Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Testing Time- A Day of Life Lessons Worth Living

Papi Conpelo was never without his metal cup and his coffee.

Maybe these were his touchstones, holding memories of special times and people. Perhaps they provided him some kind of mystical security, but I never asked. When Papi sat quietly he would gracefully roll the cup from side to side in his hands. He and his cup: old friends engaged in a conversation. This cup and its contents had become part of his identity. Old, cold and dented on the outside. Fresh, warm and fluid on the inside. His cup. His coffee. His yin. His yang.

-from the Life andTimes of Papi Conpelo

6:55 p.m. Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two Rock Aikido dojo. Petaluma, California

I stand in line waiting to move and give my training partner an honest attack. My exam is scheduled to happen in four days. Eleven hundred plus days have come and gone since my last exam. A part of each is dedicated to what will soon happen. Without the generous support of my colleagues helping me grow I wouldn't be here. The last six months have been particularly delightful and agonizing.

8:50 a.m. Four Days earlier. Friday June 10, 2011

AMU Building, Room 227. Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I'm sitting in a room with forty of the brightest educators from the United States and abroad. They teach leadership and organizational behavior. Every year a different campus hosts the Organizational Behavior Teacher Conference (OBTC) and attracts over two hundred people like these surrounding me. This is my eighth OBTC. Dr. Kathy Kane, University of San Francisco (USF), is sitting nearby. She is this year's OBTC program coordinator, responsible for the success of the entire week. At her invitation Carlos Buhler www.carlosbuhler.com is also in the room. Kathy has introduced a new series of presentations called Conversations with Interesting People into the schedule. Carlos is this morning's interesting person. He is 57 years old, lean, wiry, relaxed, composed and alert. Nothing in the room escapes his gaze.

I spent a lot of time hunting in the Arizona desert where I grew up. Hawks would perch themselves on the poles supporting high-tension lines stretched across barren terrain, and from there they would wait to silently drop, strike and then carry off their unsuspecting prey. Buhler's appearance is hawk-like. A distant feeling comes over me. His energy will soon descend, but not take. Rather, he is about to give to us from what he has learned.

The film Touching the Void (have you seen it?) documents the 1988 successful first-ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Simon Yates and Joe Simpson made that climb. But the film is dedicated to their descent and its emotional aftermath. From my hunting days I know that the real work of any outing happens after your shot has reached its intended target. Then every move you make becomes important. Living in remote country, hours from cities and medical help, with dirt roads being the norm, drinking only the water I could carry or find in streams, I've never thought of hunting as a sport. It was the way we gathered most of our food. To my father, hunting bordered on the sacred. He taught us (my sister, brother and me) to respect the land and what lived there. It sustained us. Mountaineering shares a similar respect. The "what-we-do-now-that-we've-made-it-this-far" is crucial.

Coming off Siula Grande, Simpson fell and broke his leg. Procedures dictated that Yates leave him and continue to the base camp alone. But he didn't. Instead, he selflessly decided, at great personal risk, to help his partner, and that became the fascinating and gut wrenching story. Rent the DVD. Experience it yourself.

So what? So, Carlos Buhler knows Yates and Simpson. He also knows those who made the ill-fated 1996 Everest expedition (read Krakauer's Into Thin Air) including the ones who perished. Buhler has climbed Siula Grande's west face and Everest. He is one of the world's top high altitude mountaineers. His specialty is doing it with small teams, no oxygen, and carrying minimal gear. He moves with negligible funding and tackles first ascent. He has taken on some of the most the world's most difficult routes, under the worst conditions.

This morning Dr. Joe Garcia of Western Washington University (Buhler's alma mater) is sitting to his left. At 9:00 a.m. Joe kicks off the conversation. Buhler smiles and extends his hawk-like gaze. Then his energy gracefully descends on us all. Our ninety-minutes with him begins to disappear.

The first question comes and he listens carefully. It is actually about six questions all strung together. He cocks his head to one side and exhales, "OK! Which one of these issues do you want me to take on first? Because this one will take our entire time." Everyone laughs. But he isn't joking. He dissects and addresses each point in a thorough and meticulous manner as though he is nailing pitons into a sheer cliff, connecting ropes, securing belay lines, checking the weather, coordinating with partners, and on and on. His reply to question #1 lasts a fascinating half hour. Then he cuts it short so other questions can surface. They come from all sides of the room, seeking connections between expertise, experience, management and parenting, education and ego, leadership in practice versus as discussed in journals, case studies, etc. He is inquisitive, too. "Why do you want to know that?" He wants to understand how his reply will serve the individual questioner and for what reasons (some reasons are personal) and for the long haul.

I find myself reflecting on Lawrence Gonzales' Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. Does Buhler know Gonzales? What does he think of his research and work? How has he dealt with the issues that Gonzales writes about? And then our time is over. My questions (as with others from colleagues also in the room) are left unasked. But that's OK, I look down at the yellow piece of paper on my lap. My hand has automatically recorded important points for me to work and play with on a future day. When that will be I'm not sure. My scribble reads:

  • You are free to do things totally by yourself. I am here to give you best options on how NOT to do that!
  • I have survived so far because I learned to pull together and connect every facet of all I have learned. Relationship building is what you must do in any kind of enterprise that you will ever undertake.
  • You have to be willing to call on ALL the resources and relationships you have in order to achieve your goals. Understand something - everything you do, every person you meet may twenty-five years later end up in a room with you. You need to live like this will happen, so that when it does (they end up in a room with you) you are clean with what you did, and the people there are on your team and will count with you.
  • Don't think you can ever waste a single relationship. In mountain climbing an enormous undertaking happens years before you arrive at a base camp: finding sources of funding, assembling equipment, practicing, creating teams, making promises including those to your kids, making deals with airlines, creating contingencies, etc. You MUST make good on all of your promises. If you don't, then when you come to ask for help again at some future time (and believe me you will) those who are listening will be less apt to support your effort. The web of relationship is what makes a person's life possible and rewarding.
  • Understand that there is a structure underneath you that allows you to take a long-term view of the processes to achievement. Invest in, make and build upon that underlying structure.
  • In climbing, as in life, it DOES NOT MATTER that you ever summit. What DOES MATTER is that you learn. Yet, I was driven to become the first American to summit two of the fourteen 8.000 meter Himalayan peaks. And I did! Even so, it DID NOT matter that I ever summited. It only mattered that I learned. I am still climbing. My life can end in an instant.

1:30 p.m. Friday, June 10, 2011

AMU Building, Cafeteria. Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A tray of food is in my hands. Lunch is almost over, but the place is still full. There are only a few empty chairs scattered around the room. I find one. People will soon end their mealtime conversations and scatter off to the afternoon sessions. I decide to slowly enjoy this meal rather than rush to get somewhere else. I glance over my left shoulder. There, at the adjacent table sits Carlos Buhler. I eat. The room clears. It's quiet. I step over to thank him before moving on to another session where I'll be late.

He looks up at me and we engage.

Carlos: "Hi, good to meet you. Where are you from?"

Me: "Sonoma County, north of San Francisco."

Carlos: "Ahh, great place. Did you enjoy yourself this morning?"

Me: "Yah, very much!"

Carlos: "Can you stay and talk with me a while? I mean, what'd you think? What did this morning mean for you?" (He really wants to know - like I'm going to be one of those people who will show up in his room in twenty-five years!!)

Carlos again: "Is this OK? I don't want to keep you from a session, but I want to know. Can we talk?"

[I sit down on the floor next to his chair, between him and Joe Garcia. I feel like I'm in kindergarten all over again. We chat, until a moment appears and I get to ask my question from this morning.]

-- to be continued in next month's Ronin Post --

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