Thursday, April 10, 2014

When to fell a tree

I once heard a story about a man who had a tree.  The tree, in his back yard, stood mostly straight- tall and proud...and dying of invasive infestation.  It endangered his home and his family, if it were to fall.  Decades of carbon, conjured invisibly out of the atmosphere had been fixed into sturdy, heavy fibers of Hemlock.

The man knew an old-world lumberjack, a neighbor of sorts in this remote mountain community.  This lumberjack was not your stereotype- small, wiry, slightly hunched and well past his prime, with suspenders to keep his trousers up, and spectacles to fix his myopia. He would smoke his pipe and lean on his axe whenever deep in thought.  He was closer to how one might picture Aldo Leopold, writing the next chapter of Sand County Almanac in his mind, than to a muscle-bound, chain-saw-toting, chew-spitting, mysoginistic beer-chugging specimen of logger.  The man hired this old logger to come cut down the tree.

And the first day, the logger walked the two miles of dusty roads to the man's trim cabin.  He went out back, lit his pipe, leaned on his axe, and thought a while.  He walked back off down the road.

This happened twice.  The second time much the same as the first.  He walked two miles with his axe on his shoulder, looked the tree up and down, smoked a full pipe, and walked home.  The man grew concerned.  Was this logger going to cut down the tree or not?  He started thinking he should pay a landscaping company, with all their cherry-pickers, ropes, and chainsaws, to come all the way out and turn the tree to woodchips.

But the third time the logger walked the dusty road, there was a strange calm in the air.  An unusual spring storm was brewing.  The man fretted all the more- if the logger performed his act a third time, the tree might fall on the man's house and emperil his family.

Calmly, the logger lit his pipe and the smoke wafted lazily in every direction, indecisive.  He looked the tree up and down, thoroughly and shamelessly, like an old lecher at a blushing teen.  And then, the logger put his finger in his mouth and pointed at the tree, or rather, the ominous sky above.  And he immediately began to chop, smoothly and efficiently, his well-honed axe making short work of the grain of the mighty tree.

He paused to catch breath, and lit another pipe. The man noticed...the logger's pipe smoke was no longer lazy.  It now flew from his pipe in a very specific direction...precisely opposite the man's house.

You see, the logger knew these parts, having grown up here.  And he knew that the wind was usually prevalent in a particularly unfavorable direction for the unfortunate position of the man's house on the lee side of the tree and the sail-like tendencies of the dying tree's bulk.  And of course, having a house there, there was a large clearing, and the tree's branches naturally grew more heartily toward the house, eager for sunlight.  So the weight of the tree and the force of the wind were together conspiring to wreck the poor man's house, little did he know.

But the old logger knew.  And he was patient.  He waited for an unusual and strong wind, which blew exactly opposite the usual state of affairs.  And the old man knew from experience just when the wind would be gusting strongly enough to fell the tree...away from the man's house.  And so now having cut a sizeable wedge out of the tree, the logger began to notch the side facing the house, and with a mighty groan the tree fell cleanly away and landed with a deep resonance that reverberated in the very foundations of the house.

So, the moral is clear.  Patience is often rewarded with efficient successes.  The tree crew, all four of them, driving the truck, operating the chainsaws and blocks and tackle and wedges, might have gotten the job done- but this old man knew the far simpler approach.  Sometimes, it's best to wait for the right moment before acting.  It takes time, attention, and practice to build experience- experience on when to act and when to wait. And the logger lit another pipe and walked two miles home, before the first drop of rain pattered on the man's safe roof.  He could segment the tree on a better day.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April will be Imaginary

April fools.

Is me.

It’s going to be a long month of



Look out for a monster
made of time and technology.

Hide out in dens of nature and
sloven simplicity as
spring unfolds to
embrace you,
but there’s plexiglass
and we forgot the dry ice martinis.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cemetery Cycling

You are startled by the reflections of ghosts,
puddles of clouds
in a rolling sea of gray,

camouflage for the dead.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nostangia- the tang of nostalgia

My father,
knowing memory is fickle
expresses that past things disappear
as if by magic,
rather than to say
"I probably misplaced that".

Friday, August 9, 2013

Finding Flow

There is a man who minted the concept of flow, that optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where a person is fully immersed in what they are doing.

Many people in the pop-psy, positive psychology movement think of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a genius for this.  A rock star.  A hero.

My favorite part about Csikszentmihalyi is that he is a climber.

"Whenever a climber leaves the known paths, he enters an area without rules or routines to rely on. The only advice comes from deep inside the self, and hopefully the motivation is true. At such moments, the mountaineer is creative, not merely a participant in sport. This creativity manifests itself in styles of climbing or in exploration of unknown areas. It is impossible to cram mountaineering into a sport framework. To me there are as many ways to experience the mountains as there arc real and passionate emotional bonds with the mountains. If you allow my earlier sarcasm, permit me a momentary contact with the mystical. I conclude that mystery is essential to mountaineering. What is unveiled to the individual when involved with creative mountaineering forms part of a new bond with the mountain experience."  –Voytek Kurtyka, the consummate alpinist/artist/philosopher in “The Art of Suffering”

The beauty of play is that there is an implied margin of safety. If a surprise endangers you, it is no longer playful. Climbing is perverse in that it forces a psychology of entering and exiting a continual string of danger, or at least of perceived danger. The game becomes the dance with the margin of safety itself. 

Are there categories for surprises? 

Clearly, say, discovering some hidden talent, is much deeper and more rewarding than unexpectedly receiving a birthday cake. And that cake, in turn, is a far greater experience for the hungry child than for the sick diabetic. 

 Almost anyone prefers cake to a surprise triple-bypass surgery. 

Yet Dan Gilbert quotes a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for 37 years as saying his ordeal was “a glorious experience”; another man who was paralyzed from the neck down said that before his accident, he “didn’t appreciate others nearly as much as I do now.”

Climbing, the art of suffering, has another lesson to teach: resilience. 

Sometimes, the simplest things in life are the worst at strengthening our resilience. For the diabetic struggling with a sweet tooth, that piece of cake might be his greatest challenge, despite the expectation that he control his diabetes.  And yet the falsely imprisoned convict has less expectation upon him, making it all the more awe-inspiring when he is able to persevere and even thrive through his sentence.


In my own life, I find that taking hold of stressors, and applying them intentionally and gradually, strengthens my resilience.  I have taken up climbing, running, cycling.  I embrace suffering within these disciplines and in doing so, empower myself to defeat suffering elsewhere in my life.

And maybe my obsession with suffering comes out of early childhood, and maybe it was nurtured through mountaineering and climbing.  But it has taken a new shape, not of merely enduring, but harnessing, and hopefully I will use that process to reduce suffering in the world. 

A motivated life is one with well-balanced surprises, and control over one's suffering.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Your Favorite Blog is Pollution

Anyone can be a blogger, these days.

And just like the realization that maybe Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Jack Nicholson and Steve Jobs aren't the best role models, comes the realization, too, that our favorite bloggers are broken people.

I was speaking with my father about great scientists and artists, and whether their abrasive, abusive personal lives were offset by their great contributions to humanity.  He seemed to think they were.

I said "Isn't a planet of 7 billion big enough to not need to idolize these deeply flawed individuals?"

He replied "Fair enough."

I think about the thousands who idolized Alex McCandless and his journey Into The Wild, spurred to his death by the writings of Tolstoy and Thoreau and Jack London.

Can we afford this trail-and-error, survival by any means, evolutionary way of living any more?

Today's 'globalized' economy isn't the same as it once was. And while we can admire the writings of these great minds much as we admire vintage cars and antique furniture, we cannot afford today's writers  being the social equivalent of running leaded gasoline and chopping old-growth forest.

It may run great or look good, but at what cost?

We are finally learning that popularity and power have very little to do with sustainability when it comes to our energy sources.  What about our ideas?

This is highlighted best, to me, by our superstar bloggers.

We are enamored that they are like us, better or bigger versions of us, sometimes also with our flaws equally amplified through artfully written personae.  Yet I am afraid we are addicted to them just like we are to 'reality' television.

Are the real people, the ones behind the blogs, the kind of people who can build a stronger society?

My feeling is they are shockingly poorly rounded.  And yet they work hard and achieve all sorts of success.

So how do you choose to measure a person?  By what they say, by the greatest of their accomplishment?  Or by the smaller things?

I cannot help but think of Pete Seeger.  Here is a man who seems to live by his word.  He strummed his banjo on national television the same way he strums it around a campfire.  And a while back, I saw him go out of his way, at 94 years old, to bend over and pick up a small piece of litter.

I said, "Let me get that, Pete!" But he waved me off.

It was just a part of what Pete does, who he is.

I strive to be as true to myself as possible. I aim to deliver what people expect out of me.  At the same time, I have huge expectations of myself to justify my own existence and all the resources I have used up and opportunities I have squandered.  We all have an obligation to cherish this great gift we have been given.

I enjoy the work of trying to be a better person.

Making a positive impact on my world is one of the noblest burdens I could have the pleasure of bearing.

Sometimes, you just have to pick up other people's trash.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

An Ode to the Word of Learning

My bio concludes with a line beginning "I'm into learning..."

This morning, going through and making some edits, I had to wonder if that would mislead people into thinking I was more of a bookworm and less of the social education entrepreneur that I wanted that to imply.

I waffled, and I really feel like education is a dirty word these days.  I don't want to EDUCATE people, I want to facilitate the social experiences that lead them to learning gains. I have to confess though, that I can't think of the right word to blend social facilitation and independent learning into one.  "I'm into realization" sounds too buzzwordy and obscure, to me.

So am I missing the mark?  I think the answer is yes, but with a caveat.  The kind of people I love are life-long learners.  Even deeper than that, they are seekers of truth and experience.  I hope they recognize a kindred soul in those three words, almost as if sharing a fetish or recognizing membership in an exclusive club (of course, learning need not be exclusive, but that's a different post).

The human meta-cognitive ability to learn about learning about learning, has got to trump opposable thumbs. It enables us to develop our brains through a runaway feedback loop, the results of which are the mind-boggling arrays of philosophy, culture, science and technology.  Being into learning is that most sacred of confessions of transcendence.

So here's to the learners.