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.

Deathbed Regrets

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” –Buddha

On their deathbeds, people often have the same regrets. It’s a wonder, because we vary wildly in interest and religion, in political opinion and leisure activities, in earnings and luck. Yet at the end, when looking back, we are united.

The witto ones enjoying a hike near Teluride, CO.

The witto ones enjoying a hike near Teluride, CO.

What do people wish they had done with their time here on Earth? Here’s a hint: they don’t wish they had made more money.

In her article, How To Buy Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky reports people on the brink of death wish they had spent more time “connecting with friends, nurturing intimate relationships, socializing at parties, consuming art, music, and literature, learning new languages and skills, honing talents, and volunteering at our neighborhood hospital, church, or animal shelter.”

Most of these things require little or no money. Of course, money can help us fit more of these activities into our day-to-day lives. But money and expensive purchases aren’t the ticket to real well-being.

IMG_2693“In wealthier nations, where almost everyone has a basic safety net, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness,” Dr. Martin Seligman states In Authentic Happiness. “In the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. Even the fabulously rich—the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over $125 million dollars—are only slightly happier than the average American.”

make-money-roadsign_480People who neglect other aspects of life for money tend to be less satisfied with their lives, but you won’t see these findings portrayed in popular media or explicitly added to the curriculum at school. Consumerism has become synonymous with the American Dream. More and more education seems to be about this “Race to the Top,” an overzealous Cold War mentality that just won’t die, that pits the world’s sixteen-year-olds against each other in an absurd battle to see which nation’s children have mastered skills relevant to only one domain: economics.

Don’t get me wrong. Education prepares many to graduate into productive and lucrative jobs. A healthy income may fulfill basic needs – even provide considerable pleasure (like gourmet food, lavish furnishings, purchase power) – but income generation alone neglects a huge part of what it means to be human.

Lisa finding flow on the Colorado River.

Lisa finding flow on the Colorado River.

What can moneymaking neglect? According to psychologists, two other parts of life are often overlooked: engagement and meaning. Engagement is about using your unique talents to accomplish tasks or overcome challenges, like navigating a tricky jeep route or playing your favorite sport. Getting lost in this experience is called “flow,” which creates happiness and gratification.

A meaningful life is one connected to a greater movement, something like our community, school district, a club, or church. Joining something bigger than ourselves allows happiness to transcend the limits of one, especially when we use our unique talents to help others.

IMG_4431Some realize too late that money isn’t enough, that they’ve devoted too much of their precious time to getting ahead. They want to go back for a favorite hobby with a friend, quality time with their spouse, laughing with their kids, helping at the food bank, meeting new people. As individuals living in a wealthy nation, most of us have opportunities to enrich and balance our lives not only with wealth but with engagement and meaning too.

944287_10151675750293035_253895901_nAlready we’re a step ahead; we live in Moab, flow capital of the United States, where vacationers seek to make memories. I, for one, expect I could earn more money elsewhere. I could save more for retirement. I could live in a bigger house. However, you and I know intuitively that more and bigger isn’t necessarily better. That’s why we choose to be here and leave the opulence to others.

For we are rich in other ways.

IMG_4407We are rich in vistas. In rivers and trails and red rock towers. We live here for the public lands and silent spaces, for likeminded people. Tucked into this desert canyon, we are part of a community fueled by adventure and grounded in an understanding only recently described by science but known in every human heart, that experience outweighs possessions.

IMG_4230Every day this beautiful place reminds me of a wonderful idea. So do my mountain biking neighbors. And the kind people and businesses of Moab. Even the tourists who seek excitement in our pristine region of cliffs and wild canyons…

It is possible to live without regrets.

 

 

 

(Originally published in the Moab Sun News.)

 

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A Year On the Farm

It nearly killed me.

The human mind at thirteen years is uniquely impressionable. I proved it while working on a dairy farm for one year in northern Vermont. Getting kicked, bulled over, swished in the face with nasty brown tails, and sandwiched between heavy cow bodies became normal. Milking another species’ mammary glands went from weird to conventional. Throwing hay bale after hay bale turned so routine I didn’t need gloves to cover my calloused hands.

DairyCowThe unfathomable idea that I could learn a hundred cows’ names, that I could distinguish in a herd between the short and tall, broad and skinny, all those black and white flanks, became fathomable. Their physical markings took shape, and so did their personalities.

There was Claire, a proud registered Holstein from Canada who never kicked. There was Bertha, a bulldozing behemoth respected by the herd (and the farmers) for her penchant for careening through bodies and buildings in a dash to feed. There was Babe, sweetest cow in the barn who always turned in the stanchion to lick at your shoulder and ask for a head scratch.

Only when I look back do I recognize how different this life was, how I became accustomed to a mode of existence worlds apart from where my path would lead. A thirsty teen mind had me following the farmers around pastures and through barns as if they would eventually reveal the big secret and guide me to Shangri-La.

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The farm where I nearly passed out from exhaustion stacking hay in the 105-degree loft. Also, a fence line the farmer’s son hit at full speed when his brakeless bike didn’t make the corner off the hill. Strung up in the barbed wire and electric fence, that boy got a hefty taste of farm suffering.

Now, I did learn some handy things. How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. The signs of an infected udder. How to pump a zerk full of grease. Painting. Animal husbandry. Foretelling rain. Investing: I bought a pretty little golden Jersey cow and a piglet to be sold off later at a profit.

They taught me a lot, those tough hick farmers of the northcountry. Dillon, the foreman, showed me how to bob a cow’s tail using a strong rubber ring, and he warned me with a grin to behave myself with his daughter, my girlfriend at the time, or I’d find myself getting the rubber band squeeze. He said it with a smile, but it was only half jest.

Yikes.

Meanwhile, as we milked the cows, Dillon’s eighteen-year-old son regaled me with tales of adventure in the nightclubs of Quebec, where he would pick fights and head-butt people. He proudly instructed me how to grab a man by the lapels and use the peak of one’s forehead, hardest part of the skull, to crack him right in the face, to break open his nose. Even at thirteen, I wasn’t comfortable subscribing to a head-butting lifestyle. But I nodded along and took it as fair warning like his father’s.

Double yikes.

OSullivan-Cows_7567Patrick, gentle vegetarian owner of the farm, taught me death was part of farming. When calves would perish inexplicably or were stillborn into the gutter as sometimes happened, he told me to drag their lifeless little bodies to the woods where hungry coyotes waited on margins of human society. While walking the fence lines far out in the summer pasture one afternoon, we found a dead heifer. How had she died? Patrick didn’t know, but he said it was statistically normal.

I also learned how dangerous a farm can be.

I plummeted through a trapdoor while running through the loft. A pipe clamp in the milk room went through my palm. An electric fence powerful enough to cover forty miles of wire dropped me to my knees.

Other dangers were easy to avoid. Every farmer can tell stories of a tractor’s PTO (power-takeoff, a spinning drive shaft used to charge mowers and balers) tearing off limbs and scalps, killing people. It was one of those obvious hazards like the cancer hidden inside the cigarettes Dillon smoked, easily avoided.

One thing, however, I discovered alone. Thankfully I managed to do it without dying: one of the most dangerous things in the world is a human being.

BRAZIL500Dillon and I had gone out to collect the herd from pasture for dawn milking. The cool fields were heavy with dew not yet burned off by the rising sun. “I’ll go around back and push them,” Dillon said. He set off across the neighboring paddock. As always, I slipped through the gap and shooed the herd, asked them for a bit of room to unlatch the wooden gate.

Then it happened. A sound like a gunshot rang out from behind the herd. As a joke, Dillon had thrown a long-lost piece of cordwood high overhead onto the steel roof of the lumber shack. The sound broke through still morning air. Bang!

The herd moved as one. They surged away from the sound and directly at me. Suddenly I was pinned against a gate that bent under their collective weight. My feet off the ground, my breath gone, I tried to beat them back. All that kept me from being trampled to death under four hundred hooves was a brittle old piece of  chain looped around a fencepost.

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And over their heads I saw Dillon. His smile disappeared and his hands went to rest on top of his hat as if he were witness to calamity. Then he took off running, trying to get around to help, to push them back.

By the time Dillon reached me, the cows’ panic had eased. I had squeezed out the gap and stood on wobbly legs, gasping for breath. Dillon grabbed me by the shoulders. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“I– I think so.”

“It was an accident,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hit the roof. Damn it, I’m sorry.”

I knew he was lying. He’d intended to spook them, maybe not quite so bad. But I hadn’t died. “It’s alright,” I said.

Today I remember my time on the farm – hundreds of days of shoveling crap and stacking hay and milking cows and feeding pigs – as an ad hoc study of the breadth of human experience. That year was the first to truly grab me and thrust me into a new world. Since then, I’ve won my fair share of weird and wonderful adventures thanks to one peculiar piece of luck. I carry it with me everywhere, in my heart. It’s a lovely length of rusted chain that saved me from becoming a statistical casualty in a life as unpredictable as yours.

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A Life of Failure

Failure is underrated.

IMG_4042_2I have abundant experience in this arena. I poured weeks of work into two 100-page federal grant applications that earned polite rejection letters. Tied to the end of a rope, I’ve plummeted off rock climbs again and again, most recently only a foot from the top of the cliff – literally, twelve inches from grabbing the last hold.

With trepidation, I joined Moab Toastmasters, a public speaking club where I stumble over my words and struggle to express myself clearly, or sometimes – gulp – at all. I’ve said things in meetings and in the halls at work and in emails that later made me blush.

One time I admonished a student in the wrong way for distracting his classmates at exactly the wrong moment, and embarrassed him. I’ve earnestly written passages for a novel that turned out so ridiculous my wife and I later laughed until we cried while remembering a teen practicing kung-fu forms in the haunted forest under the secret gaze of a mooning love interest.

Old_Running_ShoesOne of my most spectacular fails: I trained for months to run a 100-mile trail race only to drop out six miles from the finish line.

This is just the beginning of my catalogs of missteps. Sometimes I take aim at too lofty a goal, but most often, I just screw up. I make mistakes.

As the years roll past and the errors mount, I’ve come to see failure as one of the most powerful things about being human. I’m not talking about failures that cost someone their life or injure people. I’m talking about those moments when we mess up in a way that teaches something about the limits of social decorum, the law of reduced flexibility with age, the constraints of physics, which dance move is no longer hip, about how the world works.

Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

I totally understand nobody wants to fail. We aim at perfection – in our duties on the job, as a spouse, in raising a child. However, no matter how careful we are, someday something will go wrong. Just check out a blooper reel from the latest romantic comedy. Even the world’s best actors aren’t perfect, and honestly, their mistakes sometimes entertain more than the film itself.

So here’s where the magic happens: in light of the fact that failure is inevitable, despite best laid plans and any devotion to excellence, I have two options. I can take the normal route of denial and cling to the voice of the ego who avoids risks and refuses to admit defeat. Or I can acknowledge my fallibility and embrace these blunders as opportunities. I can take those grant proposals and turn them into successful applications to other organizations. I can use those climbing moves on a new route. That’s the magic of humanity – the ability to remember and improve upon the past, to turn failure into flourishing.

Baby

According to studies, one of the reasons children learn things so fast, like new words and novel motor skills, is their willingness to make mistakes. Children haven’t yet adopted our aversion to failure; in trying, failing, and trying again, they grow.

The other boon of failure is this: it means we’ve striven for something. Even though I didn’t finish that 100-mile race, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those months of training weren’t wasted. Rather, I saw many beautiful miles of trails, shared smiles with fellow runners, tasted rain on my lips, discovered the limits of my endurance.

So I hereby make a resolution. I resolve to take myself less seriously. I’m only human. Maybe I’ll try that new dance move after all. Perhaps I’ll write another (somewhat less absurd) novel. I’ll attempt the difficult rock climb that looms beautiful and intimidating over the crag. I will do these things because failure isn’t embarrassing. Faux pas isn’t fatal. And there’s no shame in trying, only possibility.

403187I take inspiration from Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” From Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And from my father, a successful city manager who has told me more than once, “If I do something well, it’s only because I’ve made a mistake before.”

By embracing the risk involved in being human, perhaps I can find a little more inspiration and success, even in failure.

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 1/8/14)

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Guest Blog: YOLO, by Megan

Today was my first day back to work after ten weeks of vacation; a summer spent traveling around the West in search of beauty and adventure. IMG_3382Climbing road trips are my definition of heaven, a time when my mind and body feel the most carefree and inspired. Meaning lies everywhere on the road: reaching the anchors on a rock climb near my limit, swimming in cold rivers with good friends, collecting rocks on the wild and scenic beaches of the Olympic coast. The world feels like a big, happy playground built just for me.

Going back to work after an amazing road trip is always an adjustment.

The adjustment really stings when I learn that one of our former mentees has died at the age of 15.

It was the first half hour of work for the 2013 school year. I was making plans for our annual mentoring rafting trip while Dan sifted through a backlog of e-mails.

“Chris Tanner died,” Dan suddenly announced in a voice of disbelief. Together we re-read the email informing school staff of Chris’s viewing at six o’clock. We sat in silence for a moment. Wrapping my brain around death is impossible, but it’s even more confusing when a young person dies. Chris is our second mentee to pass away, and I’m learning the shock comes down like a fist. Shock first, then the sadness.

FBI had seen Chris walking around town shortly before summer break. He looked healthy and content. Now in high school, he’d shot up to 6 foot, 2 inches and slimmed down. He had joined the football team and seemed to be finding his niche in life. His coach reports that he’d recently taken over the leader board in the weight room after bench-pressing 225. I’d never thought of Chris as an athlete in his younger years, but some boys come into their own in high school.

For four years Chris had been part of Grand Area Mentoring in elementary and middle school. He’d never been in much trouble, but his teachers wanted to make sure he didn’t feel lonely. They believed a mentor might make school a friendly place for Chris. And even though Chris graduated from the program, he always gave me a smile and a wave when I’d pass him on our small town’s bike path.

I got in touch with his former mentor, a close personal friend, to give her the news. She was heartbroken. Traveling in Alaska, she had no idea Chris had passed away and wouldn’t be able to attend the viewing or the funeral. Chris had grown up with a caring single mother and grandmother, and as he moved into middle school, we’d switch him to a male mentor. I spoke with Kevin as well, another conversation filled with disbelief and melancholy.

There’s not much comfort to give a mother of a recently deceased son, but I wanted to go to the viewing to offer Chris’s mom and grandma a hug and pass along the condolences of his former mentor.

“When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor. Thank you.”

“When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor.”

His mom gripped me tight, and when she pulled away she told me, “When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor. Thank you.”

His grandma, eyes puffy, conveyed relief that I had been in touch with his first mentor, “I’ve been thinking about her and wondering if she knew. Tell her we’re doing okay, tell her that please.” And as we embraced, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It was a really heavy first day.

A big-hearted friend of mine recently joked that he wouldn’t want my job because I have to work with people I care about. And there’s some truth to his observation; it can be tough to work with kids like Chris, to see bad things happen to the vulnerable children we serve. Social work isn’t always easy to leave at the office. But on a very sad day, Chris’s mom and grandma reminded me of the beauty of this work.

Chris had a good friend through some of the toughest times in his short life. And that makes this mentoring endeavor so valuable.

There’s a different kind of meaning that comes along with the work we do in Moab. And while my time in this desert town isn’t always the carefree adventure of a climbing road trip, perhaps I need both types of meaning in this crazy life. Play and work, personal endeavors and helping others, happiness and sadness, love and loss.

It’s life.

It’s beautiful.

And it’s not to be taken for granted.

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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.

Mountain

Food Sensitivity and the ALCAT Test

I suffered dermatitis for more than ten years, forced to treat the symptoms with an ever greater amount of toxic chemicals. Determined to find the root cause, I visited my doctor yet again. He said, “Just keep using the medication. It works, right?” A more enlightened or at least more thorough doctor recommended the ALCAT Test, a food sensitivity inventory. This test is an objective analysis of immune response when exposed to a panel of pure food materials.

ALCAT literature says, “The ‘wrong’ food, although ‘healthful’ for most people, will induce inflammation. The immune system aims to damage the food, which it mistakes as a harmful invader, such as bacteria, parasites, or virus, but also ends up damaging our own body.”

Food intolerance has been linked with many conditions, from migraine headaches to asthma to arthritis.

My new doc sent in a sample of my blood. Three weeks later, a two-part personalized report arrived (at great expense). According to their booklet, “The ALCAT Test diagnostic system is designed to electronically measure changes in cell size and volume when your blood is incubated with the test substances. These measurements are plotted on a graph and compared to a ‘Master Graph.’ The Master Graph is a chart plotted from the measurements obtained when a sample of your blood is treated identically but without being exposed to the test substances.”

Basically, when immune cells respond slightly to a food, that food is grouped in the Mild Intolerance or yellow category. More powerful responses fall into Moderate (orange) and Severe (red) categories. Foods that produce no response are considered Acceptable Foods. (It’s worth noting that this is NOT an allergy test.)

Rewind two months. My wife had sent her blood for an ALCAT test. Her report came back, indicating two foods in the severe intolerance category, one of them eaten regularly and never suspected in our hunt for a culprit: celery! She cut celery from her diet and enjoyed a full and almost immediate recovery from allergy-like symptoms.

Excellent. With ALCAT’s reliability confirmed, we gritted our teeth and shelled out another $650 (what are credit cards for?) to have my blood sent in for evaluation.

The results were startling. My unacceptable food list was a lot longer. And I ate many of these foods almost daily.

Severe Intolerance (red): Acorn squash, asparagus, cashew, egg yolk, lamb, lentil bean, mushroom, peach, pear, raspberry, shrimp, strawberry, tuna.

Moderate Intolerance (orange): Baker’s yeast, bay leaf, beef, bell peppers, black-eyed peas, brussel sprouts, butternut squash, carrot, corn, cow’s milk, fig, garlic, jalapeno pepper, kelp, kidney bean, mackerel, okra, peanut, pistachio, pork, salmon, sunflower, tilapia, wheat.

Mild Intolerance (yellow): Apple, apricot, beet, black pepper, black and green tea, buckwheat, caraway, cardamom, catfish, cauliflower, celery, chamomile, chick pea, chicken liver, cinnamon, coconut, cottonseed, cranberry, cumin, dill, endive, fava bean, fennel seed, fructose (high fructose corn syrup), grape, green pea, halibut, honeydew, kale, kiwi, lobster, mussel, oregano, papaya, portobello mushroom, pumpkin, safflower, sardine, sole, soybean, squid, sweet potato, tomato, turkey, turnip, veal, walnut, white potato, wild rice, gluten (barley, malt, rye, spelt, oat).

Part one of my ALCAT test result.

Wow.

This report hit me hard. I eat many of these foods. You probably eat many of these foods. Imagine your diet without them. What’s left? Thankfully there was some good news. My Acceptable Food (green) list is pretty long, and they sent along a four-day rotation diet chart:

Part two.

My doctor said no more eating out because these are too many ingredients to control for. He said no red foods for at least six months. No orange foods for three to six months. Yellow foods should be avoided, but if impossible to eliminate, work them into my diet on a four-day rotation.

I hope to resume eating some of these foods eventually. The ALCAT literature says, “It is believed that once an offending food is removed from the diet, the body becomes hypersensitive to that food for about twelve weeks… After the twelve weeks, the hypersensitivity is thought to decline.” Severe intolerances may never go away.

Looking Ahead

I need to make some big changes. But I have a valuable goal in mind: heal my body’s chronic inflammatory response that’s been plaguing me for years, and maybe in the process, add some years to my life. I’ve started the new diet today, May 13, 2012. I will update my health status in the comments section below over the next half year to demonstrate whether this whole strategy is worthwhile.

In the meantime, consider this statistic: “Food sensitivities or intolerances affect over 80% of the population.” Check out some of the testimonials below and on ALCAT’s website. Ask yourself if the cause of a chronic health issue might be the raspberries on your cereal or the tuna on your sandwhich.

Cause for Hope? Testimonials:

“This program has positively changed my family’s life forever…”

“I started the eliminating the sensitive foods and eating only the good ones. Two days later my acid reflux was gone. The swelling and bloating of my stomach had disappeared…”

“It has changed my life…”

“I’ve seen very good results with the ALCAT Test and often recommend it to the athletes I work with.”  –Joe Rogowski, Strength and Conditioning Coach, Orlando Magic

“I wanted you to know the changes that a couple of my patients had in their lives after following the ALCAT guidelines. One patient, an 11 year old boy with autism also suffered from a body rash that never went away…it went away after a week of following the diet guidelines. Another patient a 35 year old woman with frequent (20 x/day) urination and urinary incontinence resolved completely after 4 weeks on the dietary program changes…this after three other doctors…multiple meds and multiple cystoscopies.”  –Dr. Blyweiss from Florida

“I am 6-weeks into the elimination and rotation and the results have been nothing short of a miracle! I have lost 13 pounds, my skin is clearing up, I sleep well, digest well, feel strong and have a lot of energy. I realize now that I have had food intolerances all of my adult life – I am only sorry that it has taken this many years to finally get to the cause of my health problems.  If I had only known that good health was really so simple to achieve.  Thank you, ALCAT!”

Haunted Landscape

Gallery

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Above my hometown beside the Colorado River, lies a beautiful trail with a history dark and true. The Portal Trail climbs nearly 1,000 feet, starting riverside and ending atop Poison Spider Mesa. From the alluvial plain, hikers and bikers ascend … Continue reading

An Argument for Turning Off the News

The amount of misery in the world remains strikingly steady over time. People around the world are maligned or even destroyed because of their religion, skin color, gender, size, sexual orientation.

What can the average person do about the overwhelming pain and strife riding with us through time? Yes, a special leader can step up and make substantial changes. Yes, we need to work together for a better society. But do we need to know about every atrocity, every crime, every time human depravity wells up from dark places?

Our media – sensationalist, rooted in human instinct, and efficient – broadcasts injustices over our shrinking planet for all to see. Nicholas Kristoff, my favorite columnist, travels the globe to report on humanitarian crises, human rights abuses by governments and nations, domestic crimes. Exposing vile circumstances helps us cap the quota of pain on Earth. But how much can you or I do about the fact of human suffering?

Though I disagree with Mother Teresa on some fine points (like women’s health and theism), I agree with her here:

“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

– Mother Teresa

In fact, this post will be peppered with the sister’s jewels of wisdom, because she spoke robustly on the topic: ACT LOCALLY. We cannot save every little boy and girl from starving or suffering. We cannot prevent every rape. We cannot guarantee that every human brain is wired without glitches that might create sociopaths. But I can watch out for my friends. I can lend a struggling family a little support. We can embody upright values in our community.

Action

Sometimes I ask myself, how much of my life should involve the contemplation and absorption of foul narratives? Never before has so much information been so readily available. According to some calculations, we’re inundated by more than 174 newspaper’s worth of information every day. As pointed out in this article, a hundred years ago, an individual would have been lucky to read fifty books in a lifetime. Now news streams to us via telephone and TV and computer at ever faster speeds. Those innumerable horror stories aren’t a world away, they’re staring at us from a smart phone. That’s a good thing insofar as we can do something about it. But we can’t do something about everything. Mother Teresa knew it. She said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.”

We may receive the equivalent of 174 newspapers of information every day, but much of this news is bad news. And we are missing out on two things. First, we too often fail to see good news. Second, our local problems are overridden by more shocking developments that are not only out of our reach but unrelated to our lives. Meanwhile, that local youth program lost its funding. A homeless person froze to death in the slues last week. That neighbor kid went hungry all weekend until he could get back to school for state food.

A Hero in my House

My wife recently inspired me with her embodiment of Sister Teresa’s suggestion: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” You see, we work in a school district, matching at-risk youth with volunteer mentors who boost these kids’ self-confidence, social skill, and school attachment. Each day, Megan supports these matches that, as one mentee put it, gives kids “a reason to get up and go to school, and a reason to feel better at the end of the day.” Still, Megan identified one kid to whom she could give something extra. This kid had been truant 75% of the first month of school. He never exercised. He was bullied for his weight. He was depressed and lonely and without hope.

Megan started exercising with him, taking him on walks around the school. She began pumping him up with a mantra: Come to school every day – I can do it, I know the way.

She would start: Come to school every day. He would finish: I can do it, I know the way. Rain or shine, she’d walk laps with him. Busy or tired or stressed, she always made time.

John’s class was scheduled to go on a field trip today, a hike to Delicate Arch. It’s a mile and a half uphill climb to the most incredible vista in Arches National Park. A month before the hike, it became obvious; this field trip would defeat John. He hadn’t ever been on a hike up steep slickrock. He hadn’t walked even a mile before. Chances were good that he’d have to stop with an aide and wait for his class to come back down. He wasn’t going to make it.

Over the last four weeks, Megan upped the length of their daily walks. She started talking him through visualizations of what the trail would be like, the terrain, the rock formations, his progress. They found games to pick up his pace, chasing each other’s shadows, playing tag, letting other kids join in, asking a friend to bring her dog for a walk. John loved Maya, and that happy dog pulled him by her leash, running through campus and over to the church lawn and across the nearby park, leading the panting kid toward better health.

Field Trip

The big class trip. Megan and John left early in our car, to get a head start. Megan talked with John about pacing, and she agreed to carry along his golden Pokémon card so he could hold it during their breaks. Half way up the big hill, John and Megan watched the bus pull into the parking lot below, the kids stream out into the morning sunlight. John climbed to his feet and started going again, remembering from their visualization exercises, “We’re more than half way. Soon there will be a ramp of slanting rock.”

They took a few more breaks. They carefully navigated an exposed ledge. Megan watched John’s face as they rounded the last bend and got a look at the iconic vision of Utah, the most spectacular rock feature of the West. John stopped. “Oh, WOW!” He didn’t think it would be so big. He didn’t realize he’d be so close. Visualization hadn’t captured the improbability of this rock formation.

John, left, enjoying the view of Delicate Arch, Arches National Park.

A little while later, his class showed up, kids panting. “Wow!” a girl exclaimed. “How did you get up here so fast, John?” He just beamed, the happiest kid on Earth.

A Cup of Light

John hasn’t missed a day of school in months. His mom reports, “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen him.” His grades are up. He’s gaining more friends in his class. A few days ago, John said, “School is better now, because Megan walks with me every day.”

Where will the average, extraordinary person do the most good? Locally.

I vow to read a little less bad news. I vow to be more like my wife. I vow to live more like Mother Teresa:

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”