Category Archives: holidays

Gratitude and Atonement

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I suck at gratitude. Forever thinking about the future and how to correct wrongs, both in my life specifically and with society as a whole, I often neglect to be grateful for what I do have.

The problem is not isolated to myself, or any specific subset of society. I can think of several people in my life that are great at showing gratitude. They make people feel good about themselves by giving compliments, and sounding grateful for anything anyone does for them. More importantly, they sound grateful to people just for being who they are and being in their lives. They are the ones that will occasionally just thank me for the way my mind works after I make some kind of comment.

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This is the exception rather than the rule. I have encountered far more people who are fixated on what they don’t have or what’s wrong. If I had to express my behavior with respect to being thankful vs. resentful, I would put myself somewhere in the middle of the curve. That is, however, not good enough. A lot of people recognize this as a problem. It’s now commonly recommend that people keep a gratitude journal in order to alter their focus.

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A decade is coming to an end. A decade full of ups and downs. A decade full of experiences. A decade full of joy and pain.

Throughout the decade, I can point to times when my behavior was positive, selfless and encouraging. I can also point to plenty of times when my behavior was erratic, self-destructive and not exactly fair to the people around me.

In the new decade, I am done with the tyranny of expectations, the fear of letting people down and the need for approval from others; especially authority figures. However, there are people in my life who genuinely helped me, were there for me during some rough times, encouraged me, and enriched my life just by being a part of it.

This Thanksgiving, it is time to

  1. Show people that I am grateful for them being in my life
  2. Tell them why I am grateful for them, and tell them that I care
  3. Show remorse for those who I have treated unfairly or taken for granted
  4. Truly let go of some things I am still holding onto

What I did can be thought of as trying to cram multiple years worth of gratitude into a single month.

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I decided to write notes to people who impacted my life in a significant way over the course of the decade. I’m sure I still left some people out. It was a list I agonized over. In the end, I wrote about 85 letters.

I spent two weeks writing what I should have been telling the people around me all decade. The notes mention specific qualities about people I enjoy. They express gratitude for shared experiences. They described the positive impacts certain people have had on my life. They express remorse for the situations I did not handle well.

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Writing the letters was quite emotional. In some cases, it felt like reliving the ups and the downs, the moments I am proud of and the ones that make me cringe. Overall, writing these notes made me feel better.

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Bringing these notes to the Post Office turned out to be even more emotional than writing them. There was something amazing about the act of dropping all these letters into the mail slot. At that specific moment, a giant weight lifted from me. I had finally done the right thing. The past could be put behind me. This season of reflection, gratitude and atonement makes me ready for life’s next chapter.

I’m not sure how anyone is going to respond to these Thanksgiving notes. Some people, especially those I have not talked to the last few years, may even be a bit bewildered.

While I am sure I will hear from some people when these notes are received in the mail, I am not anticipating anything specific. That’s not the point. I wasn’t doing this to have anyone tell me how great it is that I am finally showing some gratitude or hear from people who have not been in my life for years. The point was to tell people they matter. Assuming nothing goes terribly wrong at the Post Office, that mission is accomplished.

A Christmastime Message

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Christmas, and the Christmas season, is quite easy to understand as a child…

Time off of school

Family gatherings

Fun lights, decorations, parades and movies

And, of course, Santa Clause coming and bringing toys

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Maturity complicates things. For many, there is a lot of work to do, work that is not related to Christmas; shopping, decorating, cooking, event planning, etc. In college, the Christmas season often means the end of a semester, with final projects and preparations for final exams. In many work environments, end of the year projects and the rush to meet annual goals can create a busy month. Unfortunately, this stress can sometimes make it hard for many adults to actually enjoy activities like baking and putting up Christmas decorations. These activities, which were meant to be joyous, end up just creating more stress.

Another complicating factor is the nature of what it is we desire at different ages. What most kids want is something that Santa can bring down a chimney, or what a parent, friend or relative can wrap up into a box. What most adults truly yearn for is something that cannot be found at a shopping mall, or even on Amazon. True love, self-respect, acceptance, community, and many of the things mature people need for a truly fulfilling life, but often lack, cannot be achieved over the course of one day, or even one season.

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Then, for those who are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be of the more intellectual persuasion, there are all the questions and observations.

Should non-Christians even be celebrating Christmas?

Is Christmas even really a Christian holiday? Given its dubious historic roots, and current manifestation as largely secular and materialistic.

Is there too much materialism in the holiday?

What does it mean to be in the “Christmas Spirit?”

Does all the talk of snow in Christmas music make it too biased against those who live in the tropics or the Southern Hemisphere?

What would happen if someone crashed a Christmas Party, and interrupted “Let it Snow”, with the Lil’ Wayne & Fat Joe Song “I’ll Make it Rain”, while yelling “Climate Change”?

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It is also possible to observe people for whom Christmas is not a great time of year. People with truly dysfunctional families (beyond just different political views) may dread the holidays, and for people with no family at all, it can be a time of intense sadness.

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There are probably a lot of lonely adults wondering how a season that once brought them much joy has now become one of indifference, stress, or even worse, sadness. What is it that can be done this Christmas Season to create a more positive outcome?

There are three natural instincts regarding where to begin talking about the meaning of Christmas for adults.

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The first is to talk about the Christmas Spirit; compassion, generosity, warmth and understanding. There are, of course, reasons this is a good thing, but anyone who has gone through a truly tough time in their lives knows that not everyone has the capacity to be in this spirit at all times. The Human Spirit can change with circumstance and environment regardless of season.

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The next is to roll it up with New Years, into some kind of a prolonged period of self-reflection, where the events of one year are process and the goals and themes of the coming year are considered. Of course, it is quite self-evident how effective this is, given how few New Years resolutions are actually kept.

Then there is the cycle of life that is the seasons, with the Christmas season being the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. There is historical precedence for cycles of holidays or festivals that roughly match the start and end (and sometimes the mid-points) of each of the four seasons. For some, Christmas serves as an exciting start to an exciting season, while for others, it softens the blow of entering a difficult season.

The primary common thread regarding the reasons people value Christmas relates to taking a break from the normal progression of events.

Even those who truly love their jobs need to periodically take a break. While some jobs have prolonged time off, like summers for teachers, for most, Christmas represents the longest break period of the year. For some, it’s a time to rest. For some it’s a time to party. For others, it is a time to just slow down, stop, and observe the true beauty of their surroundings. Most importantly, regardless of whether someone’s circumstances in their regular day-to-day lives are fortunate or unfortunate, it is a chance to regroup, and focus on something else for a change of pace.

 

A July 4th Hike Up Mount Evans

IMG_3942.jpgThis Independence Day was a strange one. It was a day with all sorts of mixed feelings. The first is related to the holiday. I love the United States of America, and feel extremely blessed to have been born and live here. However, something just feels a bit off right now. Without getting too into it, as travel and adventure is supposed to be an escape from all of this nonsense, I do not feel that our current political climate is in line with what this country was originally intended to be about. Based on the values of the Enlightenment, we escaped from tyranny and intended to set up a nation where the impact of politics and government on our lives is limited. People feeling that government is important enough that they will de-friend and even act violently towards those that support a different political party just doesn’t feel like America to me.

I was also somewhat mixed about the event. Mount Evans is one of two 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation) with a paved road to the top, meaning that people can get to the top of this mountain in their cars (or on a bike). In fact, I know someone who drove to the very same peak on the same day.

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I also wasn’t too crazy about leaving Denver at 4 in the morning to arrive at the Summit Lake parking lot just before sunrise.

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14ers close to Denver are quite popular, and there was concern about parking availability. In many of my social circles, I find myself among the least cautious. It’s not that I want to go around being reckless, taking risks for the sake of risks. I would just rather deal with things occasionally going wrong than all the missed opportunities and additional stress that comes from being averse to risk.

However, the big picture is that I am hiking to the top of a tall mountain. Waking up two hours earlier than I wanted to guarantee a parking spot at the trailhead is a small compromise, and not one that takes me anywhere near a place where risk avoidance is costing me opportunities. There were also some benefits from starting that early, as each hour of the day is unique in the mountains, and the time around sunrise can be quite magnificent.

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Less than twenty minutes into the hike, the sun emerged from behind both the clouds and mountain peaks on the horizon.

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They do not call these mountains the Rocky Mountains for nothing. Many of these high elevation hikes are both steep and rocky.

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I would definitely recommend some form of hiking boots or trail shoes to traverse terrain like this.

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The trail climbs pretty quickly right from the start. Less than an hour into the hike, which is a slow hike, averaging little more than a mile per hour, I began to see Grays and Torreys Peaks, the first 14ers I ever climbed, five years ago.

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It wouldn’t be long before that top of the world feeling emerged. This is because, the trek up Mount Evans from Summit Lake is actually two peaks. The first one, Mount Spalding, is only 158 feet shy of being a 14er itself, and has its own scramble to the top.

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Like Grays and Torreys, there are many places where hikers conquer two peaks at once. This hike felt very much like this, despite the fact that Mount Spalding does not count as a “14er”.

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Saddling between the two peaks was rocky, shaded, and breathtaking. It may have been my favorite part of the hike.

It was kind of strange to reach the summit only to see all the people who had just driven all the way up. We were also able to look down upon the lot where we had parked a couple of hours earlier.

From the top of the road, there is actually an additional 134 feet of climbing to the peak, at 14,264 feet.

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We also got a chance to get up close and personal with the mountain goats, who seemed strangely inclined to hang out relatively close to the road.

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With the steep rocky sections, and the climb back up Mount Spalding, the return hike was only slightly easier than the climb.

We also encountered a crew of trail maintenance volunteers. I cannot overstate how much I appreciate their work. I had not previously seen them working, but I know they work hard on behalf of the Colorado outdoors, and are an important part of the mission to encourage others to get outside, get active, and enjoy nature.

Then, at the bottom of the trail, we encountered more wildlife- sheep.

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I am somewhat in awe of these animals, both the goats at the top and the sheep near Summit Lake. They live their lives on the steepest of all hills. I wonder if they ever fall over, but it feels like they don’t. I spent half the downward trek grabbing onto rocks with my hands for balance, despite having a good pair of hiking boots. The goats and the sheep, they just walk up and down these steep, slippery, and rocky hills like it’s nothing.

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We got back to the car before noon. By the end of the hike, I really did not know what to feel. Hiking to the top of a tall mountain is no longer a new experience for me. It’s beautiful but familiar. 2018 so far has been quite emotional for me already, dealing with issues related to our mean spirited and way to identity-driven political climate, as well as drama related to my career, social standing, and even identity. Maybe, at this point in time, I do not need some kind of grand emotional response to my activities. I just need to enjoy them, laugh with friends, and see nature for the majesty that it is. That was good enough for me before I started writing this blog, and some things are indeed true regardless of time, place and culture.

We Need A Little Christmas

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All over the world decorations have gone up, trees have been lit, and markets selling ornaments, toys, treats and drinks have opened up for the season.

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What does that all mean? Are they just lights? Toys? And a bunch of parties that guarantee that, alongside Halloween and Thanksgiving, we all put on weight for the winter?

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For those who truly believe (Christians that is), the holiday has a deep spiritual meaning, as it commemorates the birth of Christ. However, the picture gets a little bit murkier. The holiday has a secular component to it that is embraced by many non-believers. Caught up in that secular component, some Christians lose sight of the true meaning of the holiday.

There are also some external factors that can sometimes make it hard to enjoy the holiday season. The pressures of life in the modern world have the potential to suck the fun out of any season. Year-end deadlines at the office, combined with the pressure to buy the right gifts and get family events organized, produce a season of stress for far too many people.

The true spirit of the holiday can vary quite a bit from person to person, and from year to year. Many are familiar with the story of Ebineezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, a lonely businessman who resents the day as an unnecessary interruption in his business. There are also more subtle examples of people who see the holiday as just something “to get through”.

I have fallen into that trap in past years. There have been years for me when I resented what I saw as an ill-advised obligation to buy gifts and an unwelcome interruption in my young adult life, with the people I usually hang out with not being around to do the usual stuff I like doing.

This year feels different. Whereas, the past few years, I don’t recall thinking or hearing much about the holiday until mid-December. This year, there is this anticipation, both within me and in the people I am around, that started long before Thanksgiving.

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Perhaps it is a reflection of where we are as a society in 2017. There are a lot of problems we have; loneliness, difficulty finding fulfillment, all the forces that are driving us apart, etc. Many know that we are not completely blameless in creating these problems, and that we can make a conscious effort at creating a better society. Yet, the world of appears to be finishing up 2017 in nearly the exact same state as it began the year. It is possible to argue that things actually got worse.

What I am excited about, and what I feel like the people around me are excited about, is not the toys, the lights, and the drunkenness. It is not even the snow, which, here in Colorado, really hasn’t happened yet.

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It is the true meaning of the holiday which applies to both its religious and secular traditions. It is taking time away from the grind of every day life. It is being in the presence of family and close friends. It is comfort. It is rest. It is taking time to stop trying to earn, learn, advance, and achieve, and just play, laugh, and smile.

That is what the trees, the lights, the decorations and the toys symbolize to me. That is what we, as a culture need now, and we likely need it more than we did in years past. It is why I started anticipating the holiday weeks earlier than in recent years, and it is this component of the holiday that is my top priority for the remainder of 2017!

Cultural Observations in Stockholm

 

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Setting out to observe a 3 P.M. sunset, in all its glory, is actually significantly more challenging than one would ever expect. Spending four days in Stockholm, I came to the realization that anywhere one would go in November or December where the sun sets this early is likely to be quite cloudy. While the sun did slip below the horizon right around 3, and the sky became pitch black before 4, each afternoon the sky pretty much appeared like this.

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There was no observation of the sun dipping below the horizon at 3 P.M., just a gray day fading gradually into nighttime.

Not only did 4 P.M. feel different here than anywhere I had ever lived, so did 8 P.M. Rather than feeling like the time the night was just beginning, when people were prepping up for their evening activities, getting ready, texting friends, etc., it felt like a lot later. I am not sure if this was 100% due to the fact that it had already been dark over four hours, or if it is due to cultural differences (when people leave work, etc.). However, at 8 P.M., it definitely felt like the “night”, whatever that entails, had been going on for some time and was approaching maturity.

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Stockholm is a city that parties pretty hard on Friday and Saturday evenings. Both evenings, in the area in and around the city center, including the areas around Central Station, and the Islands of Gamla Stan and Södermalm, there were plenty of people who were already quite intoxicated by 8 or 9 in the evening.

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This is one of several cultural observations I made while in Stockholm.

Of course there are ways to learn about the culture of a country or a region from afar. Travel books and other essays provide convenient cultural guides to places. Popular culture, music, movies, shows and such, also give people from afar a window into the culture of a place. However, I do notice time and time again, that there is no real substitute for actually going to a place and experiencing it for oneself.

For example, one of the things I noticed about Stockholm, the entire time there, was that people walk fast. It’s almost like the way it is in New York, and other large cities.

This is a prefect example of something needed to be experienced in person. While it is possible for someone to write, in a cultural guide or video, that people walk fast in a certain city, what that means can only be truly understood when experienced. The same can be said for New York.

 

Also, with the exception of New York, a city that seems to take pride in its high paced walking, it is easy to imagine a quick reference cultural guide which may focus on things like tipping or train etiquette, to not mention something like this. After all, did I really need to know how fast people in Stockholm walk prior to coming here?

I benefited more from reading about how Scandinavians dress. The casual sneakers, jeans and sweaters I wore all week did not stand out.

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In fact, I may have fit in too well. Despite the fact that people here are mostly fluent in English, most addressed me in Sweedish before I had to ask them to speak English to me.

Food is a significant component of any cultural experience. There is a reason why food makes a natural topic for travel shows. I couldn’t picture actually trying to experience the culture of a given place without trying the local food. I made sure I got the full Sweedish food experience, including the Skagenröra (shrimp salad), salmon, and various other fish dishes (Stockholm is a bunch of islands after all). However, I was surprised at how good their grilled sandwiches were. Specifically, many places throughout Stockholm serve various types of grilled sandwiches, all with some kind of cheese. Many of these sandwich did not include fish or seafood. Some were even vegetarian. They do an excellent job of melting the cheese on the rye bread, and this serves as a great lunch option for various types of people (as in, not everyone eats meat, seafood, etc.).

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As an American, traveling abroad to places like this, it is hard for me not to feel at least a little bit guilty. American culture is harder to escape than I ever realized. Stockholm does have fast food as well. Most of it comes in the form of stands, similar to the hot dog stands found on the streets of New York. Given that most of the food in Stockholm is pretty expensive, it is almost necessary to have a couple of meals at one of those stands on any multi-day trip here, so as not to bust a budget. This was, however, the only place I encountered someone who did not speak English.

I also saw McDonalds and Burger King all over town. However, these establishments are at least somewhat different abroad than they are in the United States.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment was that I was unable to escape the tradition known as “Black Friday”. I was hoping, by virtue of not being in America, where thanksgiving is not a holiday, I would also not experience Black Friday. Well, apparently people do that here too. Maybe they don’t in less touristy parts of a country like Sweden. Maybe I needed to go somewhere with less tourists, and, also less people who speak English, to experience the actual culture of Sweden.

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How much can anyone get to know about the culture of another country by visiting for just a short time? And not venturing outside of the City? I can see how a tourist can come to believe they have learned quite a bit about the culture of Sweden, or any place they chose to visit, by making an set of observations like these.

To me, my set of observations almost feels like how someone from abroad would judge the United States by simply spending several days in New York, our biggest city. The rest of the country i likely significantly different, in terms of pace of life, and how much they embrace ideas like Black Friday. However, just like the foreign tourist in New York, I did experience some things different from what I usually experience at home.

Christmastime in Copenhagen

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There is, perhaps, no better way to get into the spirit of Christmas than to find oneself surrounded by the ambience of the holiday, taking part in local traditions. Christmas may mean something different to different groups of people. Some focus more on the religious aspects of the holiday. Others on the secular. Still others celebrate different holidays altogether.

In central Copenhagen, where the spirit of the holiday can be seen all around, with decorations on buildings and streets.

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And numerous Christmas markets all over town offering holiday treats.

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The spirit becomes contagious. It is felt in the air. It is hard not to want to join in the traditions of the region. Eating nordic food, both new and old.

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And, of course, drinking gløgg, a warm spiced Scandinavian wine commonly drank on cold, cloudy winters days; particularly at Christmastime. It would be almost impossible to imagine myself here at this time of year without drinking it.

Denmark is known to be a happy place despite the weather, which is commonly cloudy and rainy, particularly in wintertime. In fact, it may even be because of the weather, as Danish culture has found some unique ways in which to cope.

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Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga), is a word we do not have a direct english translation for. It is happiness, in a friendly, slower paced, and cozy sort of way. Upon any reading or discussion of the subject, it becomes quite apparent how the weather has influenced the culture. Winter here means a lot of time spent indoors, in the dark. Spending it among good friends, eating good food, and removing oneself from the pressure of day-to-day life provides some form of rejuvenation.

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While Copenhageners spend a lot of time indoors at this time of year, it is apparent that they do not let the weather stop them from cycling. Despite the cloudy, and even rainy weather, and daylight that only lasts from roughly 8:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M., there are still plenty of people on their bicycles, using them to transport themselves, and sometimes even other people and their cargo, around town.

As a cycling enthusiast, this is actually one of the factors that drove me to want to visit Copenhagen. It is by some measures the most bike friendly city in the world, and boasts one of the highest percentages of bicycle commuters. Perhaps because of the fact that nearly every street I encountered here in Copenhagen had some form of bicycle accommodation, it is a way of life here that cannot be stopped by the combination of darkness, rain, and temperatures in the lower 40s (around 5C).

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Besides what appeared to be the expectation of year-round commuting, I noticed several other manners in which the cycling culture here differed from what I see in the United States.

First, the bikes are different. I saw mostly cruisers not necessarily designed to go high speeds.

Second, cyclists here most certainly follow the rules. Nobody ran red lights.

And, finally, I also noticed that it is common practice here to leave bikes unlocked. I guess there is less worry about theft, but the idea of not locking a bike feels foreign to me.

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There is perhaps no place more iconic here in Christmastime than Tivoli gardens, one of the world’s oldest amusement parks.

The lights here, at night, are a must see for anyone who comes to Copenhagen at Christmastime, even for those who do not care for roller coasters.

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Recent reports have linked the lack of social support to unhappiness, poor health, and other bad life outcomes. The Danish people appear to take pride in their status as one of the happiest countries in the world, and, at least in part, attribute it to this concept of hygge.

According to the Little Book of Hygge, written by Meik Wilkins, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute (which happens to be located in Copenhagen), hygge, while practiced all year long, is strongly linked with the Christmas season. The idea of taking a break from the stress of everyday life and spending time with loved ones is the core element of Christmas no matter where it is celebrated.

Often times the season for this is cut short. For many, some combination of pressure to complete end of the year tasks at work and holiday shopping keeps stress levels high for much of December. Experiencing Copenhagen in late November, with the spirit of Christmas already in full swing, I am inspired to make this entire season, not just a couple of days at the end of December, about giving, sharing time with those closest to me, and de-stressing.

What Independence Day Means for Travel and Adventure

img_0231-1Every year, we Americans celebrate the founding of our nation on the Fourth of July. This commemorates the day in which the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, officially declaring our intention to separate from the British Empire and form our own Nation, or more accurately at the time, confederation of states.

It is an active day, and often an active weekend for the country as a whole.

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Some use the time off to explore some of the country’s most spectacular places.

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Others use it to visit vacation homes, or have quiet weekends by the lake.

Some also flock into cities, to visit friends, and attend festivals.

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As is the case with many holidays, I often wonder whether or not this one loses its meaning. Those that know the true meaning of Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco De Mayo, and Memorial Day will often observe that the way most people celebrate these days is inconsistent with the actual intent of these particular holidays.

What about Independence Day?

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Are these large firework displays appropriate? What are most people thinking about, as they are exploring parks, visiting friends, barbecuing and watching these colorful displays?

How many people are thinking about their own lives vs. the Nation we are celebrating? Or are our minds on regionally specific considerations? For example, in the Rocky Mountains, the Fourth of July is kind of the start of the season for high altitude hikes. After a three-month process of snowmelt in the highest terrain, many trails are finally free of residual snowpack and mud.

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In fact, there is even a trailhead just south of Rocky Mountain National Park that was named the Fourth of July Trailhead.

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Trails originating from here provide access to a series of high peaks just east of the Continental Divide. This particular section of the Central Rocky Mountains is commonly shadowed from the sun and heavily forested. At places like this the snow melts the slowest in the springtime. This trailhead was given this name because it is generally not recommended for hikers to hike here until the Fourth of July!

What people chose to do on the Fourth of July may have something to do with how people view the United States of America.

There’s a spectrum of people across this country, from those that take extreme pride in being “American”, to those that take a more critical view and may wish we adopted some policies of other nations. Where someone stands on this spectrum may have something to do with whether someone sees July 4th as extremely meaningful, or just as a convenient day to have off in the middle of the summer.

Being who I am, I cannot help but reflect, and come to a conclusion that is a bit more nuanced. One of the virtues that this nation was founded on is individual liberty. Even if we have fallen short of that ideal on certain occasions past and present, it still represents an ideal that we aspire to. Liberty, and self-determination are considered a justifiable end here. There are other places where it is not.

As someone who yearns for adventure, it is easy for me to view, with envy, European countries where vacationing for the entire month of August is common practice, and work weeks tend to be shorter. However, that is not the full picture. There are large areas of the world where most people cannot take vacations at all. There are places where the majority of the population lacks the prosperity and/or individual liberty that makes everything we do here possible.

Reflecting on this, it needs to be understood that we are indeed quite fortunate. This does not mean we should not yearn for more, as, in many ways, we can and should do better. It does mean having everything put into proper perspective. With the right priorities, most Americans at least have the opportunity to have an adventurous life. This is something we all should be grateful for.