The Great Escape

While writing my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ] last year, I wrote three chapters which ended up not being used in the book.  Over the next few days I’ll be sharing these three stories here on my blog.  Here is the first story, “The Great Escape”.

—–

Where does the time go? When we get caught up in the days, the hours, and the minutes, the years just seem to fly by. The seemingly endless cycle of school, work, and responsibilities—life—make us slaves to the grind. Each year seems to pass more quickly than the previous one. And then one day you wake up and many years have passed by in a blur.

That day for me wasn’t an actual day. A series of small events in various segments of my life merged and coagulated, bubbling to the surface to eventually form a big realization. And while my experience with a simple two-drawer metal filing cabinet could hardly be called “the last straw”, it was one of the many little experiences that collectively lifted me up off the couch and pulled me back to a life outside.

—–

In 1991, my boss and I were sharing a two-drawer filing cabinet. She used the top drawer for semi-important papers; I used the bottom drawer to store junk. It had a lock on it, but we never locked it. Nothing we kept in the cabinet was confidential or even really that important.

In 1992, we moved to a different building. In the process of moving the filing cabinet to our new location, it somehow became locked. And neither of us had the key. So I contacted our facilities department. After filling out the correct form and getting several signatures on it, including that of the vice president, it was put in to the work queue. And after a wait of several months, someone from facilities came over and looked at it.

“I can’t do anything with this,” the facilities employee said after examining our filing cabinet for a few minutes. “We need to call in a locksmith.”

Because a locksmith is not an employee, but a contractor, this required another form, and a whole new set of approval signatures, all the way up to—you guessed it—the vice president.

After a few months, the locksmith came. There was lots of jiggling of keys, and lots of banging around. After more than an hour of trying to open the lock, the locksmith gave up. Later that day, I was notified by our facilities department that nothing more could be done. The filing cabinet seemed to be destined to remain locked forever.

In 1995, we moved offices again, and I decided to give it another go. By this time the files hidden inside were useless garbage, but I just wanted to get this large anchor out of the hallway. Three years after the cabinet had been accidentally locked, you would think that someone would be motivated to get it open. However, my renewed attempts to resolve this ridiculous situation unfolded like watching a re-run of a bad sitcom. I filled out forms. I waited months for approval. Someone from facilities eventually came over. He couldn’t open it. He needed to call locksmith. The locksmith came. He couldn’t open it. And eventually, everyone gave up.

From 1996 until 2004, the cabinet packed with files became the thing in the hallway that the laser printer sat on. Countless staff came and went, never knowing the hidden secrets the “printer stand” held. Occasionally I’d play the part of the wise old manager, grabbing young workers in the hallway and telling them tall tales of vast secrets locked away forever in the impenetrable steel filing cabinet of doom, the cabinet that could not be opened by the facilities department or a locksmith or even the combined forces of all branches of the United States military. Few believed me; all thought I was crazy.

By 2005, the filing cabinet was still sitting in the hallway, and it had been well over a decade since human eyes had seen the files inside. By this time the contents had transformed from useless garbage to “I might be able to get some money for some of these antiques on eBay!”

Around this time, I hired a new administrative assistant. She could solve any problem thrown her way, so I decided to give her the ultimate challenge: open the filing cabinet.

She contacted the facilities department. It seemed that we had streamlined our processes significantly over the course of 10 years, I was told! But streamlining processes still meant filling out the same form, and getting the requisite signatures, all the way up to, yes, the vice president.

So after waiting a few months, the facilities guy came over again to look at the cabinet. And guess what? He couldn’t open it. He needed to call a locksmith.

The locksmith eventually came, and guess what? He couldn’t open it. But—baby steps of progress—the locksmith had successfully knocked the lock out of the cabinet! Still, the verdict was that the whole cabinet, files and all, needed to be transported over to the facilities department, as they needed to saw open the cabinet.

Transporting the cabinet over to the facilities department turned out to be an exciting new adventure in itself. It required a new form, and a new set of approvals, all the way up to the vice president; waiting for a month; and then being told that they could only transport empty filing cabinets, not cabinets loaded down with 100 pounds of files.

Yes.

That’s right.

They would be more than happy to move the cabinet over to their building and saw it open after I removed all of the files.

And that was when I finally lost it.

On, Friday, September 16th, 2005, more than 13 years after the cabinet became accidentally locked, I took matters in to my own hands. I took a 99-cent screwdriver out of my desk drawer, walked over to the disabled metal cabinet, and brutally and mercilessly attacked.

In less than thirty seconds, both drawers were easily pried open and I was taking a cruise down memory lane. 5 1/4 inch floppy disks! Magnetic backup tapes! Drafts of things I was writing back in in 1992! What a trip. It was almost enough to make me forget that in half a minute with a 99-cent screwdriver I had accomplished what a team of facilities management professionals could not accomplish in more than 13 years.

As I said, the infamous filing cabinet incident itself was not what made me snap. It’s more of a symptom of the underlying disease; it’s just one great example of the hundreds of little things that together made me reevaluate my priorities. Stressors like this accumulate and take a toll on one’s mental and physical health. So I began to make some much-needed changes in my life.

—–

Modern society presents a paradox: thanks in large part to advances in technology, we are more connected than ever before, but at the same time we are less connected than ever before. When most people discuss losing this “connection,” they are talking about the connection between people. But there is something equally important, yet far less frequently discussed: losing the connection between people and nature.

Looking back at my childhood, I loved to dig holes. Any excuse would do, but an excuse wasn’t even necessary.

I remember setting a grand plan for myself one summer vacation in third or fourth grade: I would dig a hole to China. My imagination ran wild with visions of breaking through on the other side of the world, and being greeted enthusiastically by people wearing funny hats and holding chopsticks.

Of course, I never made it to China. I gave up after the hole was about four feet deep. And if I had in fact managed to do the impossible and break through the other side of the earth, ironically I would not have found myself standing next to the Great Wall of China; my exit point would in fact have been much closer to southern Africa, where my family moved just a few years later.

When my son Andrew was about the same age as I was when I mounted my failed subterranean expedition to China, he asked me if he could dig some holes in the back yard of the house. But there was a problem: I quickly realized that in the entire front and back yard we had so carefully planned and designed, there was no place left to dig a simple hole. All surfaces were covered with concrete, bricks, grass, and various plants. Sadly, my quest for the perfect yard had denied my son one of the basic joys of childhood: placing a shovel against bare dirt. There was no place left to just be a kid.

Eventually, winter came, and my tomato garden went fallow for the season, providing Andrew with a small patch of raw earth where he could be a kid and play in the dirt. He was happy, and I was relieved that I could let him dig like a kid without compromising my precious landscaped garden.

—–

The world around us is a complex place, and one way we manage that complexity is through a process of abstraction. In its purest sense, abstraction is a reduction of detail down to the bare essentials we still need in order to understand. Abstraction helps us to simplify things, letting us focus on the information that’s most important for the task at hand without sacrificing—and often even improving—comprehension. Removing extraneous elements helps us to cope with complexity. Think of a short story told to teach an important lesson; a simple diagram drawn to explain a complex system; or an elegant map created to demystify confusing geography.

Of course, the down side of abstraction is that the more levels of abstraction you place on top of something, the more you are removed from the actual thing. Think of it in terms of an airplane flying over a landscape. The closer you are to the ground—the closer you are to reality—the more detail you can see. As the airplane gradually moves higher, you get very different views of the landscape. You see different things when you can see the “big picture,” but as your altitude increases you lose more and more detail. It’s the paradox of abstraction.

My long fascination with the natural environment reached somewhat of a pinnacle back in the mid to late 1980s in the East Mojave Desert while doing field research for my masters’ degree in environmental studies. My thesis topic was studying the impacts on desert vegetation from human intrusion in the form of linear corridors (such as dirt and paved roadways, underground pipelines, and electric transmission lines). Unfortunately, graduating on my somewhat unrealistic self-imposed timeline required that my field work be done mostly in the summer. Through the generous help of my friends Mike and Marc, my cousin Jeff, and of course my wife Ruth, I was able to complete all of the field work in time to finish my thesis and graduate on time, and all it cost me was money for gas, more money for Gatorade, and a few meals of greasy burgers at the famous Bun Boy in the nearby town of Baker.

After our daily tedium of setting up transects in various locations and measuring and counting creosote, saltbush, and other plants, we traveled widely within the boundaries of what was then called the East Mojave National Scenic Area, trying to make our time out in the blast furnace of the Mojave in the middle of summer more interesting. We examined ancient Native American petroglyphs etched in the boulders thousands of years ago, explored washes and canyons and the nearby Granite Mountains, walked through a huge Joshua tree forest more densely vegetated than anything that Joshua Tree National Park had to offer, and imagined an earlier California at the old Kelso railway depot. But no matter what we were doing—scientific field work or wandering around like tourists—it was just good to be out there, in the desert dirt, touching nature.

Then life got complicated.

Successful completion of my masters’ degree quickly led to a full-time job as an environmental scientist. At first, there was some field work involved, which I enjoyed greatly. Over time, as my skills at project management and report writing evolved, the opportunities for hands-on work in the field evaporated like a puddle of water in the intense Mojave heat. It was interesting, important work, but it was a level of abstraction away from actually touching—and knowing—the world.

There were many highlights to the job: traveling around the country assessing the environmental impact of operating large incinerators that would be built to destroy the chemical weapons stockpiles left over from the World War II and the Cold War; using cutting-edge computer models to calculate the noise and air pollution impacts from new highway projects across the US and new airport projects across the globe; leading my first projects for NASA/JPL’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, where I got to land and take off in a NASA plane on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base where the Space Shuttle used to land—the closest I ever got to fly on the Space Shuttle; and figuring out a way to do a complete, accurate environmental analysis of a top secret, experimental government nuclear test facility without the benefit of a top secret clearance.

My life took on another level of abstraction or two when I left that job and went to work for a software company, helping to market the tools people use to manage and conserve the environment. I rationalized this move up the ladder of abstraction by asking—and answering—the following question:

Is it better to have 100% hand in managing and conserving the environment at an incredibly small and local scale, or a 1% hand in managing and conserving the environment at a massive, possibly global scale?

It’s a philosophical question. One is not necessarily better than the other. We need both local action and global action, and everything in between. I opted to try the 1% hand in global problem solving.

As my career advanced over the ensuing 20 years, I climbed both the corporate ladder, and the ladder of abstraction. I became a bit player in helping people understand and solve problems on the global stage, which is certainly something to be proud of. But I had lost touch with the dirt I had been so intimate with during my thesis research in the Mojave Desert, the dirt I had trampled beneath my feet over countless hikes son three different continents, and the dirt I had shoveled so intently while trying to dig that hole to China. How had everything gone so wrong?

I was making a comfortable living and providing for my family, but had completely lost touch with the down and dirty details of the natural world I was trying so hard to protect.

It was time to unclog my mental arteries. I needed to cut through all the layers of abstraction and bullshit that had built up over the years and return to an experience that was as direct as possible.

It was time to get my life back. It was time to get back outside.

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