To Truly Dance

Dear Mom,
You died on Saturday, April 1, 2017. It was a surprise. I was skiing in Whistler, British Columbia, as likely of a place as I was to be as anywhere.  I’m grateful there weren’t many things I still needed to say to you. In the time since, I’ve told our story so many times: after dad died- I grew up close to you, close to the church. We grew apart, bitterly on my behalf, when I left the church and moved west.  I found my own truth and we pieced it back together slowly, like the beautiful blankets you made for Soren and I. The last few years of your life held some of our most honest and loving conversations. The most recent lesson: that feeling the same faith is less important than feeling each others humanity.

A few more favorites:

The air smelled thick of cut grass and the quiet, high-ceilinged church- I was 9, and stood up for the first time to give a testimony in Wednesday night church. I was just back from summer church camp full of newfound confidence. The cicadas chirped outside in the sticky midwestern summer. I shared a short truth about overcoming my fears at summer camp, you beamed. My faith is different now, but no less strong- you made faith cool.

I was 13 when you were finally able to tell me about my half-brother in Australia- he was half a world away, wondering who I was. I was so mad at you- his existence seemed to refute the moralist foundation you raised me with. Ultimately, welcoming him openly into our family inspired us all to a greater sense of compassion and honesty. I can only hope to learn so much from my own indignities.

At 17 you let me drive your new car and two friends 1500 miles to spend two weeks on our own in the Wind River mountains. When we got out, you flew to Jackson to shuttle us back to the car, feed us, and send us off on the drive home. You experienced the mountains differently than I do, but loved them no less. You refused to let the fears of the world darken the light of your experience, or mine. It’s a lesson we need badly these days.

We were eating at Lulu’s Noodles during the spring of my freshman year at Northwestern. I was terrified, because I had met you for lunch to tell you I was dropping out of music school. To my surprise, you took it in stride and cheered for me to enjoy a more relaxed version of college. That’s when I learned your dreams for me were nothing less than exactly my own.

I skipped my graduation from Northwestern to go on a NOLS course in Alaska. Instead, you sent 5 dozen cookies up to our team because my college team had won our senior design competition. it seemed out of place at the time, but I realize now it was the sweetest way that you could say you were proud of me. You always knew how to celebrate the important things.

Last Christmas we went out for deep dish, the whole family of us. Over the years I had always ducked the opportunity to pick up the check at a family dinner but in 2016 I was glad not to skip the chance. You always lived with the assumption of having enough to do the right thing- whether you had a lot or not. There was always enough.

And that is the point- we had less time than we all hoped, but it was enough. I’m still learning how much you cared for us, how great of a mom you were. I think you’re proud of me- I hope you know how proud we are of you.

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”   (Kahlil Gibran)

Climb on, mom.

You can enjoy some of my mom’s ideas through her lecturing and writing work for the Church of Christ, Scientist- her most recent piece is particularly excellent. Our family is deeply grateful for your compassion, however there will be no service. You can honor Lois most meaningfully through a donation to her church or to Mountain Home Montana

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Blossoms

My mom loves cherry blossoms. Last night I went for a leisurely run from my house down to University of Washington and just took a few pictures on the way. Yes, it was crappy light, so I touched up the light and color on a few of them. Regardless it’s a good season in Seattle. This one is for my mom.

“Allow. That’s most of what we have to do, is just allow it. We may not understand now, or ever, but we will feel it, we will feel our lives.” (Andrew Given)

Scratch

“Shit guys, my hands are done.” I hated to be the one to call it, but I had just tipped past “fun” and my hands were giving up on holding my ski poles.  It’s always humbling to hang out with people just a little tougher than you are.

We’d been skinning for a couple hours up the long south face of Mt. St. Helens. Wind-driven snow at 35F has an uncanny ability to turn into liquid upon contact, penetrating every last layer. The gale increased with elevation, but visibility dropped. I didn’t stay focused on self care enough to make sure we hit the summit before the painful wet cold overcame my ability to smile about it. Not being able to see up from down didn’t help the case for continuing, despite Devon’s GPS coordinates keeping us on track.

mt st helens, skinning, backcountry skiing, whiteout

The best visibility we had all day.

This spring storm cycle has been unforgiving for those of us limited to weekend days and smaller plans. Every once in a while, you can’t scratch the itch any other way. You make the long drive, put a smile, and go see what Mother Nature serves up.  The snow was really good on the way down, but we skied some of the flattest, whitest conditions I’ve ever been in. We side slipped together, checking course every 100yds.  There were no visual references. Like the best of friends, Martin and Devon wore smiles all the way. Its always remarkable to me how much better you feel as soon as you slip on a puffy coat, thick gloves, and rip your skins off.

I don’t know why we needed to do that, but I’m glad we did. Maybe it was a test. Or a smackdown. Or just a day out in the mountains, full of acceptance for what we got. For a power much greater than ourselves. In a world where we tend to see the best of everyone else’s days on Instagram, where failures are uncelebrated- an unremarkable day of skinning, freezing, and smiling with friends feels like the best thing we could have done.

Colorado

Despite learning how to ski here, my normal adventure map has strangely omitted time in Colorado. Abigail has cool friends- they celebrated their wedding in Crested Butte, and she managed to find cheap airfare for both of us. It was a good start to February. One photo per day:

lowa mountain expert, altras, outlaws, cobras

Day 0: Packing for adventure schizophrenia.

grand canyon, alaska air, ski crested butte

Day 1: Fly from LAX to Gunnison- Grand Canyon scenic flight for free. #AlaskaAir

crested butte, ski bunnies, ski bosses

Day 2: Meet friends and make new ones. SKI.

snow walkway, shovel, western

Day 3: Vacation. Cute houses, deep snow.

Staircase, crested butte, steep skiing

Day 4: Steep. The Staircase. Amazing.

crested butte, deep throat, bluebird, colorado skiing

Day 5: This place keeps on giving. Deep Throat. Bluebird

ouray ice park, ice climbing, top rope tough guy

Day 6: Switch gears. Every ice climber has to go to Ouray once. Thanks Drew and Lindz

newbie ice climber, grit, never say never

Day 7: Never say never. Abigail swings tools. The girl has grit.

alaska air, crested butte, steep and deep, Big Chute

Day 8: Abigail comes to terms with Big Chute. Steep AND deep. Free lift tix from Ak Air.

sunset, BoiseState plane

My version of vacation might not work for everyone, but it sure does for me.

All of Us

Here we are now, after the election, all of us in the same boat. Some are stunned that their unlikely candidate won. Others are stunned that they could be so blind, or so arrogant in their confidence. Being in the second group, I vacillate between fury and despair.

In traffic for work last Tuesday, the mid-90s, 1/2 ton pick-up in front of me taunted me with a variety of conservative bumper stickers. One stood out in particular: “Visualize No Liberals.”

This is about all of us. Visualize all you want, but you will never wake up and find yourself transported to a world conveniently devoid of people who are different than you. The world around us is the way it is precisely because those different people shared ideas, tried things out, got it wrong and still had enough tolerance for each other to try something else. People who value the same things that you do have good and bad ideas, just like people who value different things. It’s not a perfect world but by almost every objective measure- it is the best it has ever been.

The bumper sticker pissed me off because it seemed this person would much rather entertain a fantasy than take responsibility for getting to know the other half of the citizenry their government represents. A fantasy I’ve also let myself entertain on occasion, and that has never proven useful.

Strangely, I am thankful the election has forced me to reconsider my thread in the fabric of society. What do I want to stand for as an engaged citizen? Why do I (usually) cheer for the left side of the aisle?  What are my fundamental political priorities? I wanted to get a short list on the record (in no particular order):

  • Public policy rooted in real science that is peer-reviewed, transparently documented, and repeatable
  • Fundamentally equal treatment of all people by the government
  • A clean, safe, and healthy environment for people and wildlife
  • Infrastructure development that promotes urban density, defends farmlands & wildlands, and accommodates long term economic and population growth
  • Publicly-funded education that reflects and encourages the exchange of ideas amongst diverse groups of students.
  • High quality, accessible, and affordable healthcare for everyone
  • Proponents of rational and balanced foreign policy that minimizes military action at every opportunity
  • Maintain a capitalist market place, focused on upholding enforceable contracts, with subsides carefully considered as warranted for true public well being
  • Maintain a basic social safety net that supports disadvantaged people getting back into the workforce
  • Balance the federal budget, every damn year
  • Political discourse that is thoughtful, respectful, and remains focused on stuff that government actually does

In 2016 this seems like too much to ask of our government, but if no one asks- it always will be.

This is not a post about the silver lining. I’m still angry that America was foolish enough to elect an inexperienced misogynist. I’m more angry that just less than a quarter of eligible voters were able to take a fat, wet shit on 40 years of progress towards pretty much everything I care about. The responsibility I have to give a voice to these priorities just got heavier, and the weight is scary.

I have been trying to have more conversations with people outside of my bubble- and no one is arguing “yeah, I want dirtier air to breathe and worse schools for my kids!” Neither have I spoken with anyone that has said “I just wanted to vote for racism.” More often than it seems, we want the same things, but the method is different. I won’t ever tolerate bigotry, but I also won’t visualize a world without conservatives- their perspective is too essential in getting a true majority of people closer to what we all collectively want.

 

Punt

I was trying to write something worthwhile about my response to the election, and Thanksgiving. Maybe those should be exclusive posts anyway.

It’s important to me to maintain this blog- one post a month feels like the bare minimum of viability. The previously mentioned topic was too damn hard, so I’m punting.

Abigail had a work conference in Las Vegas, and to recover from forced time in Vegas, I flew down to go climbing in Red Rocks (right next to the city), and a convenient antidote to the affliction of being there. Bike commuting in November in Seattle looks like this:

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so the desert was very nice

This trip was more about hanging out in the desert rather than climbing hard. We climbed easy, beautiful, and classic lines, ate good food, and had fun. Sometimes, that is all it needs to be.

So I’ll close with this: I’m glad to have federally protected recreation areas at my disposal. Please consider the many groups that have worked together to make that recreation possible. Trump and the GOP have been explicit in their desire to repeal environmental protections on natural resources and federally protected lands. If that happens, things like this little adventure stop happening. Take sides and speak up.

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Conferences

One part of my job I really enjoy is attending professional conferences. As an engineer, this might make me somewhat unique. I am no longer surprised at the value of thoughts and ideas I get from even unlikely conference presentations.

One fact of business: it is really expensive to have staff travel to conferences. Yet, I have regularly seen professionals at conferences who seem to have little desire to be there. Checking Facebook during conference sessions, smoking alone during networking hours, typing away on a laptop during meals are pretty clear indicators that you have more important things to do. Companies send people to conferences because they know there are untapped gold mines, and these events are often the best way to find them.

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Last week I got to represent McKinstry at the US Green Building Council Wyoming Chapter conference in Jackson, Wyoming. A quick account of the costs:

  • Airfare (rt): $460
  • Shuttle to/from airport in Seattle: $80
  • Meals & drinks with peers: $80
  • Presentation prep time: 16hrs @ $75/hr (wholesale cost rate) = $1200
  • Travel time: 12hrs @ $40 = $480 (I use a blended rate cost, because unlike McKinstry, most firms I have worked for will require you travel on your own time, rather than company time- primarily because it is cheaper for the company)
  • Participation time: 16 hrs @ $75, $1200
  • Shuttle to/from airport (in Jackson): $160

———

Total: $3,660

You could re-do the math using my “opportunity cost” hourly rate of $125/hr (assuming I would spend all of the available working hours on full rate consulting projects), add the cost of actually attending (giving a presentation waived my registration fee), the cost of the hotel (again, included for fee as a speaker), and the cost of a few more meals (because I travel cheap and had friends to see), then the total cost balloons to $7,135.

If you don’t want to be there, then don’t attend. It’s too damn expensive.

That said, conferences can be intimidating and confusing for many people. Most of the advice I have gotten, and other blog fodder has either been inauthentic or too general. I’ve been told I do a good job of “working the room” at events- generating interest and finding opportunities. This is not purely a natural talent, nor in-authentic. Below are some specific actions to make getting value out of conferences a little easier.

Think of a question that you would like to find an answer to at the event. The best questions start with “how” or “what”- they are open ended to spur conversation. In Wyoming, one great question was “how do you retrofit an existing McMansion into something a millennial actually wants to buy?”

Stay mobile. You want to walk around the room(s) and meet new people. Don’t leave your laptop at a singular seat all day, or otherwise “lock” yourself into a location. Being around new people will inspire new conversations.

Exercise escaping dead end conversations. There are a few standard ways I make a clean break from a conversation that isn’t going anywhere. “I’d like to grab a coffee before the next session”, or “I need to move up so I can see more clearly” have worked well for me. If at all possible, do not use your phone as an excuse to break away.

Listen carefully to questions that other people ask- consider how you would answer each question (if you could at all). They can be great conversation starters after the session, and take some of the awkwardness out of starting a conversation with someone new.  Protip- people that ask good questions are most often the people you want to make contact with.

Do not make up numbers in order to sound smart or retain your authority. Most smart people can tell, and you’ll lose your credibility immediately. Being vulnerable enough to admit your knowledge gap is attractive, and it gives you a great reason to ask for someone’s card and follow up with them.

Do not bother making relationships with people that you really do not enjoy interacting with. You will only do really valuable work with people that you trust. You will never build enough report with people you don’t like to get to the point that you trust them.

Even if you feel the focus of the event is outside of your scope, realize that the organizers are probably people that you want to have relationships with.

Talk to your competitors. Get to know the people that also do exactly what you do. They may compete with you sometimes, but chance are you can learn from them, and you never know when they may be able to help you…

Follow-up is king. If you follow-up on your conference contacts with something of value, you’ll instantly stand out amongst your peers.  At the very least, connect on LinkedIn, but add a note to remind someone where you met them. I usually write one interesting fact, question, or follow-up task from the conversation on each business card I receive.

Don’t get on the plane home until you’ve written down 5 things you learned or are thinking about because you went to the conference.

Conferences are great professional practice in telling your story and sharing why you care about what you do (if you really don’t care about what you do, that’s a different issue). Write down a few different ways to introduce yourself and practice them through the day.

Notice and take notes on the references and examples that people cite- they’ve often done a lot of research for you. One example I noticed: the much regarded NREL net zero energy research lab is the least energy efficient shape possible (from a heat loss standpoint):

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Arrive alert and stay engaged. Don’t work on regular work during conference sessions. Be present. Ask questions. Stay away from your phone or social media. Enthusiasm is infectious- share it freely.

If you ever have the chance to be the closer (last presenter) at a conference, make sure that you cite and highlight what you learned in your closing presentation from the previous presenters that you watched. It’s classy, shows humility, helps other people relate to you, and does a great job of actually closing the conference!