Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blood Shot

By: Mark vonAppen

I ventured outside my comfort zone once again, something I preach a lot for others to do, but like anyone else, I have to force myself to do it occasionally because the bedfellows of growth are frustration, struggle, and pain, among others.  Those three nasty words are enough to get me to stay home any day of the week.  

A snowy 25 degree day greeted me  in Chicago.
I traveled to Chicago, IL, for FSW Fundamentals in March, 2013 and was at best apprehensive at the prospect of spending more than 48 hours sequestered from family, in an unfamiliar city (it was 25 degrees and snowing when I landed in Chicago, 65 degrees and sunny in my home town of San Jose, CA), with people I  knew only as disembodied voices on the phone or through email correspondence.  At worst, I had pangs of fear in the bottom of my belly at what I was to experience.  What I discovered in Chicago is that Fundamentals is a journey not only of strength and endurance (strength and endurance are there too), but above of all, it is a journey through emotion, and about conquering yourself.


The week before I left for Chicago was somewhat tumultuous, my father was abruptly admitted to the hospital in Missoula, Montana, and I was torn as to where I should be.  I spoke with him on the phone a few times each day and he assured me that I was not needed in Missoula and that I should travel to Chicago as planned.  I don't particularly like to travel, so the prospect of a shorter sojourn to Montana to be with ailing family, not Illinois, to hang out with relative strangers, appealed to me greatly. 

Friday came around and I boarded a packed flight to O'Hare, and so it began - ad adventurum - whatever will be, will be.  A cramped, but uneventful 4-hour flight ended in Chicago.  As I waited at the baggage carousel, I met one of my roommates and Fundamentals instructor, Chuck Olson.  Chuck - stoic and somewhat menacing at first -  had driven to Chicago from Wisconsin and was my ride from O'Hare to the Beverly district of "The Windy City", where we would spend the next two days almost exclusively in the gym - or box - if I am to use the CrossFit jargon correctly.  This was to be my first experience in the total immersion program - Fundamentals - that is a blend of firefighting, CrossFit, and mindfulness all of which is geared at creating the type of person who will thrive in the high stress environment of the fireground.  

My first night in Chicago was spent in the hotel bar, then dinner and drinks in Beverly, meeting all of the participants in FSW Fundamentals, founder Chris Brennan - cerebral and calculating, and Fundamentals alum Gary Lane - passionate and fastidious.  I had little idea of the journey I was about to undertake as my mind grew foggy from inebriants.

Day 1 of Fundamentals saw us arrive at CrossFit Beverly early - really early given the 2 hour time difference and the many beers I downed the evening prior - the 7am start time was as harsh as the wind that whipped through the streets of Chicago as the sun rose casting long, bluish shadows across the snow that blanketed just about everything.  As we entered, a coffee pot muttered filling the box with a familiar and welcomed incense, signaling that it was time to go to work. 

A somber memorial started our journey.
We filled our cups and were told to put our sweatshirts on because we were going to take a walk.  We walked, the Californian wearing shorts, in 19 degree weather, to where FSW began in a city park (King Lockhart Park) named for 2 fallen Chicago firefighters.  We were told the story of how  2 Chicago firemen came to meet their fate in an auto shop in 1998, and how FSW came to be.  Snow crunched beneath our feet as we moved between one set of bronzed boots with a helmet perched atop, and then another.  I stood in the cold and took it all in, the helmets, the boots, the names, the wilted flowers in vases as Chris, Chuck, and Gary left me with my thoughts.  Anger and sadness swirled in my head as my fingers grew numb.  I was standing at the very spot where these men had taken their last breath before succumbing to a force more powerful and unforgiving than any other environment on Earth.  What were those last moments like for these men?  Could I survive given the same set of circumstances?  After a few minutes I began to shiver so I plodded back to the box.

I found out the meaning of #wedontstop.
I made my way back to the box and the day continued as both days would, with a workout.  More workouts followed, 3 a day in fact, I am not a CrossFitter, I dabble in it, but during every workout the team encouraged me to dig down and find out what was inside of me.  I learned how I learn, and I discovered the meaning of "#wedontstop" while running the second mile of "Murph" (a 1 mile run followed by 100 pull ups, 200 push ups, 300 squats, and then another 1 mile run), as Chris ran with me for the second mile to keep me moving and ensure I didn't stop until I had completed the task.  He explained as I trudged, heavy legged, through the snow, shirtless, in freezing temperatures, that it is more than a catch phrase, it is a mindset.  He told me between breaths, "We don't stop is about learning, training, and stepping outside of your comfort zone.  It is about constantly challenging yourself."  

Day 1 ended with me gulping down my dinner at close to 8:00 pm, feeling exhausted but more alive than I had felt in years.  I fell asleep early that night with a deep sense of accomplishment.  I was told rather cryptically, that as difficult as day 1 was physically, it was nothing compared to what day 2 would be mentally.

I was welcomed into the group and made to feel a part of the team.  I was encouraged to work through frustration, struggle, and pain.

As dawn broke to start day 2 of the journey, Chuck, Gary, and I shuffled from the hotel into another bitingly cold morning.   The sun shone for the first time in 2 days and it held the promise of more adventure.  Day 1 had been all about success.  Day 2, I would find out, was all about learning to succeed through failure.  At times during the second day, the sun seemed to fade as my frustration mounted.

Our second day began as before, coffee, a workout, and breakfast.  I learned about servicing tools, forcible entry, ladders, SCBA and most of all, about failure.  I failed, succeeded, failed, failed, failed, succeeded, and failed once more.  I worked through frustration, anger, and claustrophobia (yes, we all get there eventually because the drive to breath is an emotion, if you say you never get claustrophobic you're a liar).  All the while it was made known that failure was a part of the learning process and that no one would leave until I had reached a level of learning that we as a group had decided on.  I had traveled almost 2,000 miles, was surrounded by some of the best that the fire service has to offer, I fell flat on my face in training time and again, and it was okay.  I had my internal struggles with the process, pride and ego circled me like demons and at times I wanted desperately to quit, if nothing else than to simply stop the bleeding.  I grew quiet as I searched within for the resolve to continue though tired and frustrated.  I couldn't quit, my teammates wouldn't allow it.  A foxhole mentality had developed in just 2 days, I couldn't let them down either.

A foxhole mentality quickly developed.
I was taken to the place in my mind where when flooded by a sea of emotions, we all feel we can find a way to swim - or at least tread water - where the majority of us will sink to the bottom and drown.  I became clumsy, inattentive, and downright stupid at times.  I was pulled - not pushed - along by my brothers who I had only just met.  I went through a range of emotions, anger, fear, sadness, elation, and with the help of my new found brothers I was able to conquer them all.  I drew energy and inspiration that I needed to keep going from them.  All of this constituted a big risk on my part.  In taking a risk I learned a little more about myself and a lot about teamwork.  I learned once again, that bonds are almost instantly created when we struggle together to achieve a common goal.
I am not an elite warrior for having been annealed in the crucible of Fundamentals.  I am however, better for having been taken on a journey of emotions, learning how to better control that which we do not fully understand.  I am more functionally intelligent for having gone through the process.  I learned that no matter how much we try to fight it, we are emotional beings - every one of us - who will do seemingly irrational things when subjected to extreme stress, because we lose our ability to think.  If you think you won't you're wrong - dead wrong. 

Class 3: Lane, Olson, Brennan, vonAppen, Manning, Krasuski
I'll ride the wave of my career wherever it takes me.  I am myself, I know who I am and I know that I only grow from stepping up and stepping out.  I will continue to take risks in the form of challenging myself in training in order to reduce my risk in combat.  I wanted to prove myself once again and sharpen the edge that becomes dull in all of us if we are not regularly challenged.  I wanted to do something that not many others could say they had done or would even consider because it sounded too tough.  I wanted to get comfortable being uncomfortable.  

I was skeptical of what I would find when I arrived in Chicago.  I expected to find an atmospere of competitive scorn that I associate with a group of uber-aggressive firefighter/CrossFit types.  I was wrong.  What I found was a community of humble firemen who are genuinely interested in leading and paying knowledge forward.  I was welcomed into the group and made to feel a part of the team.  The experience was a blood shot of challenge, community, and brotherhood that I desperately needed.  

I will continue to push, in doing so I will struggle and I will grow.  You can live if you take a risk, or you can languish in doubt.  The choice is yours.  

I'll choose adventure and risk.  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Base Hits

By: Mark vonAppen

In a recent officers meeting regarding the direction in which our department is headed, I sat impatiently waiting for the silver bullet on how we were to right the ship.  As 15 or so officers gathered in a conference room at a library across from city hall, some sitting quietly sipping coffee, some chatting it up with the new fire chief, I looked around the room at a number of pieces of easel paper that adorned the walls like bad modern art.  Each piece was covered in brightly colored ink, hastily written short hand, and scribbled bits of information.  A common theme - or word - appeared as I read each of the more than 2 dozen pieces of paper that hung haphazardly on the walls.  




What a waste of paper.

The meeting was called to order and our new chief began by saying, "You might be wondering why we have all of these pieces of paper hanging on the walls.  We wanted to show you that we have been working, we have been brainstorming.  Changes are coming."

I began to think, as I drifted to another place, that we have been working too, for a really long time in fact, at changing our culture.  I thought to myself, "We've been changing it for years and they don't even know it." Sometimes big changes appear in the most casual, innocent statements and provide solid evidence that the quick change that everyone so desperately wants has been underway for some time.  Seeds planted years before yield the fruit of positive change.
"Sometimes in an effort to hit a walk-off home run, we lose sight of the fact that the game can be won with a steady string of base hits." 
A conversation I had late one night a week before the officers conference with one of our just-off-probation firefighters enlightened me to the fact that we have been getting a steady string of base hits in the firehouse for years.  Our wins - singles - came in the form of small positive changes while the organization, mired in bureaucracy and lumbering through a vanishing budget had been seeking the swing-for-the-fences grand slam aimed at cultural change.  Change the patch, send out a few emails, put up a few posters, hand out a few meaningless trinkets, and somehow, magically, people will buy what you're selling.  That isn't how it works.  People don't buy what you are selling, they buy your beliefs.  If you don't live it or believe it, forget about creating buy in from anybody else.  
Invest in people.

We have been creating buy in at the micro level while the organization slogs it out at the macro level swinging and missing by not making good on promises made in any form, good or bad.  We have made good on our promise to each other, to do our job, to treat one another right and to lead from anywhere.  Those promises kept are what have created investment from our brothers and sisters in the firehouse.  We have created belief in one another.

My conversation with the new firefighter began with acknowledging his accomplishment in completing probation - our rookies go through a regimented 18 month probation that includes monthly proficiency testing - that it was a milestone he should be proud of.  I began to recount the misadventures I experienced as a probationary firefighter, the trials and tribulations, the lack of leadership, and the difficulty I had in finding an officer to point all of my unfocused, rogue energy in the right direction.  I droned for about 20 minutes telling self-depricating stories of my journey through probation.  When the mostly one-sided conversation came to a conclusion he casually said something that resonated with me.  He blinked and said, "Wow cap, I never experienced any of that while I was on probation."

I was struck by how he shrugged off such a bold statement.  His words and body language said, "I was never treated badly."  His testimonial was a jaw-dropping epiphany to me that all of the talk of do your job, treat people right, give all out effort, have an all in attitude, had finally taken root.  

I said to myself, "There it is!" 

We have turned the corner as a culture.  It was another hit in a series of hits that we have strung together along with the 1/4 of our department that has less than 3 years on the job, and it was a signal that we are advancing.  Sometimes, in an effort to hit a walk-off homer, we swing for the fences and lose sight of the fact that the game can be won with a steady string of base hits.  

The conversation I had that night with one of our newer firefighters was a line-drive base hit, and I'll take those small victories all day long.