My dispatches typically are sent from somewhere.
This one is sent from my sixtieth birthday
Edmund Hillary, along with his Sherpa partner Tenzing Norgay, was the first to summit Mr Everest. Afterward, he was asked what contributed to his determination to get to the top of the mountain. He replied that when he was young his father had been very strict and believed in harsh discipline. There were many trips to the woodshed and it was always important to his father that Edmund admit that he had been at fault. But he never did. Hillary was proud of the fact that he never admitted wrong-doing, even when it had occurred. He thought that that kind of stubbornness was important in his push to the summit of the world’s highest mountain.
It was a great achievement, enough for most people, but Hillary did not become satisfied or complacent about what to do with the rest of his life. He could have been content with being the first up Mt Everest, but instead he moved on from that and had many other accomplishments. He was always looking ahead, not backward, and devoted much of his time to helping the Sherpa people.
Hillary recalled that while he stood on the summit of Everest he took a moment to look off towards Makalu, another unclimbed peak at that time and the fifth highest in the world. From that unique vantage he could study the mountain and pick out a route that might be used to climb it someday. He said, “Everest, for me, was more a beginning than an end.”
I guess that’s Hillary’s way of stating the maxim that the journey is often more important than the destination, the striving for a goal more fulfilling than the achieving of it.
The journey I’ve been thinking about lately is the one that brought me to my 60th birthday. My “life-as-a-journey ” journey.
They say that sixty is the “new forty”, but I’m not sure I agree. Sixty is fine, but I remember forty. If my mind and spirit think I’m still forty, my body says otherwise. Mind and Spirit are fellow travelers with my body but they are stragglers, back there on the road somewhere, marching to their own drummer, forever younger than the rest of me.
There are times I feel like I just graduated from high school but most days I know better. Sixty is not young but it’s not old either, though I remember when I thought it was. I am well past the “hump-day” of my lifespan- closer to the end than to the beginning- and even though I’m counting on the end still being off in the distance, I think I can see it coming into view.
I read a study that reported that the two happiest decades in most American’s life are their 20’s and their 60’s, so that’s a plus. On the other hand, the study also found that the happiest country in the world is Norway, so you have to wonder.
Part of me wants to treat turning sixty as just another day-another year- that turns like all the rest have. But another part of me believes that I should think of it differently, as one of those milestones that should not pass unnoticed.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve arrived at one of the my journey’s way-stations, like a scenic overlook, a place to stop for a moment to look around.
A few pictures of my family.
My family is like most, we kinda look alike, across generations and within them.
Every life, including mine, is lived in context and alongside other lives with whom you have more in common than just the way you look. Or the way you think, because sometimes family members don’t think alike. If you’re lucky, like I have been, your bonds are strong not matter what you look like or how you think about things.
It’s interesting what we remember about our lives and what we don’t. Our brains are not tape recorders so there is more to remembering than just storing information. It starts with what our senses take in, but that data is immediately effected by our perceptions and emotions and over time there is a lot of reshuffling, so what we remember might not coincide exactly with what actually happened. Sometimes we don’t remember something at all or, as time passes and you get older, you start to lose perspective. Some stuff in our brains gets filed away or possibly lost forever. I recently talked with a friend whom I have known since grade-school. She told a funny story about me that she said she always remembered and enjoyed telling. It was a good one, all right, but the thing is, I didn’t recall any of it. Presumably, I was there, but she remembered it in detail and I didn’t at all?
It’s not just the big, dramatic events that stick in our mind. We also remember incidents that seemed less important at the time. I recall the major events-every detail of the birth of my children- but just as vivid are my memories of more minor occurrences like looking at wildflowers with my mother and grandmother, or a specific shot I made in a close basketball game in high school. That wasn’t the only shot I made during my short basketball career. Wonder why I remember that one so well?
Here is a small event that I remember like it happened yesterday. It was a sunny, early- spring afternoon many years ago in Iowa City. I rode my bicycle home after a long night on-call at the hospital. It was the first warm day following a brutal winter and that “Friday-afternoon-on-campus” vibe was everywhere. I turned into City Park and rode down a hill on the sidewalk by the outfield of a ballpark where there was a softball game in play. Just as I picked up speed the batter lofted a pop-fly over the head of the left fielder. Everything was perfectly synchronized because the ball took one bounce and then flew straight at me. I saw it coming and, as if in slow motion, I caught the ball bare-handed and without ever slowing down tossed it back to the left fielder. For one fleeting moment I was like a pro athlete in the “zone” where everything clicks and you can’t miss. The outfielder caught the ball, turned around, and threw it to his cut-off man. Off I rode while the people in the stands applauded. The only thing missing was some background music, like the theme from “Chariots Of Fire.”
I love the memory of that afternoon, but not every one is like that. I have times I would rather forget, too. Some of the bad stuff fades with time so that it doesn’t haunt us as much, but not all is forgotten, nor should it be. Everybody has their painful memories and, like the good memories, our regrets can span a range of magnitude and importance. I wish I would have continued those piano lessons my mom wanted me to take and I regret not completing my Eagle Scout. On the other end of the scale, I regret the hurt I have caused to people I care about.
You have to figure that it is all part of the growth process and goes to what makes life complete, if completion is a realistic objective. On the journey of life, “grown-up” is a destination as mythical and hard to reach as Shangri-La. It takes a long time to figure things out and while life is better understood backwards it has to be lived forwards.
I think the most important thing that I have learned is that I still have a lot learn. Having said that, here are some of the things I have learned so far:
-You never stop being a child to your parents or finish being a parent to your children.
-Things always take longer than you think and things are over in a flash. Both can be true.
-You don’t always get what you want and sometimes when you do you realize you don’t want it after all.
-Everyone you meet knows something you don’t. You can learn more by listening than by talking.
-The only true failure is the failure to try.
-You never outgrow your childhood.
This is a dispatch from my 60th birthday so I’m going to share another story from my past. I chose this story because it is a good one and also because it is about mountain climbing and climbing a mountain can be a good metaphor for living a life. My father and my son are mountain climbers but I am not. I never had the ambition to stand on summits. Except for one time.
Never would I compare myself to Edmund Hillary, but I once climbed a mountain, too. It was the Grand Teton, one of the most iconic peaks in the United States. The Grand is climbed many times in any season but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for the average person like me. My Dad climbed it when I was a kid and my son – when he was practically a kid himself- climbed it, too. At one time I thought it would be cool for my dad and me to climb it together but we missed our chance for that.
That’s where my wife, Caroline, comes in. She and I have had adventures together, some of her choosing and some that are not. This one she did not choose. I used to think that I could talk Caroline into most anything, but now she tells people that she has learned to say “no” to me and that our relationship is better because of it. Mountain climbing came before she figured that out.
At a resturant one night I asked Caroline if she would go with me to climb the Grand Teton in Wyoming. She said sure, not really knowing what she was agreeing to. So, in August of 1999, we went to Grand Teton National Park and enrolled in the Exam Guides Climbing School.
Glen Exum pioneered a new route up the Grand’s south ridge in 1931. The Exum Route is now considered one of the classic climbs, with a series of moderately challenging pitches and spectacular views for those who stop long enough to look around. Exum’s attempt was a free solo climb, meaning by himself and without a rope or other protection. He started climbing with another group but left them to explore a different route. He followed a rock ledge until it became very narrow and exposed, abruptly ending just short of the south ridge of the mountain. In order to reach the ridge itself, Exum had to get across a gap that is only a few feet wide but spans a thousand foot drop. The story goes that Exum jumped across the gap, although these days it is usually crossed with just a very long step and a whole lot of courage. This section of the route, made famous by Exum on that first ascent, is the crux of the climb- beyond it there is a straightforward ascent to the summit. The maneuver is also a one-way passage because, once you go across it, there is no turning back. Going up is difficult but going down not recommended. After you take that long, harrowing step the only way down is to climb up to the summit and go down one of the other routes
Glen Exum was also a founder of Exum Mountain Guides, the prestigious climbing school headquartered on the shore of Jenny Lake. When Caroline and I arrived there we were fortunate to be matched with Dave Bowers, a veteran guide who started out teaching us the fundamentals-such as visualizing each step as an arrested forward fall-and ended up a few days later leading us to the top of the Grand Teton. The mountains can forge lasting friendships and we made one with Dave. We still exchange Christmas cards every year.
The days prior to our climb up the Grand were spent practicing at lower elevations. We went through all the skills that would prepare us for what we would encounter up high, including a 100 foot free rappel. We thought we were in good physical condition going in, but the mountains have a way of testing your fitness in new and unsettling ways. At the end of each day our arms were numb and our fingers raw. I fell a few times when Caroline had me on belay. She had anchored herself properly so that, even though much smaller, she held me fast -my life literally in her hands. You can get some serious isometric exercise in a short amount of time by gripping a rope when your husband is dangling from the other end. It’s a true test of physical strength (and of the relationship, now that I think about it). We both wondered how could our muscles be this sore when we hadn’t even done the climb yet. At night, while changing clothes, Caroline looked at her legs and saw bruises everywhere. Earlier, as Caroline drove home, she said that her arms were too tired to even raise them up to the steering wheel, “It hurts just to open and close my hands!” She tried to keep a good attitude, but when I looked up from my journal and told her I was sorry that I was busy writing instead of talking to her she replied, “It’s OK, I don’t have anything to say to you right now.”
For us the Grand was a two day climb. The first day was a seven mile hike up Garnet Canyon to a campsite on the saddle between the Middle and Grand Tetons. We camped on a rocky perch overlooking Idaho to the west and Jackson Hole, where we began the trek, far below in the east. We slept in a large tent- Caroline, me, and seven other men who all planned to make a summit attempt the next morning. We went to bed the moment the sun went down and everyone was very quiet, lost in their thoughts. I can sleep anywhere but Caroline said she lay awake listening to all the labored breathing, an island of femininity in a sea of testosterone, like Snow White but without the singing and dancing.
When we emerged from the tent at 3 am the sky was riotous with stars, the Milky Way a grey ribbon connecting opposite horizons. We thought we had prepared well enough the night before but we still took too long to get started, much to Dave’s chagrin. Caroline lost her hat (we found it later in her sleeping bag) and we couldn’t find our headlamp (we found that in my stuff when we got back to the car).
Dave told us we needed to get moving. In the mountains, mornings are often clear, like this one was, but the storms come later and you don’t want to get caught in one while you’re up high.
Dave, “Let’s go! Gotta move!”
Caroline, “We can’t find our flashlight!”
D, “Where is it? Where did you have it last?”
C, “I don’t know. We’re looking!”
D, “You need to find it now!”
I found an extra flashlight but wasn’t sure how long it would last. We had one good flashlight so I gave it to Caroline and tried not to use the other one, to spare the batteries. Dave led the way and I followed behind Caroline, scrambling in the darkness while focusing on the beam ahead of her. We climbed for over an hour, up across the Black Dike, veering right at the “Needle”, onto the ledge called “Wall Street”, leading to the base of the south ridge and the Exum Route.
I was a little nervous about that long step that Glen Exum had made famous and that I would soon need to perform myself. I had heard stories about it. Exum did it without a rope and supposedly had to summon his courage seven times before jumping across. The “jump” is not that difficult, really, just a very long stretch, but it’s made scarier by the exposure. Dave told us “the only thing below you is the parking lot.” Caroline was up ahead of me, belayed by Dave, and her job was to stop and belay me as I climbed up to meet them. Dave kept urging us to move quickly and I got distracted collecting the equipment we used for protection, the job of the last person in line. I caught up with the two of them and asked Dave when we would reach the “Exum” step, knowing that we must be close. He said I had just passed it. What? That’s when it dawned on me that I had been so focused on what I was doing that that I had done the move without even realizing it at the time. For a moment I felt like a student who overslept his first-period exam after having stayed up late studying the night before, except in this case I had passed the test anyway.
From there, the climb to the summit was exhilarating and joyful. It was a beautiful morning as the sun came up over Jackson Hole and each pitch, with names like “the Wind Tunnel” and “the Friction Pitch”, was a fun challenge, well within our abilities. Still, my hands got cold and I had some trouble retrieving the hardware, taking longer than I should have in Dave’s estimation. He wanted to keep us moving as fast as possible because he didn’t want us to get caught in bad weather on the summit. He said, “I’m not getting on you, we just have to keep moving.” One time, as Dave and Caroline waited for me, he asked her, “What is taking him so long? We’ve lost fifteen minutes!” Caroline replied, “Well, you know, it might be because we have never done this before!” Caroline tends to sticks up for herself, and for me.
We were the only ones to reach the summit from the Exum Ridge that day. Several other groups intended to but decided to go up an easier route because of the weather threat . Caroline and I were both tired and winded when we topped out. Carol took her pulse as we arrived (160 bpm) and she got cold when we stopped exerting. She couldn’t stop shivering so I put my arms around her and rubbed her back and arms. For Dave, it was just a day at the office and he was amazed at how many clothes Caroline wore. He said, “You’re putting on more layers?”. Caroline looked at me and said, “When this is over I may have to cry.”
When we were on the summit of the Grand Teton we watched the sun rising through some low clouds on the eastern horizon. We could see Jenny Lake and the trailhead far below. Also below us were the summits of all the other peaks in the range, the Grand being the highest. I was excited to be up there and made Caroline nervous by darting around like a three-year-old turned loose on a new playground, checking everything out all at once, looking this way and that, taking pictures and collecting rocks for mementos.
After a brief rest on the summit we began our descent by the Owen-Spaulding Route on the west face of the mountain, the direction that faces incoming weather systems. As it turns out, Dave’s worries about the fickle weather were well founded. We had not gone far before clouds surrounded us and soon we were in the middle of a blizzard. The wind was suddenly fierce and penetrating, the snow blowing horizontally, ice crystals stinging our face and eyes. We moved as quickly as we could in an attempt to lose altitude and soon reached the top of the free rappel section of the descent. Caroline and I hunched behind a boulder as the anchors were set for a belay and then she went down first. As conditions grew worse, she traversed to a spot where she could clip her harness onto the rope. I watched her look down briefly, turn back to face the rock wall and back-step off the ledge into the swirling white squall, out of sight. I had no way of knowing when she reached the bottom of the rappel and could unclip from the rope, so after a short time I stood up and made my way to the anchor and took my turn. Soon after beginning my descent the rock face receded away from me and my feet lost all contact. I was in a complete whiteout and couldn’t see more than a foot in front of my face. I wondered how far I was dangling above the ground below as I continued to let out rope. It was like being slowly lowered into a vanilla milkshake. I felt my feet touch before I could see the ground and suddenly realized I was standing right next to Caroline. She didn’t see me either and I almost landed right top of her. I unclipped from the rope and we waited for Dave to come down. While we did, I looked across the face of the Grand toward the Middle Teton, which was now in tangential sunlight. The weather system was clearing as fast as it had formed. Even when we were higher up, in the middle of the squall, we could look to the west and see that below the clouds the sun was illuminating the plains in the distance. Just another summer day in the mountains, where the storms can be fierce but brief. From there we down-climbed for two hours and by the time we reached the lower saddle and our gear it was sunny again.
After what we had been through near the summit, the rest of the descent was more relaxed. The three of us chatted as we slowly made our way back to camp and eventually the trailhead. As we climbed down I heard Caroline say to Dave, “I will never look at a rock in the same way.” Privately, she warned me, “I might not be up for doing this again.”
What I learned when I climbed a mountain:
– From the valley floor it can look insurmountable but when you climb a mountain you don’t do it all at once. You break it up into pitches, or the distance between belay stations. There can be many pitches on a single ascent to the summit so the thing to do is concentrate on getting to the top of the next pitch, not the top of the mountain. Keep doing that, solving one problem a a time, and soon you will be getting somewhere.
Same with living. There are times that life seems overwhelming but you don’t have to live it all at once. You just have to deal with today’s problems today.
Others have pointed that out before me.
Mathew, the tax collector, did. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Mat 6:34
And a few centuries before Mathew, Buddha said it more succinctly, “Tomorrow’s wind blows tomorrow.”
– I’ve thought about how I climbed past the “Exum” maneuver, the crux of the route, without even knowing I was doing it. It was one of those times when the anticipation far exceeds the actual event. There are other things like that. I think Christmas can one of them, especially when you are a kid. You get so excited about it during the December run-up and then it’s suddenly over. The things we dread are often that way-not as bad as we expect them to be. Mark Twain said it best, “I have suffered many misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
In climbing a mountain and in living a life you never really know how things are going to be until you are in the middle of it. There is a fundamental ambiguity to every situation.
The only thing we know about the future is that is will be different. We can’t be completely prepared because we don’t know what is going to happen, but athough we can’t be fully equipped for any specific future, we can try to be be well-equipped for anything that might happen. Best to make like a Boy Scout. Be prepared and then just jump in, immersing yourself in what you are doing at the moment, doing the best you can with the tools you have.
In your life you never know when you have reached the “crux” or have gone past it. There is no trail guide to life that gives you a rating for any part of it and there’s probably going to be more than one crux, anyhow.
Sometimes its hard to tell a good day from a bad one when you are in the midst of it. What you think is one of your worst days might turn out to be one of your best, or the most important, when measured against the context of your entire life story. The whole thing can be confusing and it gets messy, but successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives. There are many false starts, dead ends, lucky breaks and coincidences. Living fully involves a lot of self doubt, self confidence and tenacity in various measure and usually there needs to be a passion for something. And you often have to be OK with clashing with an established norm.
The next big journey is not mine to take. It’s Caroline’s.
She is going to Bali.
For a month!
She is going for an immersive Yoga instructor training course, something she has intended to do for awhile. She told me she was looking into getting more training and that it might mean she that she would have to be gone for a couple of weeks, similar to when she went to the instructor training at White Lotus Yoga Foundation in Santa Barbara three years ago. I thought sure, that would be fine, but the next thing I know, Carol tells me it might be a bit longer than that, more like four weeks. And it’s in Bali!
I’m thinking, is there not a course you could take that is in this hemisphere? Bali is pretty far away- the exact opposite side of the globe, to be honest. If you travel to Bali and then keep going you would be on your way back home again.
But Caroline has a dream, and I want her to follow it. It’s not about climbing a mountain, except in a figurative sense. And it is not my thing, it’s her’s alone, something she can do only by herself.
So, I will be writing another dispatch but it will not be from Bali.
Thank you for reading this blog post.
Sunrise at home
A sixty-year-old’s family pictures: