Polo shirts and loafers, church groups, BMWs, big houses with porticos and sprawling lawns, golf clubs, box seats at the game, Jeeps, ski vacations, baseball caps, football parties…
These spring to mind when I think of my hometown. It was for the most part a white, Christian, yuppy town with a culture of wealth and status. Of course, not everyone in Upper Arlington, Ohio, was well to do, but it was tacitly assumed that everyone wanted to be.
There were plenty of us who didn’t fit (or even understand) this vision of perfection, however. We were the outsiders in a monoculture, chaffing against what we saw as an inflexible norm. For this reason, after years of straining to keep up on the lacrosse team, full of people I didn’t get along with and coached by a guy I didn’t much respect, I threw myself fully into climbing, even though it didn’t have a well-defined place in the social hierarchy. It was my game; an outsider’s game.
I used to skateboard, too. Skateboarding was a countercultural act in my town. People saw you cla-clacking down the sidewalk and pretty much wrote you off. You were a punk, a druggie, a roustabout, to use a term from the way back. A lot of skaters did it only for the love, sure, but there was also that element of rebellion that drew many of us to it. Like punk rock, it was a middle finger to the established order, even as it was in the midst of becoming mainstream.
Climbing was different though—it was so new in the Midwest in the 1990s that it didn’t carry many connotations with it. This was exactly what I liked about it. It was a tabula rasa of sorts. The fact that it took place in a dusty old gym or out in the woods, where I would never run into any of my classmates, was even better. It was barely connected to the messy world of adolescent preppie-town social hierarchy I was so tired of navigating. The only fear involved was the fear of falling, which seemed so much cleaner and simpler than the fear of not being accepted by my peers. Climbing wasn’t pro or anti, high class or low—it was just something I did because it felt right. And there were others like me…
My dad was an art professor at Ohio State University, and his graduate students were my baby sitters when I was young. Blue hair, piercings, tattoos—my parents looked straight through their appearances and judged on words and deeds. And for the most part, these students were great influences: romantic intellectuals who followed their hearts with rare gusto. They were every bit as moral as the minivan families dressed in Sunday best, but, it seemed to me, even more honest, more free.
I soon discovered there were people like this at the climbing gym, too. Idealists, environmentalists, people who cared about health, about nature, about living in accordance with their beliefs. They were more interested in making the most of life while they had it than keeping up with the Joneses. Climbers and artists alike seemed after something more personally fulfilling and spiritually grander than the whatever it was the Midwestern suburban value system was offering.
I started climbing in the same athletic shorts I wore to lacrosse practice. I bought an Alpine Bod harness and a pair of 5.10 Spires from the closeout bin in the local outdoor outfitters. I wore my ball cap turned backwards, a vestige of my high school uniform. Slowly, I accrued the hallmarks of the climbing trade: a pair of bright red Mocasym rock shoes, Verve pants, a Prana hoody. I built a new identity around the fine art of climbing up a wall. Absent the pressures of a team, I focused on overcoming my own doubts and weaknesses. No coach was there to tell me I was screwing it up; no teammates scoffed at me when I blew it in a drill. I went at my own pace, motivated by my own interest and excitement. It was precisely what an outsider like me needed to grow.
Interestingly, the solitary game of climbing has helped me to become a better team player. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder like I used to, or much fear of being judged. I also bring more sympathy and empathy to every endeavor I undertake. Life isn’t simple, and people aren’t one dimensional, I’ve noticed. We’re all more alike than we’d like to admit, and more different that we’re often comfortable allowing…
Now, after 20-plus years in the climbing world, having worked at rock gyms, edited magazines, and hung around with pro climbers, I feel more like an insider than ever before. Somehow, I still feel like I’m playing an outsider’s game, though; it just feels right.