Sunday, April 5, 2009


I’m in a Cortez-Durango book club that has got to be one of the few coed book clubs in the country. (The NY Times ran a thing on book clubs a few years back, and most of them were all-female. Coed appeared non-existent.) This month we are reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. Well, ok. A fairly interesting book, actually, in that he uses unique examples to make his point that the self-made man business is, uh, crap (see Tombstone II blog at Inside/Outside Southwest: Jeb Bush is his cherished fall guy, for when the man “ran for governor of Florida, he repeatedly referred to himself as a ‘self-made man,’ and it’s a measure of how deeply we associate success with the efforts of the individual that few batted an eye at that description.” Malcolm, like me, like deep ecologists everywhere, like Pueblo Indians and yucca moths and grizzly bears, understands that context is everything, and your environmental interactions have a lot to do with what you become in your life.
But, alas, his radical thesis stops there. I read it feeling the perennial Westerner locked out of “Eastern” success. To writers Ken Wright and Craig Childs and Amy Irvine and Art Goodtimes and my friend Gretchen, “success” is not having a well-paying job in a swank setting. It is not, necessarily, following the lines our college and graduate degrees promised us. Ken left the East, as many Abbey-ites do, for river rafting and ski bumming. He has lived for this happily ever after. Craig is driven, an almost OCD writer, but he lived “homeless” for seven years, making a pickup and the canyons his abode. Gretchen’s mother to this day fails to understand why she did not go to law school and marry a rich guy so she could get valances for her suburban windows. Gretchen has three rescue dogs, a craggy boyfriend reminiscent of Nick Nolte, a season pass to Telluride, and a tiny, charming manse in a tiny, charming, Western town with a gay mayor and horses saddled waiting for their owners behind the bar on Main Street.
I have a manifesto in my writing nook. It says things like this:

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayal, or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human….

This manifesto goes on. THAT’S my definition of success. And it’s one the wildflowers tell me, in their profusion, up Kennebec Pass in August. It’s what the elk who catches my eye by the La Plata River thrills into me the moment we connect. It’s the message in the swish of a mountain lion’s tail, the love in my son’s eyes, the marriage I work and work and play and play on so that when I am dying I will know – I had THIS. I had this life, this wonder, this relationship, when so much else was pulling at me to fall apart.
Gladwell does not, needless to say, speak to that at all, and more’s the general pity. Alas and alack, New York is still stuck in disconnected, achievement notions of success than in taking his “radical” idea one step further and asking: if we are not so “self-made,” then why do we not value our relationships with each other? Why are the lives and successes of women (children raised, gardens grown, jobs held, husbands outgrown or nourished) rarely if ever mentioned? Why is “success” still defined as some nebulous achievement on a hockey rink or mathematics test? Come West, Malcolm, and we’ll take a little hike. I’ll get Art Goodtimes to howl you a poem at 10,000 feet, and we’ll see if you can go write Success: The Sequel, after that.
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