Time to Grin and Brace It

It was four in the morning, it was sideways-sleeting, and the tent-pole-cup was broken. I stood huddled in my rain gear, aiming my headlamp down at my tentmate and my instructor who were laying sideways on the icy snow, trying to speedy-stitch the stirrup back to the tent body before they lost all dexterity in their hands. It was four in the morning and I was supposed to be snuggled up in my sleeping bag inside the tent, but instead I was outside getting pelted with rain on the side of a snowy mountain, the blackness around me increasing the sense of being in the absolute middle of nowhere. It was at this particular moment that I began to question what the hell it was I was doing there, why someone would intentionally volunteer to put themselves into this kind of situation, and when the hell we were going to be able to crawl back into the warm(ish) dry(ish) tent. The answers to the first two questions seemed uncertain, and the answer to the third was not until we had fixed the tent.

It was October 16th. We had been out in the backcountry of New Zealand for over a month and yet this was the first moment I’d experienced that had been such a forcible reminder of who the boss was out here. If slanting, freezing rain and gigantic wind gusts hit your tent all night, no one was going to call it off. No one was going to spare you. No one was going to fix it for you while you rolled over and went back to sleep. You had to wake up, put on your rain pants and rain jacket and fix the tent yourself—lest you all be blown off the mountain when the tent poles snapped.

We had spent the hours leading up to the fateful tent-pole-cup disaster in a state of bleary-eyed flux between trying to fall back to sleep and snapping upright to brace the tent poles when a gust shot over the mountains and ripped its way through the valley we were camped in.  The intensity of the volume of the wind shaking the tent and the pressure of the walls pushing down onto your shoulders and neck seemed almost too great to be believed. The patheticness of the tent in the face of the power of the wind was so absurd it would eventually become funny, but for now, we just braced, laid back down, braced, laid back down, and braced, in bewildered, exhausted silence.

We had been lulled into a false sense of security on our first month of sea kayaking, treated to brilliant, spotless skies and glassy waters, spending sunny afternoons lounging and cooking on beaches and sleeping soundly through quiet, windless nights. The switch to the snowy mountains of the Arrowsmith range had heralded an entirely new ballgame with an entirely new set of rules. I woke up the morning of October 17th to discover that storing things in the vestibule of the tent was not an option on mountaineering like it had been on sea kayaking—my bowl and spoon, left there the night before, had been claimed by the wind.

I was angry. I scribbled in my journal the next day, “The weather shat itself around 9:30/10 last night and since we are camped in a frigging wind tunnel we got our shit completely rocked. Woke up at 12:30am to insane wind shaking the tent…I’m sure there is some kind of lesson or growth to be gleaned from this that will perhaps occur to me later, but at the time it was just miserable, a seemingly interminable moment that made me long for an actual building and a warm dry bed.”

During the night it kept repeatedly and pointlessly coming to me that there had to be some way out of this. That this couldn’t actually be happening. But there wasn’t. It was. It was four in the morning and the weather was shitting itself and if we didn’t brace the poles, if we didn’t repair the tent, we were going to lose the only home we had out here.  It was a situation in which the only option before us was to just suck it up and do what needed to be done.

Much of the first few days of the festival of challenging outdoor situations mountaineering brought us was spent in a sort of pouty protest, a sort of indignant disbelief and vague sense of injustice. But the earth owed us nothing. In fact, if I were Mama Nature and had been treated the way she has been, I would have been whipping a lot more than 80km/hr winds at tents parked in her backyard. The longer I walked around with the there’s-no-way-this-can-actually-be-real entitlement, the longer I was going to be miserable.

The next few nights were more of the same. We had been forced to hunker down due to the weather, and had spent a few days huddled in tents whose size seemed to decrease with each passing moment. We spent most of the day catching up on sleep we’d lost the night before, finishing the only books we’d brought with us, and getting so sick of cards that we ended up just lying in our sleeping bags staring at the yellow tent ceiling.

The night of October 17th was marked by fierce winds but no rain. We were better prepared this time, ready for what we were about to endure, and had decided to split the night into shifts of tent-bracing, so that the others could at least get a little bit of sleep. At 11pm I was tapped awake and sat up in my spot in the center of the three-person tent, ready to do my duty. I had reason to believe that half of why the previous night had been so god-awful was because I had been operating under the foolish delusion that I could somehow fall back to sleep in between giant gusts of wind. This time I decided to stay sitting up through my shift, waiting in the dark for the next gale to arrive. With my two tentmates sleeping beside me, I sat up straight, keeping my eyes closed, listening to the air whoosh around the valley outside, ready to raise both my arms up to steady the poles when it was necessary.

After passing some time like this, I began to experience a strange sort of calm. My heartbeat began to pleasantly decelerate, my muscles became relaxed, and my mind began to wander. I thought of everyone in the world that I knew, most of them separated from me by nearly a day and a half, and thought of what they were doing at that precise moment. I thought of my mom and little brother getting ready for school, I thought of my friends going to work, and I thought of my two expedition mates sleeping beside me, able to rest because I was sitting up, awake, meeting the wind. Suddenly I was no longer furious or affronted at nature for sticking us with this inclement weather.  I no longer believed I was owed kindness by the environment, I no longer expected there to be some kind of escape route I could take.

The weather was the same as the night before, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t miserable.  I wasn’t absorbed in my own head, in my own discomfort. I wasn’t wondering what the hell I was doing here. I was sitting on the side of a mountain in New Zealand, feeling purposeful and peaceful, holding our house up against the wind.


An Open Letter to the Post Office, Racist Robert DeNiro Look-Alikes, and Brave Second-Language Speakers Everywhere

During my lunch break today, I found myself speed-walking through a gray, cold Portland to the post office to mail some paperwork. I cannot emphasize enough how much I loathe the post office. There are about 400 different ways to send a letter or package, each one requiring a different envelope/box and label, and if somehow you manage to be thick enough to pick the wrong one, prepare to belittled until you feel like the most worthless creature on the planet.  How could you possibly not have memorized every single speed by which you can mail a letter and what the envelope looks like to do so? I never leave the post office not feeling like a complete fool. I felt the dread and anxiety clawing at my insides the entire walk there.  How could I be a college graduate and be totally incompetent when it came to trying to mail a freaking letter?  No doubt I would find some way to completely botch the entire thing and watch my self-esteem be annihilated by the US Postal Service–again.

Sure enough, when I stepped up to the counter, I had picked the wrong envelope. I was right that to overnight something you couldn’t use priority, but apparently you couldn’t use the one I had in my hands either. Obviously. The man behind the counter, a middle aged guy who looked a little like Robert DeNiro (Are you allowed to tell someone that?) pointed me in the right direction after I had made a few self-deprecating remarks that masked the complete and total inadequacy that was making itself right at home in the pit of my stomach. I filled out the corresponding label and got back in line, which had somehow tripled in size since I entered. A few spots ahead of me in line was a man trying to mail a money order. I guessed he was a couple years older than I was and appeared to be one of Portland’s many Somalian immigrants. It was pretty clear from the bits of the conversation I could hear between him and Robert DeNiro that his English was spotty at best.  I was a native speaker and could barely get through mailing a letter with my pride intact. I couldn’t even imagine what an epic rollercoaster through hell this must have been in a second language.

After a few minutes it appeared that the money order man had made some kind of error and left the line to amend his envelope, and it was then my turn. I stepped up to the counter and presented my envelope, sheepishly muttering that I hoped I had it right this time. After it was confirmed that I had and a tiny sliver of dignity was returned to me, Robert DeNiro began to process my order. From behind me, money order man seemed to be still having trouble figuring out how to properly address his envelope and asked a clarifying question. Immediately Robert DeNiro snapped. “I’ve explained this to you four times,” he practically growled. “Put the addressee on the right. Your address goes in the upper lefthand corner. No.” Huge, frustrated sigh.On the LEFT.” Several times during the next few sentences he became so exasperated with money order man that he broke off mid-sentence. He eventually called in some back up in the form of a co-worker to deal with this horrific inconvenience. “Can you explain this to him? I’ve done it six times. Seriously.” As if this wasn’t enough, Robert DeNiro then looks at me as if he and I are some kind of conspirators and whispers “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Almost too shocked to know what to do I managed to spit out “I messed it up too. It’s really confusing.” Despite the fact that money order man’s confusion was certainly no more infuriating than mine, Robert DeNiro shook his head. “No no, you’re fine.”

After I’d paid, I wanted to go over to money order man and let him know that the post office was one of Dante’s lesser-known circles of hell and that what had just happened was so beyond okay that I no longer felt like eating my lunch, but I was so flustered and shocked by the entire situation that my gut instincts had me busting out of there without another word.

Though I’m sure it has happened countless times and in countless ways for my entire life, this was a glaring, punch-me-in-the-face reminder of the fact that I was a young white female, and of the kind of treatment some people feel that merits. Usually when I come into contact with a disgruntled employee, I try to remind myself that maybe this person has had a bad day, or hates his or her job, or has some kind of reason to be so grouchy and miserable. But what I had just unwillingly been a part of was something entirely different– two nearly identical mistakes had been treated in utterly different manners based solely on what the customers looked like. While my incomprehension of every single tiny rule of the postal system had been treated with (actually unprecedented) patience and respect, this man’s far more excusable confusion had been the cause for anger, rudeness, and quite frankly, inexcusable and atrocious discrimination. As an educated, native English speaker, my ignorance actually made me the one, if anything, who deserved less patience. I remembered the creeping advancement of terror I’d felt when I had to change planes in Santiago, Chile two summers before and was certain I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get my bag through customs and recheck it onto my next flight. Processes that are confusing and difficult even in a first language suddenly become harrowing trials of one’s mettle in a second language.  The fact that this man had had the courage to walk into the post office and try the best he could to simultaneously struggle with this bewildering slice of bureaucracy and the language barrier was unbelievable to me.  And the fact that this bravery and effort was rewarded by being loudly, publicly berated after I had just made a similar mistake and gotten nothing but a helpful nudge in the right direction was disgusting and awful and sad. I had received preferential treatment that I did not want or deserve just because of the ethnicity and nationality that I was born into.

Having never found myself in such a blatant instance of undeserved preferential treatment based on my young-white-female status, I was not able to react quickly enough to say in the moment what I would have liked to say to the money order man, to say what he deserved to hear. But here it is.

This place is the absolute worst. It is unnecessarily confusing and pointlessly complicated and basically impossible to figure out unless you happen to work here, in which case it is then painfully and exasperatingly obvious. Every time I come in here it makes me feel totally inadequate and stupid and I hate it. The fact that you didn’t know where to address your money order is completely legitimate and understandable. And oh yeah, it’s also TOTALLY NOT A BIG DEAL. Please disregard the inexcusable disrespect and lack of patience or empathy you were just treated with and keep doing the best you can.  Living in a country where they speak a language that’s not your first is exhausting, complicated, difficult, and at times flat-out maddening. The fact that you came in here and gave this a shot anyway is impressive and applaudable. I don’t know you, but I’m proud of you.

Stick THAT in the upper lefthand corner, Robert DeNiro.