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Inspiration, Will, and Forethought

July 30, 2017

It’s never too late to have another try.

Life, business, and polar discovery can all be described as an ongoing chain of decisions, each devolving from the results of those that have gone before.

Sometimes an unanticipated upset overtakes and dooms even the best-laid of plans. But as some of the explorers’ life stories can prove, even complete disaster may not mean the end. The very best example of this can be found in Douglas Mawson’s escape from the very jaws of death. Weakened by starvation and accidental poisoning, alone since the deaths of his two companions many miles from their base, dangling by his knotted harness between the icy blue walls of a crevasse on a vast and empty snowfield—if anyone had a right to surrender to the elements, to give it all up as a lost cause, he did.

And yet, he did not. Inspired by the words of a suddenly remembered poem, he fought back. He summoned the last of his dwindling strength to give it one more try, and managed to climb to the surface. And from that small success in the face of doom, he made his way back to base camp, and eventually to recovery and a remarkable career in polar discovery.

The lesson here is: Even the worst of disasters that can befall an enterprise or a life can be met with courage and determination.

But there is another: Sometimes the simplest of forethought preparation can be the key to survival. Mawson’s drive to live would have come to naught, had he not also, beforehand, prepared for such an eventuality. He had earlier taken the trouble to place knots spaced along his harness, to provide handholds. To make it possible to climb his way out of a crevasse.

Inspiration, will, and forethought—any success depends on all three working together.

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Chamber Music in the Maine Woods

July 27, 2017

If you’re ever in Downeast Maine in the summertime, and you love classical music, you owe it to yourself to take a sidetrip down to the small town of Hancock, and take your chamber music in the unique setting of the Pierre Monteux School and Music Festival.

The intimacy of the setting has no comparison. The concert hall is a big green barn with windows, a raised stage at one end, and seating for about 225 in folding chairs on the wooden floor. The shape of the roof and the building create a unique acoustical soundbox with no bad seats.

The best seats, of course, are those in the front row, where the closest of the musicians are performing a mere 20’ or so away. The expressions on their faces, the swaying of their heads bodies with the flow of the music from their fingertips, the inner smiles and jubilant expressions—these add a depth and meaning to the performance that is simply not available in a large, formal concert hall.

Throughout the month of July, chamber music holds court every Wednesday. The performers are serious students of the form, drawn from universities from around the US, as well as from other nations. The programs—chosen by the students themselves—are as rich and varied as the concept allows, and that is saying a lot.

By way of example, the program for July 26, 2017 included Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Dvorak from the old school, Ravel, Bohme, and Coleridge-Taylor with their freer stylings, and a contemporary piece from Anthony Plog. There were violas and violincellos galore, and virtuoso violins from Allion Salvador and Judith Kim. Brass quintets and sextets, harp (Caitlin Thorn) and horn, and appearances from our friends on oboe (Mickey Hansen) and bassoon (Jamael Smith).

Every performance was met with thunderous applause, and several with standing ovations for the excellent work. The musicians themselves are in the school all summer, performing in local churches and events, as well as in the full-orchestra Sundays in the summer.

This is truly an experience that cannot be found anywhere else. Come to Maine and see!

Re: What about the bad decisions?

July 20, 2017

While holding a book event for “When Your Life Depends on It” yesterday, I was asked to talk about some of the bad decisions that were made. A very short, unqualified answer could be: “There are no bad decisions, only bad results.” Decisions quickly made under extreme circumstances in the face of sudden unforeseen hardships or opportunities cannot be faulted for inattention to preparation or willful disregard of reality.

Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20. The results of decisions—polar and non-polar, extreme and ordinary—are known by their outcomes. The roads not taken lead to obscurity.

We can speculate, for instance, the success that might have come to pass had Shackleton’s Endurance put the transcontinental party ashore at the first possible landing place—the party landed, the ship safely returned to South Georgia, the pole attained possibly, but if so at greater cost. And so on. Those outcomes would have been justly celebrated. Shackleton’s decision to push farther south could have resulted in a better situated starting point, a more successful crossing. The future was (as it always is) still unknown. Given the state of geographical knowledge of the Weddell Sea, his decision was neither good nor bad; it’s result, the destruction of the ship by the ice, was clearly bad. But could not have been foreseen.

Those who would fault Scott for his choice of transport have not seen his careful computations made long before the South Polar journey, of the relative efficiencies of dogs, ponies, motors, and men in transporting the necessary supplies long distances over the ice. The tragedy on the return from the Pole was more the result of the inaccurate assumptions on which his calculations were based, and weather that deviated from the known patterns, than from inattention to detail in the preparation.

There can be endless discussions, point and counterpoint, on these two and innumerable other polar decisions, as to what might have happened if a different course of action had been chosen. The intent of our book on extreme decision-making is to stimulate those conversations.

In the end, when facing the unknown, we can only make our best preparations extrapolating from what we already know, and determine our courses of action by what we confront in the field, wherever that field may lie.

Much Ado About Nothing, indeed! at Marin Shakespeare

June 29, 2017

Marin Shakespeare director Robert Currier has elected to set this comedy in backwoods Kentucky, allowing some of the more buffoonish characters plenty of room to expand into believably wide-eyed hillbillies. The cast developed their Appalachian speech patterns on their own, close enough to the real thing yet broad enough to encompass the absurdities of Shakespeare’s wildly convoluted plot.

There’s music galore—guitar, flute, mandolin and the occasional banjo slipping into impromptu bluegrass concerts in many-part harmony, and Claudio’s (Joshua Hollister) memorably plaintive solo as he ponders love lost by the error of his ways. In place of renaissance swordplay there’s swirling country dance choreography—three-step waltzes and intertwining contras to bring the stage to vibrant life.

The convoluted plot—three separate story lines woven together in a fabric impossible to weave within the scope of a review—develops at a leisurely pace while the case for mistaken identity as the route to true love unfolds.

Damien Brown inhabits the role of Benedick as though he were born to it, bringing a street-smart manliness to every scene he’s in, cajoling his friends and challenging his adversaries with a street-smart manliness, wooing his lover with uncertain tenderness. Elena Wright gives yet another star turn as Beatrice, the sometime object of his love, a true vixen playing—at first—with is affections, until the truth of who-loves-who comes out. Hero (Nicole Aposto Bruno), the object of Claudio’s affections, is a genuine pleasure to watch as she takes over the stage in the third act.

All of the minor characters get their moment in the spotlight, none so well deserved as the King’s-English-mangling Dogberry (Barry Kraft) and his sidekick Verges (Debi Durst), serving up some of the best of the Bard’s malapropic wordplay. A sleazier character than Don John could not be imagined, and Clay David plays the role of this manipulator with Machiavellian glee. He’s the man we love to hate.

In the best of Shakespeare’s comedies, he leavens the mirth with a tragic interlude, some place where his mastery of the true breadth of the human experience can be given scope. In Much Ado, that moment is captured in Leonato’s display of a father’s grief and despair when he believes his only daughter Hero, the rose of his life, has died. But his grief is as much as at the rumored circumstances of her demise, wherein she has not only died, but her supposed unchaste behavior in doing so has besmirched the family name. It takes real talent to make this contrivance a tragic fall from grace, and Steve Price is a master at this.

Of course (this is Shakespeare’s comedy, after all) Hero recovers. The father is overjoyed, her errant Claudio suitor forgiven, and Beatrice and Benedick come together at last, as it was always meant to be. “Much Ado About Nothing,” indeed!

Through July 23, 2017 at Forest Meadows Amphitheater, Dominican University, San Rafael CA

Box Office: Marin Shakespeare

Radio Time: The sound of our own voices

June 18, 2017

Brad Borkan and I were delighted to find ourselves and our book the subject of an hour-long online radio interview this week with the talented radio host Bonnie D.Graham, whose knack for probing questions and guided conversation can bring unexpected results.

Brad and I each know our book from our own perspective, and of course we’ve spent a good deal of time talking about it together in the last two years. But conversations are by nature transitory, their words soon consigned to the vague archives of memory. In contrast, this one is preserved in easily accessible digital format, for all to hear.

It’s something we can be proud of, that in giving voice to the ideas we have come to understand more deeply over time, we find we can share them from a place in the heart as well as from the intellectual processes of writing, editing, and publishing.

This is something you can only become aware of when you can listen to your own words, spoken in the moment, describing and illuminating the ideas–answering the questions, if you will, and then pondering the further implications of those answers from outside that moment.

Follow this link to hear for yourself: Extreme Decisions on the Radio: Brad Borkan and David Hirzel with Bonnie D. Graham

Let us know what you think.

There’s more to Public Speaking than just Talking

June 8, 2017

One of the many valuable things I learned on this most recent tour, was that in giving a book talk to a new audience, the connections being made are more important than the words spoken, or even the words written.

The study of all things Antarctic and the resulting books have added a depth and meaning to my life that would otherwise have been lacking. Working with Brad, creating “Extreme Decisions,” and then travelling—to Oslo for the SouthPole-sium v3 and to Dundee for the Shackleton Appreciation Society—to introduce it were their own reward. My talk on “The Livie Boatworks of Dundee” had a similar result.

But the experience having given three talks on two books, to three different audiences who had come together because of their own shared passions, gave me something new to think about.

It’s not about the words, it’s about the connections. All these people had come together, some at considerable expense from quite a distance, not just to hear us—there were plenty of other speakers and topics just as interesting—but to meet like-minded folk. And they did, renewing old friendships and forging new ones, on the spot.

Much like Brad and I did at the South-Polesium v2 in Croabh Haven.

Sure, we sold a few books. But the new relationships we came away with are worth more than gold.
They wouldn’t have happened without the conferences, which wouldn’t have happened without the many speakers and writers who came to share their ideas, each in turn with all of us who came to learn, to share, and to connect.

“When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision-Making Lessons from the Antarctic” International Book Launch: Oslo, May 13, 2017

May 27, 2017

Two Antarctic Conferences in one week. The timing could not have been better. The first to be scheduled was Rob Stephenson’s “SouthPole-sium” in Oslo, the third biennial meeting of like-minded Antarctic aficionados. Sixty-six of us—authors, scientists, veterans of the ice, book collectors, and most importantly by now, old friends and new—convened at the Fram Museum to meet, share ideas, learn, and grow.

It’s an informal gathering, with short presentations by the participants on a wide array of diverse topics: the contributions of W. S. Bruce and Thomas Bagshawe, archives at the Wilson in Cheltenham and the Byrd Polar Research Center at OSU, climate change and the emperor penguin, and much, much more.

Including the formal launch of our book. I met Brad Borkan at the SouthPole-sium v2 in Craobh Haven, Scotland, and there we hatched our plan to write our book. The first words were committed to .doc in a hotel in Glasgow on Monday after. But that is another story.

We were pleased to present, for the first time together, our new book When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision-making Lessons from the Antarctic. Our audience could not have been more supportive of our venture, and we spent much of the weekend in smaller conversations about our book, our experience, and the process of decision-making, with our friends.

Brad Borkan and David Hirzel present “Extreme Decisions”

The SouthPole-sium is a gathering that is not to be missed. But it was not the only such gathering in Europe during the week of May 13-May 20, 2017.