Weekly Update, 11/10/19 - Your life is not a story

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Hi everyone -

I just got back from Falmouth, MA, where my partner and I were visiting an old friend. He and I originally met each other kitesurfing, and as it happened the conditions for a kiting session were as good as we could have hoped for in an early November day near the Cape. Which is to say, they were brilliant. About 18 knots of wind, 55 degrees in the air and maybe a few degrees warmer in the water.

My friend took the day off from work and the two of us drove out to Chapoquoit Beach, where we spent a few hours in our wetsuits and the wind and surf, flying through the Autumn air. If climbing for me is about a struggle with inner demons, then kitesurfing is simple, pure, unadulterated joy. (I wrote about kitesurfing from the Dominican Republic in one of my earliest weekly updates if you’re interested).

Life as narrative

As I was driving back from this trip to my home in New Hampshire I couldn’t shake the thought that I had to form the trip into a story, mold it, place it within a broader arc of my month, this year, or maybe an entire life. In fact, Instagram had provided me with precisely the tool to do this and distribute it to whomever cared to watch. The feature is unsurprisingly called Stories.

Perhaps it’s because I had just finished re-watching (for the third time) Breaking Bad, which is the greatest show ever made, great because every single detail matters, and everything that happens has consequences to the overall story. The five-season arc in which Walter White goes from high school chemistry drug teacher to drug kingpin is visual narrative at its best. All the pieces are there, but most of all it’s the writing. And writing is storytelling.

Yet as I drove I had to stop and remember: my life is not a story.

In fact, life is more like another show, one I love almost as much as Breaking Bad, but which takes the precise opposite view of the events of one’s life: Mad Men. In Mad Men, the events of its characters’ lives unfold just like that - as discrete events. Nothing matters necessarily. The things that happen are only significant if we assign significance to them. In Mad Men, after it does not mean because of it.

Setting myself in opposition

I think life is more like Mad Men than Breaking Bad, but to think that and to remember it and to embrace it as core to existence is, in a way, to set myself in opposition to much of how we humans function.

The world is complicated and scary, and so we tell stories. As Joan Didion said, we tell stories in order to live. We need them to make sense of the world and to explain our place in it. Otherwise it’s all just a bit… pointless.

Why did I go to Falmouth? What role does kitesurfing play in my life? What is the meaning of the friendship I have with my kiting buddy? Did the perfect November day happen there just for us, so that, after so many years of friendship, we could reconnect over the the very thing that brought us together in the first place?

Of course not. But sometimes we tell ourselves the story anyway. Not only that, in today’s world we can both invent our personal story and distribute it to the world, with a few touches of a button and a few flourishes of a Snapchat filter or a carefully chosen GIF, or a quirky font. The tools of technology have enabled us to do the thing that is most human - tell stories - and also the thing that is most narcissistic.

Events happen, seasons turn

I like to remember, as I did in those moments driving back to New Hampshire, that my life is not a story. Outside my window now the leaves are gone from the trees. Yesterday, a light snow dusted the town in a scattered white. In the afternoon, I fixed a hole in the drywall in the bathroom, and in the evening we stayed out past midnight drinking wine with friends.

Events happen and seasons turn, but they are only a narrative if I choose to make them into one. They only have significance that I attribute. And, as is often the case, the truths I like to remind myself of are as liberating as they are scary.

On that somber note -

Signing off,

- Russell Max Simon

🙏 Why I climb

I was 40 feet in the air on a climb called Buried Treasure - and frankly wondering what the fuck I was doing there. I looked at the modified bowline knot I had tied and threaded through the two tie in loops on my harness, and gazed for a moment at the 9 millimeter thick piece of rope that was keeping me alive just then.

In the Baker River Valley stretched out behind me, what sounded like bikers revving their engines, or perhaps a farmer operating a chainsaw, had been incessantly amplifying itself up the hillside toward the cliff for more than an hour. Meanwhile, just below me a mom who was done climbing was trying to get her five-year-old to follow her back down the trail to the parking lot. “I’m touching my mom’s butt crack!” I heard him yell as I dangled above.

Struggling

I was struggling with this climb. Or, hang-dogging, as climbers often put it. No graceful, uninterrupted ascent of Yosemite was this. Rather, I was making tentative, fearful moves up the cliff, my tired calf-muscles shaking up and down like the needle of a sewing machine, my forearms burning and pumped. I moved one clip at a time, asking my partner to “take” after each one, and sitting there in my harness to rest. Worst of all, my head was completely in the wrong place. And the five year old below and the engines in the valley weren’t helping.

I had been here before. In fact, I had been here dozens of times. Maybe hundreds. This moment - when everything is telling me to go down, to ask to be lowered, to maybe just give up on climbing all together - is the moment I live for. It’s why I do it in the first place.

This, right here. The fear, the questioning of one’s life decisions, the physical exhaustion, and the battle within one’s self and all things this moment teaches me about being human. Those are the things I love about climbing.

Being present

For all its physical demands, for all of its technical requirements, it’s the mental component which elevates climbing to some other more vivid plane of existence. Climbing well is a struggle to be present, and for presence of mind.

For those of you have climbed on top-rope before, I must pause just to say that I’m not really talking about top-roping. On top-rope, falls are not really falls. They are a mere gentle glide away from the rock or from the gym wall. Top-roping may share some of the physical and technical demands of leading, but it has virtually none of the mental demands. On lead, you place your protection as you go, pushing up without the benefit of a rope above you, and falls are truly falls. And that possibility of a real, true fall is everything.

We are all afraid of heights, but climbing - lead climbing - is an investigation into whether and to what degree our fears are justified. It is a search for real and imagined doubts, not just about whether one can make it up a climb, but about why one does this in the first place. Indeed, ultimately climbing is about why we do anything.

It’s a natural question to ask one’s self when one is dangling from a 9 millimeter rope on the side of a cliff.

Sometimes, like that moment on Buried Treasure, I just want to come down. The next hold and all the unknown ones after that are scaring the shit out of me, and all I want is to be lowered and go home and drink a beer and take this goddamn harness off and not have 15 pounds of metal gear hanging from my harness, and not have my life depending on a small bowline knot I tied to myself before leaving the ground.

The whole world in a hold

In those moments my whole world passes in front of me. All my questions about purpose and the future and how I spend my time and what really matters in life are contained in those moments between when I feel paralyzed to go any further, and when I gather myself to make the next move, and take hold of the rock.

It happened on Buried Treasure. I thought about why I do this and why I do anything, and then I put all of that away, as I have trained myself to do. I took a few long breaths. My vision narrowed, my focus returned, and I called down to my partner, “Climbing!” and I moved.

I focused on what was right in front of me: in a literal sense the rock, the vertical and horizontal cracks, the edges of granite, the next bolt and the next clip. But in a larger sense, I had again forced myself to focus on the now, on my breath, on my movement, on the sensations of life.

I had been reminded, yet again - because in life we are in constant need of reminding - that my existence is fleeting, and also precious. Life is a thing which I should pay attention to, and move through deliberately. On the rock, I have to confront and grapple with the mental and emotional barriers which prevent me from moving, and so it is in life.

And we fail

Of course, there are those climbs which really do defeat us physically, as opposed to mentally or emotionally. Sometimes they’re just too hard, the edges too thin, the overhang to steep. Sometimes our muscles give out, our fingers simply can’t grip the holds anymore, and we fail.

Climbing is nothing if not physically demanding. A whole body, muscles never before used, sweat pouring down your face, total commitment kind of demanding. It requires the tendons in your fingers to strengthen. It requires you to not pull a shoulder muscle or a back muscle and sideline yourself with an injury. It requires you to not be overweight, and to learn to move as a dancer would, with grace and precision and power all at once.

If I come down from a climb, it may well have been a mental defeat - a climb which I could have completed but not for a losing battle with inner demons - but it could just as well have been a physical defeat. My fingers simply couldn’t stick on the holds. But sorting one kind of defeat from another is part of the joy and the satisfaction. Did that climb defeat me physically? Or did I defeat myself mentally?

Either is fine. I climb also for the self-knowledge. For the clarifying of things not clear in other parts of existence. At least, that’s why I climb.

We are small

After hang-dogging on Buried Treasure, I came down and rested for 20 minutes. I found a piece of flat rock to lie down on and used my hiking shoes as a pillow to prop my head up. The mom and her 5-year-old were gone, but the incessant whine of the chainsaw up the valley remained. I looked up at the angles and the holds and the 80 feet of vertical rock which had just taken so much out of me, and I thought about how I would move through it all next time.

The move over the diagonal roof. The pull over the mantle, to the small undercling on the left and the little shoulder-high edge on the right. The traverse over to the crack. After a rest, I tried again, and I did the climb “clean” - no falls, no takes, no hanging. I did it with focus and at least some grace.

It felt incredible. Exhilarating. Climbing gives one achievements, but then it gives you new challenges. And there’s not a climber in the world who can’t find a cliff that will bring out their inner demons. No matter how good you are, there’s always a rock wall out there somewhere that will kick your ass.

After Buried Treasure I decided to try the climb to the left, a black streaked arête called Prime Climb. I was feeling strong, confident. I got about half-way up when a sloping hold and a particularly devious sequence stopped me cold. I took. I hung. Pulling the move felt scary, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I tried again, and I took, and I hung. I remembered that we are all small before Nature. Just another small reminder. I can’t have enough of them.

A very good memoir

I was in a bookstore in Concord, NH last week staring at the gender studies section, both in awe and with some jealousy. If I were a woman, and wanted to read about what that was like for other women, I would have had dozens - hundreds - of books to choose from. 

If I were a woman, I could read about how flaunting one’s sexuality is empowering and wonderful, or overblown and irrelevant. Or, I could read about all the ways it is difficult to balance womanhood with motherhood, or about how women shouldn’t have to balance womanhood with motherhood. I could even read books by women about the nature of men: how they are irretrievable, or about how they need to change, or about how they are glorious objects of desire.

I was and am jealous of the sheer number of contemporary memoirs written by women, about being a woman. I have read a lot of them, because it’s interesting for me to read about womanhood through the eyes of great female writers, but also because I have sought after male memoirs and simply come up short, so if I am to read a contemporary memoir I must content myself with memoirs written by women. That’s just all there are.

Before you ask, I have already read all of Bukowski, and certain various male writers who preceded Bukowski. A lot of them weren’t writing about maleness itself, but rather about life through the male lens, which is similar, but different. They also were writing at a different time, at cultural moments very different from the present. Few (perhaps none?) have written about maleness in the same detail that women write about womanhood. 

At this point someone inevitably recommends a David Sedaris book to me. I’ve read Sedaris as well, but Sedaris is gay, and writing about being a gay man strikes me as different in important and profound ways from writing about being a straight man.

I left the Concord bookstore having purchased nothing, and on the way home with my partner and my grandmother in the car, I began to describe what I saw as the void in male memoirs, or even writing online about what it is like to be a man in these times. My grandmother, who as it happens has herself written a very good memoir, said I would just need to write the thing that I wanted to read. Which is always good advice of course, but that led me to another question: how do I write about these things?

I have never written about what it is to be male, or straight, or white, though those are the types of identity markers that seem to concern many of the female writers publishing. I told my grandmother and my partner that I’m not sure what men would even write about. Womanhood seems to be so nuanced, full of contradiction and complexity, an experience worthy of interrogation. Manhood in contrast can often seem one-dimensional. Just take a look at Bukowski’s one-note obsessions with sex and drinking and you will have some sense of what a male memoir might look like.

If you go looking on the Internet for writing by men about what it’s like to be a (straight) male in today’s society, you unfortunately get very little beyond the Red Pill crowd, or forums about Men’s Rights, or even worse the Incels. These men are resentful about women and resentful about their loss of status in society. They are angry about various things having to do with feminism. They feel attacked, under siege, defensive.

I’m not interested in all that, and I don’t feel any of those ways. I have little interest in contributing to a conversation about the things those men have conversations about. I don’t feel their anger or their resentment. Their experience is not my experience.

If you go looking for advice about being a man, you might come across Jordan Peterson, who hasn’t much written about manhood, as he has talked about it extensively. I hear, through the various Interweb grapevines, that a lot of men who feel resentful and angry love Jordan Peterson, and I can understand that: Peterson talks a lot about purpose and meaning, which are two things sorely missing in today’s society. I think everyone is missing them, not just men, but perhaps it’s true that straight, white, young men are especially missing them, and so they are drawn to Peterson’s talks, his YouTube videos, his content in its various forms.

But beyond Peterson and the various forums, I feel like there is a void, one that is incredibly difficult to step in to. It is the gender studies void of the bookstore, where I can find hundreds of books about what it is to be a woman, but virtually nothing about what it is to be a man. And I don’t mean “be a man” in the cultural indoctrination sense, but simply in the sense of being male. If I wanted, I could put on my historian hat and tell you what it used to mean to be a man at various points in history. I could talk about duty or chivalry or courage, or any number of other things that were historically associated with maleness.

Now, I’m not so sure what manhood is or should be, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame because, to be honest, I am really interested in exploring what it means to be a man. I am interested for myself, and also as a father to a son. I am interested in what I should teach him, what I want to teach him, about what it’s like to be him in society. 

It’s also a shame for our society and our culture, because it appears that men are going into that void and not finding anything. They go further and further, looking for something that will explain maleness, looking for someone who might be an example, and all they find is anger and resentment: a white nationalist looking to recruit, or an incel drumming up hatred of women, or an evangelist looking to convert or moralize.

I’m not sure what I can do to fill that void, if anything. I am used to writing about being a writer, or being a climber, or meaning generally. I am used to writing about what it is to be human. I have no experience of writing about maleness itself, despite the fact that - and this seems odd that it needs saying - I certainly do have an experience of being a male, and that experience of maleness has helped shape my identity, just as being a woman, or black, or gay, or transgender might shape someone else’s identity. 

This is foreign territory for me. Each time I make a start, I find myself deleting sentences, paragraphs, whole posts, or just as likely not starting the posts at all. I am not sure that I can write about identity in this way. Not now, not in the middle of #MeToo, not in the middle of Black Lives Matter, not in the middle of national debates about reparations, and bathroom bills, and kneeling during the national anthem, and Planned Parenthood, and all the other battles being fought in this country.

But as my grandmother suggested, I should at least try to say something about it, to write to fill the void, to write the thing I wish existed, fraught though that process may be.

Podcast - Episode 5: Paul Millerd on work, meaning, and navigating life without a map

  
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On this episode I talk with Paul Millerd. Paul went to grad school at MIT before embarking on a traditional high prestige, high earning career path. He worked for global management consulting firms like BCG and McKinsey - and then it all changed. I’ll let him tell the story, but the short of it is that Paul got off the traditional career track and reassessed what he truly wanted from life.

That’s not easy to do, but I think Paul has done it with uncommon thoughtfulness, so I was very pleased he found time from his home in Taiwan to talk it through with me.

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