Accidents of grace

Several people have asked me, including my taxi driver, Moses just now, why Africa, why Kilimanjaro? Since they asked in a way that suggests they want a deeper answer, I tried to come up with one. I wasn’t sure myself at first, but now I can find a few reasons. Among them are another mountain half a lifetime ago, my great-grandmother’s passport, and a desire to be uncomfortable. I was a few weeks shy of 22 when I arrived in Japan for my first job after college. Plagued by depression and low self-confidence, I had barely managed to graduate and get a job. I had begun to see myself as always destined to screw up and fall short. I clung to the few bright spots.When a few teachers put kind comments on a few essays, it was enough to make me want to get better at writing and eventually, teaching, not necessarily because I felt called, but just that it was the one subject I didn’t screw up in. I changed my major from astrophysics to English, which led to auditioning for The Merchant of Venice and somehow landing the role of Shylock. It was a rare success and my first experience throwing myself that intensely into something. By the end, I was speaking in iambic pentameter half the time without knowing it. The applause, the good reviews, and an offer from a professional company were a balm for my fragile ego. Other bright spots had been not just unplanned but completely accidental. One took place 11 stories up. After a trip to the beach, about 19 of my college friends and I crammed in the elevator to return to our rooms. We were sweaty and tired and packed into an elevator car with a maximum capacity of 10. It ground to a halt between the 11th and 12th floors. The stronger guys pried open the inner door and because I was skinny I was able to squeeze through the gap and onto the roof. From there I climbed up the ladder on the shaft wall and somehow got the latch open. While I was up there, alone and looking down 100 feet, I remember feeling relaxed and free of anxiety for the first time in years. It was a lovely sensation, one I wasn’t expecting to feel while dangling from the side of an elevator shaft by one hand while reaching for the latch. I also remember that the instant I opened it and people saw me, I started acting scared, as though I was obliged to. I think many of the times we are afraid, we might be half-pretending. Why? To play a role that is convenient for ourselves and others. I just realized now that I never had stage fright while playing Shylock, either. As long as I was acting, I could give myself permission to act like a guy who doesn’t get stage fright. I got yet another accidental encounter with self-confidence at 2:30 AM [...]

By | 2016-10-30T21:26:10+00:00 August 6th, 2016|Happiness|0 Comments

Creatures of habits

I got passed by an ambulance while riding my electric bike to Edward Hospital yesterday. I knew they were headed there, too, and I knew the person inside was probably about to meet my sister, whose 5am shift as ER physician was not quite up. It was one of those moments we all get daily: a chance to be grateful for the health we have, to reflect that “time and chance happeneth” to us all but today, anyway, we get to be the one cycling on a sunny afternoon (with an electric motor doing the work) instead of the one in the ambulance. I was going for my first ever routine physical, to get a final go-ahead to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in six weeks. As the son of a doctor, I got free healthcare at home and as an adult, I never saw the need. Fortunately I was healthy until depression and a series of stupid excuses led me to make destroying my health a habit. It took just a few years to find myself in that same ER, too weak to climb a flight of stairs, never mind a mountain in Africa. It was a lesson for me in the power of habits to destroy and to save, to break us and, if we’re grateful and patient, to remake us. One of the most common reasons Americans find themselves in ambulances is chest pain and other symptoms of a heart attack. Heart attacks usually result in part from years of habits. Undoing heart disease means adopting new habits, but by some miracle, undoing the damage often takes less time. That’s because we’re helping, rather than opposing the body’s will to heal. Other reasons people end up in ambulances come from poverty: tooth abscesses in people who can’t afford a dentist, minor infections that got worse because the person couldn’t take off work to see a doctor or doesn’t have health insurance, or both. Obamacare has reduced the number of people with the last problem by over 10 million. The other problem is harder to change. The fact that most of us, not just Walmart workers, can’t take family and sick leave freely, is the result of a bad habit we’ve adopted as a society: a screwed-up version of capitalism that forces companies to value short-term shareholder profits and productivity above the long-term health of the company and its employees. The places where we work are rarely designed to make us healthy, even those like mine which give you a free gym membership. Yet somehow, we vote for people who tell us it's right and patriotic to overwork so shareholders can profit; and only lazy people—millenials, liberals, mothers—want to undermine productivity. We vote to have our tax dollars selectively benefit those already wealthier than us. We make a lifestyle of waiting in drive-thrus for coffee we’ll barely taste as we commute, of sending our kids to school in the dark instead of letting them learn to love mornings, and of [...]

By | 2016-10-30T21:26:12+00:00 July 2nd, 2016|Happiness|0 Comments

Hello, World! (Again.) Why I’m climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

I was dismayed last year to realize my passport, which I hadn’t used in 9 years, was about to expire. I hadn’t left the country since the Bush administration. I speak six or seven languages well enough to make small talk and find my way around; I hadn’t used but one in almost a decade. Recently my mother showed me my great-grandmother’s passport. She circled the world in the late fifties—unheard of for an Indian woman in her sixties. Her passport has stamps from Kabul, Moscow, Bangkok...it’s almost full. I held my own expired passport, saw the old photo of myself, and flipped through the unfilled visa pages, blank after blank. Insert metaphor here. What was my excuse? Sure, those nine years were financially difficult (speaking of the Bush administration…) and I had had a major health scare and almost died. In 2016 I found myself back in good health, with a nice middle-class job in a Chicago skyscraper, and no valid passport. I was told I should get one because our parent company is in London and I might have to visit. That doesn’t look likely to happen soon (what do communication directors have to meet about?). Even if it did, who wants to travel to London to sit in an office and talk about derivatives trading? Some live Shakespeare, some curry, a trip to the countryside, looking up distant cousins—those things would be fun. A punk rock concert, Harrod’s, a random local pub, and how far is Stonehenge? But a few days of “And this is our head of blah-blah.” “Oh yes, we’ve met on email! Nice to finally meet you in person.” That’s not travel. No offense to the Head of Blah-blah. She’s a lovely person. I took one short business trip to a conference in Denver. Beautiful downtown and perfect weather in September. The hotel and conference couldn’t have been nicer. As those things go. They go like conferences, don’t they? I got a great Eddie Bauer jacket in my swag bag, though. The best part of the trip was the extra day I stayed to hike and rock climb in Red Rocks and drive into the Rockies. At last I was somewhere, watching the sunrise from atop a huge boulder, dangling off a cliff to get a selfie. Eating second breakfast at a small-town cafe that I suspect put weed in the coffee. Since when does coffee have a grassy smell? On the Amtrak ride home—yes, Amtrak. I’d never tried it. Everyone should do it once. The seat is better than a first-class plane seat for sleeping and Denver’s Union Station is in the middle of its picture-perfect downtown. You have to not be in a hurry. Bring something to read or write or binge-watch. The shinkansen in Japan is over 50 years old, fast, and a pleasure to ride and it makes you wonder why Americans are forced by their government to endure slow trains. It’s not really more expensive, in the big [...]

By | 2016-10-30T21:26:12+00:00 June 27th, 2016|Happiness|0 Comments