at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

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Natural Born Heroes book cover

High Time for “Natural Born Heroes”

Talk of heroes seems stale when it takes (only?) an eponymous action camera for one to “Be a Hero” – and yet, from the author of “Born to Run” comes a new tale of heroic outcasts that is also a wake-up call for the everyday person to become a hero…

What Hero?

Chris McDougall’s latest book, “Natural Born Heroes,” out April 14, 2015 strikes at an issue that is at the heart of some current confusion:

For one, talking of “heroes” seems a thing of the (mythical) past at best, a failed understanding of human imperfection at worst.

It’s become a label affixed to people doing what they prepared to do (like firefighters; just think of all the “heroes of 9/11″…).
It’s attached to people doing something that’s simply human: caring and being strong for others.
And, worst of all, it’s the tagline for Youtube “heroics” that are just action sports, if that.

Even worse, our idols seem far from any heroic ideals.
Success, in fact, seems something for sociopaths.

After all, those people upheld as great examples of success are the ones who are rich and famous (or at least rich) as – following another pattern of ‘extremization‘ – we make money the only measure. And if not money, then fame. Popularity, at least.
Their character, the sources and consequences of their money, i.e. their supposed success, don’t matter anymore, then.

The good person who did some kind of heroic deed, meanwhile, is looked at somewhat askance.

“Why would you risk your life for others? What’s the profit in that?” is the immediate thought.

At the same time, though, we still want to see and respect values. We treasure the person who is strong not for himself but for others. We long for adventure and meaning.

Here, however, we also find a problem.

Reading a title like “Natural Born Heroes” will probably make you think only of people who were genetically gifted with special skills and characters.

Enough recent books have mentioned (e.g. Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them), if not been all about (e.g. The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance), the genetic component to athletic prowess, for example.

“Me, I’m no hero,” you will more likely think.

And that’s exactly where “Natural Born Heroes” draws you in and carries you through the story of the WWII resistance fighters on Crete and McDougall’s discovery of their skills in our times.

It reads just like a story of just such people who must somehow have been gifted, only waiting for the right conditions of adversity in which to excel – but there’s an almost immediate twist:

If the people who are the heroes of that story are supposed somehow to have been born as extraordinary specimens of our species, then a hero awaits in every stereotypical basement-dwelling nerd. And every playboy and outcast and ordinary laborer.

And that is just the point.

As McDougall argues throughout the examples he gives in Natural Born Heroes, jumping between the shenanigans of our World War II resistance’s heroes on Crete and modern representatives of the skills he is talking about, the “what” of hero training is what leads to natural born / everyday heroes. And, we all could be them.

“[H]eroes [aren’t] a different breed–they just had different breeding.” (Chapter 4)

“The art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance [for much of human history]; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected, then passed along… The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all.” (Chapter 3)

Now, I believe this is quite a re-reading of history, but as a goal, it certainly isn’t the worst.

We live in a time in which we have all the conditions for such a re-reading and such practice towards greatness, after all – and we are using them to discuss the minutiae of TV series while getting fat rather than form the fandom of life.

I just have to think back to my high school days (which were before the internet and even before most computer games).
And, there was a martial arts student who was strong but couldn’t run far, many soccer players who couldn’t even manage a single pull-up, and the highly intelligent kid who remembered everything he wanted but was so in his head he thought he would always be able to think himself out of any dicey situation… and apparently, with kids ever more indoors and playing only on tablets and computers, even balancing or playing tag has now become an issue.

Weakness Is a Human Strength

It does not end with physical skills, though.

Noticeably, McDougall is big on virtue. Yes, he says that heroes were created through the above “what,” but also that it is ultimately the “why” which brings forth the hero.

“Virtue isn’t respectable these days, and we’ve certainly seen enough hypocrisy among so-called moral leaders to question what they tell us to do,” he quotes one of his interlocutors. “But at some deeper level, we still instinctively idolize the kind of heroic behavior we claim is foreign to us, and keep acting on the heroic urges we claim we don’t have.” (Chapter 5)

The hipster, or the equally-as-ironic critique of the hipster, would even go so far as to claim that all such virtue and heroics is either self-serving or unreal, I fear. Just look at the example of what goes for personal development nowadays: It is, all too often, all about gaming the system and bending the rules for one’s own gain and appearance of greatness.

When one of personal development/lifestyle design’s biggest guru’s biggest claims to fame are the most turns in the shortest time in tango dancing, and having tricked his way into a lower weight class and then technically k.o.-ed, i.e. thrown out of the ring, his opponents in a martial arts tournament, it is more than refreshing to hear such an earnest call for virtue.

In fact, “Natural Born Heroes” doesn’t even stop at virtue.

McDougall refers to a lesson from Plutarch, which taught that “Heroes care. True heroism… isn’t about strength, or boldness, or even courage. It’s about compassion. … Empathy… [is] a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.” (Chapter 5)

Later, too, where I have found personal development pros claim that you have to cut your ties to people, be they friends or family, if they are not 100% supportive (useful?) to you, McDougall calls for compassion which “really springs from our raw animal need to figure out what is going on around us and the smartest way to respond. It’s your social spider web, a protective netting of highly-sensitive strands that connects you to your kinfolk and alerts you the instant one of them runs into the kind of trouble that can find its way back to you.” (Chapter 15)

What shall I say? Take that, egotistic preppers who think the apocalypse will be won by every man to himself…

In all that, where so many a physical feat seems to be all just about a record to break, McDougall (re-)discovers something that often seems to have been forgotten: that there is a deeper meaning in the pursuit of physical (as well as mental) fitness. Xenía, compassion, also expresses itself with/as the usefulness of a person to his/her group.

This idea is neatly summarized in Parkour’s, Georges Hébert-inspired/inherited, motto “Être fort pour être utile” – Being strong to be useful (as it has long been translated in articles around David Belle; it is “Be fit to be useful” in McDougall’s rendering); and it is the same spirit that I have seen in ninjutsu/To-Shin-Do, which Stephen Hayes has long been presenting as a practice for a protector.

Complete and Useful ‘Strength’

Sports and fitness are currently mainly seen as practices to get oneself lean (or built), but there is a usefulness and fascination (and fun!) with a very serious background when one looks at the modern era through the historical example:

“We’ve been living a lethal fantasy, Hébert realized. We’ve lulled ourselves into believing that in an emergency, someone else will always come along to rescue us. We’ve stopped relying on our own wonderfully adaptable bodies; we’ve forgotten that we can think, climb, leap, run, throw, swim, and fight with more versatility than any other creature on the planet.” (Chapter 26 – and Hébert was writing before WWI !)

We are now also ever more specialized, not just in work, but even in such fun, but, as McDougall quotes Hébert again,

“An individual who is satisfied with performing in exercises or sports of entertainment … but ignores the art of swimming, self-defense, or fears vertigo, is not strong in an useful manner. … A weightlifter or a wrestler who cannot run nor climb, or a runner or a boxer who doesn’t know how to swim, or cannot climb, is not strong in a complete manner.”

Never mind so many a current intellectual or ordinary person incapable of running for a few miles or pulling him-/herself up a wall or roof… (which I’ve argued to be a better sign of fitness than things like running a marathon, long before).

Here, there is so much fun and usefulness, be they for health and fitness or in preparation for whatever trouble you may happen to find yourself in, it is hard to believe that we need a wake-up call for that.

But from moving to throwing to finding food around us, we clearly do.

We aren’t – sorry, can’t resist bringing in my own concern here – not at home in this world, with the situations we may encounter and as the beings we are.

Beings who, to get back to what McDougall describes yet again, should “[aim] for the hero’s holy trinity: paideia, arete, and xenía: skill, strength, and desire [compassion]. Mind, body, and soul.

The Downside

Natural Born Heroes book coverIf there is one serious downside to the book, it is that it felt a bit short on the modern expression of such skills, the practical ideas to follow up on. McDougall visits people who represent those skills, here and there, but what they do and what there is to learn, to me always just felt shown in appetizer-sized bits.

The videos McDougall has been presenting on Outside Online illustrate these practices rather better (and maybe gave the impression that they would be the main focus when Natural Born Heroes‘ red thread is actually the WWII story).

McDougall’s book presentations (in person) seem much more focused on these practical skills rather than the WWII kidnapping, too (and so I wonder if a follow-up practical handbook, or a guide to relevant training courses, at least, is already in the works).

The story of the Cretan resistance was captivating nonetheless.

It was hard to put the book down – and at the same time, what I kept wanting to do more than anything was to put the book down, watch the videos and read the articles about the skills Christopher McDougall suggests we could and should be learning in order to turn us ourselves into heroes.

And, above all that, to go out and really learn and practice these skills.

In fact, I’m sure to be at the next parkour meeting in the city nearby. The tallest tree in my backyard will get a climbing rope put on it (again). And I’ve been exploring the edibility of wild herbs and the healthiness of real food, anyways.

This may all not be particularly heroic yet, but even if it’s just playing at following examples, it’s both a fun diversion and a great practice of useful skills for the now and any possible futures.

 

Traunstein-Goodbye

Coming ‘at home’ From Afar

I’m back (at?) home in Austria, wondering if I’ve failed with the small (photo and writing) projects I started in and on Beijing because I’m not finished with them… and yet I realize that this is just one of those points where being somewhere else can actually bring you closer to a place.

Wiener Eistraum, RathausIt’s not this dream that “if only I were *there* rather than *here*, I’d be so happy and everything would be so great” that people sometimes fall into that I am talking about.
Yes, I know.
Where you are can be familiar and “at home” just as well as it can be that familiar hellhole you want nothing but to get out of – but so can any other place.

We have a natural tendency to think in such ways.
We get used to what we always see, tell ourselves that somewhere we don’t know would be much better, and end up liking or disliking both here and there based more on what we decide to focus on than all that’s really there.

This process plays out particularly well when it comes to foreigners in China, where a whole other level of exoticism or “going native” or criticism or you-name-it comes into play.

One of the constant debates among “China watchers” circles round and round the (im)possibility of knowing China when you are not living there.

DSC04819It just happens too often that some expert/pundit visits Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen and pronounces the power that China has become. Equally as often, experts or analysts sit in London or Washington and declare China’s impending collapse.

(Sometimes, a columnist even just has to read the China Daily to claim tremendous understanding – fittingly, on April 1.)

Meanwhile, “old China hands” live in the midst of all the chances and changes and challenges in the country and shake their heads over the naiveté of these pronouncements.

You may have noticed something similar when it comes to your own country, or even city or county:
The further someone is away, the simpler their statements about a place, and the more convinced they may often be about them.

At the same time, however, the opposite problem can also apply:
Being in the midst of a place makes one only too aware of all the nitty-gritty details of daily life, but less likely to look down deeply into the history of this place, or up and at longer-term trends and patterns.

When we are in a place we “know” (i.e., we have been for a while and know our essential ways around), we don’t usually even notice any sights that are of note to others from farther away anymore.

In Beijing's National Library

In Beijing’s National Library

This is what has always struck me about my China experiences (especially because it was the same pattern I then noticed about my attitude towards my native Austria):
Living there is great for the direct lived experience, indeed.

But the same direct experience also makes for so much focus on everyday things that happen and that need doing that there is little time and energy for anything else.

Only when I’m back somewhere else do I get to better libraries and more of an interest in understanding more deeply what I had been observing before. Not to mention the critical distance from which to try and see larger patterns, not just everyday problems.

It’s just this kind of a balance that is a back-and-forth between intimacy and distance, engagement and aloofness, that we actually seem to need in many a situation.

Even romantic interest doesn’t work without some degree of separation (at the very least, enough for interesting individuality); variety spices up life; the familiar becomes more interesting (and all the more comforting, often enough) only once it has been the unusual.

Relaxing with Curiosity Cola

Mountain Running Decisions, Willpower and Ego

I think there are limits [in ultra-distance running]… but I don’t think anyone actually ever reaches theirs.
Anton Krupicka in Kilian’s Quest S04E05.

For training and gear testing – and of course, for the fun of it – I found myself running around the lakeside road to ‘my mountain’ (the Traunstein) again.
Traunstein - Blue MorningIt was a nice-enough day with a lull in the worse weather that had been moving in.
With an insulating layer and a Windstopper top, what I wore felt rather too warm.

One week before, the temperatures had been even higher, the sun was shining, hardly any snow was visible any more, lots of people were out and about on that beautiful day.
A mother with a twin stroller, running on the lakeside road? Check.
Two old men already coming down the mountain that morning? Check.
Young hikers out for a day of fun? You betcha.

on the Traunstein

Spring was definitely arriving, between the sunshine and the flowers.

Flowery View, Traunstein, Traunsee

That was then. The week later, it still seemed a nice-enough day, but more of a dusting of snow on the upper reaches of the Traunstein was proof of the worse weather that had started moving in.

Getting higher up the mountain, whose top kept itself shrouded in clouds, the expected wind kicked up, too.

Only that it pretty soon was enough wind that the two layers that had just seemed too warm started feeling too cold; out came the windproof/waterproof jacket and pants that have become my constant companions on such tours.
And still, looking around, listening to the wind, noticing some snow start to fall, it was not enough for me.

A man whom I’d seen at the foot of the mountain came past me as I’d decided to turn back, and of course I didn’t like turning back when someone else went on – but it’s just this sort of social comparison and ego-kick that gets us in trouble. Turn back I did.

Not Doing, at least Not Comparing

Not doing anything isn’t the best thing for growth, of course.
Doing will lead to comparison, however, and that may make for some dangerous challenges.

Even on the nice day a week before, I had noticed that.
Compare yourself to those who are really fast, and you may feel like you belong in a wheelchair.
Walk past hikers, and you feel pretty okay with yourself.

And now, with social media, comparison has all the worse a context, especially upwards to the truly extraordinary people.

The only solution, same as it’s always been: If you are not among the best and greatest who have to compete, retreat from the competition.
Be(come) good enough and better, living for yourself.

(As I said before, at least sometimes, “winning is for losers.”)

Know when to pull back to keep yourself safe and go on another day; be happy not in comparison to others but with what you are able to do.

Having gone once across to, over and around the mountain, and back, and then still having been able to head right on to the train back to my wife – that had made me happy.

Traunsteinrunde_03212015

Having felt the need to turn back even as I could have gone on (and saw someone else do so) this time, that left me feeling daunted by the mountain, especially as a bit more sunshine would break through the clouds as I was on my way back.

Traunstein-Goodbye

It was only a wee bit of sunshine, though, and at least I got on my way back, not stuck in cold and wind up a mountain, which could just as well have been the case.

Out Further, Comfortably Inside

Becoming at home means both drawing back, making oneself comfortable, and pushing at boundaries, growing.

And here lies an interesting insight from recent science:
“Ego” – that is, willpower – apparently becomes “depleted” as we use it.

So, the more you force yourself to do something, to act in a certain way, and the more you simply have to make decisions, the weaker your power over yourself will become.

Choices such as what to have for breakfast are enough to drain ‘ego’ a bit; by afternoon, you just reach for the worst kind of quick sugar fix.

It doesn’t matter if the choices are inconsequential or important, they all require an effort that the brain will start to have trouble with.

Interestingly, there is an insight from the seemingly physiological side of things that sounds related:

When we feel that we just can’t go on, e.g. running, it may not actually be the muscles that are fatigued to the point of not working anymore, apparently.
Rather, it is our brains triggering a survival mechanism, looking to conserve some energy in case we should still need it later.

In both cases, choices (to make, or just the choice to go on) are necessary, and our mental household of energy is the decisive factor for how this will fall.

To a large extent, our conscious minds may be contributing (and we can learn to override some of these processes), but the real decision falls outside of its purview.
Rationality looks like it plays a role, but its main role may well be to rationalize the decision that came about at a deeper level.

Hypo-egoic” behaviors that don’t need such willpower because they have become ingrained in us, though, can go on – and we see that in running, where it’s necessary to forget the ego and just become motion if we want to go on at a certain point.

This is also, and more usually, the point of habits.

Make something a habit, and it will happen on cue and without a conscious, rational, energy-draining decision about it being necessary.

Just try to make sure you create good habits for yourself, be they going out for regular runs, turning back when things get too dicey, or regularly cooking good food, not flopping down in front of the TV with a beer when you really, really, would love to make more in and of your life…

Relaxing with Curiosity Cola

… but don’t forget to take your relaxation seriously, too ;)

Spring Run, Ramps

Not FKT-up Trails, but Fully Known Terrains

FKT, “fastest known times,” may be the oldest running idea that no one has ever heard of.

The challenge of being faster than someone, or preferably everyone, else has surely been around for long, and if it wasn’t in head-to-head competition, it was in how long it took someone to cover the distance from one point to another.

Having moved online, info-wise, the notion got new feet.

Peter Bakwin started his list of FKTs a decade ago; FKTs were discussed years ago; and with Kilian Jornet’s “Summits of My Life” and other people’s mountain speed ascents – not to mention the various thru-hike records – they have come further into the spotlight.

As much as one can talk of a spotlight when it comes to an activity, FKT, that is a small part of an overarching activity, thru-hiking or ultra-distance running, that is not exactly receiving the most attention. (How many hikers, outside of Cheryl Strayed or her movie-adaptation version, let alone ultramarathoners, can the average person name?)

Still, the idea is simple enough: pick a trail or a mountain ascent (and descent) and try to finish it in a record time.

So far, so good – but in a sports practice that is, at heart, a very individual and intimate pursuit – (mountain) trail running – this idea leads things to unfortunate, if logical, conclusions:

When everything is always just about extremes, you always need more extreme feats. And you need simple measures by which to present them, or it wouldn’t all fit into a single tweet or a share-able headline.

“New Record”

So, if you want to get back to a certain individuality in your pursuit, and therefore away from ultramarathon races (or if you have won only too many of them…), this is a way to do so while still achieving something that can be easily measured and pointed to, and is an easily visible and shareable feat.

If you are a runner who is as much at the top of his game as Kilian Jornet (and he’s so at the top, he makes it all look like a game), this goes to such an extreme that it makes for the “FKT-up” headline I am riffing on; Christopher McDougall  used this phrase in Outside Magazine/Online to point out just how crazy some of it all was… and Jornet is aiming to even speed-ascend (and descend, for good measure) Mount Everest.

It is all very much in the spirit of extremization.

It is all about doing things and saying things in such a way as to bring them to extremes which make for messages that quickly and easily appeal to emotions. Hence, they can be shared in headlines and tweets and will be liked and shared a lot, making for visibility and popularity.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Kilian isn’t very much (which is to say: not at all) motivated to do this for the “likes” – and even if you should be, it may not be the worst thing to happen by far, if it is motivation to learn and grow.

Like a Broken Record

“Extremized” activities like that, however, do often make for superficiality.

The way one hears about them and the people that perform them, it is only that one feat that counts, not the path that led there.

The extraordinary person is held up as hero-like, but is at a level which hardly anyone could achieve, which seems mainly based on innate talent, and which is, therefore, not necessarily all that motivating.

The time counts, and only the fastest time, everything else is just preparation that doesn’t matter – except it’s in the preparation, in the moving and the discovery that goes with it, that the most valuable of experiences lie.

When the speed, the time, is presented as the important thing – or maybe even just, as some would claim, not as the important thing, truly, but just the thing to do the marketing with – we are giving in to the extremization. We feed a machine of shallow attention that demands instant gratification and betray what we go out onto trails to discover.

Trails of Learning

Spring Run, Ramps

Run to fully know, and you may come home with part of lunch. Here, some of the first wild leeks (ramps) of spring 2015

The simple pleasure of motion, and motion that leads to discovery.

A pursuit that is certainly harder than simply lounging in front of the TV and waiting for great views to be brought to one’s eyes, but that is all the more worthwhile for it.

A preparation for better fitness that is also a pleasurable pastime.

A foundation for everyday heroism.

And a way of learning about a place.

This last bit, in particular, is the one I want to call for.

There is so much to learn about and discover wherever you are, and in combining physical pursuits – to range across an area – and psychological ones – to discover and learn – we are doing what humans (like many, if not most animals) have always done: Go out and “learn our place,” from the lay of the land to the resources available, from dangerous spots to beautiful sights.

Sure, the internet world will not praise you the highest for the ordinary things you’ll see and learn. But in seeing and learning, you can make yourself at home in the places you live, make yourself more fit, knowledgeable, and useful, and get to really living there, intimately, fully knowing the terrain, wherever it is that you are.

And that is where life really lies and is lived.

Wiener Eistraum, Rathaus

Wiener Eistraum – Nearby City, Overlooked Fun

It’s one of those typical “not at home” things:

The place where, or near where, you live is a place you may feel comfortable-enough in, or not at all happy with, but typically a place you don’t quite know as well as you may feel.
(Yet another example, also, of a feeling of truth that isn’t reality?)

You are not a tourist there, so you don’t feel the excitement of it; you have to go there, so you go the places you have to go and do what you need to do. And that’s that.

Case in point from my life: the Wiener Eistraum, late winter’s ice-skating rink in front of the Rathaus (Town Hall) just closed its 20-year-anniversary run last weekend, and it was only last week that I finally visited it.

For the first time ever.

Wiener Eistraum, Rathaus

I’ve not been able to go out running since then because the rented (wrong size) shoes took quite a bit of skin off my ankles, but it was worth it.

Not just was it the first time I finally went there, I went there with my wife.

She’s already rather bored from life being unexciting, and at the same time jaded with Vienna as the city where she has been going to university for a few years now – “Vienna just got announced the most livable city, again? So what?”

I have been in or at least near Vienna for way longer (feels like “between time”) and I am slow to jump into “fun” activities, anyways.

Seeing how temperatures have been rising, I rather notice all the energy that has to go into the cooling for the ice-skating rink and would much rather see the lake we have nearby freeze over again. That hasn’t really happened, and we certainly didn’t have everything required to go ice-skating there when it did, since my childhood years…

Good thing, then, that we decided to jump at the chance of having fun at the “Eistraum,” when we did, before it’s closed again.

Wiener Eistraum from above

First time ice-skating in a long time for me, first time ever for my wife.

So, I’m not going to show you what she looked like, she’d hate me for that – but she went from constantly holding on to the railing to moving along by herself within a pretty short time.

Good example, then, not just of the nearby opportunities we should probably make a habit of jumping at rather than under-appreciating because they are close by, but also of the things we can learn when we do so.

Look around, and I’m sure you will also find things to do and places to go, and with them activities to try out and skills to acquire and new things to learn, that you never got to just because they’d be close-by and seemingly always there, anyways.

Vienna Panorama

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