On Falling Down, Getting Back Up.

Life is a series of cycles. Just keep going.

As the good Doctor once said: What Goes Around, Comes Around.

Advice from the Night Tripper is fraught, of course, yet well worth hearing. We do things one way until we learn a better way, or a better way to not do those things. Live and learn. Fall down. Get back up. Just keep going. It may seem like everyone else always has their shit together. But everyone, from time to time, most certainly does not.

I’ve always done stupid stuff. I’m kind of doing it right now — writing this post when I should be engaged in more serious academic work. But I’ve done stupider things, to be sure.

  • Riding with college friends to a backwoods swimming hole at dawn after a psychedelics-induced all-nighter — almost drowned.
  • Riding with teenage friends on a Friday after school, drinking beers and rolling a truck off the side of a bluff road — blood and stitches.
  • Spending a summer after college looking over my shoulder, half expecting the county sheriff to drop by my crappy warehouse job and deliver a restraining order for supposedly stalking an ex-girlfriend — didn’t leave town until August.
  • Going to Vegas for a Phish show at The Aladdin having eaten nothing all day but a bag of M&Ms and a few glasses of wine, and a joint, and some beers, then puking in the isle before passing out in the seventh row — missed The Rockettes and Les Claypool and what was, I hear, a legendary show.
  • Having a public argument with a girlfriend (prior to the post-breakup potential restraining order phase of our relationship) 250 miles from home and getting a ride in the back of a squad car to the nearest Greyhound station. Told to leave town — didn’t leave town.
  • Playing a live show intending to get a high quality recording when my roots-rock band was at its peak and messing up the lyrics to every song — Every. Single. Song.

All this and more. Fights. Drunkenness. Righteous indignation. Ego. Shame. Self-sabotage. Much of it due to substance abuse. A lot of it just plain dumb.

All part of growing up. Any hard won self-knowledge has only started to take root now, in my 40s. Even that’s touch-and-go. Case in point: A recent Thanksgiving week hike with my 9-year-old daughter, L., and our dog Beatrix — equal parts Corgi, border collie, and flying squirrel.

Leader of the Pack.

The scene: A very brisk yet sunny late November day. The Little River flows into a small reservoir before cascading over a spillway into the estuary that is Belfast Bay, off the Gulf of Maine, in the North Atlantic.

The trail is lined with a mix of pine, birch, maple, and oak and skirts the icy water’s edge, west then north for about a mile in this section. Moderately rugged, the trail meanders along a contour shaped by granite bedrock. About 2/3 mile upstream from the trailhead, a rope swing hangs year-round from a glorious white pine — a remnant of summer fun. Several times in the past year I’ve grabbed hold of the thick rope and swung out over the tannin-rich dark brown water. I did it again. Grabbed hold with both hands and flew, leaving solid ground to swing and momentarily stall about 15 feet above the water. Like a pendulum, I swung back to the bank to a surprised gasp from L.

White pine reflection on an icy Little River, near Belfast, Maine.

It was daring, I guess, and something I would never let her do on a 30 degree day. After one successful swing, I showed her how to use my camera and suggested she could take a picture of me swinging out. She put the strap around her neck and took a couple of practice snaps. I grabbed the rope again with my left hand and stepped forward. I left ground and reached up but could not get a good grip. I quickly tried to squeeze the rope with my legs but the laws of physics prevailed. I lost my grip.

After an interminable second of silence - Sploosh! I looked up and could see the sun shining through two feet of frigid brown water. My feet did not touch bottom. It was not a full life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment, but a stout shock to the system, to be sure. Adrenaline flooded my arms and legs as I kicked to the surface. Gasp.

I heard L. yell from the shore:

Oh my god Dad, are you okay?!?!

I couldn’t talk. No part of me wasn’t fully soaked or incredibly cold. I flailed to the shore and climbed up the steep, pine-rooted bank. We were speechless. After a moment, looking around, I realized my glasses were gone. I couldn’t see. My blaze orange knit hat floated in the river. Too far out to reach… and I wasn’t going back. I turned to L., wide eyed with shock, and said all I could:

We need to go. Just keep up with me.
Moments before the laws of physics proved their stark and unforgiving dominance. Photo by L., age 9.

Though I could barely make out the root-strewn and rutty trail, I started walking. The dog and the girl followed, both perhaps nearly as shocked as me. Before long the dog blazed ahead, leading the way.

L. was a champ. With expensive (and dry) camera in hand, she followed right along only every so often asking if I was okay. Not really being able to form sentences, I responded in staccato phrases.

I’m okay. It’s okay. Just keep up.

I walked at a steady pace. Breathing. Focused. Trying not to hyperventilate or go asthmatic from the shock of adrenaline. Step by step, colder and colder. One hundred percent focused on just getting to the car, nearly a mile away, and getting us home. When we reached the car my fingers were numb and burning. As close to hypothermic as I’ll ever want to be, with all vision a blur, I drove the three miles back to the house. Puffy red fingers ached as the car warmed.

Mom! Dad fell in the river!

L. sprang into the house. As she is apt to play jokes, it took my appearance inside, still dripping and all but nonverbal, to convince that this was no joke. I took off my shoes and walked directly to the bathroom to draw a lukewarm tub of water. Fingers and legs burned with cold, only becoming more painful as the warmth crept back in. My hands, thighs and feet were red as Gala apples. Peeling off the layers, one thought played on repeat.

That was stupid. I can’t believe it. How could I be so stupid?!

So, what’s the lesson? Don’t be stupid? Don’t push your luck? I don’t know. Maybe there is no lesson other than to just make sure you’ve got a firm grip before you swing into the danger zone. And if you get to the end of your rope, do what needs to be done. Do what’s right. Just keep moving forward….

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