Why?

Lead with it.  It might seem inscrutible, impossible to comprehend the reasons why depending upon what subject is being queried.  But the impossibility of starting with it begs the question itself: why not start with “why”?

Take, for example, an engineer.  Brilliant, but utterly fearful and ineffective at communicating.  Why?

Perhaps that very same brilliant engineer might have been smothered or abused early in their life.  An educator or authority figure might have told them they’d never be able to communicate well.  A parent who could never be placated or pleased tore them down at every turn.  Maybe that’s why.

Maybe moves us closer.  Why gives us an opening to insert insight, perspective, and empathy into the discourse.

When we’re confronted by difficult choices, disagreement, or discontent, we have the agency to ask the magic question.  It’s up to us to dig deeper.

So, why not?

Climbing & Mental Health

To say that climbing has given me a reason to live isn’t hyperbole.  When things get tough, when I’m not able to “show up” for people, when I can’t handle anything–that’s when I go climbing.

The climbing gym is my temple.  My meditation is the climb.  The motion, the focus, the effort; in combination it becomes my zazen, my moving meditation.

You really get to know someone for who they are when they’re at the absolute peak of their effort.  When they hit a wall, when they’re way out of their depth, what’s their reaction?  Do they put one-hundred-percent focus and effort on the motion?  Do they analyze their options?  Do they “just go for it”?

What’s your reaction when you fall?  I’ve experienced so many varied emotions after taking a long fall on a climb that demanded more than I thought I had.  More strength, more strategy, more technique, more everything.  Anger, despair, even cacophonous laughter (my climbing partners might instead argue that I bordered on mania, but that’s a whole different discussion).

Climbing is the magnifying lens through which I can truly see myself.  The way I respond to others (and myself) under stress and in the face of repeated failure gives me a clearer picture of myself than my mental illness would let me normally see.  It points out in no uncertain terms that I am most definitely not a failure, that I am worthy, that my efforts aren’t in vain, and that I’m progressing.

In the past, PTSD would take my thoughts into some really dark places.  I wish that I could say that my worst days are behind me, but I know that really difficult days can appear anytime.  There is no schedule, no “tell”, no signal or sign.  But working through those days and experiencing them while climbing has given me an appreciation for the sport and the people who engage in it that I didn’t have before I started climbing.

The most rewarding climbing days aren’t necessarily the days I send a 5.12 on lead or figure out the “intended beta” for a boulder problem.  It’s the times I’ve been able to work through fear, push past adversity, and really have the support and understanding of my climbing partners that make those days really shine.

It’s telling to me that the most intense and intimate experiences I’ve had in my life have been in conversation with other climbers.  There’s an intensity there–a camradarie and openness that’s cultiavted when you’re “out on the sharp end”.  When climbers get down to brass tacks and really communicate, it’s utterly without pretense and completely unvarnished.  If you’re doing something dumb, you’re going to find out real fast.  If you’re progressing and pushing, you’ll know it.  It’s helpful to have someone else right there beside you.  Even bouldering by myself these days, my life and my attitude are improving by degrees.

In short, I don’t think there’s another group of people on Earth I’d rather spend my waking hours with than climbers.  There isn’t another pursuit that I can think of that I’d rather give my time and effort to, especially when it’s given me so much back in return.

Queerness

I don’t know how other people describe something like queerness. I guess that’s the point of the word really—different. Is my bisexuality a problem or is it just one facet of who I am that gives context and texture to the person that I have become and will eventually morph into?

My life, being not-quite-straight and not-quite-gay, gives me pause. I have to wonder sometimes if the reason I wanted a “straight-acting” life was because I was afraid of repercussions. Afraid of being labeled. Afraid of other people making judgment calls about who I am as a person without getting to know the innumerable other facets that make up a more complete picture of me. People might know me as a climber, a faggot, a metal-head, a hot-head, or some flavor of geek or nerd; but I wonder how many people know the real me. The one who wants to show affection, the one who wants to encourage and push his friends and chosen family to succeed, the one who would love nothing more than to find a home that contains only what is needed and nothing else.

Do I want to make that “unknown me” more visible? I want that more than anything else in the world. I want to make it possible for people to see more of me, and maybe they could see more of themselves in the offing.

Stress

I’ve operated under a number of fallacies up until now.  That I’m above my circumstances.  That most everything can be attributed to being a mental block.  That I’ve moved past pettiness and hangups.  That I can just will myself to work through the discomfort and the pain.

The truth is that those fallacies did little more than obscure the reality of the situation: that I don’t cut myself enough slack, I expect way too much out of myself, and that my stress boils-over too easily.

This is how most high-performance individuals describe how they feel when they’re deep in the proverbial locust-swarm of burnout.

I’ve done a really piss-poor job of regulating myself and pushing back when I need to.  I’ve expended a lot of cognitive and emotional energy on trying to look good and be visible to the right people, but for a lot of the wrong reasons.

I’m going to be completely honest: I feel stuck.  Stuck in my job, stuck in my relationships, and stuck in my progression.  Progress toward what is a whole different topic, so I’ll save that one for later.

What’s hurting me the worst at the moment is progression in my chosen job.  I’ll be completely blunt: I am proficient at what I do, but I’ve never been promoted and I’m afraid I never will be.  It feels like a job more than a career.  It pays the bills and lets me have fun, but for me, that’s not enough.

I don’t wake up excited to go to work.  I generally like the people I work with, but there are definitely personality differences that cause friction (most of it my fault).  I take criticism and poor work outcomes very personally rather than allowing it to be what it is: circumstantial and ephemeral.  I react this way because I’ve wanted to be what a lot of people in my early life weren’t: invested.

A lot of the people I interacted with in my early life portrayed a lot of what they were doing as unimportant or not impactful.  It made my experiences with them very difficult to understand because I would see media and images of other people who were so completely and utterly invested in what they believed and what they were doing that I started telling myself that I had to find what I could be passionate about.  That money and prestige didn’t matter, only the mission.  I was looking for a mission for myself.

What I couldn’t have known then, and I’m still wrestling with to this day, is the fact that there were (and still are) a myriad of personal obstacles to figuring out just what my mission is.

To the current point about burnout specifically, I heavily invested emotionally and physically into the things I was most passionate about that were accessible to me at the current time: climbing, snowboarding, and system administration.  I thought at the time that if I made those my missions and worked at them without distraction and with as much passion as I could muster, that I would discover that one or all of these things amounted to my mission in life.

The plan, as it turns out, backfired in spectacular fashion.

I became so invested in outcomes at work and emotionally attached to, and in some cases dependent on, coworkers and outcomes that I became bitter and belligerent when things didn’t work out or went wrong.

I became so invested in the continuing progression of my abilities at climbing and snowboarding, that disillusionment and disappointment became the norm when I couldn’t perform.

In short: I set myself up for failure by overly-investing and expecting too much.  I expended an ever-increasing amount of emotional and physical energy for diminishing returns.  I failed to obey the maxim “work smart not hard”.  In so doing, I arrived where I am now: in near-complete burnout.

I’m disillusioned with my job prospects, and I’m trying my hardest not to let that bleed-over into things that I try to do to give myself happiness.  It’s difficult to do when you’re also battling depression and trying to find medication that works to help mitigate some of the symptoms.

I guess what I’m trying to say at this point is this: I haven’t done a good job at taking care of myself, setting healthy boundaries, and these have caused me to be a bastard to a lot of people.  I’m trying really hard.  I just need help and a gentle reminder sometimes.

A Minimalist Life, The Short Tour Part 1: Home

I still get the occasional question about my choice to engage in minimalism and why I’ve chosen to forego “stuff” in favor of experiences.  Even when I tell them that it’s more aesthetically pleasing to me to have fewer things and be less worried about what I still own, I still get the impression that people seem to think that minimalism is more about asceticism, engaging in some flavor of anti-consumerism protest, or some kind of “race-to-the-bottom” trend.

What gets lost in that conversation is what I’ve gained in the process of removing the superfluous.  When the flotsam and jetsam of a consumerist life is moved aside, I’m able to leave cognitive room for more of the things that generally make life more interesting.

When you’ve removed the beeping, buzzing, dinging, flashing, and blinking bits from your immediate view, what are you left with?  When you’ve removed all but “the work”, what’s actually there to distract you?

In my case, removing things actually gave me more in return–I removed the visual and physical clutter.  When I donated of a ton of books and CDs I’d never read or listen to again, I gained mobility and options in where I wanted to live.  As I divested myself of the superfluous, I started discovering what was essential to how I wanted to live my life.  I discovered my strong desire to climb, hike, and snowboard as a direct consequence of asking myself really difficult questions.  I began curating my life in such a way as to make them seem as if they were foregone conclusions rather than abstract concepts.

  • Does this add value to my life?
  • Would I miss it if it were gone?  What impact would it have?
  • Is this something I could easily replace, repair, or borrow if I absolutely needed it?

When I consider these questions and I look around at what I still own, what relationships I invest time and energy in, and how I spend my time, I realize that what I’ve removed is actually less than what I’ve gained.  I’ve added more space to what used to be a “small” living space for myself, found better focus by having less visual distractions in my field of view, and I’ve made it easier for myself to move if I choose to (by having less to pack).

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By having fewer possessions, I’ve made it clear to myself that what I have should be able to do a few things fairly well or one thing really well.  Whether it’s the clothing, food, or where I live, I look at all of the options as closely as I can now and generally make more informed decisions about what I want and why I want them.

In short: I wanted less distractions, less clutter, and less craziness.  What I got in return was more of myself: more of my own personality and expression, more of the space that I want, and more of the things that I need (and consequently, less of the things I didn’t).

29 Things I’ve Learned

Intending to build on my previous post around this time last year, I’ve been in a reflective mood.  I’m less fearful in a lot of ways, and more uncertain in others.  This year has given me a lot to think about and a lot to move forward with.  Relationships have deepened in many ways, others have been shed, and exploration has become one of the most driving forces in my life.

I’ve discovered a deeper-seated need to explore than I thought I had before.  Exploring more about who I am as a person, what motivates me as a person, who I want in my life, and what makes me… well, “me”.  I think my flexibility in being able to be present in so many different ways for myself and others is one of many  profound strengths I’ve discovered.  I think in writing especially, I can be present for others and hopefully be a teacher, even when I’m not physically there.  In that spirit, let’s get started.

1. Empathy is indispensable.

This point has become abundantly clear to me as time has gone on, and especially in light of the recent US election, that empathy is the key to almost anything we intend to engage in.  Being aware of how I feel, how others feel, and how to relate to people in a way that’s positive and well-meaning makes me not only a nicer person to be around, but also people that others will seek-out.

2. Change is the only constant in the universe, so find the joy in it.

Even when I’m at my absolute worst, I’ve tried to recognize and remind myself more often that change is constant and it’s going to happen with or without me.  I’ve already “bought the ticket” as it were–sometimes it’s as simple as taking the ride and enjoying it, wherever that ride takes me.

3. Try.  Fail.  Try again.  Fail better.

I have to say this to myself a lot: failure is not an end.  It’s the semicolon in a sentence.  It’s up to the writer (which happens to be me in this case) to decide what to do after it.  Do I continue with the effort, or do I change what I am putting my effort into?  We all have personal agency to make decisions on where we spend our time and our energy, so make it count.  If it’s something I care about deeply, I need to recognize that and keep trying.

4. Not everything is as it seems.

I can’t count the number of times over the past year where I’ve been so thoroughly surprised at learning something new about myself, about someone else, or about a subject I’m interested in.  It’s amazing to me that my mind can be blown in so many ways and by so many things.  It’s one of the main reasons why I seek out discomfort and new situations.  Speaking of…

5. Comfort is the enemy of progress.

Over the last year, I’ve come to understand that comfort in my life has been the ever-present enemy to progress.  The times I’ve put myself “out on the sharp end” or exposed myself to new situations and new people, I’ve always come back with more to think about and a different perspective.  I have a good number of climbing friends, skiers and snowboarders, and technology leaders to thank for the invaluable gift of perspective.  Don’t let comfort dull the sharp or jagged edges of your life–instead, get closer to them and know them better.

6. Get out of your own way.

Sometimes I’ve spent days wavering on a decision to do something when the best course of action was honestly just to get out of my own way and do it.  Instead of getting tied-up in knots over the pros and cons, doing it would have given me the answers I was looking for.  Kitschy as it might be, “you only live once” is actually somewhat meaningful here.  Get out of your own way, bite that bullet, take that drink, step off the edge, and just do it.

7. Embrace the power of less.

There’s beauty and simplicity in having less and using less.  That device you only use sparingly?  Ditch it.  That book you’ll never read again?  Re-gift it.  Those clothes you’ll never wear again unless Aunt Gertrude decides to throw another over-the-hill party?  Donate them.  There’s almost literally nothing that you own that you can’t find a suitable (and often times higher-quality) replacement.  Buying used, high-quality items are not only a good way to keep your overall footprint small, but it’s also a great way to make friends.  Borrow your friend’s mixing machine and make some bread.  Offer to make drinks and steaks if they come over and use it.  Get creative!

8. Lessons can be learned anytime, anywhere, from anyone.

I can’t tell you how many times this year I’ve been smacked in the face with the proverbial clue-by-four from random discussions with friends and coworkers.  Seldom a day goes by where I’m not asking myself “what did I learn today?”  Take those answers, turn them into lessons.

9. Sharpen your axe.

There’s a quote that’s been making the rounds on the internet for years that is attributed to President Abraham Lincoln (which is probably mis-attributed, but let’s go with it anyway).  I’m paraphrasing at-best, but it reads:

If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four sharpening the axe.

To clarify, what’s being presented here is the notion of not just being prepared, but taking the steps necessary to ensure a positive outcome.  Getting plenty of rest, eating a balanced diet, improving your professional skills, learning how to relate to people, or picking up new hobbies and projects.  All of these things will help you to not just be more efficient, but also keep your mind as sharp as the aforementioned axe.

10. You can say ‘no’.

This one has taken me so long to grasp.  I would find myself going to events I really didn’t want to go to, hanging out with people I didn’t even like, to impress someone who didn’t even really care if I was there or not.  At work, this would manifest itself in being sidetracked with lower-priority issues.  All of this created stress for me and made me even more unhappy than normal.

I’ve gotten in the habit lately of saying “thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not really interested” when it comes to personal invitations from friends and asking coworkers “what would you have me de-prioritize to take care of your issue immediately” when I’m asked to divert from what I’m tasked with.  I’ve found it surprisingly effective and people lately seem to be happier with me saying “no thanks” than accepting and not having a good time.  Some people haven’t been happy with this, but I have to keep telling people “I’m only one person”.

11. Advocate for yourself (because no one else will).

In addition to saying no, I’ve found that I really have to advocate for myself because no-one else will.  People might say “I’ve got your back”, but at the end of the day it’s up to me to pull my own weight and make the case for myself.  No one else knows what I want or how I want to get there, so the only person who’s responsible for the process and outcome of that advocacy is me.  We all have agency, we just need to use it.

12. Conditions are not identities.

Reminding myself that I suffer from something rather than identifying myself as something has been helpful in separating my identity from their effects.  I am not depression, I suffer from depression.  I don’t have PTSD, I suffer from PTSD.  I am not my illness, just as I am not my job, my label, my clothes, my car, or anything else.  I may be able to own some aspects of my identity and make them part of my overall identity (like being gay), but they merely inform who I am.  They are not me in totality.

13. Recognize and appreciate the small things (aka “be present”).

Something I discovered while I was out on my road-trip earlier this year was that the small things like looking at the snow-covered mountains from my truck, appreciating the wind blowing through a desert canyon, and having close friends are things that used to escape my notice.  I’m doing a lot better at recognizing the small moments and appreciating them, but I sometimes have a difficult time getting other people to see them.  At the end of the day, it’s more about contentment than it is about overwhelming joy.  The small moments come more often and are less ephemeral than the big ones.  Be aware and ready for when they arrive.

14. Appreciate the differences.

Everyone will be different from you.  Different opinions, perspectives, desires, and actions.  If you can step out of yours shoes and into someone else’s, even for a moment, you might be able to appreciate what you see and how they got there.  I appreciate the differences in experience and opinions that many of my friends have, and recognize that they got to where they are for different reasons and because of different paths.

15. Share a little love (even if it’s uncomfortable).

I’m not saying “go out and hug random strangers”, but maybe spend a bit more time and show a little more care with people you interact with regularly.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many times this year I’ve been given a glimpse into someone else’s world when I’m a bit more vulnerable and loving.  When greeted with humanity, most people respond with humility and vulnerability.

16. Vulnerability and Authenticity are inextricable from each each and are Essential.

Maybe it’s the time I’ve spent in therapy or the work I’ve been trying to do to soften my emotions, but I’ve found that vulnerability and authenticity are two variables in an equation that has led me to a lot of beautiful and eye-opening places and people in my life.  Now more than ever, we need more vulnerability and more authenticity in how we relate to each other.  We need to understand rather than berate, belittle, and avoid.  Without these things, our future survivability as a species is in grave danger.

17. I’m a little weird and so are you (and that’s great).

I worry all the time about being seen as too weird to be seen as a good friend or a compatible partner, but I worry about that less as time goes on.  My proclivities for some activities and behaviors might drive some people nuts, but those same proclivities make me more interesting and help me navigate the world in a way that makes sense to me.  Your weirdness makes you more interesting, and people being interesting is a good thing.  Homogeneity isn’t just boring, it’s dangerous.

18. Don’t ignore the call to adventure (she often doesn’t call back).

Ignore the call at your own peril.  Adventure knocks every minute of every day, and it’s up to us to do the math individually and decide whether or not to answer.  If the axiom “you only live once” is anything to go by, not answering the call is tantamount to giving up your shot.  The next time you find yourself stuck with indecision, ask yourself: “What have I got to lose?”

19. We are more powerful than we believe…

I often have to remind myself that as a human being, I’m quite powerful on my own.  As an American, I have outsize power in human society.  Additionally, as an individual unbound by dogma or creed, I am more powerful still.

20. … act accordingly.

Using that power responsibly and ensuring the highest amount of good while minimizing the amount of harm is the highest priority I have.  Others might not share that same belief, but I believe it’s up to all of us to ensure that we instill that belief as broadly as we can.  The better we do for ourselves and the people that we care about, the better we can do for everyone.

21. Take nothing for granted.

This should’ve been a no-brainer but for much of my life, I’ve taken a lot for granted.  I’ve left a lot of things unsaid and a lot of work un-done.  I’ve spent a lot of time letting relationships that I ultimately valued rot away from the inside out rather than actually work on them and make them a priority.  I’ve taken a lot of people’s affection and interest for granted, and I’ve hurt people in the process.  Don’t make the same mistakes.  At least if you do, own-up to them and make amends where you’re able.

22. Keep ignoring the hype (and hyperbole).

Hype isn’t worth the time or the energy that’s put into it.  Hype is essentially someone else’s emotional sales-pitch for something that likely isn’t going to help you or the people you care about, so tune it out.  Get rid of the distractions, ignore the con artists, and look for the things that matter most to you.

23. Don’t lose your faith.

Faith is hard to come by lately.  So many things are challenging our basic notions of humanity lately that in some ways it’s become increasingly more difficult to have faith in anything.  Faith in the due process of law, spirituality, other people–all of it seems useless in the light of the crises we all face, whether they are the day-to-day or existential variety.  What can we do in the face of such reckless hate and inhumanity?

We have to keep believing.  We have to keep our own faith and our own path illuminated.  Though we might traverse proverbial or literal darkness, and though the depths of our patience and love of our fellow humans may be plundered and left barren, one way or another we have to find and maintain our faith that people ultimately mean well, that there is a point to our suffering, and that there will be a better day.  It might seem useless or “Polly-Anna” at first blush, I’ve come to the understanding that without faith in something all endeavors eventually fail.

24. Acceptance is helpful.

Understanding and acknowledging the limitations of your circumstances can go a long way toward helping you understand what you can change and why it might be useful.  When you’re able to accept your circumstances, you might find the situation less constraining than you originally thought.

25. … but don’t settle for less.

At the same time, settling for less than what you’re worth or less than what you want only helps to kill your dreams.  Unless your end-goal is to settle into a familiar pattern and die of old-age having done nothing of note, never settle.

26. There’s a difference between what you value and what your values are.

What you value might change many times a day given various circumstances, but hopefully what your core values are will remain fairly constant.  Discovering what those core values are and taking those values into account when your priorities are changed or challenged will likely lead you toward living a more meaningful and authentic life.

27. Aging isn’t nearly as scary as our imaginations make it out to be.

Maybe this is more a result of what I’ve done with my therapy over the last few years, but lately I’ve been feeling as though aging isn’t nearly as terrible as I’d imagined.  Along with just simply giving less weight to other peoples’ opinions of me and doing my best to just be the best version of myself that I can manage, I’ve found that my life is less stressful and more fulfilling for the kind of life I want to live.  No one has to “agree” with the things I do or the way I live my life, and I don’t have to do the same with theirs either.  Simply accepting who they are (and who I am) is the quickest way to get there.

28. Fear is useful as an indicator, useless as a reason.

When I come nose-to-nose with fear, I know I’m onto something bigger.  Fear has become an indicator for me rather than a reason to avoid something.  I know now that instead of shrinking from challenge, I sit-up and take notice.  What the demons on my shoulder keep whispering in my ear, I’ve worked hard to understand it and why it’s being said.  More often than not, it’s just my past fears about how I’ll look in front of other people, how badly I think I’m going to fail, or everything that could go horribly wrong.

I’ve been working hard to instead lean into the discomfort, listen to the fear, and reply: “That was last time.  This is now.”

I figure I’ve got a choice when I’m confronted with my own fear: overcome it, or be consumed by it.  Better to go down fighting and learn something from it than to fail because I let my past or my demons get the better of me.

29. Even if you think you can’t take the time… take the time.

Seriously.  The work will always be there.  The friends and family that know and love you for who you are will understand and still be there.  That long list of books to read, routes to climb, mountains to ski, bugs and stories to write code for–all of that isn’t going anywhere.  What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything at all, is learn to take time for yourself.  Life is too short to be occupied with busyness at all times.

Sometimes you have to take and find your Walden Pond and recharge.  Whether that’s a literal place or a figurative one in your head, you have to be able to take the time to find yourself and check-in with yourself.  Your direction, your voice, and your energy are all dependent on whether or not your efforts are aligned with your life’s goals.  Making sure that you’re listening to your intuition and stepping back when it’s necessary is the first step to contributing at the highest level that you’re capable of.

Fear

I’m filled again with hate—not hate for people, but hate for the way people make me feel about everyday life. I hate the fact that I am being made to feel fear. I hate that others are poised to take advantage of my fear and use it to malicious ends. I hate that this election cycle has forced me to look at everyone I know and ask some very scary questions.

Are they a Trump voter? Do they want to see me dead or disenfranchised? Do I need to watch over my shoulder after the election? Will I make it home in one piece? Or will I be woken in the middle of the night by an assailant?

Et tu Brute?

I hate the fact that I’m conditioned to it now. It’s why I still carry a pocket knife everywhere I go. It’s why I keep an eye on the ingress and egress points anywhere I go. It’s why I watch people’s body language and their emotional responses so closely.

It’s not that I don’t trust anybody; it’s that I don’t know who to trust or who to believe anymore.