Tabula Rasa

As far as we know, a man blind from birth does not dream of colors. But how could we know if he did? More important, how could he know if he did?
This Winter and Spring have been cold, and I have been skating. I don’t mean the sequins and blades kind of skating, I mean snow skating. Skis take the place of metal runners, and the action is something else. I find it hard to describe. It has a smoothness to it, a chain of movement like climbing. It has a mental feel which is different than climbing’s though, a shifting attention with underlying focus. When it’s going well, I feel like I could close my eyes and never crash. I like it, but I think some people might not. That’s because they are who they are and not me. I like the feeling of skating because of my background, the kinds of activities I’ve learned to appreciate and the position which skating occupies in that pantheon of activity. I couldn’t explain to anyone else what I feel when I’m gliding uphill. I couldn’t make them feel what it’s like for me and therefore what it’s like to like it. I couldn’t accomplish a transfer of appreciation for skating anymore than I could explain a dream of red things to a blind man. It is something personal, mine to have.
The feeling of gliding with a constant effort is unique to skating. The association is unique. I am not sure that the feeling is unique. I’m not sure that the feeling is anything. Yes, it is the feeling of skating, but I’m not sure it is independently identifiable. Without the sensation of weight shifting over the lead ski, acceleration, and pole-push recovering the trailing ski, the feeling I like about skating might be about screaming down a trail on a mountain bike, swinging an ice tool, having a shot of good Scotch or anything else I enjoy. Take away my enjoyment, and I wouldn’t know what to make of the feeling.
Maybe this line of thought seems bizarre, but I am not to blame for it. I have been influenced to pursue it by reading philosophy. I’ll admit, most of the reading was voluntary. The preoccupation with the nature of subjectivity however, comes from the philosophers and their corrupting thought experiments, in this case one called “spectrum inversion”. Spectrum inversion proposes a flip in qualitative experience of color. Imagine that, when I see green things, I have a red experience. When you see green things, you have a green experience experience. It could be happening right now, and we would be oblivious to the fact(?). As long as you and I have no gap in our spectrums, the difference in our experience cannot be detected empirically. You call the stop-light red; I call the stop-light red. I call the grass green; you call the grass green. The point is, when I see a green thing I know something about it (its red appearance) which is not explicable on the basis of function or structure – my own or that of the green (red?) thing.
There are two problems with the moral of this story. One is a problem with philosophers. If philosophers were birds, they would be gob-smacked about their wings, and would puzzle endlessly about what it meant that they could fly. Without an acceptable theory, i.e. a complete theory, they are unhappy. They chose color for this thought experiment because people have a strong intuition about the reality of colors. The intuition probably owes something to a degree of a priori knowledge of color. Color perception is ‘baked in’ to us, probably with some pre-set associations. It may not be the best research subject in an investigation of qualitative experience in general. Our credulity gets in the way, doubly so for the philosophers among us.
The other problem is deeper. It is the blind man’s problem. My inability to describe a dream of blood, or stop-signs to him is merely a symptom. He cannot consider a theory of color perception – the consistencies of colors, their place among our other experiences, their rules and regularities. He needs an explanation first. He must be able to say, for himself, what he is to make of the quale in his hand. That explanation is a prerequisite to our discussion of blood’s appearance. Otherwise, his putative color experience refers to nothing; it is there, perhaps, but it pertains to nothing but himself and remains unremarkable, a tabula rasa, a point of order in the conscious process.
The status of qualia may seem a curiosity, but I think it’s a bit more. I think so because I didn’t start out skating because I knew I’d like it. I started out skating because I was sad.

Have you never heard about Lin Hui, the man who fled from Chia? He threw away his jade disc worth a thousand measures of gold, strapped his little baby on his back, and hurried off. Someone said to him, ‘Did you think of it in terms of money? Surely a little baby isn’t worth much money! Or were you thinking of the bother? But a baby is a great deal of bother! Why then throw away a jade disc worth a thousand measures of gold and hurry off with a little baby on your back?
Lin Hui replied, ‘The jade disc and I were joined by profit, but the child and I were brought together by Heaven. Things joined by profit, when pressed by misfortune and danger, will cast each other aside; but things brought together by Heaven, when pressed by misfortune and danger, will cling to one another…
-The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu by Burton Watson

“You know how it is with you and your brother, out of sight out of mind,” my sister-in-law says.
For her, attachments subsist on their assigned meaning. They have a third-person ontology. Without constant refreshment and revision of their rules and regularities, attachments lose their meaning as circumstances pass them by. People must constantly find new reasons for their loves and loyalties, lest the sentiments be forgotten.
She made that comment because she was annoyed with a lack of active communication within the family and based on her observation of our response to our parents’ deaths. When my mother died, my father took her ashes to an unnamed place and scattered them. When he died, his sons did the same for him, and have spoken of it, and of their father, rarely since. From the outside, the silence may look like disinterest or even amnesia. But it is not. The attachment in question just can’t be corralled by words, memorials, or funeral rites. A jade disc cannot represent it, because no theory of value explains it. The attachment is part of our personalities, and though it changes with us, it persists. Attempts to push it into orbit around our persons would lead to misunderstanding at best, bitterness at worst. Master Sang-hu continues:

The friendship of a gentleman, they say, is as insipid as water; that of a petty man, sweet as rich wine. But the insipidity of the gentleman leads to affection, while the sweetness of the petty man leads to revulsion. Those with no particular reason for joining together will for no particular reason part.

‘Particular’, in Master Sang-hu’s statement, should not be mistaken for ‘specific and isolated’. He means personal, particular to the individuals. The attachments formed by petty men are outside of themselves and adhere by the stickiness of their emotional quid pro quo. The alternative is to give up on the boundaries of one’s identity. So the petty man may be forgiven; he’s got something to lose. Most people are not petty, or at least not entirely so. For instance, at some point, many will ask, “But why do you love me?”. However, even those who pose the question early in their lives don’t persist in the practice, and learn to beware the question themselves.
I don’t think my sister-in-law is being petty in her dissatisfaction with my and my brother’s behavior. There is another use for her third person ontology of attachment, besides its potential as sticky treacle. It is filler. It buys time for adjustment and reorientation in the face of change. It insulates against anxiety, pain and sadness, which are the true corrosives, time and change being guilty merely by association. With that understanding in place, she’s miffed about us not playing along properly, rather than disparaging us for simply lacking true attachments. Her way of using a theory of attachment is the way most of us use such things – as a buffer for our weaknesses. They remain grossly utilitarian, but are second order rather than primary.
Right after my wife died, I got some similar encouragement to play along. I couldn’t bring myself to participate in memorials or ceremonies. There is a core of dishonesty in those events. They claim to honor the deceased, but they really serve to push the person into orbit around the survivors, where the dead can’t hurt us. Worse yet, memorials and funerals are opportunities for certain parasites of death to pedal whatever bizarre spiritual beliefs they feel the world can’t do without. Functionally, death rituals are filler for the living. I could skate, that was filler enough and a more honest variety.
For the same reason, I turned down grief counselling, which is a more modern ritual to the same end. I actually have some data to back me up on that decision. A meta-analysis presented at The 2008 ADEC (Association for Death Education and Counselling – a cheery lot, no doubt) conference showed no benefit in universal counselling for those who had experienced loss. For those who had the most traumatic losses, such as the violent death of a child, counselling provided a brief benefit with no improvement in long term outcomes.
The only people who consistently benefitted were people who were referred, by others or by themselves, for trouble adjusting, especially those who experienced signs and symptoms of depression.
I think the last finding is most telling, for depression reflects a falling out of context. Depression is more than being sad, even very, very sad. In depression, the sufferer ceases to feel this way or that about experiences, and begins to experience the world in the light of sadness. Depression is the philosopher’s take on subjectivity taken seriously. Sadness, for the depressed person, is not made of anything; it is something identifiable and effective.
But sadness as a thing cannot make sense. It only works if something makes a person sad, and the person must contain the necessary elements to be made sad. The depressed person is constantly at work constructing those elements. A person in the grips of depression exists in a self-perpetuating cycle of justification which cannot succeed in finding an acceptable answer for the person’s sadness.
Because, just plain sad is an undifferentiated stake in the field of consciousness, and we are charitable to name it. It cannot be grasped anymore than love, or redness or the feeling of skating, and the mind groping after it must fail. That’s the danger of taking qualitative aspects of our world seriously; they cannot deserve it. If we do take them seriously, we may, in effect, mistakenly strap jade discs to our backs instead of our children, holding the byproducts of our attachments dear, though nothing adheres to redness, love or sadness – not even treacle.
Out of sight, even out of thought, but not out of mind, lost and distant relations remain. They cause love and sadness, but love and sadness do not explain them. Eventually, they leave love and sadness behind. When Winter returns, I will start skating again, and not because I am sad. I’ll do it because I like to skate. It’s my fate, in a sense, like it was my fate to love my wife, my parents, my children and my friends. No taint of sadness will cling to the snow, the skis or my limbs. No sadness will drive me over the snow. Turns out, it never did.

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Dr. Van Helsing Does Not Practice Primary Prevention

As recommendations for treatment of hyperlipidemia become broader and more generic, drifting toward the poly-pill conclusion, I can’t help but think of Dr. Van Helsing’s predicament in Dracula. In the story, though he has information which suggests the possibility of primary prevention, he practices secondary prevention. It is only after the symptoms appear – Lucy’s mysterious anemia and the rash of similar cases following her death – that the doctor suggests putting garlic around the windows. He has to wait. He’s in a story, so he knows the horrible truth all along, but he can’t reveal it without his patients sending him packing. Every doctor understands Van Helsing’s predicament. Few can see his patients’ logic however. It is one thing to indulge a crazy old man’s belief in vampires. It is quite another to indulge a crazy old man’s belief that a vampire has moved into the old mansion down the street and has begun to prey upon the household.
When doctors tell patients to treat public health problems, like cardiovascular disease prevention, on an individual basis, the patients take it as if they were being asked to put garlic around their windows because there have been vampire sightings in their neighborhood. They are slightly incredulous. And, the patients are right.
If we medical professionals are to treat asymptomatic individuals based on a 10 year risk calculated from epidemiologic data, for a disease which they have may or may not have started to develop, we must be honest with them. We have to admit that medication is the best that we can do, ask for their help, as a group, and then make it easy for them to help. Doctors don’t like to treat populations, though. Individualized care and patient centered care are the current watch words. But the greatest successes of medical science have been the opposite sort of effort. Nobody thinks that we should stop immunizing people for pertussis and move to an individualized prevention program with regular swabs for the pertussis bacteria and antibiotics for every runny nose. The approach is ostensibly patient centered, and it really is in a way, just like Dracula’s interest in Lucy and Mina is patient centered. Looking down from the established high ground, it’s easy to recognize the shift to an individualized strategy for preventing whooping cough as impractical and myopic. Medical professionals are clever enough to avoid bad moves from the general to the specific. However, decisions to move from a dysfunctional individualized program to a population based program can trip up anyone, even though the determining factors are the same.
The problem is Van Helsing’s problem. At the level of the vampire hunter’s interest, garlic around the windows is garlic around the windows. He’s like Dracula that way, for whom young ladies full of blood are young ladies full of blood. Dracula and Van Helsing are at risk of availability bias, cognitively and practically, as are all the physicians with lipid profiles, risk calculators and statistical correlations at their fingertips. There is a insidious, vampiric class of maneuver from population-based conclusions to individualized care. But the patients’ motivations lie outside of the action’s focus, and that focus is therefore myopic. It does matter to patients whether the doctor is asking them to deck the sills in order to cut down on the incidence of vampire attacks or because they should fear the vampire staring at them through the window. The latter request involves adopting an astringent manner of thought and behavior, the stuff of anxiety disorders. The former is an appeal to solidarity and public safety. We shouldn’t be surprised when the same people we’ve been instructing to fear the vampire outside their window come in demanding that we do something about the pale figure lurking behind their cough, in their prostate, or under their nipple. Having ceded the high ground, we’ve no credible response.

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What Dies on the Sharp End

As children, many of us were cautioned not to judge another person until we had walked a mile in their shoes. This simple aphorism is meant, and taken, in two ways. For those with a literal bent, it means that we should withhold judgment until we have the all the relevant information. For those with a more philosophical inclination, the saying means that we shouldn’t judge, or more precisely, we should understand that our judgments about others are always bound to be a little off. The latter interpretation is more accurate, because we cannot walk in another’s shoes. Beside them or in their tracks we can experience their walk, but not in their shoes or their skin. To do so would demand abandoning our own identity. In light of the latter interpretation, the implication of Mom’s trite admonition becomes apparent. We aren’t limited by our subjectivity – the statement is nonsense – our subjectivity makes us. Like so many things which children must learn to get straight, it marks a snag in our understanding which trips the most carefully considered philosophies.
Let’s see how philosophical problems regarding mind fare under the heat of our kindergarten lesson. With no subjective experience of subjectivity, philosophical zombies – hypothetical creatures which exhibit behavior without experience – take a shot to the brain, not because we cannot conceive of behavior which does not entail qualitative experience, but because we cannot conceive of qualitative experience divorced from activity (after all shouldn’t something which is a property of experience rather than a product of it show some sign of life for itself?). Rigid designators – necessary identities – hold for representative entities in logic, but not for the objects from which the logical entities derive (would that it were otherwise; think of the savings on auto repairs and trade-ins alone, not to mention the safety benefits of “the red car turning left in front of me” being true in fact as well as in theory). Determinism becomes an analytical curiosity. There is no quantity of happiness, suffering, or human thriving calculable. There is nothing that it’s like to be a bat – or a human.
Philosophies stumble because most of them have not been field-tested. This state of affairs is understandable; field testing is a grim business. The best contrivances fail in unexpected ways, leaving us deflated and puzzled. Trying to break a precious invention in the course of it’s intended use admits to some basic pessimism, but it is vital. Yet how do we test an idea of how the mind works in the world? What we need is something other than the sort of post-game analysis which always concludes that the contest turned out as it did because one team managed to “execute” and one didn’t, that one managed to fit the criteria of our post-hoc definitions and one did not. We need to know what happens, what falls away, what persists and the shape of the relationship between the whole lot.
Fortunately, we don’t have to go to the trouble of designing a test for philosophies of mind. The sort of test in question happens naturally on the sharp end of a rope. Every rope in use has a sharp end, attached to the lead climber, and a loose end, secured by the belayer. As soon as the leader finishes his knot, things begin to fall away. The belayer is a person who pays attention or not, who arrests a fall or not. He may be a Saint, or he may have walked out of prison that morning; it doesn’t matter. Likewise, the leader is a person who falls or not, who puts the belayer at risk or not. The relationship is quite specific and pertains to the subjects and the salient features, the valuable points, of the situation, as do all the relations and values which fall away. But the test extends beyond the mind-to-mind relationship. In the leader’s experience our ideas about the nature of mind itself get tested, because the leader is the one who grasps the holds. Looking at a hold creates a shaped perception of it. The hold has size, conformation, anticipatory feel, relevance to body position, distance and even strategic utility. But that hold is not the hold which the finger touches, and the leader knows the hold in hand by a different means.
Here is where another important set of ideas breaks down. Contact with the hold demolishes the mental theater. The hand and mind know the hold by assimilation. They know the edge as a hold by becoming the hand and mind which grasp it. The meaning of the feature’s heat, slipperiness, sharpness and adequacy are immediately apparent, because all those remake the first person in the moment of contact. The hand and mind know the feature as a hold because that is how they are capable of knowing it and the situation could not be otherwise in the revised individual. The subject doesn’t transcend the moment by discovering some permanent and essential nature realized in the experience, but by diving in, taking in and being taken into the meaning of the hold.
So what dies on the sharp end is transcendence, permanence, and commitment in the abstract. But these are no losses at all, because we can see that, all along, those defunct ideas were merely mistaken shaped perceptions of engagement, persistence, and understanding of change. With the death of its bearers, on more thing must fall and break in our field-test: meaning as a graven image – of God’s will, nature, humanity or whatever other imagined necessity. Meaning is revealed as, like us, the property of the present moment. The edge on the face of the stone is many things, we think, possibly, but with fingers on it, it is a hold – and that fact accounts for all valuation, all confusion over minds and bats, and the limits of footwear exchanges. This is not mysticism; it is much, much smaller. It is just what we know.

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Wu Wei and the No. 2 Pencil

My son zones out. Eighth grade is prime time for daydreaming, but he spends little of his own time escaping into fantasy. He goes blank during tests. He won’t say just what is happening during those spells, except to insist that he is still thinking about the test. Those of us charged with his education think he is thinking about his thinking. Metacognition is the term. But metacognition encompasses too much to accurately characterize what he seems to be doing in those silent intervals. What my son does is negative in context of the testing process. Metacognition need not be negative. A little strategic consideration of the thought process is often very helpful.
For example, suppose you are taking a test which contains the question “Nitrazine paper turns blue in the presence of a base,” as a true or false proposition. You have no idea what makes Nitrazine paper change color. You set the question aside without further thought, but keep it in mind, in the background, as you continue. After a bit, you come upon a multiple choice question: “Tests for rupture of membranes include all of the following except: a) ferning b) Nitrazine test c) ultrasonography d) Ham’s test”. There’s the word ‘Nitrazine’ again, with some associated information. You know from the previous question that Nitrazine paper undergoes some sort of color change when exposed to solutions of differing pH. If you know that ‘rupture of membranes’ refers to amniotic membranes, with leakage of amniotic fluid into the birth canal, then you can ask yourself whether or not a paper which detects pH differences is a good test for amniotic fluid. In other words, does the pH of amniotic fluid differ from the normal pH in the birth canal. Amniotic fluid is, of course, baby pee (where did you think it went?). Baby pee is pretty dilute, so it is pretty close to the pH of plain water. The pH of the birth canal is the preoccupation of a small, vinegar-based industry – the douche makers. So, there probably is a difference in pH between vaginal fluid and amniotic fluid. At this point, the first question has helped you include the Nitrazine test in the group of true tests for amniotic fluid leakage in the second question. Can the information you’ve uncovered help you determine whether it is likely that Nitrazine paper turns blue in contact with a base? If you remember anything about litmus paper, that knowledge might help you out, but let’s say you don’t. Premature rupture of membranes is a bad thing. You wouldn’t want to miss it. A false positive test is more acceptable than a false negative test. Now you just need to know what color wet paper turns, and whether blue is closer to that color than the alternatives. Wet paper tends to get darker, blue is a dark color, so blue is a likely color change for a paper used to test for leakage of amniotic fluid and amniotic fluid is at least a relatively basic solution. The conclusion is no slam-dunk, but it’s better than the coin-toss which you faced moments before.
This process – reference to more general knowledge in the absence of certainty about specific answers, consideration of the available information in total, cross reference of deductions with the specific knowledge available, acceptance of a more probable answer in lieu of a flat-out guess – all might occur during a reflective pause during the test. None of this is what my son is doing. As near as I can gather, his pause involves thoughts like: I don’t know the answer to this question. Why don’t I know the answer to this question? Am I stupid? What do they mean by asking me this question? Are they trying to find out if I’m stupid, or do they want to prove to me that I’m stupid? Why am I taking a test with this sort of question? What happens if I don’t answer the question? If I miss too many questions, will they make me take another test? What is the purpose of all this standardized testing anyway?
Both the former, strategic analysis and the latter, motivational analysis come under the heading of metacognition. They are of disparate utility for the test-taker, however. At first glance, it seems that we might fix the pairing of unlike processes by getting rid of the motivational analysis. Maybe it would be better classified as a kind of neurosis. But on closer examination, we cannot entirely excise it. There is an element of motivational analysis firmly lodged in the strategic analysis. To get started on the latter, we must first conclude that test-taking is worthy of a strategy. We must conclude that test-taking is not a comprehensive, critical assessment of competence or moral character which demands certain answers or none at all. We must also decide that it is worth doing well on tests, that the people administering the test are worthy of our best effort, and that the test-makers have our ultimate educational success in mind. In short, we must conclude that a test is the sort of thing which properly motivates us to adopt a strategy.
Metacognition may have trouble encompassing the relationship in question between motive and method, but there is a term in Chinese philosophy which captures it: Wu Wei. The words have been translated in various spooky ways, such as ‘non-action’ or ‘acting without acting’. Really, the meaning is not spooky. It looks that way because, like many concepts in Chinese philosophy, it contains the basic concept and the second-order concept. In this case, Wu Wei means to characterize both our actions themselves and the relationship between intentions and actions. A better translation might be, “When preparation is done, your problem is the problem before you.” or as a prescription, “Reflect upon your actions but don’t act upon your reflections”. To de-mystify things a little more, Wu Wei means action is primarily about what is acted upon, and only secondarily about our motives. We act upon our motives primarily when we direct ourselves to a certain action. In the case of test taking, we aim to take the test as a result of reflecting on the relevance of tests to our desire to learn, earn a living, or gain the approval of others. Once the test starts, if we subscribe to Wu Wei, we are about retrieving the information to answer question number one.
The concept of Wu Wei serves the test taker better than the concept of Metacognition. But Wu Wei is not true because it is useful, it is useful because it is true. It isn’t a theory of truth, but it contains a deflationary notion and an artist’s depiction of truth; in Blackburn’s words, it maintains that “the issue is the issue”. From a certain perspective, Wu Wei commits us to a pessimistic outlook. It is bowing to the inevitable and resembles the sentiment in aphorisms like, “Call out to the Gods, but row away from the rocks.” It sounds a little jaded, a little compromised. My son certainly sees test-taking Wu Wei in a pessimistic light. He resents being made to take tests and can’t see focused action as anything but capitulation. The test is, however, about the test, the questions about the items in question, and capitulation about him and his attitude. Likewise, rowing is about the position of the boat relative to the rocks and calling out to the Gods is about the supplicant and his desire to survive. Confusing the two is best for neither. Keeping these relationships straight is what makes best in the first place. I’ve yet to convince my son to adopt Wu Wei at test time. I’m not sure that I’m capable of the lesson; considered experience may be the only teacher for Wu Wei. Perhaps if he calls out to the Gods a few more times, he’ll understand why he should pay attention to his stroke as well.

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The Word from the Land of Absolute Relativism

“Look at all this shit!”
He waved the stack of envelopes at me.
“Look at this one.”
He held up the letter on top. It was from another hospital and marked, ‘Important: Do Not Discard’.
“These are the ones you have to be careful to discard.”
He threw it in the wastebasket, and followed it with the rest of the unexamined mail. I was far enough into my training not to be shocked by this sort of thing. I’d weathered surgeon’s tirades and soaked up jaded, callous humor in the emergency room. Still, my experience with this psychiatrist had me believing for years afterwards that, in his specialty, like sought like.
“This kind of clutter is the enemy,” he continued, opening the top drawer in his desk.
He scooped out a handful of keys.
“Look at these! I don’t know what this is for,” he said, holding up a sturdy door key. Into the bin it went.
He tossed a few more, then dumped the remainder back in the drawer with an expression of disgust.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” he declared, “better show me the case.”
I handed him the chart, with my history on top. He lingered on the assessment at the bottom of the page. Residents sometimes began to sweat when attending physicians paused too long in their documentation review. I did not in this case, because the assessment was not mine in the first place; the patient brought her diagnosis with her from the last admission. He grunted and moved on to the ancillary notes, containing the comments from psychiatric nurses who had evaluated the patient.
“Jesus Christ! Did you read this?”
Now I began to sweat. I hadn’t read the nurse’s notes. He handed me the chart with a shake of his head. I’d gotten lucky; the question was rhetorical. Curiosity displaced my anxiety and I began to read with interest. Immediately, I realized what he was on about.
At the bottom of the page, several of the nurses (a cabal?) postulated that dark forces were at work in the patient’s life. The assessment dwelt upon the young lady’s practice of witchcraft, not as an expression of alienation in a personality dangerously adrift, but as an activity with sinister efficacy. I looked up at him as I finished reading.
“How can we hope to do anything for the patients when we’re up against this kind of stupidity from the staff? Borderline,” he stated, returning to my assessment, “Do you really believe that?”
I shrugged. She had the black nail-polish sign, which every trainee knew was pathognomonic for borderline personality disorder.
“There are some people that fit the bill, but mostly the term is an epithet applied to people who we don’t like because they are frustrating. It’s the DSM used as a cudgel, and it justifies our bringing these people into the institution when their community becomes too frustrated with their behaviors. They come in for a few days or a few weeks until they’ve cooled off, then they go back out with the same problems, to the same problems. So this kind of inpatient treatment is like firing into the tree line: it’s good for keeping the enemy’s head down, but it’s not good for hitting anything.”
His words were familiar in structure and reference. At home that evening, I poured through my memory and my boxes of books, and I eventually placed them. They recalled an image from Heart of Darkness.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere.

The image stuck and grew stronger over the years until I ceased to see my preceptor as chief among madmen and came to see him as Marlow on the boat. He was the lone relativist in a wilderness of absolutists who considered borderline personality more than a label on a charge sheet (it is that at least, for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which codified the term is a tool intended to itemize mental illness for billing). For his fellow wardens of the institution, there existed a borderline personality fact about certain people, caused by borderline personality pathologies and amenable, potentially, to borderline personality treatments. He saw them firing into a continent. He did not, of course, live in the land of absolute relativism, where everything is an onion made of layer upon layer of motives and relations with no pertinent core. He believed in borderline personality as a country over yonder. It recognized certain commonalities, but those commonalities arose in the villages. They accrued; they did not come down from on high.
He cared about how seriously the nurses, psychologists and patients took diagnoses, not because relativism was true. He cared because absolutes did not obtain. Worse, absolutes destroyed. On occasion, bullets fired into the tree line did hit something, and that something was an enemy by definition. Over his career, he’d seen victory declared over schizophrenia and the state institutions emptied onto the street. He’d seen the profession take a pass on intractable diagnoses, like personality disorders. He’d heard from his predecessors about neurosurgical solutions considered quite successful in their time. It wasn’t that relativism was true, it was just that truth didn’t work that way. It wasn’t diagnosis-friendly, and the truth about psychology all the less so.

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Are You Gonna Talk, or Are You Gonna Fish?

Claude Ledbetter and the Game Warden. I don’t think this is where Jerry Clower was headed with the story, but it fits so well:

Claude was the only one in the community catchin’ any fish. Folks was goin’ and they wasn’t catchin’ nothin’. Old Claude Ledbetter, he’d come with a pickup truck loaded down. So the State Game and Fish Commission of Mississippi decided they’d go fishin’ with Claude, just see how he was catchin’em. Claude told ‘em – popped off – said, y’all don’t know how to do it. Y’all ought to just go with me and watch me.
Well, the game warden got in the boat with him and they took off out in the middle of the river.
The game warden said, “Alright Claude, I’m gonna see how you catchin’ all these fish when cain’t nobody else catch none.”
Claude raised the lid on the boat seat, got a big, long stick a dynamite. Lit the fuse on it. Let it go down kinda short, then drawed back and chucked it. Boom! Them big catfish come turnin’ they belly up, whoopin’ it outa that water, and Claude was just gettin’em by the tub full.
The game warden said, “Boy, that’s against the law, you cain’t do that. Don’t you know you’re breakin’ the law?”
Well, Claude done lit another big stick a dynamite, handed it to the game warden; it goin’ phsssssh!
The game warden took that stick a dynamite and said, “You idiot! This is against the law! You cain’t do this!”
Claude said, “You gonna set there and argue, or fish!”

The game warden has a coherence theory of truth, and it gets him pretty far. It gets him to Claude, into the boat and out on the river. It even survives one explosion. But it breaks down just about the time Claude hands him the second stick of dynamite, because, like all coherence theories, the game warden’s coherence theory of truth about fishing admits to one bit of correspondence at heart: its own enforceability.
Claude’s correspondence theory doesn’t serve him perfectly either. We all expect it will fail spectacularly once he gets back to shore with the warden. Yet it’s about all that does work for a man with a stick of dynamite in his hand, just as long as he doesn’t take it too far.

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This Is Going to Feel a Little Weird

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No parking on any street. Fee area. Do not walk on the ski trail.
“This belongs to Charlie,” I thought, “and Charlie sure don’t surf.”
But Charlie owns the guys who write the tickets and pack the wheel boots. My friend Tim got a ticket the last time we were in Vail. I remember it because the fine made him swear – and he’s an orthopedic surgeon. I parked where the signs told me to park, and learned to hate Colorado just a little more. I’d come back to climb, though. I had to grudgingly admit that the climbing was good enough to make the Hippie/Richie Redneck ecosystem survivable.
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I had a little more hatin’ to do as we crossed the ski trail. I was a terrible skater, but I left better tracks than those, over drifts and deer tracks no less. They needed a little de-grooming. But then we got the nice boot packed trail to the Designator amphitheater. It was worth it. The Rigid Designator was a pitted, overhanging hook-fest up the middle, but had a nice line on the left.

Left side of the Designator

Left side of the Designator


Just before we finished our second lap on the climb, I got a call from my oldest son. Cell service at the base of the ice – another Colorado aberration.
“We’re done and we’re standing at the Hotel where the gondola starts and we’re cold. Come get us.”
He is still learning the new way of things.
“Take the shuttle back to our Hotel,” I replied, “You have the key and I have food for you in the room. Do you remember which bus to take and the room number?”
“Yeah,” he answered with renewed confidence, “OK.”
He is almost there; soon I will be wishing he really needed me again.
Firehouse area

Firehouse area


Rich was a very good sport about it all. We packed up after the second lap and headed back to town.
The next day we went to the Firehouse area for some easy ice and mixed. With the rope through the anchors, however, our eyes began to stray to the scratch marks below the roofs and smears of ice. We didn’t come to Vail to top-rope, but we did it anyway despite the damage to our arms. At least hanging out in a practice area gained us some information. Rifle was in, said the guide belaying down the way.
A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.

A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.


Rifle was a bit of a drive. It made me too nervous to leave the younger boy on his own while we were climbing over an hour away. Lucky for us, he had had enough snowboarding for the time being (When his legs get sore, he stops. We should probably bring him along more often.). He agreed to be our documentarian for the day.
Final Curtain, Rifle

Final Curtain, Rifle


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Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.

Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.


Having climbed out Rifle, we were back to the amphitheater for the big blow-out. Rich was set on the Fang. I had no interest. It was too damned wet. I wouldn’t be short of alternatives anyway. The lads had been busy while we were away. The last time I’d been standing behind the Fang, it had been easy to sort out the clip-ups on the cavern wall. Amphibian was the one on the right and the other one was Fatman and Robin. Now we had to ask the college kids who walked up behind us, which was which. Even so, I’m not sure what I climbed. I’d always wanted to do Seventh Tentacle, since I’d climbed Frigid Inseminator during my last visit. It was kind of a Robert Frost thing – “Two routes diverged on the crappy rock..” and I always wondered what the other one was like. Whatever it was, it was steep and led to the dry, left side of the hanging ice.

Up to that point, I’d remained unaffected by my single-parenthood. But the ice was brittle and my arms were tired from the day before. My swing was just sloppy enough to shatter large plates in the ice instead of driving the pick in cleanly. Normally, I’d need three ice screws to feel like the upper section was a sure thing. I was down to my last one with about twenty five feet to go.
Right after my wife died, I promised my boys that I would never voluntarily leave them. I could make no promises about objective hazards, but the subjective ones, I would avoid. I did have more screws, clipped to the rope below me. I down climbed to the last one which would prevent a ground-fall, pulled it, and climbed back up. I could feel the vibration of Rich’s teeth grinding, but he said nothing.
“Thanks for your patience,” I told him back on the ground.

The Fang

The Fang


We took a run at Amphibian a bit later, but we were too whipped to get past the fourth or fifth bolt. I think we were just not very motivated either. Things had changed all around since the last time we were on the route. Our practice crag at Whitewood now had climbing just as hard or even harder. I can’t say we were disappointed, just a little wistful. That’s the way it is with climbing. Nobody gets an olympic medal. Maybe you win a Golden Ice Axe someday, but the next morning some punk kid will hike your prize route and then retro bolt it. And the rest of the world honors your achievement even less than that punk kid. But that’s how it should be. We’d be back to climb Amphibian for the enjoyment rather than the achievement. I knew we’d be back because I still hadn’t climbed the route down the way, Octopussy, and I wouldn’t be a real mixed climber until I’d climbed Octopussy

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Who Are We to Believe, the Lion, the Scorpion or Circe?

People have been preoccupied with the nature of mind and personality at least since anyone realized that everyone’s first question is the same question – “Huh?”.

A slave named Androcles once escaped from his master and fled to the forest. As he was wandering about there he came upon a lion lying down moaning and groaning. At first he turned to flee, but finding that the lion did not pursue him, he turned back and went up to him. As he came near, the lion put out his paw, which was all swollen and bleeding, and Androcles found that a huge thorn had got into it, and was causing all the pain. He pulled out the thorn and bound up the paw of the lion, who was soon able to rise and lick the hand of Androcles like a dog. Then the lion took Androcles to his cave, and every day used to bring him meat from which to live.
But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the lion were captured, and the slave was sentenced to be thrown to the lion, after the latter had been kept without food for several days.

The emperor and all his court came to see the spectacle, and Androcles was led out into the middle of the arena. Soon the lion was let loose from his den, and rushed bounding and roaring towards his victim. But as soon as he came near to Androcles he recognized his friend, and fawned upon him, and licked his hands like a friendly dog.

The emperor, surprised at this, summoned Androcles to him, who told him the whole story. Whereupon the slave was pardoned and freed, and the lion let loose to his native forest.

•Source: The Fables of Æsop, selected, told anew, and their history traced by Joseph Jacobs (London: Macmillan and Company, 1902), no. 23, pp. 60-61. First published 1894.

In Androcles and the Lion, the lion represents a certain view of mind. When Androcles meets him, the lion is preoccupied with the thorn in his paw. Nothing else matters; the lion is an animal in pain, above all. After Androcles removes the thorn, the lion is an animal relieved of pain, above all. Henceforth, in Androcles’ presence, all that matters for the lion is the presence of Androcles. The mindfulness appears to be contagious too. The emperor is caught up in the fellowship and, cries for blood, bread and circuses be damned, he releases the slave and the lion. In this view of mind, what happens is what’s at work. The lion is still a lion. Androcles is right to fear the cat on sight. But the lion-ness is something of an accident of birth. The creature is mostly damp clay. It may start as a lion-shaped lump, but it is a natural born empiricist. It responds to stimuli as any set of enzymes and neurotransmitters would. Androcles’ mercy is the lion’s mercy is the emperor’s mercy because Androcles’ pain is the lion’s pain is the emperor’s pain. The story is lovely. No one really thinks the lion would have let Androcles approach, though. Nor does anyone reasonably expect a politician, even a despot, to disappoint his constituents for the sake of a slave and a predatory animal. So much for the sovereignty of current events. What else, then?

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…”

The scorpion cannot escape his nature. Neither can the frog, and his is the nature which cannot tell the difference between helping someone across the river and helping a deadly scorpion across the river. In either case, the creature’s transcendent essence trumps the matter at hand. Just as the lion is ruled by the insistent facts of the moment, the frog and the scorpion move to the tug of their respective natures, with the facts of the moment as props and extras on the stage, setting the scene but not truly affecting the action. The frog feels mortified as the truth is uncovered. But the scorpion goes down happily, for he has apparently learned to love his fate.
However, his fate is to sting, not to cross rivers, though he speaks of it all as one piece. By nature, the scorpion has much in common with the frog, except the scorpion’s nature is one which cannot tell the difference between loving its fate and hurtling headlong to its doom. Stinging isn’t the issue for the scorpion, wanting a ride across the river on a stingable boat is. Circumstances are not just window dressing, and the closer we examine essences, the more they look like they’re ruled by circumstances, and might even be made of circumstances themselves.
If there is no absolute power in mechanism and no absolute power in identity, then what do we make of ourselves?

Listen with care to this now, and a god will arm your mind. Square in your ship’s path are Seirenes (Sirens), crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by; woe to the innocent who hears that sound! He will not see his lady nor his children in joy, crowding about him, home from sea; the Seirenes will sing his mind away on their sweet meadow lolling. There are bones of dead men rotting in a pile beside them and flayed skins shrivel around the spot. Steer wide; keep well to seaward; plug your oarsmen’s ears with beeswax kneaded soft; none of the rest should hear that song. But if you wish to listen, let the men tie you in the lugger, hand and foot, back to the mast, lashed to the mast, so you may hear those harpies’ thrilling voices; shout as you will, begging to be untied, your crew must only twist more line around you and keep their stroke up, till the singers fade.
- Translated by Robert Fitzgerald

The Seirenes will sing his mind away with a song based in a natural, essential property of man: to be motivated, and so ruled, by his desires. Circe advocates Amor Fati. Listen to the song; the desire it carries is an essential fact in you. No theory of desire will save you. But it is not a transcendent fact. It is a fact with an explanation. It is a fact made of things in history, the same as the joy of homecoming from the sea. Rooted as it is in history, it is a fact no more powerful than a column of cedar, beeswax and cords. Circe saw clearest when it came to mind and personality. Like, Odysseus, we’d be well advised to listen to her.

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12/22/13, 0200

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When I came back from the emergency call, I expected to find her drinking. She had been upset with me, with her job, with something big and shadowy which I had been trying to get her to describe for the last year. Actually, I hoped to find her drinking. Sometimes she got drunk and wandered, or drove, off and I had to go looking for her. I couldn’t afford to do a search that morning; I was on call.

Her car was in the driveway, but she was not asleep in our room. That late, there was one other place in the house to check. In the early hours, she liked to sit downstairs and watch the fire when she was feeling agitated. I walked down to the basement and there she was, sitting on a cushion in front of the wood stove. But her posture was wrong, and then I noticed the rope and saw that she was not sitting on the cushion, but was suspended a few inches above it. I ran to her and slipped a finger through one of her belt loops, but the stitching popped loose as I began to lift. When I did manage to lift her I heard no in-rush of air. In that moment, I knew that we had lost, me and her. I couldn’t accept it right away though; I had to try to get her back. I dithered for a for a few moments. To cut her down, I would have to let her weight come back on the rope. I knew I would not outlive that act. It took every speck of my mental discipline to let her hang again. I severed the rope and went through the motions of resuscitation, with the expected results. I’ve been going through the motions ever since.

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I spent seventeen and a half years with her. We met in medical school during an Ob./Gyn. rotation. After a prolonged reconnaissance, she talked a mutual friend into approaching me. The friend, a traditional woman who’d immigrated from Vietnam as a child, had been instructed to ask me if I was: 1) gay 2) married 3) in a relationship. All that came out was the question about marital status, mumbled quickly with eyes averted. Though it lacked the impact of the full set of questions, the inquiry was strange enough. It was strange to have any woman show any interest in my relationship status, period. I’m not exactly what most women would consider a “catch”. I cut my own hair. My nose has been broken on several occasions, and let’s face it, the thing sticks out enough in the first place to be at risk. Attempts at orthodontia undertaken during my childhood were not entirely successful. And although I’ve suffered from loneliness, much of it has been the consequence of a solitary temperament. Besides, I’m a climber, and so quixotic. Maybe my wife recognized a shared vision in that last quality, but if so we were probably ill-matched. She may have been better off had she chosen Sancho.

She was an artist. At the age of five, her parents caught her in the garage coloring in the fender of their new car with a crayon. The car was the wrong color, and she intended to fix it. As an adult, she spent a year trying to paint a scene from a photograph of Mt. Columbia. I tried to talk her out of it. The intriguing things about the photo were its detail and flatness. The brain could see different depths in the scene because the camera didn’t commit to any one perspective. The conventions of painting did not permit the same insouciance. She kept at it until she had a damaged trochlear muscle in her eye from looking back and forth from the photo to her painting. When she finally gave up, it was with a sense of bemused fatalism. Failures and frustrations brought up a black bile in her. My bile was always yellow.

When I had to forego climbing opportunities or persist in a profession which I have always considered ethically bankrupt, I boiled. I never got angry at her. On the contrary, she was my solace. But living in the same space as a whistling kettle begins to wear on a person. She finally set me straight. I got the parts of my life teased apart, once I realized that they must be kept apart or else destroy each other. As a climber who values climbing’s unitary action, the admission was difficult. I had to concede that, despite my wishes, all was not climbing, and acknowledging that all was not climbing did not invalidate anything.

She accomplished the turn-around by convincing me that some sentiments are irreconcilable. Feelings of frustration with everything, and so nothing in particular, real expectations based on our ideal desires of other people - and the same feelings toward ourselves – must be accepted as absurdities about us and byproducts of conflict within each of our identities. We cannot bring those feelings into line and make them reasonable in context of anything that we signify. She convinced me, but I could not do the same for her.

Since her death, I have had two dreams about her; the first, two days after I found her and the second, the day after I came back from the undertaker. I usually don’t remember dreams, but these were bad enough to intrude into waking memory. The first was a straight forward nightmare. She was sitting on the cushion in front of the fire with her eyes closed, crying. The tears were black and she just kept on crying them though they ate into her eyes and face.

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In the second, I had just walked into the house and she was standing in the kitchen. She was older and taller than she had been in life, and she was smiling. She began to explain that she hadn’t really died, she had just staged an elaborate ploy to get away and sort things out for herself, and it had worked. She said she was sorry for the trick; there was just no other way. I started to forgive her and asked what she wanted to do now, what she wanted to do differently. But as I spoke, I noticed that she was standing partly inside the counter and her eyes were sad. My arms felt heavy then, and I looked down to see the box of her ashes in my hands.

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The Art of Losing

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So, I had plenty of excuses from the start, which is good. The logistics alone were ambitious. Just getting everything in the car would be hard. We had to fit two dogs, a sled, climbing packs, boots, skis and three people into a compact station wagon. If we cleared that first barrier, we then had to drive the better part of three hours, with a nervous Husky and a Malamute prone to motion sickness crammed in the rear compartment. The concentrated dog breath alone might justify turning around. We had plenty of reasons to fail, but the boys were motivated to go and, more importantly, didn’t know any better. No savvy adults would have consented to the endeavor.

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The whole plan was to drive to Ten Sleep Canyon, ski and dog sled 3.5 miles down the fire road on the South side of the canyon to the frozen waterfall on Leigh Creek, climb, and come back. I looked at it as a climbing trip, which is how I rationalized even getting started. You see, no climbing trip can be taken as a given. It’s all provisional – if the weather, if the conditions, if the time, if the guidebook author is not a pathological liar, etc. Unlike some punk-ass managers and motivational speakers who say that planning for failure is planning to fail, climbers assume failure from the start of the expedition. Sure, we count out grams of food, lay out the gear, go through the pack again and again, and memorize route topos, but we also carry along our headlamps, space blankets and stoves. If the outcome of a trip was a foregone conclusion, we would probably stay home and watch a romantic comedy. The principle holds on the level of the meta-trip as well. In the words of my friend Andy, “Always bring all your gear,” on a climbing road trip.

The trick to making it all seem worthwhile is to declare victory early and often. Fitting the gear and the dogs in the car, we win. Arriving at the parking lot with a car free of dog puke, we win. Getting the sled assembled without any missing parts, we win. There is an art to winning the climbing game. There is a very similar art to losing it, too. You want to have a good look before you back off, and know just what you are looking for. You want to know just how thin the ice can be before you won’t risk it. You want to know just how late it can be before you need to turn around. You also want to be able to look for reasons to ignore your metrics. You want to be able to see that the weather man was wrong about the high pressure system or listen to last night’s burrito festering in your guts right at the start of the route.

For us, the snow conditions were the reason. As it crested the Southern rim of the canyon, the sun beat fluffy snowfall from the previous three days into mashed potatoes. By the time we’d gone half way, the dogs had stopped twice and their tongues were slapping their paws as they plodded along. The oldest kid was leaning on the sled handle. We were still on schedule, however.

“We’re just about half-way,” I noted, “Do you want to keep going?”

“Yes!” the older boy snapped.

This is the hammerhead mentality: “I pound on things, and that’s it. Now shut up and show me the next nail.”

It takes a few swings to deflect a hammerhead’s intention. After ten more minutes and a small hill, I asked again.

“Do you want to keep going? We have all this to reverse…”

“No,” he admitted, “Goddamit!”

He was mad at me and the dogs and himself. I assured him though, that we would be back in the next couple of weeks, without the dogs, for a meta-swing, and he was happy again. That is the final piece to the art of losing at climbing – the art of losing without losing. The game is over when you say so. You can always change the rules and call for another period.

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