Thursday, March 31, 2011

127 Hours

Katy and Jack are asleep, and I will follow suit very shortly. I sat down to blog for a bit, as I have three half-written posts.
  • Shitting the Bed
  • Don't Put Your Best Foot Forward
  • Lot's of Time to Do Nothing When You are Dead
But they are going to stay unfinished for at least another day. I don't feel particularly loquacious tonight, and am not going to force it.

A quick note, though: The kids and I watched "127 Hours" tonight. The Aaron Ralston story, first published as the book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place". It is the true tale of a 23 year old solo hiker who tumbled into a back-country crevasse and had his hand pinned beneath a boulder. He spent six days there, deep in the ground, out of food and water, before taking the almost unimaginable step of amputating his own arm. I had seen the movie a few months ago, but wanted to watch it again with Katy and Jack. It was an extraordinary experience.

I remember very clearly when I first heard the story - I had just stepped off a plane on May 3rd, 2003 in New York City, and while I waited for a cab I watched the news conference announcing his dramatic escape from his rocky tomb. It was also the same day that my nephew Zachary was born. I was in the Big Apple for a workshop examining what life means to me and how I want to impact my world, so both of those memorable events had extra "umph".

Like everyone who heard the story, I asked myself "Could I do that? Could I cut off my own arm if I had to?"  The kids and I had that conversation tonight too. Very cool insights into who they are, and into how they see me.

I won't dwell our answers here - as it doesn't really matter to you what we think. But what do YOU think? Could you do it? If not, why?

Here is a really wonderful 6 minute interview with Aaron, if you are interested.

Good night :)

P.S. Here is the trailer for the movie ...

Monday, March 28, 2011

One of those days...

I received a text message from a friend the other day that said, "Sorry - running late. Been one of those days!!". The first sentence was strictly functional - notifying me of the delay and apologizing. The second half, though - "Been one of those days!!" - is the part that stuck with me. It was clearly assumed that I would know what "those days" are. And they aren't good! I think it was also intended as an excuse to some degree - because when you are having "one of those days" what can you do? Of course you'd be late on "one of those days".

When I Googled "one of those days", I actually found a dictionary definition for the phrase - "a day when everything goes wrong". There was generic advice for how to deal with one. I also found several songs, from pop, to rock to reggae to Weird Al, all bemoaning such a day. Then, a cartoon ...


There was also a movie and pile of books. "One of those days" is one of those phrases that we all nod knowingly to. "I know what you mean, man. I know what you mean."

For the record, I had one of those days yesterday. That statement may catch some friends and  readers off guard, as I am oft accused of being too positive, too cheerful in the face of a reality that can't always be "that awesome". But make no mistake. Sunday was an absolute gong show for me.

After 5 hours of round trip driving and a long day of coaching youth wrestling in a noisy, crowded gymnasium Saturday, I had spent the night at my cousin's in Toronto. And slept, unwittingly, with my cousin's cat, who curled up around my face whilst I slept - triggering my brutal allergies (intentionally?). So, that is how the day started: puffy and wheezy. 

In this congested condition, I also had to deal with truck difficulties that had me stranded in the city, forcing me to postpone two afternoon appointments in Orillia. Cue my phone ringing unexpectedly (as I had not noticed the time), with a potential coaching client calling for her initial consultation: change gears, focus, listen, process. I ignored several text messages during the call, which turned out to be from a close friend whose teenage son had just been arrested following a string of terrible decisions. As I began to reply, my battery died. Then I made the trip to the bus terminal, on a delayed-by-track-construction subway - only to find out I had just missed an Orillia-bound coach and had almost three hours to wait for the next one. 

So, at mid-afternoon, I found myself sitting, tired, sneezing, with a dead BlackBerry, waiting for a Greyhound. It definitely qualified as "one of those days".

If we all know what "one of those days" is, I am curious as to what the opposite is. A day when everything goes right. What is the counterpart of "those". Is it "these"? "One of these days"?

Interestingly, "one of these days" is already taken in the dictionary - defined as "at a future time". Which is how I think a lot of people approach life ... always waiting for better days ahead.

But what if you could have one of these days - a day when everything goes right - right now? Come to think of it, I had one of "these" days very recently. Everything was clicking. Life was firing on all cylinders. I asked and I received. One good thing just rolled into another.

I woke up Tuesday morning before my alarm and read for a while before heading to the gym. After a great workout, I sat in the sauna reflecting on my day's schedule and what I wanted to accomplish.  I would spend the morning writing and working to attract great new coaching clients. In the afternoon I had a hypnosis appointment booked with one of my clients who is reclaiming his health and his life by working off over 100 pounds. And in the evening I was attending a concert at the local youth center, featuring a fantastic reggae/ska band from St. John's, Nfld - The Idlers.

In terms of setting my intentions for my own life, I turned my attention to three things...
  1. Generating a fun plan for a special summer trip with my son, Jack.
  2. Refocusing my diet on healthy, local, organic, primarily vegetarian food.
  3. Finding people with whom to do mud-obstacle runs on a regular basis.
So, with that energy emanating, I went out into the world.

While writing, with a delicious, organic, fair trade coffee in hand, I took a break to watch a video sent to me by a friend ...

I had seen the original many times - one of my favourite examples of unbridled self-expression serving to free others as well. This reworked version, incorporating a great leadership lesson, was an even bigger treat. And it got me looking forward to a music festival on my calendar for the summer, Camp Bisco. "Hmm, I wonder if JackyBoy would enjoy coming along on that?" When I threw the idea out to Jack he was over the moon, especially with MSTRKRFT on the bill.

Just as I was turning my attention back to my writing, the doorbell rang. There stood my mom, dropping off a dozen farm fresh eggs she had just picked up at Fairdale Farm, a local, all-natural, free-range operation started by my friend, Tim Leatherdale. My mom is pretty "old-school" in her approach to food - the four food groups, all things in moderation, everything is better with butter - and sometimes shakes her head at my taste for green shakes and fasts, but she always inspires me with her ability and willingness to whip up phenomenal dishes from scratch tailored to whomever she is with. Even on roast beef nights, she will make several extra vegetables when she knows I am coming. 

After posting "Life Lessons from a Stone Sculptor" to my blog, I checked my email and found a request for coaching from a stranger who had happened upon my writing and felt compelled to "reach out" for help. There were also three messages of thanks from people for whom I had recently  made a positive difference, and some sage advice from an important mentor whose commitment to my success means so much to me.

With all that positive energy in the morning, my day sailed by, and my afternoon hypnosis appointment was fantastic - one of those great exchanges of energy where both parties come away with more, reminding me that life, lived right, is not a zero-sum game.

Just before heading to The Idlers' concert, I received the coolest email - from a new friend, Carrie Adams, who had posted a special vegetarian recipe for me to her Clean Eating blog, naming it "Johnny Waite's Black Bean Death Race Dinner". How cool is that? I also noticed her other blog "Mud Mafia", dedicated to running, which reminded me of my commitment to finding more running partners (check out Carrie's awesome post re: "Clock-Blocking").

The Idlers rocked! This fun, energetic band entertained an enthusiastic, appreciative crowd at the Youth Center, as part of Deb Brown's amazing Stellula Music in Schools program. At the show I ran into several friends. Beth McKean, who helps people express themselves through body movement at Free Spirit Dance, was twirling to the music. Michael Martyn, Orillia's Manager of Cultural Development and amazing musician, was there with his young son. So was Amy Mangan, from Mariposa Folk Festival, whose boy Liam cut the rug with astonishing abandon. As we discussed Liam's beautiful spirit, I told them of my decision to bring Jack to Camp Bisco, also confessing a small concern that he may not entirely "get" the ecstatic, liberating vibe of such an event and that it was a lot of money to spend just hoping he enjoyed it. Out of that honest exchange came two offers. Beth invited Jack and me to attend her upcoming Friday evening class, to help us free our inner dancers. And Michael reminded me that I had loaned him ski gear that he'd like to buy from me - on which we agreed that he would pay for Jack's Camp Bisco ticket and we'd call it even. Wow!

After the concert, I headed to the grocery store to shop for my namesake recipe. While there, I ran into Mark Buckland, who'd lent me my axes for my Death Race training - both of which happened to be in the back of my truck. As I handed them over to him (saving a 1hr round trip drive) I told him about Mud Mafia and my desire to gather like-minded friends to run locally, and Mark signed on immediately. So home I went, to cook, write and plan a run.

Reflecting on the day, I realized that I had nailed all three of my objectives. 
  1. I had conceived, confirmed and financed my summer trip with Jack AND found a resource to set a solid foundation of groovability before heading south in July.
  2. I had received farm fresh eggs AND shopped for a fantastic recipe that had been generated on my behalf.
  3. I had made strides towards my trail-running crew, both in the macro with Mud Mafia and the micro with Mark (for any fans of "alliteration", that is a LOT of M's in a row)
All of this happened with no extraordinary effort on my part. I just stayed in motion, maintained my positive energy and interacted honestly with people. 

Did anything "bad" happen Tuesday? Probably. I don't recall anything in particular, but that is likely because I was so focused on all of the "good stuff". Which brings us back to Sunday. Did anything "good" happen Sunday?

Come to think of it, yes. I had breakfast with some wonderful friends. My clients were very understanding and both rescheduled easily. I took advantage of my time in the bus terminal (and the lack of distraction from an otherwise ever-present BlackBerry) to meditate for a solid hour.  I serendipitously ran into a friend heading north who offered me a ride, giving me an 11th hour reprieve from the bus ride, saving me the fare and adding a great visit. And I arrived home to an unscheduled evening, which I used to catch up on the weekend's emails, write a coaching proposal and watch the classic surf movie "Endless Summer" with my great friend Amanda (who flew this morning to Witch's Rock Surf Camp in Costa Rica). All of which I would have taken for granted, were I not to consciously stop and consider what went "right" in the midst of "one of those days".

What I am now very clear on is this: good and bad happens every day. As The Dude says, "Life is full of strikes and gutters". Except in extraordinary circumstances, it is entirely up to me where I decide to put my focus. When a few things go sideways and you say "that's just my luck", you are definitely going to have one of those days. Alternatively, a much more empowering sentence starter is "oh well, at least I still have my ..." : and insert something to be grateful for even as the shit hits the fan. You'll be amazed how powerful that little habit can be.

If you have somehow missed my many links to Rob Brezsny's magnificent essay "Glory in the Highest", I will recommend again that you read it. Or, if you have already succumbed to my earlier suggestions I will recommend you read it again. But if you really are too lazy to click on the link, here is the final paragraph.

"Let's say it's 9:30 a.m. You've been awake for two hours, and a hundred things have already gone right for you. If three of those hundred things had not gone right — your toaster was broken, the hot water wasn't hot enough, there was a stain on the pants you wanted to wear — you might feel that today the universe is against you, that your luck is bad, that nothing's going right. And yet the fact is that the vast majority of everything is working with breathtaking efficiency and consistency. You would clearly be deluded to imagine that life is primarily an ordeal."

So, to help you have one of these days, I am including one last video. This is something I would have never have stumbled upon had I not Googled "one of those days", and it comes from a world very different than mine. But Lil Rob gets it, and I will be listening to this song again and again!!

Friday, March 25, 2011

It is GREAT that my son broke his nose today!!!

It's awesome having smart kids. Knowing that the curriculum is well withing their grasp, I have no problem regularly taking them out of school to enjoy other activities. Today, for example, was a glorious day for snowboarding at Horseshoe Valley Resort - bright, sunny, lots of groomed corn snow - so I signed Jack out of Marchmont Public School at first recess.

"Does Jack have an appointment with a doctor?" asked the receptionist.

"Nope. But he has an appointment with a lift attendent" I replied.

Much to her credit, she broke into a broad smile and wished us a fabulous day :)

After picking up some pizza, Jack and I headed for the hill, with Hollywood Undead blasting from his iPod to my truck's BlueTooth (the first clue that I am not the strictest parent around). Pulling into the resort, we were thrilled to see a half empty parking lot and no lines at the lifts.

"This is going to be an epic day!" predicted Jack.

He chattered like an auctioneer on amphetamines all the way up the chairlift. Since we'd last boarded together, Jack had apparently mastered several new tricks in the terrain park and he was eager to show them off. Jack has been skiing since he was two, and snowboarding the last five seasons. Yet, last year he still seemed to me like a little kid just out there having fun. This season, though, he'd decided to kick out the jams

Jack gets to the hill 3 or 4 times a week, usually once with me. The other times he's with his intrepid pals Max, Pierson, Conor and Mason. As tween boys are so great at doing, they each push one another to go a bit faster, higher, further, harder.  And when they're not on the hill, they're watching videos showcasing the most extreme boarding imaginable. I love it! I eat that shit up, and am eager for Jack to develop skills far surpassing mine. 

Still, I find myself a bit nerve-wracked as his jumps get bigger and, inherently, more dangerous. Twice, while living in Whistler in the 90's, I was taken off Blackcomb Mountain on a spinal board, so my risk threshold has diminished significantly. Until now, Jack had incurred nothing worse than a sprained wrist so he is still pretty fearless. Thus, we exited the chair and headed straight for the fun stuff.

The park was closed temporarily, but we were assured it would reopen by the time we got back up the hill. No worries, we had all day! So, I hit the halfpipe and Jack nailed some practice rails in the "progression park" and we met up at the bottom. Now loosened up, we were both eager to make this, the last day of our season, memorable. With the hills practically to ourselves, we skied right back onto the lift.

Bingo! Park was re-opened. Jack blew through the gate and went straight for the first rail. I couldn't believe how fast he approached it, blasting off the approach ramp and landing halfway down the steel in a nose ride. He landed it smoothly and turned into the next trick. It was a multi-step box that looked a lot like this ...

... and that was very much how Jack came into it. Airborne until about halfway down. I hadn't seen him attack the rails with this much confidence before and I was blown away.

Unfortunately for Jack, though, this landing did not go as smoothly. As soon as his board hit the rail it slid out from under him and he went face first into the ground. No chance of his wrists being sprained this time - his nose took the brunt of the impact.

In fact, IT looked a lot like this :( ...

I saw the whole thing. Especially the bounce. Of his face. Off the hardpack. Ouch.

"I'm okay" he reported - much too quickly. But he didn't get up. Obviously shaken, he stayed on his knees with his face in his hands. That is why I didn't see the damage right away.

But as soon as he looked up I knew it wasn't good. His nose spread from cheek to cheek and was an open faucet of red. As he looked down at his blood-soaked gloves, the disappointment set in. I don't know if he was more concerned about this being the end of the day or that his handsome face may not be quite the same. I think if you ask Jack he will just say - "Dude. I had just smashed my face into the ground and was bleeding like I'd been hit with an axe. That's why I may have looked a little perturbed!"

There was a sprawling puddle on the once-white snow, and other boarders kept whizzing by, unaware that we were stopped just below the jump, so he used his toque to clamp down on his pulsing probiscus and we started walking down the hill. Only a few steps in we were intercepted by the ski patrol, who'd been alerted to his injury.

"Well, well, well. If it isn't the Waite boys!"

Our first responder was my old friend Dave Lauer. He is a bit of a rock star - firefighter, waterskier, ski racer - and last time I'd seen him we were jumping out of a plane together last summer at 13,000 feet.  He also has a great sense of humour.

By now, Jack's face was an absolute mess. There was blood from chin to cheekbones. His eyes were starting to swell. Obviously Dave had recognized me and done some forensic genealogy to ID the lad to whom he would be tending. I asked Jack if I could take a picture but he did not think that was a good idea at all. So you will have to take my word for it. He looked like crap!

Unphased, Dave and his partner were absolute professionals. Putting Jack at ease with their friendly manner and evident experience, they ran the requisite tests for spinal injuries and concussion. Satisfied that the damage was limited to Jack's visage, they plunked him on the back of the snowmobile and the partner drove him to the medical station. Dave and I took the lift back up to ski over to join them. As we chatted, it occurred to me that I was neither upset nor worried. Jack would be fine. He'd broken his nose. Not the end of the world. In fact, the emotion I was most aware of was pride. But in what?

By the time we arrived at the "alpine emerg", Jack had wiped up most of the blood. Now I could see the gash across the bridge of his nose, cut and bruised. He was still quite swollen too, with his nostrils about twice as wide as normal. There was a nasty scrape all across the one side that looked angry and sore, and another gash across the bottom. His eyes were starting to go black.

As we drove into town, Jack's spirits had improved noticeably. He kept checking himself out in the vanity mirror. He posted a Facebook status: "So I just broke my nose.... It was a great second run :P". Again, I was aware of feeling immensely proud of him.

What was I proud of? Obviously I don't enjoy my kids getting injured. But I do very much admire their willingness to risk injury. To "go for it". Jack's big air on his snowboard. Katy's aggression in wrestling. Their unique personal styles. Their daring senses of humour.

When you go for it, sometimes bad stuff happens. Noses break (both of my kids have now broken theirs). Wrists sprain. People laugh at you. Or worse.

But when you don't go for it, nothing happens. Which is a much greater tragedy.

So, that is why I am very proud of Jack for breaking his nose today, and prouder still of his already looking forward to next season when he can hit the same rail again.

"Be bold and courageous. When you look back on your life, you'll regret the things you didn't do more than the ones you did."
H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do you love your meat?

I can already hear the affirmative grunts of my barbecuing friends. "Hellz ya! We love our steaks and burgers!!"

But that's not really what I mean. Sure it all tastes delicious, but I guess what I am asking is do you LOVE your meat? Remember that meat comes from animals. You know your favourite dog as a kid? He was an animal. Or the cat that snuggles with you on a couch? She is an animal. Just like the cow or the pig or the chicken or the lamb or the fish or the turkey that you eat - all animals. This is not a rant about not eating meat, by the way. With the exception of the aforementioned dog and cat, those creatures are all valid food choices. I just want you to ask again if you love them.

Consider this... Do you even ask where your food comes from? Do you know what is done to it? Do you know what it is doing to you? 

We all grew up with a very romantic image of the family farm ...

The friendly farmer. The happy animals. As very young children we never made the connection that the friendly farmer actually killed the happy animals, and, when we finally came to that realization, we were still assured that it was done humanely and that all was good in the world. I certainly bought in, eating McDonald's and KFC in blissful ignorance well into my 30's.

There was a time when that is how animals were actually raised and slaughtered (and there are still some very wonderful, albeit rare, farms today - but we'll come back to that). And as far back as time, hunters had a sacred relationship with their prey, with heartfelt thanks offered to the gods of nature and to the animal before its flesh was eaten for nourishment and its hide and fur used to provide warmth and shelter.

The common reality today, however, is very different. Factory farming has become nothing short of an obscene perversion of nature. Commercial fishing fleets are indiscriminately raping the oceans. Wild animals are cruelly butchered to trim the latest fashions and make jewelery. 

We don't even realize how desensitized we have become. It's just the way things are. And simply questioning this can open you up to criticism - "What are you? Some kind of tree-hugger hippy freak?". Maybe you are not a freak at all. Maybe you don't mind eating eat. Maybe you are perfectly happy wearing leather. Maybe you don't want to attack our entire North American lifestyle. It's possible that you just want to see if we couldn't maybe, you know, be at least a just little bit civilized about it.

Here is a simple test. Watch this 3 minute movie trailer and then read on...

Truthfully, did you watch it? If not, then please don't read any further. You are choosing to remain ignorant on this topic and that's ok. But I don't see the sense in your continuing without knowing what I am writing about.

If you did watch it, did you feel anything? Again, if you didn't then you should probably skip the rest of this as it will fall on deaf ears.

You are still here? Good. So then you did watch that video and it did affect you in some way. Me too. So much so that I decided I needed to be part of a solution. I'm neither naive nor blindly idealistic. I don't think I'm going to change the whole system. I just want to change you. Just a little bit. If you decide then to pay that forward, all the better.

Here is all you need to do differently.
  1. Find out where your animal products come from.
  2. Decide if you are okay with that.
  3. Source a more humane, sustainable, healthy supply.
  4. Eat with a spirit of gratitude.
  5. Sleep well.
That is it. 

Should you decide to go a bit further, you may explore options like vegetarianism. Here are some pages on why, how and in whose excellent company you will be! Or veganism.

This is about much more than just being kind to animals, by the way. The food we are eating is literally killing us. But, people are beginning to wake up to this. "Supersize Me" recently became part of our lexicon. "Fast Food Nation" was a New York Times Bestseller. "Food Inc" was just nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature...

In terms of making healthy food choices, "it is the best of times, it is the worst of times". Billions of dollars are spent marketing shitty food to you and your children. And billions more go toward industry lobbying to keep unhealthy products on grocery shelves and kitchen tables. On the bright side, it is also getting easier to find healthy food. Farmer's Markets are springing up all over Canada and the US, where you can buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. Supermarkets are adding organic sections (even WalMart) and chains like WholeFoods are growing quickly. Look hard enough and you will even find nearby organic family farms from whom you can buy meat, eggs, dairy and produce directly!

There are many terrific websites offering guidance and recipes. One I strongly recommend is Carrie Adams' Keeping It Clean. Carrie is an endurance athlete, a mom, and a clean food expert. She will even let you keep the meat in your diet (minus the chemicals and cruelty). But, when she learned that I was pursuing vegetarianism while training for The Death Race, she made me my own delicious recipe that is full of plant protein! You can try "Johnny Waite's Black Bean Death Race Dinner (Veg)" right now!!

Where am I at in all of this? For starters, I ate utterly mindlessly until about 8 years ago. Then, after reading "Nature's First Law", I adopted a raw food diet for about 4 months, which gradually regressed to veganism for another 6 months, then vegetarianism for 8 months, then back to being omnivorous - but more mindfully so, shopping organic and even locally where I could. Over the past several years I have drifted in and out of veggie, influenced too easily by the social gravity of my friends and family. 

Today I cleared out my refrigerator of what little meat there was. A few cold cuts for the kids lunches - into the garbage (it was definitely not organic). Half a package of hot dogs (are you f*#@ing kidding me??) - trashed. And finally, a steak that my mom dropped off for me earlier this week. An organic sirloin, from a local farmer who I know personally, who has gone to great lengths to establish an ethical, sustainable, natural small farm business. I made a judgement call. I love my mother without reservation. I love and respect the farmer from whom this steak came. I know that he loved and respected the cow and treated it well. So, with gratitude to all involved, I grilled it up with garlic and pepper and savoured it. I can honestly say that I loved that meat!

That said, in the morning I am back on the vegetarian train. Fortunately my mom also dropped off a dozen organic free-range eggs, so I will be off to a good start!

As for you - just do whatever feels right to you. At the very least, take a moment before you eat to give thanks for your food (to your God, to Mother Earth, to the cow, to the chef). And be open to expanding your mindfulness around food to include investigating ethical eating choices. I promise you will feel healthier for it - in body, in mind and in spirit.

Bon Appetit!!!

(If you wish to watch the entire film of "Earthlings", free online, click here)

Generations ...

My good friend Mark Stein recently took over his family business, Blaine's Automotive, which this week celebrated 40 years in business. Today Mark was sharing with me how much he appreciates the example his father has set for him - as a businessperson, as a family man and as a human being. This is a sentiment with which I certainly relate. I am eternally grateful for my parents, Susan and Bruce, who are larger-than-life in their contributions to their family and their community.

It's a marvelous stage of life I am at, wherein I really get to live three lives at once. I am Johnny the son, Johnny the man and Johnny the father simultaneously. "The Father, the Son and the Holy #*&%" - haha!

Best of all, I am taking each role less for granted all the time. 

As parenting continually brings fresh challenges, my appreciation for my own immediate ancestors grows exponentially. It is suggested that your whole life flashes before your eyes at the time of death. I got a sneak preview as my daughter was born. The moment Katy emerged I had two emotions collide violently within me - infinite love and immense guilt. As I processed just how perfect this child was and what a miraculous gift she was to Karen and me, I (a first-born myself) flashed back to my parents holding me some quarter century earlier, undoubtedly with the same wondrous awe... then fast-forwarded through 28 years of my suddenly glaring petulance, thoughtlessness and entitlement. Memories of cars rolled, debts forgiven and calls not made cascaded instantaneously. Wow. How had I been blind to the extraordinary sacrifices they had made and the enormous stresses I had caused? And they had raised four of us. Pretty overwhelming stuff.

It is also assumed that bringing new life into being forces us to be better human beings ourselves - because now the world serves a purpose beyond our lifetime. Of course, looking at our present society, it is sometimes hard to see this bearing out, with many people simply replacing "me first" with "me and my kids first" and burning through resources with little regard to inevitably shortchanging their kids' kids. Still, it is a first glimpse into a future to which we have contributed but will not be around to experience.

"One must care about a world one will not see."
Bertrand Russel

There are famous generations. The Baby Boomers. Generation X. The Greatest Generation. "My" Generation. But generations really don't exist. Their creation is arbitrary ... "between this date and this date". We invent them to capture a time in history, or to explain a social trend. But people are constantly being born and constantly dying, and every family tree grows on its own timeline.

Still, what is true is that billions of people have come before us, and contributed to generating the world in which we live. Like the youthful ingrate I now realize myself to have been, we are collectively quick to blame these forerunners for things that are "wrong" with our world. We talk of the problems we have inherited and the mistakes that we have to correct. How often, though, do we stop and truly appreciate all that we have been handed on the proverbial silver platter? Namely everything... Everything... Everything.


Electricity. Language. Sports. Music. Fabric. Mathematics. Ice cream. The computer screen on which you are reading this, and the keyboard on which I am typing it. 

Absolutely every single thing, thought, idea, experience is the product of billions of years of the efforts of other beings (or 10,000 years if you are biblically inclined, and I'm fine with that timeline too). If you want to get a real sense of just how much is being constantly done for your benefit, read this short essay by Rob Brezsny, "Glory In The Highest"

And now you and I are part of this endless web. 

For all the importance we ascribe to our own lives, as separate persons we are each almost unbearably insignificant - one in seven billion on a ball described by Douglas Adams like this... "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

Or as my pal, the less famous but equally brilliant Bill McGill, says, "We are all just ants on an apple."

And yet, our individual lives are immeasurably important. They are all we have, and the only thing in the universe over which we have control. Everything that we do ripples out into the world with last impacts we will never be able to gauge. 

Of course, we all hope to be remembered after we go, because - by any measure - our stay on this plane is astonishingly brief. The reality though, is that we will eventually (even quickly) be forgotten. We will not receive marquee billing for our starring role in the evolution of the universe. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

So what to do then? Live.

"This is the true joy in life: The being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. The being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die - for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."   George Bernard Shaw

There is that word again - "generations". I grant that it does help to frame time in a human scale. As a jumping off point, it is easier to feel gratitude towards ones own parents and a responsibility towards ones own children. Ideally, we can then allow that energy to expand in both directions - Gratitude towards everyone who has gone before us. Responsibility to all who will come after.  And in the middle of all of that, joy in our own life and love for everyone around us.
Thanks, Mark, for getting me thinking today. Thanks Mom and Dad for bringing me into this wonderful world and giving me a solid start. Thanks Katy and Jack for opening my heart and my mind. And thanks to everyone for the contribution you are to the glorious whole.
Love. Love. Love. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Momentum ...

So, a funny thing happened last month. I became a writer. How? I wrote something.

Next week my friend Amanda is becoming a surfer! How? She is surfing (at a very cool camp in Costa Rica).

My erstwhile-wife, Karen, recently became a blogger (and a VERY funny one!). By sitting down and blogging.

I receive emails from people all the time telling me what they wish they were doing. Without making light of their respective obstacles, I have the same fundamental advice for all of them. Start doing "it". You won't do "it" well. And you probably won't get paid to do "it". But do "it" anyway. For now, do "it" alongside the other stuff that you have to do, and do "it" joyfully and with gratitude for the opportunity. (For bonus karma, try doing the other stuff with gratitude too - but we will get to that in a future post!)

Maybe "it" is painting. Then paint. Not for others' approval or for remuneration - but because you want to paint. I recently heard from a war paint artisan. I had never heard of such a thing but looked into it and was blown away by his talent and passion. The world is better place because of people stepping out and doing something different.

Maybe "it" is getting in shape. Then exercise - start wherever you are at. I have two friends, each over three hundred pounds, who have been at the gym every day recently. They will both lose 100lbs this year and be in the best shape of their lives. Every rep counts towards that goal, but none as much as the first.

And, if you keep your eyes and heart open, you will probably find that something miraculous happens. You will start building momentum. Don't measure it by what other people say or think, or by what external rewards flow your way. Instead, notice how you feel. Watch for unexpected blessings and inspirations and opportunities that begin appearing out of nowhere (in the sake of full disclosure, they were always there but now you are tuned in to them). And keep on truckin' ... left foot, right foot, repeat...

Case in point - I sat down right now to bang out a quick mea culpa ... "I cannot write a blog post this morning because there are too many topics colliding in my mind. I will sort that shit out today and see you tomorrow" (A good problem to have for someone who spent twenty five years wishing he had something worth saying ... again, all the things that were always there but just beyond where I was willing to look). So I started to type. And here we are.

Of course, Goethe said this much better 200 years ago,

"Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." 

So, do "it" today - whatever "it" is. At least a bit of "it". And watch "it" expand :)

And if you need a boost to get started, sing along with Dave :)

"You Might Die Trying"

To change the world,
Start with one step.
However small,
The first step is hardest of all.

Once you get your gait,
You'll be walkin' tall.
You said you never did,
Cause you might die trying,
Cause you might die trying.
Cause you---

If you close your eyes,
Cause the house is on fire.
And think you couldn't move,
Until the fire dies.
The things you never did,
Oh, cause you might die trying,
Cause you might die trying.
You'd be as good as dead,
Cause you might die trying,
Cause you might die trying.

If you give, you, you begin to live.
If you give, you begin to live.
You begin, you get the world.
If you give, you begin to give
You get the world, you get the world.
If you give, you begin to live.

You might die trying.
Oh, you might die trying.
Yeah, you might die trying.

The things you never did,
Cause you might die trying;
You'd be as good as dead.
You never did. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Life Lessons from a Stone Sculptor

Funny how a day can go nothing as planned, and still work out better than I could have ever expected. Last Thursday was one of those days.

I was in Pittsfield, Vermont at 1pm, about 7 hours early for my night of obstacle race training. That part was intended. I'd easily found the Original General Store, stretched, had a beer and reorganized my gear after the 10 hour drive. The General Store is an absolute treasure - great food, beautiful wares, amazing ambiance and, best of all, wonderful people. Andrew, the salt and pepper haired chef was cooking up a storm and Leann, a beautiful woman with an air of quiet confidence, was seated at the counter with a coffee and some bookkeeping. Both clearly approached their work with joy and ease, and made me feel most welcome.

The only thing between me and a perfect day were the metal filings in my eyes. This is where things started to stray from the schedule. I had gone back out to the truck to sharpen my axes with a hand file, to be followed by a 4 hour nap. As soon as I started filing I knew that I didn't know what I thought I knew about sharpening tools. For example, it probably should have occurred to me to wear goggles or at least my sunglasses. Soon there was a thin layer of metal shavings on my jeans as I valiantly worked away, on a warm, sunny, gusty afternoon. Yep - gusty. So, you know what happened next... Both eyes. Full of tiny strips of steel. And to add insult to injury (literally), I had made no headway in my acuminating efforts. I couldn't whet an edge but I sure as hell had to wet my eyeballs fast!

After rinsing for a while in the General Store washroom I was finally able to blink again with some semblance of normalcy. But time was ticking and I still had an "axe to grind" and some "logs to saw" (please take a moment to appreciate those very punny double-entendres!). I decided I had better ask for some help.

"Leann," I began, "Do you know anyone locally who I could see about sharpening my axes?"

This question must have seemed very odd on a number of levels. First, Pittsfield has a population of 400 people. I am pretty sure there is no one locally who Leann does not know. Second, I would imagine most anyone in Pittsfield would have some idea about sharpening an axe - it's just that kind of place. But, third, they would also be certain to wonder what kind of fool drives 600 miles to a wood chopping event with dull axes. Well, they were about to meet one ... me.

Without the slightest display of disdain, Leann replied, "Of course. I will call my husband and if he's there I know he'd be happy to do that for you .... Hi, Julian. I have a friend of Joe's here who needs to put an edge on his axe. Sure thing, I will send him right down."

About 2 miles down Route 100 I found myself in front of an unassuming red barn that was too close to the road. What set it apart from the hundreds of other red barns along this same historic stretch of highway was the magnificent marble sign welcoming me to Stone Revival. Immediately upon opening the door, I knew I was in for a treat. Still, I had no idea how great the next few hours would be.

I was standing in a gallery full of original masterpieces. There were marble reliefs, 3 dimensional busts, wildlife, all hand carved from various types of stone. I was honestly speechless.

"Hello there!" boomed a friendly voice from the next room. "C'mon in!"

And that is how I met Julian Isaacson.

Julian makes quite an impression. It is clear that he does physical work, as he is as solid as the rock he shapes and has hands that could easily crush mine. But his broad smile makes it clear that he prefers making friends to foes, and he seemed genuinely happy to help me out. 

My axes were still in the truck and, before I went to retrieve them, I asked him about his work. His studio was filled with works in progress. Mostly stone. One enchanting piece of wood that was being transformed into a fallen angel. And all the tools of his trade - hammers and chisels and myriad implements I won't even try to name.

Questions about his work flowed easily into questions about his life. One of seven children of artist parents, Julian is self-taught - with no schooling save for a life of creative immersion. It would have been an interesting upbringing; an American Indian mother, a Russian Jewish father, a house full of musicians and artists of every medium. Originally envying his brothers' musical talents, Julian soon found his own in sculpting and in cooking.

For many years sculpting was primarily a labour of love, while he made his career in the kitchen. It was in California that Julian had a successful restaurant business before returning to his native Vermont several years ago and refocusing his energy on his work with stone.

Julian and Leann have two adult children, and it was after we had discussed our kids that I pocketed the first gem of wisdom from my new artist friend. Julian had moved on to explaining his work in 3-dimensional solid pieces - pointing to a face that was nearly completed. He explained that the most important thing was to only shape it a little at a time. Not only would that prevent accidentally removing too much stone that could not be replaced, but also it would allow the piece to show the artist its true shape, which may evolve very differently than the sculptor had originally envisioned. 

As he spoke, I continued to listen but also found myself thinking back to a year ago, coaching my son, Jack, in wrestling. Without getting into the specifics, I was upset with Jack and - in my well-intentioned efforts to help shape him into the person I thought he should be - I now saw that I had chiseled away a little bit of who Jack really was. Reflecting further, it wasn't hard to think of times I had done the same to Katy, or my parents had done the same to me. 

Julian continued, "Sometimes I find myself tense, using too heavy a hand. And it is important to be able to step back. Whenever I realize I am trying to force a result I find it's best to turn my attention to something else until I can return with an open spirit."

I don't know if Julian intended the analogy to parenting, but that is the beauty of his words - just like his sculptures. While they have an external physical/literal form, they also serve to inspire and inform on a much deeper, more personal level. For you this lesson may resonate instead in your work, in your marriage, in your life-planning.

Eventually I did run to the truck for my axes and, while Julian ground the blades with a sure touch, we continued our lively conversation. We covered lots of ground (I am sure I will eventually have a whole series of posts relating to the insights gained that afternoon) and finally Julian gave each edge a final look and handed them to me. He wouldn't take any payment and actually thanked me for the visit!

My four hour nap was now only going to be 90 minutes, but I didn't begrudge the lost sleep in the least. Not only were my axes razor sharp, but I knew that I was a tangibly better person than before I arrived at Stone Revival, and I had made a new friend.

Julian's website is under re-construction, but check back in at in the future to see his extraordinary work!

Monday, March 21, 2011

My weekend at Camp in Pittsfield, VT

"I wonder how long before Joe realizes this is impossible, and changes the plan?"

That was my thought an hour into pushing a 200 pound tractor tire up the mountain. We were making very slow progress, compounded by the melting snow and running water underfoot. Sooner or later, I assumed, he would have to figure out that we had taken on a Sisyphean task. That just shows you how little I knew Joe Desena.

I had met Joe about 30 minutes earlier, at his General Store in Pittsfield, VT. I was in town for a training camp for this summer's Spartan Death Race, having driven 10 hours with only these instructions: "Bring an axe, a maul, snowshoes, food and warm clothing to the General Store in Pittsfield for 8pm". Apparently that email had been sent to the 20 people who said they'd be attending the camp. At "five to eight" it was only me and Jeff, an irrepressible adventure racer from Rhode Island. Joe arrived at 8pm on the button, offered a strong handshake and a friendly greeting and then simply said, "We are starting about a mile up the road. I will ride with Jeff. Follow us." As we walked out to the trucks we bumped into three more guys, all at least 20 years younger than me, who scrambled back into their vehicles to fall in line. As Joe climbed up into Jeff's truck I heard him tell his wife on the phone, "I am bringing some people back to the house but we will be out hiking all night."

Joe: "So what did you guys bring?"
Us: "Axe and maul and snowshoes."
Joe: "You'll probably need those later. I mean what else do you have? I want to take a bunch of stuff up the mountain."
Jeff: "I have a tractor tire that weighs about 200 pounds."
Joe: "Perfect. I will see what else I have in the barn."

Minutes later, Joe's lovely wife, Courtney, snapped a picture of the six of us setting out with the 200 pound tire, a 16 foot canoe, and a 38 pound brick. The only thing these three items had in common was that none of them served any purpose atop the mountain - we were taking them up there purely for the "fun" of it. As we rolled the tire up the road, pulling the canoe and passing the brick around, a Supermoon rose overhead in the crisp Vermont night.

So much for basking in the moonglow. After leaving the road for a snowpacked trail, we were soon deep in the woods winding our way up a steep path. Two would-be-Spartans were pulling the canoe by rope, three were trying to roll the tire, and one was carrying the brick. If you have never carried a 38 pound brick up a slippery hill in the middle of the night, you may not fully appreciate the observation that it was the easiest job by an astonishing margin. The canoe was just straightforward hard work - lean in, plant your toes and climb while pulling the rope. The inevitable three steps forward one slide back was par for the course. The tire, though, was another matter altogether. Refusing to roll in the snow, it also constantly threatened to tumble back down the hill - crushing us in its path. We tried carrying it on a treelimb that we cut, with no success. Then dragging it. Then, finally, settled on flipping its 200 pounds one width at a time. By now, we had one in front of the canoe. One under the brick. And four behind the tire. The only occasional break from the kneedeep snow was where the spring melt had washed sections of the trail out entirely, involving us slogging "upstream" through mud and numbing water. This was going to take all night.

It did not take all night. In fact, it was less than 4 hours later that we stood atop the mountain, under that gorgeous moon, looking out over sleeping Vermonters in the valleys all around. Lest our heads swell with our accomplishment, Joe pointed out the wooden spool TWICE the size of our tire that he had a world-ranked heavyweight wrestler push up the hill solo. 

"All right, let's start down. Bring the canoe and the brick. We will come back for the tire later." It was midnight and we were just getting started.

I won't attempt to get the chronology right for the next several hours as it was a bit of a blur. What I can say is that we did not stop. We ran down the mountain. We ran back up the mountain doing interval sprints carrying the brick overhead. We did 100 impromptu burpees on a wet section of ground (this was where I came very close to puking). We ran interval brick-carrying sprints back down. We were joined by two latecomers (including the first female). We pulled the canoe back up the mountain. We brought the tractor tire back down (a logistical challenge as it was eager to roll right over us and carve its own path - an admittedly tempting option until we envisioned dragging it out of a gulley way off course). We picked up yet another participant at about 2am - Katt, a petite but mighty woman who had driven straight from New York City and then hiked halfway up on her own. We went back up the mountain and brought the canoe back down. 

By now it was somewhere between 4am and 5am. Everyone was soaked right through and freezing cold. Joe seemed to pick up on this and showed a bit of mercy. "Why don't you guys get some sleep. The barn has a heated floor, so make yourselves at home. Matt will be here in the morning and we will have some more for you to do then."

Minutes later we had our clothes hung to dry and had each staked out our section of concrete. Closing my eyes had never felt so good.

"Alright campers! Let's get this day started!!"

What? How long have I been asleep? DID I even get to sleep?? The answer was "NO". As soon as they heard silence in the barn, Joe and Matt Sroka came in to get us back up. Matt was tagging in as our snowshoe guide. I'd love to believe that it was because Joe needed the break, but Joe had already planned a full day of karate and skiing with his kids (remember that he, too, had worked alongside us all night and had not slept).

Putting our wet clothes back on seemed unnecessarily cruel. At least I had packed some dry socks. We drove down the road from Joe's house to the Amee Barn, so as to tackle the mountain from the other side. By now the moon had set and dawn was not far away. I realized that it had started to snow, nature in synch with our finally strapping our snowshoes on. This was going to be an adventure for me, as my first ever snowshoe had been just two days earlier with my good friend, Karen Graham

Matt struck out first, stopping every so often to make sure we would recognize the trail back should anyone get lost (remember that point - it factors in shortly). Our group quickly spread out, everyone hustling to the best of their ability. A professor of Sports Administration at Castleton College and an avid ultra-racer, Matt is an enormously motivating, entertaining guy. He shared stories about the annual ultra-races on these same trails, and we marveled at Jason Jaksetic's recently completing the 100 mile snowshoe marathon on this very route. Matt also pointed out landmarks to remember as navigation points in June. And he didn't stop smiling once.

I believe this route took us about 4 miles to climb the 2000' to the same peak. By the time we arrived it was full, glorious morning. We dug into our packs for food, and waited as our group came back together. As soon as the last pair arrived at the peak, Matt started for the bottom again. Descending was a whole different experience - part running, part sliding. It probably took about 1/3 the time of the climb and by 9am (ish?) 4 of us were back down at the barn. 

As Jeff, Katt, Will and I took off our snowshoes, we each grabbed one of the eight wheelbarrows and headed across the street to the gorgeous Amee Farm Lodge, to load up with wood to be split. Walk, load, walk, split, load, walk, stack, repeat, walk, load, walk, split, load, walk, stack, repeat...

A few hours later, we couldn't ignore that there were still 4 empty wheelbarrows. Apparently half of our crew were still on the mountain. Finally, just as we finished the last of the pile, the first pair appeared - walking up the highway. They reported that they had become lost and emerged from the woods several miles down the road. While we'd been splitting wood, they'd been hiking back (snowshoes now in hand). The last pair were another 1/2 mile behind them.

With the logs split and stacked (awesome practice for a novice like me), most of us headed up to the General Store for food. The four stragglers were put to work restringing fence wire to make up for the missed chopping. Matt laughed, pointing out that nobody gets much sympathy for getting lost or finishing last - it usually just means extra work piled on.

As I drove home, sore and tired but very happy, I reflected on the most valuable lessons from my Death Race training camp. Obviously becoming familiar with the terrain is a plus. And hearing Joe and Matt's stories from previous races gave me some insight. Getting through 16 hours with the Death Race crew boosted my confidence (though the actual race will likely be at least 48).

But here is the most important thing I learned...

Joe did NOT say "Let's see if we can get this tire to the top of the mountain".

He said "Let's get this tire to the top of the mountain."

There is all the difference in the world between those two statements.

He did not know if it would take two hours or two days. He just knew we were going to do it.

Take a look at where you can apply that in your own life. Where do you say "I am going to try to..." or "Let's see if we can...". Because that will be where you fail. You have already given yourself the "out".

Instead, declare"This is what I am going to do." Period. No matter what.

I know that distinction is going to make an enormous difference for me - in the June Death Race and, even more importantly, in the rest of my life.

“Do or do not ... there is no try.”

Big thanks to Joe and Courtney and Matt and everyone else who welcomed us to Pittsfield and who created an extraordinary experience. I look forward to more adventures and life lessons with y'all in the future.