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.

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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.

***

No Caption Provided

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.

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