The Freedom of Constraints

Notebook with pocket watch, pen, and whiskey - freedom and constraints - The Stone Mind

I’ve been extra busy lately. On the road for work, helping bring a new employee up to speed, revamping processes in our department. I haven’t had much time outside of work for personal things like climbing and reading books and writing this blog. Such a time crunch is a constraint, a challenge, a frustration even. And at the same time, there can be a freedom in it.

Every week I write a post for The Stone Mind. Sometimes I write it in advance, sometimes the night before it’s published. Sometimes I have free time aplenty to write, and sometimes I have precious little. Often when time is lacking and energy reserves are running low, I feel a certain sense of dread at the task of creating a blog. I fear it won’t be good enough or well received. More dreadful still is the thought that I’ll have nothing to say at all.

And for all that, the truth is that every goal big and small is accompanied by constraints, by parameters such as time, budget, motivation, politics, physics, legality, and so forth. But the freeing thing about it all is when you stop seeing the constraints as your enemies, but as tools for focusing your energy.

For this blog post, time was the biggest constraint. I worked through the weekend at a climbing festival in Las Vegas and arrived home late Sunday to a lingering worry about my ability to put something together before Tuesday’s deadline.

Then I realized I could flip the challenge. Instead of the meandering creative process I usually use to generate blog posts, I decided to go a counterintuitive direction and limit myself even further: I’d give myself one hour or less to write this week’s post, and whatever I could accomplish in that time would be what you’d read come Tuesday morn.

No, this post isn’t full of links to quotes and other bits of researched materials. It’s born entirely from my own firsthand experience. Still, I think it carries as important a message as any post I’ve written.

It’s easy to get preoccupied with all the reasons the task before us is too hard, or to complain that the conditions under which we’re working are not ideal. But the truth that any creative person or entrepreneur will tell you is that there’s no such thing as perfect. We never have all the time or tools or skills we wish for. And while this can seem like a negative, in reality it’s precisely these challenges and limitations that give shape to our goals and keep us focused, keep us from floating off into the infinite vacuum of the possible.

There is no endeavor without challenge, and no satisfaction without difficulty. If things are easy, they’re bland. Viewed from one perspective, adversity is a source of stress, anger, and disappointment. But turned for a different viewing angle, it becomes the texture of our lives.

No one knows this better than climbers. Our goals are entirely arbitrary, and their shape determined entirely by their difficulty. The highest peaks and steepest rock walls are valuable only inasmuch as they give us a foil against which to strive and exercise our will.

I think John F. Kennedy put it well when he described the reasoning behind his goal to send humans to the moon. “They may well ask why climb the highest mountain?” He said. “Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? … We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

And so the constraints of my life as it is now have served to organize and measure my energies and skills for yet another week. When taken with this attitude, the constraints are less stressful and more simplifying. I have only a little time, and so I work with what I have.

What else is there?

Telling Stories

Telling stories around the campfire - The Stone Mind
Telling stories around the campfire.

I was sitting in a vegan diner with my friend Brendan eating a buffalo “chicken” burrito when the topic of stories came up.

“People are geared to think in stories,” he offered as he ate the Gravy Train, an item off the breakfast menu, even though it was lunch. “The odds of getting murdered in Denver are, like, 20,000 to 1, but then someone says, ‘Oh yeah? Well I heard a guy got killed just a few blocks from here the other day,’ and all of the sudden you feel like Denver is super dangerous.”

The reason is simple: we prefer information in this form—it engages our empathy and is easier to remember. (It must have been a successful evolutionary strategy for using information about the past to build predictions about the future.) As someone who works in marketing, I aim to craft memorable stories about sponsored athletes, products, and brands—without a good story to tell, information is only so much noise in an increasingly noisy world.

A story can show us the value of a product in a way that bypasses our analytical centers and goes straight to the emotional ones. Take this Google India video about friends separated by the partitioning of India and Pakistan, for example. By way of a story, a political reality becomes tangible, comprehensible… as does the value of a product.

A story can lead us to a larger truth, the way the story of Eric Garner’s choking death at the hands of police is one polarizing instance of a real problem. The story gives us a relatable entry point into the problem, which is large and complex and troubling. Like the bit of dust around which a raindrop forms, a simple story can allow us to build a more rich and nuanced understanding of a bigger reality. Or it can simply reinforce our pre-held views and lead to further division between groups of people. That’s the problem with stories: they’re wide open to interpretation.

In cases like the one Brendan mentioned of murder statistics in Denver, stories can often lead us to incorrect conclusions. They trick us into feeling something to be true, even when the bigger statistical picture shows just the opposite. “Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story,” writes Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal. Thus, politicians use stories to warp our view into agreement with their agenda. The news and social media are clogged with stories selected and crafted specifically to hook our attention rather than convey any particularly important information.

Our entire worldview is encoded in stories. The world’s great religions are built entirely on stories; we spend billions every year on movies, books, and magazines; increasingly we spend our time reading and watching stories on our computers and mobile devices…

But perhaps the most interesting and stories are the ones we create constantly in our head—the stories we generate when we picture something in the future or recount something in the past: Stories about how we’ll perform at work or in a competition, stories about our past interactions, stories about what other people think of us. These stories can create feelings of anxiety or confidence, fear or anger. They can make us behave differently than we otherwise would. Our stories not only color but shape the world around us.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful and problematic. Are we good looking, intelligent, successful… ultimately the way we see ourselves is formulated into a story. We present ourselves through stories, too, but should be careful not to believe them too fully, for fear of limiting ourselves or obscuring important truths. We are not our alma maters or our résumés, we’re not our hobbies or neighborhoods, our relationships nor our criminal records.

Though stories can convey great amounts of information, they can never tell us everything. And there are many stories, representing many different perspectives, to be told about even a single event. This is why we must listen to the stories that surround us with an open yet critical ear, and remain open to revising our own story from year to year, day to day, even moment to moment. I think this is what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”

For all their uses, stories can blind us to the untranslatable nature of the world, the essential suchness of being that resists language and narrative and can be experienced clearly only in the pastless and futureless now. As with the motion of a penman’s hand, our lives are written (or do we write them?), but we only truly experience them at the point where the pen’s tip meets the paper. The rest is nothing but stories.

The Big DL and the Little Seed

A crowd bustled for position at the gate. O'Hare International airport, Chicago.

I consider myself to be just one among 7 billion human beings. If I were to think of myself as different from others, or as something special, it would create a barrier between us. What makes us the same is that we all want to lead happy lives and gather friends around us. And friendship is based on trust, honesty and openness.

I was at Chicago O’Hare airport, surrounded by thousands of strangers in varying mental states (some relaxed, but most livid, hurried, or harried), when the above quote from the Dalai Lama appeared in my Facebook feed. Suddenly, all of the people around me seemed a little less like strangers and a little more like compatriots in this particular moment in this funny ride called life. His Holiness, or The Big DL, as I sometimes call him, is one of the rare disembodied entities of the social mediasphere whose posts actually make me feel calmer rather than more agitated.

As I waited for my flight to Turkey to board, I looked up towards the ceiling-mounted flat screen television, tuned eternally to 24-hour news coverage. A pair of talking heads sparred on the topic of armed conflict on the border between Turkey and Syria. A sinister new organization called ISIS was storming a Kurdish town called Kobani, perpetrating all manner of horrors, while the U.S. and a few other countries offered a few air strikes as support. Just then, an email warning from the State Department flashed across my phone, warning me about protests, some violent, flaring up across Turkey. The protesters, mostly Kurds, decried Turkey’s lack of support for their brethren on the embattled border.

Again, my faith in humanity started to creak under the strain… Until, that is, I saw another post from The Big DL: “Because of our intelligence we human beings are uniquely capable not only of creating problems, but of doing so on a large scale.” So true, I thought. So perspicacious of him. But he continued: “Therefore, it is important that we use our intelligence in constructive ways. That’s what warm-heartedness and concern for others lead us to do.”

Say what you will about the Dalai Lama, but he does a great job reminding us—patiently and repeatedly—of some very important topics, like our shared humanity, that are so easy to forget when we think only of ourselves. For example, I’d missed my flight to Turkey the day prior and had to wait 24 hours to continue on my journey.

The confusion and inconvenience of it all, when viewed from the narrow and selfish vantage of the individual, is infuriating. “You cost me 200 dollars!” shouted one man at a weary airline agent in a rumpled suit sometime after midnight. There was so much dissatisfaction visible on the faces around me, everyone was laser focused on their own needs: have a problem! Why did this happen to me? Who will fix my problem? Who will make me happy again? There was little “warm-heartedness and concern for others,” in the air.

For some reason it’s common that we make more problems when we have problems. And because we have such big brains, we make much bigger problems than our fellow creatures on this earth. Remember Ghostbusters 2? Well that river of psychoreactive ectoplasm beneath NYC was a metaphor for what’s in our hearts when we think of ourselves as separate from everyone else, when we think that we’re the only ones with problems and everyone else is to blame. And the supernatural destruction the slime wrought? Nothing more than a stand-in for our own selfish and fearful acts, a manifestation of the poison within.

Since this strange little moment in the airport, I’ve been trying to carry The Big DL’s words in my heart and find the shared humanity in the “other” and the “stranger.” Now in Turkey for Petzl RocTrip, surrounded almost entirely by people from other cultures, I find the shared connection of climbing helps break down that all-too-common barrier so that we can connect and empathize. I’m pretty sure this sort of connection is the seed of a more peaceful and happy world… even if it sometimes seems like a very tiny seed.

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

faces_of_bodhi

“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?

2014-01-22 16.12.50-2
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

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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.

#ORPlaidIsRad: The Outdoor Retailer Plaidstagram Bingo Challenge

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If you’re reading this, chances are you own a plaid shirt, probably several. Popular across many demographics, plaid is de rigueur for us outdoorsy types. After attending more than a dozen Outdoor Retailer shows in Salt Lake City and noting the abundance of plaid shirts on display, I started to explore this curious fashion trend, first with a photo gallery and later with a video report.

To continue the colorful adventure, this year I’ve teamed up with Outdoor Research to bring you the Outdoor Retailer Plaidstagram Bingo Challenge, a photo contest that asks attendees of the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 to see with fresh eyes the plaid-patterned universe that surrounds them, and to share that universe with the outside world.

If you’re going to the OR show this year, pick up bingo card and play along for a chance to win! So stoked to see all that plaid…

(Tip: During the show, a plaid-clad Semi-Rad [real name: Brendan Leonard] will be strolling the carpet of the convention center as one of the powerful corner squares on your bingo card. Look for him, most likely in proximity to the coffee bar at the Royal Robbins booth.) 

How It Works

For those attending ORSM13, on Day 2 (Thursday, August 1) of the show, do the following:

  1. Pick up a bingo card from Outdoor Research (booth #26015), or download at thestonemind.com/plaidisrad.
  2. Snap an Instagram photo of the rad plaid content identified in one of the bingo squares.
  3. Follow @thestonemind @outdoorresearch and @semi_rad on Instagram.
  4. Tag the picture with #ORPlaidIsRad @thestonemind @outdoorresearch and @semi_rad.
  5. Once you have 5 squares in a row (vertical, horizontal, or diagonal), return to the Outdoor Research booth to claim your plaid prize! (Bring your phone; all squares must be accompanied photographic evidence!)
  6. Don’t forget to read the RULES below…

The Prize

The first 12 people to bring evidence of a completed line on their bingo cards to the Outdoor Research booth will win a sweet plaid shirt and trucker hat from Outdoor Research a Petzl headlamp.

Where You Can See All Those Rad Plaid Photos

Click on over to thestonemind.com/plaidisrad to see a feed of the plaid photos tagged #ORPlaidIsRad. (Alternatively, you could search for the hashtag #ORPlaidIsRad in your Instagram app.)

Rules

  • Contest will run for one day only, Thursday, August 1, 2013, from 9am to 6pm Mountain Time. All images must be uploaded during this timeframe.
  • All images must be uploaded to Instagram and must include #plaidisrad, @outdoorresearch, @thestonemind and @semi-rad in the caption or comments section.
  • To claim your prize, you must swing by the Outdoor Research booth (#26015) by 6pm on Wednesday, July 31, 2013.
  • The first 12 people to complete their cards and bring photographic evidence to the booth will receive a prize.

Questions or comments? Please leave them below so others can see.

Hello Climbing, My Old Friend

The Stone Mind in Las Vegas, NV. © Susánica Tam Photography
The Stone Mind in Las Vegas, NV. © Susánica Tam Photography

In this life, if we’re lucky, we will have many friends and many different types of friends, but there are some people whose friendship seems to transcend the dulling effects of distance and time. These are the friends you can see after 10 years separation and pick up some unfinished conversation as you’d been in the other room, not on opposite sides of the country. Climbing is this way for me.

I started climbing when I was 12. I’ll be 35 this year. Sometime over the past decade, I came to see climbing as a form of relationship, with phases and cycles: we grow closer, we drift apart. Once I stopped climbing for more than a year. My life wasn’t bad without it, just different, but it felt so good when I came back to it. I was out of shape and my skin was thin and frail and my toes balked at the torque and squeeze of my Five Tens, but after a few routes I sighed out loud. Damn, I’ve missed this, I thought, looking up into the copper cone of autumn light slanting over the crag

At various times in my life I’ve played tennis and basketball (poorly), played lacrosse, mountain biked, skateboarded, rollerbladed (don’t judge), snowboarded, and played the guitar. I’ve let every one of these hobbies die, and not because they weren’t fun as hell. But when I got injured, or busy, or something else distracted me, I never felt that gravitational pull the way I have with climbing. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a ball or a board and dork around and it feels great, but I know I probably won’t stick with it.

The climber/climbing relationship is like any other — it can be healthy or not so healthy. Some people use climbing to fill a void. Some have co-dependent relationships with climbing — it’s their obsession and their sense of self-worth. Some people start climbing for one reason and end up doing it for another. Most of us climb for several reasons at once, as professional climber Emily Harrington explained with refreshing honesty in a recent blog post.

For me, climbing has been a means of focusing my attention and energy, of achieving the flow state, of staying fit, of exploring my fears and my limits, of creating a sense of self, of connecting with other people. Heck, most of my jobs have been in some way climbing related.

But when I was young, climbing and I had a needier relationship. The gym and the crags were comfort zones where I could retreat from other issues in my life and feel in control of at least one thing. Back then, failure or success on the wall meant a lot to me — probably too much. Now I sail on a more even keel. If I don’t climb for a few weeks or even a few months, I don’t get upset (although my wife can attest that I grow a little antsy). Like one of those enduring friendships, I know climbing will be there when I return.

Like the poet Yeat’s symbolic spiral staircase, I’ve come back around to the same spot with climbing many times over, but every time my perspective has changed, my view grown larger to encompass more of the landscape.

It can be scary to step away from something that matters so much to you. But over the years I’ve learned that, if the right kind of connection is there, we can almost always come back. We can slip back into the climb midway, as if we’d never stopped.

Walking on Lava: A Pedestrian Lesson from Hawaii

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Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.

We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.

In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.

Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.

We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.

Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.

“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”

Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.

An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.

“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.

Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.

On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.

Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.

We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.

 

Looking and Seeing

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In the late 1970s, two of America’s best rock climbers were on a tear in Yosemite Valley, putting up new boulder problems left and right. Visionaries, both, neither Ron Kauk nor John Bachar saw the line on the Columbia Boulder, right in the middle of Camp 4, an area packed with climbers all season long. Instead, a climber Bachar described as “a drug addict, schizophrenic, and a wild guy” spotted the line first. John “Yabo” Yablonski, addled as he may have been, he was the one who saw possibility where no one else did.

As a photographer (aspiring and amateur, admittedly), I have been snapping pictures of the world around me ever since my parents bought me my first SLR in the early 1990s. Since then, my time with a camera in hand has taught me a lot about seeing — the first step in the art of photography. Strangely, this is easier said than done. Anyone can look (“A beautiful bridge! How exciting! I’ll take a picture of it!”) But to make that picture even hint at the power of the bridge you experience in your marrow, at least with any consistency at all, you have to condition yourself to see what is there. What is really there.

I know this must sound basic, or hopelessly oblique — of course you have to see! But looking is not seeing. You have to look to see, but it is quite easy to look and not see — In fact, I think it is our default mode. The photographer, the climber, the scientist, the writer — basically anyone trying to make or do anything worth a damn — must strive to see what is really before her. Only then can she decide how to proceed.

There is the bridge: sprawling span of steel and stone, rooted in earth and water. The sun hits it from this angle, throwing shadows in such a direction, stretching shapes from light and dark, illuminating some textures and obscuring others. Now frame it in your camera’s viewfinder. What does the camera see? Will that red and white tugboat be in the picture? Perhaps you should wait until it moves forward a little. Maybe wait a minute more, until it crosses that ray of light. To find the image you seek you must become, as Minor White writes in his essay “The Camera Mind and Eye,” like a sheet of film: “seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.”

To look, you need only your eyes — to see, your mind comes into play. When you see, you’re not just observing what is outside of you, but also what is inside. Both the external and internal fall under the heading What is There. “He can look day after day — and one day, the picture is visible!” writes White. “Nothing has changed except himself.”

When Yabo looked at that wave-shaped hunk of granite in Camp 4, he saw a way for a human form to navigate its spartan surface. In a similar way Charles Darwin, on observing an orchid with an eleven-inch nectary, saw that there must be a moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar in its bottom. Only four decades later would the actual moth be discovered. Any scientist could look at the oddly shaped nectary, but not anyone could see its implications.

Luckily, like any skill, one can practice seeing (although, as far as I know, there’s no rulebook for it). A simple exercise: next time you’re looking at something, whether the face of a rock, a subject to be photographed, or some problem in your work or professional life, take the time to look for what is truly there. Don’t let other’s opinions or your own expectations overly influence you. Ask yourself again and again, “What is there? What is there?” When you do that and do it well, answers start to present themselves.

What to do with those answers? That’s another story…

Cycles

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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.

 

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.

 

 

Do You Have the Adventure Drive?

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The other day, I found myself too busy to take my dog for his morning walk. Bodhi’s a hyperactive blue heeler mix with big bat ears, a salt-and-pepper coat, and a little dark spot under his nose that looks, from a certain angle, not unlike Inspector Clouseau’s moustache. According to dogbreedinfo.com, heelers, or Australian cattle dogs are “a courageous, tireless, robust, compact working” breed and “not the kind of dog to lie around the living room all day” — a fair description of Bodhi, minus the “courageous” part.

I ignored the poor pup as he lingered around the legs of my desk proffering a sock for me to toss. Eventually he wandered off. A little while later, I heard the clack of Bodhi’s nails on the wood floor as he hopped down from the off-limits bed and sauntered back into the living room with a piece of tissue stuck to his lip. I walked into the bedroom to find used Kleenex from the trashcan ascatter on the floor.

“Bad dog,” I said without conviction, knowing I had only myself to blame, and made a note to play fetch with him on my lunch hour.

In the scheme of things, Bodhi’s pretty good. I’ve heard stories of dogs with excess energy taking shoes and furniture apart and even clawing through walls. On the ASPCA website, there’s a list of “Problems that Result from Lack of Exercise and Play,” which includes: “Destructive chewing, digging or scratching,” “Knocking over furniture and jumping up on people,” “Excessive predatory and social play,” barking, biting, whining, and more.

“Dogs are born to work for a living,” the ASPCA site goes on. “They’ve worked alongside us for thousands of years.” I would add that, prior to those “thousands of years,” dogs were wild for millions, made to survive in a harsh environment, hunt, compete for mates and resources, and so on. It seems the modern “couch potato” lifestyle doesn’t suit dogs any more than it does humans.

Yes, we too have been shaped by our environment over the course of millions of years — an environment without climate controlled suburban housing, cars, or even the Internet (!). Deep inside us there remain, at least in part, faculties that allowed our ancestors to weather brutal winters, fend off predators, hunt down large, powerful prey, and on and on. Our bodies and minds have been wired to respond in ways that make us more likely to survive. As a result, we are on some level built to deal with what most people today would call “risky” situations.

“Risk is an integral part of life and learning,” writes Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. “A baby who doesn’t walk, for example, will never risk falling. But in exchange for taking that risk, he gains the much greater survival advantage of being bipedal and having his hands free.” Physical action and risk taking are a part of our survival programming. (Research has even suggested that exercise played an evolutionary role in the development of our brains.)

At the same time, there’s another powerful, and in many ways conflicting, motivator we all share — the drive to make the world more consistent and predictable.

Over the past century or two, we denizens of the so-called first world have moved ever farther in the direction of safety and predictability. We’ve extended our life expectancy through the elimination of predators, construction of complex shelters and food production systems, and the creation of ever-more effective medical procedures. We wear helmets when we bike, ski, climb, kayak and so forth (a trend I strongly encourage, by the way). Our lives, like our cars, have become insulated from the consequences of an indifferent world. Many of us now live in what folk singer Malvina Reynolds called “little boxes made of ticky tacky,” well removed from the past that formed our instincts. “We live like fish in an aquarium,” writes Gonzales. “food comes mysteriously down, oxygen bubbles up. We are the domestic pets of a human zoo we call civilization.”

And yet, the survival urge lives on inside of us. In many of us, it rubs up against the bars of the human zoo, creating discomfort that cries out for action. It probably has something to do with why modern “adventure” sports like climbing, BMXing, snowboarding, big-wave surfing and the like have been gaining in popularity, especially among classes of people with access to ample food and shelter and leisure time. Isolated from the need to ward off threats lurking behind every tree, this instinct has in many of us taken the form of an “adventure drive,” in which we must face challenges that are at once physical, mental, and, to varying degrees, risky. This combination adresses a missing element in many of our lives. Disaster-style alpinist and margarita aficionado Kelly Cordes, waxed philosophical on such a drive in a video called “Somethin Bout Nothin”:

We do create situations where uncertainty plays big for us. But if you knew the result of everything in life, you almost get to a philosophical question: well, what the hell’s the point? … And I think that’s one of the cool things about alpinism: you end up being responsible for your own decisions, which doesn’t happen in today’s world hardly at all anymore.

With little chance to face primal challenges in our day-to-day life, certain types of people (disproportionately men, it seems… but that’s a topic for another day) seek out situations that exercise those faculties in their brains. There is a simplicity in it, and even at times a transcendental euphoria. When rockfall, originating in a couloir high above, zings by your head, societal worry falls away like a useless old husk. Assuming you have the appropriate skills and training, the raw challenge can be freeing, if only for a time, and ultimately an experience we can take back with us into the everyday world. If we’re smart and/or lucky, we can use the intensity of such experiences to see through to the marrow of our daily lives.

For some, the survival instinct remains just that. I’m looking at a magazine called Survivalist right now. It’s a thin, glossy publication with ads for food that will keep nigh-indefinitely in your bomb shelter, electricity-free water purifiers, and guns … lots of guns. The cover lines include such heart warmers as “How to Survive the Impending Martial Law & Economic Collapse” and “Breaking the Matrix of the New World Order.” If there’s one thing the editors of this magazine are sure of, it’s that shit is going to hit the fan soon. If there’s another thing, it’s that they and their ilk will be sitting pretty when that shit/fan thing happens. The third thing they know? All those yuppies who voted for Obama, drink lattes, and whose pantries are stocked with a measly week of provisions, are up a creek, sans paddle.

Clearly, I’m not a Survivalist subscriber, but that doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with the anxiety its readers feel. I think it springs directly from the new world we inhabit, in which many of our most powerful urges can be confusing, even harmful. Some of these remain useful, such as empathy and social bonding. Others seem to cause more harm than good now that circumstances have changed — our very understandable inclination to find and eat food, for example. In a country filled to brimming with cheap, nutritionally hollow, edible food-like substances, our survival programming has led to a health crisis of morbidly obese proportions. Instinctual fear of the unknown cuts both ways, keeping us cautious when confronting new things that might well be dangerous, but also creating deep anxiety in response to things that statistics and our rational minds tell us are incredibly rare, like shark attacks, commercial airline crashes, mass shootings, and the zombie apocalypse.

It would seem that, confronted with a significantly less risky world than the one our ancestors lived in for thousands of generations, we first-worlders are struggling to find a new balance. Could this explain why we choose to climb mountains and hurl ourselves off cliffs, or even horde ammo and stockpile duct tape and plastic wrap? Are our brains, geared for something more challenging than cul-de-sacs and cubicles, still searching for a way to express a deep survival instinct?

As opposed to the generalized anxiety that grows in a world where threats are removed from our immediate sphere, climbing “is a fear that one can understand because you have a reason to be anxious or frightened at that point: you don’t want to fall,” said the writer Matt Samet in an article called “Risks and rocks: the mentality behind the mountain.” “It makes sense in a way that’s not chaotic. So in a way that’s the cure for the angst I feel in modern society.” Samet battled for many years with depression, anxiety, and a confounding addiction to prescription medications, all of which he documents in his book Death Grip. The immediacy and primal simplicity of climbing helped him to cut through the fog of his psychological afflictions.

I’m the first to admit that without significant research and study, this is just another theory, half-baked and three-quarters cocked. But if it’s true that many of us require stimulation beyond video games, golf, or the latest episode of Dancing With the Stars to feel right inside, I’d posit that a day on the rock, on the slopes, or in the waves is healthy, despite the risk. Yes, there is danger there, but a meaningful danger, as opposed to the more insidious kind we face from our modern lifestyle, where cancers slowly grow, arteries gradually clog, and — despite or maybe because of our declawed environment — people inexplicably commit suicide by the tens of thousands every year. These are the dangers of carefully constructed cages, creeping, persistent, terrifying in their banality.

In truth, the ideal is to have a life that is relatively in control and safe, in which we needn’t fear attackers or worry about getting enough food to survive. Then, moving from such a stable base, we have the freedom to choose which risks — whether on a mountain, in our careers, or intellectually — we take, and how to take them. This is an impossible reality; humanity will never succeed in eliminating all risk from the environment. And it’s worth remembering that, even if we could, death will still await us all. Nevertheless, it is worth striving for.

Thus, I wish you all the satisfaction of coming home safely from an epic adventure to a warm house, a good meal, and to your family and friends. There’s not much that can beat that.