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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Thursday, June 29, 2017


Alex Honnold summiting El Capitan - June 2017

It must have been the summer of 1974, because I recall this scene taking place in my oldest son Jon’s basement bedroom, in the house we moved into in 1972. We’d just come to the end of bedtime singing or storytelling—a lifelong ritual with each of my children—and were talking in the dark when he said, “Dad, If I died tomorrow, would you feel like you’d wasted your time with me?”

I’ve returned to this anecdote regularly over the years. Because I realized at the time, and attempted to explain, that I could honestly answer him “no” only if I had lived and played with him without expecting any outcome or harboring some hope for reward. I would have to have been living with him and loving him for it’s own sake.

Anything less would result, on my child’s death, in the kind of regret that signals resignation; Kierkegaard is right, I still think, to insist that clinging—albeit secretly—to outcomes, to hope for the fulfillment of expectations, is the polar opposite of what he calls “faith” and that I call “doing something for its own sake.”

I woke thinking over this scene. There are at least two ways we can do things:

  • addressing the task or enterprise before you both with careful attention to its demands and knowledge of the history—of the work of others—that bears on this job,
  • assessing the purpose of your task, placing it in a framework of ideas, calculating its worth, and so on.

But think of the Wright brothers. The problem was powered flight. It turned on a question that had been asked and answered wrongly for millenia. Both brothers, but especially Wilbur, the eldest, knew the history of speculation and experiment with air-resistance, the imitation of birds, and the force of heated air. When they were not working on the repair and maintenance of the immensely popular new “safety bicycle” in their Ohio shop, they were making parts to test, which required inventing test-equipment as well. This achievement alone is comparable to some unknown wood-worker in a Shaker community not far away there in Ohio, but nearly a century earlier, devising tools to cut the threads that made possible the bench-vise.

Wilbur built a “wind tunnel” consisting of a cube about two feet on a side, open on one end and with a tube at the other through which an electric fan—also a recent invention, along with household electricity—could move the air at reasonably high speed. Through an observation port Wilbur inserted blades of wood with non-parallel sides. We now call them “wings” and what he was testing was the lift produced by the air flowing over the longer upper surface.

Wilbur devoted hundreds of hours and pages to calculating the relationship between surface-area and upward force, exhibiting a devotion akin to the years it took Kepler to arrive at the “ellipse” described by the motion of a planet around the sun.

To build prototypes the men had to invent not only the concept of wing “chord” but propellers and even engine blocks. One of their cleverest achievements was the use of a twisted bicycle chain to power the port propeller, to create counter-rotation from a single engine-pulley.

I take this to be exemplary of the way in which all our best work is done: the brothers focused entirely on their project with the same sort of devotion and skill as their contemporaries van Gogh and Cezanne. Not to mention Einstein. All the best and most lasting human work—including our relationships such as parent and child—is done for its own sake, not to bring about some other thing desired.