angels landing

I (Still) Got a Woman.

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So this morning I’m sitting on my bed, back propped up with pillows, cranking away at my keyboard, as I have been for the last several weeks-worth of mornings just like this one.  I’m busily transcribing the chicken-scratched edits from a hard copy of my book manuscript, clicking “save” more than is probably necessary, as I am terrified of losing the 260 or so digital pages comprising this memoir that have been over a year in-the-making. And I am in full-on “racing mode,” rather than “creative mode.” It’s as though I am working with someone else’s words rather than my own. So I am not being delicate and emotive here.  I just want to finish typing all the damned edits into the Word doc, like yesterday. Because (although she doesn’t know it yet), a certain famous author will soon have my manuscript pressed into her hands, buttonholed into service by some very helpful friends we share in common (Hi Kelly!). Truth be told, these are more accurately described as my wife’s helpful friends. My own connection to the to-be-conscripted author is rather tenuous (Hi Kelly!). So this is the harried state in which I find myself this morning when I turn to the manuscript’s next page and stumble upon a scene I wrote that transpired exactly 4 years ago today:  On our wedding anniversary.  Woah woah woah, hang on a second, people! Of course I haven’t forgotten about our wedding anniversary; I never do.  But I hadn’t paused yet to savor it. And this sort of thing is definitely worth savoring. So I figured this would be a good time for such a pause to savor. A good time to remind myself how lucky I am to (still) be married to my wife. And a good time to re-post something I wrote four years ago, but that could just as well have been written today (with the addition of a few links here and there for context) —

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I bolt awake at 4:00 am. The Kraken has a baseball tournament in Sunnyvale, the first game of which begins at 8 am. Show up time is 7:00 am. The drive will take an hour. We’ll need to be on the road by 6:00 am. Raising Max from his slumber will take 5 minutes. Tyga’s “Rack City” is my go-to “wakeup” song (not to be confused with “walkup” song) with Max. Guaranteed to jumpstart his sleepy head and elicit some questionable hip-hop moves involving thrusting hips that I should probably forbid. Scrambling around the house collecting all the pieces of Max’s uniform will take 15 minutes. This despite my orders last night to have everything packed, zipped, and ready to go. Net, net, this all means a 5:30 am wake-up call. It’s only 4:00 am now, I see. But I slip out from under the covers anyhow, taking inventory on various aches and pains exacerbated by a night’s sleep that has come up short by a couple hours. This is how I begin the morning of Hilary and my 17th wedding anniversary.

This is what my life has come to. And I can’t imagine it any other way.

We’ve had a rough year, of sorts. Family and friends have passed away. I’ve endured several months of being considerably less than 100% myself. We have weathered a handful of bitter disappointments. Slights real and slights imagined. All of which has served to give me perhaps the deepest and broadest perspective on my marriage, and on my life for that matter, that I’ve managed to feel thusfar in my 45 years.

The lemonade–Grandma’s Lemonade–is tasting pretty good.  Still. Even with the wooden mixing spoon picked up off the floor, particles of dirt stirred in there. Maybe a long black dog hair entwined around one of the ice cubes. A few too many lemon seeds swirling around. One of which tries to ruin my sip by jumping into my thirsty mouth along with a big gulp. Gonna need to try harder than that, seed.

So yeah, I’m feeling thankful this morning, 17 years to the day from when Hilary first showed me how much stronger and tougher she is than I. She strode purposefully down the red-carpeted aisle. Standing tall. Clear-eyed. Solid. I, on the other hand, was a puddle. Tears welled up in my eyes rendering me nearly blind, blinking and squinting to keep my burning eyes trained on my approaching bride-to-be. My throat so tight. Had I spoken aloud during her proud walk, Kermit the Frog’s voice would have come out. At best. My mind reeled, as it would years later when our babies popped out in the delivery room (and years later again when my innards were gripped by the elevation and exposure at Angel’s Landing in Zion). It was all I could do to keep my feet and not topple over.

And things only got worse during the ceremony itself. My Best Man had the foresight to bring along something should I need to wipe my brow or corral a cough. Since this was the same guy who bought the Alien Head for $5, perhaps I should have known that that something would be a wad of hotel toilet paper rather than, say, a situationally-appropriate linen hanky monogrammed with something undeniably masculine.  So there I stood, sweat dripping into my burning, bloodshot eyes overflowing with tears. My cheeks blushing red and feeling like they were on fire. Little pieces of hotel toilet paper clinging to my face as I swabbed myself repeatedly in a desperate attempt to keep my shit together.

Probably being in the House of God and all that stuff did not help. I’ve always managed to feel profoundly uncomfortable there (you may recall the 10th Grade Spurious Communion Incident). Never knowing what to do with my hands, either–probably clasped in front, maybe folded behind my back, but I don’t think in my pockets, probably not in my pockets, no definitely not, get your hands out of your pockets! In this wretched state, I glance at Hilary. Her eyes hold mine. Her smile so calm and confident and comfortable. Her right hand squeezing my left just a bit harder now. Not too hard, though; not really a “keep your shit together” squeeze.  And nowhere near the knuckle-crunching vice grip she would deliver as Max came into the world a few years later.  Rather, just enough pressure to push some of her abundant strength and resolve into me. And somehow, I pull through. Depleted. Drained. Spent. Tapped out.  Sweaty red face dotted with toilet paper pieces.  In the end, I made it. Sure. But only because of her.

I mentioned it’s been a rough year. This is when Hilary is at her best, you see. Our wedding day was just my first glimpse of that truth. So during this recent tough patch of ours, she remains: Unwavering. Loyal. Her hand literally or figuratively squeezing mine. Squeezing all of our hands–my hands as well as those of our sons now, too.  And Wailea’s fuzzy paw, even. She’s got us all.

So these are the warm thoughts in my head as I return to Earth and find that I will be forced to sprint across the chewing tobacco-stained and sunflower seed-littered parking lot in order to catch the start of Max’s 8 am game.

Maybe not exactly the sort of anniversary Hilary had in mind.

Then again, maybe exactly the kind of anniversary she had in mind, because I’m spending the morning with our first-born. His birth was the second time Hilary showed me how much stronger and tougher she is than I. So it seems fitting today that I get to sit and just watch Max zip around the field for the next few hours. One of several amazing things in our life together, the product of our union 17 years ago today.

Happy Anniversary, my love. And please keep squeezing my hand.

Stairway to Heaven.

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Turns out I’m actually not afraid of heights.  Rather, my fear stems from concern about my companions’ well-being at great heights.  I stumbled upon this discovery yesterday, while hiking an especially infamous, anxiety-provoking rock feature in Zion National Park — Angels Landing. 

Known earlier as the Temple of Aeolus, Angels Landing juts up from Zion Canyon to 1,488-feet.  That’s not a particularly daunting data point, though.  Even considering that the Canyon floor itself sits at 4,300 feet above sea level, so the summit tops out at about 5,790 feet.   A bit of altitude is at play, for sure, but it’s a minor player in this drama, at best.  And it is definitely a drama.  The National Park Service website officially recognizes five, non-suspicious fatalities along Angels Landing.  And at least 7 additional deaths have been reported here and there.  I’m amazed this number isn’t 7 per day

The main protagonists at work here, in my view, are (a) the haphazard collection of tools to deliver a hiker to the summit, and (b) the ridiculous frequency of hair-raising exposures over the course of maybe 90 minutes.  

As for protagonist (a), someone indeed cut steps into solid rock circa 1926, but the stairs hardly make for a staircase. Uneven, scattered, leaving off here and picking up there.  I cannot recall more than 30 or 40 features that I could honestly characterize as “steps.” On the other hand, I am grateful for the black chains and stanchions spread, more or less, continuously from the start of the final push to the summit.  I am absolutely bewildered, however, about the handful of naked stretches between chain sections, leaving the hiker totally exposed, almost literally grasping at thin air, all concentration focused on getting within arms’ length of the next section of chain.  Check out this short video from my Facebook page–taken during a fairly “safe” section heading back from the summit–and you’ll see what I mean.

 Gratitude and bewilderment are a heady mix; all the better to make one’s head swim.

This brings me to the second primary factor that makes Angels Landing one of the most feared hikes in the National Parks system:  The exposures.  I never truly comprehended the meaning of the phrase, “my head is swimming” until my head swam yesterday afternoon. Each time I made the mistake of lifting my gaze beyond the relative psychic safety of the 3-foot circumference around my feet, my brain wrestled to compute the impossibly grand scale, the layers upon layers of foreground and background, the unfathomable drops straight down to the clearly visible canyon floor, and the incredibly poor judgment being exercised by the body carrying the brain into this scenario.  Makes me a bit queasy just calling back up these little glimpses.   

Strangely enough, though, I was OK with all of this.  OK because I had figured out that by operating only in the throw of my own headlights, I could reduce the otherwise overwhelming to bite-sized pieces.  Not once did I pause, take in a self-satisfied breath, scan my lofty surroundings proudly, and admire the beauty of it all.  That is a bad strategy.  I didn’t see anyone else do this, either. Rather, I stared mostly at my feet, lifting my iPhone up quickly here and there to snap a picture, paying very little attention to framing, focus, lighting, etc.  I photographed almost apologetically. “Don’t hurt me, Angels Landing.” Remember the scene in Dumb and Dumber in which Lloyd sheepishly and surreptitiously points at Harry when asked by Sea Bass who had just thrown a salt shaker at Sea Bass? 

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I snuck in iPhone camera clicks of my environs the way that Lloyd threw Harry under the bus to Sea Bass in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to avoid getting his ass kicked by Sea Bass.  My Sea Bass was Angels Landing, and I wanted to avoid offending my Sea Bass with brazen picture-taking.  My shitty photos are a testament to my observance of the proper degree of respect.  I’m OK with the poor quality of my little mementos.

The trickiest part for me on this hike was coming to grips with the fact that my hiking companions were all grappling with these same hair-raising dynamics (though probably not analogizing them to a Dumb and Dumber scene).   And while I can control the throw of my own headlights, I can’t control the throw of my companions’ headlights.  Not to mention, several of those companions are years away from their learners permits.  

I can conquer–or at least tame for a time–my own fears.  I am powerless with respect to others’.  

And that is the part that knotted my innards and made me take short little breaths along the spine of Angels Landing. Sure, I deliberately hiked at the front of our group of ten, reassuring myself that I would be able to call out to the others regarding one or another tricky spots, encouraging all to follow a slow and measured pace, maybe communicating with my own body language some sense of calm via my own (seemingly) confident movements from one chain section to another, one carved stone step to another.  

But if I am being honest, they were all on their own.  Every one, ultimately on his or her own. 

Things could have easily gone very wrong on innumerable occasions very quickly, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about that.  Nothing.  That plain truth was at work in my head during the entire hike up and down Angels Landing.  I calculated the odds tied to every sketchy stretch, steep drop, clumsy hiker above us, etc., doing the math on whether the members of my group could accommodate each new risk factor.  

At times, the extent of my inability to avoid something terrible happening to someone I cared about at any moment was near-paralyzing.  I had to regain control of my breath, lower my focus back down to my feet, and resume my plodding course one step at a time.  More importantly, I had to let go.  I had to trust that the others would do the same; that they would figure out on their own how to make it up and back down this very real challenge without experiencing very real consequences.  This, for me, was the hardest part. 

So that’s my main takeaway:  I’m good with heights, it turns out.  I’m not nearly as good with others being good with heights.  But I can’t always control that.  Maybe I can’t control that at all.  So that’s the part I’ll keep working on.  

Thanks for reading.