a little me time


“Because people think they’re Gods.  I don’t know, you’re the one who does that kind of crap.”   My fifteen-year-old sister’s response to my question shouldn’t have surprised me, especially since I’d asked it to my friends on Facebook.  I am in the process of collecting answers; I want to know why people climb mountains.

“It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves,” said Sir Edmund Hillary, the most famous member of the team that was the first to summit Mount Everest, that famous highest peak.  He once closed a lecture with the line, “nothing can keep us from our goal.” Sir Hillary delivered that speech in school fourteen years before his ascent of Everest.

The spirit of that statement fascinates me.  I believe that sentiment expresses the same ruthless desire for success that creates corporations, the same belief in the self that propels great artists or writers to succeed.  Sir Hillary does not say that nothing will keep him from his goal; he says that nothing can.  In that statement, there is no possibility of failure.

Of course, upon examination, this is not a reasonable belief.  Plenty of things could have kept him from that goal, such as wind, snow, or a bullet to the head.  His determinism falls into the category that child psychologists call magical thinking; the idea that he cannot fail is not rational.

My sister says that I am “the one who does that kind of crap”, but I do not consider myself to be a climber.  Yes, I have climbed mountains.  I sing in the shower, but I am not a singer.  I know people who are climbers, and they are a different breed entirely.

“When I started I enjoyed it and saw it as a hobby; now I feel it is becoming a way of life,” said Billy, who posted on a web site in response to someone else asking why people climb mountains.  “I sometimes wonder why I am here, in this place which is so close to death or injury.”

I wondered that same thing last year, while I was clinging to an ice axe on a glacier at the top of Mount Edziza in Northern British Columbia.  I was working as a field guide in a wilderness therapy program based a few hundred miles away in Alaska.  I was the least experienced of our three-guide team.  Our head guide, Erik, was exploring a crevasse in the glacier above the group.  I wondered what would happen if he was to fall into the hole in the ice.  Matt, the other guide, was back at the base camp with the three-hundred-plus-pound  child who could not summit the mountain’s peak.  That young man had accomplished the largest goal in his life to date by hiking forty miles to arrive at the mountain; Matt helped him to celebrate the accomplishment that day, while Erik and I took the other eight children to the top.

Erik and I were in charge of a group of eight young men ranging in age from twelve to seventeen.  In order to perform my job, I had removed a certain level of personal responsibility from my mind.  I would do anything in my power to save a life, but I was well outside of my comfort zone.  This was my first time on a glacier, my first time on what I would consider a real mountain – I believe that there should be a category somewhere between Mountain and Hill.   The summit of Mount Edziza has been measured at 10,220 feet above sea level –  not the highest elevation I have achieved in my lifetime.  The journey to get there represented far more to me than simply the lack of a trail, crossing the slow incline of the tundra towards the base of Mount Edziza, or even the steep slope of the glacier that I found myself upon.

Edziza is a glaciated volcano – a mountain that was formed from a volcanic eruption and subsequently covered with many compacting layers of snow and ice over millennia.  There are a small series of other peaks directly around Edziza, but she is the tallest in her particular grouping.  During a discussion with our group of boys a couple days after our summit, I told them of the weather patterns that are typical of mountains.

Most non-volcanic mountains do not appear in isolation, but as a range.  Either glaciers have carved out steep channels as they receded, leaving mountains behind, or tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s crust moved together, pushing up mountains with their force.  All across the world, the topography of the landscape helps to shift and create corresponding weather patterns that connect the entire globe.

Heat from the sun soaks into the Earth each day, and rises up, bringing moisture up to form clouds.  At night the cool air sinks as the Earth chills, and leaves dew behind on the leaves of plants.  The topography of each region intersects with the rising and sinking temperature of the air, forming localized weather patterns known as microclimates.

Mountains form distinct microclimates—hot air rising up the slope of the warmer landscape around the mountain collects water as the air cools, and glaciers at the top of mountain peaks help to chill the air into clouds of rain and snow.  The snow collects over eons, compressing into the ice layers which form the glacier.

One of the strange ironies of life is that many mountain climbers rarely get to see the view from the top—because of the clouds.  When we made it to the top of the mountain, clouds obscured our view.  We stayed on top long enough to eat a snack, and to congratulate the boys for their accomplishments.  For many of them, that climb might be the most challenging accomplishment of their life.

On the way up, I was in charge of the eight boys while Erik navigated the crevasse, determining the places that were safe to step.  When his probe plunged through the snow layer, he would carefully poke a region around the area, to figure out which portions of the glacier would support the weight of a human.  This is a standard climbing practice—glacial navigation is slow and tedious work.  Snow bridges – areas of the glacier which look sturdy, but do not hold weight – are common.

The slope of the glacier was roughly thirty-five degrees – we had used our boots to kick steps in the side of the snow, and held tightly on the ice axes which provided an additional hold in case we slipped.  The climb was relatively straightforward.  I trusted Erik’s experience to guide us through.  When he left me in charge of the group to probe ahead, I worked hard not to panic.  My heart rate increased, and my breath rate elevated.  I tried to reduce the tension in my shoulders, to slow down my breath, to convince myself that I would be able to handle the situation if Erik was to plunge into the glacier.  I did not have a plan, and that scared me.

I figured that if he fell through the ice, I would have to evaluate the situation.  First and foremost, my obligation was to the children.  I could not abandon them – if I fell in after Erik, there would be eight boys alone on a glacier in a completely remote area of British Columbia.  Rescuers would take at least forty-eight hours to reach us.  Should I abandon Erik, bring the children down, then come back up to rescue him?  What if I could save him?  My wilderness rescue training was racing through my head, but I felt totally unprepared.  Wilderness medicine is never composed of right or wrong decisions; it is always a best guess, a lesser of two evils, a hope that perhaps the right decision can be made and a life saved.

While these thoughts were going through my head, the young men were getting restless.  Many of the kids in the program have trouble staying focused in school; many have a hard time staying still.  I reminded the boys constantly to hang on to their ice axes, not to throw snowballs, not to jump around.  Finally, I got frustrated. I yelled at them that this was real shit, life and death, and they had better shut up and pay attention.  I had been waiting to use my big-poppa voice, the booming one that means business.  Since the kids had not heard me pull that card out of my inner deck in the four weeks that we had been together, twelve people in almost total isolation, they shut up.  I resumed worrying that Erik would fall through the ice.

Erik did not fall through the ice.  I did.

Before that happened, Erik had been using small wooden poles with neon flagging tape to stake out our path, and had returned to rejoin the group.  He was standing five feet in front of me, and told me to lead the group up the path he had marked.  He was to bring up the rear.  I took four steps, and the fifth did not hold.  My foot plunged through the ice.  The weight of the pack on my shoulders pushed me down fast, and the ice crumbled under ice that had felt stable with my first foot upon it.  Instinctively, I jabbed my ice axe into the ice in front of me, and Erik grabbed my pack.  I was clinging to the edge of the ice in front of me.  I did not look down to see if there was an end to the hole that I was hanging on to; my only thought was to escape to safe ground.  My heart was racing faster than it ever has in my life.

“I should have told you that was there,” said Erik as he grabbed the back of my pack to help me out of the hole.

“Yeah, that would have been nice to know,” I said.  I was getting used to pretending to be far more calm about life than I actually feel.  I turned around to speak to the boys, who were droop-jawed and big-eyed with wonder and fear.  “Hey kids, there’s a hole there.  Don’t fall in.”

We helped the kids to take a big step across the hole, and navigated a few more hidden snow bridges on our way to the top.  When we made it to the summit, we held a small ceremony.  Days earlier, at the base of the trail where we had started, we asked each of the boys to bring a small rock representing something that they wanted to leave behind: a behavior, an attitude, a mental pattern that had held them back.  We were constantly trying to use metaphors to help the boys to understand that their actions and choices determined the course of their lives.  Each of us placed our rock in the snow, and spoke aloud what we wanted to leave behind.  I don’t remember what everyone left behind.  One was anger, another wanted not to steal, another said he wanted to leave behind his habit of being irritating and annoying to get attention from others.  I’m pretty sure I wanted to leave behind my frustrations at circumstances beyond my control, but I was still in a little shock at my plunge through the ice.

We made it down the mountain and back to our other guide quickly.  The boys were elated at their accomplishment.  We were stern in our reminders to them that most accidents on mountains occur on the way down; climbers forget that the mountain is just as dangerous in the descent as it is on the way up.  The lack of caution kills more people than any other factor.  Often it takes the form of summit fever – when the goal is close, people rush in and forget the safety precautions that held them in place on the way up.

“Why the hell are we doing this?” one of the boys asked me on the way up the mountain, before we reached the glacier, when we stopped for a snack.

“You know why,” I told him.  We had talked about the metaphor of the mountain with these boys so many times. “Because once we’ve finished climbing it, no one can take that away from you.  Once we reach the top, you will always be the you that has climbed a mountain.  Because you thought you couldn’t do it – you saw this mountain from a distance, and you said that there was no way that you could climb it.  Now you are.”

That night, we ate so much chocolate that I thought I would burst.  We had prepared for the celebration with the boys by bringing extraordinary quantities of food and desserts with us, lugging them along for twelve-hour days (at times when portions of the group were slow), all for this moment.

“Now that you have climbed the mountain, you can no longer say what’s possible in your life,” I told the boys as they crammed chocolate in various forms in their mouths.  “That mountain is just like any goal that you set – it doesn’t matter which mountain you climb.  You just have to choose a goal, and go for it.  Every goal is attained one step at a time, just like the mountain is climbed.”

I wonder about the results of that experience for those boys.  I know it helped them; I know it was transformative.  It is impossible to measure the impact of an experience like climbing a mountain.  The boys held their heads higher, stood straighter, and had more confidence in their behaviors after climbing that mountain.  My hope is that the boys will retain that knowledge; that they will know that they can, like each of us, choose the mountains that we climb each day.  Many people seem to circle around the base of the mountain that they have chosen, afraid to take the first step, afraid of failure.

“It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves,” said Sir Edmund Hillary.  The mountain is not dominated by the experience of a climber.  No one with any sense would presume that clinging to the side of a slope and making it to the top and back down again constitutes mastery of the mountain.  If an ant climbs up my pants while I eat a picnic and makes it to the top of my head and lives to tell the tale to his ant friends, has he conquered me?  No.  In the same way, our only battles are inside ourselves.  We choose our goals, and thus we determine the course of our lives.

There is one quote by Sir Edmund Hillary that I believe adequately describes the experience.  He was asked of the scientific nature of the mission, the reasons why people were paying for him to climb mountains.

“Nobody climbs for scientific reasons,” he said.  “Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but really you just climb for the hell of it.”

I write to discover.

One June morning in 2008, like all the other mornings that year, I went to Dolores Park to write. I lived in a flat on 19th Street, just a few doors down from Dolores Avenue. Proximity meant I could spend a lot of time in the park. Each day, I would walk with my dog a few blocks to Phil’s to get my coffee, then head back to sit in the park while my dog ran around, sniffing, pissing, and smiling at me with his tongue lolling.

The sun almost always shines on Dolores Park. I was told that there are 37 distinct microclimates in the forty-six-square-mile area that encompasses San Francisco, but the exact number is often debated. I know that Dolores Park is the best one.

I write to observe.

The weather patterns in the city occur too frequently to be overlooked – each day that famous fog rolls in from Ocean Beach, through Golden Gate Park, and heads East towards the Bay. The fog climbs Twin Peaks, and dissipates as it reaches the Mission. The chill dampens the air, and settles in pockets in some low areas. This phenomenon occurs every day, it seems. Almost every day the sun shines on Dolores Park, even when it is cloudy and cold in other places in that small, crowded and unique city.

I have read that Dolores Park was originally a Jewish cemetery, although the bodies were moved over a century ago. The park provided refuge to the victims of the 1906 earthquake. The full name is Mission Dolores Park – its namesake, Mission Dolores, was the first mission on the peninsula that marked the end of the long journey of the Franciscan monks along the California coast from San Diego.

Spanish architecture surrounds the park, and palm trees dot its landscaping, piercing the sky with green explosions that resemble fireworks in bloom. There are tennis courts, a playground, and the J streetcar line runs through the park.

This particular June morning was a Sunday. I couldn’t stay in bed through the sunshine, so I came to the park to drink coffee and slow hangover’s ascent on my brain. I brought my journal and pens, thinking I would write on my unfinished novel. I wanted to work on a scene that happens a few days after the funeral, where the characters have just begun to realize that they have to face life without someone they relied upon completely.

I write to reflect.

As I walked up the hill to take my place near the top – there is a picnic table just near the statue of Hidalgo, and he and I can share the panoramic view of the city and its bridges. I headed for the table, and saw the group of people gathered on the median of the sidewalk.

At nine in the morning on a Sunday, few people are in the park yet. San Francisco is a bit lazy, and likes to sleep in – but this particular Sunday, a group of people had a well-planned picnic already in progress before even the churchgoers had made it out of the house. Big linen sheets blocked off a wide space that comfortably held twelve people with ample space for more. Three small wooden tables held carafes of orange juice, champagne bottles, and plastic cups. A radio was playing Enya – “sail away, sail away, sail away,” and the members of the group were gazing off into the distance.

What struck my alcohol-addled brain first was their location within the park – why would they pick the median of the sidewalk, when the wide expanses of green lawns were available? There was no competition for space at this time of the day – there would be later, when the hipster picnics were so crowded together that walking through the park became an exercise in dodging drunks and hula-hoopers. Now, there were only a few people scattered around – what would make this group of people, who prepared this picnic so well, choose to seat themselves sandwiched on a thin slice of lawn between two large slabs of concrete sidewalk?

I write for myself.

I sat down at my picnic table, and gave a quick salute to Hildago’s statue. I had a good view of the Enya picnic club, and I figured I could pretend to write a little bit, sip my coffee, and spy on the people while I finished waking up. My dog had spotted canine friends and taken off. I pretended to focus on the dog, while trying to investigate the puzzle of the picnic spot.

The members of the picnic group were in their mid-to-late-thirties, it appeared. Mostly coupled up, with a couple of loose singles. Well-dressed, expensive-without-being-ostentatious sunglasses. Nice clothes – a little too nice to just be park-casual, a little more like church-casual. A little too nice for the setting, but no one seemed bored. On the contrary, each member seemed to be attentive around the needs of one man. He sat between two other people, and they nodded deeply and leaned in close while rubbing his back. I was too far from the group to make out any words, and relying on body language to solve this puzzle.

The man at the center of attention slumped forward. His shoulders heaved up and down with sobs, and his friends held him close. Ahhhh, I thought – this must be soon after a funeral. Maybe a week or so after the death – the friends are here for this man, who must have lost his partner. The newness of the death has worn off for everyone but the lover – they have done their crying, it would seem, and are here to help this man to grieve. I assume that he was gay, since the majority of the couples here are as well. This group has known each other for a while – this is not a casual gathering. These are good friends – they give him their full attention, and they give him time and space. Casual acquaintances would not make it to the park at nine on a Sunday morning.

I write to feel.

As the group centered around this one man, I imagined their life together. I thought of the place that they had lived, going through the exercise that couples do. Shopping for furniture, making meals, throwing parties. Holidays, family drama, fights. Tears, laughter, sex. I hope they had sex on all the furniture in the house, I thought. He is crying because he didn’t know at the time that these things wouldn’t be forever. It is easy to assume that the fairytale has been won – there will be plenty of happily-ever-after yet to come. Now his dreams have come crashing down – this man loved deeply, and I am watching his heart break and shatter a thousand times. I see the rawness here, and I imagine the feeling – how the heart is ripped open, raw like a wound scrubbed with salt, aching with a pain that is physical and emotional and spiritual torment, a torture of mind, body, and soul.

At this point I have been watching this group for almost an hour, writing in my journal about my characters who are dealing with their imaginary lives after the imaginary funeral. I am crying while I watch these loving people, for them, for my characters, and for the people I know well who have lost children, spouses, and lovers. The members of the group have noticed me watching, but my tears buy me access to this small community. My voyeurism is allowed, because I share in the grief. Sadé sings from the small radio, “do you think I’d leave you down when you’re down on your knees/I wouldn’t do that.”

A couple of the members have revealed themselves to be the leaders – they must have organized this gathering, I think. They look at each other, one tilting his head as if asking a question. A slight nod is returned, and the nod is mirrored by the questioner. A decision has been made – they both rise, and make an announcement to the group. The group rises in agreement. Someone has been blocking my view – now I see the reason that they have gathered in the park in this strange spot by the sidewalk. A shovel is stuck into a mound of dirt adjacent to a sapling that has been recently planted in a hole. The hole is waiting to be filled in – clarity dawns in my addled brain – they have gathered to dedicate a tree to the memory of their friend. Fresh tears pour down my face with this realization.

I write to believe.

The group organizes themselves in a circle around the sapling, the dirt mound, and the shovel. I count – twelve of them. One is making a speech, his hands restrained – I imagine him to normally be a bouncy and bubbly person, and it looks like he is attempting to be sedate with the gravity of the occasion. He points at another member of a small group, giving a respectful nod of acknowledgement – the other members clap, and I realize that she must have organized the planting of the tree. Ready? Hand signals, thumbs-up, nods – they are going to begin.
Each member of the group in turn takes the shovel and delivers a small heap of dirt from the mound to the hole, and hands off the shovel to the next person. There is weight in ritual, and almost everyone in the group is crying now. I think about the metaphors at play within these actions – this park is a gathering place saturated in San Francisco history. Surely this group of people shared memories here with this now-dead lover. This picnic must be reminiscent of the times before, the moments that in the future will be shared around this tree, a living memory that grows down into the earth as it reaches to the sky. The planting is a new ritual, a tribute where each member of this small tribe can place their grief into the soil so that death can give birth to new life.

I write to pray.

After each member of the group has spooned a shovelful of dirt onto the roots of the young tree, the last one uses his foot to push the shovel back into the mound so that the shovel does not fall. The handle is straight, like a flagpole.

A robin lands on the top of the shovel’s blade. The bird has flown between members of the circle, directly to his target. He stands comfortably on his perch in the sunshine at the center of the group, twisting his head and looking around at each member. The group has begun hugging and holding each other, beginning the process of drawing the ritual to a close. Small bits of tension-breaking laughter break out among the group as tears are wiped from eyes.
A couple of people in the circle have noticed the bird’s abnormal behavior – it seems strange for a bird to fly into this place, at this time – and are nudging each other, pointing at the bird.

Quickly the circle of friends is quiet again, watching the bird.

The bird is looking at each member in turn, making sure that its actions are witnessed. The robin steps gingerly, rotating himself in a full circle by repositioning each foot in turn – he pauses to look at each person in the circle, tilting his head slightly up at one moment and to the side at the next. The bird makes direct eye contact. Members of the group pull cameras out of bags, and photograph the bird, who remains on his perch at the edge of the shovel. A couple of the group’s members glance over at me, eyebrows raised as if to say – Are you seeing this? I nod slowly, wide-eyed in wonder.

I glance at the clock on my phone – a few minutes have elapsed since the bird has landed, and I want to keep an honest record of this robin’s visit in the group. It is 10:22 on Sunday morning. My dog has joined me at some point, and he looks up at me, panting happily in the sun.

As I look up from my phone and back to the group, I see the robin hop down to the base of the roots of the sapling that has just been covered with dirt. The top of the robin’s head is barely visible over the rim of the hole, peaking up and disappearing down twice in a row. After the third nod down, the robin pops up holding a worm in his mouth. He flies briefly back up to his perch on the shovel, holding the worm in his mouth. He stands there with his worm, twisting his head, making eye contact with members of the circle. Slowly he makes a rotation, looking at each member of the group in turn. The people are silent now, cameras forgotten at their sides, watching this bird.

We watch in silence. I am in awe. Tears stream down my face – I laugh out loud as I wipe them away. Some members of the group have linked arm in arm, leaning on each other as we watch the bird. Others have gone back to their cameras, and are recording the bird. I look down at my phone’s clock. It is 10:31.

Around us, the park has come alive. A few dozen dogs are visible, catching Frisbees and balls, marking trees and buildings with urine, and sniffing body parts. Picnics have begun to sprout like mushrooms throughout the park – blankets are laid out, sips are taken from bottles inside brown bags, and the mingled sounds of laughter and chatter can be heard from all directions. A faint smell of marijuana whiffs to my nose from an unknown source, mingling with the smell of freshly-mowed grass, flowering trees, and a trace of dog shit.

The robin stayed on the shovel until 10:37, when he flew away, still holding the worm in his mouth. The group of friends broke the circle, and began to hug each other, say goodbyes, and gather their possessions. One of the members waved goodbye to me, and I waved back.

I write to bear witness.

At the beginning of this year, I made a pact with a dear friend who had been a roommate in Oakland, California. She’s a therapist, and the center where she was working closed down. I had decided I wanted to work in nature with kids, and I was looking at farm-based educational programs when I came across “Wilderness Therapy Jobs.” I had never heard of such a thing, and I forwarded it over to Kathryn, thinking it might be just the thing to cure her stuck-in-a-rut blues. It didn’t even occur to me that I should apply, until I was dared to do it – “I’ll apply if you do” – and two weeks later, we were on our way to The Last Frontier.

On a cold evening at the end of January, earlier this year, Kathryn and I landed hard in Wrangell, a small island in Southeast Alaska. It was snowing, the runway was icy, and the pilot burnt the rubber of the tires so hard that the cabin of the plane filled with smoke. The whole plane let out nervous laughter – welcome to Wrangell! some folks shouted. I’d made friends with a loud and gregarious woman who spent a full hour telling me all about what a great town we were headed to – she’d moved there with nothing a few years back, and people had been kind and generous from day one. She assured us we’d have no problem finding her in the bar in the future, and offered to watch my dog for me if I needed it.

We were picked up, along with a few other co-workers-to-be, and taken on a quick 4-minute tour of the town – that’s about all it takes. There’s the post office, 2 grocery stores, 3 bars, the museum, and 7 churches, plus however many houses. About 1,800 people live on the island, all told.

That night we ended up at a small gathering, where everyone welcomed us, gave us food, beer, and sang songs while playing guitar. It was a fitting introduction to a town that prides itself on its friendly and hospitable demeanor.

I was there with about 45 other people for staff training, to be field guides in a wilderness therapy program. For seven weeks we’re gone from the world, immersed in the Alaskan (and Canadian) wild lands. We work with kids from all over Alaska, some that have never seen trees before, because they’ve been in the near-Arctic tundra their whole lives, in villages that depend on hunting whales, seals, wolves, caribou, or other animals for survival.

In my experience with kids, I knew that getting them away from their iPods, video games, and families would give them time to think. I knew that the wilderness gives people space – it makes some people nuts for a while – to really consider themselves in the context of a world that is vast and rich beyond our ability to understand it. When I was being interviewed for the job, I was asked if I was familiar with their program and curriculum. “To be honest, I’m excited to get to know it,” I replied, “I think it’s great that you have a program, but I think that the wilderness is the therapy.”

I didn’t really have an understanding of just what it is like to grow up in Alaska – the wilderness is a part of the people there, I believe. It is impossible to pass by the drama of the light – for many months, the only light is that of twilight, as it hovers between dusk and dawn – and to not be affected by the constant variations that are exposed where mountains meet the ocean. I thought that I was going up to teach kids how to be in nature, but in reality, I was going there to teach them how to come back into society.

Over the next six months, I got to know the town quite well. I spent a lot of time with folks that were there to work in the same program, and also got to know many of the locals. I worked a handful of shifts bartending at the Totem Bar over the Fourth of July weekend, the town’s biggest party each year. I got to run my own radio show a few times, playing records and songs from my laptop on dreary rainy Sunday nights. Knowing that we were the only station available on the island was a cool feeling – “you’re stuck with me!” I could imagine folks driving along in their cars, or in lonely cabins out on the winding road that snaked along the perimeter of the island, only to meet its end 20 miles away from town, forcing you to turn around and head right back where you came from.

I had heard elsewhere of the seclusion that comes from living on an island. I learned recently that the words “island” and “isolation” share the same root, and those words played a significant role in my thinking over this year.

I met a man who has spent the past 15 years paddling a rowboat around the islands that dot the ocean waterways of the Southeast. He approached a table where I was drinking beer with a couple of guides – we’d just gotten back from the field, and were full of the nervous energy that must be decompressed by adult company and beverages. He came straight up to the table, wearing his homemade paddling gear – tons of pockets, nothing cotton, many layers, all function and no nod to style – and looked at us each in the eyes in turn quickly, saying, “You men look like a wiiiiillllllld bunch of fellows out for trouble tonight!”

We all had a good laugh, and he told us a couple of crazy tales that I wish I could remember. Up there, the abnormal is completely just a way of life – each visit to the bar or the library (my two main haunts, aside from the houses of friends) offers interactions with people who live on the complete fringes of what I once considered to be American society.

It left me thinking about the nebulous nature of society – we are whatever we think ourselves to be, really. When I would talk to kids who grew up in villages of a couple hundred people that proudly proclaim themselves to be Bloods or Crypts, it would make me nuts. I’ve worked with gang members in Chicago and Oakland. How dare you assume these cultures as if they were your own – you don’t know what they represent to me, or to the people who have lost their loved ones to the insanity and uselessness of gang violence. In a way, it’s the same feeling that I got here in Portland, when I saw a little woodcutting that was hanging for sale in a hippie coffee shop here. It showed a tribal-gear-wearing hippie chick with dreadlocks, tattoos, and piercings facing a generic Native American wearing a blanket, feathers, and with braided hair. The title of the piece was, “The Struggle is the Same.”

No, it’s not.

In February, we were brought to the Chief Shakes Tribal House – an amazing structure that was built in the ancestral ways, without nails, levels, screws – anything but joinery and outstanding craftsmanship. The totem pole that stands in the Smithsonian as the example of the Northwest style was carved in Wrangell. The petroglyphs on the beach near my house were thousands of years old… this island has major history.

Marge Byrd and her niece Norma are Tlinkit, of the Raven Clan, I believe. They wore regalia that they had made, they sang us songs of welcome, and they told us how they had lost their land, their language, and their stories. Marge talked about the impact that it had on her grandchildren to be brought back to Wrangell as adults and finally given names, with a ceremony, to become part of the tribe. It’s something that would normally have happened as children, but they had moved to Seattle and had lost touch with the old ways.

I cried when they thanked us for working with their children. Many of my dreams have totemic symbols and imagery in them, and I felt really connected to this place through my dreams. I told Marge that, and there were tears in her eyes as I hugged her.

On a greater level, I realize, the struggle is the same. My ancestors swept through Europe, conquering tribes and converting people to Christianity. In many ways, my people are responsible for eliminating untold languages, stories, customs, and religions.

Part of the work that I came up to Alaska to do was to understand these forces up close and personal. Some of the places that the kids come from have had their first missionary contact within the past 50 years. Others, like Wrangell, were bought and sold by various colonizing forces. Wrangell proudly states that it is the only town in Alaska to have flown 4 flags – Tlinkit, British, Russian, and American.

There were elements in Wrangell that made me sad. Most of the buildings there are built from imported materials, and (I’m guessing here) less than 1% of the food sold in the grocery store is from local sources. Everything is shipped in, and people leave their trucks running during the summer months out of habit – for 20 minutes while they chat with people. People buy large boats, large trucks, and large houses – it reminds me of the values of suburban America, with a strong Southern flair.

The people of Wrangell are some of the nicest, most kind human beings I have ever met. I was told repeatedly that, “No one will ever starve here. All you have to do is knock on a door around dinner time, they’ll feed you.” Our neighbors would give us freshly caught fish, home-grown vegetables, and other goodies. When asked why they were so generous, they would simply say, “you work with the kids,” and leave it at that. I could never walk the mile down the road to or from town carrying any kind of bag without being offered a ride.

Unfortunately, I’m not going back next year. I came up this year with the promise of work, and I’m still struggling to catch up on my bills. I didn’t work for most of March or April, and I made do on $45 during March. Without the generosity of the people around me, I never could have done it.

There is an organizational mindset that runs through the place that I worked, seeming to devalue their employees. Maybe it’s because they’re the largest employer and source of income for the entire island – there is no one to hold them accountable. The people of that island are some of the kindest, heartiest folks that will band together in a pinch to help each other out – I find it entirely plausible that those people simply don’t look for the dark side in the same way that my city-bred cynicism seeks it.

I talked to a lady who has worked for them for years – she told me that the state passed a Medicaid provider cost-of-living increase a while ago onto the organization, and she’s still waiting for it. She said she went to the head honcho, and he told her that he was “looking into whether or not we have to pass that money along.”

I talked to a guy who got fired after working for them for years. The general consensus in the rumor mill was that he had pushed back, questioning the practices of the company in the ways that they managed risks, logistics, and employees. He was apologetic, and complimented his bosses and co-workers. He said that what made him saddest was the way that the people he had long considered friends had immediately shunned him, and no longer spoke to him any more. I witnessed it, as I sat next to him on the barstool and saw most of the people who worked with us carefully avoid coming close to where we were.

Next year, they want us to pay them to train us on how to do the job we’ve already done. It’s not a lot of money, just $150, but when you add up the other expenses, it becomes a lot. They’re willing to pay us for the classroom time – $10 an hour for 8 hours each day – but once we go into the field for “field training”, we’re supposed to reimburse them for the cost of our food.

Most of the guides don’t live in Wrangell – during the winter, the already suffering economy seems to practically shut down. The fishermen and loggers aren’t working, no construction gets done, and there aren’t any tourists. The few viable service jobs are already taken by locals, and so the nomadic field guides normally go home to spend some time with loved ones in the off-season.

I made the decision to come to Portland. It’s got the west-coast food scene that I missed, plus I figured I could score a cheap room and a tolerable job. It’s worked out well. It’s about as cheap as it gets to fly to Wrangell from here – cheaper than Anchorage, even, although I couldn’t tell you why.

All told, when you combine the extra cost of food, lodging, and airfare, it’ll cost me about $850 to go to training. When you add in the $150 that they’d like me to pay them, it would’ve cost $1,000. In my mind, there’s a great reason why I can’t afford to pay that: I only made $10,000 this year. That even sounds like more than it is – it cost me about $4,000 in airfare, gear, and the Wilderness First Responder training that I was required to get. That means that after netting $6,000 in annual income, I’m supposed to shell out to come back and get trained on how to do the job I’ve already proven I can do?

They also made the decision to cut the pay of their top people who have been their the longest, and to add additional responsibilities to an already-obscene list of things that the Head Guide on each program takes on.

I can definitely understand the reasons behind all of this – organizations need to save money, and it’s good to cut costs. Salaries and pay need to be reviewed, and where things should be adjusted, they should be.

According to my calculations, there are exactly 3 people who were impacted by the cut from the top. Does that really make sense not to grandfather in the salaries of those people in that have demonstrated their ability to implement a really challenging program?

Let’s take a look at the expectations of the employer in this circumstance:

– Work 55 days straight with no breaks (49 days in field, plus 3 days prepping & 3 days closing down)
– Work 16 hour days, more if the kids don’t go to sleep when they’re told (which they certainly don’t always)
– Maintain constant, 24/7 responsibility for the lives of 11 other people in what the Coast Guard considers to
be the harshest climate on the continent
– Write approximately 900-1,500 words of paperwork each day on each kid (amounts to well over a novel for
each guide on each program)
– Implement therapeutic goals in absence of outside involvement, transforming lives of children & setting them
on path to success
– Manage logistics of 49-day wilderness expedition that may include (but is not limited to) hiking in a
rainforest absent trails, canoeing in high-traffic oceanic waterways (about 150 miles from where a lot of
“Deadliest Catch” is filmed), paddling down one of the world’s largest rivers, and climbing a 10,000 foot old
volcano with a glacier on the top of it.

It’s not an easy job, although it is by far and away the most rewarding experience I have ever undertaken. I am so amazed to be a witness to the incredible people who take this on – I would never want to be a head guide for this company. Every time something life-threatening happens, or a kid has “behavior”, it means more paperwork for the head guide – in addition to what has to be already done. All that means is that the guide team gets less sleep. Sleep deprivation is considered to be one of the best forms of torture, but it is assumed that you will sacrifice sleep for paperwork.

During my time doing this, I was being paid $120 a day. That sounds good, except for the 16 hour days… it works out to $7.50 an hour, less than minimum wage in Portland. Let me be very clear – I was thrilled. I was not there for the money, nor was I going to go back for the money – it was all about the experience.

Knowing that they were trying to cut costs, I would certainly be happy to help out, if I could. While I was working for them, I got to see a lot of wasted money – knee-jerk reactions to situations that resulted in thousands of dollars spent on jet boats, float planes, and airfare across Alaska. I personally escorted a kid back home, flying from Wrangell to Anchorage, staying overnight, and coming back – it cost the company $1,400 in airfare and hotel, plus another $200 to pay me – and I wasn’t needed (although that could be debated).

There were so many situations where transportation and administrative costs were pissed down the drain – and it’s really hard to see your employer wasting money and simultaneously telling you that they can’t pay you. It’s even worse to hear that the training is mandatory, and you’ve got to pay for it.

I told them I couldn’t, because of the financial situation I was in, and that I didn’t think it was fair to ask… and they thanked me for the feedback and wished me luck in the future.

I’m sad, because I wish that I could relive that experience. All the excitement of my Alaskan experience – the first time seeing the unending range of mountains that are simply nothing like anything in the lower 48, the experience of getting 9 adolescent boys to sing the Golden Girls theme song together (“Thank you for being a friend, travel down the road and back again”), watching 6 humpback whales fully breach 100 yards from our canoes – scared shitless that they would pop up under our tiny vessels but thrilled with every second of it, making it to the top of the mountain and falling through the glacier, catching myself on the lip of the ice.

There are so many more stories in my head. I know I’ll be back, someday – that town, and that place are forever carved into my mind. I want to paddle on the ocean there again, looking for glacial streams to drink from, eating berries from the bushes while scouting the bear tracks all around, seeing wolves, watching seals, whales, eagles, and ravens playing…

Wrangell, you have given me the monumental, life-changing experience that I sought, in more ways than I could possibly have expected. I learned about community, survival, peace of mind, the benefits of a slow pace, laughter, music, and much more.

I’m sad that I won’t be there this year to share all of that with you. I know that good will come of this, because I’m going to work to take these lessons of the wilderness with me. Thank you for what you’ve taught me – they will stay cherished jewels in my heart forever.

Kathryn and I shared a great experience, coming up to Alaska, and we are heartier people for it. We pushed the limits of what we thought we could endure, and took on greater challenges than we knew we could face. Wrangell became my home in the wilderness, a small town that I looked forward to being in, where she and I were once dubbed the King and Queen of Wrangell karaoke.

As silly as it all is, those songs still play on in my heart.

“Oregon is one of only two states in the nation without a plan for the future of its water supply.”

http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/04/oregons_water_issues_run_deep.html

When I saw that quote, it scared me. I am realizing that I moved to Portland specifically to seek out a place to settle down. I wanted to explore the Northwest because its climate appeals to me, and I am an American. I want to raise a family, I want to get married. I envision a cute house with a beautiful wife, babies, and pies in the oven. My vision of my future is simple, it’s quaint, and it is iconoclastic. But I own it, and it is mine.

house by sunset

I realize that a part of the ownership of my future is my involvement with the present. I have to consider the choices that I am making on an individual level, including the ways in which I want to inspire the people around me to participate. A big part of my interest in storytelling lays in the ways in which we use new media to share ourselves with other people in ways that were not possible even a few years ago.

Sometimes it seems as if we’re taking too many pictures of ourselves, and not enough of those around us. I’ve been having some amazing discussions with some people that are artists, visionaries, musicians, and business people about the future of this micro-culture called Portland. I want it to continue, and to keep growing and expanding.

Water is at the heart of it all. That article above left me thinking about water usage, and how industrial and agricultural uses compose most of it. As much as I turn off the faucet and let it mellow when it’s yellow, unless I work to impact policy, no real change will come.

Having Obama in office gives me hope that change is possible. Watching the Health Care Bill stall through Congress is a sobering reminder of the amount of work that is needed to create change. I have spoken with friends who worked in Congress, and it is a glacially-slow process that needs as many non-corporate participants as possible.

My conversations of the past few days came as a result of the request of some friends to throw them a fundraiser. I believe wholeheartedly in the work that Sarah and Arthur are doing and want to help them. I jumped on the chance to help a new mutual friend to throw something good. During our long, in-depth conversations, I realized that I am interesting in answering a predominantly local question: What is the future of water in Oregon?

Water plays a role in our daily lives, and as Americans we have it good. It has been my privilege to grow up with water at the tap, in the toilet, and to sprinkle on the garden. We’ve had it cheap, and it has been easy. This summer while I was hauling water from glacial streams, I thought about the billions of people around the world who move water by hand every day.

In Guadalajara, Sarah and Arthur have encountered stories of water, like that of a young boy who fell into a stream and died of arsenic poisoning. Companies and government officials have conspired to create sickening conditions that effect billions around the world. Each of them has a story to tell about water.

What impresses me about what they are doing is that they are leveraging new technologies to empower people to incite real local change for themselves. They are acting, and action is required. The heart of my Superhero Action Project is to help people to become superheroes themselves, and to help the superheroes already out there working to help others. I want to share that story.

In the next few weeks, I’ll continue to work to carry forward this conversation, and to find the people around Portland that know the key stories about the future of water here. I want to know the future of Oregon’s water, and I want to help give that story a happy ending.

See you at the party.

I’ve been thinking a lot about superheros lately.

Storytelling has long been one of my favorite topics. I love stories, and I’ve been fascinated with the work of Joseph Campbell for years. If you’re not familiar with his work, I highly recommend watching the BBC interview series he did with Bill Moyers called The Power of Myth. He was considered by many to be the world’s greatest mythologist, and he traveled the world during his 83 years of life documenting the myths of every culture that he could find on the planet. He developed the incredible themes of the Hero’s Journey, and a great deal of his work was spent exploring the relationship that great stories have on our lives as humans. He gave answers to life’s greatest questions through the vantage point of these myths, and taught that we only begin to understand our lives when we see ourselves as the heroes of our own journeys.

The work that I was doing in Alaska was centered around the theme of storytelling, on so many incredible levels. My dreams chronicled an incredible parallel experience that I wrote about in March, and talking to other people about their dreams and seeking to understand my own has been an enormous source of self-realization. I’ve read dozens of books through the years on the relationship of dreams, stories, myths and heroes, and countless articles and websites.

I have been writing a journal for years now, and have taught the usage of writing, communication, and self-expression through words and speech to hundreds of people in different ways. It’s only now as I approach my 30s that I’m beginning to see what a huge theme this has been throughout my life. My mother is an award-winning teacher-turned-principal and educator. My dad’s degrees are in psychology and journalism, and he’s been a carpenter and a paramedic in the wild for most of his adult life, in addition to a huge journey of self-revelation. My grandma was a reference librarian has been undergoing a personal transformation with me through yoga and meditation that started years ago.

Selling real estate was a 9-year-long case study that I conducted in my head in how we humans create the stories that we live in our lives, and a lesson in how to guide people through the process of accomplishing a goal. This summer, I helped to lead young men up to the top of a 10,000 foot mountain covered with a glacier, and to paddle canoes down a 220-mile river through Northern BC and Alaska. Towards the end of that 7-week experience, I asked the boys to describe the stories that we had told each other. They recanted the books that they’d been read, the myths of Alaska that I’d brought, the stories of my family that I told, and finally remembered – they had their own stories.

This had been a subliminal theme that I’d introduced early and often – I often “accidentally” provoked discussions that talked about heroes and leaders, and helped the kids to tell stories of pure fantasy and conjecture. This was a big part of the program – stimulating thought about the lives of each other, and the reasons for making our choices. Using words to create awareness. Stimulating thoughtful discussion. Feedback within the context of community. Executing serious wilderness expeditions. Finding the self within the context of the vastness of nature. Telling stories to relate our experiences. The core elements of what it means to be human, a man, and alive today.

This is good stuff for young men. I also talked to young women during other trips earlier in the year about what it means to be a woman, from the perspective of those wonderful teachers that I have been privileged to know. I honor the divine feminine in them, and I am lucky to have been able to study intimately with many amazing women. I talked to these young girls on a secular level, but used the same central theme – we are our own heroes, and we must understand the lessons of the Hero’s Journey.

Every journey starts with a calling – the purpose behind how we find ourselves here. Sometimes the hero initiates this – a decision to move across the country, to take a new job, to go back to school – and sometimes another character will make a decision – when we get dumped, when our parents ship us off to shape us up, when someone we love hurts us – that changes our life.

I’ll skip the rest of the process – it’s known as the monomyth – and there’s been a lot written on it. Instead, I’d like to introduce the Superhero Action Project. I’ve been assembling and incubating a bunch of good ideas, and I have figured out the theme – it’s really the Superhero. My life’s work is in using the tools I’ve gained to help people to understand the monomyth, and how to use it.

I’ve been thinking about how to use this blog to assemble what I want to compile, and the best format to discuss this in. My whole life I’ve been trying to figure out how to change the world, and it wasn’t until I finally figured out how to change myself that I started to see how I could be a part of what’s already going on.

I posted a quote & a link on Facebook this morning: “Pessimism is a luxury of good times… In difficult times, pessimism is a self-fulfilling, self-inflicted death sentence.” Evelin Linder, as quoted here. That link has a great talk from the head of WorldChanging.com, and he’s spent a great deal of time assembling thousands of articles and compiling an enormous database of exactly what people are doing to fix all of the social problems of the world. He talks about the empowerment that he developed from learning how these solutions are actually making the change that we need.

Francisco, as captured by Sarah Kelly and Arthur Richards of http://www.adaptingtoscarcity.com/

Francisco, as captured by Sarah Kelly and Arthur Richards of http://www.adaptingtoscarcity.com/

I also spent some time chatting on google with a friend of mine who is working on some amazingly cool stuff in Mexico. Sarah and Arthur are recording all of the amazing water scarcity and pollution issues that they’re purposely encountering and learning about as they travel through a nation that supplies a great deal of our food and labor. I was so excited about the work that they’re doing to help people there to record and document what’s taking place in their immediate environments. Check out their website or click on the photo above to read up on it – really great job, and I’m super proud to be their friend.

They’re connecting with the ways that empowering people to tell their own stories can change the world. I sent her a link to a really cool talk on the ways in which people are using facebook and twitter to implement social change. Sounds crazy, eh? Just ask the people in Iran who were able to stage a hugely successful protest by using their cell phones to follow Twitter feeds. The cops didn’t know how to keep up – but everyone in the crowd knew where to go and what to do. Check the talk out here.

Once when I was about 19, I was in a conference where the speaker asked everyone to close their eyes, and imagine an old man or woman (depending on their own gender) walking through a forest. This old person was about to die, and was thinking back on his or her life. He was content with his life, and was happy. We were asked to imagine – what choices did she make, and how did she live? Was she thinking about how much money was in her bank account, how big her television was, or was she thinking about the people she’d known? What about the best experiences of her life – were they with others, or alone?

I’ve used this exercise a great deal with myself and others. As I learned from that speaker ten years ago, it’s a really effective way to help people to consider themselves as their own storytellers. Those people that live life to the fullest are the ones who understand that their story will come to an end. They consider where they want to go, what they want to do, and who they want to be in the world.

I’m going to wrap this post up, because it’s gone on much longer than a blog post should. It’s really just the context for the next post I’m about to write.

Right now I’m in a space in my life where I have time to process. I really love that. There’s so many people rushing around leading unquestionably busy lives, but most haven’t really dug deeply enough to figure out why. After spending years and years asking myself “why [this job, this house, this city, this country, this relationship]”, I’ve really seen how much I enjoy asking questions that start with why. Once you start processing, it’s hard to stop.

“Aristotle took experience as the as yet unorganized product of sense perception and memory”, says Teddy Ward in an article on empiricism, which he defines later as “the theory that all knowledge stems from sense experience and internal mental experience – such as emotions and self-reflection.”

Contemplation, processing, self-reflection… all fancy-talk for daydreaming, cloud-gazing, and nothin better to do.

Like Nina Simone says, I got life…