Chucking It All Vacariously

Dear Will:

You know that feeling you get when you have 8,000 things you ought to do but the only thing you want to do is watch the ballgame? When your list is so long that you want to tell it “so long”? I’ve been feeling that way a lot lately.

There was a moment today when I was talking on my desk phone, another call was coming in on the second line, and my cell phone began to ring. At the time, I was staring at my email inbox, at the 60 or 70 unread messages and the 40 others on which I need to follow up. I pondered the clutter that surrounded me. And I thought how nice it would be to simply get up, walk out, and not come back.

Henry David Thoreau followed that same urge when he went off to live in the woods for a couple of years. He said he went there to live “deliberately.” Afterwards he said the following:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

I fell in love with Walden when I was in high school, for the same reason that he appeals to me now over 20 years hence: Thoreau puts into beautiful prose words of inspiration and aspiration, and if I lack the disposition to chuck it all and head to the woods, at least through Walden I have the option of doing so vicariously.  And rereading this passage reminds me that my next rereading is long overdue. Now I don’t presume to foist Henry David upon you—I have learned over the years that he is an acquired taste. But I figure it couldn’t hurt any of us—myself especially—to be reminded of the benefits of a simpler existence.

It’s probably wishful thinking—correction: it is wishful thinking; but even wishful thinking can be constructive if not done to excess. So I’ll end this brief lament with a few more ascendant words from HDT, words which remind us that there is more to life than the mundane details that preoccupy and distract us from day to day: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”


A Truly Remarkable Person

Dear Will:

I have this friend named Mark who (here comes a semi-intentional pun) is a remarkable person. I will do an inadequate job of describing what makes him remarkable, but I’ll try:

Mark is a geologist with an MBA. He spends much of his professional life trying to help clean up environmental messes. His politics are unambiguous, but he does not foist his opinions on others; rather he goes about very carefully trying to make a difference in whatever way he can and lets his actions speak for him. Thus, rather than telling me to start recycling, Mark simply started doing it—about a decade before curbside service made it practical.

Mark is an organizer. Whereas my wife and I are the sorts of people who simply slip off together to catch a movie, Mark always has a larger vision. I am one of many people who often get e-mails from him which go something like this: “This weekend, the East Valley Players will be performing a series of plays by Chekhov.  We’re going to have dinner beforehand at the bistro across the street. I’m hoping a bunch of you will show up. It will make it more fun.” Likewise, from time to time, Mark invites people to his home for Shakespeare readings, carefully selecting an eclectic smattering of singles and marrieds, professionals and artists, conservatives and misfits. Invariably I meet someone new when Mark is involved, and invariably that person is interesting.

Mark also likes to climb mountains, but he isn’t satisfied just ascending with the same bunch of outdoorsmen every time. Instead, he’ll notify all of his office-dwelling, sedentary friends, challenging them to get in shape for the big assault on Mt. Whitney in April. He will take it upon himself to schedule, motivate, train the novices, organize the equipment, and even write the post-climb report for those too lazy to show up. And all of this with two bad knees. Why does he do it? Because he loves the outdoors and doesn’t want the rest of us to miss out.

The reason I bring all of this up is because last month when I took my family on vacation, our friend Mark kept popping into my mind. Whether I was driving up through South Pass in Wyoming, floating down the Shoshone River, getting blown away by Yellowstone, riding horses up to 9,000 feet or so in Jackson Hole, stopping to gasp at Cedar Breaks in Southern Utah, there was Mark, dancing in and out of my thoughts. See a geyser, think of Mark. Soak in the natural hot springs, think of Mark. Climb a hill, see some elk—see a sign for the cut off to Great Basin, for crying out loud!—and think of Mark. For good measure we even took the kids to the Shakespeare Festival and thought of Mark Mark Mark. And about the time I was driving south on I-15 through that short stretch of Arizona with the funky rocks on either side of the highway and I’m—you guessed it—thinking of Mark, it occurred to me that he could go on vacation dozens of times and not once feel compelled to think of ME. I would thrill to have my name come to mind when others gaze upon God’s most beautiful creations. Alas, such is an honor one must earn.

Henry David Thoreau said that the reason he went off to Walden Pond for a couple of years was so that he could “live deliberately.” Living deliberately is exactly what Mark does, only he doesn’t have to live like a hermit to pull it off. To the contrary, he is in here among us, raising our sights and improving our lots. Remarkable.

I have vowed to begin living more deliberately myself. We’ll see if I pull that off.


The photo above is of Mark in his heyday, just prior to what he has always described as “the best climbing trip of my life.” (It did not go well. If you ever have the good fortune of meeting him, be sure to ask about the soup.) Mark is the one on the right.