right to left: dad, my big sister, and me, at Flaming Gorge

I recently visited my Dad to help him work on his property and care for a litter of goldendoodle puppies he plans to sell so he can pay his mortgage through the next several months. Everything was in disarray. My Mom recently left him after a forty-five-year marriage full of deceit, financial mismanagement, and alcohol abuse on Dad’s part. Before she left, she had taken care of the puppies when a litter came in. She cleaned the house, made the food, paid the bills, made sure Dad showered.

He tries to fill in for her in her absence, but he misses a lot, including three days of showering while I was there. He doesn’t take his prescribed medication and doesn’t care for a nasty skin problem that causes large, bloody sores to emerge on his arms and legs. I was dreading my visit. I expected his house, which is located on a plot rumored to be an Old West stagecoach location just east of Dinosaur, Colorado, to stink. It didn’t, but there was a dried bloody substance spread across the wood dining room floor that I took to be canine afterbirth. Dog hair stuck in it. I decided to not to ask about it and cleaned it up, along with the rest of the house.

Dad had rented a piece of his five-acre property to a seven-person pronghorn antelope hunting party. Desperate for money, Dad had offered this service at far below market value at $300 for nearly a month, instead of the thousands of dollars they would have paid, say, a local rancher. We had to clear the brush from that portion of the property with an old riding lawn mower Dad shares with a family friend. The land was covered in large stones that would ruin the blade of the mower, if run over with the machine. Dad did not want to clear the stones, favoring a potential fight with his co-owner of the machine, who performs the maintenance and nurses a running feud with Dad over previous instances in which he had broken the lawnmower. I walked in front of Dad as he mowed, clearing stones the size of dumb bells.

Dad got drunk twice while I was there and complained about Mom’s leaving. During the second debauch, he cried, “I just can’t deal with any of this. My guts are ripped out. She broke her vow to me.” I asked him if he wanted her to come back. “No, as far as I’m concerned, she can go to hell.” There was nothing to say about that. His attack was too pathetic to defend Mom’s honor against. He lay down on the couch in his common room, where he sleeps. “Do you need a nap?” I asked. “I never sleep anymore,” he snorted before passing out for several hours.

In pursuit of fleshly pleasures, Dad depleted all the resources to craft a good life for himself — goodwill, love, money — too quickly, and now they’re gone. This happened in macabre contrast to the Christian moral standard he professes to live up to. It seems to me that his problem is the story he was trying to enact. Dad, like many long-time American conservatives, has simple and rigid ideas of what freedom is. It involves having a car. It involves stubborn distrust of anyone who wears a badge or a uniform. It involves liberal drinking. Systems thinkers call this model of living “better-before-worse” planning, meaning that Dad’s method of achieving maximum individual freedom had initial benefits but has hurt him in the long run. He has no freedom. He can’t go anywhere. He’s imprisoned behind bars of his own making — it was the freest way to incarcerate himself.

Dad’s story is eerily similar to the one humans are broadly trying to enact — he is special, therefore the world is made for him, therefore he should be able to do what he wants. His world is ruined. We are special, therefore the world is made for us, therefore we don’t have to live by the laws of nature. Our world will soon be ruined.

But it’s not all despair. I recently enacted a story that fundamentally incorporated alcohol. It was a deeply ingrained story, filled with the collective realities that manifest in the human head — friendships, romantic ideas about drinking, the idea of the tortured intellectual who survives on a regimen of whiskey and junk food. These were ideas that didn’t get me anywhere. I needed a new story that didn’t involve alcohol. I found a new collective reality in a twelve-step program. And while it would be easy for me to slip back into enacting the old story, the more distance I put between it and my current life, the rosier my new story is looking. The new story is larger and fuller of possibility.

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.