Paul Andersen: Fair Game | AspenTimes.com

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

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I know of no better therapy than backpacking with old friends, people who know me well enough to target my innermost weaknesses with ruthless, yet good-natured, chiding. Two such friends and I just spent five amazing days undergoing deep-canyon therapy in a Utah wilderness.

Randy and Scott have known me collectively for more than 50 years. They are brutally honest in their cynical appraisals of me, all of which are offered unsolicited. Traipsing through wild places seems to unleash their best (or worst) insights into my flawed persona.

A sense of humor is essential for this kind of therapy, which must be suffered with a smile that stoically masks an occasional stab of pain. The awful, debasing truth about oneself can become hilariously funny if you’re in the right mood.

It’s been that way all my life as my mirthful friends have dug deep to expose raw nerves that need exposure. They perform a kind of psychic dentistry without benefit of Novocain as they probe for cavities in my behavioral bicuspids.

The ideal result is a good round of belly laughs coupled with reflective insights. Not all of these are welcome, but they keep me from living in illusion or from allowing ego to assert itself too fully. Humility is the ultimate derivative of this punishing peer prodding.

Our backpacking trip into a desert canyon began with me forgetting the maps at home, a mistake that was realized as we were leaving Glenwood Springs. This opened me to a barrage of insults ranging from suspicion of early-onset Alzheimer’s to complete dementia.

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We recovered the maps, but snide references continued for the next five days, drilling home the fact that life issues had distracted me enough to forget maps that were more essential than food on this challenging route-finding foray into a desert wilderness.

As things go with men of our advanced years, the conversation turned to old girlfriends and failed romances. My charming chums took this opportunity to make plain the inexorable truth that, now that I’m in my 60s, youthful flirtations are acts of desperate delusion. This is a touchy topic for an aging, married man resistant to the truth that aging, though potentially rich in wisdom, does not improve one’s sensual stature.

Now that I’m “a bald geriatric” as Randy so delicately put it, any notion of youthful physical attraction is a sad flight of fancy. If I were a single man, these sage cynics cleverly concluded, my prurient pursuits would not be at the Belly Up but rather at Heritage Park.

This became a central theme that was explored ad nausea, from before we laced on hiking boots until we were back home. By the time my caring confreres had finished, my self-image was as mortally wounded as my decimated hair follicles.

The next topic, and a matter of considerable hilarity to my sensitive sidekicks, was my “career” as a writer. To Scott, who works in industrial manufacturing, my “product” is about as vital as the “diet water” he quaffed at a Glenwood sandwich shop. Randy dismissed the dismal earning power of a freelance writer with such pained reality that I have now begun seeking a “real job.”

This friendly jesting is not a one-way street. My callused cohorts are plagued with countless of their own foibles, which I enumerate with regularity. Each of us suffers under this friendly fire, but our takeaway is facing up to the lives we lead, a sometimes bitter pill swallowed with sweet laughter.

Rather than clawing at each other’s throats over these jocular exchanges, our kidding keeps us light and loose. We act as mirrors to each others’ souls and as GPS equivalents for the life paths we follow, an appropriate allegory as we trekked serpentine canyon routes and traced them on our maps – the ones I initially forgot at home.

Joking has a long tradition for truth-telling. As jesters to our clownish courts, the witty jousts and mental swordplay bantered about over campfires provide important and sometimes painful perspectives. Laughter and grudging honesty are the rewards.

With friends like these, who needs therapists?