One thing I was most happy doing in my childhood was riding my bike. When I was 8 years old my parents let me ride my bike just about everywhere in our neighborhood. I mostly went across 7th Avenue to a dirt lot across from a red Catholic Church… which could of been dangerous in itself. I spent hours riding my bike in these makeshift dirt hills that rolled through an open desert lot. I would go over the small jumps and occasionally jump some larger ones. One day, the big jump got the best of me.
I rode my bike like any other day, and as I was cruising through the dusty mounds I saw the biggest jump over a steep ditch. I was by myself and thought, “I could jump that.” Feeling brave with courage, I backed up on the trail to get enough momentum to clear the abyss. My heart was already racing sitting on my bike, and it felt like I could feel adrenaline pouring like sweat from my body. I stood on my bike pedals, leaned closer into the handle bars and started to push down violently towards the ground. I approached the jump and soon lifted off the ground. It felt like slow motion as I glided through the air and in my mind I was thinking, “I’m going to clear this.” I maintained control over my bike and as I approached the end of the jump my front tire cleared the ditch but my rear tire got caught slightly in a root sticking out of the ditch. It was enough to catch my tire.
All the momentum of my bike stopped, but my body didn’t. I continued flying and flipping forward. I felt my rib cage get crushed by the handle bars and soon I could feel the rocks digging into my face and knee caps. I created a nice dust plume, and laid in my miserable pain. All at once the cloud of desert settled, I could feel breath filling my lungs again and the warm blood streaming down my legs.
I jumped back on my bike and limpingly rode it back to the 6th drive house. I walked into the house, and went straight to my bedroom where I fell asleep. I woke up to sore knees, ribs, and bruised face. I went to the restroom to clean off some of the blood and dirt. I dusted my hair and I felt this overwhelmingly euphoric sensation of pain but contentment. I had tried something that caused me so much pain, but despite all the hurt it gave me a great deal of satisfaction and accomplishment knowing I gave it a shot. And the next time, I knew I would make the jump.
Not everything works out…. As much recognition I receive, it will never out number the amount of rejection. Over the past year I’ve had 23 rejection email between papers, book chapters, Jobs, awards, fellowships, etc. The ratio would probably 4 to 1 on the number of acceptances I receive. It’s hard receiving rejection. But over the past few years, I’ve got more used to it and using those lessons to improve.
Sometimes rejection is just a luck of the draw. There could be a bunch of other candidates exactly like you. Sometimes, you do subpar work relative to other people. Sometimes you’re not what someone is looking for, or maybe sometimes the odds are just stacked against you. And life or things you plan don’t always work out.
I was trying to think of the first time I realized things don’t always work out. My parents never got our hopes up, so they didn’t tell us we were doing anything. What we had to look forward too was only the things we had been doing. For example, I rode my bike last week, I can look forward to riding it this week.
Probably the first time I put work into something without seeing my highest expectation was our junior high basketball team. I wasn’t always the best basketball player but I was decent. Our junior high team was called the tar heels. We had the best coach that I’ve literally ever played for and probably the best coach out of many I’ve seen. He focused on fundamentals dribbling, passing and shooting. But he also helped me understand footwork, defense and basketball thinking. We put in work and won a championship for our league, a big deal in the moment. The next season we played, we put in the work. But fell short in our championship game. It was he first time I put in work but didn’t get my expected outcome. I didn’t cry like some of the kids on my team but I did realize nothing was guaranteed.
But I’m grateful for those moment of defeat because it makes me appreciate the victories. I also understand that hard work doesn’t always guarantee a positive outcome. The best I can be is thankful for today and the opportunities to become a little better.
I’ve been going to Carlsbad beach for our family vacation since the early 90s. My Mom, Dad, sisters, cousins, aunties and uncles would all show up. This year, I was privileged to bring both of the kids into that tradition.
We played at the beach and “swam,” in the ocean. A few times the kids were pummeled by waves and Gordie actually caught a wave. He was just as surprised as I was. But I stood close to them each time we drew closer and deeper into the water. Mostly because when I was 8, I got caught in a riptide.
Throughout the year, I would save portions of my money from mowing lawns and buy a boogie board at Target the day we arrived to Carlsbad. I loved to boogie board. As I grew older and braver I went farther into the water and eventually reached the points where my feet could no longer touch the sand beneath. I would float, wait for waves and paddle to catch them. But the day I was caught in the riptide was different.
It took me much farther out than I had ever been. The waves were crashing harder and despite all my panicked efforts to swim to shore, I couldn’t find my wave. My arms and legs grew tired from paddling and I became weaker. I was panicking. I cried and looked for someone to help but there wasn’t a life guard or someone on shore to help. When all felt lost, a surfer appeared behind me. I said, “can you help me sir?” He laughed because I called him sir and he was probably only 17. I said, “I can’t swim in.” He said, “you need to paddle the other direction.” He guided the boogie board and waited for the right wave. He yelled to me, “paddle, paddle.” I gave what little energy I had and felt overwhelming relief as I caught a wave long enough to touch my feet on the ocean floor again.
That’s how I learned to swim through the struggles of a riptide. Along the current. But lie sometimes has me wondering what would have happened if I fell adrift to the ocean. I wonder if I could have eventually found the shore again.
My dad preached quite a few Sundays throughout our childhood. During his sermons he shared stories. One story that I’ve been thinking about lately is about when he was a kid.
The unforgiviness of the Church first came in forms of uncomfortable seating. I would sit in the old wooden pews moving from the left to right butt cheek because of the harsh seats. But I would sit there in those splintered wood pews listening to my dad in the dust filled air of
Camp meetings or in the aroma of mold from semi-condemned makeshift buildings that missionaries boastfully created.
The story my Dad shared was about his wild childhood. I feel like there weren’t helicopter parents in the 50s and 60s like there are today. Even Vanessa and I as parents would be deemed helicopter parents, given our children have constant oversight. But my Nana wasn’t that way.
My Dad started that story, “I was a kid, Johnny and I would be riding our bikes and playing on the ditch banks with the other Native, Mexican and Anglo kids.” My Rez is in the middle agricultural fields constantly growing watermelon, oranges, alfalfa, corn, etc. The ditches were apart of an elaborate irrigation that’s constantly feeding the plants from our river. There were a lot of Mexicans on our Rez because our tribe borders Mexico and there were some poor White kids on our Rez because of the affordability of our trailer parks and living in the area.
My Dad continued his story,”we would be hanging them on the ditchbank. But then the sun was going to set. We knew it was almost time to get home but even then we knew something worse was coming out. All the Mexican kids would be crying and saying La Llorona she’s coming for us. They would get on the dirt bikes and start running away and all the other kids would be laughing because of how scared they were. But then we heard an owl and all the Quechan kids would start jumping on their bikes to rid home. We would be laughing because they were afraid. But the only thing we were all afraid of was Wyatt’s (pseudonym) mom. She would come out and start yelling at us. We were all scared of her because she was mean and would tell our Moms what trouble we were getting in.”
It was the first realization I had as a kid, that everyone feared something individually, but everyone fears the wrath of an angry mother.
Some things are better left unsaid, and somethings need to be said. I remember hanging out with my sister one day back home. I was playing street hockey barefoot in the front yard with some of the neighborhood kids with a broom and a tennis ball. Mighty Ducks had just come out, and we were all trying to act like we could play hockey. Except, I never ice skated a day in my life or owned a hockey stick. Years later my Dad bought me a wood hockey stick for left-handers that was only 2.99 at Play it Again Sports. But I remember that day running around barefoot, and some of the older neighborhood kids came around and started talking. There was a pretty vulgar term I overheard them say, and it stuck in my mind for most of that Spring of my childhood into my Summer.
We were on our trip back from Montana in our blue Astro van with my parents, some minister friends, and Camie. I remember sitting in the back seat, contemplating my life as a 7-year-old. This was the early 90s, and we didn’t have portable TVs, and we couldn’t quite afford a Gameboy just yet. And so I was looking out the window looking at the picturesque scenery of the Glacier Mountain Park when I decided to ask my Mom something. I said to my Mom, “Mom.” She said, “Yes son.” I said, “What does “vulgar term,” mean?” My Mom didn’t say anything, but I’ll say, I got it good. Later on, during that same trip, I choked and eventually swallowed a big Lego… I didn’t tell anyone.
That Lego is probably still stuck in my body somewhere, and I probably should have told someone about the swallowed Lego at the moment, given it was a huge piece of red plastic. But that was my first experience realizing that I didn’t need to speak everything that’s on my mind and also to speak up if something was about to hurt me. A reminder to not fear speaking hurt and to hold peace.
Since I was a kid, I spent time all over the rez during the summers. Some summers I spent with my Nana, some summers I spent with my Uncles and Aunts. And then some summers I spent with my parents traveling to reservations across Turtle Island. We always ate traditional foods and such, and as a child, I would sometimes refuse. I would occasionally push the food around with my fork to make it look like I ate, but I remember my Mom telling me, “Don’t play with your food.” It was a lesson that followed me in my adult years.
One of my college summers I spent in Nebraska for an internship. Quite honestly, I wasn’t doing much with the internship but it gave me a chance to chill with one of my bros. He was like a big brother and I think just about anybody who spent any amount of time with him has a story about his shenanigans. He always liked to be on the move, drive his war pony around and keep busy.
One day we were out and about and we met an older woman. She was super kind and inevitably invited us to her grandson’s 18th birthday. Keep in mind, we just met her that day. My bro said, “Sure, we’ll go.” And before I knew it, evening struck and we were talking with strangers outside a trailer house along the Missouri River. We ate, talked, played guitar and fished. It was a beautiful evening with some awesome Native people. We were swapping stories and toward the latter part of the night around the fire, a little German Shepherd puppy arrived. It was the cutest little dog. My bro saw the little puppy and started to pet him and wrestled the little dog with his hand. He was smiling and while keeping his eyes down fixated on the dog below he asked, “is this puppy for the birthday boy?” The rummage of party noise waned and the sound of night and moonlight replaced the talking. No one answered my buddy. He was still smiling but simultaneously looking around confused. Then his smiled turned into sole confusion.
I was also confused, did we do something? Both of our eyes wandered through the party, and eventually, the lady who extended the invitation walked in our direction. She motioned, and we learned in. She covered her mouth and in a slightly loud whisper said, “it’s for the sacrifice.” My bro who still was petting the puppy until the moment of her whisper immediately stopped and said, “oh.” We were a little taken back, or at least I was. I never heard of that, just because we don’t practice that in our tribe. When we left, I was still confused, but my buddy explained to me they were Sioux and it was part of their traditions. I told my bro, “You shouldn’t play with your food.”
I wish I had more life lessons about fishing. There are tons of parables about fishing and if you like boring movies, “A River Runs Through It,” has life lessons. Nonetheless, I like fishing.
My Dad took us fishing as kids, but it was mostly my Uncle Paul who brought me to the urban water holes. My God brother and I honed most our skills fishing in the canal off Dunlap and 7th Avenue. I remember the cops almost always pulling over and talking with my Uncle. The Phoenix PD were always baffled that we were fishing in the canal, especially in Sunny Slope.
The murky, likely parasitic, water held catfish and we used a homemade stink bait to lure them. Alongside my God Brother, I remember watching my Uncle put the bait together. It was a mixture of sardines, saltine mcrackers and death. It was nasty, but it always brought us a haul of catfish, and every time I didn’t use the bait I caught much fewer fish.
We never dared to test fate and eat the fish, but we did put them in an old white paint bucket. Once we finished showing my Auntie we would take them back to the canal and let them go.
But occasionally we went to other city watering holes at the parks. Once we fished encanto Park. That was the time I threw the pole into the water…. never to see it again. Or I could see it in the shallow water but I didn’t have the proper clothes or tools to retrieve it. It was my uncle Paul’s pole and I sat the rest of the time in disappointment.
If there were a life lessons about fishing, your bait doesn’t matter if you drop your pole, and you won’t ever catch any fish if you don’t grab it. So embrace your pole, embrace your life. And if the pole slips from your hand a little, go pick it back up, or you just may be sitting disappointed for awhile.
We just celebrated Gordie’s third birthday. Any monumental moments in the kids’ lives, I always reflect on how I’m as a father. I had tremendous experiences as a kid traveling, visiting and adventuring into new places and I hope I do the same for my kids. And I become nostalgic about those places I was privileged to visit, and one place that has always been adventurous in my childhood is Whiteriver. And it has been just as adventurous in my adult years.
I was once on a trip visiting friends in the White Mountains. There was a wedding my friends were attending the evening I drove in. I said I would wait at their house, but they mentioned I could attend the wedding with them. I asked if they were sure, but they continued to insist, although I had jeans and random grey short sleeve shirt. As I walked through the church foyer, and through the double doors entering the church, someone yelled, “JD’s here, he’ll help.” I didn’t know what they were going to ask but the groom came up to me and let me know one of his bros didn’t make it and they were a man short. He kindly asked, “would you mind being a groomsman.” I said “sure, but I only have jeans and this shirt.” The guys were wearing suits and tuxedos, but I proudly walked down the aisle with one of the bridesmaids. Now I’m in some random wedding photos in the wedding of a beautiful couple whom I can’t remember their names. But I’ve always known cool and funny stuff happens like that in Whiteriver, even among some of the tragic events. It’s because my Dad spent much of his 20s and brought us as kids to be reservation quite often.
One story I always remember him telling us was about blueberry hill. Blueberry hill during the 70s, I’m not sure if it’s still this way, is where many of the community outcasts and winos would hang out. They would drink morning to night, moon to sun and heat to snowflakes. My Dad was in his mid-20s pastoring in the White Mountains. He often went to blueberry hill because he liked to talk, pray and hang out with those who were struggling with life. He walked his dog out there to his friends. Occasionally his dog would go out to blueberry hill on his own and of the guys would bring him back home. Eventually one of the gentlemen from blueberry hill passed away. The friends asked my Dad to hold the funeral service which he agreed. My Dad asked one of the Apache ministers friends to attend the service with him to interpret. They got to the burial site in the middle of winter and conducted the ceremony. At the gravesite, while snow was drizzling down on the body 6 feet down, one of the friends yelled out, “hey those are my shoes.” He jumped down in the mist of snowfall and grabbed them. Someone else said, “hey that’s my jacket.” He jumped down and grabbed them. My Dad’s friend who was supposed to interpret walked away because he couldn’t believe what was happening but was also laughing with some of the other Apache attendees (the mixture of tragedy and humor is something I’ve only ever seen this with Natives). And my Dad, not quite sure what to make of it at the time, finally got them settled down and finished the ceremony. I mean, why waste a good pair of boots or jacket… like my buddy said, it’s kind of like letting a good organ go. But it made me think about what we will leave for another generation and what will we take from those who are living. And I hope I leave something tremendous for my kids, including my shoes.
I’ve always felt like I’ve done well when I’m sick. I don’t complain about it. I know I need rest. When I was a kid, I would just lay on the couch until I felt better. If it got worse, my Mom would take me to get ibuprofen from the Phoenix Indian Medical Center. But I usually recovered fine after a few days of laying on the couch and some sleep. I didn’t learn till the military how fortunate I was to have that time to recover from sickness. The worst cough I had was in the army during basic training; it’s also where I learned the worst insults… or the best depending if you were on the receiving end.
In week three of basic training, I got a cough, like everyone else it seemed. But having a small cough was worse in the army than it was at home. Reason being that we were only getting 4-5 hours of sleep interrupted by intermittent fire guard duty to watch weapons, wash clothes and clean the barracks. I sat there on top of my crisply made green wool olive drab blanket, nicely cocooned by my black military issue sleeping bag.
They don’t tell you this, but you don’t make your bed every morning. You could, but that would be stupid. There’s so little time between wake up, morning wiz, brushing teeth and shaving (even if it’s just natural beard hair) that making your bed was nonessential. So you make your bed perfectly once, and you sleep on top of it in a sleeping bag that you can stuff away in the morning. A semi-overweight kid in the platoon tried to make his bed each morning to which our drill sergeant said, “Private, you look like a can of biscuits that’s just popped open.” Surprisingly that one semi-overweight soldier who made his bed and was late most mornings only lasted a few more months past basic before getting washed out.
But I laid there in my black sleeping bag coughing every 1-3 minutes, enough to keep me from reaching any deep REM cycle. And just as you feel your body tire from the back to back sleepless coughing nights, someone taps your back for doing work that could have been completed when the sun was out. Even though according to the drill sergeant our clothes needed to be cleaned because our barracks smelled like a, “bag of smashed butt holes.” Coughing in your sleep is the worst, but it’s worse when you’re in the army.
Towards the end of the 9-week cycle, I remember standing in freezing weather with just my Army shorts and shirt shivering and coughing at sand hill in Fort Benning, GA. My desert blood wasn’t used to any cold weather, but there was no way I was going to sick call to risk being recycled. After finishing basic with a 6-week cough, I eventually ended up getting nasty flu during officer candidate school. Our platoon sergeant sent me to sick call where I received a magical Z pack that gave me 24-hour sweats, bubble guts and lucid dreams that ended with no cough and healed body. I always try to remember that some people out there are still walking around with sickness and haven’t found healing. It’s an awful burden to hold and life to live.
I was mischievous most of my childhood but it also meant I was entertaining for my parents. I was conducting my nightly routine a 6-year-old goes through. Mostly messing around, asking for water, using the bathroom a lot. All that to try to stay up for a few extra minutes. We were living at the 6th drive house. I was wearing an old oversized t-shirt going on my fourth or fifth trip to the bathroom. This time, not that is wasn’t there all the other times, I saw an orange and white Bic disposable safety razor sitting next to the sink. The same one I watched my Dad use in the morning. My Dad could grow a full beard, something I still can’t do at age 32.
But I saw the razor and thought I would try it on the only facial hair I had in those moments. My eyebrow. I took the safety razor and guided it along the left side of my left eyebrow. I looked in the mirror afterward and thought to myself, “It didn’t work.” I put it back on the counter and walked out of the restroom. I nonchalantly walked back into the living room to wait until my parents told me to go to bed for the fourth or fifth time. But instead I was greeted with my Mom’s puzzled look and question, “Did you shave your eyebrow?” To which I replied, “I don’t know.” My Mom insisted, “Did you use that razor?” I said, “sure.” She continued, “Well I think you shaved it.” Her and my Dad both laughed and told me to go back to bed. It’s the reason my left eyebrow still grows a little differently than my right. And then I witnessed it at a camp I was working at on the Nez Pearce rez about 14 years ago.
I was in Lupwai Idaho working at a Native youth camp. As with all kids, there was one Native kid that was particularly rowdy. He was continually sneaking away, disrupting the instructors and just being generally mischievous. He was assigned to my team and shadowed me most of the week. And as rowdy, as this kid was, he was equally hilarious. As we were gathering for the morning activities I saw him stroll by and I said, “Hey, did you shave your eyebrows.” He started laughing and said, “yeah.” I mean it was obvious, people look funny with no eyebrows. And I just laughed. The rest of the week he used a sharpie to draw in his eyebrows. When he was angry, he would draw his eyebrows with a gradual slope and quick drop at the end. When he was happy, he made them little hills.
My point is if you don’t think you’re funny or you want to be funnier or if you want to be more entertaining, shave your eyebrows.