A Toast

I was honored to have the privilege of being my brother Dave’s best man last month. Below is transcript-turned-blog post of the toast.

Dave

To understand my brother Dave, or big Davey as I like to call him, or David James, as most of my family calls him — to understand David James, I’d like to tell you something about our grandfathers, David and James. Beyond his namesake, Dave derived a great deal from his grandfathers.

Last year Mary and I were at Papa’s house (James Griffin). He was tinkering with his grandfather clock, trying to get it started again. Mary asked, “How do you know how to do that?”

Papa said, and I’ll never forget this, “If a man built it, I can fix it.”

It’s an incredible, confident motto he lives by. He’s built an entire business around it, fixing airplane parts.

My other grandfather, Gramps, (David Munsell) also has a mantra he lives by. On a number of occasions he’s told me, “You’re a Munsell, you can do anything.” It’s a phrase that was actually passed down by his father, our great grandfather (GG, as we knew him).

At the confluence of the two ideologies of these two great men is Dave. No one in my immediate family embodies the confidence, self-assurance, and know-how as much as Dave does.

And he’ll be the first one to tell you that. He’ll say, “I’m awesome!’

And you know what? He is.

So, I’d like to share a few highlights and milestones from his life that he’s been able to obtain with that confidence and know-how he acquired from his grandfathers.

Exhibit A

Dave and I started playing lacrosse in early middle school. During his first year, Dave decided he wanted to play defense.

The role of the defender is to push guys around and protect the goalie from being shot on. It’s a position for the biggest, strongest players on the field. The Goliaths, if you will. Not the Davids.

But Dave defied the odds. He used his quick hands, agility, and what strength he had to keep attackers at bay. He ended up being a starting varsity defender. He’s a Munsell, he can do anything.

David  [#3], not Goliath

David, number 3, being towered over by offensive players

Exhibit B

One of the few things Dave is actually modest in about life is his artistic talent. But I can assure you,  he’s an artist.

Dave was actually invited to the Pentagon to see one of his pieces of modern art hung one one of its five long walls. While there, he shook the hand of the President of the United States. True story.

His work of art was a landscape of Washington D.C., with the Washington Monument standing prominently in the center. Overhead, an F-16 flys….chasing an alien space ship set on destroying the capital.

It was an awesome drawing — especially for 12 year old Dave.

Exhibit C

Dave went on to graduate from Syracuse and joined the Peace Corps, where he volunteered in Mali. While there, he learned a language that not a single one of Dave’s friends or family would have heard of, had he not gone to Mali. He became fluent in Fulfude.

For my best man’s speech, I reached out to one of his Peace Corps friends to help translate a wedding blessing. It goes like this:

Ada nyama nyebbe
Jackie ana nyama nyebbe

But perhaps something was lost in translation, as Dave was in hysterics when he heard it at the ceremony. Or maybe it was that instead of providing a blessing I had the entire wedding reception repeat the classic Malian fart joke.

Exhibit D

Perhaps Dave’s biggest accomplishment to date is actually what brought everyone together on June 21st, 2014.

Four years ago, almost to this date, Dave told me about Jackie, “I’m going to marry this girl.” They had only been seeing each other a couple months at this point. I don’t think Jackie even liked Dave at the time.

At the time they were coworkers with shared desk space in Liberty Mutual’s Human Resources department. And if you know anything about HR — you would know that this is where they make rules against interoffice romance. But, Dave defied the odds and courted Jackie anyways.

Dave used his awesomeness to marry the woman of his dreams, and my new sister-in-law, Jackie.

jackie

Jackie

Jackie actually shares a lot of the same characteristics as Dave. She too is ambitious, driven, and confident.

For instance, earlier this year Dave, Jackie, Kyle and I met up for some post-work beverages at the Sail Loft. Kyle and I were telling them about our recent trip to the Grand Canyon. We had hiked it from top to bottom to top in a single day. That’s 16 miles over 10,000 vertical feet. We hiked over 10 hours in arid Arizona.

Without skipping a beat, the always confident Jackie declared, “I could do that. Dave, when are we going to hike the Grand Canyon?”

To which Dave replied, “Jackie, you don’t even like hiking.”

“I know!” she exclaimed. “But, I could do it.”

And I’m sure she could! She probably will. And that’s Jackie. She’s awesome too.

Dave & Jackie (or Jave)

And as incredible as they both are individually, together they are even better. In emails written one another, read aloud at the wedding, they both wrote almost word for word, “you make me a better person.”

They push one another to be better people. To be happier, healthier, and more fun. And, the more time they spend together, the closer they become.

And they spend a lot of time together.

I imagine most mornings they wake up, ensure their matching Fitbits are still functioning, then head to the basement where they keep their two treadmills, side by side. They run for 30 minutes, and give each other high fives at the end, “We’re awesome!”. After their team workout, they commute to Liberty Mutual together where they both still work in HR, though in different departments nowadays. At 5:00, they hop back on the southbound MBTA train and head home for a delicious gluten-free dinner. Then on Tuesday, they wake up and do it all again.

I’m excited to spend the coming decades with them together, as a couple, and watch them grow even closer.

So, to the awesome Dave and Jackie Munsell, together you can do anything.

Cheers!

dave and jackie

 

Down and Up Again: A Grand Canyon Story

Standing at the top of the Grand Canyon, we peered over the rim. “That’s the Colorado River,” said Kev. “We’re hiking down there tomorrow.” The sun set 20 minutes before, and canyon was shrouded in a dark blue haze. It was 40 degrees and Kyle was still damp from our swim at Slide Rock Park. The depth of the canyon was difficult to perceive from our vantage point, 5,000 feet above the floor. We’d learn first-hand in the morning.

***

“Don’t try to make it to the river and back in a day,” reads the signs. The phrase is also prominently featured on the Grand Canyon’s home page. Depending on the route you choose, hiking from the rim of the canyon to the river and back is no fewer than 15 miles, while descending and ascending a total of 10,000 vertical feet.

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First cliché (pronounced KLEETCH) photo of the day

The warnings are valid. The bottom of the canyon can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the top is at an elevation of 7,000 feet where the oxygen is much thinner than sea-level coast dwellers are used to.

But, we all have the adventure gene in us.

***

At 5:20 AM, we began our descent down South Kaibob with headlamps on, illuminating the dusty path in front of us. Spirits were high as we sauntered down the first mile, taking photographs along the way. Sharp corners and steep drops halted my excitement, and acrophobic waves swept over me. I’d round the corner and the tides of fear would go out, and the ecstasy rolled back in.

In most sections, the trail is about 7 feet wide. It’s enough space for a fully-packed mule to pass a broad-shouldered man or wide-hipped woman, but not much more.

The sun rose at 5:54 AM. A couple sat on the edge of the trail and watched as the canyon turned from blue-grey to orange, then copper.

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We could not have asked for a more perfect day. Temperatures never rose above 85, and a cloud ceiling protected us from the direct sun through the course of the entire day.

The hike down South Kaibob was 7.4 miles. Every mile was a new landscape. One mile we left Arizona and ended up on Mars.

Another, we traversed what could have been the Moon. Paths evolved from dirt steps, to stone, to red dust and to fine sand. Temperatures climbed as we descended. Vegetation, rock formations, and colors were in constant flux.

Despite all of the time we spent taking pictures and admiring the landscape, we reached the surprisingly green Colorado River just after 9:00 AM.

“We’re crossing the Colorado – you’ve been waiting all week for this!” I said to Kev. “I’ve been waiting almost my whole life,” he replied.

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Kyle took a life-altering reprieve in the bathroom, Kev scouted out a trail toward the northern rim, and I found a picnic table for us to take a snack break. We gobbled down fruit, meal replacement bars, and handfuls of nuts and hemp seeds, as a squirrel sat patiently, waiting for scraps to scavenge.

***

We began ascending the Bright Angel trail, a 9.5 mile hike back up to the South Rim. Walking along the Colorado, we waved to a group of white water rafters who were about at the halfway point of their 16-day float. They were to our right, about 60 feet below.

We approached a narrow pass. A man traveling alone was heading in the opposite direction, straight toward us. I began to slow, so we didn’t have to simultaneously cross the approaching four foot wide path. Instead of continuing straight along his course, he jumped onto a stone wall, no wider than a balance beam, marking the edge of the cliff. A fall would kill him.

He didn’t slow, nor blink, just kept on walking . As he hopped off the wall, back on the path, he lost footing in the gravel. He leaned forward and caught himself with his left leg. Unphased, he kept walking. “His life just flashed before my eyes,” I told Kev.

After the near-death meander along the river and an underwhelming cave exploration, we ascended our first switchback of the day. We were able to catch our breath quickly as there were more flats to cross before hitting Indian Garden.

We thought we had seen it all – Mars red hillsides, Cape Cod sands, the Moon, a Grand Canyon sunrise. But Indian Garden was another new landscape in our ever shifting journey. A stream cuts through the arid terrain and feeds a narrow, lush forest. The scent of flowers was kept afloat in the slightly more humid air.

We filled our water vessels in Indian Garden and began the last leg of the journey, 3,000 vertical feet over the course of four miles. Kyle, with empty bowels and a sudden caffeine kick led the charge. We began the final ascent at a good clip, taking frequent but quick water and snack breaks.

Kevin, after accidentally breaking his jar of peanut butter the night before the trip, was running on fumes from a lack of protein. His dietary restrictions limited him to fruit and seeds for the day. Like a terribly inefficient SUV, he had to pull over and refuel every few hundred vertical feet.

Eventually, we rounded a corner and we could see the top. Our eyes straight ahead, we tried our best not to push any of the hundreds of tourists off the increasingly congested trail as we marched to the top. I grabbed the first person I came across and asked her to take our photo.

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High energy and good spirits at the top

***

Our bodies sore, but our minds refreshed, we drove back to Phoenix the next day. We talked about hiking the Berkshires, Mt. Washington, John Muir Way, Joshua Tree National Park. Conversation led to weddings, work, wives, fiancees, budgets, vacation hours.  No more trips this year, hopefully next though.

 

30 Minutes

What can I accomplish in 30 minutes? Run 3-4 miles. Read 20 pages of a novel. Find some inner peace. Write a blog post.

Finding that out is my goal this year. I’m giving myself 30 minutes* every day to do one of those four activities: exercise, reading, meditating, and writing. In the current state of mult-screen multi-tasking, my attention span has reached record lows. Forcing myself to focus on a single non-work related activity for thirty minutes every day will hopefully slow down my ever-bouncing brain.

It’s been nearly three months, and I’ve been able to give myself 30 minutes almost every day. Looking at my blog posts published this year, it’s clear that I have not spent many days writing. I can also say that I have not found any zen in 2014.

What have I spent all of these 30-minute sessions doing? Mostly reading. I’m nearing the end of my fourth book this year and have a few more lined up. I also run from time to time, but with the warmer weather and my Grand Canyon hike approaching, I expect more time devoted to fitness.

Giving myself annual quantifiable goals has really helped me in my constant quest for self-betterment.

Perhaps next year I will up it to 60 minutes.

***

*The 30 minutes has to be on my own time, away from work and commuting.

Sharks

“This modern love of the earth is ironic—it is a reaction against the destruction of nature, but is also a product of that destruction.”

In a counter-intuitive article,  journalist and author J.B. MacKinnon describes modern nature as a nerfed version of its once dangerous self. In the twenty-first century, we venture into the wilderness to relax, find peace, and escape the stressors of everyday urban or suburban life. That serenity we find there, he argues, is a farce. We have no sense of fear in the wild, as we’ve killed off nearly all animals that would once pose threats to us. The author cites that only 20% of all land is inhabited by the large mammals that could be found there 500 years ago, and the number of remaining animals has dwindled.

MacKinnon writes:

Scientists speak of an “ecology of fear” that once guided the movements and behavior of animals that shared land- and seascapes with toothy predators—an anxiety that humans once shared. In much of what’s left of the wild, that dread no longer applies even to deer or rabbits, let alone us. The sheer abundance and variety of the living world, its endless chaos of killing and starving and rutting and suffering, its routine horrors of mass death and infanticide and parasites and drought have faded from sight and mind. We have rendered nature an easy god to worship.”

Reading his piece shed some light on current happenings in Western Australia. The fight to protect humans against predators has moved from land to sea. Recent rulings have allowed shark culls — mass killings of shark species deemed threatening to people. Yet despite the hundreds of millions of beach-goers, there are less than five shark related fatalities ever year, globally.

Shark attacks are rare. I’m not arguing that we live in a constant state of fear at the beach. Instead, we should approach anything we do in a natural environment with an air of caution and respect for the ecosystem’s inhabitants.

At certain beaches where shark attacks are more prevalent, maybe instead of removing sharks from the water, we should consider taking ourselves out of the equation. Give some coasts back to nature.

school of sharks

Esteemed oceanographer Sylvia Earle writes, “Theodore Roosevelt was among those who led a movement to protect natural areas, watersheds, landscapes and places of cultural and historic interest as National Parks — a concept that Ken Burns called ‘America’s best idea.’ Other nations followed suit, nearly all adopting the concept, and protected areas now encompass about 14 percent of the planet’s total land area. At present, less than 2 percent of the ocean is protected” [emphasis my own]

As just one of the many millions of animal species sharing this planet, we need to find ways to cohabitate, rather than exterminate.

Industrial fishing and off-shore drilling are wreaking havoc on the planet’s oceans, arguably its most important asset. Let’s not add shark culling to that list. When swimming or surfing, we should treat the ocean with a large dose of respect, and a hint of fear. That’s the way nature intended.

***

Further reading:

http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6807/

http://www.alertdiver.com/Optimism

The Munsell Limited

There are few items I own that I’m attached to. But one of them sits in my pocket all day and on my bed stand at night. And it’s not my phone. That’s more obsession than attachment.

It’s actually a simple item and one of the most inexpensive purchases I’ve made outside of a penny candy store. It’s a small wooden elephant, less than two inches in height. He hangs on a ring in between my house key and Hubway pass.

Image

***

It was the summer of 2008. I had graduated college two months prior, and my younger brother Zack finished his senior year of high school. We sat in the living room watching The Darjeeling Limited, a movie about three brothers traversing a new country and continent. In twelve hours, we would be on a similar excursion with our older brother Dave who was volunteering with the Peace Corps in Mali. The three Munsell brothers, traversing West Africa. The Munsell Limited.

While in Mali, Dave kept a very regular blog. I’ll summarize my experience of the trip by pulling out some quotes from his blog and adding my own photos and commentary. It will no doubt be a more realistic account than I could drum up after five and a half years.

“The first leg of our trip took us down to Bougoni and Sikasso where Zack freestyle rapped in a night club called Alcatraz and then threw up all over Mike’s face in a taxi the next day.”

We had to feed Zack a bit of liquid courage at the club, but the Malians were impressed with his rapping skills. Unbeknownst to them, due to language barriers, he did repeat the same lines a number of times.

As for getting puked on – it was unrelated to the liquid courage and brought on by something he ate. But, I laughed hysterically and wiped it off.  Dave’s friend Sophie commented on how close we were as brothers if we could handle being puked on by one another.

“The ride to Douentza was memorable because Mike was sick.”

Yep. I puked upwards of twenty times that night. Though, I had eaten some inedible nut shells.

“I whipped out a pair of pants from my backpack and tied the legs together, creating a makeshift puke bag.”

This is still the most MaGyver-esque thing I’ve ever witnessed.

“Sorry, but I have very little sympathy for throwing up and/or diarrhea in Mali. If you get Malaria, then I’ll send you a get well card.”

Thanks brother.

“At night, we brought out the iPod and speakers to accompany our meal of canned chicken, mango jelly, peanuts, and dates (it was REALLY good).”

Dave had been in the deserts of Mali for over a year at that point. We had very different palates at the time.

“Mike and Zack thought it was funny to see me attract a crowd everywhere I went as I had them rallied around me while I told stories and joked around. I don’t know what I’ll do when I go home and am anonymous again; I enjoy this quazi-celebrity status that I hold here.”

He went home and became story-teller-Dave. He’s got quazi-celebrity status in his social circles here.

“We got to village the next morning. What sounded like the coming of war ended up being the most hearty and warmest welcome I have ever experienced in my life… The entire village came out with guns blazing into the air and drums beating out rhythms. I introduced everyone and we were paraded into the village with such fanfare that I could have sworn we were in a movie. The villagers sang, danced, and jumped sporadically into the air as they accompanied us to all of the main households in village to greet the elders.”

zack dancing in mali

dave dancing in mali

dancing in mali

Pictures don’t do it justice. It is a moment I will never forget.

“That afternoon, it was time for me to kill the goat I had bought for Mike and Zack’s arrival….. Zack was squeamish and couldn’t watch, but Mike was ready with the camera.” 

I believe some vegetarians we’re friends with on Facebook flagged those photos as inappropriate. They have since been removed.

“I grabbed the goat’s horn, pulled his head back as he faced Mecca and let out a loud “Bisimillah!” Slicing into the goat’s neck, he reeled back, but we had a tight grip on him. As instructed, I said “Allah akbar” as the blood came out, and everyone was happy.”

“After leaving village, we met up with other PCVs and headed north to Hombori for rock climbing”.

Dave forgot to mention Zack getting sick, again, almost missing the bus and getting stranded by himself in Douentza.

“Mike really impressed me this day. On his first climb, he said it would be his last due to his fear of heights. But before I knew it, he was down on the ground and then strapped in on the other side for another climb! Go Mike! Zack was also really impressive. He got off to a slow start, but was consistently making it to the tops of his climbs. The second day he really came through. We had set a top rope on this face with tiny little holds. I belayed Zack on his climb and he just plugged away until he reached the top with no problems.”

climbing
This is apparently where I impressed Dave.

big brother
Dave being a good big brother.

“That second morning, we were about to leave the campement we stayed at when I saw some odd looking clouds approaching. Hell’s chariot was on its way in the form of a sand storm. Imagine rolling clouds of sand thousands of feet tall engulfing huge rock spires in the distance barreling directly towards you. It’s scary and exciting, especially when your only shelter is a dried millet stock bungalow. Although Hell’s chariot never reached us, we were in for a neat treat as everything around us turned a bright yellowish-reddish-orangish hue. I don’t know how the storm missed us, but it did.”

sand storm
The approaching sand storm.

sandstorm hut
#nofilter. seriously.

“Leaving Hombori, we caught a ride to Boni in the back of a large truck full of people. Standing room only. A goat peed on Zack, Mike hit people in the face with his giant backpack and I was berated with questions in too many languages.”

hitchhike
Hitchhiking with said ‘giant backpack’

truck
“Standing room only”

“Mike, Zack, Braxton (a fellow PCV) and I hopped into a 4X4 van (aka piece of junk) and rode out into the bush to search for elephants.”

safari
A safari, of sort with the “piece of junk” in the background.

“In time we found a Fulani watching over his animals who claimed to have seen elephants this morning. He jumped into the van and we were off again. Bringing us to a thicket of small trees, we exited the bus and headed downwind as not to be discovered by the elephant. Quietly, we tracked down an elephant near a watering hole and followed him for a short while. Stepping out from a patch of trees, we found ourselves face to face with the elephant himself (it was definitely a “him.” The Fulani pointed this out to me with much enthusiasm). The elephant stood there for a while and threw his trunk around. After we snapped a few photos, the elephant decided it was time for us to move on. He puffed his ears up and took a few steps forward, just to let us know we were on his turf.”

elephant
The male elephant, through the trees.

dave as elephant
Dave reminding me what the elephant looked like.

After our safari, we trekked back to Bamako for a couple nights before heading home to the States.

***

There was nothing special about the wooden elephant key chain or the buying of it. At the time, it felt like an item on a checklist – buy myself something in Mali. Check.

But now, it’s a reminder of the three weeks in Africa with my brothers. Getting sick together. Dancing with Dave’s entire village.  Rock climbing and sandstorms. Our safari. The elephant. It’s a constant reminder of my brothers and two of my best friends.

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The Munsell Limited.

***

If you enjoyed this, read Dave’s entire post of our trip. He wrote it just days after Zack and I left Mali — so it was a very fresh memory at the time.

According to the quiz I just wasted time on, I’m a Juvenile Narcissist.

Please answer the following question:
 Have you recently taken an online quiz and shared the results on Facebook?
 If you answered ‘Yes”, then congratulations, you are too!
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For the past week my Facebook feed has been an unrelenting stream of Jedi and Superheros. Friends who apparently should have been born in Paris because of their affinity for Croissants over Muffins at Dunkin Donuts. Neighbors confirming their New England accent despite living in greater Boston their entire lives.
I can’t help but feel like these sites and activities were developed for middle-school aged kids but are being adopted by the parents of those middle-school aged kids. Or maybe after a decade of using Facebook, I’m turning into a crotchety old man who likes to complain about the more spry users clogging up his feed.