Atomic Minds

“It is sometimes objected that physical and mental states could not interact since there is no causal nexus between them. However, one lesson from Hume and from modern science is that the same goes for any fundamental causal interactions, including those found in physics. Newtonian science reveals no causal nexus by which gravitation works, for example; rather, the relevant laws are simply fundamental. The same goes for basic laws of physical theories, and the same presumably applies to fundamental psychophysical laws. There is no need for a causal nexus distinct from the physical and mental properties themselves.”
– David Chalmers, The Character of Consciousness
An interesting statement, and one which is rather untroubled for a person who wishes to subsequently make an argument for property dualism. However, I think most advocates for substance dualism would be troubled by the implied requirement in the above statement, which is conformity to the explanatory requirements of causation. The desire for most folks with a stake in substance dualism is for a substance which is truly separate – from the requirements of location and dependent identity associated with being physical – and not merely irreducible. I think there are profound problems with the irreducibility of the mental and ‘downward causation’. However, it seems like there’s a problem with the atomic characterization of a distinct “mental substance” in and of itself.
To get an idea of the role which a substance fulfills, it is helpful to examine a relatively well defined and uncontroversial representative of physical substance: the electron, for example. The electron is describable entirely on the basis of its properties. It has a negative charge, mass, spin, etc. In a sense, it is just a receptacle for its properties. But the properties of the electron do not entirely suffice to explain the electron and why we need it. We could account for all of our experience of those properties without a particle for their residence. We could use a bundle theory, like Hume proposed for the mind.
We can simply speak in terms of functional conditions, in other words, the bare circumstances under which the properties are manifest. For charge, we can say the same thing that we say about magnets – a repulsive or attractive force occurs when a certain orientation of physical objects occurs. Micro structural explanations be damned, that just is magnetism. Likewise, we can say that elements accrue certain, conventional, mass units as they accrue charge units. We don’t need to refer to a particle to make this functional explanation.
Instead, the particle serves a historical role. We experience mass and charge properties necessarily at a certain place and time, not just under certain conditions. We know where to look to find a certain mass and charge, even if we do not perceive them at the moment. The particle has an inert state in which we know of it merely by historical reputation – it is there because previous circumstances demand it.
Is a mind like that? Does a mind have an inert or ground state where it is, just because previous circumstances demand it? I don’t see how. Minds are elicited. Mental occurrences are toward, of, or about something. Our subjectivity and motive pertain to their immediate circumstances. Even if previous circumstances condition it (I think critically), previous circumstances don’t demand that red looks like it does to me. There’s no need for an atomic mind to explain mental “properties”. In fact, those properties defy attribution. That’s the upshot of the knowledge argument. The argument militates against a mental type, and a third person ontology of the mental, generally.
Advocates of a mental substance can equivocate about the possibilities of the stuff. Maybe it isn’t bound by the requirements of normal causal relations, which demand relative location and defining interactions at least. But then, what is it? I think the substance dualist is faced with providing an account of pure mentality – the inert mind, mind without content, mind without active reference. I can provide such an account for inert electrons. I can simply refer to locality and the demands of previous circumstances; in other words, the notion of causality concomitant with our experience. Without recourse to those explanations, a condition which true separation of substances seems to dictate, I don’t see how such an account is possible for mental substance.

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Simplicity Itself

Arguments about nature, gods, and human beliefs are often convoluted and massive. The central issue can be boiled down to a manageable residue.
The phrases “mental substance” and “independent identity” are incoherent. They are combinations of words which indicate nothing but the byproducts of speech. At best, their proposed subjects are things which we could not claim to know. That is why all arguments in their favor must finally deduce from analogy, if they hope to avoid fideism. All else follows.

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Racing the End-Times

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I pirouetted around the man in the tiny atrium and past the slowly closing glass door. It was an unusual way to enter McDonald’s, so I thought at first that he gave me an odd glance in return for the odd maneuver. But as I joined the line, just before the end of breakfast service on Saturday morning, he looked at me again in the same way. Then I recognized him, as well.
“Hello,” I said, extending my hand.
“Hey,” he smiled, “here to climb?”
“Yep,” I replied, “Good to see you.”
“Likewise. What are you going to do?”
“Joy After Pain.”
“Oh,” he nodded, “That’s huge this year. Well, have fun. I’m shopping with the kids today, so…”
“I know how that is,” I said, “Good luck.”
He didn’t seem concerned about the time, but neither was I. We were coming home in the dark. We might as well live it up.
We ate our sausage and egg biscuits on the way out to the Valley.
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It had been cold in the Valley. Ice had formed back up on the North wall, and it would stay for the day, at least. It was cold, with temperatures in the teens. It even looked like Ovisight was accessible. We looked to the shade though, to the South wall of the Valley, where the ice would be old, cold and brittle. It was formed as well, though the base of our objective tapered ominously. We did not care. We had our decision, and we had the word, and the word was “huge”.
Two other cars sat in the pull-out across from the ranch’s mailbox. One party was visible on Moratorium.
We did not see tracks on the intermittent snowfields on the way to the wooded slopes below our objective, but we met the second party at the tree-line.
“We have guns,” the older fellow joked.
I wasn’t going to race them to the base of the climb. We were coming home in the dark, and there was room at the base to stand and wait if need be.
We walked with them for a ways, up the steep, left side of the drainage. Then, they broke right and fell slightly behind.
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I could not see them as we rounded the last, bulging shoulder of the streambed and saw the first pitch fully revealed. Still, I heard them, although I could not make out the words. The tone was plain enough: dismay and disgust. The base of the pitch was a thin, tapering pillar – translucent and gray. I wasn’t deterred. Somehow, “huge” had lodged in my mind, and it made the sight reassuring. The pillar looked well rooted, despite the fact that I could wrap one arm around its connection to the ice sheet below it.
Before I started up, I hit it with the side of my ice tool. It didn’t come crashing down and it produced a deep, resonant note. It would be fine, if I just didn’t hit it too hard, or at all. Fortunately, it had plenty of feature – blobs, divots and candles. I tapped and hooked for thirty feet up to the point where the ice attached to the cliff face and it was safe to place a screw.
The angle eased soon after, and the primary difficulty became the hard and brittle state of the medium.
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We anchored at the very end of the rope and climbed a deceptively steep and rotted pitch above. There was a short walk with a solo step and then a short, solid roped pitch.
We climbed another ice ramp and finally stood beneath the two-tiered, final pitch. It was four thirty in the evening.
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The next day, Mike’s breakfast sandwich would have its revenge, and the fish hatchery climb would melt out before we arrived. The pitch at Leigh Creek would seem too anticlimactic. We should grasp at every last foot of climbing, being practitioners of what is possibly a dying art. But we wouldn’t, because it would be art for us alone, and a ridiculous thing or a cheap thrill for the rest of the world. It must be right for us if it were to make sense at all.
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We would save the last pitch of Joy After Pain too. It was blue and intricate, and flowing with water – huge. And it was in the shade, so it would be there when the sun-side languished. We would come back to climb it in the light.

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Speaking Essentially and the Root of the Problem

Let me tell you about unicorns. Unicorns are white-coated creatures, with bodies resembling those of horses. The unicorn’s hooves are cloven, and it has a single, spiral horn protruding from its forehead. The horn has a property which allows it to purify water and cure disease on contact. The animal itself has the ability to detect human female virginity and is highly attracted to the same, so much so that it exhibits a stereotypical set of behaviors in the presence of said females.

I can now make some meaningful statements about unicorns. I can say, for instance, “A unicorn is a unicorn if and only if it has one horn.”

I now say, “You should be able to recognize a unicorn if you see one.” Is that true? If it is true, what about it is true? That is to say: Does my statement reference a unicorn, the inherent possibility of a unicorn, or all that stuff I just said about unicorns? If it is the latter, does that necessitate anything beyond a bare, opaque unity?

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The Discontented Future

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Broken pillars cluttered the slope. Winter had come to this. False starts, collapsing possibilities, and ruined glory lay across the span of weeks between the first snowfall and the now-inevitable warm-up. I loaded the Soloist and began to climb.
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My swing was still good. Over the preceding couple of seasons, I had passed a threshold. My technical skills no longer seemed to deteriorate over the long warm spells. My performance on ice now depended almost exclusively on psychology, and my psychology today was fueled by anger.
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Maybe this Winter was an aberration, but I suspected that it wasn’t. Things were changing; the climate was changing. I’d made a vow, back when rumors of soft and liquid Winters first circulated. When the day came that ice climbing ended, and I had no more use for my crampons, I’d clip them to my boots one more time and kick the nearest climate-change-denying Republican politician in the ass. I felt the time coming.
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The column of ice I’d chosen was forty five feet tall, and beginning to deteriorate. It was a bit of a risk, and a little silly. It was so short, and it was wet and manufactured. I could hear cars on the road down in the canyon. I had followed a tourist’s Yak-trax prints up the trail to get here. I knew that I would find a PVC pipe leaking water over the cliff band at the top of the ice. There was no wild beauty or uniqueness to be found here. The pillar’s existence was all that recommended it.
The bottom took a light touch. It was wet and brittle ice. It tolerated only one, gentle swing per placement. I weight tested each tool before committing to it. I placed the crampon points in little divots in the ice, rather than kicking the spikes into the column. I waited to place the first ice screw until I was well off the ground. I had picked the spot from below, and it turned out to be as good as I had expected.
The ice improved after the first piece of gear. Above a small roof, it took a full swing. My anger transformed, clarified in the movement. Another ice screw and a few more swings led to a different game on the thin steps of low-angle ice at the top. I grabbed a tree and stepped over the PVC pipe.
I fancied another lap then. I was done being angry. I knew that the anger arose from fear of loss, and a deeper fear of loss than the fear of losing cold seasons. It came from the fear that I might someday no longer be a climber and find myself looking at the world from the same viewpoint as those cramponned-boot-in-the-ass-deserving politicians. It was a fear that I was losing. As more days like today passed, I felt more and more certain that I would not habitually trade an ‘is’ for an ‘ought’. I would not stop paying attention. I would not find myself trading real days for fears of an imagined future and its glories at risk.
As the ice receded, I would move higher. I would take notice of the boulders that had been hidden under permanent snowfields. My tools would scratch more rock. At last, I would walk up glaciers covered with rubble, arthritic knees aching, tottering on my piolet, and feel no different than I did at the top of the little pillar today.
As I set up the rappel, words from a Howlin’ Wolf song began to run through my mind:

I have enjoyed things that kings and queens never have – things that kings and queens can’t never get. And they don’t even know about ‘em.

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May be I was still a little angry. Yeah, fuck them, another lap.

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The Joy of the Circle

I didn’t like to fly. I kept waiting for the bumps to stop. Regardless, the supple machine continued to bob and thrash like a trout in the rapids. A few rows forward, a child began to cry. Between the two of us, adults read their magazines and played video games on their phones. No doubt, they recalled that flying was safe. The statistics were incontrovertible. And in theory, the engineers knew exactly how the air would flow and how the engines would perform. Why should a passenger worry?

Yet no one had predicted the rolls and soft spots in the atmosphere over which we presently skipped. No one really knew what fury of heat and pressure swirled in the engine at that moment. Flying was inherently dangerous. The little boy up front knew it because he didn’t believe in theories yet. He knew what happened when a glass fell off the counter. He knew what happened when a stick, flexing like the wings were, bent too far. I knew it because I habitually did dangerous things and tried to make them safe. I had faith in statistics, but I also knew that sometimes, only one little thing had to go wrong. In the chaos of fluids which sustained our flight, if the one little thing did go wrong, we were all lost without hope of recovery.

The boy’s naiveté could be forgiven, as could the adults’ ignorant confidence, but what about my fatalism? I had better have a reason for getting on this flight, hadn’t I? My children had no one else to care for them. Countless, unimagined opportunities awaited back on the ground at home. What did I have to say for myself and my self-conscious gamble with extinction?

All I could come up with was et tu quoque. I had seen a Wyoming toad once. It was at night, at a rest stop, in the middle of Summer. Its species was endangered, yet this toad made no excuse of the fact. It followed a line of ants down the middle of the sidewalk beneath the streetlights, lapping up the insects one after the next. My six year old son crouched over the little amphibian, delighted. It would never have a better friend and ally, but it couldn’t have known. All it could have known was that the shape looming over it had not struck yet, and that the ants were right there. The toad was gambling with extinction, and a critic might have called it selfish.

But the toad could have responded. If it believed in theories, it could have claimed that it was simply a disciple of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, obeying his dictum:

Even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty.

Or it could have called upon Nietzsche in its defense, claiming that it didn’t pursue ants, but rather:

…a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil”, without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal…

The toad’s response was better though, because it didn’t believe in theories. Its defense was: a warm night and an Eldorado of ants. Mine would be the same. How else would I defend even my love for my children? No set of laws bound us to each other, only a chance (in theory) arrangement in space and time. Yet it was a chance that went straight to the bone, no question. I had no better answer for the feeling that had gotten me strapped in this chair, bouncing through the sky to an uncertain fate. It was a feeling for a stranger, I’d have to admit if pressed. But it wasn’t composed of what I knew about her, anymore than my love for my children was composed of what I knew about them. It was a chance arrangement in space and time. It was nothing I chose, but it went straight to the bone, no question. Like the toad, I’d risk every calamity with open eyes. I took a breath, shook my head, and stopped waiting for the bumps to stop.

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Here We Go

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It may not have been a Polar Vortex, but the lack of marketing didn’t make it any warmer. It was perfect. The climb opposite the Ten Sleep fish hatchery formed in such circumstances.
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What better way to begin the year than with a test of nerve and commitment rather than strength and skill?
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The temperature was in the teens, but in the sun, we could climb in a single layer.
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It was a race on tiptoes. The screws were melting out (I cleaned most of them by a simple pull on the way down). The ice was thin and poorly bonded. If I climbed it enough times over the seasons, the day would come when it cracked and slid under my pick.
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But that day did not come.
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It was a beautiful day.

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Political affiliation? Oh, I’m a Pessimist.

In the Billings zoo, there is a small, Plexiglas enclosure housing a family of pygmy marmosets. When you approach the glass, they dash back to cower against the trunk of their artificial tree. But if you stand there long enough, the lead marmoset will venture back out on a branch at head height. Once he is eye to eye with you, he will yawn and blink, flashing his teeth and upper lids in threat. Primates held captive by other primates, the marmosets persist in behaviors towards us which appear a little silly in their current situation with its artificial constraints and artificial accommodations. However, it is the best that they can do, as their alternatives are battering themselves to death against the glass or succumbing to madness. I consider my own situation to be no different, and I don’t consider myself special.

If we are really being honest, we must admit that the move to agriculture has been a disaster. Since our domestication, we’ve tried to make the best of it. Most of our efforts to spiff up domestic existence have gone into building transparent boxes for ourselves – titles, cubicles, buildings, polities – and equipping them with life-like accommodations. The remainder of our efforts have gone into building boxes for others, (our little cousins in the zoo for example), to make us feel more comfortable with our own enclosures.

Political organizations have been no small part of our attempt to settle in to domestication. They have been a great tool, as they incorporate lots of toothy yawns and exaggerated blinks in their proceedings, and those gestures are as natural and comforting for us as they are for the marmosets. However, political organizations sometimes take themselves too seriously. Most seriously, they sometimes propose that they can offer a final reconciliation and teach us to love the box. Europe and Asia have endured the stewardship of such true believers and, perhaps excepting the Russians, have learned to revile it.

Over here, in the terrarium tagged “U.S. of A.”, we have been slightly more fortunate. Our politicians have flirted with Great Societies and Shining Cities, but have been good players and hypocrites, rather than true believers. Right now, the Republicans are flirting with – something? – that they say will constitute the ideal box. I can’t quite make out the lines of their sketch. It’s either a homogenous, industrious God-and-Country, or a socioeconomic free-range game park. It doesn’t matter. When it’s time to commit to their vision, they won’t. To do so would mean the beginning of stewardship and the end of all the yawning and blinking, and the latter is what’s made them as happy as they can be in their own little box. We should be glad to be ruled by the foolish and the weak, considering the alternative. It is the best that we can do, even if it is a little sad. As a proud pessimist, I am hopeful and confident that the new Republican congress will live up to my expectations.

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Is a Virus Alive?

life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction. – Encyclopedia Brittanica

Close enough, and encompassing the generally accepted criteria: responsiveness, reproduction, metabolism and adaptation. My older son asked the question about viruses the other day. I have been looking forward to this question. It means that he is prepared to understand some things about life which are important. It is a tricky question if considered from the wrong viewpoint. A virus displays some of the characteristics which define a living organism. It can respond to stimuli, attaching to the proper cells and injecting its genetic material through the cell membrane when it makes contact. It can replicate. It can adapt to avoid a host immune response. But it does not have the capacity to metabolize. It cannot, in other words, run its own show. It is entirely dependent on its host organism in that respect. Nor is the virus alone on the gray borders of life. Certain families of bacteria lack some essential metabolic processes which would make them autonomous. They must live inside another cell, and depend on their host’s metabolism to survive. Yet, they too can reproduce, adapt, and respond to stimuli in their environment. Because they have a membrane which is active, biologists are prone to give obligate intracellular bacteria, like mycoplasma and Rickettsia, a break. Most biologists are less charitable when it comes to prions. Prions are mis-folded proteins which replicate by somehow inducing their own conformal change in normally folded proteins with which they come in contact. Prions can reproduce, but they cannot metabolize. They cannot adapt much (although they have managed to pass from cows to humans), but they can respond to their environment, albeit in a very limited way. Still, the difference between the prion and the obligate intracellular bacterium would seem to be one of magnitude rather than quality. Differences in their classification reflect a little bit of membrane chauvinism on the part of biologists. The same prejudice is evident in the gray zone at the other end of the complexity scale. By our criteria for life, is a male angler fish alive? The fish can survive for a short period of time independently, but it cannot carry on its own metabolic processes independently for the long-term. It must rely on a female angler fish. It must quickly sniff out a female and attach itself to her, permanently. The male fish spends most of its existence as a tissue of the female angler fish’s body; its brief, free swimming existence is a transitional aberration. Its ability to adapt is extremely limited. Its existence can be mapped on an algorithm only barely more complex than the one which describes a prion’s lifestyle. So what does differentiate the male angler fish from a mycoplasma bacterium, a virus, or even a prion? A few extra membranes make the only difference. Even our own status as living things is at risk if we apply our criteria strictly. We can certainly reproduce, just like the viruses, obligate intracellular bacteria, prions, and angler fish. But it is questionable whether or not we can independently metabolize. We actually rely on hereditary intracellular symbionts for our primary metabolic process. Without these symbionts, our mitochondria, we could live only minutes on the metabolic processes encoded by our own genetic material. So, we can hardly be blamed for fudging our criteria. We certainly want to call ourselves alive. Since it looks and acts alive, we want to call the male angler fish alive. For practical purposes, we also want to call Rickettsia and mycoplasma alive, as well as viruses from time to time. As for the prions, it is often more convenient to view them as sophisticated toxins rather than living things. And that’s the upshot of my son’s question. The issue of whether or not a virus is alive is only confusing if we consider “life” an actual, efficacious thing. But life is just a category. When we look out across the terrible landscape of things, we see phenomena which cluster about each other by dint of their shared heritage. Our account of our cluster is biology, and our criteria for life provide the outline for our biological stories. This is correct viewpoint on the question of life, and what is alive. But this is not the popular viewpoint. The popular viewpoint attempts to preserve life as a thing, as vital essence or emergent property. Unfortunately, the popular viewpoint is not feasible. It leads inexorably back to the original question rephrased, “where is the life in a thing to be found?” In the end, we find that the essence or the emergent property is explained by the operational mechanisms and properties of the thing in question, but it in turn, explains nothing about the thing; it just notes where that particular thing lies on the vast, terrible landscape of things. Despite its glaring inadequacy, the popular viewpoint remains popular because it seems to save us from losing an idea that we don’t feel comfortable losing. But we don’t need to worry, becoming a category doesn’t vitiate life. We have the things which the category marks clustered around us after all, even if it’s only according to our viewpoint. We can’t escape life anymore than we can climb out of our skins. So, the answer to the question? Sure, a virus is alive – as long as you can explain why.

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Burning Daylight

The future, Mr. Clean

The future, Mr. Clean


The speakers hammered out The Chieftains’ O’Sullivan’s March.
“What the hell is this?” he demanded.
I shrugged. “I can’t help it. If there is reincarnation, then I once wielded a Claymore. But there is no reincarnation, so let’s go.”
I switched off the engine. He didn’t know what I meant by that comment. He thought he did, but not really. He would someday though; I was sure of it. He was a smart lad.
It was already hot. The air smelled of baking pitch. My legs felt rubbery under the sun’s pressure, but the feeling didn’t last. By that time of year, the body had become acclimated. Marching up the paved trail, weaving through the lumbering tourists, my circulation rallied and my stride steadied. I passed pedestrians, some on the trail, some on the rocks beside the trail. It wasn’t that we were short of time; it was just nervous energy that made me walk fast.
I slowed down when we turned off the asphalt and started up the narrow climbers’ trail. When we hit the relative cool of the Tower’s shadow, I began to stroll. Where the trail butted against the rock’s base, I stopped. We dropped our packs and broke out harnesses and helmets while the sweat dried from our necks. He was ready quickly. He stood there looking at me, wearing a well-measured expression of annoyance.
I wouldn’t do this with someone else’s child. We had a bond, from the beginning, that made it alright. When the neonatologist told us that he had been put on a ventilator, his mother started to cry. I held her hand and told her not to worry. She had been part of the pregnancy, and reasonably expected that she had been delivered from its troubles. I had watched it the whole time from the outside, without any expectation of relief. We both knew what could happen. We had seen fetuses get tangled in their development and come out confused. We had seen maternal physiology give up on the process and, against the mother’s wishes, abandon it all in various ways. She knew these things could happen to her. I knew what I would have to watch. It was my proper place. I was a climber and I knew how to be helpless without suffering from helplessness.
That was why I didn’t cry, not when he was intubated, and not when I sat by the plastic crib and watched him lay too still. He wore a blinder for the first few days, to protect his eyes from the ultraviolet lamp which did his liver’s job for him and cleared the toxic pigments from his blood. They took the little mask off the day after the last of his tubes came out. He looked up, then he looked straight at me. He stared for a long time. The nurses made a big fuss about him recognizing his father, but I knew it for what it was. He had a little patch of nerves on the side of his brain which were devoted to facial recognition. Those nerves made a baby stare at faces, and they were working for him.
He stood looking bored and a little impatient as I fiddled with my helmet’s chin strap.
“This is hard, you know. I can fall off of this one,” I warned, “You’re sure you are OK with that? We can always go over to Assembly Line
“No,” he said flatly, “Burning Daylight
I was serious about Burning Daylight. It was a place that a friend of mine took those who would lay their hands on Mateo Tipi – the Bears’ Lodge – with impunity.
“I ought to be able to knit a sweater while climbing .10b,” the last one had said to him.
When he demanded his sweater as she scrabbled over the last roof, wild-eyed and bloodied, she didn’t reply.
Second pitch of Tulgey Wood

Second pitch of Tulgey Wood

We pushed through the bushes and clambered over a fallen log propped against the foot of the Tower. Where the scramble got steep, we roped up. The rope was mostly for my peace of mind. He could handle this terrain with little risk, even if it made him nervous. I didn’t have him put me on belay. If I fell , I would stop before my weight came onto him. The rope was for his mind more than his body too. It would speed him up and let him build some confidence along the way.I waltzed over the blocks and bushes, past the gnarled juniper tree and the briars to the ledge. This was the most dangerous part of the day; the routine, soft-focus section where a lapse could occur. I anchored into the base of the Burning Daylight crack and reeled in rope.
He followed quickly, buoyed by the nylon cord.
I hitched him into the anchor and began to sort gear. I would need everything, from aluminum wedges smaller than the end of my little finger, to cams as big as my fist. Part of the difficulty of the route was its variety. It never permitted a comfortable rhythm.
I had him put me on belay and we went through our final check. He understood the seriousness of the process. He was a smart lad. But he didn’t understand all the reasons, not really.I started up.
I placed a medium-sized chock in the first 10 feet. This was for him. If I fell, my weight would not come onto him directly. I would still break my leg if I fell, but he would be in good shape to get back down the approach. I moved out slightly onto the face to climb a series of edges, leading up to a stance below a bulging corner. If I fell from there, the gear failed and I hit the belay ledge, I would be killed. He would be on his own to get down, but I had confidence in his ability to do so. He had a natural faculty for seeing the mechanics of a situation clearly. It would work for him in case.
I pulled through the bulge, feeling solid. Now standing under the crux roof, I dawdled with setting up the protection. I tried to remember how I had done it the last time, but I couldn’t. I trusted that the feel of it would come back to me as I began. That was the useful part anyway. Exposition of the moves just soothed the mind.
I reached up and locked my fingers in the crack. My feet set on the last good holds, I stretched high with my other hand and set its digits in the fissure above the roof. They rested loosely. I tensioned my body against the handholds and moved my feet, the left one onto a small irregularity below the roof, the right to a vertical seam on the wall of the corner. My right knee turned in to hold tension, I shuffled my hands higher in the crack above the roof. The forces shifted back across my shoulders as I raised my left foot over the roof and set it on the smooth, sloping ledge. Without pressure on it, the sole slipped slightly. I recovered and reset it. Gently, I transferred weight onto the sticky rubber until it could withstand some force. One more step and I was over the roof.
The next roof was easier, as it led to a hand crack. I wouldn’t fall out of a hand crack, not unless I had a seizure or was struck by lightning. It ended too soon. I placed a couple of cams near the top of the crack and began stemming up the final, overhanging corner. It was technical friction, not too hard, but with tired feet, it always felt desperate.
I clipped the anchor bolts and yelled, “Off belay!”
I took my shoes off and secured the rope for him. He took a long time putting on his shoes. I couldn’t see him easily past the overhangs, but I was suspicious about the delay.
I called down, “Did you clean the anchor?”
“Yes”
“We were going to use that to clip back in to when we rap.”
“I won’t need it,” he assured me.
There was another reason for leaving the bottom anchor: he would need it if he quit and had to be lowered.
“On belay,” I replied.
“Climbing.”
I began to take up rope as he advanced. It accumulated slowly on the ledge beside me. After 15 feet, I could hear him breathing. The respirations were even yet. Then the rope stopped. He must have come to the little bulge. A couple more feet of rope came up, then the line went taut.
“Damn it!” he spat.
I bit down on words of encouragement. I wasn’t going to take this away from him just yet. Once more, the rope went slack, then taut, but there was no more swearing. He hung on the harness for a long time. When he moved again, the rope kept coming.
“Take,” he called.
No swearing at all this time. He stopped for a minute or two to puzzle out the crux.
“OK, climbing.”
I leaned out from the anchors. I could see him now. He had the rattley finger lock over the roof. His right foot slipped, but he didn’t tense up or let go. He put his left knee against the edge of the roof and re-established the right foothold. He shuffled his hands up, and it went.
“Take”
He slouched in his harness and shook blood back into his forearms. Taking a deep breath, he stepped back onto the rock. At the second roof he paused and asked for a tip.
“Feet high on the right wall until you can reach above the overhang,” I suggested, “then palm out left and get your left foot on a big edge over the lip.”
He started the moves and got stymied.
“What the f-. Oh, hand crack,” he declared, finally wriggling high enough to reach over the edge, “Never mind.”
He cruised the rest of the crack to the friction climbing and the exit moves. The corner was steep again, and he was tired. For a minute, he tried to establish a position in the final, little chimney which would allow him to reach the exit holds. Exhausted, he weighted the rope again. At that point, I was close enough to reach down and give him a hand up if I just extended my connection to the anchor a little bit. The thought crossed my mind, but then he looked up at me. His expression reflected his fatigue and some exasperation, but no panic or defeat. He was comfortable on the rope, and he knew he could finish the climb. He wanted to finish. I sat back.
“Take your time,” I told him.
“Yeah. I’m back on,” he replied.
With a little more fumbling and swearing, he managed to drape his hand over the solution-hold below the belay ledge and pull over the top.
“Nice job,” I told him.
“How hard is that compared to the hardest climb at the Tower?” he asked.
I shook my head, “Not that hard.”
“No, I mean how much harder is the hardest one?” he insisted.
“Three number grades.”
He nodded. I began setting up the rappel while he transferred gear to a sling on my shoulder.
“Do you want to go first?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “you go.”
I checked his set-up and descended. At the base, I thought about resetting the anchor, but decided against it. He lingered for quite a while after I called “off rope”. I didn’t worry. I just sat and looked out at the perfect weather and the perfect flood-plain of the Belle Fourche river, not thinking about anything but the passage of time. And that, I told myself, was nothing at all.
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