Thursday, April 23, 2020

So There Was This Time When...

If there's anything kayakers like (almost) as much as paddling, it's telling paddling stories. Around the campfire, while sitting on the beach, or even while kayaking, we all love to share our past adventures and hear about what other people have done, be it large or small. Stories are one of the strongest bonds that tie humanity together, and while they can serve as a pleasant way to relax in good times, they also serve as a support system and a way to strengthen communities during times of stress.

As someone who's shared a lot of stories (shameless self-promotion: my kayaking memoir A PADDLER'S JOURNEY is available in paperback or ebook), I encourage everyone to take some time to write your own stories down on paper or computer. Maybe even record a video. Save your stories now while so many of us are alone and isolated and with each passing day our memories of what really happened fade a little bit more. Share them with your buddies or your local kayak club. Or save them for your kids when they get older (and can handle the truth). You'll find the process of writing or recording will force you to remember more. It will make the images clearer and the idea behind the store more forceful. It will give you more happiness in the moment and it will save some for posterity.

And as a writer and paddler I have a few pieces of advice to get the most out of your stories (caveat: feel free to ignore everything I say because what works for one person doesn't work for everyone. Find your own path).

- Think about your audience. When you're telling someone a story, that person is right in front of you and you automatically tailor what you say to who they are and how they react. Writing is different. You have to think about who you want and expect to read this. Are they a paddler? Do they know what a boof or a pourover is? Will they want to hear about a grand adventure they might never be able to do themselves or would they like to hear about something that reminds them of what they've already experienced? Do you want them to learn a little more about who you are as a person or do you want them to have a good laugh? Maybe your audience is just yourself, and you want to record your stories so you don't forget the little details later. Until you know who you are writing for it's very hard to get anything right.

- Think about the point of the story. When we're talking in real-time, we normally share a series of events that can ramble around and around, even circling back before arriving at a theme, but when you organize a story into a different medium it becomes necessary to have a point to the whole thing from the start. A thread the action carries through it. It doesn't have to be something deep and grand, but it should be something relatable. Something like: mishaps happen to the unprepared (and it's funny!); it takes courage to attempt something that will change you; friends in hard times are important. Sometimes you won't really see what your point is until you finish the story - but that's a good time to go back and start again! Which leads to the most important point:

- Editing is necessary. Everyone's first draft is pretty crappy compared to what they are capable of. You might be able to get something down on paper the first go-round that is easy to read and gets the point across, but I guarantee you will be able to improve it if you take another look and spend a little more time on it. Editing isn't everyone's favorite thing to do, and it might not be necessary if your goal is simply to record the facts, but it really is the best way to get something out of your own writing. It's when you have a chance to analyze not only what happened but how it sits in your mind and fits into the bigger picture. It allows you the creativity to change and improve how you word things. It's the core of what writing really is.

I hope you all take the time to write out your stories. Share them - you can do it here in the comments if you want. I've shared many over the years, but here's one I don't think I've told before, just to show that it doesn't have to be a long epic, it doesn't have to require near-death experiences or hilarious adventure. It just needs to connect us to the humanity in everyone.

The Best Tip

I've taught a lot of kayak classes and the particulars tend to blend together, but one sticks out not for what happened on the water but afterward. There was a mother (mid 40's) and daughter (college student) in a beginning whitewater class. Neither were great athletes or outdoor adventurers. They both did fine, as I recall, but it was clear the mother had signed them up as a bonding experience, and me and my fellow instructor were wise enough to stay out of their way and let them enjoy their time together. After our wrap-up for the two-day class the mother came over with a big smile and gave us a generous tip - more than enough for the two of them. Always nice to get some extra cash for having the sense not to work too hard.

A few minutes later, as me and my buddy were cleaning up gear, the daughter came over, a little hesitantly. She said she didn't have any money, but she was an art student and she had made a couple postcards as a class project and wanted to give each of us one. I think we all knew that a couple of river bums who lived in tiny rented rooms weren't really the art-collecting type, but we expressed our gratitude and she rushed back to her mom. I headed home and threw the card in my desk drawer.

Here's the part where you might expect me to say I still have that card. Maybe even framed it and put it up on a wall now that I have a house (and a daughter) of my own. But I don't. It's long gone. I mean, it stayed with me for half a dozen moves and it was always right there in my desk whenever I sat down to write. But years ago I needed to send a thank you note to a friend who had been there when I needed them. I knew what card to send.

You see, the card had made me feel good about myself for having helped another person feel a little joy. It only seemed proper to send it along to give someone else that same feeling of satisfaction and gratitude. And that's my tip to you: art is meant to be shared, and in so doing it honors both the giver and the receiver.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Kayak Lessons: The Path Less Evil

One of the best life skills you can learn through paddling, yet one many paddlers seem oblivious to, is how to manage group dynamics. You can learn a lot about this when paddling with your friends or a relatively small group of like-minded paddlers, but the best lessons come through large group paddles like those associated with a kayak club. These paddles create many opportunities similar to our experiences in society itself: how to coordinate and communicate with others, how to reach compromise, how to deal with people at different skill and knowledge levels, how to share and take turns, and even how to deal with a-holes.

Imagine the following scenario. You're on a group paddle with a dozen or more club paddlers heading down the coast. You reach a shoal between the mainland and a large island. You can cut through the rocks but it looks rough in there, or you can go around the island which will be a lot longer and at least partially into strong headwinds. Neither is an appealing choice, but the shoal would be genuinely dangerous to some of the weaker paddlers in your group - we're talking certain swims, likely boat damage, possible bodily injury. And if you go around the island the strong paddlers (including you) will likely be needed to support, and maybe even tow, the weaker ones. You come together as a group to discuss options and one guy (there's always one guy) says you should just go through the rocks. It'll be fine (he means he will be fine). And if anyone doesn't want to go that way they can go around on their own. This proclamation is met with a long pause.

It's at this point you think it all could have been avoided if people had listened when you suggested a paddle on the other side of the Bay. You all could have been paddling in a sheltered cove. Maybe taken a lunch break on a white sand beach where there's an ice cream stand and a beachfront brewery. Instead of choosing between epic disaster and a long slog, you could have been munching on a waffle cone and sipping a Guinness. But no, everyone wanted to do something else. No one listened to you then so why should you speak up now. Let them follow the fool into danger if they can't see the better choice is to go around and keep everyone safe.

And lots of folks will keep silent for various reasons. Maybe some share your distaste in the poor choices in front of you. Maybe some are just afraid - afraid of speaking up, afraid both choices will put them at risk, afraid people will think they are afraid. Maybe some really don't know how to evaluate the choices and don't know what's safe and what's not. So while it's natural to want to leave people to suffer for their own failures to make good decisions, at some point you realize what this means. It means Suzy, who brought three different delicious pies to share at the last meeting but can barely keep up with the group at best of times, will suffer, and suffer more if the group doesn't make the better choice now. It means Jim, the retired social worker who just started paddling but once gave you a lift home from a paddle after you lost your car keys, will suffer. As will some people who you don't really know but are probably decent human beings too. That's not really fair or decent.

You have the experience and abilities to know choosing the lesser of two evils means less evil, which is sometimes the best you can hope for. You know you should speak up. You should make the argument for the best course of action and you should do so determinedly and with passion to make sure the group arrives at the best decision. Not for your sake - you'll be fine no matter what - but for the sake of those who could use your help. That's what it means to be a member of a group. You look out for everyone and make the best of even the worst situations. Maybe you do it because it's the right thing to do. Maybe you do it because you've relied on others for help before and you're likely to need it again. Maybe you just do it because you really like Suzy's pie. But if we all help each other we all end up in a better place, because even the best solo paddlers got there with help from others. Paddling is a community (as is the whole world), and we look after our own (everyone).

Monday, February 10, 2020

Kayak Lessons: Beginner Rules and Developing Judgment

My daughter is now three years old and even though I try to let her learn about the world through experience and exploration I also give her some hard and fast rules: never touch the stove; don't play in the street; always tell the truth. When I taught people how to kayak I did the same: never kayak alone; always wear your lifevest; don't paddle beyond your abilities. But here's the thing, I don't follow those rules. None of the good kayakers I know follow them. Are we all a bunch of big hypocrites or are kayakers really just a bunch of three-year-olds?

The truth is: rules exist to take the place of judgment. Beginners (and toddlers) lack both the knowledge and experience to have good judgment so they need something to use instead to keep them safe until they have developed the judgment to make good decisions. Simple rules serve that purpose. But as you grow and develop in the real world you find out life is seldom simple and rules will never be able to guide you through all the complexities you will face in your paddling experience. At some point you leave the rules behind. Hopefully, by teaching people to follow rules that err on the side of safety, they won't break those rules until they are ready. It's not a perfect system but it works pretty well in kayaking (and many other areas of life).

So the questions comes in: when should we break the rules? For instance, I love to paddle solo. Some of my favorite memories and most rewarding experiences have happened on the water by myself. And while it's true that paddling alone is more dangerous than paddling with other paddlers of equal skill, not all danger is bad and more people is not always safer. Everything has risk, and judgment is knowing how to accurately assess that risk and make a good decision on how much you are willing and able to handle. I did a two-week circumnavigation of a remote island off the coast of British Columbia all alone (story here), but only have a decade of experience and serious devotion to developing the skills and judgment needed to handle such an adventure. I never felt at any significant risk given my abilities and equipment even though I encountered conditions in locations that probably would have been fatally dangerous to an entire group of intermediates.  But earlier that same year I made a bad judgment call that nearly cost me my life even though it followed good safety protocols - paddling a river I'd done many times before with a group of extremely skilled friends (story here). Everybody gets things wrong sometimes but it's extremely useful to know who commonly makes mistakes and why - so you can avoid them.

Studies have shown that adventure athletes are most likely to make serious mistakes of judgment at two different times in their careers. Not beginners. They tend to be pretty safe, following the rules because they know they don't know any better. But once they become new intermediates with a little bit of time and experience under their belt they often overestimate their own knowledge and skill, use their supposed judgment in a new situation, and get into trouble. It's the group that has paddled on several lakes deciding they are ready for a protected ocean bay without knowing what tidal currents are all about. It's the class III whitewater kayaker who thinks they can handle a new class III river because the rating is the same without bothering to understand how committing the run is or what type of hazards exist. They mistake their very limited knowledge and experience as a good basis for using judgment to replace the rules when they are not ready, or they misinterpret the rules because they don't use their common sense to carefully apply them.

We make this mistake so often in life as well: assuming our very limited knowledge and experience gives us good judgment when in reality we are simply clueless to the larger realities that exist and contradict our own perceptions. I see white people claim that racism isn't a problem anymore because they don't see it (reality); people with no economics training claim our economy must be doing well because the stock market is rising (reality); all kinds of folks believing gender identity is the same as biological sex because we were taught that as kids (reality). Most of us have a lot of experiences in our lives but we fail to grasp how the big, wide world is different than our little corner. We are fortunate in that we have the ability to learn from others' experiences by reading and listening to people different from ourselves and those who have studied widely. Sadly, we too often rely on our own limited realities instead of seeking out knowledge that would greatly improve our judgments. We could become experts, or at least listen to those who are.

But that brings up the other people most likely to make lethal mistakes: the experts. Not because they are pushing the limits of risk on new and dangerous adventures. No, experts are most likely to get killed doing something they've done before - a familiar run or known location. Their mistake is they use their past judgment - I've paddled this river before and survived - instead of applying their full judgment on the current situation. Maybe the river is at a higher level, maybe the weather conditions are different, maybe they are not performing at the same level they used to. Judgment is only good if it is constantly questioning itself and using all knowledge and experience to evaluate current conditions.

This happens often in academic fields. While it is the nature of scientific discovery to always be questioning itself, which does lead to advancement and improvement, it is part of human nature for the individual scientist to lag behind. As someone with an economics degree from twenty-five years ago, I can safely assert that many things I learned in college are now inaccurate based on studies and findings that have come out since. But I regularly see experts and pundits in the media quoting the same historical ideas as if the world and our knowledge haven't changed. What my training did give me, what anyone can apply, is the format to approach new information and the tools to incorporate more facts into my evaluation of what is good. Raising wages doesn't necessarily hurt employment (reality). GDP growth is not the same as a prosperous and healthy society (reality). Just because you knew something was true before does not mean it is now, and basing your decisions off old knowledge is as reckless as basing them off no knowledge.

Kayaking, like life, is complicated. Most of us are past the stage where we should have to depend on blindly following rules we learned long ago. We aren't three-year-olds anymore. But we need to develop and refine our judgment instead of assuming the simple act of growing older is enough to imbue us with wisdom. Maturation only happens through careful reflection upon our own experiences and listening to and understanding the experiences of others. The best judgment is always improving and the truest bravery is admitting what you don't know.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Kayak Lesson: Good Outcome =/= Good Decision

I have a kayaking friend who's, well, let's not call him old but just 'very experienced', and he likes to say that good judgment comes from experience - and experience comes from bad judgment. And it's true: we tend to learn best from our own mistakes. The problem is that we often don't recognize when we make a mistake of judgment because we assume that a good outcome means we made a good decision. Not true.

Because you have to understand the nature of risk is one of probability and consequences. If you run that rapid, what are the odds you'll flip? If you flip, what are the chances you'll swim? If you swim, how likely are you to get hurt (or killed)? Just because you get a certain result in a single roll of the dice doesn't mean it was likely or that the outcome was a result of skill and ability instead of pure chance. Most people, if they paddle away from a rapid, take that as evidence they made a good decision without critically examining what actually happened. Aside from leading to a false sense of confidence that will ultimately lead to disaster it also is a missed opportunity to learn from your mistakes without having to suffer negative consequences first.

Think about this in pure statistical form. How much would you bet on flipping a coin so it comes up heads? Odds are fifty/fifty, so it's worth a little risk. But if you won, would you then assume it proves you're really good at flipping coins? Would you stake your life that the next flip also comes up heads? Or would you realize your win involved a certain bit of luck and does not guarantee a repeat? If you have a fifty percent chance of returning from a kayak outing with a dislocated shoulder, you'd think long and hard before you headed out. If you chose to go and came back unscathed, and you did that again and again, the odds of getting hurt approach one hundred percent real quick - just like the odds of the coin will come up tails sooner or later (most likely sooner).

Studies have shown leading factors in deadly accidents for experts (people who have enough experience to presumably have good judgment) include underestimating familiar dangers and an unwillingness to re-evaluate decisions once they commit, even if a bailout presents itself. There's also lots of evidence that humans love to engage in ex post facto motivated reasoning: using our final position to justify the reasoning that lead to that state. We can do better, but only if we're aware of our natural shortcomings and create a decision-making model that includes our weaknesses and deliberate steps that help us identify and overcome them.

So if you run that rapid, get offline and flip, but roll up in an eddy instead of getting pushed into a sieve, count yourself lucky but also realize your decision-making was possibly flawed. If you take a newbie out on the ocean on a big day but manage to do a T-rescue before they crash into rocks and they don't realize how close they came to being reduced to sausage, instead of pretending everything is fine maybe admit it was a bad idea.

The same is true in life. My three your old daughter likes to lick things - her toys, her clothing, random objects she picks up on the ground. Most of the time she doesn't get sick, so she keeps doing it. Yet I'm pretty confident her current good health doesn't validate her decision-making, and the frequency with which she gets sick for ' no apparent reason' supports my argument that she should cut it out. And if you lie to your boss about sick days, cheat on your partner or your taxes, or spend your money on expensive vacations instead of fixing the old plumbing in your house, you shouldn't think that getting away with it makes it right. You might be fine in for the moment, but your judgment is bad and the probability of negative consequences will catch up to you eventually. So cut it out already!