“I am deadly serious about us having fun”
– Michael Franti, In The Middle
I think one of the secrets to happiness and success is to take the non-serious things in life seriously, and the serious things less so. Or, since we are the ones who decide what is serious and what isn’t, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that one must allocate their gravitas wisely for the sake of happiness, and survival.
Birthdays generally fall into the non-serious category. How many times have we “celebrated” someone’s unique, fleeting existence on this planet by sitting in a crowded restaurant, lucky to be within earshot of the birthday boy or girl? How many birthdays do we let pass with little more than a few cheap “you’re old now” jokes?
Answering for myself: many. As a child, comforted, cared for, and complacent, my birthday was an occasion for gifts. As an adolescent, I craved little except simple, good times. My birthday falls during the summer, and more than anything I remember wanting my birthday to be more like any other summer day than any other summer day, which at the time meant 2 on 2 basketball, deli sandwiches, and MarioKart 64 (or sports on network TV).
Birthday Challenges are the opposite. We take a silly day and make it silly hard, and we try like hell to complete some silly goals. We even train for them. Why? Well, that’s a very involved question, but a short answer might be, “to have some serious fun.”
Cancer, on the other hand, is usually a “serious” thing. I’ve never feared for the lives of either of my parents (for which I’m very thankful), but when my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, some switch flipped. (The cancerous gland was removed, and he’s fine now.) I’ve only every heard of cancer striking like a tornado and destroying lives. Most of the time, the C-word is immediately followed by a downward turn of the eyes, a lowered voice expressing pity, as if cancer and the treatment thereof are down to luck-of-the-draw.
“We kill ourselves by laughing at the funny things we say”
– The Cat Empire, The Chariot
My friend Steve had a lump that impeded his one-arm pullups. Steve is 53. He was diagnosed with mantle-cell lymphoma. This was a death sentence 10 years ago, but the docs have since been figuring out better and better drug regimens to fight it.
Steve was also one of the main driving forces behind the original birthdaychallenge.com. I discovered this concept when I was 22. When I was 24, I spent much time and effort taking my birthday way too seriously, nearly killing myself in the process but learning much about my body, training, and how far away my limits truly are.
“Anyone can cut and run, but it takes a very special person to stick with something that is stupid and harmful”
– George Carlin
The beauty of an arbitrary personal goal is that, since nobody else cares, the drive to ‘stick it out’ must come from within. We just watched Assault on El Capitan: The Second Ascent of Wings of Steel, and in it the first ascentionists talk about taking 60-foot slab falls on poor sky-hooks, in between death-threats and sabotage perpetrated by the Yosemite locals. One of the climbers, Mark Smith, tells us that it became incredibly important for them to finish. The situation was asking whether he would quit if the going got tough, and he did not want to be someone who would.
Steve calls himself the human lab rat, putting his body through the ringer via diet and exercise to test various health claims and theories. His birthday challenges are legion and legendary. Here is a man who cares not for trophies, fame, or following convention. Here is a man who sees life as a great learning opportunity. He sees cancer as a learning opportunity.
People take cancer really seriously, and for good reason. Cancer sucks, cancer kills, and death is final. Nothing is more serious than death. Mention the word “chemo” and you immediately conjure an image of a pale, bald, frail bag of suffering and nauseousness. Cancer isn’t funny. Well, except for when Randy Marsh was smoking joints while bouncing around on his cancerous balls. That was pretty damn funny.
We visited Steve in the hospital last week. His hair was not there, but he had gained weight and his eyes still smiled. His wife Lisa was busy orchestrating a New Year’s card photoshoot, complete with a real nurse. We talked at length about his experience with cancer so far. He described the chemo like a long-term hangover, except you don’t get to have fun beforehand. He was bummed that the docs couldn’t disconnect him so he could go for a hike. If the bag of chemo drugs were to spill or burst, a hazmat team would have to be called to clean it up.
To the extent that one can, Steve is staying in good spirits, and perhaps even enjoying some aspects of the experience. The novelty, combined with the learning opportunities, certainly make it interesting. He’s delved into the literature and synthesized his years of study and observations to give himself the best chance of giving cancer the finger.
Steve’s doctors told him, “it’s almost like you’ve been training your whole life for this.” It’s his ability to take very seriously things like climbing, mountain biking, and hiking, that have given him the ability to take the whole cancer thing a bit more easily. He’s been hypothermic; in that situation, you die when you lose your spirits, your fight. Now he’s in a situation where, if he gets a bit down and pulls the cancer card instead of eating well and taking the dogs out every day, he’ll lose strength and appetite fast. Once you start down that road, it’s a lot harder to pedal back up it. At the end of that road is an Onion headline: “Relatives Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle with Cancer.”
“I think of everything in life as practice. It takes the pressure off and makes everything more fun.”
– My friend Danny
Toproping is practice for lead climbing. The careless, non-serious feeling of being on a toprope is what we need to perform when it really counts. Free-soloing is a fascinating intersection of life and death, levity and gravity. Tense and “serious” is no way to climb, and when it matters, being too tense will kill you. Neither is it a way to live, and it’s definitely not a way to beat cancer. Doc Ellis threw a no-hitter with a head full of acid. I wonder how much better our country would run if the suits in Washington started Casual Fridays.
Let’s have some fun. Seriously. Because we’re gonna die soon.