Archive for December, 2011
My family doesn’t do Christmas (or Hanukkah, or anything remotely similar). We dropped it about 20 years ago, when some of us began complaining about crowded shopping malls and long to-do lists and holiday stress. None of us have children, so really, we can do whatever we want.
Once we made the decision, a great tradition was born. Every year at Christmas we would go somewhere and eat Chinese food and watch a movie, or sometimes go skiing. One year we spent the holidays in Austin, Texas, where I was living at the time, and went out to see the premier of Pulp Fiction. Another year we went to Portland, Maine where my brother was living and ate sushi and stayed out late.
In more recent years the tradition has faltered because I was teaching skiing in Colorado and always had to work over the holidays. But now I’m back home with the family, so this year we’ll do the dinner-and-a-movie thing again. I’ve been watching my friends frantically buying and wrapping presents and decorating their homes and baking cookies, and while some of them are certainly having fun some of the time, most of them seem to be having no fun most of the time. They look just as harried and over-worked as they were in their offices before they went out for their holiday vacations. They looked forward to a break and then they saddled themselves with even more responsibilities than they had before the vacation.
Meanwhile, I’ve been having a relaxing week, catching up on work projects in the mornings and hiking with my dog in the afternoons. I plan to do the same all through next week. When everyone returns to their offices on January 3rd and pulls their hair out over how much catching up they have to do (and how tired they are from the vacation to-do lists), I’ll be feeling ahead of the game and well-rested.
I’m not saying it could work for everyone. If you have kids, you probably gotta do the holidays. If you’re a devout Christian or Jew you may feel strongly about maintaining some holiday rituals. But sometimes we think we have to celebrate things in traditional ways just because it’s the done thing. What the holidays really mean to me is spending time with my family. That doesn’t have to include the trappings of Christmas commercialism, does it?
Many people have already reviewed this great book, but for reasons different than my own. The focus is usually on Don Mann’s experience in Seal Team Six, and in special ops in the Middle East since his retirement; and rightfully so. This is not only where mainstream interest lies, but where Don’s greatest contribution to American society lies as well.
My reaction to the book was very personal, however. I’ve known Don for about ten years. I’ve always referred to him as my “adventure racing mentor,” because when I first got into the sport I attended his six-day adventure racing academy in Virginia. I came home from that week completely jazzed about the sport, and I don’t believe it was solely because of the attractions of the sport itself (although I must confess that the idea of traveling through the wilderness, for days on end, in co-ed teams that must survive through team work, strategy and sheer toughness was always very appealing to me). But it was also because of Don’s presentation. He conveys passion in a quiet, mild-mannered way; he has seemingly endless reserves of physical endurance but also of sensitivity; he is the paragon of toughness, but also of patience and kindness. I remember during the registration for my first race, the difficult two-day Endorphin Fix, a swarm of racers thronged the site and Don must have had a million things to take care of. I told him I was having trouble packing my backpack and he made me feel as if he had absolutely nothing else to do at that moment but give me a lesson in gear organization. That’s how he is.
I laughed and cried throughout the book. My own childhood was also fraught with what Don calls, in the early pages of the book, “a craving for danger, action and adventure.” And like Don, I found it in all the wrong places initially; things that could have gotten me killed or arrested. Don says, “I was a bat-out-of-hell, shit-kicker motorcycle punk” and describes scenes of New England biker bars, hair-raising cop chases, drugs and violence.
But eventually he learns to channel all the fire into something truly useful. And there’s a lesson for all of us in his life story. “Most people have no idea of what their full potential is,” he says memorably. “One of my mottoes is Blood from Any Orifice. Because I figure that if you don’t push beyond what you think your limits are, you’ll never know your true abilities.”
Could anything ring any truer? And I realize that even as a corporate dropout, world traveler, expedition-length adventure racer and volunteer mountain rescuer, I never managed to push my limits the way Don did. Few of us have, in fact.
There were stories throughout the book that I’d heard Don tell before, or heard through the adventure-racing grapevine, but never been able to place in such a meaningful context before. Stories about having toenails removed, or passing out from over-exertion after a workout; but also really painful events like when Dawn Mann’s son was shot while Don and Dawn were in the middle of running a Beast of the East race. There was Mark Burnett’s ruinous railroad operation on Don’s first major race plans, for a Beast in Alaska. And Don selling his Harley and mortgaging his house to finance Odyssey Adventure Racing. I realize now that most of these things happened while Don continued to serve his country in overseas operations that he couldn’t talk about. We were already impressed with Don’s amazing “fire in the belly” and we didn’t even know the half of it!
But my favorite story is one that I’m quite sure I never heard before reading the book. While competing in his first Raid Gauloise, Don says he hallucinated a beautiful Chinese girl in the river on the paddling section of the race. Funny. Because during Primal Quest Utah, the toughest race I ever did and one that Don put on, I hallucinated an Asian woman kneeling on the front of my kayak during the paddling section, and kept telling my teammates we had to pull over because of it.
My friends in adventure who know Don Mann, if you haven’t already read this book, now you see that you must. But for anyone else this book is a must-read too. Read it for insight into the elite team of Seals that took out Bin Laden; read it for the great lessons it can teach our youth who don’t know what to do with their potentially destructive energy; or read it for the inspiring co-existence of a action-hero tough guy and a truly great humanitarian who is not afraid to express compassion and love. Just as long as you read it.