If God has an explanation, how does It remain God? If God has no explanation, then why all the fuss?
If God has an explanation, how does It remain God? If God has no explanation, then why all the fuss?
As I was shopping for knee-pads, I realized: I might have a problem. It was clear that I had developed an unhealthy appetite and here I was, about to feed it. The pads would allow me to wear lighter clothing and so carry on climbing wide cracks into the heat of Summer.
I fondled one of the expensive pads. It was real leather and neoprene. Clearly, the expensive pad was superior, but it would get destroyed just as fast as the cheap ones. My poor technique limited the pad’s lifetime, sure. However, the nature of my needs did too.
Because, there is a beautiful variety of wide-crack climbing. I refer to the art practiced by people like Luebben, Scarpelli, Randall, Jackson, etc., involving maneuvers like Levittaion, the Kick-Through, and the Hand/Fist Stack. The technique involves only limited insertion of the practitioner’s anatomy into the gap in the rock during any one maneuver. The movement is improbable, powerful and gymnastic.
I am incapable of such feats, and furthermore, they are not what I want. I’ll admit, I am after something to fill the hole left by separation from (relatively) easy access to ice. I want a fight. Just like some people cannot feel loved until they have had their bottom spanked, I am only truly happy with climbing when I have done something unlovely, daunting, and bloody.
It isn’t that I don’t enjoy a technical or purely physical challenge, it’s just that I want the stuff just beyond. I want to have to hold it together and be stopped, if I am stopped, by the total exhaustion of everything at my disposal.
The kind of wide crack that delivers for me, does not abide expensive knee pads. It is too abusive. You have to climb into it, and the whole trip resembles nothing more than an edentulous dog trying to chew up a bone. It is not pretty. Perhaps it is even obscene. I just can’t help it, though.
Theology and its discontents are the source of endless confusion. To be clear, there are certain, specific parts of it which are problematic.
“God’s intent”, “God’s thoughts”, “God’s feelings” are used as poor metaphors for our understanding of some unfathomable necessity which precedes existence.
Apologies and Natural Theology cannot apply, as the “entity” in question defies explanation. You either feel, for one personal reason or another, that you can’t live without this “thing” at the bottom of it all, or not. I won’t argue against that; no one can.
But the “quotations” get dropped so quickly, and then the subject of the conversation becomes a truly disembodied mind. It is something without location or temporal orientation, yet it is something which has plans, thinks, and has experiences.
That set of notions is simply incoherent with the first notion. In fact, that second set of notions doesn’t fit together with anything. It is a word salad. You can’t convince me of it, and you don’t even believe it yourself, because there is nothing there to believe or not.
I have a purple shirt, or maybe it is royal blue. I was never in doubt about the color until my wife called it blue one day. Up until that point, I never even contemplated calling the shirt blue, or that there might be a difference between my perception of the shirt’s color and her’s.
Maybe there still is not a difference. Maybe our perceptions are the same and the words we use differ unnecessarily. If I look hard, though, I can see how she would call the shirt blue.
Her and my perceptions are almost certainly not the same, nor are anyone’s. The alternative – that people disagree about colors, and so much more, because our language is massively mistaken – seems too incredible. Shouldn’t we have ferreted out even the most minor issues by now? After all, we do so well at finding agreeable words for so many things, even in the realm of aesthetics.
Plus, there is a good explanation for the source of disagreement between me and my wife on my shirt’s color. If one tracks back how each of us learned to classify blue and purple experiences, there are substantial differences. And, those differences do not only effect our use of words; those differences also condition our purple and blue perceptions .
Yet there is another problem lurking. Even if I could magically take a snapshot of my brain at the moment in which I saw the shirt as purple, and show it to my wife, not as a map or photo, but as exactly the same state of affairs imposed upon her neurons, she could still differentiate it upon reflection. The brain state in question would always be her experience of my experience, rather than simply her experience. My experience of the shirt’s color cannot be captured, as mine, by means of physical reproduction.
One might ask, who cares? The upshot of our limitations is tolerable. Big truths may be a little counterfeit by implication, but we are accustomed to working with flawed notions already, and do fine by it. For example, Newtonian mechanics serves us beautifully, even if it is not ‘really true’.
Yet, we do not tolerate our flawed notions. An optimist would say that we are not satisfied with lesser things, and are constantly trying to improve our understanding. Our behavior suggests otherwise, however. We want big truths in principle, and the certainty, the reality, that comes along with them. In physics, we don’t just want quantum mechanics and relativity, we want a theory of everything. In ethics, we want good and evil, and duties to serve.
So, the hard problem does matter, because it is motivating. And, it moves us to a harder problem. We want things to be true which are not merely false, but which are incapable of being true or false. The idea of a concept not being truth-apt is slippery, so an illustration is in order.
Consider the case of Baby K. Baby K was born over two decades ago without a brain. Not only was she(?) born, she pulled off a feat which few anencephalics manage; she lived more than briefly. Or, she maintained a metabolism more than briefly, because her status as a living thing, much less a living human infant, was in question. She would never see a purple shirt, or a blue shirt, or have any experience at all. And since our personal experience is what we value above anything (what choice do we have, after all?) some people felt that a creature without experience and incapable of it was not truly alive, much less human.
Baby K’s mother disagreed. She felt that K was born of a human, exhibited some behaviors, had a heartbeat, and therefore fit into the human peg-hole, albeit imperfectly. K’s remarkable persistence owes to her mother’s insistence on aggressive medical interventions for K, based on K’s status as a human baby. For K’s mother, the rules of classification were categorical. There are Forms in the world, according to this school of thought, and the Forms suck their creatures in, even the most flawed copies.
When Baby K had trouble breathing, her mother took her to the ER and demanded that Baby K be saved, put on a ventilator, and nursed back to health in the ICU. But was health one of K’s capabilities? She needed saving, but for what, and from what? We could not ask K about any of this, ever, even in principle. As her physiology counted down to its end, what was there to distinguish this tick from the following tock, and so provide a basis for valuing more of the physiological process?
When K came in to the ER, the professionals on duty did not want to treat her. Since she was incapable of experience, she had nothing to value (there wasn’t even anyone there to value anything). Efforts to ‘help’ K were therefore empty. There was nothing to help with and no one to accept the helpful gesture.
Remarkably, some argued that further medical interventions merely prolonged K’s suffering. Perhaps they meant to say that further interventions caused the staff to suffer. More properly, futile actions degraded the integrity of the medical professions. We become what we practice, and if the medical professionals practiced service to the beating heart, then they rightfully feared that they would become servants to the beating heart.
The hospital also expressed concerns about the resources that K consumed. This argument was a utilitarian argument and failed in the usual fashion. If K did not occupy the ICU bed, the bed would not move to an under-served area, nor would the unexpended cost of K’s breathing tubes and procedures be converted into mosquito nets for children in malaria-afflicted territories. Values are not generally translatable, any more than their costs are portable.
But the missing cipher in the professionals’ calculation was K’s value to her mother. Someone did experience K’s physiology after all. To waive K’s value on that account was just as degrading as crass service to the beating heart. If the medical professions seek to serve health, and health is function, then the milieu is everything. It was a mistake to consider K’s value on the basis of K’s intrinsic capacity for experience, just as much as it was a mistake to think that the ventilator was saving K herself from or for anything. However mistaken she was about Forms and their efficacy, K’s mother valued K’s beating heart in a consistent way. Harm would come to the mother from K’s heart stopping. It would be the same sort of harm – loss of experience and the possibility of experience – to which the professionals referred in their assessment of K’s lack of value.
All along, the players in the Baby K saga evaluated her with standards that did not apply – that were not truth-apt. It was never the case that Baby K was human or not, alive or not. Her case nicely demonstrates the nature of the harder problem. Our standards – good, evil, human, matter, energy, mine, yours, blue, purple – are not stand-alone things. They are made of their circumstances (our circumstances). Without a doubt, the standards serve us well, since our circumstances are necessarily shared. If the standards refer to the specifics, and the specifics are near enough alike, it’s just good fudging to defer to the standards. It is easy to forget that the standards defer to their instances. And we are motivated to forget, because we value our experience and we value our standards, and we are prone to equate the two.
My son pointed at the massive dwelling crouched on the mountainside below us.
“Just one mortar round…,” he said, “Wouldn’t you like to see it?”
He was having some trouble adjusting to our move from rural Wyoming to the swanky part of the Southwest desert. He took little comfort in my assurances that all the car washes and golf courses would soon (in geologic terms) suck the metropolis dry and leave its snotty, effete denizens to perish on the parched dust like beached fish gasping for water. Even the fact that we were hastening the demise of this false oasis by our presence, did not satisfy him.
I, on the other hand, felt a certain degree of fulfillment from participating in the great blooming and dying-back.
But, I had to admit, I would like to see the house explode.
It was offensive to me, for a number of reasons.
The house was part of a cluster of housing developments and country clubs which had sprouted below a small range of granite crags north of Scottsdale. All were emblems of wretched excess, with the concomitant nomenclature: “The Estates at Xanadu”, “Regent Manors”, and the like. I had taken to lumping the lot under the oddest of their labels – “Troon”.
It wasn’t just a funny name; it designated a private golf course and a gated community, so it represented the entire syndrome nicely. The homes all cost millions, and they sprawled. The square footage stood for the worst aesthetic arrangement which our society had to offer, which was the joy of possession over the joy of experience.
Worse, though, was the history of the Troons relative to the surrounding crags. They had posed a serious risk to climbing access.
Most of the problems had been resolved with the creation of Pinnacle Peak Park. However, it was the idea behind the threat to climbing access that was offensive. The threat implied an equivalence, at least, between the Troonians’ appreciation for the crags, and my own.
Clearly, that was not the case. For them, the rock constituted part of a lifestyle badge. It was kind of nice to look at, and living beneath it gave the Troonian status. He could feel a little removed, and above it all, like the proud peak in his backyard. He didn’t want climbers ruining the image of the rock, much less disturbing his sense of splendid isolation otherwise by yelling ‘off belay’ during his afternoon tea.
I understood the beauty of distant peaks, too. But I also knew the beauty of the rock close up, under finger and foot. It was something more, and forever unavailable to the Troonian. He had no right to impinge on my more complete and superior aesthetic.
But how could one convince a Philistine that he was a Philistine? The problem was intractable. He would always have some rejoinder about a set of related values which justified his being a rotten little twerp. In this case, it would be property, the rights of exchange which came with hard- earned (hah!) wealth, and liberty. Forget the fact that he could not own the rock in any meaningful way. He had to either bring it down or squat below it. Forget the fact that his array of goods for purchase was already limited by the aesthetics of his society, which found it distasteful, for instance, for him to buy humans for any purpose. Forget the fact that he had already sacrificed the greater portion of his liberty in the process of becoming a Troonian (the chances of one of those poor, business-softened bastards even scrambling up the Pinnacle Peak approach trail, were practically nil).
The Troonian’s frame of reference could not encompass my own. He would never be able to appreciate the inferiority of his aesthetic relative to mine, and so he would continue to hold his own values precious by mistake. If ethics boiled down to the reconciliation of intentionality and motivation with truth, there could be no ethical resolution between myself and the Troonian. There was no commonly held truth between us.
Traditionally, that class of differences has been settled with mortar shells. The Trooninan’s annihilation would be a consensual truth. But it would be a superimposed truth, and an impolite way of changing the subject. It missed the intention, since it was no longer about me and the Troonian and our aesthetic differences, but about the prejudicial elimination of those differences. And it was discordant with my motive, which was to appreciate the climbing experience.
The relevant truth was that the Trooinian and I valued something about the peaks, and generally valued our valuations in a similar way. That last bit was the truth that our difference was about, and it was not the truth to which my impulse to see his house explode and to hack him to death with a machete as he stumbled, flaming, from the wreckage, appealed. It did not feel as good, acting on this second-order stuff – the valuation of values – as would a good hacking which made its own truth. I could see how one would come to think that feeling anything about a moral decision was a red herring. And from there, I could see how one would come to think that moral decisions had a real and objective life of their own.
I looked back at my son.
“Hmmm,” I answered, “I’d rather climb the Y-crack.”
And I would. I would rather climb, keep my voice down, leave the crag before dark and choose to see the little McMansion at our feet as a quaint feature of the landscape. Hell, who knew? Maybe the squishy critter in the cage below us was really an old dirt bag who’d hit it big in the lottery and looked up at us with a sense of appreciation and nostalgia.
Maybe, but I doubted it.
The one and only Devils Tower Climbers Festival has passed into the annals of our nation’s first national monument. It transpired over three days in September, and it aimed to be a little different than other climber rendezvous – but not too different. Festival events are hard to plan, but there are some successful examples to draw upon. For the Devils Tower event, the organizer studied a long-running festival nearby, and used it as a springboard. The idea was to take the International Climbing Festival in Lander, Wyoming and kick it up a notch.
The Lander Festival is a big to-do. It’s a party, really. There are cookouts, and vendors, and if there’s any extra time, a little bit of climbing. The afterthoughts occur at Wild Iris, a famous sport crag outside town. All in all, the International Climbers’ Festival at Lander, Wyoming is what passes for a glamorous event in the world of real, amateur climbing.
What the organizer of the Devils Tower gathering sought was not to out-glam the Lander event. That would be expensive and difficult. The idea was to be more authentic than Lander, and pull the climbing into the festival. Now, there was a complicating factor from the start. The climbers’ festival coincided in time, and mostly in space, with the annual Beer Fest in Sundance. The arrangement was intentional, and not entirely unreasonable. As a rule, climbers have taste for beer, not to mention wine, and the occasional sip of scotch. The organizer calculated that the Beer Fest might attract a few visiting climbers on its own merits. And, the Beer Fest had some notoriety to lend. It had grown large enough, over the few years since its inception to draw the ire of local moralists, as expressed on the opinion page of the town paper. If an event provoked fear in the righteous for the souls of the general public, that event likely had coattails.
What went unconsidered in the decision to link the two events, were the effect of alcohol on the climber psyche, and the true role of alcohol in the climbing culture. The ‘in-town’ events for the Climbers’ Festival were scheduled for the evening, while the Beer Fest was up and running soon after the sun rose. This was a mistake.
There is a thing in the climbing world called, “bailing” – as in bailing out of a stricken aircraft. It crosses all sub-disciplines. Everyone understands it. It refers to the abrupt decision to stop going up and start going down, in particular, and, by metaphor, any abrupt decisions to change course drastically in the face of adverse conditions. It carries the suggestion that one is definitively casting one’s fate to the wind. Attending the Beer Fest provided a strong temptation to ‘bail’ on evening lectures and slideshows in favor of, say, passing out.
On the first night, the ranger in charge of Devils Tower resource management gave a talk on the preservation of the Tower as a climbing destination, and the climbing management plan. It was a very good talk, I’m told. Three people attended. On night two, the crowd swelled to seven. However, there were more pictures and music ( the speaker is an accomplished pianist).
Nor was the drinking crowd prone to participate in the actual climbing part of the festival. But that should have come as no surprise. The climber’s reputation as a booze hound is largely mythological. It used to be the case, back when the avocation was associated with the counter-culture, and the gear was so bad that it helped one’s performance to be hung-over or even still a little drunk while climbing. But the modern climber is an athlete. He or she is much more likely to have a temperature controlled cooler full of (ostensibly) performance enhancing supplements in the back of the van, than a box of wine. Modern climbers have a bedtime.
Festivals still attract the alcohol traditionalists, but the drinkers don’t show up for any active activities. Such exertions are better left to the professionals. The drinking crowd wants a show – and a little validation. The best festivals leverage the dichotomy between the athletes and the partiers. The Southfork Icefest, for example, has the synergy dialed.
At the Icefest, the daily agenda begins with a fashionably late breakfast – ‘free’. You’d be crazy to pass it up. Then there are clinics and tool demos. These are held on some of the easier climbs in the valley, and are not too far from the road. After a couple of hours of edification, and having gotten properly chilled, everyone heads back to town to get ready for the evening meal and slideshow. As the food is served, a new group of festivants appears, burned by wind and sun, glassy-eyed, and still outfitted in their climbing gear. These stragglers have come for the “best lead” contest. Basically, it is a chance to spray, an irresistible opportunity for the hard core. Everyone gets to tell a story of the day’s climb, and why their partner should be rewarded for having lead the most mind-blowing route in the valley. Then there is a pull-up contest. Everybody leaves happy. The hard core have unburdened themselves and gotten some recognition. The rest have heard some stories and gotten a little validation by association. During the Devils Tower Climbing Festival, any visiting athletes remained at the Devils Tower campground, rather than venturing into town.
Only one group of locals attempted to enter the real climbing event. That event was not ill-conceived. It capitalized on the history of the Tower as a bastion of traditional climbing by challenging participants to climb a route with passive gear only, and film the ascent. The best movie would win a new rope for the artistes. The only takers made a valiant effort. My partner and I spoke with them as they were headed up to climb Walt Bailey Memorial. We climbed a nearby route, Double Indemnity, so we could hear them all the while. It seemed to be going well, so we were surprised to see them all looking glum at the base of the rappels. Upon inquiry, the cameraman simply held up his iPhone, which he’d been using to record the leader’s success. It had fallen out of his pocket 250 feet above, at the start of the rappels. Even Gorilla Glass has its limits. The phone still came on, so they hoped to download the movie. But it was not to be. Chalk one up for the Luddites; the new rope went unclaimed.
They still showed up for the final day contests. This was the best-attended portion of the whole meet. It was held in the little park behind the county courthouse, just across the street from the beer fest. There were three events: slack chain walking (like a tightrope, but slack, and chain), a combination pull-up and ‘toes-to-bar’ lactate tolerance test, and crate stacking. The last contest stood out as the most entertaining. It was also the activity at which the attendees excelled. The test of strength was disappointing. Fifteen of each maneuver was the best that anyone could muster in the allotted two minutes. At the Southfork Icefest, I have watched Aaron Mulkey crank out 35 pull ups hanging from a pair of ice tools – and that’s after a hard day of climbing. Nobody got across the slack chain in three tries. But, climbing at the Tower doesn’t take pure footwork or arm power; it takes dynamic weight distribution. Stacking one milk crate upon the last, as one stands on the growing structure, tests one’s dynamic weight distribution. The winning total was 19.
Besides being suspenseful and impressive, the crate stacking event had an old-west flair, as it was conducted with the belay line strung from a giant cottonwood on the courthouse lawn, calling to mind the era of frontier justice. A crowd, drawn from the adjacent beer fest, gathered (the other two contests having been completely ignored), and a couple of wobbly young men among the onlookers even asked if they could have a go.
When the climactic event concluded, the results were read and prizes distributed with little ceremony. Participants said their brief goodbyes and dispersed. No one felt particularly disappointed; it was just how things focused on the Tower, worked. The Bear’s Lodge is an awesome and intimidating object to regard. It reflects one’s attention back. As a whole, those who have stood at it’s base have recognized the mirror-effect. Aboriginal people have approached it privately, quietly, to leave their prayer bundles in the trees surrounding its rearing columns. Climbers feel it as well, and then some. Climbing at the Tower is hard. It can’t be overpowered or out-foxed. However, it will let you be as safe as you want to be. It treats its climbers like a good grandparent, at once strict and kind. It does not feel right to pound beers and get loud with grandfather looking over your shoulder. And maybe that is the main reason for the failure of the First Annual Devils Tower Climbers’ Festival, as such. However it was promoted, organized, and realized, it was still a party in honor of a place just doesn’t generate a party atmosphere. And that’s OK.
The edge was huge – at least half a finger-pad wide. But how to get there? The fingers of my right hand were crimped on the vertical edge of a slight irregularity at shoulder height. My thumb lay across the top of the same feature. My feet teetered on the corner of the column which bordered the little roof. My left hand gripped the corner of the neighboring column, thumb down, elbow up, in a maneuver called a ‘Gaston’.
My right hand needed to get to that good edge. That edge meant security, success, salvation from the tension of my current situation. I stretched for the hold, pushing down with the Gaston and straightening my knees. It was too much for the foot holds on the corner. They needed pressure to work.
I was off.
I prepared to drop into the corner below the roof. I had two small chocks above the feature. They looked set when I placed them, but the crack flared slightly, and small stuff had a tendency to shift. In the time dilation of the fall, I got another glimpse of blood and hair on the rock below, left by a fellow traveler the week before.
He had been climbing the standard variation on this route. His belayer had been standing on a comfortable patch of dirt about 50 feet below. He fell from about the same level as I had. With rope-stretch and slack in the system, he hit the ledge below the roof. He injured his leg in the initial impact, then flipped upside down and hit his head. He suffered a nasty scalp laceration, but fortunately no damage to the contents of his skull. We wore our helmets, and took the trouble to set the belay on the ledge below the roof. Never disregard a free lesson.
The little chocks held. I jerked to a stop just a few feet below the roof.
I looked down at my son. He looked bored. I couldn’t tell if the expression of ennui was a 15 year old boy’s affectation or actual lack of concern. I hoped it was the former.
“Lower me a little,” I asked him.
He complied, and I got back into the corner, a sporting distance below the difficulties. I moved back up to the overhang and inspected the chocks. They looked no worse for the wear. I grabbed the right hand crimp and set my feet on the corner. My left hand caught the Gaston.
This time, I ignored the edge. Keeping pressure on my feet, I reached up and pinched the corner with my right hand. I leaned back. Like so many things in climbing and outside it, the move felt precarious and it was committing – I would not be able to reverse it – but it was also the answer. My feet locked onto the small holds and I was able to step up. The right hand pinch turned into a good side-pull and my left hand swung up to a nice shelf. It was over. I plugged in a good cam and moved up to stand on the little ledge.
But, it wasn’t over. The corner above wasn’t as steep, but it was still thin and tricky. I got a short break. There was a section of crack climbing, with pretty good footholds. Then the crack closed up again. A bulge confronted me, with no obvious way past. I got a couple of small chocks in the corner formed by the intersecting columns, and took the most feasible path that I could see.
Once upon a time, my mother-in-law had an out-of-body experience. She was in labor with her second daughter, and things were not going well. As they prepared her for an emergency C-section, she floated above her body and looked down on the scene in the surgical suite. My dearest love relates this story in terms of wonder, as an example of the mysteries of the world beyond our limited comprehension. Her appreciation for such mysteries is one of the things I love most about her. But for me, astral transformation is not so mysterious, though it remains wonderful. It is a familiar experience, and I pursue it doggedly.
It happens on the hardest moves of a climb sometimes. I can break down the moves before and after, but during the movement, the analytic distance disappears and another distance replaces it. The real me is absorbed in action and no longer has time for silly self-awareness. But, the reflective consciousness is selfish. If it can’t do, it will watch. The phenomenon is weird – like a movie observed, but not experienced. Yet it is also wonderful, because for a moment, thought is banished and everything is aligned in its proper place.
That’s what happened at the little bulge. With the moves mapped out in my head, I took a deep breath and began. The fugue hit me. Afterwards I could recall images of small adjustments. I saw my right foot move up to a tenuous hold that I could not have seen at the time. I saw my left foot stick to a sloping hold in the face of counter-pressure from my right hand, which rested flat against the wall of the dihedral.
At the time, I snapped back to a brighter day above the bulge, not entirely sure of how I got there, but feeling wonderful, with the whole thing still catching up to me. Or maybe, it was vice versa.
No matter, I soon stood at the anchor belaying my son as he followed the route (with only one fall and one hanging rest). My motivation had never been higher. I was itching for another lap on the climb – or maybe, something harder.
“…and life itself told me this secret: ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I am that which must always overcome itself.’
“Love, and what you will, do.”
“Become what thou art.”
The hole in his head was large and within it, something pulsed. At long intervals, he took great, gasping breaths, as if the deeper parts his brain were expressing their shock. The thinking parts had abandoned the rest, and all the little cells remaining, dependent upon the whole, would soon follow. It was the most shocking thing possible.
We would delay the full consequence of the cortex’s betrayal. His intent was to donate his tissues and organs. It was an admirable act, but one which made the pulsing wound more jarring. I covered it with gauze and did not look at it again as we prepared him for delivery to the surgeons.
According to the social worker, there would be no family to inform. That was good. Families wanted an explanation from the medical professionals, but the condition of the patient spoke for itself. I could add nothing.
Besides, the central message was, “You can’t understand.”
The gasping stopped as we paralyzed him with medications and took control of his breath. The sense of shock persisted. The leader of the transport team looked at the floor and shook his head as he guided the gurney out.
I went home. I tried to start forgetting such cases immediately. Of course, it was impossible. The only effective defense against the impact was to abandon all defenses. I drifted.
“You can’t understand”: perhaps it was a horrible mistake; perhaps it was a horrible truth.
If it were true, did we owe it anything for being true?
One of the dogs met me at the door. He sniffed me all over. I had washed my hands thoroughly and there was no visible blood on my clothing, but he could tell.
He looked up at me and wagged his tail. The behavior meant to get something from me. His bowl was empty.
I turned up a bag of food to fill it.
The dog took a few perfunctory bites from the pile of brown nuggets, then came back to look up at me again. When I didn’t respond, he put his head back down and leaned against my leg. I scratched between his ears. His tail thumped a calming rhythm on the adjacent wall.
“You can’t understand.” It implied that you ought to understand.
I paused and looked down at the dog. He noticed that I had stopped scratching his head, and he looked up at me.
“I can owe you though, can’t I?,” I asked him.
He folded his ears back and wagged a bit harder. He did not know what I was saying, nor did I know what he was thinking or what really motivated him to wag harder. But, I barely had better insight into my own motivations.
We could anticipate each other, at least. That was enough, apparently, to build a relationship between our species which had lasted tens of thousands of years. We could owe that relationship, and know by it what we ought to do about each other.
So, there were two ‘oughts’. Like all value judgments, each sought reconciliation with truth.
I stared into the dog’s eyes.
“Are you lying to me? Is it all a big lie?”
He made a grumbling noise deep in his throat and wagged even harder. I couldn’t make out the details of his response.
It was possible that he was an automaton, as Descartes proposed. It was possible that he was a cold manipulator, in it for the food-for-love quid pro quo.
But possibilities were good for nothing, except to keep me speculating consistently. To discover any truth in possibilities, meant transcending my place and time – an impossibility. If I wanted to stick to the truth, I was stuck where I was.
On the other hand, perhaps I could transcend my point of view. It seemed like I ought to be able to transcend my point of view. I was not a dog; I was a man and I could see into the future. I could discern the possibilities and necessities of this world or any other.
No, such aspirations were doomed. The logical means by which I hoped to rise were not themselves, real. Allegories of truth, they relied upon circumstantial roles assigned to players in their tragedies.
Following the tales too far afield, obligating oneself to their lyrical potentials and certainties, led to fatal contradictions. I could only purchase a simulacrum of truth with understanding, and understanding was not substantial enough to invoke obligations to itself.
His head-scratch having ended several minutes ago, the dog lay down on my feet, no longer concerned with the smell of blood on me.
I doubted that he had forgotten the smell; he was simply reconciled to it. Truthfully, it was what he ought to do.
My only real option was to follow his example.
As I prepare to move to the desert, I’m going back to do the climbs that have shaped me.
I am climbing them with my sons. I will not imply a goodbye to my friends and partners over the years by involving them in the project. There is no goodbye for them.
As I return to the old routes, I am finding them suddenly easier. I think it is because I am finally climbing them without any surpassing ambition.
I am not climbing them to become a better climber or to get to the next, harder route. Instead, I’m starting where one always ends: climbing to make the next move.
And as I do so, I’m finding just how deeply those routes have etched my nerves, my bones, my ambitions, and my morality.
They’ve given me technique, tough fingers, persistence, acceptance, joy in small victories and peace in grander desires.
Actually, I’m finding that I can’t say goodbye. I can’t surpass those routes, anymore than I can ever really untie from a partner. They’ve made me, and I will take them along to the desert.