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How to 'float your boat' in sunny Palo Alto.

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Wednesday, August 18th, 2004 — There are places in the world where the good life is hard to find.

Palo Alto is not one of them.

Health clubs and spas sprout like weeds. We go for cutting-edge technological gizmos, and trinkets from Bloomies, fine dining, fine wine, fine cars, fine houses.

Yet it occurred to me recently that somewhere inside we know that the polished-up life is not all there is, or perhaps even the best part, to living. Sometimes this self-evident truth eludes us; perhaps we keep busy to elude it.

The stylish, sophisticated version of the good life can result in our being too spruced up, too sanitized. Without even realizing it, we can become disconnected from the joy, the depth of simply being alive.

Recently I read a book, "Cowboys Are My Weakness," by Pam Houston. A line in one of her stories keeps coming back to me: "One of the things I love most about the natural world is the way it gives you what's good for you even if you don't know it at the time."

In this story, the heroine lives in a place called Park City, "where the snow is fresh and the sun is shining and everybody is happy, except me." This park-like, Camelot-like environment reminded me of the surface layer of life in Palo Alto. Camelot is fine, but not as a steady diet - too much like ice cream for dinner every night.

Houston's heroine is bordering on depression. Instead of taking meds, she decides to go snow camping as an antidote to the fog that has taken over her life. "Whatever floats your boat," her doctor, somewhat mystified by her choice, comments.

This line, too, resonated with me. The natural world challenges us. The extremes we find there turn up the volume on our senses, and we cannot help but respond. We can meet beauty or danger, discomfort and strenuous exertion, even fear. But something is awakened that has been lulled to sleep by the predictability of a too-neat-and-tidy life.

For me, this "something" is that part of us that thrives in unscripted, unrefined naturalness. We could even call it our animal instinct. When we allow ourselves to experience life through this lens, we are rewarded.

I won't be going snow camping. I do, however, occasionally like to leave Palo Alto behind for something different.

I recently confronted such a difference -- in Hawaii. Not the hotel lanais of Waikiki, but the north shore of Kauai. The mountaintop at the center of this island is one of the rainiest spots on earth. We made what later proved to be a bad decision to hike up the cliffs overlooking the ocean in spite of a steady rain. We slogged up the wet, slippery, red-clay trail, too taken with the beauty of it all to turn back.

Several hours later, we headed back toward our starting point. When we came to the small stream we had crossed earlier, it was running faster and higher. Our pulses rose to match it. We could either spend a miserable night there or try to cross, with no ropes. If we slipped we would end up in the ocean perhaps 300 feet below.

To this day, I do not know where we got the nerve to cross that stream, or how we managed to do it without panicking. But having made it across and back to our car we felt a rush of gratitude and accomplishment unlike anything we had ever known. Back on the beach after the rain, we absorbed every ounce of paradise we could for the rest of our vacation. Our techno-gizmos and trinkets back home were a distant memory. The good life was right there, with the sun on our backs and sand between our toes. The natural world disarms us when we least expect it, and gives us what we need.

This is not a new idea.The problem is when we are surrounded by the glitzy offerings of modern suburbia we easily become distracted, absorbed, too preoccupied to feel time, or our lives, passing by.

I am discovering that there are many ways to "float your boat." Sitting in our backyards on a warm, quiet evening, or bracing ourselves against the cold (for Palo Alto) of an icy January-morning walk to the "Dish," can penetrate that mental haze, can override suburban glossiness.

With a dose of natural world, we become a bit more free to be and do what we want without the pressure to achieve something or conform, to feel feel echoes of our wilder side and experience an ancient yet immediate joy.