Thursday, March 31, 2011

No Little Plans

Make no little plans.  They have no magic to stir men's blood... 
-Daniel Burnham

It's a tricky thing, commitment. You commit to a person, or a goal, or a lifestyle, knowing all the while that there's always the possibility that something beyond your control could change your plans. And so I'm going to resist the urge here to preface the announcement of a recent commitment I made with those hesitant caveats: "Assuming nothing else comes up..." or "If all goes according to plan...." Instead, I'll just come out and say it: Exactly two years from now, in April of 2013, J and I will begin our attempt to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

There. I've said it. You heard it here first. The PCT runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington - 2600 miles of soul-searching, marriage-testing backpacking. We're going to do it, and we're going to invite as many of our friends and family members as possible to do some portion of it with us. It will take approximately six months, hiking south-north, starting in April to avoid the heat of the desert and hopefully reaching the high Sierras in early- to mid-summer, when most of the snow has melted there.

It's both exhilarating and terrifying to have committed to this journey. I'm not so concerned about the physical effort as I am about the mental exertion - six months is a whole lot of time doing nothing but walking. And the next two years is a lot of time planning something that - let's face it - could easily be derailed by the rest of life.

I often find it difficult to strike a balance between flexibility and commitment, and this trip is no exception. We have to be fully committed to this goal if we are serious about accomplishing it, which means spending many hours and not an insignificant amount of money just in the planning stages. We have to be willing to quit, or at least take extended leave from, our jobs, and we assume that we'll be as able - economically and psychologically - to do that two years from now as we think we are now. And we have to be prepared to change our plans, to adjust to the ever-changing current of things completely beyond our control, like the health of our family members or the future economic situation.

In the face of all that ambiguity, we choose to make plans anyway. We want to turn our talk into commitment, and finally to turn that commitment into action. Getting to each of those points with any given dream seems to me one of the keys to a fulfilling life.

And so, we commit without caveats. A river guide once told a group of paddlers I was with, as we headed into one of the largest rapids in the Grand Canyon, that as we paddled we needed to be not just involved, but committed to the experience. "What's the difference between being involved and being committed?" he asked. "Well, it's like bacon and eggs. In bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tiny Buddha: In Defense of Wasting Time

Greetings, long-lost friends! Well, life has been busy - richly, wonderfully busy, with mountains summited and quality time with friends and an exciting, though time-consuming, work event that I'm organizing. Needless to say, I've been neglecting the Porch Swing, so in the meantime, here's a link to my first post on Tiny Buddha, for those of you who may have missed it:

In Defense of Wasting Time

Enjoy! I hope to be back to weekly posting here within the next few days.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cave of the Bells

A couple of weekends ago, J and I had the opportunity to visit Cave of the Bells, which is in the Santa Rita mountains southeast of Tucson. Although we'd been to this cave before, we'd only explored a few hundred yards into it. This would be the first real caving either one of us had ever done.

Yep, that's me, caving!
After a short hike, we reached the entrance, and our guide, a grad student who studies caves, paused to give us her "caving guidelines." These consisted of things like, "try not to touch the pretty stuff," "there's no shame in crawling," and finally, "don't die." ("That's not a guideline," she said, "that's a rule.") Good God, I thought, what have I gotten myself into?

The first obstacle was a squeeze that served as the true entrance to the cave. It took us away from the light- and breeze-filled first chamber and into the steady 71 degrees, 100% humidity, and pitch blackness that would be our environment for the next four-plus hours. These conditions are constant in this particular cave: as I write this, Cave of the Bells sits like a buried dragon, hollow and moist at 71 degrees and 100% humidity.

Gorgeous formations, Cave of the Bells, AZ.
It is strange to think of this vapid space as just existing, with no knowledge of itself. Something about the cave's darkness caused me to project some kind of consciousness onto it while we were there. Perhaps it was my sense of us as invaders, or at the very least explorers of a highly inhospitable and indifferent environment. Perhaps it was easier to think of the cave as something that cared about us, or at least knew we were there. Perhaps it was the influence of House of Leaves (a novel I highly recommend). In any case, though I knew it was crazy, I thought of the cave itself as something alive.

We moved along slowly, admiring the stalactites and stalagmites, the crystals formed all over the walls, and the utter darkness in which our eyes, for lack of stimulation, seemed to create things to see when we turned our lights out. Thick, slippery mud covered every surface. We climbed up and slid down slopes where the cave bottom dropped away on either side into what truly seemed to be oblivion, and what truly was far enough to seriously injure anyone who slipped. We followed an increasingly perilous path, all the while with the knowledge that the only way out was back the way we had come, through belly-scraping squeezes and hand-over-hand mud-covered scrambles. We knew that one slip of a foot or hand would result in a serious fall and probably serious injury. Caving, I discovered, is not for the faint of heart.

More formations, Cave of the Bells, AZ.
Once we had visited each of the research sites, we decided to do one final route through the cave that we hadn't seen yet, a loop. As soon as we began, it became apparent that this route was far more technical than anything we had done; it also became apparent to me that I was very tired. My arms and core were shaky from climbing and from the tension of maintaining my balance in an almost continuous sequence of precarious positions.

We made slow, tedious progress around the loop. At one point, as we chimneyed across a ravine with our feet on one side of it and our backs on the other, I looked down into the blackness below me and decided that this experience had just passed the point of fun, passed a healthy pushing of my comfort zone and moved firmly into the realm of the stupid. The thing about caves, though, is that once you get yourself in, you have to get yourself out. So this realization was of little consequence aside from provoking my annoyance with myself for voluntarily getting into this situation in the first place.

Finally, one last squeeze stood between us and the climb back out to the cave's entrance. We had been climbing up a formation that required relatively technical climbing skills (considering that we weren't roped in), and I could feel my whole body trembling with fatigue and the day's steady stream of anxiety. I began to make my way into the tight vertical space and quickly realized that my head could barely fit through. For some reason, the scraping of my helmet along the cave walls and the wedged, trapped feeling created by my immobile head felt like the last straw, and I felt panic begin to rise up as if from the darkness all around me.

A scuba diving instructor once told me that "panic is the genie you can't let out of the bottle." I've always remembered that image, and it's true - especially underwater, where panic is very often fatal. And although I'm not an expert, I imagine that it is almost as dangerous in a cave.

My method for dealing with panic is to attempt to detach myself from the situation and try to remove my thoughts from the physical circumstances of my body. I know that mind's power to influence the body is extraordinary, and indeed, I don't think there is any true separation between the two. Of course, I didn't actually think about any of this as I attempted to jam my head through an eight-inch crack God knows how many feet underground. I took a deep breath, mentally removed myself from the situation, hissed, "Get your shit together, Tory!", tilted my head just right, and squeezed through.

I don't mean to over-dramatize this adventure. Not a single bad thing happened, and I'm sure that for the experienced folks in our group, it was just another great day of caving. But it pushed me to my psychological limit - something that I normally enjoy, or at least look back on fondly, but in this case, I just think was stupid. I wish that I could say that I conquered some kind of demon, that there will always be another cave for me to explore. That would be a satisfying, if clich├ęd, ending to this story. But the truth is, I'm not sure there was ever anything that needed conquering. I bow with utmost humility to that cave, unconscious and thoughtless as it is, and leave it to others. I admit, for once, and with great difficulty, that some parts of the earth are better off left unexplored -- at least by me. 

Safe, mostly sound, and pretty damn dirty after a day of caving.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Might as Well Face It: Addicted to School?

I've been out of graduate school (for the second time) for almost two years now. Sadly, at the almost-age of 30, this two year period is the longest I've been out of school in my entire life (not counting ages 0-5). And no, I do not have a PhD or an MD, though I have managed to accumulate two Master's degrees. Despite that, I found myself semi-seriously contemplating yesterday whether or not I should enroll in a PhD program. The point here is not to exaggerate nor to downplay my academic achievements, but rather to ask: what's the appeal? I have a job I enjoy in my field of choice that is creative and allows me a ton of freedom. I'm learning and experiencing new things all the time, because I try to seek them out. In short: there's no logical reason for me to go back to school. So why do I seem to be addicted to it, or at least to the idea of it?

Is it the prestige? Meh. I'd like to think I'm over that. While I certainly admire people with PhD's and other academic achievements, I'm starting to really admire people who pursue a creative life outside the constructs of academia. Is school just a nice security blanket? Something I know I'm good at and therefore a kind of permanent "back-up plan" in case I [lose my job/hate my job/have to move/get bored/decide to have a kid/fill in the blank]? I think that's a part of it. It's also a bit of the "grass is always greener" syndrome, in which I become convinced that some other reality may be better than my version of the present - a habit of mind that I continuously strive to break.

Speaking of habit... I think that's actually a huge part of this. I'm in the habit of going to school, of focusing on school-related goals, which come in conveniently structured semester-long, year-long, and program-long packages. I'm in the habit of constructing my identity around being a student. I like the built-in community of like-minded folks. I really like the winter and summer break lifestyle. I like it when someone who knows more than me tells me the best books to read and how to focus my often-scattered attention. Most of all, I like a concrete framework upon which to overlay my dreaminess, where I can hang my big ideas like miraculous plants that need only passionate philosophical discussion and a consistent infusion of beer to grow.

But you know what else I like lately? A paycheck. A job that focuses that dreaminess and forces me into action, into applying my skills and challenging myself to really implement my ideas. I like the time I have to write about whatever I want and to (gasp!) watch a little bad TV. More and more, I envision a future in which the same creative energy and sense of community that I feel in school are cultivated in other ways. And more and more, I'm living it.

A friend sent this to me, because it's totally me.  Thanks, Joanna!  Image credit:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Birdwatching the Urban Jungle

One of my favorite things about walking, running, and biking around Tucson is sighting birds. This afternoon as I biked home from work, I spotted a great blue heron flapping along toward Himmel Park, its wing beats long and leisurely like a bird with nothing but time for enjoying the gorgeous March day. The same flicker was singing his heart out on the same tree where I noticed him this morning, which was not long after I saw a Gila woodpecker scaling a mesquite tree on University Boulevard. This was not an atypical number of sightings (and those were just the ones that stood out) during my 8-mile round trip bike commute, especially this time of year, when, despite relatively chilly nights, spring threatens every day to burst forth in all its gaudy desert glory.

For me, the pleasure of bird sightings in the city stems from my perpetual surprise at them. Tucson is, in some ways, a barren place, and I say that as someone who loves desert vegetation and loves this city. But we have approximately 1% tree canopy cover here, compared with a national average of 25%, and even though our desert trees may naturally create less cover than more lush vegetation elsewhere... that's still pretty pathetic. Our urban forest could definitely stand to be enhanced (for more on those efforts, check out Watershed Management Group and Trees for Tucson).

So it is always a surprise when, as I make my way through the exhaust-filled, pavement-covered, largely shade-free urban landscape, having nearly forgotten that I do in fact share this environment with something besides my fellow humans and their cars, the shocking red of a cardinal or a vermilion flycatcher literally stops me in my tracks. Or a red-tailed hawk alights on a telephone pole, fluffs its feathers, and screams its wildness across a deserted parking lot. These are the small miracles that transcend the ordinary workings of my day, that transport me, that keep me from looking down and hating the grime of the city, and instead looking up and feeling, briefly, the freedom of its winged inhabitants.  The birds do not judge, they just are.

Nature is so very resilient if we give it the slightest chance. There are many people working in Tucson - and in so many other places - to bring nature back into our urban spaces. It is vital to our health as humans and to our awareness of other species that we see nature as something that we are a part of, not something we go on an eco-vacation to see, but rather something that is present in our everyday urban lives, inseparable from us and impacted by us. The countless benefits of this extend to both ourselves and the species that we help to thrive, and I like to think that the biggest one is simply that the presence of nature can remind us, daily, if only for a moment, that we too can be wild and free.