Tag Archives: happiness

The Lab

Inside the lab, all I can smell is cedar. It’s the first thing I remember about it and I imagine it’ll be the last thing too. The tall legged chair has a low back that digs into my Sacral vertebrae. Paul didn’t have 6’4” Wookies in mind when he designed this place.

Precious little has changed about the lab since I first walked through its doors nine-years ago. The computers have gotten fancier and the tape deck has been replaced by the miracle that is digital recording, but that’s about it. The windows are still stained, the dorsal fin shaped piece of driftwood still sits in the corner, the Auckland Town Hall “Save the Whales” poster is still tacked to wall. It took place at 7pm on June 10th, 1981 if you were wondering. I was -7.5 years old.

No, this place feels the same. The Orcas still call at all hours of the day. Tonight they’re in the strait. Cracroft Point in both ears, Parson Island in my left. A ping in both ears, an echo in the left. A whistle in both, an echo on the left. I close my eyes and I can see them. By their volume and echoes I can place them. Vancouver Island side, probably milling which would explain the random changes in volume. I lean back in the chair, feel it dig into my back, and let the whales take me away.

And as I do, the dull ache returns. Not in my back, but in my chest. The one that’s emerged each time I’ve looked at something fondly the past week. That nasty, horrible reminder, that my time’s almost up. I’ve spent 23 non-consecutive months here. It would be cliche to say it feels like I just got here yesterday. But dang it, it does.

I came for the Orcas. I came to learn everything I could about them at the feet of a master. I came because I thought Paul Spong held the secret to spending your life studying them. Nine years ago I arrived wanting to learn how to be someone else. Now, I’m leaving finally ready to be myself. I am not a scientist. I’m not cut out for research papers or grant proposals or laboratories. I’m not cut out for non-profit fundraising and holding onto my own foundation by the fingernails. I wanted to be. Thought I was supposed to be. But I’m not. I’m no more a scientist than a basketball player.

And that’s ok. Orca Lab told me that lovingly, patiently. Over countless nights in the lab, watching Parson Island fade into darkness. I may stand at the side of great scientists and leaders and advocates, but that is not my voice. My voice, my home, my Hanson Island as it were, is right here. With my fingers tapping against keys, uninhibited by the rigors and (necessary) walls of science. We need both. Science tells us we should care. But it is our emotions that make us do so.

And so saying goodbye to this place will not be as simple as closing the door to the cabin for the last time and missing the southeast storms and snap of cedar in the fire. It’s saying goodbye to the place that gave me purpose. I’m not unique in this regard. I’d wager that everyone that has set foot on this place has a story they can tell about how their life has been altered by Orca Lab, Paul, and Helena. What unspeakable beauty is there in that? That in a world where hatred, arrogance, and selfishness seems to be growing at an exponential rate, there is a place that can teach us how far love and compassion and appreciation can carry us.

“I feel most secure when the woodshed is stocked and there’s a fresh loaf of bread on the shelf.” – Paul Spong.

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Accepting Happiness

Five years ago today we walked through a dew soaked forest. Not much has changed. Everything has changed. This particular forest is in Juneau, Alaska, on a peninsula sandwiched between the ocean and Mendenhall valley. The east wind carries the breath of the glacier. The land thaws and stretches at the close of winter. There’s a cleansing smell to the forest in Spring. New growth blooms, the plants thaw and produce a rich sweet smell. You don’t breath as much as drink. I feel high on the fresh oxygen of the forest.

It was a time of new beginnings in more ways than one.

Brittney and I get off the trail and into cell phone range. She has one thing on her mind. She’s ready to start our family. She pulls out her phone, dials, and asks the question. Yes, we can bring him home.

We drive to the humane society and collect Porter. He growls, he hisses, he cowers in the corner of my beloved Ford Ranger. But he’s ours. We’re taking him home.

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Home is a trailer. A trailer with smoking electrical outlets, tree trunks for a foundation, and an empty propane tank. The bedroom is barely large enough for a mattress. It’s a dump. A wonderful dump that costs $500/month.

I’ve been out of college for a year and am going nowhere. It feels good. Whale watch guide in the summer, Kennel Supervisor at the Gastineau Humane Society in the winter. There I met Porter, introduced him to Brittney, and watched her fall in love with him at first sight.

We carry our handful of possessions into the house. Laptops, cat, mattress, a couple bags of clothes. We eat Subway that night. I prop my laptop on a crate and low and behold, find someone’s unprotected internet connection. I should feel guilty about that. But I’m too excited to put on the Timberwolves game (they were playing the Blazers, they won) and wolf down a foot long Chicken Bacon Ranch.

Porter prowls the house as we eat. He walks into every room, sits, rises, and resumes his prowling. After an hour he walks over to us and looks into Brittney’s face with a mixture of suspicion and hope. They stare at each other and Brittney taps her knee. With a leap he lands on her lap and curls up.

Brittney looks at me with tears of gratitude. My heart swells and I look around this dump of a house perfectly content. It remains one of the most peaceful and happy moments of my life, for the simple reason that such simple things could bring such immense joy.

That moment has shaped me.

Whenever I begin to worry about money, or security, or the future, I think back to that night. And I remember that no amount of cash, no job and no amount of “success” will ever bring that sort of tranquility.

And so I look at the world, and I don’t understand. Every day I’m inundated with angry people. I read articles about people in positions of power with millions of dollars to their name. People that have achieved every possible definition of worldly success. Yet they are not satiated. They don’t seem happy. They appear petty and angry, defensive and apathetic. They display all the characteristics of the middle school bully desperate to cover up their own inefficiencies by belittling those around them.

I see people worth millions of dollars slurping at the glass of capitalism. Sucking up every dollar they can find like the Coke at the bottom of their glass. Will that extra drop unlock the key to happiness?

I see people get up every day and go to work at jobs they hate so they can buy things they don’t need. I see people buy what they call starter homes. When Brittney and I went to pick out her wedding ring the lady behind the counter referred to our choice as, “a nice starter ring.”

I guess that makes me a starter husband.

I look at the world and I don’t understand. I don’t understand how people can kill each other for believing in a God they don’t. I don’t understand how people can be enraged over what bathroom a transexual uses or what gender a person wants to kiss. I don’t understand how people can use their precious few decades living in fear and making the lives of others miserable.

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There are rags to riches stories. At least by American standards they’re rags to riches. Riches of the wallet. Riches of the driveway where a brand new Ford pickup sits. Riches of the living room where a plasma screen TV sits. A Christian nation that has forgotten the story of Solomon. Cram whatever you want into your life, it will never be enough. Perhaps we think it’ll be easier to pursue happiness with a V8 engine.

I don’t understand, I have never understood, I’m done pretending to understand.

Last summer we walked into the Shabin. It’s not all that different from the trailer we walked into on Porter’s first night except the outlets don’t smoke.

We have no tape measure so we measure its square footage by laying head to foot. It’s two and a half David’s long by a Brittney and David wide. It’s not much. But it will keep us warm. It will give us the chance to learn how to build a home of our own. More importantly it will allow us to live as self-sufficiently as possible. Four acres can make a hell of a garden. Starter gardens. There’s something I can get behind.

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We step out of the Shabin and onto the small covered porch. A wind rustles through the Cottonwood Trees and the leaves whisper their affirmation. The nearest highway is 65 miles away, the airport is closed for the night, the only sound is the trees and Thrush. A Great Blue Heron flies over, its prehistoric cry fills the silence.

I feel as if I’ve unlocked some sort of magic. I wonder what creates this feeling in others. Maybe V8 engines and seven figure incomes can elicit such emotion, but I doubt it.

Maybe the key to happiness is not pursuing it but instead accepting it. Accepting that a foot long sub, a free internet connection, a rescue cat, and the love of your life is all you really need.

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John Muir, Stickeen, and the Biggest Decision of Our Lives

My favorite John Muir story involves a tiny dog named Stickeen. Fanatically loyal to Muir, Stickeen followed the famous naturalist everywhere, even the glaciers could not separate them. On one trip a storm hit. The light was fading, and they were still far from home. Between them and camp lay a large crevasse in the ice, a narrow bridge across offered the only hope of passage.
Muir scooted across and turned to find Stickeen still on the other side, sprinting back and forth as the wind howled, panicked and too terrified to follow. Muir knelt down and reach out his arms calling to his companion.
“Hush your fears little one, no right way is easy in this rough world, we must risk our lives in order to save them.”
For a moment Stickeen remained perched on the edge of the precipice, and in a flurry sprinted across the bridge, past Muir and began to yip and run in circles in ecstasy.
For years John Muir’s words have resonated inside me, echoing in my head with every major decision I make. I tried to avoid making decisions simply because they were safe or comfortable, probing deep inside for what I really wanted.
With this credo echoing in both our hearts, we walked, hiked, and hitched through New Zealand. Bounced from seasonal job to seasonal job. Crammed everything we owned into the Pathfinder and drove for five exhilarating days to Seattle. And of course, spent the last six months blissfully happy on Hanson Island.
Slowly we’ve watched our time remaining tick away, somehow, we have just two months left, and the thought of leaving already left a lump in our throats.
In our wildest dreams, where money is no object, we knew we’d come back. But even here, the financial demands of life can reach us. Student loans, IRAs, and that house in Gustavus beckon. It became our next goal, to save up and buy that house, if the elephant in the room (winter work in a town of 350) could be addressed.
Than Paul and Helena changed everything, offering to help us return for another winter if we wanted to. Thus began the hardest decision we’ve ever made together. We tried to imagine returning to Alaska, kayak guiding in Glacier Bay and than… what? Making coffee in Juneau I suppose. Which was all well and good, but we both knew that at night, crammed back into our shanty studio apartment, we’d look out the window to find ourselves surrounded by street lights. And our souls would ache for this place. For the sound of the waves on the rocks. The Harlequin ducks bobbing like rubber duckies into the cove every morning, the mischievous mink that taunts the cat from under the house.
We budgeted. We convinced each other that one decision was correct, and than the other. Finally, we would lapse back into fits of indecision. Pulled between starting to put down roots, and fearing that we’d eternally regret not returning to the island. We talked long into the night, unable to decide. Until this morning when Paul asked us if we’d reached a decision. We looked at each other across the table, a pained look on both our faces. We knew saying no meant we may never see this place again. And we knew that we couldn’t live with that.
There will be houses to save for later. Winter work questions to answer, money to make, roots to set down. But in our hearts, the wanderlust called for an encore. To sprint across that ice bridge one more time. To risk our lives. And to save them.

“We’re coming back!” we replied.
And like Stickeen a century ago, jumped and ran around the cabin while the wind and rain pelted the windows.

We Have Neither the Plans Nor Disguises

My last Christmas in Eagle River I went to the same holiday party that I’ve been going to for years. No longer though, was it acceptable for my friends and I to drag the TV into one of the bedrooms, hook up the Gamecube, and beat each other silly in Super Smash Brothers, taking time only to race back upstairs through the maze of grown ups for another piece of pie. Now in our mid 20s it was time to negotiate through the kitchen, making small talk and drinking enough to make it all seem interesting.

Balancing a plate of food I bumped into person after person I had hardly spoken to since high school. Time and again I would compress the last five years of my life into a succinct three minute presentation. That I had graduated college, was not in grad school, and was working seasonal jobs and globe trotting as much as possible. Most were receptive, some excited at the prospect of spending a winter on an island isolated from the rest of the world, understanding the romanticism and beauty of living a simplistic life for months at a time. Others, did not.

As the night wore on and we continued to shift conversation partners, I bumped into a man I hadn’t seen since high school. A middle aged father of two, he had for a time been a volunteer in the youth group of my church as I was growing up. And so I began my presentation, summarizing my summers on whale watch boats, farming in New Zealand, and my upcoming year in British Columbia and Orca Lab. Anyone whose ever given a presentation, at school or work has felt the wriggle of insecurity as you begin to talk, and know that it isn’t going to end well. His face evolved from one of surprise, than shock, and finally, condescending.

“How old are you now, David?” He asked.

“25.”

“When are you going to start taking life seriously?”

I pause, taken aback by his bluntness. What would constitute taking life seriously? Did I have to make X amount per year? Or own a house of a certain square footage? Or perhaps I had to have a job that I didn’t love. I avoid a philosophical debate and chose to just announce that I’m happy with my life, young, and having fun.

“Well, yeah,” he allows, “but it’s like riding a skateboard.”

A skateboard? Whatever he had in that glass I wanted some.

“You see those 13, 14 year olds riding around and that’s ok. But if you see, like a bunch of old guys riding around on them… you can’t do it forever. You start to wonder when they’re going to grow up.”

Convoluted and ambiguous metaphors aside, my pride began to flicker, my eyes narrow, the cocktail shrimp on my plate forgotten. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard inquiries such as this. About once a week during the summer, some older man would try to explain to me why I couldn’t go on this way forever. But there was something about hearing it from a man who knew me, someone that I had been friendly with that made this time different.

But as I walked away a few minutes later, I began to feel pity instead of anger. I imagined if one of his kids came to him someday with the same wanderlust that had overtaken me. What kind of reception would he receive?

It is a very American ideology. That we must have a plan, that we must be secure, safe, comfortable. We build walls of comfort and safety and along the way, forget what it means to be alive. But it is all ok, because it has been deemed acceptable and normal to live this way. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, retire, die. It is a blueprint followed by most, and for many, perhaps that’s ok. For some, maybe they are perfectly happy and content to live in the same house and go to the same office every day for forty years, punctuated by their annual two week vacation.

But for a growing number of the younger generation, it isn’t. We’ve seen too many of those walls turn into bars, a prison with no escape. Guarded by the henchmen of mortgage, debt, and car payments. Maybe they’d be happier if they pulled their old skateboard out of the closet from time to time, gave it a whirl, and remembered what it felt like to be young and free. As I’d neared this age of reckoning and college wound down, I began to feel this noose begin to tighten. I wondered if there was another way, a different trail down the road of life. Bumpier, perhaps, but a lot more fun. Slowly I loosened the noose until finally I became ok announcing that there was no plan. That I wanted to be an environmentalist and a writer and as long as I was doing something to better the wild world and wasn’t curling up under park benches at night, it’d be ok.

And so to the man that I doubt will ever read this. I plan to ride that skateboard until a wheel snaps off and sends me careening into the briar patch. Who knows, maybe it’ll never happen, maybe it will. But every second is going to be a fulfilling ride that I wouldn’t trade for anything.