Boiling River

Early in the morning of our last day in Yellowstone, my wife, Dena, and father-in-law wanted to take me to Boiling River.

Boiling River is where the Gardiner River meets up with a hot spring. You can climb into the water and have a soak, with the swirling current and shallow, rocky river bed forming an all-natural, certified organic hot tub.

Unfortunately, when we parked nearby, I couldn’t find my river shoes. On a cross-country road trip with six people, not enough space, and all their stuff, this kind of thing happens.

It would be a 25 minute drive back to the hotel, and we didn’t have time for a second round trip.

Dena could see the scowl forming on my face. “Don’t stew on it,” she said. We needed to get moving if we were going at all. My $5 Old Navy flip flops would have to be good enough.

As we walked along the gravel path to the swimmer’s entrance, Dena and her dad pointed out different parts of the river, and told me about how when they’d come down the other night, it had been packed with people. We were lucky to be out so early, since it looked like it would be easy to find a spot to sit down and relax.

My father-in-law also mentioned not to stick my head in the water, especially my ears, since the water might be swarming with brain-eating amoebas.

Seriously.

We hung our towels up on a fence and walked down a slope to the river’s edge. As soon as I dipped my feet in, I knew my flip flops weren’t a smart choice. The water pushed down as I lifted my foot up, creating drag with each step.

I took lower, gliding steps and did my best to curl my feet, trying to grip the flimsy plastic with my toes, while keeping my balance on the smooth, wobbly rocks.

After catching up with Dena and her dad, I sat down. The tension of the last few minutes melted away as I found a spot where the currents mixed to the perfect temperature.

I wasn’t thinking about brain-eating amoebas, or the days we’d spent crammed into cars driving out here, or or the logistics of bringing an almost-three-year-old on such a big trip.

I sat quietly, feeling the river flow around me. We watched a bird of prey glide in circles overhead.

But we needed to leave and meet back up with the rest of the family. I stood up and started following Dena back to the entrance.

I plodded upstream, taking my time, trying to get solid footing. I fell behind.

And then the current yanked a flip flop off my foot.

It shot downstream toward a shaggy, surfer-type. He tried to catch it, but it zipped past his grasp.

“Alright,” I thought. “Don’t stew on this.”

I don’t go outside barefoot. Even as a kid, I never liked direct contact between my feet and nature.

I took a moment to get my bearings. I looked up at Dena, then upstream past her to the swimmer’s entrance.

I planted my bare foot on a rock to see how it felt. A little slick, but solid.

Goal set, I reminded myself that sitting back down and staying in the river forever was not an option. While not ideal to walk back on one flip flop, it could be done, one step at a time.

And the next step I took sent my other flip flop flying down toward the surfer. He missed that one, too.

I’d love to say I made a dignified march in my bare feet back to shore, deftly navigating the current and shifting stones. But that would be lying.

The next few minutes involved a lot of struggling for traction on slippery, river-smoothed rocks, punctuated by sharp moments of pain stepping on smaller, jagged stones.

I wobbled, frantically waving my arms to keep from falling on my face (because let’s not forget about the brain-eating amoebas).

I misjudged the current as I moved toward a larger stone and smashed my big toe against a rock as I lost my footing. I swore. Then I looked up and saw two parents and their four-year-old son a few feet away.

I quickly convinced myself I had heard them speaking German so I could at the very least keep from feeling embarrassed about my language.

But even after all that, I made it back to the shore. I took my towel off the fence and sat down on a bench. I caught my breath.

I made it.

And then I looked over at the gravel path I still had to walk on to get back to the parking lot.

At this point, I didn’t even bother starting to stew on the problem.

When my feet pressed down on the gravel, I felt even more pain than I’d anticipated. It was the combination of tiny, pointy rocks and a week’s worth of already sore feet from sightseeing.

But the path was the only way back to the parking lot. I took it slow. Big steps, pausing whenever I caught a particularly bad jab.

And then something funny happened. A group of people walking past us the opposite way whispered “Is he barefoot?” with a mix of shock and awe.

I turned to Dena, about to crack up. “They think I’m a badass!”

So, I played the part. I took my hesitant, big steps up until the point where I saw someone coming. Then I switched to strutting, just to see if people would react.

It was a stupid game. I understand this. But it also kept me moving and made the situation a little funnier.

A few minutes in I noticed that every so often there was a span of chalky white logs, bolted to the ground on the sides of the path. I hadn’t noticed them on the walk to the river, but now I was using them as balance beams, reveling in how smooth they felt against my feet.

If every situation were so simple, we wouldn’t need reminders not to dwell on the problem itself and start looking for a solution. Compared to a lot of problems, “I’m in a river and need to get back out right now,” has a refreshing clarity.

Stewing, complaining, or otherwise dwelling on the problem acts as a form of denial. Denying that you’re ready to solve the problem. Denying that you can even believe that you have this problem. Denying that it’s your problem to solve. Denying that a solution exists.

You need to accept the problem before you can move past it, and once you’re in motion, the problem becomes less important than staying in motion.

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Living With Attention Debt

I’ve started referring to any dishes left in the sink or on the counter overnight as dish debt. Not only are they just left for my future self to do, but they accumulate interest in the sense that they’re in the way of other things I want to do the next day (i.e. make coffee), or they’re just a little bit grosser than when they were left to sit overnight.

Debt isn’t just monetary, although that kind can loom over a person. Student loan debt. Medical bill debt. Credit card debt. The kind of monetary debt that can follow a person for months, years, or even decades.

There’s attention debt, too. When you add a new person to your Twitter feed. When you make Facebook friends. When you start reading a new blog, or decide to watch a new TV series. When you add an app to your phone that uses push notifications. Actions that you take in one moment that make a commitment toward further actions in the future.

An aspect of all of these forms of debt is that they prevent you from living in the moment. It can aggressively follow you, like knowing that you have a payment to make at the end of the week, so you’d better be careful on what you spend your money on today. It can shift you out of the present moment and make you question your previous choices; make you wonder if you could have done things differently instead of accumulating that debt. Or, in the case of attention debt, you can slip into distraction for periods of time and come out wondering where all the time went.

Attention debt is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The way that you pay off your attention debt can mimic paying off a monetary debt in some ways. If you make small installments, checking your feeds frequently throughout the day, each payment on that debt seems small, but you’re also paying more interest in the time you’re taking away from focused work. If you set aside time to focus on those feeds in a larger, less frequent chunk of time, you do less harm to your focus. You pay less interest.

But sometimes it’s not easy to avoid those impulses. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to try and breeze through everything in a set amount of time and resist that sense that you’re missing out on something. Again, attention debt is taking you out of your present moment by making that sense of missing out even more acute. It’s not merely a sense that there’s more going on outside of your view, but you have a specific list in your head of what you’re not keeping up with. Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just about appearances and conspicuous consumption now, it’s about keeping pace with your neighbors’ updates. And our neighborhood is ever growing.

I’ve been thinking about how to create a payment plan for attention debt. Things like Email Bankruptcy and Quitting Twitter are just crash diets for the brain. Living debt-free in this sense also means reducing your connection to other people, and that’s not really my goal. We take on debts because there are things of value attached, but with attention debt there’s more room to negotiate the terms.