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The Midnight Library
by Matt Haig

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Started Apr 11, 2021
Finished Apr 15, 2021

Diversions

Recently I’ve become a bit obsessed with rock climbing. Just learning about it, but not doing it (yet). It started with a video that popped up on YouTube of professional climber Adam Ondra teaching a newbie version of himself, via split screen, the basics of climbing. Ondra has dozens of videos, mostly him “sending” extremely technical routes, including the preceding attempts and failures. I appreciate how earnest and enthusiastic he is about climbing, even if he is also clearly very serious and driven to excel. (Turns out he is almost certainly the best in the world at the type of climbing he does.)

After that introduction, I was reminded of the movie Free Solo about climber Alex Honnold’s rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite. I knew about the movie but hadn’t seen it, so I watched it one Saturday morning a few weeks ago. It was as much about Honnold the person as it was about the actual climb — his determination, the years of planning and preparation, the strain on his personal relationships, even the dynamic of being filmed by friends who might have to watch him fall to his death. It was a great film about an interesting person and an absolutely legendary feat. The movie itself felt quite similar to Man on Wire, which is about Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. That stunt remains completely gob-smacking to this day, but Honnold’s achievement is on another level. Whereas Man on Wire had elements of a heist movie — how will they pull this off without getting caught? — Free Solo is really about one person’s mastery of his chosen field.

In interviews, Honnold likes to talk about risk versus consequence. Free solo climbing is obviously very high consequence, especially on a big wall like El Capitan: If you fall, you die. But the high risk can be mitigated somewhat through planning, conditioning, practice, patience, and so on. Many people have climbed the route Honnold chose, and their goal typically is to prove they are capable of doing all the component parts. Honnold knew he could do the parts. His quest instead was for mastery: to put in the work necessary to do it all perfectly, then prove it to himself by executing when only perfection would do.

Soon after seeing Free Solo, I watched The Dawn Wall, a movie about a pair of climbers doing the first free ascent (with ropes and safety gear but without other climbing aids) of a different part of El Capitan. The two movies came out around the same time, and while they are ostensibly about similar topics, they are very different. The Dawn Wall was about Tommy Caldwell’s decade-long obsession with piecing together a route over the blank face of El Cap, finding a climbing partner in Kevin Jorgensen, then training together for several years before completing their 19-day first free ascent. In contrast to Free Solo, which was about individual mastery and life-or-death consequences, this story was about obsession, perseverance, and friendship. Another excellent film; I’m really not sure which one I preferred.

Since then I’ve continued my diversion into climbing. I’m excited about it for now. If that continues, I may eventually break out of my comfort zone to take a beginner class at a climbing gym.

Back to Reality

A couple weeks ago we took a much-needed vacation to Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is a small city in a remarkably beautiful setting on Lake Cayuga. All around the lake, including right through the city, rivers have cut their way through the rock to form waterfalls that cascade through forested gorges. It really is a special place, and we have now visited three times.

Since I’ve become a parent, vacations have become less about relaxing and more about having fun while trying not to do too much. I think we struck a good balance with this trip. We did less than we might normally have, partially due to being cautious about COVID, and partially because the weather was mostly rainy. But we still did a lot, more than we have in months, which was greatly appreciated by our stir-crazy daughter.

Halloween yesterday was a blast and almost felt like the before-times. Things were a little different due to the pandemic, but people made the best of it. We set candy out on a table in our front yard so trick-or-treaters could help themselves; Others had clever ideas like sending treats down a chute or delivering them by a longer grabber pole. Our little witch loved it all so much she was crying when the night was over. Such is childhood.

Now we’re back to reality for a bit. The election looms. Work continues.

I added a couple more reviews about books I’ve read recently:

Reading notes

I’ve been reading more in an effort to avoid the relentless 2020 news cycle. I added a page to track my progress, and have added some notes about a few of the books I’ve read recently:

Wanderlust

I’m itching to get back to traveling. Since that’s not in the cards, I’m remembering some of my favorite recent trips and documenting them on the new Travel page.

Forest Bathing

I try to use my lunch break each day to take a walk outside. The neighborhood where I work is one of Pittsburgh’s nicest, full of charming houses, brick and cobblestone streets, and towering sycamore trees. Usually when I start out, my mind is racing from whatever problem I was just struggling with. As my heart rate increases and I start to breathe deeper, my head clears as well and I gradually relax into the rhythm of walking.

I walk the perimeter of the neighborhood, which abuts Frick Park, a massive woodland in the middle of the city. Along those perimeter streets there are lots of places where trails dip into the woods. I know the park well, but in the past I’ve avoided venturing in on my lunchtime walk; I figured there wasn’t enough time, and I’d get drawn in and miss an important meeting.

Well, the other day, before I knew what I was doing, I was on the trail, winding my way through the woods. There is a palpable difference between walking tree-lined streets, however lovely they may be, and walking in a real forest. The winding path, the dappled light from the canopy overhead, the soundscape of trickling water and rustling leaves. I felt an immediate sense of relief, well-being, and vitality. After a few minutes I was overwhelmed with emotion and had tears in my eyes.

I’m not sure what provoked that sort of response, but I guess it had been quite a while since I took a walk in the woods by myself. I craved it. As I settled into the rhythm of the walk and let myself be pulled along by the trail, I got to thinking: If a walk in the woods is that therapeutic for me, why not do it more often? What are the stressors in my life that make basic self-care so difficult? What long-term harm is that doing to my health? To my relationships? What am I missing out on? What can I do about it?

The older I get, the more I realize this problem isn’t just about adjusting my priorities. There simply are not enough hours in the day to work full time, cook healthy meals, exercise regularly, read broadly, make art, and be an attentive parent, a considerate husband, and an engaged community member. I can prioritize all I want, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that roughly half my waking hours are spent getting ready for work, commuting to and from work, and working.

That’s hardly an original thought, but maybe it’s worth considering why so many people are so vexed by this same problem. The rat race. I’m lucky enough to have a job I enjoy… I just want to spend less time doing it, and more time in the woods, or with my family, or sitting on my porch swing doing nothing at all.

A stone waymarker reading "Skalholt 49 KM" in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland.
A stone waymarker reading "Skalholt 49 KM" in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland.

There and Back Again

And just like that, we’re back from our long-planned adventure to Iceland.

Every part of the trip went about as well as it could have. We explored an incredible variety of landscapes, from seaside cliffs to sulfur-steaming volcanoes to glacial lakes to sheep-dotted grasslands to black-sand beaches to the charming urban streets of Reykjavik.

Each day was busy, but the combination of fresh air, exertion, and wild landscapes nourished me in a way I didn’t know I needed. We explored only a small fraction of the island (from the capitol city to Snaefellsness peninsula in the west, then to the south as far east as Vík). But after eight days, Iceland left us wanting more.

We will be back.

Dies the Fire review

One of the goals of this website is to catalog all the various stuff I enjoy. TV shows, movies, music, and yes, books. In that spirit, I’ve decided to make dedicated pages for all the books that have meant a lot to me over the years, complete with a plot summary and totally subjective review. As a start, I chose Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling, one of my favorite books and a really fun piece of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. Read my review.