Work the Problem

A mediation on my life, video games, rock climbing, and the ways in which we waste our lives. I hope it makes you think.

_____________________

It is 1:49 AM on a pointless Thursday morning. I'm 20 years old, flying down an utterly empty Interstate 25 at 117 miles per hour, watching the corners of my vision blur, feeling my poor '97 Honda rattle from side to side, and thinking: "God damn, these are some video game level thrills."

It's a weird thought, but the only one I have for the sensation that with a slight jerk of the wheel, I could send myself flying top over bottom into the next life. Of course, in a videogame, "the next life" is usually literal. Black screen, load last checkpoint, carry on. Keep calm and respawn.

How many times have I done such an act, I wonder. I spent my childhood chasing the dopamine drip of the Xbox-- the "Nintendo," as parents are apt to call anything that puts a controller in your hands. I've beaten hundreds of videogames; played tens of thousands matches of online deathmatch; posted even more than that on online gaming forums; spent my formative years alone in a darkened basement. How many deaths have I died? How many lifetimes have I lived?

Bungie.net stats for Xbox Live gamertag "beat82":

Halo 2: 5,303 games played. 36,440 kills. 34,664 deaths

Halo 3: 3,876 games played. 52,400 kills. 39,456 deaths

Halo Reach: 1,241 games played. 16,841 kills. 12,758 deaths

As it turns out, in my twenty years, I've lived a fair few lives. And yet, I realize, I've lived none at all. So much of my life has been "video game level thrills," that I have no other lens to interpret death. As the speedometer scrapes 120, the urge to jerk the wheel and flip the car is pressing. I just want to see what would happen. See how accurate Grand Theft Auto is. See how spectacularly I can waste my life.

***

In October 1995, Swedish mountaineer Göran Kropp set out to do something that had never been done before.

So he climbed on his bicycle and pedaled all the way from his home in Sweden to the Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet. The journey took five months. When he finally arrived at base camp, Kropp dismounted, and conferred with the community of guides and climbers at the base camp. Against the advice of the native Tibetan sherpas, Kropp climbed and summited the tallest mountain on Earth, alone, carrying all of his own gear, without the bottled oxygen that is generally viewed as a life-saving necessity in the thin Himalayan air. Kropp then climbed down the mountain, got on his bicycle, and cycled back to Sweden, the way you or I might return home during the evening commute.

In 2002, Kropp fell 20 meters from a routine, roped rock climb in the Cascade mountains near Seattle. The climb, nicknamed Air Guitar, was graded 5.10a, not a particularly tough rating for a world-class climber. I can climb a 5.10a. Nonetheless. One quick slip, and Göran Kropp plummeted towards the ground, the cams and carabiners and quick-draws that held his rope- the equipment that was designed to keep him safe- flew up off the rock in a chain, like a zipper closing a jacket. The belayer on the ground could only watch gravity do its work as the pieces of safety equipment failed in their duties. A shattered styrofoam helmet, blood on the sand, and Göran Kropp, age 35, dead on impact.

A life well wasted.

***

A Life Well Wasted was a podcast I used to listen to: a well-produced, This American Life style riff on the culture and community that had sprung up online around the video game industry. In high school, I'd spend endless hours with an Xbox Live headset in one ear, an earbud in the other, listening to this, or some other videogame podcast. Podcasts were big, back then, to me.

No matter how many times my mother told me to go outside, or offered to take me to the movies, to pay for me and a girl to go to the movies, I refused to move. If she cut the power, I'd play my Game Boy. I was happy where I was. In video games, I never had to live a life I didn't like. The corrections were always easy.

Reload my save.

Change my loadout.

Use a cheat code.

Fix the problem.

Change my life? Why?

My life changed with the disc.

***

Ken Baldwin was twenty-eight years old when he vaulted over the guardrail on the Golden Gate Bridge, trying to kill himself. The fall was epiphanic for Baldwin, who later recalled, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

This is a quote I stumbled across in The New Yorker, at a time in my life where it seemed that I couldn't escape the spectre of suicide. I've never forgotten it.

***

Rock climbers have this saying, "Work the problem."

A boulder problem, to use the parlance of the enthusiast, is a relatively short climbing route, from a set start to a set finishing point-- usually, although not always, on top of a large boulder. Bouldering problems require a different type of climbing than you might generally associate with the sport: bouldering employs no rope system, and climbs rarely go past fifteen feet or so. The focus is on strength and technical skill, rather than the endurance required by more traditional ascents. Bouldering problems also tend to be very difficult, with climbers often having to attempt them multiple times to figure out the correct sequence of moves and grips required for the summit. And then of course, you have to actually be able to perform those moves, which are almost always harder than they look.

A boulder problem is a dialogue between the climber and the granite. A negotiation. It is not easy; it requires effort, perseverance, and work. When you start on a boulder problem, you can expect to fail. You can expect to fall. You will learn to fall gracefully, or you will fall out of the sport. You will sometimes have to leave and come back another day with fresh fingers. In a spurt of frustration, you might even punch a rock.

This is working the problem.

When I started climbing rocks as a hobby, I did it because I found it relaxing. I did it because I needed something new in my life. I did it because I needed to feel something again.

Before I ever set foot in a climbing gym, or learned how to tie in to a belay system, I climbed when I could, because in some way it made me feel better. It made me feel slightly more alive, to hang off of a rock face using little but my sneakers and fingers made strong by years of clutching the prongs of a console controller. Spending my mornings on a real rock face felt a little more worthwhile than spending my evenings driving a six-inch tall man up the side of pixelated Renaissance-era architecture in Assassin's Creed II.

Before a friend ever showed me how to work a boulder problem, or told me that I'd have to ditch the sneakers for $150 climbing shoes if I seriously wanted to climb rocks, I had found myself working on a completely different sort of problem.

***

Arriving at college, I had discovered that, contrary to my prior beliefs, thousands of lives lived in Halo: Reach were not acceptable substitutes for my own life. Nor, as it turned out, were drugs or alcohol. Sex was, for a time. Love, too. Friendship proved the most lasting. But still, caught in a seemingly endless loop of wasted time, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was squandering something.

"You're a writer?" this man, DJ, asked me. "We'll have to dialogue then, since I'm actually a published poet."

"Yeah, I write I guess," I said, "But I really need to stop doing stuff like this and actually sit down and get writing." I grimaced, shrugged, and took a pull from the bottle of cheap vodka I held in my hand.

"You know, you need to get out here and do stuff like this so you have something to write about," DJ encouraged. I nodded, thinking about it.

A few months later at a party where I was blackout drunk, one of my good friends threw some unprovoked punches, and beat DJ out of my orbit.

I woke up the next morning, heard the story, and wondered what I was doing with my life.

***

"If we didn't waste our lives, what else would we do with them?" an old roommate asked me recently. He was completely serious, asking me this question as he bought tickets for a football match between Ireland and Britain. It was finals week, his grades were terrible; he'd popped an Adderall, and was laser-focused on planning an upcoming trip to Europe. "Everything is better there," he said.

Initially, I brushed this guy off as the stoner he was, but I found the question lingering in an unnerving way. Is there really little more to hope for than a life well wasted? This ex-roommate seemed to think so, as he slowly smoked and sexed away the days with his father's money, doing the bare minimum while I worked and networked and wrote and wrangled some small form of recognition for myself in my chosen arenas.

As we sat over coffee, I found the idea would not leave me. I saw the question, "What else would we do?" grow tendrils and slowly strangle all other thought processes, until the different ways in which we wasted our lives was all I could think about. I thought of this old roommate, happily whiling away his days with a whitewalled bong. I thought of my sister spending her days across the sea, helping African children live longer so they will survive to generate more African children. I thought of a girl I once knew, cutting short her own waste of a life with a bottle of pills and a vodka chaser. I thought of myself.

My anxiety mounted.

"I'm going to go hit the climbing wall," I said.

"I knew you were going to say that," the old roommate said.

***

It's tough to say why I still like climbing, my relationship to the sport long ago having moved from hobby to habit. Nowadays, I rarely even make it to the sun-baked sandstone and granite rocks that attracted me to the activity in the first place. The indoor climbing wall at the rec center is much more convenient for me. Climbing is no longer an escape from daily life, but a part of it.

And yet, for some reason, climbing never feels monotonous. It feels frustrating, and tiring, and I wish there was a nicer wall in town, and there's always someone better than me climbing when I am; but for some reason I keep going back. I wake up most mornings, toss my smelly climbing shoes and my chalk bag into my backpack, and don't even begrudge them taking up most of the space.

Maybe it's the workout, the fact that returning to the overhangs and pull up bars of the wall has given me, for the first time in my life, some form of fitness. Slowly but surely, the sickly pallor of too much time in front of LCD screens has faded. My shoulders have firmed, tensed, and welcome the massages from the girls who now seem willing to give them; my fingers find themselves strong enough to reciprocate, and to please.

Perhaps it's the natural gracefulness and the poise with which girls move across the wall, which makes me simultaneously excited and envious.

Maybe it's the friendly community of climbers that populates the gym, always happy to give pointers, puzzle out the problems, or simply chat about life.

Maybe it's simply the fact that I have nothing else to do. No better way to waste my time. Maybe climbing is simply my new video game.

Maybe it's all of the above.

I'd be lying if I pretended to have answers.

But I like to think that I still like climbing because of the way it reminds me daily that things are worth keeping at. It reminds me to always keep working, keep considering, and keep improving. Climbing keeps me humble, and reminds me that I am a normal, flawed human being.

And how that's nothing to be ashamed about.

***

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

-Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

***

The other day, I solved a boulder problem that I had been working on for weeks at the gym. This problem tested every skill I had developed so far as a climber, used every muscle in every limb, and after more than fifty failures and falls, it felt immensely satisfying to finally grip the triangle of yellow tape that marked the finish.

"Yeah, that's a fun one," a fellow climber commented, after watching me summit, "but you've really got to campus it."

Then this asshole went to start this problem that's given me so much trouble, grabbed the starting hold, and proceeded to climb the entire problem using only his hands.

I was frustrated. But even more, I found myself thinking damn, I want to be able to do that.

So I walked forward, put my hands on the start, hung my legs in the air, and started to work the problem.

53 Comments
54 Comments
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Edited by StarFoxA

Wow, that was excellent. I really hope this doesn't get overlooked. Your writing is captivating, even for my sleep addled brain. Echoes a lot of things I think about life, definitely hit home. Really, well done.

Do you write anywhere else? I'd love to read more of your stuff.

Edited by Pie

Really nice read.

Me, you and Crunch should totally play some Halo again!

...

urgh

Posted by Bollard

Really good piece, engaging and thought provoking.

Edited by Claude

I finally bought golf shoes. FORE! Golf balls can kill.

Posted by Chronologist

Wow, duder. Well done.

That hit really close to home. As a newly started climber myself, I absolutely got what you were talking about. The reflections of why you climb are eerily the same as my own.

Posted by Canteu

A lot of your writing reminds me strongly of Charles Bukowski.

That is an incredible thing, and you are clearly a talented writer.

Posted by theguy

Normally I find any type of long form serious writing on forums seem like they're trying too hard to be profound. This wasn't though. Sincere and thought provoking. Good read.

Edited by Swoxx

This was a great read. I somehow found myself relating to it even though I'm quite happy with my life and don't really have any regrets. Strange. Good job dude!

Posted by Sjupp

I will read more of what you have to put down. Feed me your words.

Edited by 49th

Great read, well done. I considered starting to climb a few years ago and this might be the thing to make me start.

Posted by emem

Very nicely written, keep climbing.

Edited by Turtlebird95

Very well written and a very interesting topic. Nice work duder.

Edited by Sploder

Maaaan, this is fantastic. Best thing I've read all week, well done man, keep up the good work.

Edited by Praxis

This is probably the most contemplative and earnest piece of writing I've encountered on this site. Bravo.

Edited by MegaLombax

This is amazingly well written. Thank you for such a fine read. Absolutely loved this.

Posted by Mento

You have nailed the first part of being a great writer, which is to be an interesting person who has done and seen some interesting shit. I'm quite envious. I don't think scaling a rock is quite for me, but there's definitely something to be said about just getting out there and expanding your worldview to lend that extra bit of credence and maturity to your text. Amazing piece.

So are you done with games then? Sounds like you found something more fulfilling.

Moderator
Edited by maskedarcstrike

@lies: Awesome read and man I had the same thing happen to me when I went bouldering at a rock climbing place with a buddy of mine a year ago. Finished one mid level problem and then some dude climbs it using only his arms. Talk about getting your pride stabbed.

Edited by el_stork

Well written.

Posted by Sweep

I feel better having read this. Glad you're still doing OK, Lies.

Moderator
Edited by MX

This was really well written, you've got a golden pen sir.

Edited by Lanechanger

Great read! I was really drawn into it. Glad you found rock climbing!

Edited by mlarrabee

I think my favorite aspect of this blog is that it flies in the face of the lie of, "As long as you enjoyed your wasted time it's not wasted."

Edited by development

Great blog. I was pretty depressed when I was around 20, too. Kinda fucked up, to think the last thing suicide-ees might be thinking is "fuck, everything else was fixable."

I've been running instead of rock-climbing. I would climb, but there aren't even any indoor rock-walls around me. Sucks. I prefer to just climb random trees and shit, anyway, I think. There's just this urge I get looking at trees or buildings that my brain's just like "you should go climb that shit." I'd probably actually climb some of those buildings if I wasn't a grown ass man. Stupid society and its taboos.

Posted by Pezen

Making every day activities into interesting pieces of text is an art form I've always admired. I agree you need to do things to have something to write about, but it's an even better gift to be able to frame the events that surround you in a compelling matter. Whatever the event might be is completely irrelevant. Really good read. Issues I think about on a daily basis.

I'm pretty curious why the notion of going off the road with ones car at times seems like such a curiosity. Many times if I cross a bridge I find myself thinking how it would be to speed up and go off it into the depths below. How many seconds of regret would I experience? Or would it feel liberating?

I think some of us are just growing up without a complete sense of purpose. We waste time because we lack a goal, so we have nothing to work toward. By the time we realize we should have done something, we find ourselves deep into marriages, with kids or simply too old to start over. And so we accept wasting time doing every day routines and hope to fulfill the void with it. Because we dare not break the pattern.

Recently I began pondering about a lot of these issues. How would I enrich my life by trying to do the things I wish to succeed in. My problem is that my interests and wills are like an Octopus reaching in all directions with little effort to focus. Besides that, I find myself wondering if I should strive for personal success or try to work to help humanity achieve something instead. I always liked that notion in Star Trek. To better yourself and help improve the lives of all by bringing helpful rather than hurtful innovation and thinking to everyone. But some days I simply don't like humanity and the way we all treat each other. And would I really want to help such people?

But, that's still me imagining myself being of importance, which is little more than wishful thinking on my part.

Rock climbing always seemed fun, too bad I have developed this fear of heights over the years.

Edited by Tru3_Blu3

"Then this asshole went to start this problem that's given me so much trouble, grabbed the starting hold, and proceeded to climb the entire problem using only his hands.

I was frustrated. But even more, I found myself thinking damn, I want to be able to do that."

Likewise after reading this; only instead being frustrated as being an uncompetitive human who wants to achieve things that cannot be achieved, no matter how many books or texts he reads to become even a mediocre writer. The sad truth about this article is that no matter the efforts, the people who have done things before you will always be better than you and will always obtain the dreams they desire. You will, or at least us, will forever be nothing but filth to the eyes of man's nature as time is a linear course.

Hope you enjoyed reading this poorly written response.

Edited by MormonWarrior

This is part of why I'm so glad I grew up in an actively religious family. From a young age my life has had purpose, and I know what kind of things I aim for in the long run and what I need to do to get there. It doesn't define every single step in my life, but it sure gives me direction and focus. I'm super grateful for that.

Posted by Jcice_1

Fist bump to my fellow climbers. May your vertical struggles be safe and rewarding. And for those of you who haven't tied in or topped out, I heartily encourage you to get out there and feel how truly inspiring the activity can be. Most of us don't write as well as this climber, but his words are a reflection of what I, and I'm sure most other climbers, have felt.

Thank you Lies, for sharing.

Edited by Jeust

Awesome post man! I loved it and saved it for later analysis.

I can relate to a lot of those feelings, and

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

-Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

That's exactly how I feel! Although it is hard sometimes...

Posted by Darson

I always thought that doing such monotonous and repetitive activities such as climbing were, well, a non-interesting waste of time. But then I again I'm sitting over here playing video games so.....

To each their own.

Edited by von_wemberg

So nice to find this. Amazingly written, relatable. Wish I could have your skill to write something to respond.

Making me think about life. Making me melancholy. Is it good or bad I don't know...

Edited by Reisz

Thank you.

Posted by Sanity

Great read, makes me think about what a waste my own life has felt like lately and how i could change that. Someday id love to wake up and feel like i am where i want to be.

Edited by Slag

@lies: dude that was a cool post. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by omdata

Good stuff.

Posted by planetary

Very nicely written. Keep writing!

Posted by Tonylope

That was a wonderful piece, thought provoking in all the right ways. You also helped me to cement the idea that I need more hobbies. More things that I can work towards and enjoy. Things that can hopefully make me feel as if I've accomplished something important, even if what I've done doesn't really matter to anyone but me.

Posted by FluxWaveZ

Absolutely great read. I'm 19 and pretty hopeless. No outstanding talents, no social life and not much of interest other than video games. A difference between me and the OP is that I am extremely resistant to the idea of seeking improvement and I find myself content with lamenting about my miserable life.

Posted by RandomHero666

@fluxwavez: don't worry you're not the only one, everything you just said applies to me too, except i'm 24.


Great read Lies, good to see you're still around.

Posted by CaptainCody

Fantastic

Edited by MarkWahlberg

'Coming to terms with my life' pieces 99% of the time are either uninteresting or poorly written. Yours is neither. Well done and keep at it.

Edited by SpoogeMcduck

Your first paragraph depressed me, mainly because I wish I could be 20 again and fix all the screw-ups I've made. Otherwise it was a great read

Posted by avantegardener

Finely written bit of personal catharsis.

Edited by RedCream

Your prose is enthralling.

Edited by MasterOfPenguins_Zell

LIESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

Edited by Kazona

That was an inspiring and reflective piece of writing; something that made me think about the life I'm leading. To be more precise, the little piece on the guy who jumped off the Golden Gate bridge, plus your reflection on being a climber made me realize that everything can be fixed if I work the problem.

Posted by HurricaneIvan29

You sir.... are amazing. I enjoy articles like this and will look for your writing in the future.

Posted by NorseDudeTR

Wow! THAT is a post! Keep this up, man!

As a dude who works in fitness, climbers are impressive to me. Takes some serious, unwavering focus to do that stuff.

Edited by Draugen

Ah, 20... I remember 20, and thinking much the same way you do. Military service was my rock climbing. After some initial problems, I decided that I was going to be a good soldier. And I was. Did my job, and never said no. Always the first to volunteer when it was asked for. My service time came and went, and I was back in civilian life, where a chilling realisation came over me.

I hadn't become a better man, I hadn't realised something profound that would help me later in life. I'd been a part of something special, and I'll always look back on my time in the army as some of the best in my life so far. But I was still me. The same person I was before I joined.

Sure, like climbing, it was a better use of my time than playing video games, but if you look at it with a synical eye, it was still wasted in a way.

Today, many years later, I've come to see our alloted time in a different light. The only time that isn't wasted in a smaller or larger degree is the one where you leave an impression in the sand.

Raise your children, create a work of art, save a life, or at least work to improve the quality of it. Everything else, either its climbing, video gaming or soldiering, won't really matter in the end.

Edited by wait

Hey Lies great post. Everyone needs something that they can press on to, a goal to achieve, anything. We all find it someday. Some of us are fortunate enough to find that purpose, or goal sooner than others. Personally I believe I have NO outstanding skills whatsoever, and its fine because I do believe that a strong will, hard work and determination and maybe little bit of intelligence can get us one step closer to somewhere. We all just got to keep our heads up and drive on.

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