Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Breaking of Buds

The family and I celebrated our second Sunday Slowdown of the year at Lake of the Woods. The park is situated about a 15 minute drive from our home, north of Interstate-74 along the Sangamon River near Mahomet. Today was a cool, grey day compared to the early spring weather we've had for most of the week, but signs of spring were evident as we walked along the wooded trails.

The bright green of new honeysuckle leaves and the deep burgundy of wild raspberry decorated the trail, casting color on the fading winter-tinged landscape. Empty, broken nut hulls from black walnut and shagbark hickory lay as evidence of a busy winter by the park's resident squirrels. Mottled sycamore still shone in bright textured contrast to the dark, furrowed bark of oaks and maples yet to welcome spring. The buds of numerous trees and shrubs stood in bloated attention waiting for nature's command to burst forth in flowers and leaves.

Wildlife was abundant, including squirrels, Canada geese, woodpeckers and -- of particular note -- a mated pair of Mallard ducks and a lone male Mallard who was vying for competition along the river.

This was our second Sunday Slowdown in as many weeks, a habit I hope we continue as the weather warms and our natural areas come back to life after their winter hiatus.

Testing Our Intuition

So much of my recent thought has centered on the question of belief -- what I believe, why I believe, what are the foundations of my belief. While these mental exercises often do not result in new beliefs or clarity, they renew my commitment to constantly put my beliefs -- my intuitions -- to a real world truth test of sorts. Are my beliefs correct? Do they stand up to the reality of things?

In a recent TED lecture, behavioral economist Dan Ariely talks about why we behave in certain ways, based on our intuitions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Sound of First Steps

As I have shared with some of you, and now am sharing with the rest, I have decided to try my hand at writing a book. On my List of Things I Always Wanted To Do, this is near the top, if not the summit.

I have received a great deal of feedback on my writings here at Skim Mocha -- some supportive, some constructively critical -- and now feel my next step is to take some of what I have written, combined with some very personal beliefs I've been developing over the past few years, and develop a more coherent view of who I am and what I believe.

These are my first steps....

The Sound of First Steps
"We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us." --Marcel Proust
I took my first steps of this journey on September 23, 2001, as the crunch of my hiking boots on the gravel-strewn parking lot sharply broke the dark morning silence. Our goal that day was to hike the nine miles from the Jenny Lake trail head to Lake Solitude, perched atop the northern trail of Cascade Canyon. Normally one of Grand Teton National Park's most popular hiking trails, only our conversation and footsteps echoed through the trees this day. Fall was dawning in the Wyoming, long from the busy season, late enough that the specter of snow keeps most casual tourists away. Our packs stuffed full of enough gear and food to get us to the top and back, we set off along the 1.8 mile trail toward our first significant turn in the path.

My wife and I were seven days into a somewhat spontaneous 4,100 miles excursion through nine states, five national parks, and countless natural and man-made roadside attractions. For us, it was a conscious escape from the incessant gloom and fear that blared from our television, infiltrated our news, and dominated our waking -- and often sleeping -- hours. We had talked about a fall vacation, but had no plans set on September 11 -- the morning a perfectly blue sky became a silent, unmarred reflection of the shock we all felt. A few days later, September 16, we packed our camping gear in the back of our new Ford Ranger and started driving. Our plan was simple. Drive. And so we did. For the first six days, we bounced from Iowa to South Dakota to Wyoming -- from the Badlands to Mt. Rushmore to Yellowstone. And then to the Tetons, one of the youngest mountain formations in the United States, formed 2-3 million years ago when the peaks rose up above the valley floor of what is now Jackson Hole.

As we walked along the west side of Jenny Lake toward Inspiration Point, the early morning sun gleaming from the snowy top of Teewinot Mountain filtered through the trees, creating shadows along our path. After reaching the canyon trail head and a short diversion to enjoy Hidden Falls, we embarked on our trip up Cascade Canyon. For the first mile or so, tree cover hid most of the surrounding peaks from view, teasing with the occasional glimpse of Teewinot and Mount Owen. It was early on the trail that my wife's whispered but urgent calls brought my focus to movement in the low scrub. A moose had raised its head to survey the two interlopers disturbing his morning snack in the underbrush. The buck's curiosity evolved to indifference; soon we were back trooping along the trail, careful to avoid turning an ankle on the scree underfoot.

As we left Jenny Lake behind us, the underbrush cleared as Cascade Canyon rose nearly 3,000 feet seemingly straight up on either side of us. Never before and not since have I felt the true insignificance of self that I felt surrounded by those imposing walls. I stood there imagining the giant moving sheet of ice that had carved the canyon, dragging the massive boulders responsible for the striations in the canyon walls. Pockets of ice still dotted the pinnacles of the canyon, small reminders of the massive glaciers that smoothed our path millions of years earlier. Many a human has been overwhelmed by the natural beauty and power of our planet, and I walked in communion with them through Cascade Canyon.

The trail twisted, turned and switched back endlessly, each time teasing us with the prospect that Lake Solitude was right around the next bend. The anticipation was palpable for what seemed like hours. The high noon sun shone warmly, bringing every detail of the canyon alive in sharp contrast with its surroundings. Becoming repetitive, but far from mundane, the switchbacks provided a time for both focus and reflection. As my feet plodded forward and upward, my mind and emotions remained back with the first steps past the low scrub into the canyon clearing. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of universal irrelevance, a tiny speck of fledgling life on this ancient rock we call home. Each footfall brought me closer a new clarity of thought, and further from the foundations on which I was raised.

Early that afternoon, the trail led us around one final set of boulders and to rocky shoreline and crystal waters of Lake Solitude. The sky, a purer blue than I had ever witnessed before, reflected a brilliant, rich aquamarine in the perfectly quiet surface of the lake. The water possessed a clarity and stillness that enveloped me, exposing its furthest depths to investigation.

As we shared a hearty lunch of apples, cheese and bread, the painful reality of the previous weeks was completely washed from my mind; in its place was a serene contentment interwoven with a desire for more. The personal insignificance of the valley floor had been replaced by a motivation -- to find meaning and clarity in my life, to build a new foundation from which I could grow and learn.

In the years since our trek up Cascade Canyon, this quest has remained as a central metaphor in my life. In the pages to come, I hope to share how I have set out along the path, developed and refined my basis for belief, and built my foundation for living meaningfully as I seek the clear, revealing depths of my own Lake Solitude.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Stifling of Creativity

I find myself very inflexible when it comes to my son's behavior, particularly in public. He's truly a wonderfully-behaved, polite and compassionate child. But yet, I often react to the ways he expresses himself as if he were a supposed to be an overly serious 50-year old actuary instead of a creative, energetic six-year old. Why am I doing this to him? Am I killing some sort of creative impulse in him?

Ken Robinson's TED talk on how the public education system stifles creativity has me rehashing some of these questions -- not just about the education system, but how I as a parent influence how he develops his talents and creativity.

Perhaps I should lighten up a little and let his creative juices flow a little more freely than I normally do. Perhaps I should free my mind from the constricts of adulthood and my education, and rekindle some personal creativity as well.

Sixth Sense

Earlier this week, a friend's status questioned how far away we are from having artificial devices think for us. I'm wondering if he had just seen the Sixth Sense demo by Pattie Maes at

I can most certainly see myself using a device like this once they hit the mass market. Short of the heads up display, the iPhone serves many of the same purposes for me already. I've always been an information sponge and often incredulous towards people who settle for ignorance when answers and information are easily accessible. While there will always be unknowns in life, why settle for not-knowing when the answers are often right in front of us?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Asking for Thank You

I just watched a quick three-minute TED talk by Laura Trice called "The Power of Saying Thank You" and am struck by its fresh approach and poignancy. So often we feel unappreciated by those around us -- an emotion that can become self-destructive if kept bottled inside. While I will always promote a proactive attitude towards expressing our appreciation to others, Trice flips the coin and offers a novel solution -- make sure that those around you understand your need for appreciation, too.

Hard Work

By all accounts, this has been a very long week. Perhaps I should have seen the foreshadowing that lie buried within the quote that greeted me on Monday (in the form of a friend's Facebook status):
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overall and looks like work. - Thomas Edison
Throughout the week, this concept of work -- and the attitudes, processes and ethics that surround it -- continually demanded center stage in my consciousness. Several times, I found myself in defense of my work habits; not that they were lacking, but rather that they were too intense.

I have always been dedicated to the task at hand. I love hard work. It is simply how I'm wired. There is something ultimately satisfying in the process and completion of a job. It matters very little what I'm doing, as long as I see the productivity, efficiency and usefulness of the task. My greatest disappointment is ending a day during which I can't say I've done something. I've often thought I would have made a great factory worker, taking pride that every one of my widgets rolled off the assembly line exactly as expected.

It has been very disconcerting to have to defend my work ethic against claims it is too intense. If anything, I've recently felt that my focus has been slipping. With that as a background, I found Mike Rowe's TED lecture particularly interesting. It's not the most coherent logic I've heard on, but he's struck a nerve with me at the end of a tumultuous week.

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