We Seek Suffering (Suffering is Optional)

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

The floorboards creaked and bowed under my weight. I stopped to move the turned over paint bucket–masquerading as exercise equipment–to the side, and hopefully to more stable slats. The soft thud of foot-up-and-foot-down became muted. I resumed stepping. 

Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. For 45 minutes.

This exercise is known as step-ups, and the beauty lies in the self-explanatory name à la description à la simplicity of action. The purpose is to prepare your body for uphill walking with a weighted pack (i.e., if you don’t have easy access to a mountain or you like the convenience of working out at home).

It’s a mindless task really. For the first 15 minutes or so it’s palatable. Then it becomes brutally boring. It’s nothing like walking or hiking or running in the woods. There’s no beauty to fall into, no change of scenery or rock or roots to keep our attention focused. It’s just you and a step. It’s self-contained, repetitive, and grating on the will.

In this Facebook group I’m a part of, some of the mountaineers will do step-ups for two, three hours. They say they go a little mad.

Why? For what end?

Because they’re a little off the rocker? Probably. (I hope to join them in that madhouse someday soon, though.)

But there’s more. 

This is about what the act represents: Literal steps towards mountain dreams. Because you can’t always be in the mountains, but you can train for when you do get there. Because you need to.

It’s about pain re-framed. It’s about defining your suffering, not letting it define you.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

― Haruki Murakami quoting a runner from a International Herald Tribune article, in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Suffering is our relationship to pain. It’s meaning making. We can choose to relate to the pain with purpose, even find enjoyment in it, or let it become misery.

For example, I choose to stay in shape because I know in the long-run it will be better for me. I certainly enjoy running, lifting, and climbing but not always. Some days you don’t want to be active–no way, hell no–but that long-term vision gets me out there more often than not because I’m pretty sure my future self is going to thank me. And lo and behold, usually after I get going I fall in rhythm and enjoy the activity. 

Let’s clarify a bit further about the companions of pain and suffering.

Pain is the physical and mental stabbings, the body breaking down, the mental fatigue. It is an inevitable part of life, especially if you’re into long distance running (as Murakami is) or have any sort of human relationship ever.

(For example, I’ve had a few parents now tell me a similar narrative, “Your children are your greatest love and joy, and they are guaranteed to break your heart.” You don’t get one (love) without the other (heartbreak)).

Suffering on the other hand is the story we tell ourselves about the pain. This narrative very quickly usurps the discomfort and frames the entirety of the experience. 

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

Pain Is Temporary, Suffering Can Last a Lifetime. 

Therein lies the crux of it: How we relate to suffering matters more than the pain itself because it becomes the experience.

Nothing Lost, Nothing Gained. Or Rather, Never Really Lived.

We like to think that one of our primary drives is to reduce pain. But what do you make of all the people that actively go seek it out? 

Ultra-runners, mountaineers, triathletes… These are long and grueling activities that no one describes as “fun” during the event itself. Only afterwards, upon reflection, does satisfaction permeate. Their pain is reframed into an appreciation of a project completed after a whole lot of work, and it brings a smile to one’s face.

These athletes often talking about feeling most alive during their events.

Why is that? In part, pain evolved to bring you to your senses, to make you acutely aware of what’s going on inside and around you. Pain helps you to live in the present.

What does this say about our values hierarchy as a species? 

For one, maybe we care more about accomplishment and personal growth than mitigating pain.

Think of it this way, the only time you don’t experience pain is when you’re dead. Maybe if you’re not experiencing pain you’re not really living.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

Be Mindful of What You Spend Your Energy On

In this day and age, we say we want an easy life, but the irony is that we don’t really give a shit about something that comes without effort. What we spend our time on inevitably has meaning for us, and the harder we work, the more it matters.

Psychology backs this up, the Sunk Cost Fallacy suggests you are more willing to commit to something you’ve already invested in. The more energy you dedicate to something, the more devoted you feel towards it.

Perhaps in some small way that’s why people choose to spend so much time in their job. Because it’s the easy, most obvious thing to commit yourself to (wrongly or rightly).

The questions you might want to ask yourself: Are you clear with what you are trying to achieve at the end of this hard work? Is this something worth experiencing pain for? How are you framing your relationship to the pain?

One Small Step at at Time 

“Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche 

The room heats up and there’s a heaviness to the saturated air. The weathered light from the hanging bulb casts long shadows about the room. Sweat pools on my back where the backpack sits. In a short while I take a quick break to crack open a window. 

In the cool breeze I think of the pain and boredom, then of the majesty of mountains, and go back to take the next step. 



Photo source: Mountain Life

31 for 31: The Grateful List

You’d think there would be big epiphanies after 31 years of existence. But that’s not the case. At least for me anyway.

On one hand growing older feels like a discerning scribe capturing acute particulars of a scene. They are bringing the details into ever increasing sharpness. On the other hand it’s like taking a step back from a picture you’ve been staring intently at, only to realize the painting is much larger in scope and complexity than you realized from your first, narrow vantage point. And you appreciate that the things you look at change in composition depending on just how close you are to it.

Thus the boundary between 30 and 31 came to pass, and nothing perceptible really happened. I was flooded with a sense of sadness upon waking, got caught up in comparisons to a vague sense of where I thought I ought to be, rollicked in joy at all the years I (hopefully) have in front of me, and grappled with day-to-day existence type shit, like where to go for lunch and “I should really respond to that email.”

In the end, I got to climb and play with a dog so it was a good day (as are all days where I get to climb and play with dogs).

As part and parcel of aging, I like to reflect on the past year. Rather than share lessons learned (which tend to be overly generalized in order to be relatable), here is a list of 31 things I’m grateful for (which make me feel good to think about, and might add some brightness to your day too):

  1. Supportive and loving family. Those that put up with your shit when you are younger, who encourage you as you grow, which are are there for you through good and bad… No idea where I’d be without them
  2. Healthy body that let’s me move in the world on my own volition, that let’s me express myself through motion
  3. The open, random, dance of the world; That you never really know where a day may lead
  4. Good coffee and a good book
  5. Moments of silence and stillness. Of feeling light, like you might float away; When weight becomes discarded and you are left simply buoyant, unburdened
  6. The sense of no separation that arises in rare moments, typically in nature; An electric expansiveness you don’t know whether it will ever stop, is beyond your conception of space, and which is unimportant in the moment, because. Everything.
  7. Lounging (and otherwise) in bed until the afternoon with someone you love. No cares but to be close, as close as you can
  8. Running light and free through forests, fields, city streets, across hills, along trails, in puddles, up stairs, weaving between crowds
  9. A big meal after a long run (usually pizza)
  10. Wandering, openly, absentmindedly in nature. And, walking around cities without a direction other than to follow the initial twitch of interest toward a certain place
  11. The way you feel engaged and tuned in to each movement on a rock face
  12. Poetry and art that shakes you
  13. Laughing so hard it hurts
  14. That once-in-a-while orange that is otherworldly sweet. Fresh apples off the tree, sliced. Ripe peaches that unleash torrents of nectar down your chin and hand when you bite into it. Frozen grapes that crunch and cool. Blueberries off the bush in the mountains. Has citrus ever been so tangy?
  15. For ocean spray spritzing away and the sound of rolling waves, especially over a pebble beach; A vacuuming crash then rainstick needles falling and spreading, all the small bits, rolling along, rocking back and forth, click click click, silence and air drawn in. Repeat
  16. For sun rises over water or mountain, and sunsets from a hill
  17. Watching dumb movies with friends and genuinely enjoying it
  18. Of learning self-love and compassion. I’m pretty alright after all
  19. Oh hands in dirt and watching plants grow. That smell of richly alive soil, fuming with a sense of time immemorial, which also happens to smell like minerals, decaying leaves, and belonging
  20. For animals, so many animals: Puppies (they are all puppies), kitties (same story), sheep, chickens, goofy ducks, cows, etc.
  21. The smell of fresh snow in a pine forest. The sound of it crunching underfoot. Similarly, the shuffling, swishing, crackling of leaves as you walk about in Autumn 
  22. The smell of a light rain on a warm summer day, all metallic and crisp
  23. That look you get when you know she loves you
  24. Laying in piles of powder and watching the whirling flakes dance across your vision. The feeling of snow sprinkles melting on your face. For that matter, drifting away in open fields on a pillow of grass and letting the sky fill up your visual field
  25. The way Ollie still tinkles himself when he’s excited. The way Brin still runs away
  26. Giving a small gift, or thoughtful compliment, or cracking a joke just to see her smile
  27. Pocket-sized notebooks and a pen with ink that flows just right
  28. The shedding that comes with a good laugh and a good cry
  29. Getting up extra early for no damn reason, having the city to yourself and watching it wake up
  30. People, books, and music that seem to come into your life just when you need them
  31. That first step into a new land after a long, long ride

The Sound of Waking up Before Your Alarm Clock

I awoke at 5:56, been beating the clock for weeks. Why?

One. It’s probably because the bed is uncomfortable, a couch conversion that dips in the middle and barely fits my anything but tall frame. I go to sleep laying lengthwise and wake up diagonally, splayed.

Two. Maybe it’s the light flickering on from across the street, the automatic front entrance luminescence–that alien spaceship open-hatch beaming out into the night. 

Three. It’s a bad dream. Eventually, I’ll lay my head back on the damp salty pillow. 

I’m envious of the people who can remember theirs. The good ones. They talk of outlandish tales and I sit gripped pondering the Jungian symbolism.

I do my dreaming in the day. They consist of places to see, mountains to climb, of the woman I’d like to do it all with. 

I try not to wake up early from these. Sometimes life beeps and bleeps and reality catches up with you.




Next week is February 14th. 

That’s seven days.

You know how many girlfriends I’ve had, to bring chocolate and flowers to on this day of sugar hearts and Hershey kisses? 

Zero. 

Cupid’s slacking. 

Or maybe slow. Though, I met my last two girlfriends in the week between Valentine’s Day and my birthday. Will this year make it three in a row?

Periods also come in threes. Ellipses twinkling the continuation of, a break in the story so… to be continued, Beau.




“Do you like spending time alone?,” she asked.

“I do. I have a lot of practice with it.” I said.

I’ve spent 9.5 of my 12 adult years single. But who’s counting.

In two weeks I’ll be 31.

I’ve got an average of 48 years left to live.

Numbers. 

Numbers, numbers, numbers. 

I wonder if maybe I look hard enough I can find a pattern in them all. There is one common denominator. 




Math used to be fun.

Then life made it into a practical matter of quarterly reviews, your income statement, and if you really can afford that vacation you’ve always wanted to take.

I had to learn to like math again. To understand it means you can play the odds.

I figure life is a lottery, except we don’t really know the rules, and the house didn’t stack the game in their favor. Well they did, sorta.

Anyway, you take your chances in a 79 year average lifespan–look for the opportunities with upside, minimize your exposure, bet big on the things you believe in–and bask in the favor of Fortune once or twice.

In the end, math tells you things like we all approach zero over time. History is a fine complementary subject, if you’re curious.

An any rate, while you’re marked 1 and not 0, the key is to keep playing the game. Or something like that.




Illustration by Pete Lloyd


I don’t know much. But I’m good at parroting other people’s words.

A wise man once said that the life you live is a combination of the here and now and a fantasy for how you thought it all would be. 

Analyze any of your disappointments and you’ll see it’s the discrepancy between what you’d hoped for and what is.

A scientist enumerated that love comes in all forms, and that’s the beauty and difficulty of it.

A drunk said you should find what you love and let it kill you.

A preacher said to do great things. And if you can’t do that to do little things in a great way.

A climber said the real problem is that you think you have all this time. When you don’t.

A psychologist said that the health of our world is dependent on the integrity of the individual.

Well hoot, Japhy, what’s it all mean?

Maybe it’s that your life matters and you get too few spins of the roulette wheel. Maybe it’s that you should roll that damn ball for as long as ya can. Because you want to play, and not be a spectator, aye?




“Beep-beep!”

That your alarm clock going off?



Feature photo source: A Reciprocating Saw

The Day I Learned My Cousin Is a Professional Climber

I learned a few things that day.

Like how someone can hum with crystal glass vibrancy–the kind you can hear and feel.

Or how a gleam in their eye is gonna stick to you like burdock burrs after a hike in the woods. There’s no escaping it.

That’s how it was, talking with him about climbing. 

Beer at the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile. Photo source: Gardiner Liquid Mercantile


Perhaps my memory is faulty. If it is, I blame the craft beer.

We’d already drank two glasses each and they caused his cheeks to flush and my speech to slur slightly. It was summer in the Hudson Valley and the days were simple and long. Perspiration dribbled down our foreheads and the glass flutes.

We were sitting outside the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile talking about growing up and family. He was raised in Long Island and had longed to get away from the cramped quarters of that thin slice of land. 

He went to school at SUNY New Paltz and fell hard for climbing and mountain biking and his girlfriend. I can’t remember if he chose the school based off proximity to the Shawangunks. My memory is a bit hazy, like I said.

So the story goes, he climbed throughout college learning the trade of trad on the cliffs outside of town. Now he was the manager at the local climbing gym. “The Danager,” as the high school staff called him. 

This is where I sunk my teeth into climbing for the first time. That I do remember.

I hadn’t lived in a climber’s town before and wouldn’t have come through New Paltz if it wasn’t for the farm.

But there I was and I needed an outlet from the manual labor. The idea of climbing had been like a splinter in my brain, lodged in there from somewhere unrecognized long ago. I had wanted to try it yet never did. I started going to the gym, hence I met Dan.

As the season progressed, I fell into a rhythm and started climbing 3-4x per week. Mostly in the gym, go figure. It was like falling in love and the excitement of climbing got me through some damn drawn out days of hoeing and weeding.

I learned that the area had a long history: From Fritz Wiessner and Hans Krauss establishing lines in the 1930s and ’40s to a Nobel Prize winner coming up from Manhattan to set routes on the weekends (i.e., Shockley’s Ceiling, for William Shockley, a complicated character known equally for his racist ideas as his contribution to the semiconductor) to Lynn Hill’s first ascent of Vandals, which ushered in a wave of 5.13 climbs on the East Coast. 

More recently, Andy Salo, the almost Gunks lifer and local superhero had just completed the first ascent of Bro-Zone, a 5.14b extension, and the hardest route in the area.

On the other hand, it’s a quiet hippy-dip college town with plenty else going on. If you didn’t look for it, you could easily miss that this was a place pro climbers move to for their craft.

Dan asked why I was here in New Paltz.

I told him I had wanted to try farming for years, that I used to be in startups but wanted to pursue things that felt more right for me going forward. 

We clinked glasses to celebrate doing what moves you. As he raised his hand, I could see into his glass where his finger should have been.

Inside the bar of the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile. Photo source: Gardiner Liquid Mercantile


He asked if I knew anyone in the area. 

I said not really, that my cousin lived here, but we weren’t that close.

“He’s sort a of semi-pro climber, actually,” I added.

“Who is your cousin?,” he asked.

“Andy Salo.”

Your cousin is AaaannDDDDYYY SAAAAlllOOOOO?!?!” He practically fell out of his chair.

“I mean, he’s sponsored by like La Sportiva. He’s not semi, dude, he’s pro. He’s like a local legend.” 

His eyes were teacup saucer wide. His voice rose a few octaves and he emphasized the “d”, “y”, and the “a”,“o”. Bingo was his name-o.

I knew Andy had been sponsored but never really paid attention to the brands. The whole idea of him living out of a truck for years, traveling around and climbing, seemed alien. It didn’t fit into my world view when I was younger. I guess I kinda ignored it, chalked it up to frivolous vagabonding. Still, there was an element of intrigue that I couldn’t shake.

Was he the source of the sliver?

To be honest, I wasn’t close with Andy and wouldn’t see him my whole time in New Paltz. 

Well there was one instance when I’m pretty sure he walked past the cafe I was sitting in. But you get the point.

He had always struck me as aloof, a “my way or the highway” kinda guy. He certainly marched to the beat of his own drum, and I often felt I wasn’t welcome to join his parade when our families got together for the holidays or that one summer vacation in Colorado.

Maybe it was because I was young and we didn’t share a lot in common back in the day. Maybe it was because he was a “step-“cousin; we didn’t grow up together and haven’t had the chance to get to know each other much. 

My impression softened when I learned about his feats, from someone else

Andy and I spoke at my sister’s wedding–his cousin–in September. It was probably the longest chat we’ve had to date.

I learned that Andy is a pretty humble guy, and that his motivations are driven as much by climbing as the history of a place. (He studied geology in college because, “it seemed the least terrible” thing to major in, which is his way of saying he likes history. That’s my take anyway). 

We talked about the pursuit of what interests you (and the sometimes friction against societal pressure). We like to think we are all going after what we want, but in practice that’s not true. Andy certainly has beat that drum a bit harder than most.

Like the quartz conglomerate cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge, there’s more layers to my cousin than I could see at first glance.

Before we parted, he invited me to go climbing with him.

After we finished our beers, Dan packed up and headed out.

I stayed to enjoy the last rays and ponder: What was my judgement of Andy really about? 

Often, the things that trouble us about another is a reflection of our own desires or behavior.

Certainly, I’ve felt a tension towards devoting myself to one thing. That singular focus appealed to me. Was I jealous of him for actually doing it? Was I projecting my own “my way or the highway” nature unfairly onto Andy? Maybe.

The last seven years had been spent in startups and at one point I thought that would be my shtick. Yet, here I was working on a farm gaining a pointedly new perspective. 

I wondered about unfair judgements I have cast on other people.

Sunset over the Gunks. Photo by the author


All that summer I had been grappling with what to do (for a career, in life, etc.). 

By the end of the season there was just one clear-ambiguous thought: I wanted to keep gaining a broader perspective of the world. 

In rare moments when I let myself dream–without all that bullshit of what’s practical or not– what I really wanted to do was to travel through Europe for the next year. 

I wanted to climb more. I wanted to learn mountaineering. I wanted to write.

A round of cheers brought me to. Their clanging glasses clamored about in my ear.

I got up and walked back to the farm in the setting sun, a burdock burr was stuck to my pant leg.


Header Image: Andy Salo sending Bro-Zone, the hardest route in the Gunks. Photo source: Whitney Boland




The Sweet and Salty of 2018: Reflecting on a Year of Love and Travel

“Even sweetness can scratch the throat, grandma said, so stir the sugar well.” – Ocean Vuong in “Notebook Fragments”

The thing is, I don’t like sugar in my coffee.

But, I was taught recently that a spoonful of sugar in the pot — if you do it Turkish style — makes the final product creamier, frothier, tastier. I have to admit, he’s right.

2018 had its sweet moments, but I didn’t always stir well. Sometimes the crystals tickled, other times they scratched at something deeper.

Ah, it’s 2019, you say? Tis the season to reflect on all the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami, (etc.) of 2018 then! And if I’m good at anything it’s being in my own head too much.

This year had the added benefit of electronic journal entries to easily review (compared to past years when I swore by pocket-sized, hand-written notebooks).

What did I learn?

  • I worry a fuck ton (about money, what to do in life, what is meaningful to me, etc.). I tend to be hard on myself
  • Climbing is hella fun. Traveling is hella fun. Simplifying my life was hella chill. Pursuing what struck me as genuinely interesting was… hella cool
  • I want to build a life with someone. I seek love and connection. I want security in a relationship
  • Time spent with others is one of the most important treasures
  • When I am acting cold, there is something I am avoiding
  • I need to be more honest with myself (the easiest person to fool is, well, yourself). As an extension I need to communicate doubts and concerns more often (be more honest with others)
  • I am prone to fixate on what is not working
  • I miss building something. I long for the creativity and strategy of creation. Doing originative, self-expressive work each day is important
  • Commitment is a weakness (in relationships and projects). I’m prone to give up too soon
  • I am full of contradictions (enjoy travel and also want to be a part of communities, seek novelty and also want to build something meaningful)
  • I want to use my writing as an opening up of sorts, for myself and others; To provide a place for readers to feel comfortable exploring self-doubt, to introspect, to question, and to face uncertainty. I want the reader to feel connected, as if they are talking with a kindred spirit
  • I aim to give more of myself to others in 2019 because I feel I’m operating from a more secure and self-understand place

It may sound as if I’m being a bit salty (I forgot, you need to add the lightest pinch of salt to the pot too), however 2018 was an undeniably sweet year.

Now to you, what did you learn in 2018?

 

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Photo by the author