Thursday, April 22, 2010

Serious Play

I was out at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, recently, and everybody there was dressed for a glacier climb, with boots, rugged khaki pants, and carabiners around their belts with cell phones hanging down. It’s like going into a nightclub where everybody is constantly shoving their endurance cleavage in your face.

Then I drove over to the store where these Microsofties buy this sort of gear, the 80,000-square-foot REI emporium in Seattle. It’s a store that sells leisure stuff to people who spend their leisure hours strenuously, or at least would like to look like they do.

To get there, I drove my rented minivan to downtown Seattle and parked it amidst the muddied-up sport-utes in the RET garage. I walked past the postage-stamp forest the RET people have landscaped as a place for customers to test-ride their mountain bikes. After a trip up the slate-floored elevator, I was on a large front balcony with huge wooden benches. A plaque on each reassures us that the wood used for the bench was blown down in 1995; no trees were murdered in the making of this rest spot. Up above there are clocks that tell the current time atop Mount Everest and the north face of Eiger in the Swiss Alps, in case you want to make a call there.

I walked through the front door and found myself a few steps in front of the ice-ax section. Out in front of me stretched a great expanse of ordeal-oriented merchandise, aisle upon aisle of snowshoes, crampons, kayaks, tents, and parkas, a daunting profusion of equipment options. I must admit I began feeling as if I were suffering from oxygen deprivation. The goal of reaching the coffee shop upstairs at the store’s summit seemed an absurdity. I was like a character in a Jon Krakauer book. Dazed by this bewildering environment, I knew only that I must somehow summon the strength to trudge on.

To my right as I entered there was a museum of outdoor gear, so I could enjoy a little edifying foreplay before I got down to the serious shopping. At the far end of the museum was the climbing wall, at 65 feet the largest freestanding climbing structure in the world.

It wasn’t the salespeople that made my brain spin. I knew they’d be products of Seattle’s culture of hiking shorts macho. They bounce around the store displaying their enormous calves, looking like escapees from the Norwegian Olympic Team. Nor was it my fellow customers that put me in this state. I was ready for squads of super-fit software designers with glacier glasses hanging from Croakies around their necks (because you can never tell when a 600-foot mountain of ice might suddenly roll into town, sending off hazardous glare).

The thing that got to me was the load of requirements. If you are going to spend any leisure time with members of the educated class, you have to prove you are serious about whatever it is you are doing. “Serious” is the highest compliment Bobos use to describe their leisure activities. You want to be a serious skier or a serious tennis player or a serious walker or a serious cross-country skier or even a serious skateboarder. People engaged in any of these pastimes are constantly evaluating each other to see who is serious and who is not. The most accomplished are so serious they never have any fun at all, whereas if you went out onto some field or trail or court and acted happy and goofy, you’d be regarded as someone who is insulting the whole discipline.

Now to be a serious outdoorsperson, you have to master the complex science of knowing how to equip yourself, which basically requires joint degrees in chemistry and physics from MIT. For example, up beyond the ice-ax section there’s a tank where customers try to test and fathom the differences between a dozen different water filters and purifiers. To traverse that spot, you have to distinguish between purifiers made from iodine resin and iodine resin, glass fiber and pleated glass fiber, a ceramic microstrainer and a structured matrix microstrainer.

And it only gets worse. Every item in the store comes in a mind-boggling number of chemically engineered options that only experienced wilderness geeks could possibly understand. And from each product dangles a thick booklet so packed with high-tech jargon that it makes selecting a computer mainframe seem as simple as picking an apple off a tree. For backpacks, do you want a Sun Tooth Tech pack with 500 x 1000-denier Cordura or a Bitterroot Tech Pack with the 430-denier Hexstop trim? Do you want the semi-rigid 12-point Charlet Moser S-12 Crampon Laniers with the heel-clip in the rear or the Grivel Rambo with the rigid drop-forged points and the step-in bindings? Even something as basic as sandals comes in various high-tech versions, loaded with expedition-class straps and high-performance treads, in case you want to climb to Mount Pinatubo on your way to the Alanis Morissette concert.

I was dimly aware of some code of gear connoisseur-ship I should be paying attention to. For true nature techies, some things, like boots and sport utility vehicles, should be bought in forms as big as possible. Other things, like stoves and food packs, should be bought as small as possible. And other things, like tents and sleeping bags, should pack up small and open up big.

But the real reason for the REI store is upstairs on the mezzanine level, where the clothing department is. Because while not a lot of people actually go climb glaciers, there are millions and millions who want to dress as if they do. So most of the foot traffic at RET seems to be up on the mezzanine. T went up to the clothing department looking for a respite from all the high-tech mumbo jumbo of the gear section. There were indeed a few soothing racks of all-cotton shirts in muted colors. But T didn’t have to walk far before I was assaulted by a blaze of cobalt blue glaring off a vast profusion of polyester. It soon became obvious that while in the seventies the polyester people were low-class disco denizens, now they are high-status strenuous nature types. Between me and the coffee shop at the far end of the mezzanine there remained a treacherous field of artificial-fiber parkas, paddle jackets, zip pants, stretch vests, anoraks, and ponchos. And each of them had ominous-sized booklets hanging down, stuffed with dissertation-level technical detail highlighting the state-of-the-artness of each item. I confess at that moment I lost the will to live. I was content just to sit down and let somebody find my lifeless body there amidst the Gore-Tex mountain bibs.

But an inner voice—which sounded like James Earl Jones’s—urged me on, and pretty soon I was slogging through racks and racks of outdoor gear processed from the world’s finest chemical labs: Cordura, Polartec, and all the “ex” fabrics—Royalex, spandex, Supplex, and GoreTex. There were $400 parkas that advertised their core vent kinetic systems and sleeves with universal radial hinges (I guess that means you can move your arms around). There were heavy-denier parka shells, power stretch tights with microfilaments, expedition-weight leggings, fleece, microfleece, and bipolar fleece (which must be for people on Prozac). My favorite was a titanium Omnitech parka with double-rip-stop nylon supplemented with ceramic particles and polyurethane-coat welded seams. I imagined myself sporting that titanium Omnitech thing and suddenly saying to myself, “Here I am in the middle of the forest and I’m wearing the Starship Enterprise.”

Finally I had to puzzle my way through the “performance underwear” section, which was a baffling maze of Capilene and bifaced power-dry polyester with a few Lycra spandex briefs strengthened with MTS2 polyester. And finally, just as I was about to turn into an underwear Luddite screaming out for a pair of honest white briefs, I spied the coffee shop not more than 50 yards away. I made my way toward the side of the store that has the art gallery, with majestic nature photos, and the lecture hall. I made it through the bookstore and past the park ranger station. And there, finally, was a smiling barista offering me a warm brew and a choice from among a multicultural panoply of sandwich wraps. I settled down amidst the Mission furniture they have strewn up there and finally began to realize how wholesome I was feeling.

I looked around the store and there was nothing but healthy people, educated-class naturalists who seemed to work out regularly, eat carefully, and party moderately. They were evidently well informed about their outdoor- gear options, judging by their boots, packs, and shopping bags. Moreover, as they sat there reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and such books purchased from the adjacent bookstore, they radiated environmental concern. Here was a community of good stewards, people who were protecting the earth and themselves. Nature used to mean wildness, abandon, Dionysian lustfulness. But here was a set of people who went out into nature carefully, who didn’t want to upset the delicate balance, who studied their options, prepared and trained. If Norman Rockwell were a young man today, he’d head up to this coffee shop to get all this wholesome goodness down on canvas.

- David Brooks

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