THE PROJECT

I’m retired but I’m up early every work day. Why? Because there are guys swarming all over my property! Since buying the house next door to our current residence a little over a year ago we have undertaken what we like to call THE PROJECT. This started out as a re-model but it soon morphed into a re-build. The house was old and needed work. A lot of work. For example, all the window frames were rotted. The windows were going to be pulled and replaced anyway, but once the guys got into them it became obvious the frames would have to be re-done. Completely. And several of the larger windows had no headers. So new beams had to be installed. That meant tearing out walls. A ceiling or two then decided to fall in. Out with the plaster-and-lath, in with new wallboard. The good part about that—exposed framing—is it made the electrician’s job easier. Did I mention ALL the wiring was substandard and had to be replaced? The plumber liked it, too. The drain system was mostly shot and had to be torn out and replaced. While he was doing that we figured ‘in-for-a-penny’ and all that and had him put in new copper, replacing all the old steel piping.

Mostly the rafters, studs, and floor joists were solid. But they had to be beefed up in spots. That took some doing. I have to give the crew a lot of credit—they saw what needed to be done and attacked the problems with zeal and skill. (We have a marvelous general contractor.) New doors came along with the new windows. New door frames. Thresholds, too. Floors. Did I mention floors? New flooring is coming, of course, thankfully the sub-flooring was pretty solid. New roof and new gutters are also coming. The stucco siding was ignored for decades and leaks on the building corners and around the openings caused cracking and bulging. That had to get torn out—imagine three guys with machine guns disturbing your neighborhood at 0800. That’s what those chisel-drills sound like. Thank the gods that’s over with. Now the stucco crew is here, building scaffolds and prepping for the scratch coat. About one-third of the exterior is getting a new base layer. All of if will get power-washed and have an adhesive layer applied and then color-coated. The color is part of the final plaster layer and will last, they tell me, fifty years.

Part of THE PROJECT involves our current residence, too. New paint job, for one. Six guys crawling all over the house at the crack of dawn scraping and caulking for three days. Then they painted! It turned out well, at least. Good guys who worked hard. Coming up will be some serious concrete work like a new and much larger patio. Not to mention the concrete work in the driveway and in front of the garage. Garage? Yes, we have one now. That’s about the only part that’s actually done. The house next door had this pathetic chicken-shack hillbilly garage that was ready to fall down in a stiff wind. Now it’s been completely enlarged and rebuilt! Instead of parking the camper in there, though, it’s loaded up with stuff from the cottage. Yep, our existing house included a detached cottage. It’s getting a face lift with new flooring, bathroom upgrade, etc. So all the crap in there is now in the garage, waiting to be moved back once that job is done.

This has been going on since April. Lots of destruction. So much I started to give the guys shit about it. “No more de-struction,” I said, “I want some goddamn con-struction!” Sure enough we are in the construction phase. Trucks come with cranes and forklifts and drop off piles of building materials. Those piles quickly disappear. I walk around looking at the new stuff after it’s installed going “that’s mine, man.” Feels good. All this noise and confusion and decision-making is paying off. Speaking of paying, I’m getting arthritis in my check-writing hand! Fortunately we have a few shekels in the bank and can afford to pursue this nutty dream.

People keep asking me “what are you going to do with this new house?” Do I have to do anything? Live in it, of course. Expand. Spread out. Right now we call it The Annex. It’s a land grab, plain and simple. We wanted more space and now we got it. We think THE PROJECT will mostly be done by the end of October. Then we’ll figure out what’s next. The yard, for example, was completely overgrown. The trees were so big we had to get a pro with a bucket truck to take them out. They were old, neglected, and too close to things like sidewalks, foundations, and power lines. When the crews finally leave we’ll have a barren wasteland for landscaping. That’s good, it will be fun to create a new space. But that’s too far in the future. We still have shower enclosures and kitchen cabinets to deal with.

We were fortunate to find a superb, serious craftsman to handle our job. And his crew follows his lead and does top-notch work. And the sub-contractors hear about it if they don’t toe the line and deliver quality. So that takes a lot of worry off of our shoulders. But it’s been four long months of activity and we’ve two more to go. And now things are really happening fast, the intensity will be ratcheting up here real soon. So that means no slacking off during the week. It’s amazing how many things come up during the day that require our attention!

But it’s all good. This is what we decided 2016 would be all about: The Year of The Annex. I’m getting a brewery out of it—we are converting what was a piece-of-shit laundry room into a proper place for my hobby. And lots of other things, too, like a primo guest house. Y’all will have to come visit! But you will have to make your own damn breakfast, though, because I’ll be sleeping in.

More Comics Noir

Oh boy, oh boy, am I ready for this:

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Image Comics says they are releasing the first issue of KILL OR BE KILLED tomorrow! I’m excited. I’m a massive fan of the Ed Brubaker-and-Sean Phillips writer-artist team and have yet to be disappointed by any of their stuff. I love CRIMINAL, FATALE, INCOGNITO, and am in the middle of their terrific THE FADE OUT. I am sure that the new venture will be at least equal to those superb comics. I note that Elizabeth Breitweister is given artist credit on this series as well, she was listed as the colorist for THE FADE OUT  and as you can see her work is gorgeous! One of my favorite things about these pages are their moody, atmospheric colors. Lots of grey, olive, ocher, and sienna in the palate, perfect for dark and dangerous tales.

Any day now Kill or Be Killed #1 will arrive in my mailbox. If you like crime/suspense/noir fiction you can’t do any better than this stuff. It’s as good as it gets in the genre and is certainly sophisticated enough for discriminating literary types, too. So what are you waiting for? Subscribe now!

 

Comics Noir

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Did I say comics? I’m sorry, I meant graphic novels. That’s the adult term for picture-stories. But make no mistake, they are still comic books. Some of the best crime writing out there is produced by Berkeley’s Image Comics, in particular the extraordinary duo of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips who have given us Criminal, Fatale, and The Fade Out, masterpieces all. And they have a new series, Kill or Be Killed, coming out next month (you can bet I signed up for that!). But the folks at Image have an enormous variety of stuff, all the classic things we associate with comic books like superheroes and teenagers and whatnot, along with fantasy, horror, suspense, sci-fi, etc. You want something from their catalog you’ll find it. I like crime fiction and what I like to call “noir” and there’s plenty of that, too.

I recently signed up for a monthly delivery of Midnight of the Soul from heavyweight writer and artist Howard Chaykin. As you can see from the issue #1 cover above it’s beautifully illustrated, and that’s good, because it’s an ugly tale. At least so far. Our hero, Joel (pictured), is a veteran of Normandy and the Bulge as well as the liberation of the death camps. He’s deeply scarred by his experiences and to top it off has a serious problem with alcohol. His therapy has been writing alternate-history stories in which the Nazis win WWII. He can’t sell a thing—big surprise—and after five years of trying his wife finally runs out of patience and tells him to get a paying job. He then discovers that she’s not only two-timing him, she’s been working as a stripper and a prostitute while claiming to be a court reporter. Joel, enraged, tracks down and kills her boyfriend/pimp, and narrowly misses shooting her. Back home, he goes a little crazy and realizes how fucked up his life really is and decides it’s time to make some changes. He hasn’t left his neighborhood on Long Island for three years and hasn’t left New York since he was discharged from the Army. So, he hops on his motorcycle and heads west. Thus, the story begins.

Issue #2 will be here in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to it. The whole thing is very much an homage to the classic films noir of the post-war period. I usually buy my comics in graphic novel format (re-packaged issue collections in book form) but this time I decided to actually subscribe to the individual issues as they come out. Image Direct makes that really easy and I have to hold myself back from having a dozen or more on my list! I just discovered that Mr. Chaykin has a new series coming—also for Image—and I will likely go all-in on that one, too. This is my first exposure to his work and it’s obvious he’s a brilliant and original talent. I don’t know if comic book writers and illustrators (Chaykin does both) are still seen as lower on the food chain than novelists and other artists, I hope not, it seems clear that fine work comes in many forms. Do yourself a favor and check out what they have to offer at Image, or visit your local comic book shop and see what’s on the shelves. You’ll find something to like, I’m sure.

Tales of Brave Ulysses

I finished recently The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant which I read once before about fifteen years ago. It’s a hard book to put down. Grant writes with such clarity and directness that you feel like he is sitting next to you and telling a story. My only complaint is that there should be a map for each chapter. Grant spends a lot of time on the terrain and topography, as you would expect a general would, and I found I needed more than the handful of maps provided in the edition (I have the 1982 version from Da Capo Press, E.B. Long, ed.).

The “personal” part of the memoirs is a bit of a misnomer. Grant spends only a little time on his boyhood and background and no time at all on his presidency. The book is a chronicle of his military life. He was a reluctant soldier and did not particularly enjoy his time at West Point. He served in the Mexican War, which he viewed as immoral, imperialism run amok. His time in the regular army after that, which included a stint in Panama and in California, was mostly unhappy. Grant discusses his leaving the army, which he claims were for personal reasons (low pay, lack of opportunity, separation from his family), and his celebrated drinking is not mentioned at all. Grant was most likely an alcoholic in the sense that he could not control his drinking once started. But his drunkenness is mostly exaggerated by history. After all, one could hardly command troops in a war, win battles, get promoted to commander-in-chief, and ultimately become president in a drunken state. Most likely Grant drank when he was lonely and separated from his beloved wife Julia and his children. It was not an issue in the Civil War. He was a teetotaler, his only vice was his constant cigar-smoking. Throat cancer ultimately killed him just as he finished his famous book.

Why this book? First, insight into the man. He was a kind of quintessential American. Quiet, reserved, and formal, but not timid or a pushover. In fact he was a man of extraordinary determination and resolution. He mentions several times that he found himself in tough spots and lacked “the moral courage” to turn around or run away. That is, once he went forward he could not go backwards! The entire book is one of forward motion. He’s constantly looking ahead and preparing for the next move and you are eager to stick with him.

Second, his prose. The language is brisk, forceful, and matter-of-fact. He obviously wrote copious quantities of orders, dispatches, and reports while an officer in the Civil War (many are reproduced in the book), and he had a sure hand. You know exactly what he is trying to say—he makes his meanings plain. It’s difficult to imagine a subordinate not knowing precisely what was expected of him.

Third, the sweep of history. The American Civil War was obviously a watershed event and Grant played a major role. We get Grant’s thoughts on all the other military leaders of the time. He was either a classmate of or served with (in the Mexican War) almost every important battlefield commander on both sides of the conflict. We also get his thoughts on political leaders (Lincoln, in particular, whom Grant greatly admired) and issues of the day. One can hardly get a handle on “the rebellion” as Grant termed it without reading this book. He has a great facility for the thumbnail sketch—in a few sentences he gives you a sharp, insightful picture of a famous personage.

In the end you can’t help but be drawn to Grant the man. He is loath to insult or denigrate another person even if that person’s actions were reprehensible to him. Grant is honest and forthright but does not have an ax to grind. He is cognizant of his place in history but there is absolutely no conceit in his words. He tries his best to be fair while also explaining and justifying himself. He speaks kindly of his foes and recognizes the sincerity of their efforts even if he feels their cause was unjustifiable. You come to appreciate his even temper and his calm, dispassionate outlook. Grant comes across as a man who did his best with what faced him, never shirking or complaining or demanding from others what he was not willing to do himself.

The story of his meeting with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox to discuss the terms of surrender is typical of the entire narrative. This momentous event is rendered in the same plain English, in the same thoughtful, self-effacing style as the rest of the story. Grant relates how he received instructions to meet Lee while he was in the field, on horseback, and hastened to the spot, feeling eager and triumphant. Yet upon entering the scene he is overtaken by a great sadness and is hardly able to compose his thoughts. He is embarrassed by his rough field uniform as Lee is in full dress for the occasion, and feels the need to apologize for his appearance. Lee was General Winfield Scott’s executive officer in the Mexican War, so he was well known to Grant and most other Union officers. Grant mentions his surprise that Lee remembered him as well (Grant was a captain and regimental quartermaster at the time), and that they both conversed easily and discussed old times and mutual acquaintances. Finally, with the business concluded, Grant rides off, but orders his troops to behave with dignity toward their vanquished opponents, and silences celebratory cannonades.

U.S. Grant is one of the most interesting characters in American history. Possessed of a fierce, unwavering streak, and great moral force, he could see things through to the end. A master strategist, he had a native grasp of critical points, both geographical and political, in a conflict. He understood the big picture. He did not seek to command, only to serve, but when given command he led by example. Simple and modest in his personal habits, with little in the way of ambition, he became an international celebrity for his accomplishments.

The Personal Memoirs is the story of a man thrust, against his nature, on to history’s center stage, but who nonetheless seizes his moment and gives his all because he can’t imagine doing any less. This man, unlike so many who are touched by power and fame, remains true to himself: manly, dignified, sincere, sensitive, gracious, and humble. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

 

“Wisdom hath builded a house . . .

. . . she hath hewn out her seven pillars.”

Proverbs, chapter nine, is the source of the title of T.E. Lawrence’s war memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It’s hard, even after re-reading this epic, to know what the hell he meant by that. Like many I first heard of Lawrence because of David Lean’s brilliant film, Lawrence of Arabia, with a remarkable Peter O’Toole in the title role. The movie, is of course, a movie, and it compresses a complex, mysterious man involved in a complex, mysterious part of history into about 3-1/2 hours. My dad had a battered paperback copy of the book in the house I grew up in, and as a boy I read snatches of it, but was too intimidated by its length (almost 700 pages) and weirdness to tackle it as a whole.

I read the book cover-to-cover for the first time in 1990, the year after we moved to Yreka. I read it again over the last few weeks. I’ve read a lot more history in the interim and was able to grasp the sweep of events much more clearly and understand the significance of the Middle East in the Great War. Events from one hundred years ago still impact the region! Lawrence was an Oxford scholar, in particular an archaeologist, who had traveled in Mesopotamia before the First World War. He spoke Arabic and had a working knowledge of Turkish, the language of the Ottoman Empire, and so found himself commissioned as a lieutenant in the British Army Intelligence Service when the War broke out. In Cairo he encountered an effort by his superiors to enlist the aid of Arabs in the fight against the Turks. Being as close to an expert in Arab culture as anyone else, he volunteered for the effort. Ultimately he became a confidant of both General Allenby, British theater commander, and Emir Feisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, de facto leader of the Arab Revolt.

Lawrence is a controversial figure. Many Allied soldiers participated in the Revolt—to whom Lawrence gives much credit—but his particular narrative was so interesting and well-written that it made him a celebrity. Some feel his work is monumental self-aggrandizement, others accept him at face value. Either way, Lawrence’s legend is bigger than his actions, probably through no fault of his own. After the war he had his memoirs privately printed, available to only a select few, and his audience was mostly former colleagues and other Middle Eastern scholars. Eventually the work was made public in 1927 and it was wildly popular, and the ensuing celebrity status forced Lawrence to be a virtual recluse. He died in an accident in 1935.

It’s easy to see what the legend is all about. Seven Pillars is a great read despite its difficulties. Lawrence assumes you know as much about history as he does, and that you know all the players and their roles. As I stated the work was originally for those he’d served with and other scholars, not a general audience. So you have to work. I spent a lot of time with maps and encyclopedia entries! Plus Lawrence is always dropping Latin and Greek phrases, or literary allusions, and you sometimes get overwhelmed by his erudition. But the story is so gripping, and the power of his descriptions, both of the landscape and its inhabitants, are so marvelous, that you can’t put the book down.

Lawrence loved the Arabian desert and wrote of it with the passion and vividness Edward Abbey brought to the American Southwest. He was an idealistic supporter of pan-Arabism as well as a loyal Briton and served in the War out of a sense of duty and a desire to foster the nationalistic aspirations of a subject people. He was also a political realist and knew that many of the Allied promises to the Arabs were convenient fictions designed merely to get their help against the Turks (the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Lawrence is conflicted throughout his tale, ashamed of his duplicity but proud of his efforts, and heaps praise on his superiors as superb soldiers and leaders.

Lawrence worked mostly with irregular troops, Bedouin tribesmen he and Feisal recruited as guerrillas, supported by British engineers and combat specialists. Their chief contribution was as raiding parties, cutting the railroads, interdicting the supply lines, harassing the rearguard, and tying down Turkish units that would have been better off fighting the British armies head-on. Lawrence grasped immediately the principles of what we now call asymmetric warfare, and had an intuitive understanding of the importance of topography to maneuver and supply. Despite being an amateur he had a strategic conception of the conflict that was more far-reaching than many of the professionals in the general staff. Ultimately his role became one of liaison between Feisal and Allenby and his memoir is rich with details about both men, whom he greatly admired.

The book can be read as an adventure story. Lawrence rode with the tribesmen on many occasions, and the descriptions of life on the march, details of camping in the wilderness, the thrill of the skirmish, and the terror of pursuit by the enemy are expertly rendered. A British sapper named Garland developed techniques of railroad mining and destruction that the irregulars became experts at and those events are described with pulse-pounding authenticity. The book is also a rough travel guide as many of the places they go were once in the hands of Assyrians, Alexander’s armies, Roman legions, or even Crusaders. It’s also a primer on the anthropology of the Bedouins and the many other races and cultures that have inhabited the great crossroads of conflict that is the Middle East.

Ultimately, though, what makes Seven Pillars great is Lawrence’s self-reflection. He gives amazing thumbnail sketches of larger-than-life characters like the impetuous warrior Auda abu Tayi. He seems to grasp the essential person straight away and offers memorable insight into their motivations and behaviors. Much of the book is filled with these spectacular personages and Lawrence’s evaluation of them. But it’s when he turns his searing psychological scrutiny on himself that the book takes on real weight. The great hero of the Revolt, brilliant, ambitious, and accomplished, is revealed as deeply conflicted. On one hand desperate for approval and recognition, on the other cynical and misanthropic. He admits to seeking glory as part of a great movement but is tortured by his own personal demons and is unable to enjoy his successes. A loner and an ascetic by nature, he seems happiest when extreme physical hardship reduces him to his animal essence. Yet, as an intellectual, Lawrence cannot reconcile his lofty ideals with his almost desperate need for self-abnegation. A fascinating man, to be sure.

As far as the title goes, the biblical passage is open to many interpretations. Lawrence claimed he had written a previous book about seven cities (one can only guess: Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Mecca, Baghdad . . .?) but that it was “immature” and he decided not to publish it. He transferred the title as a “memento.” This strikes me as a cheeky bit of prevarication. Lawrence had a wicked sense of humor as well as a great ability to obfuscate his true meanings. He played many roles and wore many masks in his time. I like to think he learned several lessons in his time in Arabia, but they were either too arch or too abstract to share, so he gave them a casual nod in the title. Either that or Seven Pillars of Wisdom was just too cool and he had to use it before someone else did!

If you decide to tackle this extraordinary book, be advised that you will put out more than an ordinary effort. But I say it’s worth it!

Good News

I’m re-reading Edward Abbey’s novel Good News. Like its famous predecessor, The Monkey Wrench Gang, it’s best seen as satire. Good News gives us a dystopian future in which the techno-industrial system has failed and the rugged individualists of the American West have emerged to “take back the land.” Naturally the last vestiges of the old order cling to power and attempt to rebuild what has been lost. The conflict in the story is between a despotic army commander and his soldiers and the rag-tag band of real Americans who stand up to his tyranny. I like this book and his earlier novel, Fire on the Mountain, much better than The Monkey Wrench Gang, which I found tiresome. It’s a romp, and fun for a while, but too long. And the eco-warriors are a bit too cute. Good News is only about 200 pages and there’s less time to spend on Abbey’s rants as the plot demands require his attention. It has the brisk feel of an action novel. Fire on the Mountain, similarly, sticks mostly to the story-telling business and lets the tragedy speak for itself.

Fire on the Mountain, if we have to classify it, is a Western. Good News is science fiction. Although both are fine novels neither match the power and beauty of his best work, the non-fiction collection Desert Solitaire. Abbey was a passionate advocate of wild places and he was particularly devoted to the Southwest deserts. He has few peers in conveying the unique appeal of those landscapes. He makes a convincing case for the need to conserve and respect untrammeled Nature and argues that America’s insatiable thirst for “development” is ultimately toxic to society.

John Wesley Powell thought that the West could not support a large population. He cautioned against expanding out past the 100th meridian. That line runs from North Dakota to Texas. It’s mostly arid country and there’s not enough rain or snow to support agriculture. He did not foresee, however, the spectacular engineering we take for granted here in California that waters the state and makes life possible. Aqueducts, canals, dams, reservoirs, pipelines, and pumping stations corral the high mountain water and deliver it to farms, ranches, towns, suburbs, and cities. Our rivers are siphoned and re-apportioned to feed our growing desert oases. This, of course, comes at a great cost to our wild places and the creatures that inhabit them. And, as we have seen, there is never enough to go around, which was Powell’s basic argument.

We live in this constant dynamic, insisting on economic growth and opportunity but also demanding preservation of natural places. Mostly we try political solutions which seem to work best when everyone (the “stakeholders”) are equally pissed off. Abbey had no use for politics, he thought the only hope came from individual moral courage. He was a romantic, really, and the inexorable march of capitalism and technology fired his outrage. Good News is loaded with fury and anger at the despoiling of the wilderness. Abbey saw the loss of individuality and the decline of personal autonomy as natural consequences of both population growth and industrialization. He mocks our consumer society throughout the book mostly by describing empty storefronts and now-meaningless signs and billboards.

It seems we Americans love The Apocalypse. Whether we are evangelical Christians praying for the Last Judgement or “preppers” stocking up on food and ammo in case of social chaos, we see our world teetering on the brink. Environmentalists rail about the loss of this, that, and the other, and warn us about our impending doom. Economists terrify us with scenarios about the collapse of the banks and stock exchanges. Our favorite show is The Walking Dead in which we get to live out our fantasies of survival and get to blow away, with no compunction, the threats to our existence. Seemingly rational people are convinced that if a particular person is elected President life will be so bad they will have to move to another country. We like to believe the shit will hit the fan at any moment and we like to point our fingers at those we believe are responsible.

I find this to be a hard way to live. Seeing problems is one thing. After all you can’t find solutions if you can’t define the problem. But this constant state of terror we are all supposed to be in just creates more and more resentment and anger. Since most of us in the States have food, water, shelter, and relative peace and safety, these emotions don’t bring us together. They just divide us into hostile camps. Disaster has a way of forcing people to put aside their differences and work together for the common good. But since we are merely on the brink of disaster, that is we can still plug in our iPhones and drive our automobiles, we have no need to link arms and co-operate.

I think if we don’t practice that we won’t know how to do it when we need to. All the people preaching The Imminent Collapse Of The World As We Know It are right. There are many, many threats to our way of life. Civilization is like a candle flame, it can be snuffed out much easier than it can be re-lit. I think it’s time for all of us to remember that we are in this together. That the things that bring us together are greater than the things that separate us. If we spent more time on what we have in common, and less time on what divides us, we might extend and enrich our civilization.

Good News isn’t exactly a happy book, despite the title. Abbey seems to be saying that the breakdown of the Old Order would be “good news” for those interested in building a New World. Maybe that’s true. I’d like to think that we can get there without all the bloodshed (that’s implied in the book, it takes place after the collapse).

What do you think?

 

 

I don’t know, man

I’ve been embracing ignorance. Not the willful kind or the “see no evil” kind. Those I detest. I mean the open, free, “teach me” kind of ignorance. I used to tell my students (1) never be afraid to reveal your ignorance and (2) ignorance is curable. Ignorance is a temporary state. Once you learn, you aren’t ignorant anymore. The best way to learn is to be ready to learn. Really, that’s all it takes. Most of the time we fail to learn because we aren’t ready. In school we “learn” on someone else’s schedule. Hardly ideal. Sometimes we learn because we have to, like deciphering the tax code before you fill out the forms. Or changing a flat on your bicycle so you don’t have to push the thing home. That kind of learning often works, but it’s not much fun.

I think learning should be fun. When we are having fun we aren’t thinking. We are doing and the learning is happening without our awareness. I like to ski. I talk technique with my ski buddies and I practice what we talk about. I read books about skiing and think about how to improve using those ideas. I visualize myself executing perfect turns. All those go into the mix. But the real learning takes place when I mentally shut up and simply go down the hill. If I’m relaxed and confident I can implement the things I’ve been learning effortlessly and I ski more skillfully.

But there’s the rub—relaxed and confident. It takes a lot of falls to learn how to ski. It takes some crummy days on the mountain where I’m frustrated and tired and continuing to fail at what I want to accomplish. The key is to match the pace of the event with the preparation. That is, do what you set out to do. Don’t over-reach. Learning takes place when the new material is just on the frontier of what you already know. Don’t make the big leaps until you can make the little ones. That’s how you gain confidence in your ability to learn. Once you know you can do something the actual learning is a lot easier!

The best way to be relaxed when learning something new is to stop comparing yourself to other learners. We are all different. What will be a snap to one person will be a slog to another. This is the pernicious part of schooling—everyone has to go at the instructor’s pace. When you set goals that are your own and decide on your own pace to achieve them then the learning comes naturally.

I used to be The Answer Man. I’m not that guy anymore. These days I want to be the Not-Answer Man. Or maybe The Question Man. The right question can almost answer itself. When I hit a roadblock in my thinking I respond with a flurry of questions. No one wants a flurry of questions! Usually one will do. The trick is to find that one question. And when you do, when you winnow out the obvious ones and the trivial ones, the meaningful ones are left. And they can often be lumped together and pared down to those essential, useful, difference-making questions. Sometimes the question is so to the point, so clear and in the heart of what needs to be known that it can almost answer itself. That’s real learning right there. When you are ready, relaxed, and confident, things like that happen effortlessly.

I’ve been working on my new favorite phrase: “I don’t know, man.” I use it to free my mind of bias. Of preconceived notions. Of previous experiences and the expectations that come along with them. If I want to learn I have to tune into the signal and filter out the noise. The noise is all the baggage that comes along with something that you’ve accumulated over the years. Ideally, when you are in a full-on learning mode, you automatically connect the new notions with older stuff in your head. You get an upgrade. The old stuff is still there, but it’s new again because you’ve reorganized it and reworked it. It’s not that I didn’t know something before, it’s just that I want to see it in a new way.

I never thought of myself as an athlete. I had poor eyesight as a kid and was uncoordinated. I loved sports and other physical activities but never had the success in those areas that I did in more intellectual pursuits. I’ve come learn, in my later years, that it was mostly in my head. I did not believe in my abilities so they didn’t manifest themselves. Learning to ski again in my forties and now tackling open terrain powder skiing in my fifties I have found that all my barriers are mental. There is absolutely no reason why I can’t do the things I want to do with my body attached to a pair of skis. I have to be realistic, of course. I’m not going to be popping 540’s at the terrain park or plunging down 50-degree icy pitches with rocks and man-eating moguls. But as far as getting to where I want to go, I now know that I can. And that’s because I embraced ignorance. I “forgot” all the things that used to hold me back.

So when you hear me say “I don’t know, man” what I really mean is that I’m ready to learn something new. So be ready to teach me!