Tag Archives | The Strenuous Life

Thou Shalt Not Lie

Dar and I recently returned from a visit to Alaska, where I was struck by two curious qualities: the wide expanse, breath-taking vastness of the landscape, and the Alaskan maxim of working only so that you don’t need to work.

Wait, what?

Apparently, according to some people we spoke to, Alaskans work only so they have enough money to live on, rather than to collect it in the bank in case of something which may or may not happen in the future. This seems a strange maxim, you might say, to someone spending her days in the Silicon Valley, where people work for a variety of motives, none of which has anything to do with mere subsistence.

I like this idea of working only so life can be sustained. Those of you who know me, know that I have never shown interest in inventing new technologies, increasing the depth and breadth of human power over the universe, or collecting more money in my bank account through any of various means. In a way, I could say that I have struggled against my family’s (and my culture’s) tendency for ambition all my life. This has earned me the unacknowledged title of Black Sheep in my family. My father, in fact, once introduced me to a friend as “My daughter who is not a doctor.”

Perhaps I should move to Alaska and live for the moment, as it seems many people do over there. The thought is tempting. I love the Alaskan open spaces, the tundra, the mountains, and the wildlife. I love the relaxed atmosphere, the fewer cars, the few people. I love the idea of living so close to nature. I love the idea of twenty-four-hours-a-day sun, even if I have a hard time imagining twenty-four-hours-a-day darkness or 30-degrees-below cold. I doubt, though, that I would fit in Alaska society. It seems many people there tend to be more conservative about some things, like environmentalism or LGBTQ rights. And they sure do seem to be enthusiastic (almost righteous, I thought) about hunting and guns.

This is an Alaska female moose who identifies as salmon.

There’s many things I can complain about here in the Bay Area, but not those, for sure. People here seem to be mostly liberal. Take, as a case in point, my recent attempt to manage (behind the scenes) my son’s first foray into the world of college life. The young man, soon to be seventeen, is taking a class at a community college this year. In an attempt to make some money, the college charges for parking fees, not unlike many other universities and colleges around the country. So a few days before school started, I logged into the website and purchased the young man (who is also a young driver) a parking pass. After paying I received notification that the shipping will take ten days and that I will receive a temporary parking pass, which, however, never arrived.

What to do? Like the good, considerate, over-zealous parent I am, I called the school to ask about this. But I didn’t want them to know that it’s me, the parent, calling. After all, this is college, and it would be embarrassing if they knew the parent called for the student. So, with this logic in mind, I told the cashier who answered the phone that I was my son. “And you’re a high school student?” She marveled. “Your voice sounds so much older.”

Ah, the suffering of telling a lie.

Only after hanging up did it occur to me that in order to see the status of the parking pass, the cashier had looked at my son’s information and could probably see that he identified himself as male, while my voice (old though it may sound) was distinctly female. For a moment, I felt discomfited. She must have known I was lying (ah, the suffering of telling a lie). But then the relieving thought came up in my mind. This is California. The cashier probably assumed I was a female identifying as male! And the next thought knocked me off my feet:

In my Californian, crazily-liberal mind, it is much less embarrassing if the college people think my son is a female identifying as male, than if they think his mother called to inquire about his parking pass.

So this is why I plan to stay and continue to struggle against our Bay-Area tendency to rush and be busy and successful and ambitious. I live in a place where it’s (relatively) ok to be gay or transgender, or anything you wish. I live in a place where, when my kids go to visit someone’s house, I don’t really need to worry about guns. I live in a place where there’s fresh fruits and vegetables year round, and sunshine, and where being an environmentalist is only a mildly bad word. We’re not perfect (in fact, we’re pretty ridiculous when you come down to it, with our nail-polish-painted toes and our clothes which we believe say something about us, and all our other foibles which I won’t get into because it’s a whole other series of blog posts). And we still have a lot of way to go before this place is more equal, before we accept all races and all peoples and our responsibility for past and present racism and prejudice. And we have a long, long way to go before we stop using so many of the earth’s resources and live more rationally and with thoughtfulness. But all in all I think we’re trying and a lot of us really care.

So I’m staying here for now, even though Alaska really is such a tempting, lovely place. And, though my parents might be disappointed, I think for now I’ll continue to baaa like the black sheep I am, posting here on the blog instead of submitting to the New York Times, sticking my nose in the kids’ business, meditating, and preaching to everyone who would listen about recycling, using less plastic, and saving water and gas.

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A Year to Life — Day 343 — The Strenuous Life

This fall, I took an Intro to Park Management class at a local community college, thinking that I might get back to my youthful dream of becoming a ranger. Already in the first meeting, I knew I was in the right place. The class was not only fascinating, but inspiring as well. I got the impression that no matter their age, the teacher believed in each student’s ability to find work in public land management.

The class introduced me to an entire world of history, politics, literature and art that has to do with our public lands. I was fascinated, scribbling down each book recommendation the teacher mentioned and then reading them one by one. My favorite, so far, is Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley, an environmental biography of Theodore Roosevelt.

Douglas Brinkley's wonderful biography of TR

Douglas Brinkley’s wonderful biography of TR

Roosevelt was an avid hunter and naturalist, a champion of land-and-wildlife preservation and conservation. During his presidency, he set aside nearly 230 million acres under federal protection in 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reserves, 5 national parks, the first 18 national monuments, and the first 4 national game preserves. In 60 years of life, Roosevelt was active not only on the conservation front. He was a prolific author, a dedicated letter writer (who wrote an estimated 150 thousand letters), social activist, military leader, adventurous explorer, rancher, nobel peace prize winner, and more.

Roosevelt believed in something he termed “the strenuous life.” Articulating on this concept in an address he gave in Chicago in 1899, he said: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Roosevelt, it seems to me, certainly lived the life he preached.

The strenuous life, I confess, is also the life I had always wanted to live. Roosevelt described it: “…the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk….” Roosevelt’s address, intended to raise public support for war in the Philippines, would have stirred the 18-year-old me to the core. I too believed in public service to one’s country. I did not yet think of war as something to be avoided, but as an opportunity for glory, heroism, and self sacrifice. I longed to live the strenuous life, to prove myself worthy. As Roosevelt said in his speech: “We do not admire the man of timid peace. We admire the man who embodies victorious effort.” I, too, wished to be that man… or, er, that woman.

Some historians believe now that Roosevelt’s energy came from having had bipolar disorder — without ever suffering from the depression side. To me, whether Roosevelt’s energy was due to a mental disorder may or may not be an important point. I recognize in Roosevelt’s philosophy the highest ideal which I have placed before my eyes throughout my life. Knowing that this philosophy may be what we could call insane is a moot point. Most of our beliefs, after all, tend to seem illogical, unreasonable, even crazy to other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop believing in them. As a society both Israelis and Americans seem to live a life of yearning for this principle, that work will save us, that work is the highest ideal of all.

I have lately developed the belief that a lot of my suffering is caused by putting work, or the strenuous life, if you will, up on a pedestal. The other day, my therapist said that rather than try to let go of always pushing myself to be doing more (and thinking I was never enough), I needed to accept the part who always pushes me to be doing more. Perhaps for affection’s sake, I should name that part Teddy, to remind myself that it is just a part, not all of me, who wants to live this strenuous life. And it is not all of me. There are parts of me who long for peace and ease, for acceptance of things as they are. There are parts of me who are overwhelmed by this constant pushing for more and are feeling mowed over and need a break from all this doing in order to figure out what, if anything, wants to be done.

Practicing life in the face of “A Year to Live,” I find myself less willing to rush and more interested in savoring. I find myself wanting to cherish moments rather than chase through them. I begin to understand that living this year as though it is my last is not about doing more, or doing at all. As a beginning, at least, it is about understanding that nothing needs to be changed, and that my life is right and whole just as it is. In a way, the bucket list can wait for after my death. For now, I’m just going to live as though I am, in fact, going to live today.

 

To read Theodore Roosevelt’s 1899 speech given in Chicago, click here, “The Strenuous Life

A lot of the information in this article came from this page in the Theodore Roosevelt Association website.

Some interesting discussion of the possibility TR was bipolar can be found in this article.

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