Your Beautiful Backstory

When I lived in Morocco, I learned devotion meant cabbies would park on any curb to unfurl prayer mats as the adhan echoed through Tangier’s cobblestoned streets. I realized a prince rooming across the hall was merely another human being. I discovered being American entitled me to win astounding scores from my pre-calculus teacher, travel the country on a whim, join the headmaster for drinks following the school play, and break curfew.

IMG_5587I came to appreciate that people see the world through different eyes. History and personality and culture color these lenses through which we apprehend existence. At the time, I was an avid runner. I ran every day after class, exploring neighborhoods that sprawled over the Mediterranean coast, bringing pedestrians up short with my bare legs, doubly shocking them with an Arabic greeting – As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you). Through old slums, down along the salty port, upward between walled estates of affluent Europeans – my running circuits expanded to cover the entire city.

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Photo: Tim McRae

For my edification or perhaps for my safety, one of the guards at the American School introduced me to a local runner, Muhammad. He spoke decent English and brought me to the Tangier’s outskirts, then the countryside beyond. We cut down dusty dirt tracks and surveyed arid farmland. Sometimes we tested our speed against each other, sprinting fast back to the campus gates and collapsing on a redolent green to stretch. On one foray into the hinterlands, we rounded a thicket and nearly plowed into a bearded old man clad in a white robe and sandals. Alarmed, he stumbled back and yelled at us as we sped past.

“What did he say?” I asked Muhammad, afraid that he was angry with us for trespassing.

“He asked what we are running from, who is chasing us.”

I laughed. Muhammad grinned. And we ran on.

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My friend Muhammad leads on the left during a 15K race beside the waterfront in Tangier, Morocco. Photo: Tim McRae

Six weeks later, I found myself massed behind the starting line of my first ever road race, a 15K. At the sound of a pistol, Muhammad and I and a hundred others set off for five flat laps around a circuit near the waterfront. Moroccans are famously fast runners. Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi held the marathon world record shortly after my time in Africa. I watched the top seeded runners dash away as if I languished in a slow-motion twilight zone. They blasted past me on the far side of the median. Still I pressed on to do my best. Muhammad and I battled for advantage. The field became ever more strung out. When I passed alone under the shadow of some palms, a spectator stepped out from the crowd and bellowed in English, face contorted with hostility: “You’re going to lose, American!”

I returned his glare and ran on.

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Photo: Tim McRae

The alarmed rural peasant, an aggrieved race spectator, this privileged American exchange student – our worlds illustrate only a fraction of the breadth of human experience. Reflecting on these circumstances (and many more), I see huge divergence between the ways we know reality. I must accept the fact that we will not see eye-to-eye on a vast range of topics. Even here in the small town of Moab, where our views should align more closely, the lenses through which we see differ considerably.

How does a second-generation Mexican American relate to our politics and culture? Compared to a recent arrival from a big city, what is a lifetime Moabite’s perspective on this changing landscape? How do religion, family, gender, and unique life experiences inform the way your neighbor or your colleague see the world?

It comes as no shock that misunderstanding and offense are so common – an emoticon misinterpreted, a statement taken out of context, a subtext real or imagined, a motive assumed, a backstory unknown. Too often a natural human negativity bias and this confusing world join together to throw suspicion and judgment out-of-hand over people and concepts unfamiliar to us. Nature and hard experience have taught us that it’s safer to be paranoid, to reject perspectives different than our own.

51MfVDOlEkL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_As counterbalance, Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements hits upon some key ideas, in particular: 1) Don’t make assumptions. My assumption was wrong regarding that Moroccan farmer who seemed angry. Muhammad’s translation revealed that he was only confused by our sudden presence. 2) Take nothing personally. I was furious with that man who bellowed at me during the race. I was the target of his antipathy, but his anger reflected only his perspective. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. Ruiz says, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on theirs.”

I no longer need to travel to a far-flung place like Morocco to appreciate that our standpoints are different. Mine and Muhammad’s. Yours and mine. Our neighbor’s and colleague’s. Experience of the human condition keeps piling up and reiterating daily: I should assume nothing and remember there are many ways, unfathomable or lovely, to see existence. Let us debate ideas and keep ourselves safe, but let us also acknowledge the vast unknown, usually benign, and often beautiful backstory of our fellow human being.

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Originally appeared in The Moab Sun News, June 23, 2016.

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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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Reaching to the Other Side

I remember.

Hospital BedWhen I was eighteen years old, a car hit me as I biked across the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My skull shattered the Pathfinder’s windshield. After a fight with the paramedics, while being medivacked to Boston, I slipped into a coma. For days my family fretted while doctors warned them: “Beware when he wakes. If he wakes. This kind of brain trauma can change someone. Often the person will become more temperamental and cruel.”

Duly warned, my friends and family waited.

Many head injury victims experience memory problems, ranging from brief stints of blackout to long-term amnesia. I fell somewhere in between. My high school years had been largely erased, my working memory cut down to less than thirty seconds. Once I’d regained consciousness, I asked repeatedly, like a broken record, day after day: “Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital?”

Only after months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy was I able to return to a shadowy facsimile of my former existence.

But what’s the first thing I remember? What cut through the haze of my befuddled mind as I lay on a hospital bed? What reached me even in the darkness behind closed eyelids?

A hand in mine.

Hand in HandI remember that human contact as if it were the first experience of my life. Somebody was holding my hand, and I gave three squeezes, a coded message of words I cannot forget.

I. Love. You.

When the other stuff had been stripped away – memories and intellect, dreams and expectations – all that remained was a desire to connect with another human being. More visceral than my identity, more important than confusion, the need to offer love grounded my first experience as a human crawling onto the shores of his new life.

I offer this singular memory because it has helped me contextualize some of the stuff going on today.

I recently watched an interview with a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who tried to explain why the political climate of our age is so contentious. One of the main reasons he gave for the toxic status quo is our tribal tendency to demonize the other side. “Once you think [the other side] is evil, the ends justify the means… You can do anything because it’s in the service of fighting evil.”

Bill Moyers talked with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Bill Moyers’ interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, according to Haidt, this tribal bent pushes us to ignore or even hate the other side. It shuts down our ability to see any kind of positive motive behind the other’s actions. If he isn’t part of our group, he must be crazy or deluded. Haidt says, “When it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

The crux of this age, then, might be withdrawing these severe judgments that ipso facto accompany our viewpoints.

In my small town, we’re lucky to enjoy an intimate setting that puts individuals of differing views in close proximity to one other – at our schools, in the supermarkets, on Main Street, and in the pages of our newspapers. It’s natural to appreciate diverse ideas from people we respect and meet on a daily basis, whereas on the Internet or in cities, it’s all too easy to seal ourselves in bubbles demonizing anybody from the opposite side.

Found here.

A good example of the irrational tribal mind. Found here.

I saw this interview with Mr. Haidt, and I had to take a step back from my own assumptions and prejudices. I began to notice all the user comments about “evil” following articles online. I started to rethink my own dismissal of the other side.

So now I try to remember a hand in mine when I was coming back to the world and what it told me. It said before judgments or requests, before politics and policy, we can offer generosity (and love) to the person at hand. They deserve it, and it’s the most important gesture I know.

As it happens, of course, nobody’s really trying to do the wrong thing or make poor decisions. The only way we’re going to win as a people, is if we agree to debate the public good without attributing nefarious intentions to honest, caring citizens. As we come out of this fog of outraged partisanship, here’s to three words on which I’ll hang my hat:

I. Love. You.

I love you America. I love you fellow American.

Never STOP Loving

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 10/23/13)

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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