Category Archives: Observations

Taking A Break

Panorama of the lighthouse at Fort Williams Park

Every Tuesday for a year and a half, I’ve posted a short essay here. Most of them have revolved around the intersection of climbing, outdoor life, psychology, and philosophy. One blog a week probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have a busy desk job and a home life and a persistent climbing habit, putting in four or five hours a week to write something that you’re not even sure anyone will read and that you’re certain won’t make you any money can, at times, wear on one’s spirits. Still, it’s a labor of love, as they say, and always worth it in the end. I learn something (and not always what I expected) with every post.

But this week, I’m going to phone it in. Why? Because right now I’m on vacation. It’s the first real vacation—during which I sleep late and hang out by the ocean and don’t check work emails—I’ve taken in a while. And you know what? It feels good… important, even.

So I’m not going to offer up any climbing-themed life metaphors or decision trees or top-10 lists this week. This is it—a picture of a lighthouse by the ocean here in Maine and a message to you: If you’re a working stiff, a go-getter with dreams of saving (or dominating) the world, a driven soul who reads and studies and collects experiences like there’s no time to waste, you need to take a break from time to time. It’s as true in general life as it is in climbing. Without rest, there can be no recovery. Without stepping back and away, we can’t achieve that all-important broader perspective.

So what will my perspective be after this little reprieve? I can’t really say. But that’s the point, after all…

Climbing Season

 

a climber crimping and a pair of hands typing on a keyboard

Years ago, a friend of the family and a very smart fellow gave me a book of short stories called Winesburg, Ohio. He handed the faded little Penguin paperback to me with a sense of reverence.

“I’ve been really into Sherwood Anderson lately. His prose is just amazing. I think you’ll really like it—the way it captures the lives of the people in this little Ohio town.”

That night, I read the first few pages and fell straight asleep. Nothing about the writing or the subject matter engaged me. I should have given the book back, but it slipped my mind and it ended up following me from state to state as I moved across the country. It’s been riding the pine on my bookshelf for some seven years now.

Last week, I picked up Winesburg, Ohio again for no particular reason. I’m not sure what changed since my first attempt, but now I was fascinated by the observations that Anderson put on the page. In the very first story, “The Book of the Grotesque,” I found this passage:

“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth became a falsehood.”

There was something going on here—something vague and barely graspable, yet deeply important—that was pushing through the surface of his words, and it immediately resonated with me. I felt I understood why my friend had given the book to me. But why hadn’t I seen it before, the first time I read the story?

I ran into an old friend at a party a few weeks ago and we started talking about climbing. No big surprise. As a Salt Lake climber who has worked in the outdoor industry for more than 10 years, that’s what most of the people at most of the parties I go to want to talk about.

“Yeah man, I’m just really psyched about climbing right now!” my old friend said. “I’m focused on climbing a lot and building a base and just ticking all the classics in the area.”

My friend’s sentiment stood out to me because not a week earlier, another acquaintance had, nearly verbatim, expressed the same thing: Focused. Stoked. Climbing.

I remember that feeling, when climbing was all I wanted to do. It was a good feeling. Pretty simple. Scaling rocks was the focus of my life, and I built my schedule and my budget around it. But these days, I’ve had a lot of other goals and interests (writing this blog, which is surprisingly time-consuming, being just one of them), and climbing is no longer the main character in my life; it plays a supporting, yet enduring, role.

There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes that goes something like, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Beyond skiing season, mountain biking season, or climbing season, I take this to mean that the interests and the goals in our life are bound to change, and this is natural. We might look back and the things we can’t image living without don’t mean as much, while the things that floated in the background, uninspiring, can suddenly rise to the surface and become significant.

Things change. Interests change, contexts change, relationships, passions, perspectives… . To those who close themselves off to new discoveries and cling too tightly to old beliefs, there’s a danger of becoming one of Anderson’s “grotesques.”

In a recent blog post, the writer Andrew Bisharat said, “I think it is OK to be open to changing up your interests. What is important is that you still find a way to have goals that remain relevant and interesting to your life. We are human beings first and our goals are simply supplements to our own weird journeys.”

I feel this sums it up nicely. The key to navigating the shifting landscape of life, as far as I can tell, is be open to the inevitable changes. It’s up to each of us to either reject and lament change, or to accept change as the wellspring it is—a constant source of energy and surprise.

Critical Mind and Playful Mind

A climber laughing and concentrating

“My thinking about the case, man, it had become uptight.”
— The Dude

If you’ve spent much time rock climbing, you’ve probably come across a person who wants the send a little too much: he kicks and screams when he falls; while resting, he sits with brow furrowed in stern concentration; he makes excuses for his unsatisfactory performance to strangers with no reason to care; he appears almost upset to be out climbing rocks for fun. It’s always weird to see when somebody seems to be missing the point so completely.

At the same time, most of us want to improve, to succeed on the climbs we try. Why wouldn’t we? It feels good to push out against and expand what we once thought of as our limits. It is a true pleasure of life to overcome a challenge that once felt insurmountable. But to do this, we have to set goals and make plans to achieve them. We have to care, or we wouldn’t bother to try at all. And we have to be critical of our approach in order to improve, refine, find the best path to proceed.

I find what’s needed to really climb well and enjoy it is an alternation between the Playful Mind and the Critical Mind—very much a complimentary pair, a yin and yang of mindsets.

I alternate between these mindsets with work, too. When I work from home, often I descend into uninterrupted Critical Mind for long periods of time. Then my wife comes home and finds me sunk into my chair, typing away with a scowl on my face. She starts to tell me about how her day went and I say, “Uh huh,” “Oh really?” only having half heard what she’s telling me. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I’ve been in my head all day, mercilessly criticizing my own ideas to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and it can be hard to make the transition into a more relaxed and open mindset.

I enter my Critical Mind (which I also call Editor’s Mind) because it’s important to me that I do good work, but it’s not good to be so critical when you’re spending time with your spouse or family or friends. It’s a tight mindset, one that creates tension between the keeper of the Critical Mind and anyone else who isn’t in the same mental space. It also creates tunnel vision, which can move us farther from the very goals on which we’re focused.

“To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things,” says Mark Beeman, a professor in the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. “Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”

Counterintuitively, a more leisurely, undirected, non-goal-oriented approach might actually move us closer to what we desire. The harder we grasp, in other words, the more things tend to slip away. Look at a faint star in the night sky directly, and it disappears into the darkness. Loosen your focus, let it exist in the periphery of your sight, and it will begin to reappear. It is in this state that we can start to see the larger patterns, the constellations as a whole.

So on a new climb or a new task at work or in school, we should come with our Playful Mind first. Explore the options, consider the big picture, the entire constellation of possibilities. Experiment, exert energy in many directions and note the results without judgement. Then, perhaps, it makes sense to apply Critical Mind: decide what works and what doesn’t, analyze the why and the how of things, decide on a game plan and attempt to execute. If your plan doesn’t work, it might be time to return to the playful mind again, in search of other options.

To use only one mind or the other is a mistake. The left and the right, the light and the dark, the active and the passive, the playful and the critical… . It’s by the alternating of one foot in front of the other that we progress. But in either case—in any case—we must not hold too tightly to the ultimate result. As it says in the Tao Te Ching:

[The master] lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old.”

Bodhisattva Vow: Lessons of a Problem Dog

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“We should have named him Dexter instead of Bodhisattva,” Kristin said in exasperation.

“At least Dexter is nice to his family!” I replied.

A bodhisattva, in the Buddhist tradition, is “A being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others.” Dexter is a television serial killer who only offs other murderers. The “him” we were talking about was our dog Bodhisattva, Bodhi for short, who has been a challenge in one way or another since we got him at the animal shelter three years ago.

What kind of challenge? you might ask. For one, we were discussing Bodhi’s name while the bruising from his most recent bite was still visible on Kristin’s arm. Bodhi has bitten us both and has intense guarding behaviors around his water bowl, his kennel, and even his body, making it nigh impossible to have that loving licks-and-wags-and-belly-rubs relationship that most people expect from their dogs.

From the start, Bodhi was a strange combination of highly intelligent, fearful, anxious, energetic, and aggressive. We figured he would grow out of his issues, but he has not, and a trainer we work with tells us that for years we may have been reinforcing many of his most undesirable behaviors—by ignoring them or letting him have his way, by failing to give appropriate structure to his life in our home. Now we have Bodhi on an intensive training program that requires hours of work every day, sometimes confronting his nastiest behaviors head on.

The progress we’re making is slow and tiring and fraught with doubts. Kristin and I have had plenty of discussions about what to do if our work with Bodhi doesn’t lessen his aggression. What if we have kids over or decide to have a child of our own? What if the stress of sharing our home with an animal we don’t trust grows too great? Somehow the answer seems fuzzy, and changes from day to day.

Despite it all, I still see Bodhi’s name as apt. Although he seems, at times, as much a Dexter character as a being of sublime compassion, I feel he is teaching us all the same. To work with him we must observe closely—both his behavior and our own. We must be structured and consistent. We must remember that his bite comes from fear and confusion, not from hatred, and that adding our own fear only amplifies the problem. We must learn to be calm and correct Bodhi’s undesirable behaviors not with anger, but out of compassion and for his own good as well as ours.

Dogs mirror their owners’ energies, says dog trainer and TV personality Cesar Millan, and I think there’s some truth to that. When you approach a dog feeling overly excited or nervous or just plain scared, that dog picks up on your body language, maybe even your smell, and responds in kind. How, then, can you expect to improve your dog’s behavior when you are unwilling to examine your own, first? It is like this in all of life: we say, “He made me mad,” or “That traffic ruined my day,” rarely realizing that anger or a ruined day are things that originate from inside of us, not from some external source. Therefore with a problem dog as with any problem, we should always look inward first.

In a way, I see Bodhi as the strictest kind of teacher, using strange tactics to awaken us to different ways of seeing. It reminds me a little of the Zen masters who hit their students, as if to wake them from their delusions.

In the end, though, we must be willing to accept that we might not be able to fix the problems we have with Bodhi. It is difficult. There is a part inside of me, perhaps influenced by the modern Hollywood ending, that wants to believe that no problem is too much to overcome; that with extraordinary effort, kept burning by an ember of hope, even mountains can be moved. But another part of me knows that what we can offer Bodhi might not be enough for him, after all, and that he and we might have better lives if he lived elsewhere.

When I think this way, it feels like failure, which is something I’m not very good at accepting. It’s strange even to write it. But there is a lesson in this possibility, too. I’m just not entirely sure what it is, yet. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Either way, the future hasn’t yet been written. In the meantime, we continue to learn the lessons of Bodhisattva…

The Death of Plaid?

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Not plaid. Josh Sweeny of Hippy Tree shows off the cutting edge: horizontal stripes.

For the past three Outdoor Retailer shows, I’ve blogged about the longstanding prevalence of plaid shirts in the outdoor industry. This year, I was burned out; I didn’t want to talk about plaid any more. But as I walked the red-carpeted runways of the show last week, I realized I wasn’t alone—lots of people have had their fill of plaid and are ready for a change. So I’ll talk about that instead…

Perusing the show between meetings, some new trends began to take shape. Several plaidternatives were in evidence, from paisley to animal prints, vertical stripes to polka dots.

The simple solid color option, often in subdued grays, greens, and blues, was popular, too. Meanwhile, I noted quite a few button-up shirts with heathered yarns or herringbone weaves or other subtle textures. Several denim shirts were even in evidence.

As with many aspects of modern society, cultural fashion norms at the OR Show appear to be moving ever towards the informal. Where plaid, short-sleeve, button-front shirts once served as the “dress up shirt for the outdoor guy” (to quote Patagonia’s Kristo Torgerson), now wicking synthetic base layers and even T-shirts are becoming acceptable garb for meetings, especially among the younger crowd.

As I stopped passers-by in the crowd to snap photos of their plaidless ensembles,  I asked a few why they had opted to leave the tartan tailoring at home.

“I wear paisley to the show because I don’t want to be just like everyone else,” said one gentleman. “I’ve been boycotting plaid at the show for years,” said another. It was a common refrain.

A confidential source whose spouse works at a prominent outdoor apparel brand confirmed that the coming season’s lines contain more solid colors and fewer plaids.

One friend went so far as to suggest that previous plaid exposés on The Stone Mind may have drawn attention to the trend, spurring self-conscious show-goers to seek other options. It seems unlikely that a lowly blog might move the needle on the outdoor industry’s entrenched plaidiction, but I suppose anything is possible.

Of course, plaid isn’t really dead, just a little less lively. Whereas a few years ago one out of every two men walking the Salt Palace during the OR Show were wearing plaid, now the ratio, by my unscientific methods, is more like one in five.

When I asked a designer for the Seattle-based brand Kavu if plaid was on the way out, she said, “No way—we still sell tons of plaid flannel shirts,” adding that the palette has shifted: towards brighter plaids, comprised of primary or neon colors.

“I love plaid!” declared Sam Krieg, of Krieg Climbing and Cycling, as the show wrapped up. “Seriously. I really do.”

 

PLAID-FREE GALLERY

 

MORE PLAID POSTS

 

A Joke My Dad Used to Tell Me

A man standing on top of his house during a flood

When I was a kid, my dad wanted me to be a stand-up comedian. Among the many corny jokes he told at the dinner table to inspire me towards this career path was this one, which for some reason stuck with me:

A man was in his home when a hurricane blew into town bringing with it high winds and torrential rain. A pair of cops came by in waders and asked him to evacuate. 

“No thanks, officers,” he said. “My life is in God’s hands.”

So the police left and the rain continued to fall. A few hours later and the water was up above the first floor of the man’s house, so the man went upstairs. At that point, a woman came by in a rowboat.

“Let’s go!” she shouted in the man’s window.

“No thank you, ma’m,” he replied. “My life is in God’s hands.”

So the woman floated off in her boat and the rain continued to fall. A few hours later, the water had filled up the second floor of the man’s house, so he climbed onto the roof. Finally, a helicopter flew over and lowered a rope.

“Grab the rope; we’ll rescue you!” said the medic in the helicopter, speaking into a megaphone. 

“No thank you!” screamed the man through the howling wind, “My life is in God’s hands!”

So the water continued to rise and, eventually, the man was swept away and drowned. 

Up in heaven, the man came before God.

“Why did you forsake me, God?” the man implored. “My life was in your hands!”

“What do you want from me?” God replied. “I sent you a police escort, a rowboat, a helicopter…”

Whether you believe in a higher power or not, what I take from this is that we shouldn’t expect things to be done for us. No one will save us if we won’t save ourselves — not our family, our boss, the government, a religious institution, or just the world in general.

The best we can expect is a chance to do things for ourselves. If we’re lucky, we’ll encounter many windows of opportunity in our lives and it is up to us to go through them, to make something of them… Or to not make anything of them and then complain about it.

Sometimes that sidetrack turns out to be the key to something big. Sometimes that person you meet, that letter you write, the event you attend makes all the difference. But only if you let it. Only if you act.

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get an opportunity to become a stand-up comedian, just like pop always wanted.

Post Picks from 2013

Image from top posts 2013

As Seth Godin wrote recently, “My most popular blog posts this year weren’t my best ones. … ‘best’ is rarely the same as ‘popular.'” It’s a worthwhile reminder, even though most of us intuitively sense the disconnect between popularity and quality. The problem is, the fast-flowing social Internet buoys up catchy, controversial, or otherwise, “sharable” content, while everything else sifts to the murky bottom. On the other hand, this means that for those hardy souls willing to dive for it, there is a fortune in buried treasure to be had.

For this reason, today I’m sharing not only The Stone Mind’s 10 most-viewed posts of 2013, but also a more personal list, comprised of posts that I’m particularly fond of. In keeping with Godin’s quote, only a few of the posts on the first list would have made the second.

If your favorite post didn’t make either list, consider posting a link in the comments. I’d love to hear what you enjoy reading (and why) and to make this post more valuable to others.

See you next year!

Top 10 Posts of 2013

  1. Thanks, Climbing… 
  2. Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day” 
  3. 10 Tips for Climbing on Opposite Day
  4. Everyday Climbing
  5. Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing
  6. 10 Rad Valentine’s Day Gifts for Climbers
  7. Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time
  8. How to Make a Climbing Movie
  9. “The Sensei”
  10. The Professionals

10 Picks from the Author

  1. On Balance 
  2. Memento Mori
  3. The Art of (Almost) Letting Go
  4. Hueco Lessons
  5. The Importance of Respect
  6. Climbing Yourself
  7. Good Luck and Bad Luck
  8. Bouldering Alone 
  9. Running It Out
  10. The Mind/Body Problem

Learning How To Be Happy

Learning How To Be Happy

When I was young, I was a very anxious person. My mind was constantly in motion, straining and toiling with no particular goal. I would worry about one thing, which would lead me to an entirely different worry, and then another, none of which were connected to any real problem in particular.

When I was six or eight years old, I would get up out of bed and walk, still asleep, into the living room, where my parents were watching The Late Show. Then I would start screaming. Night terrors they called them, and in that state I couldn’t tell dream from reality.

In high school, I was so fixated on acceptance and afraid of rejection that I replayed conversations with other kids from days or weeks before, mulling over every word, inflection, and facial expression. I compulsively replayed the past, reconstructing a world as dark as my night terrors had been.

Over time, I managed to release these negative thoughts, to let go of the fear and desire that generated them. It wasn’t something that happened all at once, but gradually and with effort. It has been a progression towards a happier life that continues now. As George Eliot said, “One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”

Along the way, I mark important things that helped me as I learned to be happy. Among them, the great stories in Zen Flesh Zen Bones, which my dad introduced to me long ago and which I’m perpetually re-reading. Another was discussions with my old friend Mike, who studied Shaolin kung fu and the philosophy of religion. His sifu taught him to picture his mind like a hand. “When stuck on some idea, the hand is like a clenched fist,” he explained. “All you have to do it relax the fist.”

For some reason, the thinking of the East has always framed the world in a way I liked. What strikes me, to this day, is the directive to look inside yourself for answers. I think this is really important. In his essay, “Find Out For Yourself,” Shunryo Suzuki writes, “I feel sorry that I cannot help you very much. But the way to study true Zen is not verbal. Just open yourself and give up everything. Whatever happens, whether you think it is good or bad, study closely and see what you find out.”

If you’ve read this blog before, you will know that climbing has also been an important tool in my learning. I think there are several reasons:

First, it’s exercise. Many studies have shown the benefits of physical activity for health and mindset. Simple.

Second, overcoming the challenges of climbing can offer a sense of control. This is especially evident when we have “projects,” climbs that are too hard for us at the outset but that we can piece together through mental and physical effort. Relatively quickly, a climb can go from “impossible” to “no big deal.” It is the approach we must try to take towards all the challenges in our lives. In it is the implicit lesson that, at least in part, we create our own reality.

Third, climbing is exceptionally conducive to “flow” states. The eight elements that lead to flow, according to author Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who coined the term, are:

1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing;
2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing;
3. The task has clear goals;
4. The task provides immediate feedback;
5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life;
6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions;
7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over; and
8. The sense of duration of time is altered.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is key to achieving happiness in everyday life. It’s something that we can experience in our jobs, while boxing widgets or sitting in on conference calls, but that happens most naturally during certain sorts of activity. A few of his examples include reading, making love, playing a musical instrument, dancing, and, last but not least, rock climbing, which he uses as an example throughout his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 

These days, whenever I feel myself becoming overwhelmed with those strange worries that connect to nothing in particular, I might take one of several approaches:

Maybe I’ll simply remind myself to unclench the fist of my mind (meditation or just some deep, focused breathing helps here).

Sometimes I pretend I am dying. This might not seem very relaxing, but, as Suzuki puts it, “Because your are dying, you don’t want anything, so you cannot be fooled by anything.” It’s a way of instantly creating perspective.

Other times, I just go out climbing and see what happens. Often, I’ll find the flow state, but if not, that’s OK — at least there’s the rock and the trees, the sky and the mountains.

What works for you?

Karl Says: Don’t Text and Drive

driving_the_wadi

Still safer than texting while driving? Karl pilots the Humvee through the wadi and manages not to spill his coffee.

Karl has the Hummer’s accelerator pinned. The engine growls and hammers, propelling the seven-foot wide metal beast through the channels of the wadi, Arabic for dry river bed. The fat rubber tires munch up a steep sand hillside, sending us into a moment of zero G as we hit the crest. In the rear of the vehicle, two of my colleagues struggle to stand like drunk water skiers, their hands clutching the roll bar, feet straddling the open bed for stability, while Karl wrenches the wheel sideways and sends us skidding into a tight turn.

Relatively at ease, Karl holds the steering wheel with one hand; in the other, he has an unnecessarily large cup of coffee from the mess hall. There’s no lid on the half-full container, so he is holding it aloft, tilting it this way and that to keep it level as the Hummer rises and falls around us like a boat on a wild sea.

Far from the region where the term originated, this wadi is in rural Arkansas, on the grounds of a 777-acre military and law-enforcement training center called T1G (a “one-stop solution for multi-echelon training in weapons & tactics, operational medicine, breaching, and on/off-road driving,” according to the website). Karl, a retired Green Beret and T1G instructor who’s helping me and a film crew produce a video here, steps out with his coffee cup still half-full, minus the couple of sips he snuck along the way.

“And that, gentleman, concludes our tour of the wadi,” he says.

Karl is tall, broad-shouldered, and barrel chested. He has a wide, white-toothed smile, and a neat coif of dark brown hair atop a high forehead. He reminds me of Buzz Lightyear, minus the space suit and plus a sadistic sense of humor. He throws around phrases like “Mixing metal with meat” and “Opening the bad guys’ minds to new worlds of opportunity,” the latter accompanied by a hand gesture mimicking an exploding head.

“Come to think of it, I’ve never killed anyone with a spear, either,” he says at one point, àpropos of I’m not sure what. It is impossible to determine his level of seriousness.

That evening, as we tear down an empty stretch of dirt road on the way out of the training grounds, Karl does something kind of funny: he pulls his Jeep over and starts plugging away at his BlackBerry’s doll-sized keyboard.

“I never text while driving,” he explains. “It’s a pet peeve of mine.”

As he says this, I notice Karl is wearing two hearing aids. Over dinner I learn these are the result of a rocket attack that blew out his eardrums. This guy who’s been in scores of firefights, who chooses his seat in public places with a strategic view of the ingress and egress points, who teaches special forces guys how to shoot, drive, and think like warriors… the thing this guy doesn’t mess around with is the same thing your mom hounds you about.

I understand that pet peeves aren’t usually rational. They’re just little things that get under your skin for some idiosyncratic reason. Still, Karl’s passing statement forced me to reassess my cavalier use of a smartphone while piloting a motor vehicle. And once you start thinking about it, it’s hard not to feel like a douchebag for putting lives in jeopardy simply to tell someone “sup 2nite lol.” I mean, whiskey tango foxtrot?

I recently read an interesting article by Jared Diamond about something he calls “constructive paranoia,” or the idea that we should pay heed to “hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.” Driving is precisely such a hazard. On any given day, your likelihood of getting into an accident is relatively low, but since most of us drive every day, and multiple times a day, the odds… well, things start to add up.

I try remind myself of this every time I start to reach, zombie-like, for my phone buzzing on the dashboard. It’s not as if someone just sent me a message: “Reply in 30 secs to abort nuclear launch.” Or even, “Reply in 30 secs to claim your free latte.” It doesn’t happen. Hands at 10 and 2, people. For Chrissakes, just let it wait.

That’s not to say that by not texting, you’ll be safe. Not at all.

Driving — along with smoking and the fast-food-and-TV lifestyle — is still one of the riskiest things we civilians do on a daily basis. All the more reason to practice “constructive paranoia.” And look at it this way: at least checking replies on your most recent Facebook status won’t be the thing that turns your innocent trip to the grocery store into a case of metal mixing, painfully and bloodily, with meat.

A Trip to the Zoo

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I went to the zoo this weekend, and as always I departed feeling a little ambivalent. When you see creatures like leopards, lemurs, elephants, and apes in those drab enclosures, mere simulacra of their natural habitats, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. I doubt any faux rock cliff or pool of hose water will ever fully engage their wild intelligences. As I wandered the paved footpaths between continent-themed enclosures, I remembered how my sensitive, vegetarian friend Ben used to call zoos “animal jail.”

On the other hand, these creatures are safe — from predators, from food pressure, from droughts, from us. And isn’t safety what we humans have been striving for since the very start? Our drive to find shelter and protection, to isolate ourselves from the constant threats of the world (coupled with an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex), is the very thing that’s made us so successful on this planet. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown comfortable in our world of boxes that we feel animals will take some sanguine comfort in a zoo’s protection.

But why then do most of us assign a certain sadness to animals in zoos? Is it because we grok that it’s a fine line between being protected and being trapped? Personally, when I feel that boundary growing threadbare, a trip into the mountains becomes particularly important to my sanity. I can only imagine how the silverback gorilla feels as he peers through the glass day after day, at the gallery of baby strollers and hairless apes with cameras, while waiting for his food to be delivered.

A mother tending lovingly to her young, a playful polar bear, a sad-looking gibbon — you can hear the children exclaiming in surprise how the animals are just like people. Through the fences and over moats, the creatures in the zoo always seem to remind us of ourselves, but rarely do we invert that logic and draw the conclusion that we are like them. Or not so much like them as are them.

Granted, it can be a problematic perspective to take. After all, when the boundary between “us” and “them” grows blurry, so do many things we hold to be self-evident. Better to do as I did and gaze with wonder at that enormous, flat face in the glass, with its black leather skin and dense fur and searching eyes, and then get back in your little box of glass and steel and drive away.