that I can train before coming home. And my pushups have been steadily increasing: 7, 8, 11, 14, and tonight – 21!!!

I’ve started referring to when I become a ranger, rather than if I become a ranger. Now I know this is within my reach, and my excitement just keeps building. In the meantime my body is looking significantly different than it has ever looked before. I’ve had strong legs before, but my arms seem twice as thick as they’ve ever been. I am simultaneously proud of the visible results of my hard work, and worried that I’m looking too butch! But such is the price of glory!

Our Ranger-In-Training Bob just returned from three-and-a-half months at academy. He is now a full-fledged park ranger, and after the official ceremony on April 4th will be a fully commissioned law enforcement officer. I have yet to hear many of his stories, but he says that the experience has completely transformed the way he looks at the world. It has been so beneficial to be working at the park while he has been going through his process, and hopefully I will be following in his footsteps before too long.

I have been at Cape Disappointment for over half a year, and in most ways I feel like I’ve been absorbed into the park community. However I am still a park aide, a seasonal employee, and there are times that I am excluded. I grumble that “all staff” meetings should be renamed “all permanent staff” meetings.

Today is our park manager’s retirement party. I was informed succinctly that I would need to stay behind and run the office to check in campers. As the last group of rangers were about to leave for the party, over the radio we heard that a pod of Orcas were swimming offshore, visible from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. As the rangers hastily rushed out of the office I called after them, “You all suck.”

Today I do not feel at all enthusiastic, and I’ve noticed more days lately when I’ve felt cranky. My desire to belong is in conflict with the reality that I am still in transition. I do not know if I will become a ranger at Cape Disappointment and continue to have Astoria accessible to me. I may have to move to another park elsewhere in the state. It is not yet time for me to put down roots, though a part of me longs to do just that. My future is still open. And that is both liberating and terrifying.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Monday, March 24, 2014

RANGERING: December 2004

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

Ranger Dirk spends most of his shift driving the entire stretch of the Long Beach Peninsula, patrolling the beaches all the way north to where the peninsula ends at the Willapa Wildlife Refuge. He's on vacation for two weeks, and has asked me to make the “beach run” to keep the restrooms clean. The drive alone takes about 40 minutes from bottom to top of the peninsula, and four or five hours to make the round trip cleaning all the restrooms along the way. I love this assignment. It gives me the opportunity to see the entire peninsula which is long and skinny, comprised of only two north-south roads which are sporadically connected by east-west roads, and there are only four street lights on the entire peninsula. Much of the drive is quite rural and beautiful.

Leadbetter State Park and the wildlife refuge are approached by a narrow winding one-lane road. This road is shaded by tall evergreens. A layer of rust-colored pine needles covers the ground on either side and down the middle of the dirt road. Just south of the entrance to Leadbetter on a side street is a wrought-iron gate flanked by two enormous stone lions. I punch a code into the security keypad and drive onto this private estate. Here the narrow dirt road is lined with alders that hang over the road to form a canopy. Lively green grasses attempt to cover the dirt road. Something about this scene reminds me of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the kids first go through the wardrobe into a magical world. This sense of not-quite-real continues as the trees open up and there is a marsh on the left. As far as I can see, dead branchless alder trunks, or snags, poke up out of the mist-covered water. This view is slightly creepy! While this is on private property, the park monitors the weir where the water from the marsh goes under the road to make sure that beavers don’t start building a dam and obstruct water flow.

At work I get to play with a new toy – a portable pressure washer! My project is to pressure clean the restroom sidewalks which have been blackened with algae and moss. I find it very satisfying to reveal the clean pavement underneath. To make it easier, I tie the trigger open to give a continual release of water. To save time, I wondered if I could adjust the nozzle spray while the water was coursing through it. My latex-gloved hand approached the nozzle, and with dizzying speed my arm jerked back. I felt an odd tingling sensation on the tip of one finger and noticed that the glove had been cleanly sliced open. To be honest I was afraid to look inside the glove. I wondered if blood would soon start pouring out the opening. I continued pressure washing, leaving the nozzle spray as it was, and no blood appeared. Later when I was cleaning up I found a very clean but frighteningly deep slice in my finger. Amazingly, it never bled. The sheer force of the water had essentially cauterized the skin around the wound.

There are two cats that live under the trailer at the park. We have an industrial sized bag of cat food and do our best to keep them well-fed. Unfortunately a family of raccoons has discovered this boon and always seems to appear soon after the food is put out.

When the sun is out I like to sit at a picnic table in front of the trailer to eat my lunch. I’ll set out some cat food, and often One-Eye will wander close enough for me to pet him. One day I was reading a book while eating my lunch, and saw the cats on the trailer porch. They started sauntering closer to see what I was eating and to get some affection. Just as I was about to put out my hand to pet One-Eye, I looked up. To my surprise, neither cat was in sight – it was raccoons who had been behaving just like the cats – undoubtedly hoping that if they kept up the charade, I might be too distracted to notice the difference!

After my break I went into the office to work the rest of my shift. The mood was relaxed, and it didn’t appear that anyone felt like doing much work. Pretty Ranger Joseph and Ranger-In-Training Bob were there. I watched as they showed off, demonstrating various defensive tactics moves. Their tall, slim frames were well matched. Joseph would give Bob a preview of the techniques he would learn at academy, then Bob would demonstrate an equivalent he knew from martial arts. They were definitely playing it up for their audience.

Ranger Steve came in shaking his head and smiling. “I just found Ralph sleeping in a yurt.”

Ralph, our park aide most adept at not working.

“What?” asked Bob incredulously.

“Yeah, crazy. I’d been trying to reach him on the radio for a while to see how he was doing on a project I’d asked for his help with. Finally I decided to look for him. I saw the park aide truck by the yurts. I went in, and there he was sleeping on the bottom bunk mattress.”

“Did he seem surprised to be caught?”

“Not as surprised as I would have been, at his age. I told him this would be his only warning.

I kept quiet, but marveled that literally sleeping on the job didn’t warrant being fired.

With three months under my belt as a park aide, I have completed and submitted the extensive written application to become a park ranger. It is comprised of a thorough listing of every residence and job I’ve had over the past decade. And since one of the primary attributes rangers are required to have is honesty, I did not have the luxury of glossing over or omitting details that were either difficult to find or embarrassing. The personal history portion of the application included essays detailing every illegal activity I’ve participated in, every illegal activity I’ve been privy to, and essentially every impure thought I’ve ever had. Despite believing myself to be an upstanding citizen, having all of my indiscretions gathered there together makes me feel less confident about my chances of becoming a ranger.

Washington State Parks is evaluating my application right now, and in preparation for the next step I have been maintaining a steady fitness regime six days a week. I have not reached 20 push-ups yet, or the ability to bench press 70% of my weight, but I continue to feel stronger and more energetic as time goes by. The entire application process typically takes several months, so it will be some time before I know if I will in fact become a ranger.

Everyone at the park knows that I want to become a ranger and that in the meantime I hope to spend as much time as possible working at Cape Disappointment. The park’s office manager is pregnant, and I’ve been asked to fill in when she goes on maternity leave. She is due in early April and will take three months off. So now I am looking forward to being employed at Cape Disappointment well into the summer. I will desperately miss being outdoors, and I will probably curse myself for once again sitting under fluorescent lighting looking at a computer screen. But, this will keep me at the park longer. And every facet I learn about the park will just make me a better ranger. And the biggest benefit of all is that when I am working in the office I get to hear the discussions among the rangers – which I find educational and fascinating!

Fort Columbia State Park
The park had a holiday party held at the Scarborough House at Fort Columbia, one of our beautiful vacation rental houses. Having everyone together – rangers, interpretive specialists, maintenance, park aides, and all their families – made for an enormous group. For the first time I had a sense that this group could end up becoming my “family.” I wondered what it would be like for them to become my colleagues, next door neighbors, and friends.

Eva played with the little kids, commenting with a smile, "I have a special skill at winding up children and dogs." Mark, the bespectacled interpretive ranger and I commandeered a child’s new Lego set, and argued about which one of us should get credit for correctly assembling it. Jackie got to attend, and little kids raced through the large house with my little dog hot on their heels. It was a lovely celebration.

Our Ranger-In-Training Bob has left for the three-and-a-half month long law enforcement academy, and when he returns he will be a fully commissioned law enforcement officer. I am both excited for him and jealous, and am always anxious to get updates about what they’re having him do. Eager to be more connected to his experience, I lent him my laptop for him to bring to his classes, and will use his PC in exchange.

I am moving again. Packing again. Cleaning an apartment that was a mess when I moved in again. Making the dog a nervous wreck again.

This time I have found a place that I really like. I’m moving much further north up the peninsula to Ocean Park, but for the same monthly rent I now have an entire house to myself. It is fantastic! It gets a lot of southern exposure which lends a brightness to the rooms on most days; a large fully fenced yard for Jackie (they put in a dog door for her); and an extra bedroom which will be my “ranger room,” equipped with workout equipment and literature on Washington State Parks. It has new carpeting, tiled kitchen floor, fresh paint, new bathroom, a sunny open kitchen and living room, and I don’t have to share walls with anyone. I do not get any TV reception, but I’m seldom in the mood to sit down and be “unproductive” for an hour anyway. The variety and choices I had become accustomed to when living in Silicon Valley are a distant memory. The radio stations here are terrible: there are only three that have any redeeming value; one is “classic rock” of the Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bayou rock variety; the other two are pop. And while I am most grateful for two Mexican restaurants, one Chinese, and one Thai restaurant, that is the entirety of ethnic food available here. I miss sushi, dim sum, and Vietnamese most of all. But I get to go to the beach every day and go on walks after dark feeling completely safe, and breathe in clean air while surrounded by boundless natural beauty. And I set the car on cruise control for the quiet drive to work – yes, cruise control during my “rush hour” commute. I am slowly starting to feel like a part of a community here, and I love that life here isn’t about working overtime and buying expensive things to compensate; it is about spending time with friends and family, partaking of the natural beauty and many recreational activities available here. 

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Sunday, March 23, 2014


I’m not breathing. I can’t breathe. My big brother just did something funny, and I laughed so hard I swallowed the hard candy in my mouth. Except I didn’t swallow it, it lodged in my throat. I tried hard to inhale. Nothing. I tried hard to exhale. Nothing. My three older siblings were there, still laughing. They didn’t realize I was choking. Panicking, I started running down the hall, running away from them, trying to run away from danger and fear, running in fear, running without breath.

Then as suddenly as my breath was taken, it returned. The candy slid down my throat and air filled my lungs. I could breathe again. I sucked it in, deep in, past my aching throat and into my lungs. Blessed air. Blessed breath.

I was ten.

In junior high I joined the cross country running team, and in it found an athletic activity that suited me. For reasons I cannot remember, I tried out for the cheer leading squad. The try-outs were the epitome of a popularity contest: we performed our routine in front of the entire student body in the auditorium, after which they voted. Why I thought I had even a remote chance of winning a popularity contest, I cannot imagine. I’m not sure if it was great chutzpah, or greater denial that prompted me to try.

Of course I was not selected. As I was changing into my running gear, the chatter in the girls’ locker room turned to the cheer leader tryouts. My disappointment and feelings of failure welled up in me and threatened to spill out in the form of tears. I raced out of the locker room onto the field, and started running its perimeter. As my heart started pumping faster, and my breathing became more deliberate, the heart-ache and pain of not feeling included rose up, and were expelled on an out-breath. Again and again the sadness came up, and again and again I breathed it out. I don’t recall my specific thoughts, but after several laps I felt calm and resolute. This thing I had wanted had not happened for me, and I was sad, but I was ready to carry on.

The New Age group I belonged to as a young adult employed a technique known as rebirthing. I see rebirthing as similar to meditation: it is a time of great stillness where you minimize distractions so that whatever is in your subconscious can express itself and be heard. Rebirthing was believed to be a shorter path than meditation to reaching a state of higher consciousness, or peace, or knowingness. The technique itself involves lying down and breathing very rapidly, almost like hyper ventilating. Sometimes a practitioner guides you through this, particularly if painful memories start to surface. The term rebirthing comes from the belief that through this practice, a person can release all of their past traumas through the breath, all the way back to their own birth.

Not long after becoming a single mom I went to one of their weekend-long trainings in Seattle. A male participant took a liking to me. Unfortunately, something about his appearance reminded me of my ex-husband. Rather than appealing to me, he frightened me. I did my best to avoid him, but as we returned from a break he managed to sit right next to me. And oh lucky me, the topic for this section was “sex.” I felt self-conscious and increasingly uncomfortable as our presenters spoke frankly about sex and our common misgivings about it. My breathing became more and more shallow, as I wished myself away. At one point we were invited to share thoughts that came up for us about sex. I stopped breathing. The fellow next to me shared with glee, “hot and sweaty.”

I bolted to the back of the room, behind the rows of seats, and sat down with my back against the wall. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.

On the cusp of launching into my personal adventure over a decade ago, I spent four months living at a Zen Buddhist hermitage in northwest California. My brother, a Buddhist monk, ran the hermitage for a few years. It was part of a much larger Buddhist community spanning several states and parts of England as well. The hermitage was surrounded by national forest. The buildings were dark and dank, and electricity was only used for a few hours each evening.

Every day started and ended with 45 minutes of meditation. At first I found this excruciating, to sit still for forty-five minutes. I was dismayed to discover that my mind’s chatter was constant, and often very critical. My body would itch, and cramp, and stiffen. My thoughts would create one urgency after another. I would categorize all of the wrongs ever committed against me, all the irritations I’d ever experienced, all the things I could hardly wait to start just as soon as the bell marked the end of meditation…

It was unbelievable how difficult the task of maintaining focus on one thing: my breath coming in and going out. How many hundreds, thousands of times did I have to bring my attention back to my breath, reminding myself that my thoughts had my attention most of the time; for these forty-five minutes they needed to take a break.

I wondered how it was to be a monk, to meditate even more than this, to live a life that was a walking meditation, a living meditation.

I will never forget the one time my thoughts fell silent. In my head, in my body, for a few moments there was complete stillness. I can best describe it as standing on a bluff at night, looking up at a vast sky, with a cleansing wind blowing through my hair, my body, my mind. But there was no bluff, no sky, no wind. Just stillness. Silence. Void.

I was overjoyed and relieved to finally experience the silence sought by meditating. It was incredible to actually experience a moment without any thought, any impulse, anything. That happened over ten years ago, and I have yet to re-experience it. Ever since, my meditations are again crowded by competing thoughts and body spasms and impulses.

While I was attending the parks law enforcement academy, I found myself challenged to my limits. I was struggling mightily with some of the required components, and I started to doubt myself. Some personal issues from my past intruded into my present and I felt overwhelmed. I worried that I would psyche myself out and not make it through academy, which would bring an end to my ranger career: the stakes were high. I sought out a therapist to help me with staying calm and confident to get through this challenging time. She taught me a technique to combat unwanted thoughts and feelings with deliberate breathing. My past would intrude, and I would expel it from my thoughts by forcing air out of my lungs quickly and fully. Self-doubt would intrude, and I would push it out with my breath. I imagined all these unwanted thoughts and feelings being expelled forcefully on my outbreath. For the final weeks of academy, I blew out a lot of negativity!

Breathing is so vital to life, our bodies do it unconsciously. Purposeful breathing grounds us in our bodies, grounds us in the present moment. Breath is Life.

I have been told that trauma is not about the actual event. It is about getting stuck in that experience, unable to move through it. Our bodies somehow never leave the traumatizing event. Our breath gets caught, and the traumatic event is trapped inside us.

My therapist keeps encouraging me to develop a mindfulness practice. But “practice” is synonymous with routine, regimen, commitment. These are things that take vast amounts of effort now. In fact there are only two commitments I’ve been able to keep somewhat consistently over the past couple years: getting myself to work if at all possible, and staying away from alcohol. That is my practice: going to work and staying sober. Everything else is just suggestions.

But on occasion I will read a few pages in a book on mindfulness, or listen to one of my tapes. And by mindfulness, they mean to be absolutely here in the present moment. And the way to learn to do that is to focus on the breathing. Like meditation. To fully experience being present in this body we are living in, kept alive by the air coursing through us.

Sometimes I’ll tell my therapist that a particular voice on a particular tape really irritates me; or the plodding pace of another makes me want to smash the disk. And she’ll encourage me to try something else until I find a voice, a pace, a style, that works for me.

I have had the most success with Deirdre Fay, Her program called Safely Embodied takes me through guided processes where I learn to tune in to my breath, to my body, and learn to control my body’s responses. In time this is intended to help me manage anxiety, panic, and other symptoms of trauma.

During a visit from my son and his girlfriend, I asked for their recommendations on help with sleeping as I’d been experiencing increased insomnia and nightmares. Chris and Selena have a wealth of knowledge about natural remedies, both the ones that are ingested and behavioral, and their generation isn’t bogged down by decades of obsolete advice. They suggested that in preparation for sleep I turn off all electronics, because those objects actually interfere with the body relaxing. They suggested a cool shower to help slow things down. I tried this one night, then sat cross-legged on my bed listening to a Deirdre Fay tape; when it was time I fell asleep almost instantly.

I have since developed a routine around bedtime, encouraged by the enormous and immediate benefits of that first experience. At least an hour before bedtime I turn off my computer. It is hard to turn it off and walk away, but I do it. I shower, trying to remember to turn the temperature down at the end. It always seems like it will be awful, but the cool water actually feels very soothing. Then I light a couple candles in my bedroom, lightly spritz the air with some lavender, and turn off the electric lights. I turn on one of my mindfulness tapes and spend 15 to 20 minutes of guided, focused breathing.

This has been my solitary successful attempt at incorporating healthy habits into my daily life. Plans to walk, stretch, do yoga, meditate, jog, bike ride, avoid sugar and caffeine, socialize more, get out of my head more, have so far been fruitless. But my little ritual above has led to feeling relaxed as I quickly fall off to sleep, and thus encourages me to keep it up. I do believe that by nurturing this ritual, I will slowly move towards incorporating other healthful habits into my life.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Friday, March 21, 2014

RANGERING: November 2004

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.

Astoria from Goonie Hill
I loved my little Astoria home on Goonie Hill, overlooking the Columbia River. But my landlords and I weren’t getting along; in particular regarding my dog Jackie. So I found an affordable place across the river on the Long Beach Peninsula, just ten minutes from work, and just like that decided to move to Washington.

When he heard I was moving, the park manager Ron asked me who was helping. When I responded, “just me,” he offered himself and maintenance guy Don to help me move. I felt a bit embarrassed, wondering why I “rated” to receive help from the park manager. But I accepted. Ron gave me some furniture that was his daughters before she went to college: a twin bed, dresser, night stand, and rocking chair. Suddenly I've gone from one pickup truck load of possessions to three.

My new home is a dump. It's a single-story four-plex, with each unit next to the other in a long line and fronted by a porch that extends the entire length. My belongings are piled high in the living room. The front blinds have several missing sections, reducing my privacy. The second bedroom, which shares a wall with my neighbors, reeks so badly of cigarette smoke that I've moved everything out of it and shut the doors, hoping it will buffer the rest of the house from the stench. My wall neighbors argue frequently, and loudly vomit during the day. All the other occupants store their furniture on the long front porch.

One evening I was washing dishes at the sink, facing the small window towards the front of the complex. I saw my neighbor walk to my end of the porch where there is a water spigot, and lean down. When he stood back up, his face just a few feet from mine, he craned his head this way and that, trying to see through my window. I looked at him in disbelief. Was he going to smile and wave? He didn’t. I couldn’t tell if he saw me, but after a moment he walked away.

I feel trapped. Suddenly my belongings won't fit in a pickup truck, let alone my sedan. My neighbors are likely meth addicts and are definitely creepy. Why did I leave Astoria, the home I chose after so much careful research? What am I doing living on an isolated peninsula that is hardly a cultural Mecca, more of a retirement community, vacation retreat, and home to meth addicts? I suspect I've made a mistake moving to this place. The change was too much, too fast. With so much transition this past year, this move has rattled me. I feel isolated and friendless.

My nightly beach walks with Jackie are my salvation. One night I saw little dots of light all over, seemingly in the middle of the ocean, moving this way and that with impressive speed and agility. If they were boats, how could they move so fast? As I got closer, I realized the lights were attached to people who were out at low tide digging for clams. They were not, in fact, little boats darting around like lightning bugs. The tide was so low, the beach extended far out towards the horizon. The twinkling lights up and down the beach were magical and quite charming.

After stretching my legs, I set my timer and broke into a run. Jackie, delighted to have her leash removed, raced ahead of me. As the lights from the clammers dwindled behind me, blackness descended. It was completely overcast, with no hint of moon or stars in a completely dark sky. As I ran along, I found that I was able to see just enough. I puzzled at this, then looked at the ocean. The cresting waves were giving off a faint luminescence. It was lovely.

Less lovely was Jackie’s smell when she came racing back to me. She obviously found a dead sea creature to wriggle and writhe all over. She reeked of sickly sweet decaying flesh, a smell I will not forget. The evening ended with a dog bath, followed by a long shower for me.

Eva and I wrestled the heavy auger into the back of her truck, which was already filled with PVC pipes and signs. “So tell me again what we’re doing?”

We got in and drove out of the park. “At the north end of the peninsula we’ve discovered some snowy plover nests. The snowy plover is endangered, so we’re sectioning off a part of the beach where nests have been found to help protect them.”

“Their nests are right on the beach?”

Snowy Plovers
Eva laughed. “That's partly why they’re endangered. They scoop little divots out of the sand, and lay their eggs in them. The eggs are speckled, blending into the sand. Good for avoiding detection from predators, but humans can tromp all over them without even noticing. And we want to keep vehicles from driving along there as well.”

“Didn’t you say this was up north towards Leadbetter State Park? Isn’t driving illegal up there?”

“Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean people don’t do it. Hopefully the signs will be an added deterrent. Plus, it makes a stronger case if we have to write tickets. David and his friend Dan will join us. They’ll be volunteering their time.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, I have a pretty cool husband.”

It was a beautiful day for a drive. Occasionally we’d pass one of the crossroads that lead to beach approaches, and see snippets of the ocean. Finally we arrived at Pacific Pines, the furthest north legal beach approach on the peninsula. David and Dan were waiting in a pickup at the beach approach; they followed us onto the beach. Our two large, four-wheel-drive pickups handled the beach well, which had a wide swath of hard-packed dirt. Eva explained to me where the razor clam beds were, and why vehicles were required to drive on the upper-most hard-packed sand to best avoid driving on the clam beds, crushing or smothering the clams.

After passing into the no-vehicle area, we saw a pickup in the distance. It was gold in color, and looked like one used by Fish and Wildlife, another agency that could access this beach for official business –including patrolling it for illegal driving.

We stopped and got out, conferring on how best to delineate the area and place the signs. David and Eva tried placing the first sign. They put the auger upright, and each held onto a handle near the top. It motored up with a crank pull, and the blade started corkscrewing around, digging its way down into the sand. They lifted up, and sand poured out on all sides; then down it went again. After several repetitions they hoisted it up and turned it off, then set it on the ground. The PVC pipe fit in easily, buried a few feet down into the sand. They turned it with the sign facing out, and we all took turns stomping the sand down all around the base of the pipe.

Dan threw the end of a rope, weighted down with a metal disk, down by the sign. We got into our respective trucks and drove. The rope stretched out, Dan holding the other end. As it approached full length, we stopped and got out again. This measured the distance between the signs, about 200 feet. This time Dan and I grabbed hold of either side of the auger, and he started it up. The entire contraption tried to twist clockwise, prompting my body to follow it. I braced my feet more firmly, and tightened my grip on the handle. By the time we lifted the auger out, I was crouched low with my butt sticking out, and legs spread wide apart. Dan had maintained a nonchalant posture, practically able to control the auger one-handed. I laughed at myself.

The rope with the disk end was pulled in, and off we went again to mark the next 200 feet. We easily fell into a good rhythm, though I never quite mastered the auger. I knew my arms would be mighty sore the next day.

Early the next week I arrived at work to find a note from Eva. It was her day off, and she wanted me to return to the beach where we had planted the signs. We had had some strong gale-force winds a couple days earlier, and some of the signs had been turned the wrong way in its force.

Since the park aide trucks did not have four-wheel-drive, and since I was not allowed to drive a law enforcement truck, she made another suggestion. I could take our Gator, a small all-terrain vehicle, load it onto the trailer, attach the trailer to the old one-ton truck, and drive up to the beach approach. From there I would drive onto the beach with the Gator. This involved a number of things I had never done before, including hitching up the trailer to the one-ton. As I was wrestling with the trailer hitch, it occurred to me that I would not feel safe getting onto the road without someone else making sure I’d done it right. I got on my radio. “26, Base.”

“Base, go ahead.” It was Steve’s voice, the other night ranger.

“Don’t suppose anyone is available to show me how to hitch up the trailer to the one-ton?”

“Yeah, I’ll be over in a couple minutes. You’re at the shop now?”


“Parks 332.”


I looked at the various cables and plugs and was grateful help was on its way.

“Parks 122, 26.”

Joseph. I fished out my radio. “26.”

“What do you need to use the trailer for?”

Uh, oh. “Eva instructed me to take the Gator onto the beach to work on some signs we put up the other day.”

“What’s this for?”

“Protecting the snowy plovers.”

“And what happened to the signs?”

I tried to keep my impatience out of my voice. “The strong winds we had spun them around.”

There was a long pause.

Finally, “There won’t be any trips with the Gator on the beach today. If you need some ideas of projects to work on, come find me in the welcome station. Parks 122.”

“26,” I grumbled, and forcefully stuffed my radio back into its holder. What was that about? He clearly didn’t have something else he wanted me to do, or he would have said so. Damn. Since Eva wasn’t here, any ranger had the authority to tell me what to do.

I wound up the cables on the trailer and parked the one-ton back in its spot. I went into the maintenance shop and took several long, deep breaths. I started cleaning up the shop, putting away tools, sweeping off counters, the floor. It was always a mess, like most shops.

Most nights I enjoy taking a stroll on the beach with Jackie. However one night I was in a hurry to get home and have some dinner, so following Washington tradition I drove my Toyota Avalon right onto the beach. When Jackie had gone potty and I was ready for her to get back into the car, she got a naughty glint in her eyes and deliberately ran away from me. After several attempts to catch her, I decided I would teach her a lesson and pretend like I was driving away. Being cranky and impatient, I got in the car and gunned it – and the tires spun in the soft sand, sinking down into it. I then tried to maneuver forwards and backwards to get out, but lacking finesse only managed to bury the car to the hilt. After a brief and futile experiment digging with bare hands, I managed to get Jackie on leash and walked home. 

After my distress call, David and Eva came to the rescue bearing three shovels; in no time I was free again. When Eva and I had a moment alone, I told her about Joseph taking me off her assignment.

“The local Audubon Society had requested we do this project, and they’re the ones who called me to let me know the signs needed to be straightened. What did he have you work on instead?”

“Nothing. He didn’t have anything in mind. It was so frustrating!”

“I’ll talk to him. Don't worry about it.”

Eva instructed me to drive back to the park that night and use the multi-directional carwash to rinse off the sand before it adhered itself to the underbelly of my car. It was fun driving forwards, backwards, making sure the sprays reached every nook and cranny, removing all the sand that was embedded there. For the hundredth time that night, as I turned off the spray, I vowed to never drive my car onto the beach again.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Relationship with Relationships

A couple weeks ago I started to create a profile for an online dating site. It was my intent that this was just a starting point, but despite my intentions the profile went public and I promptly got some responses.

It freaked me out a bit; I wasn’t quite ready to start dating. But I cautiously replied to a woman who made some mention of our lack of proximity, and how that took pressure off the romance part, and she thought we might strike up a friendship based on similar values. I told her a little about where I am in my life, and things that are important to me.

In her reply she described where she is in her life, how she is in romantic relationships, the kind of romantic partner she’s looking for, and her family’s eagerness that she find her life partner.

It is difficult for me to explain why this freaked me out so much. In fact I put it out of my mind for several days. Then it dawned on me that indeed I am not ready to date. Her change in tactics (from lets-be-penpals, to are-you-my-life-partner) made me feel tricked, lured in under false pretenses. Reading that she feels protective towards her significant other made me feel stifled, suffocated. Mentioning her family’s support made me wonder why she already wanted to introduce me to her family, before she and I had even met. I felt panicky, put upon, overwhelmed, angry, and exhausted. Phew!

So I wrote her a very nice thanks-but-no-thanks reply, and deleted my profile.

I would love to feel the romance and excitement of the early days of dating. I truly hope that someday I will share my life with someone special. I never would have guessed that I would spend so much of my adulthood single. And when I left California in pursuit of my long-held dreams, I anticipated putting off romance for a year or two until I felt settled in a new career and in a new community. Right.

There have been many times in recent years that I have determined “I’m not ready to date:” sometimes after brief and unsuccessful forays into that activity, other times after simply playing it out in my mind. I think about my daily struggle to keep my life from fragmenting into thousands of little disparate bits; of the times I need the privacy of my own home to let painful emotions come in like waves until in time they recede. I recall how overwhelmed I feel if I have several emails in my In Box, and resentful that I am expected to reply to all of them. I’m far too screwed up to try to share my life with someone, to take into consideration someone else’s feelings and needs, to either pretend to be normal or to learn to be vulnerable with my neuroses.

But then I think of all the imperfect humans I’m sharing this planet with, many of whom are in relationships with other imperfect humans. They are allowed to seek out imperfect love; why can’t I?

I’ve mentioned that in my early adulthood I became indoctrinated into the culture and beliefs of a New Age group. I will say that I learned not only a lot about myself, but a lot of skills that continue to help me sift through internal struggles. But much of what I took from these teachings was not helpful.

For a long time, I pursued a young man who was in a committed relationship. He entertained a friendship and some flirtation with me, but never suggested that we could have more. (I was young, immature, and self-centered, and I feel remorse for all of this… but that is not where I’m going with this.) For months I would find ways to seek him out, overtly and stealthily, to try to generate his romantic interest. We had many discussions during this time, I even had one horrendous talk with his very angry girlfriend, all of which I filtered through my philosophy that everything happens for a reason (by which I mean, everything happens the way it does in order to provide me with exactly what I need to learn and grow). Through this process, I seemed to work through some personal issues around attraction to unavailable people and pain around rejection. Ultimately I lost both friendships and walked away feeling wounded, yet as though I had somehow “processed” an entire relationship with this fellow.

Perhaps I need to explain what was meant by “process,” as it was a popular term with this New Age group. Processing is taking what is happening in the world around you, and using it as a motivator for talking or breathing through your unresolved emotional wounds, or to unearth erroneous beliefs that you have developed. An example would be the erroneous belief that “I’m unlovable.” By taking the experiences and my feelings around pursuing an unavailable man, I was able to reveal this personal belief that I’m unlovable, and expel those beliefs through a technique of talking and breathing. Truly, whether the relationship happened or not, was successful or not, if it enabled me to get to my personal truth, it had done was it was meant to do.

So even though I hadn’t experienced any of the pleasure around a romantic relationship, only lots of angst and hurt and frustration, because I processed my feelings I achieved what I needed to; and my need to have him in my life was concluded.

After this young fellow came the obligatory father figure. This man was twice my age, and for the life of me I can’t recall what attracted me to him. But he talked a good New Agey line, and I was hooked. He and I actually did become romantic, and our relationship lasted maybe two or three weeks. Same thing. Through rigorous processing, we helped each other to reach deeper personal understandings, and then parted ways.

This actually brought me to the darkest time in my life. I recall driving home from his place after breaking up, wondering what the point was to relationships if we were only meant to serve each other in this rather clinical way, and if we both knew the processing technique, we really didn’t need an entire relationship to work through our stuff. Just a few weeks, and we’d have concluded whatever we were meant to learn together. What was the point of relationships, then? I felt like I was on a speed train, racing through my “lessons” so quickly there wasn’t opportunity to savor. Or to just Be. My future loomed ahead and it seemed too bleak and lonely to bear.

A good two years passed before I simultaneously left the group, and started to climb out of my depression. After breaking with the New Age group, at least I could enter into romances without the preoccupation with processing through our own stuff. In fact of my three significant romantic relationships, none of my partners was able to “process.” None possessed skills in talking through things to determine if either of us was reacting to old, unresolved injuries. Arguments rarely led to vocalizing old hurts, or understanding ourselves and each other better.

All three relationships were quite different, as were my three partners. And to some extent I’m sure I was different in each relationship as well. What was consistent however is that over time, it became difficult for me to distinguish between what I wanted, and what “we” wanted (really, what they wanted). I would lose myself in the relationships. It happened slowly and incrementally, and oh so subtly. And all three relationships ended in the same way, when I realized in a moment of crystal clarity that I had lost myself, and I had to get away from the relationship to find myself again. In all three relationships, I had gotten so far from living honestly with myself that there was no chance of changing the dynamics of these relationships and finding a new way of being me within them.

I like myself better when I’m single. I am more true to myself when I’m single. I don’t let others tell me what I want and what I feel when I’m single. It’s easy to hold the line when the only person I’m holding it for is me.

What I think of most now, when I ponder that time that I will enter again into a relationship, is how I will hold on to Me. Having three ex-relationships, I am fearful of getting it wrong again. I don’t want ever again, after putting years into combining lives, hopes and dreams, to wake up one morning and not find me. It is a terrifying prospect. How will I know when I’m ready? And once I’m in a relationship, how will I know if I’m starting to slip? And if I start to slip, will I be able to do the work to change the relationship’s dynamic?

Phew. It is exhausting being me. In fact it is so exhausting even contemplating a relationship, what makes me think I can be in one?

And why does my brain never, ever stop churning and worrying and wondering and processing? Other peoples’ brains don’t do that. In fact some of the happiest people I’ve known aren’t particularly deep thinkers. I truly envy them.

So who knows. Perhaps I will be fortunate in that I will stumble upon a friendship that leads to a romance, and things will progress slowly and gently enough that I feel able to stay with it. One more step, one more day. Sometimes I read or hear something that gives me hope: I don’t have to be perfect. I couldn’t be perfect if I tried. There is hope for all of us imperfect humans, hope that we will find friendship, love and community, even with our imperfections.

Dear Human,
You’ve got it all wrong. You didn’t come here to master unconditional love. That is where you came from and where you’ll return.
You came here to learn personal love. Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love. Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love. Infused with divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling. Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up. Often.
You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are. You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous. And then to rise again into remembering. But unconditional love? Stop telling that story.
Love, in truth, doesn’t need ANY other adjectives. It doesn’t require modifiers. It doesn’t require the condition of perfection. It only asks that you show up. And do your best. That you stay present and feel fully. That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall and get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU.
It’s enough.
It’s Plenty.
Courtney A. Walsh

I will show up today. And that will be enough.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

RANGERING: October 2004 (4)

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning. 

Eva had left me a note asking me to switch out the fluorescent light fixtures in the ranger station. We’d done enough at this point that I felt confident doing so without her. I switched off the breaker to the lights and wrestled the ladder into pace. I climbed up and saw that these fixtures were attached to the ceiling with a screw I didn’t have a bit for. It seems to be a park rule to mix-and-match screw styles, so that no single screw driver or bit can be used on any one project. Perhaps this is a deliberate anti-vandalism tactic, I’m not sure.

Park aides Sue and Ralph were in the front of the ranger station where campers and park visitors come to register. Ralph didn’t have any work to do there, so he was apparently killing time, something he was good at. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Switching out the light fixtures to a more energy-efficient kind. Eva and I have been replacing these throughout the park. I’m trying to finish up one of the last buildings.”

“Is it hard?”

“No, not really. But since I’m dealing with electricity, it’s important to do it right.”

Frustrated by my delay, I walked to the maintenance shop to find a screw bit that would fit. I took several of varying sizes. Since working at the park I have discovered handy things such as Phillips screw heads come in different sizes, and if you try to use a Phillips bit that is too small you end up stripping the screw.

A few minutes later I was back up on the ladder with the right bit in the cordless drill. I looked down at the circuit breaker, but specifically remembered turning it off. As I started loosening the screw, I jumped as I felt a small sting in my hand. That was strange. I put the drill back to the screw and tried again; again I felt a sharp sting in my hand. I pulled the drill away as suspicion started to grow.

I climbed down the ladder and set the drill down, then walked over to the circuit breaker. The switch had been returned to the “on” position; the sting in my hand was an electrical shock. Sue and Ralph were still in the front of the ranger station, engrossed in a soft-spoken conversation. No lights were turned on. Nothing had changed except for the breaker. My mouth tightened and my brows furrowed. I knew one of them had done it, and I imagined them doing it on purpose, sneakily. I wanted to yell, “You almost fucking killed me, you morons! Do you dislike me that much you’d be willing to kill me?”

O'Neil Lake
Instead, face red with anger, I stormed out of the office and walked towards O’Neil Lake. They could have killed me. True, it was my fault not putting a lock-out/tag-out on the breaker. And yes, I should have double checked it when I came back into the office. But that didn’t excuse them. They knew what I was doing. They had no reason to turn that breaker on. They had been fucking with me. I was so angry I could hardly see straight, as I walked quickly and angrily along the perimeter of the lake.

I walked for about twenty minutes until I felt my anger subside. When I walked back into the ranger station Ralph had left. I checked the circuit breaker and returned to the light fixture.

A few minutes later Ranger Bob came in at the start of his shift. “Hey, I’ve seen you and Eva doing that around the park. Tell me about it.”

“Well, these are more energy-efficient light fixtures, and we’re working our way through the entire park, switching the old ones out. It’ll be a huge cost savings over time.”

“That’s great. Can you show me how you’re doing it?”

“Sure, no problem.”

So a park aide taught a ranger how to switch out light fixtures: being certain that the power is off, identifying the colored wires, attaching the ground. We got through the three fixtures in the ranger station before he had to do his campground patrol. I gathered up all the tools, garbage and recyclables, and put them away. It felt enormously gratifying having learned this new skill well enough to pass it on to someone else.

As the days shortened and most of the summer park aides ended their tours of duty, I was asked to cover the office from time to time. This involves answering telephones and checking in campers and park visitors on the computer. Being dragged inside from the beautiful outdoors makes me feel like I’m being grounded. However I am learning far more about the park and how it is run. And of even more interest is my exposure to the rangers. While working outside I am typically working solo and do not have many conversations with the rangers. The office is where the rangers come to write up incident reports and to discuss park issues. I feel privileged hearing them debate probable cause, misdemeanors vs. felonies, and defensive tactics. The rangers keep a log of incident reports, and I am creating a spreadsheet index of these incidents so that they can look up repeat offenders and reference past incidences.

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center was the venue for a ground-breaking event for the introduction of the new national and multi-state Lewis & Clark Historical Park. On the day of the event our park was filled with important muckety-mucks in all sorts of uniforms, both ranger and military, to celebrate this new collaboration. I helped shuttle people from the main park entrance to the LCIC, which has limited parking, in a small van. Part of the route is a very steep, narrow and windy road, and on one of my trips up, a muckety-muck in a hurry to depart came racing head-on towards me in his large SUV. I screeched to a halt, but he continued fast towards me as if he thought there was room to pass (there wasn’t). At the last possible moment, he slammed on his brakes and his SUV skidded to within a foot of the front of my vehicle. I slowly backed up to a turn-out, with him pursuing closely the entire way. After he finally was able to get by and I resumed my ascent, I saw the deep gouges his tires had made in the mud on the shoulder as he’d skidded to a stop.

I have made the decision to apply to become a Washington State Park Ranger. The lengthy application process involves fitness training and filling out incredibly personal forms. While working the office I ask the rangers questions like, “on the sit-ups, exactly what do they mean by ‘shoulders touching the floor’?” I get to hear stories about their application process, and the crazy questions they were asked in the psychological evaluation such as, “True or False, some days I wake up evil,” or “I have a super power I’ve never told anyone about.”

My exercise regimen has been sporadic since arriving in Astoria, but I am going to start a more rigorous fitness routine. Ranger requirements include a one-and-a-half mile run, 300 yard sprint, 20 pushups, bench pressing 70% of my body weight, 32 sit-ups in one minute, and a vertical jump. Upper body exercise has never been my thing; and growing up I disdained contact sports. So as a teenager I fell into cross country running. The solitary activity that focused more on endurance than speed suited me well, but my noodle arms had never been tested.

Getting dressed in sweats and clearing a space on my living room floor, I started with the pushups. Twenty pushups. That sounded like a lot to me. I stretched my legs back, balancing on my toes, and slowly bent my elbows. A baseball cap under my chest marked the required four inches from the ground. I lowered myself down, then with arms shaking horribly made it back up. Second time, my arms buckled and my body collapsed onto the floor. Well, at least I could eke out one.

School filmed in Kindergarten Cop
The sit-ups were far easier. I cranked out two dozen and thought that was a good starting place. I drank some water and headed out the door. I did a few leg stretches, then walked briskly down Goonie Hill to the paved road. I had measured out a route the other day in my car, marking a two-mile circuit. I ran past the school filmed in Kindergarten Cop, and uphill from there. Being built on a hill, the neighborhoods of Astoria are great places to get a workout whether walking or jogging. My lungs weren’t able to suck in enough air, but my legs felt strong and certain of themselves. I tried to remember the last time I’d been running, and guessed about four years ago. Nice that the muscles had retained strength and memory. The two miles wasn’t easy, but neither was it unbearable.

The next day I felt pleasantly tired and sore, but my knees and ankles were very unhappy with me. I guess running on sidewalks should be kept to a minimum. Both Astoria High School and Ilwaco High School have nice rubberized tracks. The Ilwaco high school is on my way to work, so two days a week I will head in early for a two-mile run, then use the shower in the trailer before starting my work shift. And I will alternate lower body workouts and upper body workouts on different days.

One evening I finished my shift and as arranged, met Eva in the ranger station office for a ride-along. She smiled at me as I came in.

“One of our camp hosts called me. There’s a report of a dead sea lion on the beach near some campsites. He’s decomposing, so he smells and there’s a health risk for kids playing around it.”

“Does that happen often?”

“Every once in a while. Life isn’t easy in the ocean, and sometimes critters die. Who knows what happened to it. But I think this might be one that we buried a few months ago, and the tides slowly worked him back up to the surface again.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Bury him again.”

“Won’t he just come back up?”

“Maybe. We’re going to take the back hoe and dig a really deep hole this time.”


We walked over to the maintenance shop. On the way I grabbed my park ball cap and work gloves from my truck. Eva opened the bay door and started the tractor motor as she walked around it to make sure everything looked operational. She told me that if I needed to alert her once we started going, I would need to tap on her shoulder to get her attention. I hopped into the jump seat on the backhoe side of the tractor, facing backwards. We drove out of the shop and onto the campground road. We bounced along at a good clip for a tractor, and a smile crept across my face as I turned my face into the coldness and the wind. Half a mile down the road, the sky went from hazy dusk to absolutely black and the sky opened up. Rain pounded on us, drenching us completely in seconds and reducing visibility; I could hardly keep my eyes open, the rain was hitting so hard. I was grateful for my extra layers, but the wind and wetness cut through to my skin and I was freezing. Eva was wearing short sleeves still; she must be miserable.

Where the road takes a sharp turn to the right, we continued straight ahead onto a fire access road. Eva stopped the tractor and looked back at me. I swung down and opened the gate, a pole hinged on one stump and resting on another; at its open position is another stump for it to rest on. Eva drove through the gate and paused for me to close the gate and hop back on. We drove onto the sandy beach in the pouring rain and darkness. Eva pulled out a large flashlight from somewhere and shined it towards the driftwood and dune grasses. We drove on, sometimes coming closer to the dune grasses, sometimes further away, weaving our way in and out of the driftwood. Then out of the darkness materialized a shape that didn’t fit in – it was smooth and rounded. We stopped and got off the tractor, approaching the sea lion corpse. The stench was overpowering. Eva checked to make sure it wasn’t tagged, which would have identified it as a sea lion that is being monitored.

Eva handed me the flashlight and climbed into the jump seat to operate the backhoe. She maneuvered the arm and started digging a hole near the dead creature. I shined the flashlight on the area. It seemed to be going slowly, and a scowl started to show on Eva’s face. The hole didn’t seem terribly deep, but Eva used the backhoe arm to push the sea lion. He nose-dived into the hole, half of him in the hole and half of his body sticking straight up out of it. Eva tried to dig the hole bigger near the rear part of his body, then lowered the backhoe to the ground and turned the engine off. She hopped down.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve used the backhoe. I couldn’t seem to get it to work right.” She took two shovels out of the tractor bucket and handed one to me. She also came up with a couple pairs of leather gloves, a set of which I pulled on. The rain had slowed to a steady pour. We started digging, trying to deepen the hole so the end of the sea lion would fall into it. It was tough work. I wasn’t cold anymore, but my arms were getting tired. I knew if I pushed myself too much it would trigger a migraine. But with Eva chugging away, removing large piles of sand with every scoop, I kept shoveling.

Despite my intentions, my digs became more and more shallow, and pretty soon I was doing little more than flicking bits of sand away from the sea lion. I felt inadequate and embarrassed.

Eva handed me her flashlight. “Here, can you just shine it in there so I can see better?”

I was sure she gave me the flashlight since I was so pitiful with the shovel. I did my best to hold it steady while she kept digging. Finally she fired up the tractor again and pushed the upright part of the sea lion’s body until it fell into the new opening. It looked like it fit this time. Again she turned off the tractor and picked up a shovel. I decided to stick with the flashlight. My arms felt like they were going to fall off, and the back of my neck had a searing pain. Damn!

The drive back was miserable. I was soaked both from rain and sweat, and the breeze kicked up by our passing cut right through to my skin. Eva drove faster this time, and the tractor bounced around like crazy; I hung on for dear life. I was shaking and shivering by the time we got back to the maintenance shop and parked the tractor. Eva’s bare arms were covered in goose bumps.

We put our tools away in silence, and walked over to the ranger station. It was locked up and dark, long since closed up for the day. We entered, and Eva turned the thermostat up high; we shed our outer layers and waited for heat to work its way into the room and into our bodies.

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