Being stuck on an airplane, though not the most glamorous of moments, never really pushed my limits. I used to bring along my portable gaming systems and grind them out for hours on end. And now, I’ve decided to feel more “productive” rather than get lost in a virtual reality building upon virtual digits: levels, gold coins, and achievements. However, I find that airplanes are now equipped with many forms of distraction, now that everyone has 1-2 screens in front them. Currently, half of them are playing your classic “cheesy” modern films that I can never relate to.
During that time, I finished reading a book: The Push. It’s not the type of book that I would personally buy. I received it as a gift from my sister’s long-term boyfriend. He has had a longer history in rock climbing, and I’ve been successfully going to the local rock climbing gym multiple times a week. Today, I drove straight from the gym to the airport; Planet Rock has become my second home at this point.
Additionally, and also unexpectedly, this is going to be a longer-than-average “book review.” I have a lot I would like to say……
Being in Michigan, there’s really no good outdoor climbing opportunities available without driving > 5 hours southwest to the Appalachians. This literature fills in that lack of mental awareness on the outdoor rock climber’s lifestyle and the pains that accompany it. And Tommy Caldwell, the author, does this to the extreme, basically since birth. It always helps if you have a strong role-model for a father which you can follow in his footsteps, if you so choose. I have never felt the urge to take up dairy farming, that in which my parents have successfully done from almost nothing. I scraped enough cow manure in my lifetime.
Thus, this is a story of someone being “all in.” Literally. No education, no backup plan, no nothing.
After high school, he pursued a career in rock climbing. He lived in his van for multiple years, driving to locations to build his portfolio of personal fame while driving back home occasionally to raid his parent’s cabinets for food. Months consisted of minimal monetary backing, while living frugal and finding pleasantries in a thrift lifestyle, preferably where money wasn’t required. Hiking trails and visiting local libraries come to mind.
And in terms of most full-time athletes, fame is required to bring in free gear, sponsorships for paid tours, slideshow and video appearances, and eventually grants to write novels. But it takes years for a consistent sponsor-supported income, almost decades for Tommy due to the low popularity of rock climbing compared to your more “modern” TV-sponsored sports. Through most of his life, Tommy’s income is on the level of what a janitor would make.
It is not only is it the price you pay to do what you love, but it also allows you to enjoy a lifestyle that sharply deviates from a normal schedule. Three months tours of Europe, with most (major) expenses paid. A close, but global set of contacts that open up unique doors in culture and communication. All the while, however, there is lurking shadow of what could happen that could end it all. And very abruptly.
Personally, I have a hard time defending these extreme acts of pushing the human’s limit. And it’s not just rock climbing, but anything requiring years of training. Olympics included. In order to achieve these heights, that individual requires a team for support: coach(es), therapists, dieticians, sponsors. And this is done while sacrificing those closest to you. All for something that has no real societal value beyond some form of what-if trivia and “entertainment.” And in order for there to be superstars, as I’ve learned in the business world, the sacrifices of others need to create the ridiculous momentum required.
But there’s something to say about having a goal to live for. I don’t think it should take up ALL of your time, however, but having a deep strive is what makes one an individual. In this day and age, you see so many people spiritually die. They have no strive to learn or improve. They stay static, monotone, in the forms that bring instant pleasure without any resistance: food, sex, and sleep included.
I will see this especially in couples, where the weaker link can become an anchor in the relationship as a whole. Neither can agree on a direction and thus succumb not even the hanging fruit. I see them go on their 15 minute walks with their tiny puppies (a common appearance in my apartment complex).
Note: I’m NOT a pet person. Personally, animals should either be left in the wild or (sparingly) served on a dinner plate.
In addition, developing a skill or talent gives you perseverance and a positive outlook on life. Your time feels worth living. It develops an attractiveness (for both genders) that irradiates a social boost to those close around you. You don’t have to be famous to enjoy life or to become a good example.
Looking back, especially after reading this book, I don’t real any personal goal deep enough that spiritually drives me forward. I am decent at guitar, and I am proud that I can play and sing along to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” I can do some rad yo-yo tricks while I continue to improve my finger and palm grinds. And I can enjoy biking trails for hours, with butt pains being my limiting factor.
The biggest activities that I enjoy doing are reading/writing (including this blog) and backpacking. I have done some wonderful weekend backpacking trips that still bring senses of independence and comfort. Additionally, I do miss the R&D lifestyle that I lived back in grad school, despite the financial limitations. Bringing papers home to read, working on expensive machinery in the clean room. Skills that not many people can say they have experienced.
And now……I’m a PowerPoint engineer for a sales office in metro Detroit.
However, I don’t find myself running home to/from work in anticipation to improve any one of these skills. While I do try to keep an active lifestyle, I still feel myself dying in a sense of personal creativity. Ever since I have gotten divorced, my expertise has improved over these multiple factors. But was it due to the massive amounts of free that that have opened up for me? Do I find myself scattered over too many interests in pursuit of the next personal distraction? Or is it from my developed emotional dependence on my spouse’s happiness. I despised soda, but I would still buy her Coke from the grocery store.
Tommy has also had his spells with relationships and divorce. Like how Kristina and I heavily pursued our efforts in grad school, we always talked about where we’d live and what our kid’s names would be once we’ve completed our education hurdles. Likewise, there was this strange sense of dependence that Tom had for his first wife, Beth, during his 20’s that I found quite relatable; always trying to put your partner’s feelings first, turning into this mental machine of emotional dependence. At least Tommy had climbing afterwards. I found myself becoming dependent on the next woman in my life, and now I’m stranded. This habit and current living location, things I hope I break before I decide to marry again (if the opportunity arises).
The book also has a hidden topic on the topic of selfishness. Where do you draw the line between putting everything aside for your personal fulfillment and public fame? While Tommy and Beth both led a lifestyle of professional rock climbing ……………..
I can’t finish that last paragraph. In truth, I don’t know why they divorced. And I don’t feel like hypothesizing. Just like in my story, there are theories that Kristina left me for someone that reminded her more of home. Or maybe she needed someone to take care of. Nonetheless, I (would like to) believe that it is actually for the best. For the both of us. If the topic arises, I tend to say, “My divorce has been the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
I read this book at almost a rate of 100 pages/day (~4 days in total). My hands are now tinted with black and gold from the hardcover’s cheap paint job. But it’s a story in which I was surprised at the depth one person can go; chaining yourself to the same wall for weeks just to study which peppercorn-shaped knobs will hold your weight…..
Oh yeah, I totally forgot to go into what this book is actually about! But I did warn you, this is a book rant, not a review.
In Yosemite, there is a ledge called El Capitan, or El Cap for short. There are many possible routes on the wall, but some are known to be impassible. One of those thought accordingly was the Dawn Wall. Basically it looked like a flat piece of vertical rock; there wasn’t much to hold onto. So the only way to climb such a route was with assistance, being pulled up to help reduce some of your own personal weight to complete the climbs.
Nowadays, most people want to “free climb” their routes. This involved being able to pull your own body weight without fail between sections, or pitches in rock climbing jargon. If you fall during a pitch, you start at that pitch’s beginning (not at the very bottom of the wall) and try again. If you are doing 10-20 pitches on a wall, you are going to be sleeping on the wall for a few nights. The Dawn Wall took >15 days.
Note: In free climbing, participants still use ropes for protection. There is also the practice of “free soloing,” where if you fall….you die. Basically, don’t do it unless you both want instant fame AND you nothing else to live for. Bottom line: DON’T DO IT!
So after seven years, on-and-off, of studying the wall and almost memorizing it move-by-move, Tommy and his climbing partner, Kevin, spent almost three weeks on the wall to successfully free climb each pitch in succession without leaving. Something thought impossible before. But after inflamed tendons, continuously bloody fingers, and nerve wrecking expectations, it was done. In December! They could have died from falling ice ……. but fortunately didn’t.
This is one of the stories in which someone has succeeded. The novel is littered with trials faith, endurance, and patience. Social isolation, monetary limits, emotional terror and confusion, broken physical limits, marital stress, and a loss of an index finger. But remember, many others have tried to live this this lifestyle and have nothing to prove for it. Others will never be even able to tell the tale of failure; some of the author’s friends die in this story. Just like anyone can die in a car crash, any climber can suffer the fate of a weak hold, avalanches of rock and ice, and “widowmakers.”
Nevertheless, the book has helped me cement my personal new year’s resolution: “Find a lifestyle worth living for, personally, and start rolling in that direction.” This year may be a little weird, and I may end up burning a few bridges along the way. Regardless, I feel it as a necessary step towards obtaining self-fulfillment. I’m done feeding off of a desire for social acceptance; true friends will accept me regardless of my ambitions.