I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s OK

My friends at The Dihedral put up another thought-provoking post this week. The jumping-off point was the TV show “House”. They used it to talk about making excuses and not having enough time to do what you want. “If you want to do something, you do it”, they quote House as saying.

I put in my two cents as a comment, then realized I had more like two bits to say, so took it over here. Since we’re using pop culture as a jumping off point, I’m going with Frank Capra’s 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

In that film (I hope I’m not giving away any 73 year old spoilers), the protagonist, George Bailey, has big dreams. He repeatedly puts those dreams aside to fulfill his obligations. When he calls the antagonist, Mr Potter, “a warped, frustrated old man”, Potter asks what he is other than a “warped, frustrated young one.” On the verge of suicide, George gets to see what the world would have been if he’d never been born and has an epiphany.

I am going to assert that we are already getting what we want. Exactly what we want. But we lie to ourselves about it.

Let’s take a small example. I want to watch TV. I have to take out the garbage. I skip my TV show, take out the garbage, and feel resentful. Let’s reframe that. I want to take out the garbage. Why? Maybe I have a partner/roommate/parent who told/asked me to, or it’s my agreed-upon job. Maybe I have thought ahead and realize I don’t want to live in a pig sty. Maybe I realize that garbage attracts vermin, I don’t want vermin, and vermin are harder to get ride of than garbage. Maybe I like feeling resentful.

Whoa! What was that? Maybe assigning blame is more satisfying than taking responsibility. Maybe, if I can blame someone else for missing my TV show, and blame someone else for a lot of other small things, I can escape responsibility for my generalized unhappiness. Maybe it’s all someone else’s fault!

What if all the things I’m doing because I have to are actually things I’m doing because I want to? What if I’ve done a bunch of mental calculations (mostly unconscious) and they have led me to the choices I’ve made? Maybe none of this is true about you but it is about someone you know…;) What if I want to take out the garbage and want to feel resentful about it and want to blame someone else for my feelings?

Does that look like George Bailey? Did he skip his trip to Europe and put his father’s estate in order because he really wanted to? Did he skip college and run the Building and Loan because he wanted to? Did he skip his honeymoon and bail out that family business because he wanted to? Did he consider the alternatives and decide that was the best one under the circumstances?

What would it look like to want what I have instead of what I don’t have? Have you ever noticed that, when there is something you really want, you feel some sort of real aliveness during the pursuit? Maybe you just absently want it, maybe you actively seek it, or save up for it. Maybe you get it and it makes you happy for a while and then you go back to your humdrum existence. What was that about? How long do you hang out with that feeling before you find something else to pursue?

I touched on this once before. I’m even going to bring back the same cartoon for another round. In the first panel, Mr Natural starts to do the dishes. He’s resentful. He doesn’t “want” to do them, he “has to“. By the third panel he is just doing the dishes. In the fifth panel he is invested in doing the dishes. In the sixth panel he wants to do the dishes.  In the final panel, he is pleased with having done the dishes. Question: Does he go on to want whatever he’s doing next, or does he continue to want the feeling he had while doing the dishes, try to recapture that feeling, and fail to do so? Just because you’ve learned something once doesn’t mean you have learned it for all time. My teacher Peter Ralston calls that “the lava syndrome”. The very breakthrough you have made hardens over and becomes something you have to break through in order to learn anything new again.

I haven’t talked about bikes for this whole post – not even about the weather. How many times can I talk about riding in freezing rain, sleet, snow, subzero (F) temperatures…? But I’ll leave you with one last image. I’ve talked before of hoarfrost – the stuff that forms when it is foggy and cold. Instead of mere water droplets, ice crystals form in the air; or fog forms and the water droplets freeze as soon as they land. From a distance, hoarfrost is white. The ice crystals reflect all light. Just like snowflakes, up close the crystals are clear. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” We had another morning of hoarfrost this week. Visibility suddenly dropped and I wondered if my glasses had fogged up. I looked to my right and saw fog in the lights of a parking lot. I realized the world was foggy, not just me. I rode out of the fog bank and my glasses continued to ice over. Imagine sticking a glass in the freezer and getting it nice and cold. Take it out and spritz it with water and stick it back in the freezer. When you take it out, there are tiny droplets of ice, giving the glass a pebbled texture. That’s what my glasses were like. I stopped, removed a mitten, and scraped the ice off the lenses, then continued on my way. The picture is hoarfrost, up close and personal.

 

 

 

 

Free Solo

Casen posed a question on The Dihedral, a climbing blog I follow (see “Blogroll”). It is based on the film “Free Solo” so, if you haven’t seen it, you might want to look here or here first, and/or go see the film, now playing at a theatre near you.

I went to the movie thinking I was seeing a film about free soloing; rock climbing alone and without ropes. The film is about Alex Honnold, considered by many to be the greatest free climber alive. “Alive” is an´important distinction.

Alex speaks of free soloing as a “high reward/low risk” occupation. By this, he means he gets great rewards (he loves it) and he minimizes the risk by his care in preparation, as well as his ever-present awareness that a mistake means death (ed: or badly-broken survival and wishing he were dead).  It could equally be seen through another lens: low risk/high consequence. By that, I mean that, while the risk may be low (and that is debatable), the consequence of  failure is high (death).

What constitutes high risk? I think it is relative. When I worked in Nicaragua, I realized that most people in the US thought of Central America as a war zone. In Central America, Nicaragua was seen as a war zone. In Nicaragua, the Matagalpa Region was seen as a war zone. In Matagalpa, the area around Muy Muy and Matiguás was seen as a war zone. Where I worked (between Muy Muy and Matiguás), the war was always over the next ridge. We were not in the war zone, but close. We were safe, but it didn’t look that way to folks in the US. In a similar vein, what Alex does is not nearly as high a risk as it would be for you or me. Sure, he could die. You or I could die crossing the street tomorrow morning. 

While I thought it was a film about climbing, it is at least as much a film about relationship. Early on you meet his girlfriend Sanni. She approaches him at a book signing and gives him her phone number. He calls, they go out, they become involved. Mind you, this is a guy who lives in his van and makes a living traveling the world to climb rocks. His quest is to climb El Capitán in Yosemite National Park, considered the pinnacle of free climbing by those who think about such things. It had never been done.

As their relationship develops, she fears that he could die in the attempt, leaving her.  My initial reaction was “you get what you pay for”. She went into this relationship knowing that this is what he does. She is attracted to him as a free climber – that’s how/why they met. To try to get him to stop is a recipe for relationship disaster. Can you say “resentment”?

On the other hand, these are feelings she has a right to, and a right to express. They are likely feelings she didn’t know would develop as she became closer to him. Now here they are: what does one do? The film becomes at least as much about dealing with this as about climbing El Capitán. Does relationship change acceptable risk?

It also becomes a film about physics and metaphysics. Free soloing is, by definition, a solitary endeavor. Does the observation of a phenomenon change it? Will he climb differently when he is being watched, being filmed? Does a solitary endeavor become a performance? The filmmakers grapple with this and question whether they should even make the film. If he dies, will they be responsible? Did their presence and interference lead to his death? What do they do with the film footage if he does not survive the attempt? How do they make a great film without interfering? And how do they live with what they have witnessed, burned into their retinas and their brains, as well as their film stock?

The questions Casen asks include: What constitutes success? and What is the balance between performance and happiness? I realized I had more to say than I felt comfortable saying in the comment section of someone else’s blog. I read another blog in which someone does take over via the comments. My internal response is “get your own blog”. Since I have my own, I won’t usurp The Dihedral. I’ll invite them to come over here.

PS: Even if the only thing you ever climb are the stairs to your room, I recommend this film. A co-worker (and climber, who hasn’t seen the film) asked if I thought the film would encourage others to try this and die in the attempt. I doubted it. The cinematography is so amazing that it is clear that this is not something for mere mortals to try. You see Alex squeezing a handhold the size of a pencil. You see him doing pullups with his fingertips. You see him standing on footholds that you wouldn’t have seen if the narrator hadn’t pointed them out. It seems pretty clear that this is an elite athlete and this is not something to try at home.

PPS: Don’t try this at home (or on El Capitán).

PPPS: No mention of bikes here.