“Usually when we practice we expect something: if we try hard, our practice will improve,” says Shunryu Suzuki in a collection of his lectures on Zen called Not Always So. “If we aim at a goal in our practice we will eventually reach it… . This is true, but it is not a complete understanding.”
Usually when we climb we expect something, too. Even if we don’t state it openly, we bring expectations. It is the same thing a student of Zen expects when she sits in zazen. We want to be better. We expect we will improve with effort.
The weather was perfect when I went climbing last week, but I knew snows would soon cover the rocks, so I really tried to accomplish something that was hard for me. That was my goal, but I didn’t reach it. Instead I did a few climbs that didn’t show improvement. Not good enough.
“Even though you say your practice is not good enough, there is no other practice for you right now,” Suzuki says, as if in direct response to my disappointment. “Good or bad, it is your practice.” If I give myself over to the climb and try my best, I might not meet my own expectations. Still, there is no other practice for me—at least, not at that moment.
It is difficult to let go of your expectations, whether for one climb, one day, or one season. It feels suspiciously like quitting. After all, who wasn’t taught from childhood that we must set goals and stop at nothing to attain them? But the bridge to any goal must be built on a foundation of failure and doubt. Then again, once we reach our goals, we find they rarely offer the type of lasting satisfaction we imagined they would.
Beyond it all, there is another sort of understanding that can only be expressed through the practice itself, and never quite explained. I think this is what Suzuki was getting at.
in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:
“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”
Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.
For the climber, the recipe is: we show up, we put on our harness or lay out our pad, we tighten our shoes and chalk our hands, and we climb. That is all. Some days the climb goes as planned, some days it doesn’t. However it goes, that is your day of climbing.
“We also do zazen with the understanding that the goal is not reached in one or two years, but is right here,” says Suzuki. “Here is the goal of practice.”
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…
It takes a special type of person to think him or herself a good fit for the job description, “Leader of the Free World.” And by special, I mean intensely competitive, eminently ambitious, and confident to the point of either megalomania or narcissism. (As Bertrand Russell said, “The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history.”) Certainly such a person must at times view the Oval Office in the same way that George Mallory viewed the summit Everest: as an ultimate symbol of achievement, to be sought for little reason other than, “Because it is there.”
Accordingly, I feel a diehard mountaineer, with his or her unique set of skills and personality traits, would make an interesting president. I’m not talking about Paul Ryan and his dubious claims of fourteener domination, but the real, flinty-eyed alpinist who takes perverse pleasure in the pain of extreme altitude, brutal cold, and the incessant object hazards of the mountain environment. Some reasons why include:
Meticulous preparation, plus adaptability – A mountain “objective” requires extensive reconnaissance. Little surprise then that alpinists are known for their obsessive intel gathering: What are the ideal seasons for a given climb? How many days can I expect to be on the mountain, and what is the minimum of food and water I can bring to make my safe return likely? What are the crux sections? What are my plans for retreat? What gear will be enough to see me through without weighing me down? Who should I partner with? There are many things to consider, and even after the climber has considered them all, there is still a chance that bad luck will nullify much of that preparation. Likewise, a good president must know the context of his or her decisions and understand both the scope and pitfalls of a given objective, all the while accepting that no amount of preparation will ensure a perfect, or even favorable outcome.
Appreciation for nature – It is a rare alpinist who can keep close quarters with the natural world and not hold a deep reverence for its splendor. How, then, could a climber president help but stand as an environmentalist in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, creator of our National Park System? A mountaineer as president would not hesitate to protect our precious wild places from the relentless creep of human greed.
Toughness and tenacity – Pain and exhaustion are the bread and butter of the mountain climber’s diet. One need only read classic mountaineering books like The White Spider, by Heinrich Harrer, or more contemporary stuff like the words of Mark Twight, to see that it is pointless to attempt mountains without embracing suffering. Near the summit of Mt. Everest, to use a well-worn example, one enters the “death zone,” above which the human body begins an oxygen-deprived descent into delirium and expiration. Of course, If a person likes things “easy,” he or she does not become a mountaineer. So must a great president not fear but embrace the certain difficulties of the office, relish the challenge, dive headlong into the task of leading a country through ever-treacherous waters.
A larger perspective – From a perch above the clouds, where mountains multiply ad infinitum, where you can see weather moving in from a great distance, where perhaps a bird or two loops listlessly in the unseen currents of the atmosphere, here does the climber’s perspective draw its context. The climber sees a world measured by a bigger unit than the inch or foot or even mile. Mountains are measured on a tectonic scale, formed over eons by the meeting of two great plates, and worn away over many eons more by freezes and thaws, by water and wind. Who wouldn’t want in their president that eye for the stretch of human history and the vast motions of the geologic clock? All too often, the political landscape forces leaders to make decisions that suit only the next electoral cycle. A grander perspective — and the resolve to incorporate it into one’s decisions — is required for truly great governance, though at the same time, one must not lose sight of the needs of the moment. A difficult balance, to be sure.
A willingness to turn around – It is hard to imagine a president saying, “I was wrong. We are changing course now for the greater good.” The political repercussions of admitting defeat, or suggesting that a new direction is what’s needed, must seem too dire. Still, when a climber plans to turn back from a summit push, he or she must stick to that plan, even when the summit looms in sight. Many a climber has pushed on past the cutoff time… and paid the price with his or her life. It takes a level of humility and discipline to turn back or change course. A climber, especially one leading a team, must put the lives of his or her team ahead of a lust for glory. A president, when leading a nation, must put first the good of the country, and not be swayed by the prospect of additional gain, power, or influence.
Realistic risk assessment – Often in this world, we are afraid of things that pose little threat (sharks, bird flu, communism). At the same time, we think little of the truly risky behaviors we engage in every day: driving a car, eating junk food while sitting at a desk for nine hours straight, shopping at Wal-Mart on Black Friday. On every outing, a mountain climber must ask, “Is it safer here to tie in and offer a belay for my partner, or would it be best to keep moving, fast but untethered?” Many times in the mountains, moving slow, safe, and steady is actually a great risk. If a storm blows in or night falls too soon, hypothermia can claim you as easily as a fall. A president is faced every day with questions of life and death. He or she must see the risks as clearly as possible and make decisions based on the most likely and best possible outcome, not based on irrational fear or a paralyzing need for safety. I do not imagine there have been many presidents whose decisions haven’t led directly to many deaths. Such a position is no place for muddy thinking.
A strong sense of ethics – Someone once said, “There is no cheating in climbing — only lying.” As a climber you adhere to a certain core of ethics when shit gets tough not because a referee is watching, but because you are climbing for yourself, and you have yourself to answer to. A president also needs a strong core of beliefs and ethics and a willingness to stick to them, even when the media, the Facebook commenters and all the senators are crying for blood. Such deep fortitude is a goodly part of what we want in a president, even though the modern political system seems to encourage just the opposite.
Travels well – Any serious alpinist will spend a great deal of his or her time on the road. Flights to Alaska, Nepal, France, Pakistan, Canada — travel is unavoidable, as prime objectives are rarely found in one’s backyard. Too, a climber must be comfortable with the food, customs, and languages of foreign lands. So will the president spend many of his days in the air and far from home. It is a part of the job, and he or she should embrace it, both for the good of personal growth and of international diplomacy.
Cool in the face of danger – Fear should never be the basis of one’s decisions in the mountains. Even when fear grips, with its metallic tang and sphincter clench, the good alpinist (hopefully) has enough rational brainpower left to assess the situation — even if that assessment must take place in seconds. Fear is the voice of our basal ganglia pressing us into flight or fight mode. Fear doesn’t see the big picture — it sees the world through a funnel and sees only one option when many hover in the periphery. No human with the launch codes to a massive nuclear arsenal should lack the ability to face fear and still operate on a well-reasoned level.
Unfortunately, there is one overwhelming reason why a dyed-in-the-wood alpinist would be a terrible president: He or she would not take well to a life behind a desk. Not when there are all those peaks out there, solitary, wind scoured, free from the incessant critiques, and demands of a the nation and the world.
Magazines have always had a special place in my heart. From Fangoria (in my rebellious, kinda-gross teen years) to Surfer (though I lived in Ohio and never touched a surfboard) to Thrasher, Rock & Ice,Climbing, National Geographic, Wired,The New Yorker, Lucky Peach, the list goes on. I was always stopping in at the newsstand to pick up some glossy periodical or other. Somewhere in there, there was a very special magazine called Grand Royal. Despite having a brief six-issue run, it loomed large in my collection.
A sort of proto-hipster porn, Grand Royal was the creation of the Beastie Boys. The white punk band turned hip-hop sensation established the publication in 1993, according to this fanboy site. Style was a big part of the Beastie Boys’ success — a keen eye for the authentic, the retro, the strangely awesome they applied to themselves and everything they touched. Their short lived magazine project was in keeping with this weltanschauung. At one point I had four of the six issues, but, sadly, all I can find now is Issue Four, the Liesure Issue. Although Four’s cover isn’t my favorite (the Lee Perry Wheaties box cover of Issue Two took that honor), the contents are highly worthy of perusal. A few of the many highlights:
Real American Badasses: Aaron Burr
The Importance of Chill Time, by Mike D
East Coast/West Coast Noodlz – Greg Shewchuk vs. Miho Hatori in the Ramen/Soba Debate
Pinball Whizzer – Champ Lyman “Silk” Sheats isn’t deaf, dumb, or blind, but he rocks Member’s Only
A Wu Tang Clan-themed “Wu Activity Page” full of puzzles and games
And also (below) a Xerox-quality image of Burt Reynolds catching a football sans pants, with the text “For the ladies” printed to the side. On the facing page, an ad for do-it-yourself Theremin kits.
Having worked in the magazine industry, I know how easy it is for the strange, quirky, and hilariously offensive bits to get sanded off of a finished product during the editing process. Grand Royal seemed not to have this dilema, most likely because it was funded by a trio of deep-pocketed troublemakers. And though it was by no standards a runaway success, Grand Royal did brighten the lives of many thousands of readers with its bizzarre and eccentric contents. I lament the loss of such esoterica, but take heart that the Wild Wooly World Wide Web has and will continue to enable many strange productions of this sort.
A brief commentary on the state of eating habits in America:
The more I cook, the more ridiculous I find the idea of going to a restaurant to purchase an egg sandwich or a hamburger. If you’re at a sit-down spot, you’ll almost certainly pay four or five times more than you would just making it yourself. Plus, if you put any effort into cooking at all, you’ll probably make something better (or more to your liking, at least) than what they’re charging a premium for at a restaurant.
Not to mention the fact that cooking is an art form and an activity that brings family members together.
Do you have kids? Get them involved. Teach them what real food looks like, where it comes from. This is the topic that food crusader Jamie Oliver has been hammering away at for years now. (Skip to 11:15 in the video link preceding, if you want to see how much some kids know about real food.) If you cook with fresh ingredients (stuff that doesn’t come in boxes and last for months or years without being frozen), you’ll be hard pressed to make food as bad for you as an average fast food meal. Plus, the more time you spend doing something creative that doesn’t involve watching a screen with your kids… well, I don’t even have kids and it seems obvious to me how important this is.
And if you have a significant other, cooking is a great way to spend time together. Shopping for fresh ingredients, cooking, and eating are all sensual acts. The texture and smell of aromatic vegetables and herbs being diced and chopped on a cutting board. The synthesis of flavors that a well-prepared meal offers — each one standing alone and yet complimenting the others. The intimate moment of eating in your own home something you worked to create together. It’s far less pretentious and stuffy than a meal at Del Posto, and far more affordable, too. It’s the simple acts, really, that are the most profound. Cooking is one those basic human actions that have shaped and defined cultures and families for millenia. For god’s sake, just do it.
Now, the answer to the question: What’s for Breakfast?
Today, my fiancée and I constructed a luxurious breakfast sandwich (see picture at top). Not healthy, per se, but a nice Sunday morning indulgence after a long work week of yogurt, oatmeal, turkey sandwiches, salads… Today’s sandwich was a play off of the classic bodega bacon, egg, and cheese I ate three days a week while living in New York City. I thought it would be nice to mix in some Southwest flavors (guacamole and jalapeno). Only after we finished making it did I realize how much it resembled The Southside Walnut Café’s Sunrise Sandwich, which we ate regularly while living in Boulder, Colorado.
Making this sandwich was simple (as sandwiches tend to be!). Here, step-by-step instructions to get your through the first time:
Make or buy guacamole. We happened to have a container of Whole Food guac in the fridge and we wanted to use it up before it went brown
Start some dry rubbed, thick cut, nitrate free bacon in a skillet over medium heat
Warm another skillet over medium and coat with butter or oil, depending on your taste (careful not to burn!)
Slice as much good, sharp cheddar cheese as you think you’ll want on your sandwich
Put two slices of your favorite bread in the toaster, but don’t push them down yet… (We used slices of a French boule, which is an airy, crusty white bread)
Crack some eggs (I had two on my sandwich) into the buttered or oiled pan, which should be hot by now. I broke the egg yolks to get more even coverage, mixing them around in the whites with the corner of my spatula.
Flip your bacon, if it’s ready.
When the tops of the eggs are starting to firm up, but well before they are dry, fold them in half, so you have semi-circular shapes in the pan… like mini omelets.
Wait a minute and then place your cheese slices atop the egg semi-circles
Push down the bread in the toaster
Check the bacon. If it’s done, put it on a plate lined with a paper towel, to absorb a little of the excess grease
When the cheese is melted, put one of your eggs onto the bread (it has popped up by now, hasn’t it?)
Then break a slice of bacon in two and put the pieces on to of the egg on the bread
Slide the other egg on top of the bread, egg, cheese, and bacon stack
Put another slice of bacon on top of all this
Coat the other piece of bread with guacamole (freshly sliced avocado will do, too)
Embed the guac with as many jalapenos as you see fit (their bright, spicy flavor really balances out the sandwich!)
Put the two halves together, serve and enjoy.
We ate ours sans sides… just some coffee and some seltzer with lemon. Nearing the limits of sandwich perfection! What about you? What do you love to make for breakfast?
Working from home can be valuable for employee and employer alike. Employers should consider extending this benefit to their employees where possible, and employees should consider requesting it where reasonable. However, it’s important to keep in mind the potential pitfalls. Some people don’t work well from home, as they see their domicile as an escape from work. Know thyself, as the saying goes. Also important is the need to treat working from home the same way you would working from the office. If you take advantage of your employer’s flexibility and slack, you’ll likely find the privilege rescinded. (Or, worse, you could even get yourself canned.) So if you do get the chance to work from home, make a list of tasks as big or bigger than you would for a day in the office, and then get it all done by the end of the day. With fewer interruptions, this should be no problem. It will allevate any fears your boss might have about the concept and help open the door for others who might want to try it. Personally, I enjoy and appreciate being able to work from home every once in a while. Below, ten big reasons why. (And if you have any reasons for or against, leave ’em in the comments!)
10. Access quality coffee, snacks – Most offices brew up crap coffee like Folgers in crappy coffee makers that burn the coffee within ten minutes of brewing. (Call me a snob — it’s OK, I can take it.) Then they give you free powdered creamer and bleached sugar, with which you can almost mask the bitter, acrid taste. Yum! For sensitive liberals who can’t stomach swill, access to a good drip system or French press and a fresh bag of specialty coffee is like a little ray of black, caffeine-rich sunshine. Plus, you can access on all manner of foods you love when the ol’ rumble-stomach starts to distract you from the tasks at hand. Chips and hummus with sriracha sauce is my snack of choice.
9. Get some exercise – I work for an outdoor company that understands the importance of an active lifestyle. We have a workout area and a bouldering wall on the premises. Pretty sweet. But most people don’t have this luxury, and busting a cross-fit routine in your cubicle will probably get you strange looks or worse. At home, however, you can take ten minutes here and there to do some highly effective exercises. Push-ups, sit-ups, squats, some light weights, or even a run around the ‘hood at lunch — all of these can help make the long day in a chair a little less destructive to your physical and mental health.
8. Spend quality time with your pet(s) – It has been shown that interacting with dogs is good for your health. A recent study even found that playing with your dog helps your body release oxytocin. Plus, there’s the matter of being a good pet owner. I have a blue heeler named Bodhisattva (Bodhi for short). He is representative of his breed in that he’s smart, hyper, and a real pain in the ass. Because my fiancée and I both work desk jobs, he sits at home all day. I feel less like a bad parent when I work from home, as I can give him attention and a little play time. On winter days, I can watch him “get the zoomies” in the fresh snow out back. Priceless.
7. Spend quality time with the house/apartment – If you hate where you live, this isn’t a good reason for you. But I quite like the little bungalow we rent in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood. I pay a fair chunk of my income in rent, so it’s nice to spend a little extra time in this space. The sun shines in the window behind my desk. My fiancée’s new painting lies half-finished on the floor. The sounds of the heater blowing and the fish tank filter trickling are preferable to the fluorescent-light buzz of the office.
6. Listen to the sounds of silence – If you have small children, this might not be a good reason for you. But for the rest of us, real quiet time is often enough to increase productivity significantly. The “open office” design of most of today’s workplaces, mine included, is conducive to information exchange with co-workers, but it’s also highly frustrating when you’re on a short deadline and concentration is required. At that point, the best thing to do is don your headphones. But for some reason this always leads to co-workers coming up and pantomiming their requests, or that universal signal for “take off your headphones”, which is even more annoying than their chatter when you’re not wearing headphones. Of course, if you want to listen to music, you can do so with impunity when you work at home, sans headphones. There’s something so nice about not having a big pair of cans strapped to your earholes when you’re jammin’ out to Skrillex or Llana Del Rey. More comfortable and easier to hear the phone ringing, the ice cream truck jingling, and yourself thinking.
5. Save the planet – My commute is thirty-five miles each way. Every single day I don’t have to make that drive is a win for my wallet and the air quality in the already obscenely polluted Salt Lake City Valley.
4. Save time– Commuters, again, win out when working from home. Thirty, forty-five, fifty minutes each way every day? It’s rough. If you drive alone, you can do what I do and dictate ideas for stories and blogs into your phone’s voice recorder like a nerd. But then you’re burning all that gas just to haul one body to the office. If you carpool, you’re pretty well resigned to doing nothing for over an hour each day. If you ride public transportation, you might get something done, or you might get someone’s coffee spilled on your laptop. A better option is to work from home and spend zero minutes commuting. Then you can use your precious hour saved to exercise, call your mother, or finish that diorama you’ve been working on.
3. Get “other stuff” done – At home, you can accomplish a variety of household tasks without interrupting your work flow too much. In the office, everyone takes periodic breaks to use the restroom, talk to co-workers, get coffee, or eat a snack. At home, with the same amount of break time, you can get all the laundry done, do the dishes, or pick up your messy living room. It doesn’t take long and it saves you from having to do it over your two precious days of weekend.
2. Increase productivity – In my workplace there are two common reasons that things don’t get done as quickly as they should. One is the constant flow of email requests. Working from home won’t change that. But the other big work killer is the drop-ins that happen throughout the day. “The modern workplace is structured completely wrong. It’s really optimized for interruptions,” says Jason Fried, founder of 37 Signals. “And interruptions are the enemy of work. They are the enemy of productivity, they are the enemy of creativity, they are the enemy of everything.” (Watch a video of Fried’s very interesting talk on this topic here.) Granted, some of these drop-ins are important — hot items that need attention ASAP — but most of the time, they’re not, and the main thing they accomplish is a twenty-minute disruption that can take even longer to recover from. Assuming you don’t have screaming kids at home, you should be able to clear out a few of those attention-intensive projects that have been dragging on for days or weeks.
1. Maintain morale – According to a study by Jessica Pryce-Jones, author of Happiness at Work, “The happiest employees are 180% more energized than their less content colleagues, 155% happier with their jobs, 150% happier with life, 108% more engaged and 50% more motivated. Most staggeringly, they are 50% more productive too.” (Source: Forbes online.) Most of this probably seems redundant (happy workers are happier with their jobs? Who could’ve guessed?!), but the productivity thing is a major point. And working from home, for most of us, increases happiness with one’s job. It is a benefit, like good health care or a public transportation stipend. Employers should considering offering work-from-home days to employees who don’t need to be in the office every single day in order to do their jobs. It’s one of those things business people like to call a “win/win.”
Just writing to say that since posting my first real post on thestonemind.com eleven days ago, this blog has had well over one thousand hits. Not to mention a handful of “likes,” several comments, and a fair bit of link clickery. That makes me feel all warm and gooey inside.
The numbers aren’t so big yet, but every day since I started posting (excluding weekends) has had more traffic than the previous day. It’s a nice trend to see. Right now I’m hoisting a delicious bottle of Brainless Belgium, from Epic Brewing in celebration.
I guess you could say this post is the blog equivalent of the five dollar bill that a fledgling diner hangs behind the counter. One step at a time, you know?
And of course there’s plenty more to come. You stay classy, San Diego.