Cycles

sit_and_watch

This weekend, I stopped by an old New York City jazz spot I used to love when I was in college. Appropriately named, the tiny basement venue known as Smalls is located on 10th Street near 7th Avenue, in Greenwich Village. Back then, Smalls was a BYOB establishment. You paid your $10 cover and could hang out and watch musicians play till all hours, sipping your wine or whiskey or what have you among meandering clouds of pot smoke. Sometimes the jam sessions were world-class and sometimes not so much, but the experience was always special. The place was full of diehard jazz lovers and musicians. It felt spontaneous and alive…

At least, that’s how I remember it.

When I returned to the club a decade after my last visit, the same cat was working the door, but he seemed more downtrodden and was now equipped with a credit card machine. The cover charge had doubled and they’d added a full-service bar, with a woman running drinks in and out of the tightly packed patrons. People were chatting, the bar back kept making ice runs across the middle of the room, and the couple next to me was actually making out. During one trumpet solo, a guy wearing a bluetooth earpiece fired up the Shazam app and started waving his phone in the air, trying unsuccessfully to ID the song the quintet was playing. 

Walking around Chelsea on Saturday night, I noticed shiny new night clubs had begun to take over the area. Women in hot pants or micro-skirts and high heels careened through intersections screaming and laughing boozy laughs as taxi cabs blared past. Rents here, as everywhere, had gone from high to unreasonable to stratospheric, and the whole the city felt like it was becoming one big playground for well-heeled tourists, the super wealthy, and the kids of the super-wealthy who were now attending NYU, Columbia, or just hanging around Williamsburg and living a vaguely Bohemian urban lifestyle involving mustaches and arm-sleeve tattoos. My parents used to rent a loft on Bowery for $45 a month  — “Big enough to ride a bike in,” as my dad described it. Today, that rent could easily be 100 times more. Even Cooper Union, the famous art school with free tuition since its inception in 1859, is now starting to charge.

A sense of disillusion started to creep in. Was the city losing its edge? How long before the soaring costs and gentrification would force out entirely the very creative energies that made it desirable in the first place? I started to feel like one of those cynical old farts who thinks everything was better “back in the day.”

The day after my trip to Smalls, I was standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn when a busker started playing his saxophone. The sound was immediately arresting. He blew in rhythmic Philip Glass-like pulses. You could see his cheeks inflating as he drew air through his nose, breathing cyclically to keep the tones rolling in an unbroken chain. The repetitive nature of the music was mesmerizing, and people stood and stared in a way jaded New Yorkers seldom do. As a train rolled in, he started to taper his playing, ending with a flourish of notes just as the doors opened. As he pulled the reed from his pursed lips, he seemed startled by the round of applause that followed. He had been so deep into his own world that he hadn’t noticed the small crowd building around him or the dollar bills that had been raining into his battered horn case. 

I dropped in a bill and hopped the train, reassured that just because things change doesn’t mean the life has gone out of them. You’ll see it if you open your eyes and look — the fun part is, it will rarely be who, where, or how you’d expect.

 

Bouldering Alone

When from our better selves we have too
Been parted by the hurrying world, and
Sick of its business, of its pleasures
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude

— William Wordsworth, The Prelude

LCC_solo

For the most part, climbing is a pursuit of two or more individuals—climber and belayer is a typical arrangement—and many a word has been written about this unique relationship. Among climbers, few things are held in higher regard than the so-called brotherhood of the rope, the mutual trust and interdependence of two people whose fates are literally tied together. (On the other side of this equation, few things are less appealing than partnering with one you do not fully trust or respect, or with whom you share no natural connection or understanding. At best, such a pairing is annoying; at worst it’s dangerous.)

Bouldering is a particularly social sort of climbing. Many boulderers feed off the energy of a small crew and push higher and harder when cheered on by others. It is not uncommon for a herd of boulderers to descend on an unassuming rock, liberally pad every inch of exposed ground, flick on an iPod speaker, and commence to crack some brewskis. Such gatherings are as much about hanging out as they are about climbing, which is all well and good, but…

But bouldering is also a perfect activity for those seeking solitude, as long as you can manage to find some rock away from the crowds, which isn’t always easy. In such settings, I seek reprieve from the ceaseless piling on of responsibilities that grows only heavier as years advance. A man “must sequester and come again to himself,” writes Montaigne in his essay “Of Solitude.” For me, few things are as suited this task as a cool day among the smaller stones, the trees and sky, where the only sound of humanity is the distant passing of a car, or not even that, if I am lucky.

One short week has passed since images of the bomb-ravaged Boston Marathon and the smoking ruins of a Texas fertilizer plant filled the news. Only a few months since the Newtown school shooting. North Korea continues to posture, Guantanamo is still open, the drones are buzzing, the gun lobby screeching, half the nation cries for one thing while the other half cries for the opposite. Deaths in the family, work overflows its nine-to-five boundaries, the lawn needs mowing, the dog wants a walk… sometimes, I find, a solo mission to the boulders is as necessary as sustenance or sleep.

I drive into the canyon known as Little Cottonwood, its spring-lush slopes littered with pale granite blocks cast off from the soaring slabs above. A slow Sunday, cool and breezy, I park on the snaking road’s narrow shoulder and wander into the trees, just as two other climbers take their leave for the day.

Perfect.

I lay down my old crash pad, faded by sun and chalk dust and beaten soft by the repeated compression of falling bodies. There is no one here for me to converse with or consider. The air is free of ego or competitive spirit, of the half-urge to make a connection or ask some question.

Alone, the simple acts, typically done with haste and mind churning on some distant task, expand to fill my consciousness. Tying my laces, arranging the pad with the predicted plumb line of my fall, placing the pointed toe of my climbing shoe on a little cluster of crystalline points. Without distraction, I explore the granite texture with my fingertips and consider its implications. I begin to puzzle out these physical koans, minutely controlling seldom-used muscle groups and the position of limbs in space. Such thought just to move! But the mind can only get you so far; the body must come to its own understanding.

A quick rest. Chalk particles dance in an angled bar of sun. I taste my water, lukewarm and metallic as it rolls from the lip of this old stainless steel bottle. Thoughts traverse the space of my mind, twirling, frictionless, and disappear. I reside in each dust-laced breath like a yogi. Maybe on this day I climb better than usual. Maybe I complete the climb I’ve been working on…

Or not. Either way. In solitude, it’s easier for everything to be just right, or to be alright with everything.

But the real trick is to carry that self-contained peace of solitude back into the world of people, to hold it, undisturbed like a fragile, gem-like flame in the wind and chaos. That’s the long game, but in the meantime, a quiet wood and a fine chunk of granite to puzzle over will do.

 

 

Connecting the Dots: Climbing and the Creation of Meaning

Rat Rock in Central Park. Photo: © Andy Outis - andyoutis.com
Rat Rock in Central Park. Photo: © Andy Outis – andyoutis.com

White chalk patches speckle the dark grey schist of Rat Rock. Sunlight streaming through the leaves layers another pattern on top of the first. Horns honking, jackhammers chattering, radios squawking, passersby conversing, cyclists chirring, flocks of pigeons exploding into flight… Central Park can be chaotic.

But on Rat Rock, a block of stone the approximate size and shape of a single-family home that’s been partially squashed, I met a middle-aged Japanese guy named Yuki who slowly but surely worked to create order on the boulder’s surface.

I first encountered Yuki in the late 1990s, when I was a college student at NYU. On my early visits to Rat Rock, he was there: wiry and hollow-chested, forearms snaked with muscle. He had short-cropped black hair and a stout mustache and wore a T-shirt, slacks, and an old pair of black and green Boreal rock shoes to climb.

Smooth and choreographed, he climbed as if performing a vertical Tai Chi. Every move was perfectly calibrated for balance, so he could reach from one tiny edge to the next without having to jump or swing or snatch. He was quiet and unobtrusive, but if prompted, Yuki would offer sage snippets of climbing wisdom to the young, graceless climbers like me as we yanked on the holds like we wanted to take them home as souvenirs.

“Center your hips. Pull more with your toes. Hold less but reach farther.”

So thoroughly had Yuki explored the possibilities of Rat Rock that he eventually took to climbing in patterns, geometric shapes. One day, he suggested I join him in this new challenge.

“Try to climb in circles.” He said, and proceeded to show me a path of concentric rings he’d discerned connecting the chalky dots. First a tight circle in the center of the face, then a larger circle encompassing that, and a larger one still, never touching the ground. I tried, but found myself unmotivated. Yuki’s circles seemed overly contrived, and the lack of a grade probably made them less appealing, too. But now, more than a decade later, they make more sense to me.

Climbing a rock is undeniably arbitrary. When we set our sites on a mountain or a piece of stone, we overlay logic onto something random. We see the potential for movement, for a challenge, but the surfaces themselves are meaningless. The climb exists only at the intersection of stone, body, and mind — not in any of these alone.

The universe is chaotic and is growing ever more so (see: the second law of thermodynamics) — this chaos has shaped our brains, trained them to hunt for order and patterns as a means of survival. It’s how we learned to predict the motions of the bison across the plains and how best to hunt them. Perhaps it is even the same reason we painted the bison’s likeness on the walls of caves. It’s why we see familiar objects in the shapes of clouds and human faces in the knotty grain of a wooden fence. It’s why we name the world and map it. Why we make music and formulate equations. The act of ordering offers a comforting sense of understanding and control.

“Through art, create order out of the chaos of living,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote. Like art, climbing is an act of creation. Through climbing, create order out of the chaos of stone.

Toe Shoes: A Solution

Web

Much venom has been spewed about the “toe-shoe” since its début almost a decade ago. With separate pockets for each toe, they take on the shape of the human foot… or perhaps more accurately the shape of a large, brightly colored hobbit’s foot.

In a world full of shoes with unified toe boxes, the toe shoe is disconcerting, vaguely nauseating for reasons difficult to pin down. As such, the millions of disembodied voices of the Internet have leveled their collective judgement on toe shoes, mocking and berating them as a fashion faux pas, eyesores, and indicators of shoddy character, lackluster intelligence, or worse.

Of course, those who wear toe shoes vehemently disagree. They point to the fact that evolution sculpted the foot to carry us ably and comfortably wherever we might go. Our toes were never meant to be bound up and treated as a single unit, they cry, but as individuals, strong and spirited and each with its own job to do!

Perhaps you’ve heard of The Barefoot Running Book or Born to Run? Unless you make your bed beneath a boulder (and maybe even if you do), you’ve read about the various benefits of “minimalist” running and the attending footwear sub-industry that has sprung up around it. It is doubtful that millions of toe-shoe acolytes are entirely wrong…

Whether you’re for or against toe shoes is a matter of personal preference, but what’s not up for debate is the pain and suffering they can cause the friends, families, and significant others of those who wear and love them.

A trip to the store takes on a darker cast when you feel the judgment of your fellow patrons burning a hole in your Vibram Five Fingers. A night at the movies starts off on the wrong toe when your date looks down and thinks, “Oh god, does he have to wear them tonight?” Your teenage son cancels those plans for a jog the day after you show off your new, reptile-green Fila Skeletoes.

There is a certain irony that a shoe designed to maximize comfort could be the source of such friction. Marriages have crumbled over less.

Luckily, there’s a solution to the toe-shoe problem. Built on the modern spat platform, the Toe BeGone toe shoe cover slides over the top of your foot and and secures with a handy velcro strap under the bottom. The upper, available in a variety of water-resistant colors and designs (from sporty sneaker to casual loafer), creates the illusion that you’re wearing a “normal” shoe, while allowing you the toe-tal comfort and freedom of movement of a toe shoe.

Never have to explain your footwear again. With the Toe BeGone, you can have the best of both worlds.

Kickstarter coming soon.

Lessons of the Peppered Moth

The Peppered Moth changing

It’s not just “survival of the fittest” anymore. It’s the adaptable, those most willing and able to learn, who persevere.

The world is full of people whose inability or unwillingness to adapt to changing landscapes left them out in the cold. Factory workers who knew only how to work in factories. When it became cheaper for businesses to send production overseas, the factories closed and the workers languished. They felt they had nowhere to go.

Likewise the young climber who prizes his fitness and skill above all else. In the height of his strength, he might imagine he will always be as he is now. He doesn’t consider what his life will be like when he is injured or his body no longer performs as it once did. He doesn’t consider the many ways to be happy and useful and fulfilled when things are different.

The case of the Peppered Moth is perhaps the most popular demonstration of Darwinian natural selection today. Prior to Britain’s Industrial Revolution, the mostly white Peppered Moth was thriving. The black variant of the moth was rare, its coloration poor camouflage against the pale trees on which it rested.

But the Industrial Revolution, with its machines and factories, brought change: soot particles that eventually darkened the trees on which the Peppered Moths rested. Now the darker moths were the better hidden, while white moths became easy pickings for keen-eyed birds. Lo and behold, the black moths became the more common variant for more than a century, until pollution regulations of the 1970s began to stem the sooty tide.

The difference between people and moths is that change for the moths comes only at the population level, through death and reproduction. When more black moths survive to bear offspring, the population grows dark. When more white moths survive to bear offspring, the population grows pale.

We humans, however, have a unique memory and intelligence that lets us adapt much more quickly. We can record our experiences and our lessons learned. We can share our knowledge. We can predict the future from the past and, in theory, act accordingly. This is one reason our kind inhabits so much of the planet — we are able to adapt within a single generation rather than over the course of many.

Still, many of us seem to live like the Peppered Moth, sitting and hoping desperately that the rules of the game won’t change so we won’t have to, either.

But the game is always changing. The sand of time drains ever down, drawing with it our bodies and minds. Technology destroys old opportunities and creates new ones. The changes in our climate are already set in motion. No matter how we fight or what we’d rather, the world we inhabit in 20 or 50 years will be very different from the world today.

When things change around us, we can be like the white Peppered Moth who sits on a black tree branch and waits for the birds to come. Or we can see the new landscape and make an effort to adapt, to lighten and darken our wings, or even shed our wings and grow gills. This is no mean task, granted, but the first step is to change our minds and attitudes, which is something the Peppered Moth can never do.