It Gets Better Than This (But Not Much)

My morning path through the aspens – ‘taint a straight line, dude.

Floating on early morning powder, cutting the first tracks through the trees, my lungs scream for more of that damn, thin air.  I stop to suck in a few cubic yards. Motionless, except for my pounding heart (which is attempting to break through my chest on its way to a nice, comfy sofa), I revel in the moment. All is still and quiet – not the quiet of an absence of sound, but of sound dampened by a thick blanket of snow. You can sense its muffled struggling, but it can’t quite escape.

It occurs to me that this is the antithesis of my daily life. I am alone in an alien world. Not physically, of course (pretty sure I’m still on Earth – plus, there are no slimy creatures trying to claw their way out of my chest… unless … that’s not my heart pounding after all?).

What’s different is the mindset. As an architect, I spend my life meticulously planning, and then meticulously planning what I previously meticulously planned. Here, there is no planning – every move is a reaction to what’s happening this very instant, and the instants pass quickly.

The foreboding entrance to Heaven – keeps out the casual skier (and the sane). It’s their loss.

Here, you literally cannot see the forest for the trees, and those trees come at you awfully fast. You can see the trees immediately ahead, but what’s beyond them cannot be anticipated (except, maybe, by ESP – but I haven’t developed that particular skill beyond knowing who’s likely to steal my piece of cake from the fridge. I’ve got that down pat).

Here, each slight shifting of your skis commits you to an entirely new path with a different set of obstacles, all of them hard and immovable (except the occasional fluffy bunny, but you can’t feel them under your skis anyway). Often you fly around a pine tree, all the while praying there will be a gap large enough to fit through on the other side. Sometimes obstacles lurk beneath the snow [cue ominous music, like the theme from Jaws]. Once, my skis buried themselves under a hidden, snow-covered log. Unwillingly leaving them behind, I gracefully tumbled forward through the air, exactly unlike Baryshnikov. Think Tomahawk Missile. By the time I stopped rolling you could have stuck a top hat and carrot on me and no one would have looked twice.

It’s hard to describe the beauty of this place. Pictures don’t capture the quiet serenity, or how it changes as the sunlight filters through snow crusted branches. Some days the fog rolls in and cuddles you in a cocoon. Sometimes I just stand still and breathe in the essence of the place (ok, I’m really just catching my breath. Cut me some slack).

The Secret Exposed

The powder doesn’t last long enough for us powder hounds. Over time, it morphs into moguls, with trees sprouting up between them. Here’s a little secret, even for non-skiers, because this post isn’t actually about skiing, it’s really about life. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone: Most people try to ski around the moguls and sometimes even attempt to follow a predetermined path between them. This rarely works out well. Moguls need to be tackled head on. Skied around, sometimes, but more often over and through, with the flexibility of a human shock absorber. To ski moguls, just like trees, you can’t plan ahead, you take what comes at you, roll with it and use it to your advantage.

Obstacles vs. Obstacles, What’s the Difference?

We come to a place like this, Steamboat, Colorado, specifically for the challenges, to conquer the obstacles. Sometimes that merely involves tipping a glass at the end of the day without spilling in the hot tub. Some challenges are more worthy than others.

In daily life, our natural tendency is to avoid obstacles. We avoid trees (for very good reason), and we also avoid moguls, without differentiating between the two. But they are very different. One will hurt or even kill you (that’d be the trees, for those of you not paying attention), but the other will add spice and even joy to your life, make you stronger and, hopefully, a better person. Yep, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Never thought much about that saying until now.

Obviously we want to steer clear of trees, but that doesn’t mean staying out of the woods. Embracing life’s challenges makes life worth living. Without challenge there is no failure. Without failure, there is no success. Without success (and the hip bone’s connected to the…). Well, you get the point.

You can’t really know the joy of success unless you personally know failure. Hence my loathing of participation trophies (read about that here).

Embracing obstacles is only half the battle. The other half is how we tackle them. I was once asked why I ski so fast through the trees yet am a veritable turtle on the groomed runs. Isn’t it dangerous? Shouldn’t you go slower? There are two reasons:

Nothing to do on the groomed runs except pose.
Flashback 35 years. The skiing hasn’t changed much, but occasionally they move the trees around, just to keep us on our ski tips.

First, contrary to common sense, it’s safer. In order to maneuver effectively on skis, you need speed. Think about how hard it is to turn the steering wheel when your car is stopped or moving slowly. The same concept applies to both skiing and life. You either snowplow your way around every tree (what’s the point, really) or you push it to your limit. As long as you keep your wits and don’t panic, you’ll be fine (of course, you might want to master a few skills outside of the trees first. Just sayin’). Be loose and flexible. Tense up, and things go downhill quickly 😉 . If you hang in limbo, neither slow enough nor fast enough, you will likely become one with a tree, young grasshopper.

Second, and most important, once you have tasted the powder, trees and moguls (figuratively, I hope – or literally if that’s your thing. Hey, I’m not here to judge), groomed runs no longer excite. They have no obstacles.

Me and Beck – Apparently, it is my job as a parent to teach my kid about life. I cannot imagine a better place. It has both trees and moguls.

Far better it is to dare many things to win glorious triumphs, even checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

 Theodore Roosevelt 1899

My Imaginary Conversation with a Dead Architect

Eames Quote

O wise and honorable, dead architect, what do you mean the details aren’t the details? If they aren’t the details, then what are the details?

There are no details.

Huh? There are no details? How can…?

Of course there are details, they make the design. They create the big picture. Aren’t you paying attention?

Wait a minute. Didn’t you just say [finger quotes] there are no details? Yet somehow, these nonexistent details create the big picture?

[slight, enigmatic smile] There is no big picture, either.

O.k., Yoda, now you’re just messing with me.

Calm down, apprentice. Perhaps you are familiar with Schrodinger’s cat, a thought experiment in quantum mechanics that posits we cannot know the state of a cat’s existence until it is observed? A similar concept applies here. If you observe (focus on) the big picture, then there are no details. Observe the details, voila, no big picture. We are incapable of focusing on both simultaneously. You know, can’t see the forest through the trees and all that.

So, there are details and there is a big picture, but never at the same time?

Think of it this way, the whole is the sum of its parts, right?

Right.

Wrong.

Oh, c’mon!

The whole and the parts are one and inseparable. While the whole may be considered as merely the sum of the parts, the whole is also the raison d’être for the parts. The parts cannot be conceived without the whole. So, the parts are as much of the whole as the whole is of the parts.

Uh…[hesitantly] yeah.

Let me give you an example. Most houses designed today are functional, but uninspired. And, frankly, uninspiring. Why? Because, when most people create a house, they focus on the big picture and work linearly to create the parts. They inevitably start by designing the floor plan, erroneously assuming that it is the most important aspect of a home. When the floor plan is complete, they extrude the walls up about 10 feet, throw in some windows and cover it with a roof.

But, dead Master, that is not great design. That is not even good design.

Of course not, but it is easy, and most people have neither the time, talent, training or patience to create good design. The focus is typically on expediency, speed and cost.  That is why we so value good design when we see it. It is rare.

Hey, this is starting to make some sense.

To craft an exceptional home, one must start by designing the whole and all the parts at the same time, the roof, the walls, the plan, the landscape, the kitchen, the exterior, and especially the three dimensional spaces. Each part affects the design of the whole, and in turn the whole affects each Part. Parts also affect other parts. It’s as though you are a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth between parts, as they all slowly coalesce into a whole. The plan is but one piece of the whole.

Remember Schroedinger’s cat? Well, there are lots of ways to skin it, just like there are countless alternatives for a good floor plan. Why lock in on one plan at the expense of everything else? We must let all the parts of the home shape the plan, in addition to the plan shaping the parts. Keep in mind, we don’t live in plan. We live in three dimensions, and that is how we should design.

Now, I understand! This explains why I am always flustered when a potential client asks me to just “do a quick design” of a home to see if they like it before we get too far along in the process. I cannot do it because the process of good design does not allow it. How can I know what the exterior will look like when I haven’t designed the interior spaces? How can I design the interior spaces before I know how the landscape will affect the views from those spaces? It’s all a giant tapestry, or puzzle, where everything affects, and is affected by, everything else.

Very good. You have made much progress. I shall leave you with one last thought. All along you have assumed I was discussing architecture and design. You were so focused on the details of your own profession, instead of [finger quotes] the big picture, that you didn’t realize I was, in fact, actually talking about… life.