From “GW Camp” to the “Top of the Mountain”
I would like to share with you two of my life adventures, with two very different outcomes. The first took place when I was in the eighth grade. I had had a somewhat successful flag football career in elementary school, with the highlight being my pick six interception return for touchdown on the very first play of the season in the first game of the Huntington Beach Parks and Recreation season. I kept my jersey from that game, as well as most of my others, until recently. I kept thinking that the Flag Football Hall of Fame would call for it one day, but amazingly, they never called. So, as I entered the eighth, I decided to go out for my school’s football team, all 110 pounds of me. You see, when I was a kid, I was diagnosed with a special childhood disorder, it was a very serious disorder for a young boy who loved sports. I had the infamous, “SS Disorder”. I was “Slow” and “Skinny”. In fact, my friends, especially Kelly, “you know who you are”, dubbed me, “Twig” as my childhood nickname. In case you are not familiar with how sports work, being “Slow” and “Skinny”, are not great attributes in the game of football. Another important fact about my junior high football debut was that I was not aware that we had to provide our own football cleats. I assumed that since the Pine Street Junior High football program was such a high-profile program, that they provided the “all” of the necessary equipment. Well, they didn’t. So, on the first day of school and football practice, I wore penny loafers. Penny loafers, if you are unfamiliar with them, were slip on dress shoes that you could literally put a penny in the front part of the shoe’s design, to of course look really cool, in the late sixties. The other important thing you need to know is that penny loafers have very slick soles. They are not recommended as an athletic shoe. So, I started my first day of Eighth grade football practice with football pants that were too big, shoulder pads with one of the underarm straps that was broken, and penny loafers for athletic shoes. I am sure that the video of my running wind sprints, holding up my football pants as I ran in my penny loafers, should be in the Junior High Football Hall of Fame.
So, I did convince my parents that I needed my own football cleats before the second practice. Well, after a few days of not convincing the Pine Street Junior High Football Coaching Staff, led by Coach Reeder, that I was a rising star, I decided to go along with a group of friends of mine who had decided that we didn’t have a chance of getting any playing time and chose early football retirement. I wanted to talk to my dad first, but they convinced me that announcing our retirement could not wait and we must act immediately. So, instead of calling a news conference, we decided to march into the school office and demand that they allow us to transfer out of sixth period football practice into regular Phys Ed class. The lady behind the counter told us that was not an option and that we had to remain in sixth period football practice for the remainder of the semester, which was about 3 and ½ months. So, every day we went to the football practice area and watched the football team practice. We did have our own little area, where we would play our own pick-up football or sometimes use the time to do homework. One day one of the coaches looked over at our group and said, “What a bunch of Gutless Wonders!” We heard his comment. Even though we laughed it off and even started calling our place where we hung out, “GW Camp”, similar to “POW Camp”, maybe there were some mild similarities. Only in the way that we were viewed by those in charge. The reality is that those comments by that coach, stung and had a major impact on my life. From that point on, really until the event of my follow up story, I forever saw myself as a “Gutless Wonder” and “A Quitter”! Any time throughout my adolescent years and early adulthood when I would struggle to finish something, which was often due to my impulsive nature, I would hear that coach’s words, “What a Gutless Wonder”!
Now, let’s fast forward to my early thirties. I am married, with a young son under the age of one. I had finished college, which was a major accomplishment, but I had dropped out of seminary, which of course reinforced the “I am a Quitter” message. I am now in my early thirties considering going to graduate school to get a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, so I can become a therapist. But how could I consider going to graduate school after my seminar fiasco, especially now that I had a family to consider. I lived in Washington state at the time and one of my favorite landmarks was Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier is a 14,410-foot mountain that dominates the Puget Sound skies, when it is not cloudy. I have always loved the mountains and camping in the mountains and had done my share of hiking and backpacking. I had spent 15 months in my twenties in the Grand Teton National Park working at a lodge there. I remember thinking that I needed to do something to fight that internal life message that I was a “Quitter” and a “Gutless Wonder”. “I know”, I said to myself, I will climb Mount Rainier. Now, I was smart enough to know that I could not just go out and climb Mount Rainier. So, I signed up for a mountaineering class at Tacoma Community College. The class was a month-long summer course which included a summit trek at the end of the class. The class included in-class instruction on mountaineering skills and weekend trips to Mount Rainier to practice what we learned, especially how to work as a “Rope Team Member” and how to use your ice ax and the rescue procedures in case a team member fell in a crevasse. The in-class instruction also included a fitness run. I remember during one of those runs, stopping and thinking to myself, “I can’t do this, Oh No, it’s true, I am a Quitter, and I am going to quit this too!” Fortunately, that thought was follow up with, “No, I can do this, I have to do this, I am Not a Quitter”, If I can’t finish the run, I can walk the rest of the way, I can do this!” So, I walked the rest of the way. I did finish that run/walk and I did finish the course. The climb up Mount Rainier took place in July and was a three-day adventure. The first day we met at noon and did a short hike and made a camp for the night. On day two, we hike up to 10,000 feet and made our base camp and retired early, because our ascent to the summit would start shortly after midnight, with our headlamps. The reason for the nighttime ascent is that you want to do as much of the ascent in the cool of the night when the ice pack, glacier, is the firmest. You do have to cross quite a few ice bridges across crevasses. So, shortly after midnight, off we go. The final ascent to the summit is done in rope teams. In our case, we had four people on each rope team. The rule was the entire rope team either made it to the summit or it did not make it to the summit. If one member could not make it, the whole rope team could not make it. Climbing Mount Rainier is more of an endurance climb that a technical climb. Actually, only about 50% of people who attempt the climb actually make it to the summit, often due to weather issues, but sometimes due to a lack of the endurance necessary. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget. The views along the way, both during the pitch blackness and as the sun started to come up were spectacular. There were many times when I started to think, “I can’t take another step” and then I would feel the tug of the rope and I would take the next step. Clearly, I do not believe that I would have endured the climb with out the tug at that rope and the support of my rope team members. I did experience altitude sickness at 12,000 feet and threw up on the snow. But, after that, I felt so much better and had a new sense of adrenaline that allowed me to make it to the summit with my rope team. We made it to the summit just after the sun came up, around 8 am. The exhilaration of the moment that we reached the summit is indescribable. For me, it was more so, because of what this climb meant to me and about me. “Yes, I made it, I did it!” “It’s not true, I am Not a Quitter!” “If I can climb this mountain, stand on top of this 14,410-foot mountain, I can do anything!” As we sat there on the summit, a fellow climber, offered me a Twizzler. That Twizzler tasted Amazing! Still this day, Twizzlers are my favorite snack food.
Now, there is one more significant aspect of my Mount Rainier story. The descent down the mountain we did in one long day. There were times closer to the bottom when we literally and intentionally slid on our bottoms on the ice. It was quite the ride. Unfortunately, as we were descending, still near the summit, I took a step and the next thing I knew, I was hanging on the edge of a huge crevasse. Fortunately, one foot caught the edge and even more importantly, my rope team did their job. They all immediately fell on their ice axes, preventing me from actually fully falling into the crevasse. One of the course leaders came over and pulled me out of the top of the crevasse. It was a scary experience, although I was totally fine and uninjured, mostly feeling a little embarrassed, although I had done nothing wrong, but my rope team had done everything right. I was grateful for their quick actions. I made it down the rest of the mountain uneventfully.
So, I was able to challenge and change that message that I was a quitter. I did go on to graduate school and graduated with a 3.8 grade point and I did become a therapist. All throughout my graduate work, I kept a picture of myself on the top of Mount Rainier on my desk, and when I struggled to write a paper or complete an assignment, I would look at that picture and say to myself, “If I could climb that mountain, I can finish this paper, after all, I am not a Quitter!”
So, I would like to use these two stories from my life experience to remind us of some important life lessons.
- Recognize any old Life Messages that may still be impacting or hindering your own success and happiness in life. Years ago, I developed a technique that I used when working with adolescent girls who were struggling with an eating disorder and the “Stinking Thinking” that goes with an eating disorder. The technique is: Catch, Challenge and Change. We need to catch those negative thoughts that hinder us and rob us of experiencing life to the fullest and hinders our opportunities to use our individual unique gifts and talents. Recognizing our own “Stinking Thinking” messages is the first step. I cannot challenge what I cannot see. Secondly, once we have caught and identified the negative message, we need to “challenge” it. Sometimes it can be as simple as, “Stop It!” We can challenge it by asking, “Is there any tangible, indisputable evidence that supports that message?” In most cases, there is none. We can also challenge it by giving the message back to the person who sold it to us, like my junior high football coach. Sometimes, we may need to do something to prove to ourselves that the message is not true. You don’t have to go out and climb Mount Rainier, but there may be a step that you can take to demonstrate the falseness of the negative message. The third step is to change the message to an honest but positive message that will be an encouraging and motivating message. Catch, Challenge and Change!
- Similarly, I believe that it is important that we not allow any one event or serious of events to define who we are. I like to say that our “Life is a Story in Progress!” Life is a series of adjustments and learning opportunities. There is no greater time in which we must adjust or reinvent ourselves, than when we take on the role of being a grandparent raising grandchildren. We are a Story in Progress!
- Thirdly, hopefully my story of climbing Mount Rainer can remind us of the value of “Rope Teams”. As I stated earlier, my rope team, which was made up of myself, another man and two women, made all the difference in my positive experience of climbing Mount Rainier. Not only did they literally save me from following deeper into a crevasse, but they provided the needed support and motivation during those moments when it felt like I could not take another step. The need for a rope team is one of the main reasons that Allene and I have started our support group. We want to be the people ahead of you who are willing to pull on the rope and say, “Come on, you can make it, just take the next step. The view from on top is worth all the struggles of these steps. Come on, we can do it together!”
- In addition to recognizing the value of a rope team, my story also reminds me of the value of having a guide when we are starting a new adventure. We had two experienced guides that led us up the mountain. They had climbed the mountain many times and new the paths to consider and which paths to avoid. They also knew the skills and resources that would be essential for the journey. They were not perfect, but they were experienced and had travelled the path previously. Allene and I see ourselves in similar roles. We are not finished with our journey, and we recognize that. We have many years in front of us in caring for Sebellah. Yet, we have walked the early stages of the journey, which I believe are the most challenging and overwhelming. Hopefully, we can simply share our experiences and share what resources have been most helpful to us. This is another benefit of a support group. A support group offers the opportunity to be with other people who are sharing your journey, as well as people who are further along on the journey and can offer some guidance on the paths ahead of where you currently are.
- When I share my junior high football story, I can laugh about it now, although at the time and for many years to follow, it was a painful story. Even now, I do still feel a sense of vulnerability in sharing that story, especially as a man. Yet, I believe recognizing our vulnerability, as the author and educator, Brene Brown often talks about in her writings, is key to inviting and experiencing connection in our lives. Our moments and points of vulnerability can become invitations and open doors to connecting with others who have similar moments and experiences of vulnerability. In our venture of raising grandchildren, we will often feel vulnerable and powerless, and we will often question, “Our we really the best option for these precious children?” The answer to that question is, “Yes, we are”, and we are a gift to them, just as they are a gift to us. So, I encourage you to not hide or shy away from your vulnerability. Instead, embrace it, move toward it and accept it. It simply means that you are part of the human experience and accepting our vulnerability, invites connections with others who are sharing the human experience.
Sharing the Journey,