Busted Brains, Broken Backs, and Hungry Bears: the Anatomy of Luck

A ventilator breathed for the 14-year-old boy in the bed next to mine at Massachusetts General Hospital’s intensive-care unit. Jared had been celebrating the Fourth of July with his family at the beach. It was a perfect summer day on Cape Cod – sunny and hot. He’d run through the water to dive into the waves like so many have done in our oceans. But his angle wasn’t right. Or a swell pushed him off balance. Or the Atlantic tide had created an irregular dune beneath the water. Whatever the cause, Jared’s forehead connected with the sandy bottom. His skinny teen body followed, bent his neck back, and severed his spinal cord.

I never got my helmet back, but I was told it looked something like this.

I never got my helmet back, but I was told it looked something like this. Probably saved my life. Unfortunately, Jared had nothing to protect his spine.

On the same summer afternoon that Jared’s paltry weight broke his neck, I’d been hit head-on by a car doing thirty miles per hour. My bicycle and I shattered against two tons of steel and tempered glass.

Jared, my neighbor in Mass-General’s ICU, was paralyzed from the neck down. I don’t know if he’s alive 15 years later. If so, he is still paralyzed. Meanwhile, after a couple months of physical and speech therapy following my accident, I went to college as planned. I got back on my bicycle. I held books in my hands and wrote papers and embarked on the rest of my life.

How did I escape Jared’s fate?

I have no reasonable explanation. I have nothing to credit with my good fortune and Jared’s rotten break.

Not just this once either. I own a vast catalog of moments when the universe didn’t crush me. Like that day I plummeted headfirst through a hatch in our three-story treehouse and walked away unscathed. Like that time I accidentally shot my step-brother with a bow and arrow, but the arrow was denied entry to a lung by one skinny rib. Like the fall I took rock climbing when my belayer had only just grabbed the rope again after getting stabbed with cactus spines that had been hitchhiking on the rope. The list goes on and on.

I’m not alone. I imagine that, like me, you’ve fortuitously dodged some bullets in your day. And some you haven’t.

My beautiful and vibrant friend Erica Kutcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freak avalanche killed her while on a hike in the Himalaya.

My beautiful and vibrant friend Erica Kutcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freak avalanche killed her while on a hike in the Himalaya.

As time passes, I more deeply understand how we’re at the whim of forces beyond our control. Everything – motorists passing on the highways and meteorites plummeting toward Earth and freak irregularities of beach sand – it all unfolds here with a complexity that defies pat comprehension.

Still, many people claim to understand and pretend to be masters of fate. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.” Anne Tyler, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, said, “People always call it luck when you’ve acted more sensibly than they have.”  Lucky people say these things as if hard work and good sense are a recipe for serendipity. Tell that to Sudanese children born into abject poverty, disease, and malnutrition. Explain sensible acts to homeless families in LA who own zero resources – financial or scholarly. Expect more from women subjugated by ISIS in a land from which there is no escape. Criticize that eighteen-year-old for poor judgement when he contracted a rare and fatal brain cancer. The award for supreme arrogance goes to Earl Wilson, who said, “Success is simply a matter of luck. Ask any failure.” The blindness required to make such a statement is also just another product of happenstance. Mr. Wilson simply hasn’t had the opportunity or insight to see that the clockwork of the universe does not hinge on our petty desires as we scurry around in search of food, money, and love.

A friend of mine recently wrote: “I’m not a big fan of the term ‘luck.’” I share his discomfort with the notion of fate or destiny. And I also acknowledge that people everywhere should make good choices. However, I just don’t know what else to call this thing that keeps us alive… for now.

The more one delves without prejudice into the causes of life’s twists and turns, the more random they seem. Accident and serendipity are doled out with perfect irregularity, which provides a somewhat irksome explanation as to why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Solace might be found, I suppose, in the idea that strokes of misfortune aren’t aimed with malicious intent. But by the same token, we must also acknowledge that no credit or praise is due when a lucky break falls into our lap.

I happen to agree completely with Larry King on this point, who said, “Those who have succeeded at anything and don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.”

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My close encounter with a hungry Black bear last summer in British Columbia left me at a loss to explain why the bear chose to pursue three other people instead of me.

It’s easy to kid ourselves. After all, a strong illusion holds my world together. It’s the illusion of control. I choose this. I allow that. I plan this. I expect that. I think of my life as a clock, and I am the time-keeper. Every now and then, though, when a rock falls nearby at the crag or when a bear steps from behind a boulder to stare at me hungrily or when my phone rings in the middle of the night, I remember that I am but a small boat on a wild and changeable sea.

That collision with an automobile pushed me right to the edge. In the end, I walked away with a shattered helmet, a few deficits of memory, and a jaw that’s a little cockeyed. Even fifteen years after getting crushed by that car, I still have only one story to tell. It is a story of luck — in every sense, good and bad. It is the same story that moves my fingers on this keyboard and recently broke my friend’s back and engineered your remarkable eyes. We are pinballs in a crazy game of life, whether we want to believe it or not.

For the time being, I’m going to embrace the one thing that makes more sense to me with each turn of this planet: gratitude. We live on a tsunami of happenstance. Riding this crest, I will dissolve into appreciation, because anxiety about things outside my control only robs these days of their terrifying and precious beauty.

Forget fear. I will run. I will breathe. I will laugh. And cry. I will take chances and love people and be awestruck by the tree outside my window and my wife’s perfect smile. I will appreciate every goddamn moment given to me by this savage universe. I will do these things until my luck runs out. And I will do it all with the hope that a kind destiny favors my path and yours.

Megan smiling in the right place at the right time.

Megan smiling in the right place at the right time.

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Strength in Diversity

When I was five years old, I said to my mother, “I don’t ever want to grow up.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because,” I explained earnestly, “adults do not run everywhere they go.”

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Routeburn Rage Mountain Marathon, 2002.

I love running. I have run marathons and ultra marathons for fun and in competition, over trails and roads, on five continents. Sometimes I ran all day, lost in the beauty of mountain tracks and drinking the sweet nectar of what it means to be alive. After I’d been hit by a car and suffered amnesia that left me confused and groping for an identity, running was still there for me.

15k in Tangier Morocco, 1998.

15k in Tangier Morocco, 1998. The man in blue is Muhammad, a friend who ran with me all over Tangier and its outskirts.

Long story short: even though my knees aren’t able to travel at pace for such distances nowadays, running has always been an important part of my life.

So when I overheard a conversation recently while eating Indian food at a restaurant in Provo, it shook my world a little bit. The woman at a neighboring table told her husband about a mountain marathon taking place in the Wasatch Range. “All day they’re running on trails up there,” she said.

The man nodded, forked more tikka masala into his mouth, and said, “Hm.”

“I know,” she intoned with a grim shake of her head. She paused, looked at him seriously, and asked, “What’s wrong with people?”

What’s wrong with people?

I’ll be the first to admit sometimes it’s difficult to understand why folks do the things they do. 6f29db0d973638a5b6ad8c4532346c9dFor example, it remains a mystery to me why many people enjoy cooking. I don’t even like to heat water on the stove for oatmeal in the morning. And don’t get me started on math. Nothing could more thoroughly boggle my mind than the idea of somebody sitting down to a math proof and thinking, “This is fun!”

Honestly, I don’t even know why running is one of my favorite activities. Probably something in my DNA and in my past makes running light up the regions of my brain associated with pleasure and gratification.

Here’s what we do know, thanks to science and research: animal populations, including humans, thrive when a broad assortment of traits exist in their gene pool. diverseteamThe same principle grounds a common adage: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity strengthens a species’ shot at survival and success. So before we ask why anyone would bother to become a chef or a mathematician, maybe it would be wise to remember the good that comes from a broad range of skills and interest within our society.

After all, we like to eat, especially delicious food prepared by talented people. And it’s nice to know accountants keep our balance sheets balanced while engineers keep our planes in the air. For humanity, mathematics is good.

Our civilization depends on specialization. Only through a vast division of labor can we hope to develop new life-saving drugs, beautiful art, and advances in technology that increase our knowledge and improve our lives. Together, every person applying unique strengths and talents, we are far stronger than any one of us alone, not just for the horsepower, but also for the remarkable accuracy of these many brains working in synchrony.

Jbuilding_committee_-_surowiecki_book-resized-600.jpgames Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, explains collective knowledge can actually be more insightful than individual understanding. For example, if you ask a large group of people to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, the average of all those guesses will usually be extremely close to the actual number of jellybeans, often nearer than any single estimation.

When I remember that woman’s comment – What’s wrong with people? – I can’t help but think she fell victim to a very human tendency, that of dismissing others who are different. But more than that, she missed a very powerful question indeed: What’s right with people?

Answer: a whole lot.

image1We come in many beautiful shapes, colors, and sizes, with smart insights in every realm, from cuisine to mathematics, with a taste for many things, from gardening to running marathons. As a child, I was wrong. Adults do run everywhere they go. It’s just sometimes running looks a lot like chess and woodworking and mountain biking and doing community service.

No moment offers more opportunity for misunderstandings and judgements than our election season. This is when our different views and opinions collide and vie for distinction, just as they should. However, while navigating this election season, it would probably do us good to grant those different voices respect because only in our diversity are we most brilliant.

 

Originally published 9/17/14 in the Moab Sun News.

Lovely running track on the Banks Peninsula, New Zealand.

Lovely running track on the Banks Peninsula, New Zealand.

The Dominican Republic: Where Tarzan Is Real

7A while back my friend Simon organized a spring break trip to do community service at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. He planned it for months. Ten people signed up. They were trained at orientation meetings, bought airline tickets, contacted an agency to run logistics with the orphanage. All was set.

Until one of their participants fell seriously ill the week before.

With a vacancy and short notice, Simon asked, “Do you want to go?”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

I soon learned we were going to teach English, math, and reading. We would tutor children because the orphanage didn’t have enough funding for teachers.

I spoke very little Spanish. I hadn’t been to their meetings. Yet suddenly I was in a van with a bunch of college students I didn’t know on our way to New York City to catch a plane.

When we arrived on the island, Orphanage Outreach bussed us an hour outside Santo Domingo. We unpacked our sleeping bags and got a tour of the compound. Curious little faces peeped around the bushes. They followed us to the door of the cafeteria, not saying anything but watching closely.

That first night our conversation began not with words or gestures, not with books or lessons. It began with baseball.

39530_lgWe gathered in the sandlot before dark and split into teams, Dominican children showing us the batting order, pointing us to our positions, clapping when we hit the ball, grinning when we cheered them on. Everybody exchanged tattered baseball gloves between innings. When somebody hit a home run, a little boy scampered over the wall to fetch their baseball from a neighbor’s field.

We became a part of their tradition for the week. Baseball after lunch. Baseball after dinner. They love it. From a tiny nation of 10.2 million, this year they sent 137 people to the major leagues – more than Japan, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Nicaragua combined!

I didn’t play well compared to the Domincan teens. They hit and pitched and ran like champions, many hopeful that someday they’d be discovered, they’d be snatched up by a team and make it to the big time.

They had dreams.

IMG_0004-1I tutored two kids: Jesus and Oscar – eleven year olds. They were gentle, kind, sweet kids, thirsty for attention and unmotivated by our lessons. Still, they would try. And they would laugh when I tried to speak Spanish. More affectionate than I had expected, they put arms around my neck, asked for piggyback rides, stood close by to remind me they were my students for the week.

After baseball Wednesday night, all the kids were agitated and giddy and running to get chairs. As darkness fell, one of the orphanage staff people rolled a rickety television stand into the courtyard. Children clambered to get good spots sitting cross-legged, staring up at the blank screen with limitless patience as the tape was found, rewound, queued up.

“What movie is it?” I asked the orphanage director.

“It’s Tarzan night,” he said. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

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I watched Disney animation tell the story of a family shipwrecked near a jungle. A little boy’s parents are killed. He’s left alone, but a gorilla saves him, raises him as part of the troop. After he’s matured into a man, English explorers arrive. Tarzan falls in love with Jane. Following much danger and drama, Jane and her father choose to stay with Tarzan in the jungle as his new family.

I stood there at the back of the courtyard, reading the English subtitles, looking over a sea of children bathed in that bluish light of movie fairy dust. I looked over a yard full of Tarzans, each one of them dreaming of a family that would love him and want to be with him forever.

Tarzan 2It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I saw dozens of children wanting what I had so blithely taken for granted. I got an inkling how lucky I was to have a family. I saw every one of those kids inserting himself into the film, into the life of a boy finally found. My heart broke open with hope for them too, the sad kind of hope that knows the odds.

Ten years later, I wonder: where are these children?

I don’t know. But I like to believe that they’ve found someone to whom they can belong, forever.

A Story of Honor

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Yesterday, 22-year-old Zach Taylor, a graduate of Grand County High School and student at the University of Utah, died in a rappelling accident. Zach’s kind father happens to be a volunteer for the mentoring program I oversee. I know nothing about the circumstances of Zach’s death, except what his mother shared in a public Facebook update:

“I had the most amazing day with my son, Zach Taylor on Saturday. It was just the two of us, and our dog Ubu, going on an adventure. I didn’t realize it would be part of a goodbye. He died yesterday while hiking and rappelling with friends, doing what he loved to do most. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I call him, unabashedly, my favorite child. And his siblings handled my favoritism well, because they admitted that he, too, was their favorite sibling. Zach was pure energy. May he continue to be so in this next life as well.”

Many people decry risky pursuits as selfish (such as canyoneering deep in the backcountry). Yet Zach’s mother handles the circumstances with utter understanding. In fact, her online elegy flies in the face of a recent blog post by Steve Casimiro. In this post, Steve wrote:

“‘Hey, Glenn,’ I said to my partner. ‘If anything ever happens to me out here, make sure my mom knows I died doing something I loved.’ He nodded gravely, a solemn promise made.

“Today, with many years under my belt and the loss of too many friends in falls, avalanches, and accidents, I cringe at the memory. It sounds like one of the tritest, most self-absorbed, and most post-adolescently melodramatic comments I could make. What a tool.

“Of course I would have died doing something I loved. That was self-evident. My parents knew I loved climbing, skiing, mountain biking. But as I consider it now, I realize that I didn’t actually intend the comment as an explanation, as solace for a grieving parent to help them better understand their son. No, I meant it as a justification for a selfish act and a mistake made, as if screwing up doing something fun made it okay that I screwed up.”

Meanwhile, Zach’s mother seems to take solace from the fact that her son died doing something he loved, even if that act resulted in disaster, possibly from a mistake. And why shouldn’t she? Naturally, life is preferable, but isn’t it better that her son died in a climbing accident rather than from, say, a random dose of food poisoning? He died in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wild canyons of adventure. Regardless of whether the accident was preventable or not, Zach was doing something he loved, probably riding high.

CanyonEvery adventurer who knowingly (but not recklessly) risks the ultimate cost has earned my respect. So too have hobbyists of mellower pursuits. They have all chosen causes that transcend the mundane requirements of life through bowling and playing music… or mountains and big waves and dirt bikes and BASE jumping and riding horses, because life would otherwise mean too little. I honor their selection of the right tools to make meaning for themselves. I honor them by calling death untimely but not tragedy. Sad? Yes. Are we bereft of good people like Zach? Yes. But I will not dishonor my friend’s big life choice that put her forever under an avalanche in the Himalaya or Michael Reardon’s soloing pursuit that put him under the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Their decisions did not end in senseless deaths. No, they resulted in lives powerfully lived, albeit shorter than most.

I salute also those who recognize in others the primacy of instinct. Apparently Zach always loved to climb. His mother, still perfectly unapologetic about her son’s native spirit, went on to share a Facebook link to this story of his childhood:

“A couple of months into school I was asked to visit with his teacher. It seems that Zach was getting in trouble for climbing. He climbed the fences. He climbed the walls. He climbed onto the roof. He climbed onto the top of the swingset. He climbed onto the top of the slide where you’re not supposed to climb.

“The teacher told me all of this very emphatically with a scowl and furrowed brows. I nodded, listened. Inside I was thinking how incredibly adventurous my son was and was giving him a mental high five. Perhaps reading my thoughts, she decided to scold me like she had been scolding him, ‘Don’t you know how dangerous that could be? He could fall!’

“I said I would talk with him. And I did.

“‘Don’t climb at school.’

“And then I bought him a membership at a local climbing gym.”

I’m glad Zach’s mother hasn’t dishonored her son by labeling his passions selfish. Every pursuit (and every act) is fundamentally selfish, unless it happens to coincidentally benefit others. It’s nobody’s fault that some hobbies are more dangerous than others. I can blame nobody for the fact that beach volleyball doesn’t tickle me. And therefore, I allow others to chart their crazy courses as best they can without my passing judgment on the roots of their desire.

While some may argue about what is or isn’t an acceptable level of risk, I hope the people who love Zach will do his memory the courtesy of recognizing his decisions as central to the tenets of the person he was. I will celebrate the life he lived even though I didn’t know him.

BoulderingAnd if I die rock climbing or mountain biking or on an adventure, I hope my family and friends take comfort from the idea that I died doing something I loved. It will require a big mistake or an act of god to snuff out this life – which, by the way, could also occur on the interstate – because I do want to live. I am careful out there, by my definition of the word. I want to climb and laugh and hug another day. But if some hazard, whether objective or subjective, takes me out, please be consoled by the fact that it happened when I was seeking that which makes life meaningful.

If I die from botulism, though, feel free to call it tragedy.

So yes. I ask you, those whom I love, to take care while in pursuit of your dreams. I want to share in future adventures. I want to hear about the meaning you’ve made using the tools and variables at your disposal. And I hope you will forgive me if I judge your life well lived regardless of how it might end but rather by the light of your inspiration.

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