Sunday, September 18, 2016

What's Going On: Kenji Haroutunian on Stories and Influences

Young adolescents are some of my favorite thinkers and tellers, often reminding me that grown-ups need more opportunities to reveal parts of themselves that are often hidden behind day-to-day masks. Just as I do with my students, I love probing others to think and tell their stories. This time around I asked Kenji Haroutunian about his life experiences, and man! You don't get a life of depth and dimension unless it's shaped by people, places, and events that make you so. My favorite part of Kenji's interview was learning about the small moments that shaped him, that one of his goals is to climb 5.10 trad again, and that he is grateful for Gohan. Enjoy the read, and thank you Kenji for being a part of Hafa Adai!

Favorite childhood memory as a child or adolescent? 
There was one very memorable night (2 nights actually in a row) where I was playing trombone in the district orchestra and I had a solo (Danse Macabre, by Saint-Saens), and also was picked to lead the auditorium in the pledge of allegiance, since I was the Sr. Patrol Leader in Troop 122. I botched the solo first night, but nailed it second night. I felt so honored and privileged and at the same time stressed out and pressured to perform… Guess I must have enjoyed it, since I regularly find myself in these kind of situations now. 

One other great memory was discovering Monty Python’s flying circus by accident. I was watching television with my sister while my parents were out for the evening. We were flipping through channels in my parents’ bedroom and stumbled on this strange ‘Great Gatsby’ scene with big dresses and parasols and fancy food and drink… easily found it on youtube by googling ‘monty python tennis anyone’. We laughed ourselves breathless and nearly peed our pants simultaneously from the surprise and hilarity of it. 

What is a story you remember? 
One story I like to tell was when I was about 11, and my little brother Ben was 5. I had invited him to ride bikes with my crew (of older kids) in the ‘hood, and he was tagging along on a bike he couldn’t even sit in and reach the pedals. At some point, he disappeared from the group, and I turned around to go look for him. I found him at the end of our dead-end street, where the dirt strip that parallels the train tracks was. He was off his bike, crying out loud, and 4-5 young thugs were stripping the bike with tools so they could carry it in parts back to wherever. I stopped on my bike, staring blankly and clueless on what I should do. Suddenly I just started yelling for my Dad… who was 20 miles away at work. Still, the idea that ‘Dad’ was going to show up was enough to freak these punk kids out and they jumped on their own bikes and sped off. Leaving Ben and I to walk our bikes home together.

Another story that shaped my life involves my sister Cindy. Although in our younger years I was a little ‘rough and tumble’ for her liking, and she was a bit of a tattletale, we got along rather famously. When we were kids she tells the story of how she was being bothered by some kid at school, and I came over and threatened to deck him if he continued. I don’t really remember this, but it’s actually more important that she does. 

Both of these stories reveal a lot about me. The image of myself as protector and defender of family is a very strong one that I carry in my subconscious. To a high degree, it has been with me forever. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I were the ONLY defender of my sister… after all, my parents were always there too. How many kids don’t have that? Or even a big brother to step up when necessary? Of course I never did… I was the eldest. But having her there was protection of a different sort, really, since we were so close. And my parents, together for my entire life, made a solid enough foundation for me despite my confusion and identity challenges as one of the only multi-racial people in my circles. 

Strong memory of school or an influential teacher? 
I was always curious, and so school to me was mostly something I valued and looked forward to. I never even questioned the value of school; what else was I to do? Because of this attitude about school (which incidentally my siblings did not necessarily share), I have many great memories from classes, retreats, sports and reunions. I remember all of my teachers, even kindergarten. Once in high school, it gets fuzzy, but still, I had some outstanding teachers. Some great coaches too - people I respected and admired, sometimes. All that said, not any one teacher really stands out for me; I can name special parts of many classes, and some weaknesses of a few teachers I had, but really I appreciated all of them. I suppose one instructor I had in junior College turned me on to Geography, which became my major at UCLA and is still a lens I understand the world through in a significant way today. He’s one teacher I cannot remember the name of though!

Who else has had an influence on you? 

  • Bruce Lee - martial artist and life coach - shattered the Asians-in-TV barrier.
  • Michael Benner - radio DJ philosopher - helped me understand the limitations of ‘either/or’ thinking. 
  • Michio Kaku - Futurist and physicist - helped me understand technology’s push forward and the human tendency toward humanness… regardless.
  • Ichiro Suzuki - among the most skilled athletes ever, broke through the perceived barrier of Japanese sports vs. American.
  • Buckminster Fuller - a ‘Design Scientist’ who anticipated societal needs and invented many incredibly useful items like the Geodesic Dome and the Dymaxion Map.
  • John Moynier - fit my first pair of hiking boots! A friend and mentor from my days in scouts, then working at A16, then wrote the freakin’ books on backcountry skiing in the Sierra. A badass but utterly humble mountaineer.
  • Andres Segovia - legendary guitarist who single-handedly put classical guitar on the map of traditional classical music… saw him live perform at 86 yrs old, had a huge impact on me.
  • Bonnie Raitt - beautiful songwriter, arranger and singer who may or may not have made me cry 
  • Morihei Ueshiba - founder of Aikido, created an incredibly powerful yet utterly gentle art-meets-dance-meets-martial art. There is no Aikido competition or contest, only exhibition. There is no opponent, only forces and movement and energy to be understood and manipulated… in an instant.
  • Jared Diamond - author of ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’, ‘The Third Chimpanzee’, and ‘Collapse’,  and Geography professor at my alma mater.
  • Dalai Lama - the exiled cultural and spiritual leader of Tibet. A fascinating story of a man and a people.
  • Rafer Johnson - Olympian and crasher of the race ceiling in sports; a graceful, thoughtful and generous man who I am acquainted with a bit.
  • Dave Grohl - songwriter and multi-instrumentalist… I’m really in love with Sonic Highways.
  • Lynn Hill - climbing athlete and iconic woman of sport.
  • Terry Tempest Williams - a truly powerful wordsmith who uses silence more beautifully than anyone I’ve ever known. It makes her words even more powerful… this is true often in music writing/performance too. She is a ‘wordsician’. 
What do you think we can do to support equity and diversity? 
First is to study the phenomenon; model it to our children, and encourage and teach other adults to do the same (this part is not easy). When children grow up in a house where diverse influences flow from many directions, that becomes the expectation for work and living into the future. It's much more difficult to teach someone to think in truly equitable terms if they are raised to believe people are inherently different based on their background or race. 'Putting people in boxes' is a perfectly human thing that we all do ... and it drives people to do strange things when that becomes difficult. Say, for example, meeting a person of mixed race or indiscernible age or heritage? 

Second, is to participate in equity and diversity initiatives in your workplace and wherever you spend time. Becoming first aware of inequity in its subtle forms, and working to raise awareness in oneself, and then others. 

Lastly, hold others accountable for behavior that supports equity and inclusivity, especially if they are in leadership roles.

In what ways does community influence you and your decisions? 
That's an interesting question. In some ways, I don't belong to many communities naturally, so I participate in many communities always a little bit like I'm an imposter. There's probably a word for this way of thinking. These are the communities I belong to and engage in at varying levels of leadership from within - some I'm realizing that I organize events of group communication within. 

Climbers - particularly Southern California climbing community, but also around the country. 
Musicians - many styles/genres, mostly local circle of players/writers/enthusiasts/appreciators. 
Parents - crosses through many other communities as a common personal experiential bond. 
Outdoor Industry - local, regional and nationwide community of those who make their livings facilitating adventure outdoors and exploring (while protecting) wild places. 
Mobile Worker - a growing community of workers who don't travel to an office; it travels with you. 
UCLA Alumni - also TKE fraternity at UCLA community member
Band Member - Rustbucket and Jack the Music currently, but many bands over many years (those communities are tight and remain so regardless of proximity, frequency of communication or life circumstances). 
Multi-racial American - growing community of those who identify as mixed-race Americans
Asian Americans
Armenian Americans
Backcountry Skiers - snowsport enthusiasts who like to travel 'off piste' -- no lifts to assist, this community enjoys the winter wilderness experience. 

What are your passions? 
Climbing rocks and mountains, Wilderness, Ecosystems, Music, Maps and map-making, Aikido and other martial arts, Event-making, technology, Astronomy, team building and advocacy for expanding Recreation Economy (and keeping places wild) - more people adventuring outside, that is. 

What makes you stop and go “Wow!”
Fine musicians, giant granite domes, rivers and streams, meteor showers, the night sky. Coyotes singing. 

Short term goals? 
Survive the Grandeur10
Climb 5.11 trad again
Run a half-marathon

High point in Life: 
Hmmmm ... too many. OK, I'll say being hired by Outdoor Retailer, surviving a tornado, then magically getting a commercial that allowed my wife to quit her job and raise all 3 kids for 12 years - all in 1 year! 

Turning point in Life: 
Getting laid off at a grocery store, then getting hired at an outdoor shop for 70% less pay with no union benefits. 

What are 15 things that make you uniquely YOU? 
I'm a Japamenian.
I'm left-handed in almost everything. 
I don't have a 'regular' name.
I'm an urban mountain athlete.
I've paddled with whales.
I'm a tornado survivor. 
My voice. 
There's an award named after me.
My nickname in college was "Gramps," but my nickname at 50 years old, is "Ninja" (same group).

I'm on two bands that rehearse and play out occasionally. 
I captain'd an undefeated championship team and have played on many losing teams 
I'm a super-map-geek.

What are 20 things you are grateful for? 
Healthy kids
Loving wife (and kids)
Personal Health
My parents are still alive
Friends to play in the wild with
Close by natural beauty
Clean water and air
Having  2 college degrees
Having no college debt
A large network of contacts in several industries
The ability to make music come out of an instrument
Climbing gyms!
Running and hiking trails nearby
Limited injury history (relatively to how many times I should have been badly injured/killed)
Japanese cultural depth
Good tenants
Good landlord
Han Solo (our new-ish dog)
Gohan (Rice)

Favorite places to recreate or climb?
Joshua Tree, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, San Gabriel Mountains, Wasatch Range, Pacific Ocean/Doheny, San Onofre, Sawtooths, Mohave Desert, Red Rocks in Nevada.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy? Feel challenged by? 

Building my own business as a consultant is a daily/hourly 'sharp end' experience that has many ups and downs, but it is ultimately rewarding in that I am independent of any overarching company or corporate agenda. I enjoy the increased time with family as my kids grow into adults, and the challenge of doing excellent work for clients of a wide variety. I enjoy the challenge of creating and executing compelling presentations and public speaking. The very things that excite me and that I find enjoyable are often the things I'm also challenged by. Time management, and making enough time for each project from start to finish, including a lot of back-end work is a big challenge that I'm still learning to do. 

Yeah! Thank you Kenji!

Kenji Haroutunian is a 30-year veteran of the human-powered outdoor industry, working for many years in specialty outdoor store management and teaching outdoor skills (including advanced climbing and wilderness navigation courses) during/after completing his degree at UCLA.  In 1999 he began working for Outdoor Retailer, eventually becoming Vice President for Nielsen Expositions (now Emerald Expositions), in 2010. During his tenure leading the OR shows, he launched many innovative programs like Green Steps, Project OR design competition, Business of Backcountry Forums and even the Virtual Design Center (a live Online Event).  Kenji left Emerald to launch his own national agency focused on core Outdoor in 2014, called Kenji Consults, in service to the greater outdoor ecosystem of brands, retailers, media, agencies and advocacy groups. Beyond his work life, he is a 2010 Access Fund ‘Sharp End’ awardee for his work leading Friends Of Joshua Tree in support of Search & Rescue services in the Park and the local-meets-global climbing community in Joshua Tree. Kenji currently serves as Vice-President on the Board of Directors of Access Fund and is a founding director of TeccSociety, a new events-industry technology organization.

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