Sunday, August 07, 2011

Testing Time- A Day of Life Lessons Worth Living (part II)

Testing Time

-A Day of Life Lessons Worth Living-

(Continued from the July Ronin Post)

Mountain View

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. One July morning after breakfast he handed me a greasy skillet, plate and fork. "Here," he said. "Will you clean this up?" Keeping his cup, he tossed its gritty contents laced with old black grounds hissing into the open fire. "You know," he added, "it's impossible for coffee to be a container." Then walked away whistling Gershwin's Summertime.

-from the Life and Times of Papi Conpelo

[Picking up from last month - Mountaineer Carlos was our guest this morning forConversations With Interesting People at the Organizational Behavior Teachers Conference (OBTC) hosted this year by Marquette University. Dr. Joe Garcia, Associate Dean & Director, Center for Excellence in Management Education, Western Washington University, did the introductions and kicked off the ninety minute session. I attended and was fascinated with the lessons Buhler brought. He is one of the top high altitude climbers in the world, and specializes in small team first ascents, using no oxygen, and carrying minimal gear. To refresh on this see July's article archived at]

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.]

Me: "Are you familiar with Lawrence Gonzales' bookDeep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Whyl?

Carlos: "No!" (He grabs a piece of paper) "Tell me about it."

Me: "Gonzales writes for National Geographic. His childhood love for his dad, a survivor of two airplane crashes during combat in WWII, fostered a life-long study in the physical and emotional responses of achievers in high stress situations. From that he began a serious and well-researched inquiry. He wrote about this. Included were episodes of F-16 pilots flying on/off the USS Carl Vinson, and the climbers Yates and Simpson on Siula Grande, and Ken Killip's tragedy in Rocky Mountain National Park."

Carlos: [He's intent, silent and listening]

Me: "Have you ever found yourself in moments when you knew the risks are too high? Something inside you overrides your system and your ability to stop, so you move forward even farther into danger or disaster and later you realize you shouldn't have?"

[There is a silence. His eyes moisten and redden. His skin color changes. In an instant a distant gaze tells me he is now living in some far off land full of vivid memories. Then he returns and his eyes bore directly through my skull.]

Carlos: "I know what you are talking about. I was lead on a climb. There were three of us. [pause] We knew the risks. We all agreed that we were individually free to turn back at any time. We were very clear about this. Any choice would be honored. Our investments had been huge - years getting to this point. We were very close to the top and at that altitude our bodies were slowly dying. I had to summon enormous force to take a step, then I had to wait to gather the strength to take the next. Each time I waited the image of what I had done to get here floated through my mind. On every step my internal voice told me it was time to turn back. But then the feeling that I was driven to climb this peak would surface. I knew if I turned back that I would be here again in four or five years. I would have to reassemble all the resources to attempt another climb of this same mountain using this same route. I knew I would stand again on this exact same spot and I would have to endure this same internal conversation one more time. So I moved forward. I figured that maybe one or both of the guys behind me had turned back. When I reached the summit we were still together. It was glorious. On the way down, tragedy struck. One died. The other man and I were in a hospital for quite a while. I was lead on this climb. I had to go and meet with the father of my dead friend. When I did, his question was, 'How could you kill my son?' I had to answer. How he received and felt about my answer was out of my control."

Me: [I can't say anything. I sit on the floor, witness this lone human being feeling his memory, and realize that I have just invited into his world to share in something profound.]

8:16 p.m. Friday, June 10, 2011

AMU Building, Room 163. Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I'm leaning against the wall at the back of the room, and listening to Dr. Jerry Biberman cracking jokes. Jerry, Professor of Management, University of Scranton, is, as he has been the past few years, the MC at tonight's festivities. On the final night of every OBTC these college professors host a talent show. Some of them are accomplished poets, others are musicians, others are singers, and there are some magicians and storytellers. Some, like Jerry, are jokesters. His delivery is as good as Billy Crystal's at an Academy Awards ceremony. Tonight is a gut-busting gas of a time! To my right sits Carlos Buhler, present to his moment, laughing and enjoying himself along with everyone else. Clearly, my private conversation with him this afternoon was my reason for being at this year's conference.

If I could summarize Buhler's lessons for me they would sound something like this: "We practice so we can learn. We learn so we can draw on best that we have internalized. We draw on our best so that we can serve at any given moment. Sometimes we push through. Sometimes we have to turn back. We're responsible for both. We have to keep practicing. We have to keep learning, because we, or our children or colleagues, might be back here again some day."

Tuesday, 6:56 p.m. June 14, 2011

Two Rock Aikido dojo. Petaluma, California

I'm at the front of the attack line now. I hasten forward to engage my training partner. His energy, already shifting in harmony with my movement, begins to affect my balance, yet physical contact won't happen for another seven feet. When it does, I grab his wrist. He lifts me. My body turns so I can begin my fall along the same line that I took to engage him. But his energy cuts diagonally through my center and off to the side, something I hadn't anticipated. My shoulder impacts the mat in an odd way. I feel pain. I hear a ripping sound. As I try to rise off the mat I find myself desperately denying that something bad has happened. Reality sets in. My shoulder has separated. Sitting on a bench outside the dojo and feeling nauseous, I tell my sensei, "No test for me." My sensei replies, "Maybethis is the test."

Tuesday, 9:45 p.m. June 14, 2011

Petaluma Valley Hospital. Petaluma, California

I sit between two dear friends. They drove me from the dojo to the emergency room. Our sensei tagged us long ago with the name "The Litter Mates" because we have tested together for most of our individual journeys covering the past eleven years. Our friendship is tied solid. We are connected with an invisible rope woven of respect, care, love and forthrightness. We give each other honest attacks and honest feedback, and we enjoy the ride we've shared. In private we refer to ourselves as "The Mat Dogs". Here tonight we munch hamburgers while we wait for the doctor to give her diagnosis. We have to wait because a lot of people here are in pretty bad shape. The ER crew's time is best directed at them. My situation is minor.

I chew my burger. From somewhere deep inside me I hear Buhler's voice whispering: "In climbing, as in life, it DOESN'T MATTER that you ever summit. What MATTERS is that you learn."

© Lance Giroux, July 2011

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