Category Archives: climbing

The Age of the Toilet Ant

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I  shifted on the cot, but I could not find a dry spot. It was soaked through with sweat, and the time was only 2 PM. The temperature would remain above 100 degrees F until well after 5 in the evening. Maybe the next time I took a vacation from the desert, I would not just go to another desert.

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I got up to go to the outhouse. The pit in this campground was exceptional. Surrounded by a wooden screen and open to the sky, it still cloaked itself in an invisible cloud of stench despite maximum ventilation, and it had ants. They swarmed over it, through it and across anyone with a need to approach their shrine.

I’d spent the last few evenings before the trip watching “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey”. Ants had crawled over Fred, I’m sure, as he slept in the dirt by his car. The fact provided some sense of justification.

Brushing a few stragglers from my leg, I stumbled back to the tent. Immobilized on my back, I stared at the mosquito mesh overhead and waited for dark. Events of the morning bubbled through the broth of afternoon sensations. There was something about a disappointing performance on a climb below my level (supposedly). An awkward high-step on a fist-jam figured prominently. I recalled the extraordinary feeling that I did not have enough #4 Camalots. My knee and elbow hurt.

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Jeeps trundled through my fever-dream every few minutes, on their daily migration back to Moab. The campground lay very close to the road, and the grinding of their tires and engines echoed off the red sandstone cliff which stood 20 paces behind our tent. An inevitable bump-bump of music accompanied the Jeep sounds, to placate the humans who clung to the great beasts. They passed with a slight weave and steady speed, suggesting instinctive movement.

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The sun finally set, the air cooled, and my brain began to solidify again. Thoughts picked up where they left off: on the subject of “Dirtbag”. Fred did not consider himself a dirtbag, and he offered one piece of evidence for his position: he always had a car.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

Those verses set Western expectations of the wandering, mendicant seeker. It was a romantic vision, and a wrong one. Beneath every seeker lurks an offering plate, an alms bowl, a trust fund, or a pink Thunderbird. Even the originator of the myth waffled on its purity, since he qualified the key verse with assurances of heavenly treasures and even a Creflo Dollar wink and nod toward earthly rewards.

I got up to walk around the campground. The little brown bats were out flipping and twisting after invisible bugs. All lower mammals hew to a lived aesthetic.

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The next morning we chose a shady canyon as our climbing venue. We had done the approach walk the day before, after the hot wind had chased us away from the other crag. It looked good, but I had failed to accurately assess the aspect of the climbs. The sun shone full on our perfect hand crack. After an adequate fit of denial, we turned around and marched back down the lovely canyon to flop on sweaty cots through the heat of the day.

I woke to the sound of a light slap against the tent wall. A quiet curse from my son followed. It was dark , and the propane lantern was burning. He crouched over a large beetle lying on its back by the tent door. Ants swarmed over the bug. They bit its legs, locked their mandibles and then the ants attached to the legs were bitten by other ants in the swarm, forming a rude shackle.

My son flipped the beetle upright and it flew off. But it circled back, then hit the tent, and landed right back where it had been. After a few more rescue attempts to the same end, my son stood up and shook his head in disgust. In the morning, the toilet ants had gone back to their regular haunts and the beetle lay where they had abandoned it. The ants had left the body completely intact.

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In “Dirtbag”, someone asks Fred, “Is there one thing that you have come to value above all else?”

Fred answers, “[To] Stay alive.”

Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged was – indeed, is- one of the Universe’s very small number of immortal beings.
Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards. He had his immortality inadvertantly thrust upon him by an unfortunate accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch, and a pair of rubber bands. The precise details are not important because no one has ever managed to duplicate the exact circumstances under which it happened, and many people have ended up looking very silly, or dead, or both, trying.
To begin with it was fun, he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.
In the end, it was Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in at about 2:55 when you know you’ve taken all the baths you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.

-Douglas Adams

Fred didn’t act like he simply wanted to stay alive. The toilet ants were about staying alive, and its byproducts. His behavior was more like the beetle’s, or even the bats’, though he could never quite achieve the lived aesthetic. But that’s beyond us all.

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Leaving the beetle incident behind us, we returned to the shady crag. The early morning was dead quiet, so the clack of falling rock startled us. We paused in the middle of the approach slope to look for the source of the rolling rocks. It seemed like the noise came from across the dirt road on the bottom of the canyon, but the echoes made localization difficult. The clatter came again, accompanied by a flash of movement on the opposite slope. A running herd of desert bighorns popped out of the rocks, then halted and vanished just as suddenly.

We watched them pull that trick a few more times over the course of the morning. A jeep or SUV would pass on the road and the sheep would dash up the slope for a few seconds, then stop and disappear. A few of the SUV drivers hit their brakes and jumped out with binoculars and cameras, only to be disappointed. They scanned for the invisible sheep briefly before grudgingly climbing back into their cars. None of the jeeps stopped.

I don’t think that they could hear the sheep running over their tires and soundtracks. And also, I don’t think they were about sightseeing in the first place. Rental jeeping seemed to be about crushing a strip of already well-crushed earth beneath one’s knobby tires, rather than viewing the natural wonders.

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Right on schedule, like we had opened to oven to check on a batch of cookies, the 11 AM breeze hit us. I was vacillating at the base of a nice finger crack at the time, and the puff of heat swept a way my angst. We were done.

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Fred Becky was dead. The bats could stay. We had to go back to the tailgating world  where people ate to eat and drove too fast to nowhere. As we packed up, I took one more look at the dead beetle. I though about kicking some dirt over the body, but it didn’t seem right. I left it as it lay, and without an ant in sight.

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The Sad Side of the Road

Being awake is swimming around in a lake of the undead.

And the undead are like a bunch of friends who demand constant attention.

Demanding constant attention, will only  lead to attention,

And once they have that attention, they’ll use it to ask for attention…

They Might Be Giants

The white truck was about a foot from our bumper. I looked in the mirror at the pick-up trucker. He wore mirrored aviators and had his head cocked in an expression of bored annoyance which only the rich white folks can pull off. I gave it right back, followed by the finger.

Over in the driver’s seat, my son was oblivious to the exchange. He was too gripped. He was driving the freeway for maybe the third time ever, and had shifted into survival mode on the entrance ramp. The truck pulled out and blew past us. At least he passed on the left. As the truck cleared our flank, I glanced around its tailgate at the Eastbound lanes.

On a Tuesday morning at 0630, the Eastbound side was the sad side of the road. Thousands of people parked in the lanes, distracting themselves with cell phones, the condescending humor and invective of AM radio, or their own expressions of hatred towards the filthy slacker stalling traffic in front of them. I wondered, as I had countless mornings before: Where were they all going?

Most were off to willingly trade their lives for money. Some were probably going to try to game the system, like us. Maybe they played ball in a league, or played a musical instrument, or read books and then thought about what they read. I was pretty sure that the gamers were a tiny minority. If there were lots of those people, then the sad side of the road would not exist in the first place.

I had thought about the sad side of the road on many mornings, as I drove to work. I rarely got to see things from the passenger’s seat though, and that Tuesday morning, from the passenger’s seat, I began to consider my own side of the road, too.  I wondered where the jackass in the truck was going. He was in a hurry, so he was going to cash in somewhere.

Maybe he was going to buy a ride on one of the hot air balloons which hovered above the dirty thermocline in the near Northern suburbs. I could see a couple from the freeway at 0630 on a Tuesday morning. The trucker seemed like the sort who would enjoy a balloon ride. He seemed ambitious, and looking down on the anthill from just above its pollution was good for the ambitious, especially if it was just a peek, and a costly enough peek to exclude the losers.

I knew where we were going. We were headed for Sedona, to climb a sandstone pinnacle. It was a traditional climb, which means I had to carry and place removable anchor pieces on my way up. I preferred traditional climbing to sport climbing, where the routes were protected by in situ anchor bolts.

I preferred traditional climbing because it got right to the point. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was right: No plan survives contact with the enemy. In climbing, we sought to verify the corollary to that bit of Prussian wisdom: If you wanted to live, you couldn’t defer or hold back. You could not buy your way through. No faking allowed. When you placed your own gear, the corollary was on you right away. If you clipped bolts, it didn’t hit until you maxed out.

When I glanced back over at my son, he looked a little more relaxed. He had picked up driving quickly. I had tried to work on strategy with him. I hoped that he would continue to drive defensively and remain focused once the operational routines of driving became automatic. I hoped that he would not end up like the trucker. Even just being a gamer was better than that.DSC00084

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Sheep Walking

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“I am done with ice climbing”, my son announced.

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I wish he had waited for a couple more pitches to reveal his new policy, but the psyches of others are objective hazards.

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I couldn’t get too upset about it.

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He raised the usual objections: it’s uncomfortable, it’s hazardous, it’s not technically challenging.

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He may change his mind someday.

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Ice climbing is the nexus of technique and effort.

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Besides, how else will you get to view such luscious sheep?

 

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One Word

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The pick bounced. I hadn’t dropped my elbow at the end of the swing. If the pitch had been steeper, the little tweak would have been unnecessary, and the stick would have been good. Because of things like the swing tweak, I never liked WI 4 as much as the steeper stuff. Sure, your forearms don’t burn, and all the gear placements are solid, but it somehow felt more insecure.

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I looked down at the teenager freezing in the drainage at the base of the climb. He was learning that hours and hours of playing Overwatch were not adequate preparation for climbing in the Valley, among other things.

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When he was 5 years old, I carried him up the last 1/3 of the gully to the Abbot Pass hut. That was the last time he had been in the real mountains, before this. He had surely forgotten the feeling of insufficiency in the face of the real mountains’ light and space, because he did not stand unsupported in it for long. A little house, lashed to the saddle between Mt. Victoria and Mt. LeFroy, had rescued him from the exposure.

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At the time, he pinged around the hut, euphoric, with tears from the gully climb still drying on his cheeks. From a kindergartener’s perspective, the whole thing was an adventure curated by his parent. His tired legs and cold hands served the story and, given the hut, were not real concerns after all.

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Subsequent experience had put mountain fairytales on the shelf. On this trip, he got the larger narrative that the child could not grasp. The cold was not a bit-player. No curator stood between you and the drop. Ambition and inspiration did not necessarily see one through.

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I looked up at the rest of the pitch. It was almost done. The angle eased above, and I could see a nice, flat spot for the belay, just below the accumulation zone where old snow undermined the solidity of the ice.

The route then followed a broad ledge rightwards. I could solo up the remaining section of WI3, bring him up, and cross unroped. But when he arrived at the belay, the day was clearly done. He had the look of retreat, so we did.

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His confidence flowed back on the rappels. He began to chatter, pinging from topic to topic like the amazed, excited, five-year-old flitting from window, to window, to window in the hut. He  was excited this time though, because he had begun to understand what we were doing, and it wasn’t some fairytale, adrenaline fix or ego trip.

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Revelation came in one long word, articulated by picks, boots, simple effort, and the perpetual movement of the Valley’s substance in water, wind and light. Once you heard it, you never completely stopped hearing it, as it went on and on without end. It got louder from time to time too, back in the real world, every time you saw somebody get angry about the contents of their coffee cup or tear up when exposed to a flag and a song.

In those moments, it reminded you that you never completely left the Valley, and it called you back as a whole. We already had our next tickets; only 3 weeks back in the real world to go.

 

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Multiple Use

The cheers seemed so close; they could have been for us. But, they really couldn’t have been for us. Because, the noise came from a family playing a game down in the resort, and they were a competing user group.

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We were climbing in Boynton Canyon, and at this particular spot, the boundary between designated wilderness and the spa was the width of a strand of barbed wire. Behind the wire lay tourists, grass, asphalt and chlorinated water. Outside the wire stood rock, desiccated soil, prickly pear, juniper, and us.

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From our vantage point on the canyon wall, I could look down into the resort and the heart of their ridiculousness. They romped and lounged without a care, having been reassured that they could pick and choose when to fret, what to attend, how they smelled, whether they bled. They were willfully oblivious to our presence and activity.

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They saw their presence on the canyon floor as a logical progression. Their God loved a winner, and they had clearly won, as evidenced by the grass, asphalt and chlorinated water granted them by the resort and denied to the rest by a strand of barbed wire. We had a different take.

On our way to the climb, we had run across a pair of strays who had wandered outside the wire. They were women in their 30’s or 40’s who looked kept. There were signs of cosmetic surgery. They wore expensive jewelry and athletic fashion.

They stood at the outlet of an access trail which led 15 steps from the fence to the main trail. They asked us where the main trail went and how difficult it was to follow. We told them that it was a beaten path to the end of the canyon, a couple of miles from where they stood. After consulting with each other for a moment, they thanked us for the information, but said that they had decided to return to their enclosure, as the risk of getting lost was too great.

Looking up from the resort, I could see an overhanging cliff beneath which the Sinagua people had built one of their stone shelters. The dwelling itself was hidden. They had come and gone long ago. Even their descendants bore only foggy memories of the Sinagua.

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The Sinagua did not know that the canyon was designated wilderness, of which they were one user-group. I don’t think they could have comprehended the possibility. They understood impermanence, however, better than the current user groups. They perceived the impossibility of carving out a zone where they could excuse themselves from the land, weather and climate. When the time came, they moved on from their dwellings, and made no history. Continuity of experience was enough for them.

 

 

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Genesis

Along with The Fang, Bridalveil, Kamps Crack, and The Beckey Route, Genesis is a very tired route name. Everyplace has one, including Sedona.

It is a little more relevant in Sedona, because the name graces a route on the walls above the crazy-ass Chapel of the Holy Cross. In the land of the Vortex and burnt-Hippie spiritualism, The Catholic Church just had to get its two cents in. It built a huge, coffin-shaped edifice into the red rock, with a cross from floor to ceiling on the end.

It fits.

And Genesis fits. It is the beginning of a series of routes across the Church Wall.

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The approach is not great. You could die. It wouldn’t be easy, but you could.

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The belay ledge is spacious and picturesque.

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The climbing is good.

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Well-protected.

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With everything from 0.25-4 Camalot sizes. There is a second pitch – see all the loose blocks and the knife-edge flake above the anchor? We did not do that.

Genesis is worthwhile, especially if you approach by climbing Easy Rider on the other side of the Watchtower formation, and simply walk over to the start of Genesis from the anchors.

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Objective Hazards

There are two broad categories of climbing risk: subjective hazards and objective hazards. Subjective hazards are risks intrinsic to the first person. These are things like failing to properly tie a knot, pack a jacket or place the right protective equipment.

Objective hazards are everything else. They include things like loose rock, weather, avalanches and equipment malfunction.

Objective hazards may be avoided. One may choose to stay home if the weather looks bad.

Objective hazards may be engaged. One may choose to go out despite the 110 degree temperature, but choose to go to a shady crag at high altitude.

Objective hazards may be accepted. One may stick with the plan despite the blazing heat and just be prepared to climb poorly and suffer.

What one may not do with an objective hazard is control it. It should be obvious that weather, snow, loose rock, misguided guidebooks, and other people are all objective hazards.

However, although we readily accept natural forces and conditions of participation as objective hazards, we generally do not regard other people as objective hazards.

We count on others to behave in certain ways and blame them when they do not. We don’t make our best estimate of another’s capacity, plan accordingly, and then accept what we get. We expect performance according to role, which is characteristic of subjective hazards, at least when they do not prove hazardous.

This is insanity.

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Tenacious Calculus

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We keep coming back to it.
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Because, it is one of the best climbs in Sedona.
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It has four distinct cruxes.
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Starting right off the deck.
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My son demonstrates the most photogenic method of ascent. He still has a way to go; good technique is boring.
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In Defense of a Quaint Habit

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This Summer, climbing ended.

A journey which began in exploration of the heights by a few weirdos equipped with boots and a powerful dissatisfaction with life on the flats, concluded when Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan in Yosemite Valley equipped only with boots and a powerful dissatisfaction with life on the flats.

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El Cap. was where the closure had to happen. It was where climbers rounded the bend to see the sport’s conclusion, because El Cap. was where the use of climbing implements – pitons, ropes, chocks, etc. –  peaked and then slowly started to tilt toward freedom. Now, parties still engineer their way up the face of Yosemite’s premier monolith, but their methods have been exposed as second-best. They have been rendered the sport’s Civil War reenactors by the nuclear blast of Honnold’s solo.

Yet there may be hope for roped climbing. It may still be more than shooting blanks at a campout.

All history looks circular from a certain perspective, but that view misses the metamorphoses within lifecycles. And, that miss is a big one. The transformations carry all the themes, while the repetitions merely demonstrate mechanisms.

Yes, the butterfly will lay eggs, but its wings are beautiful.

Ropes and pitons opened the way up previously forbidden ice and stone. But the equipment also bound us to each other and the mountains. The rope gave us things like Pete Schoening’s famous catch on K2 in 1953. Actually, it gave us the 1953 K2 expedition. It gave us Peter Terbush.

We shouldn’t forget that the rope also gave us Alex Honnold. Without a safety system which allows for failure, and for pushing past the point of failure, soloing is just a stunt, like going over Niagra Falls in a barrel. The rope allows soloing as perfection of an art. A soloist climbs alone, but not apart from other climbers.

Still, climbers are a breed apart, and not because we are capable of feats which are beyond the average citizen. The rope sets us apart. It lets us see that soloing El Cap. is not a stunt. Climbing accomplishments of all sorts, which the average citizen, mired as he is in the institutionalized narcissism of our civilization, can only see as ego gratification, we see as steps on a path to a broader vista.

 

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Ahhh, what else is there? I mean that rhetorically.

 

Use of a rope gives access to that view: of the self as part of a team, the ego as malleable, and a person as part of the fauna on the vertical face of the crag. Some people will always yearn for that perspective, despite societal admonitions to keep looking down and stay in line. And so, roped climbing will persist as more than a quaint habit.

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Cutting Up an Ox

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Ben Sasse fears for our youth.

He is a U.S. Senator, and therefore he is a very busy man with little time to spare for side projects. Yet, so great is his concern for our kids’ predicament, that he has taken the time to write a book about it. It is not a bad book, even if you do not agree with what it says. You will have to trust me (or not) on the exact contents, because, “You may not make this e-book public in any way”, is all I will quote directly from it.

His thesis is laid out in the book’s title, The Vanishing American Adult, and he has summarized the gist of his prescription in the subtitle, Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

In the text, he depicts a generation afflicted by aimlessness. They have been stunted by coming up in the shade of social media and cultural relativism. Deprived of the harsh choices and bright lessons of social responsibilities and traditional rites of passage, kids have grown passive. They lack the ‘grit’ to sustain our society.

I won’t quibble with his depiction. Social media is a blight. The current generation operates on the assumption that ‘someone will take care of it’. Giving up is always an option for them.

I do disagree with his diagnosis and prescription, however. He seems to think that helplessness and hollowness result from a deficiency of citizenship. The correction would then involve a big shot of citizenship. He is completely mistaken. In fact, emptiness is the natural outcome of citizenship, and helplessness is just a reactive symptom.

On the most basic level, citizenship is a position in which one gets told that one’s life is fungible. One’s time, attention, motivation, and psyche can be chopped up and traded for goods to satisfy certain needs. Of course, Sasse recognizes this situation. He mentions “development of the individual” on a couple of occasions as a worthy pursuit, but only if it is pursued to certain ends (becoming responsible, self-sacrificing, ‘gritty’ – in other words, all those things that make a solid citizen). As far as I can tell, only the ends distinguish healthy developmental activities from selfishness, in Sasse’s estimation. And in a shocking coincidence, healthy ends are those for which the goods of citizenship come in handy.

“Why won’t my blood sugar go down?”

Maybe my analysis is unfair. Sasse contends that we are all a little defective, and our institutions may be a little defective, too. We should not expect a perfect synergy between man and social machine, even though the basic program is sound and actually the best that we can do.

But I hear differently all the time.

“I’m doing all those things that the diabetic educator told me to. I have changed my diet. I am walking every day. I am taking my medications like clockwork. So why is my blood sugar still high?”

This person is in my office every day, wearing a different, outfit, a different ethnicity, or a different gender. Yet they are the same person. They have a sit-down job, or two, in which they spend 40-60 hours per week dealing with an incestuous dataset – something so about itself, whether it is driving a cab or processing claims, that it demands attention to automatisms rather than any  particular skill. To ensure that their attention does not waver, an overseer tracks their activities and rates their efficiency. Their extraneous physiological and psychological functions are regulated by the employer as distractions.

The citizen in my office sleeps 6 hours per night, or less. They drink energy drinks to keep going, and eat foods which the package or the vendor says are healthy, because they haven’t the time or energy to prepare their own food. They are too exhausted to exercise properly.

As a result, they are obese, diabetic and hypertensive. As a result, they now require one of the goods for which they can sub-divide themselves: medical care.

Which brings us to where the defense of citizenship as a natural-born fertilizer for human development, breaks down. The trouble with the whole thing is not the palate of goods on offer, their costs, or the means of valuation. The trouble is the chopping, because the roots of experience (attention, motivation, responsiveness, etc.) can’t be cut up for a purpose, especially for delayed gratification of a specific need. The very notion mistakes the nature of needs and the relationship between our needs and our activities. Here, Sasse may have been better served by spending a little more time reading Nietzsche, and a little less time reading Rousseau and the Bible.

For an organism’s needs can’t really be parsed. The motivations underlying our activities are merely aspects of a single motive which Nietzsche labeled ‘will to power’. Even when we try to perform an isolated act of attention, we feel something about it, our neuro-hormonal system responds to it, and it tires us globally.

But Sasse seems to think there’s a neat way around the problem of dividing the indivisible.

Life on the Farm or 8 Pitches Up?

In the latter half of the book, Sasse talks about how he sent his daughter to work on a ranch. The idea was to teach her how to enjoy work – not any particular task, but work itself. Basically, he sought to teach her how to thrive as an instrument. It’s pretty clever, really.

He explains the strategy in a vignette:

Martin Luther met a man who had just become a Christian and wanted to know how best to serve the Lord. He asked Luther, “How can I be a good servant? What should I do?” He expected Luther to tell him that he should quit his job and become a minister, monk, or missionary.

Luther replied with a question, “What do you do now?

“I’m  cobbler. I make shoes”, the man answered.

“Then make great shoes”, Luther replied, “and sell them at a fair price – to the glory of God.”

In other words, find integrity in being a good instrument. I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious: Why not make great shoes to the glory of Satan? It’s the devotion part that really matters, right? This notion of the human lost at heart and essentially in search of a set of rails (any rails) undergirds fascism through the ages, and it works superficially, so long as the social venue is stable.

But I took another path with my kids, because I learned more from sitting on a ledge, than I ever did from a job.

We have climbed several long routes together. We have looked up, down, and out from ledges in the middle of those routes and soaked in the lessons: however precarious the position, what falls to us is to pass the water around, check the system, and find our way through the next rope-length of terrain; trust your partners as you trust yourself; no matter how cold, hot, tired or thirsty you are, the beauty of the sky and landscape remain; achievement, i.e. ‘ticking the route’, doesn’t really matter – it is only a means to get you to the ledge.

In taking them on those climbs, my hope was to offer them a way of life which put making a living in perspective, rather than telling them that making a living would put everything in perspective for them.

A different vignette illustrates my point:

     Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip, zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou Music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [“Dao”], which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.”
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!”
— Zhuangzi, chapter 3 (Watson translation)

I do not see the current generation as sissified hedonists, any more than previous generations. The hypersensitivity, the passivity, the absorption (self and otherwise) all look like symptoms of a bunker mentality. They see what’s in store for them and they don’t like it, but they don’t seem to know how to resist.

A Sasse-type message has gotten through. The citizenry coming of age does think that it must learn to embrace a social role (little worker, little voter, little contributor) wholeheartedly in order to fully mature, and it just can’t bring itself to do so. The instinct is right. Kids growing up in this era are being asked to pursue a sort of faux-maturity which involves merely “giving up childish things”, and the achievement of that state will leave them empty and utterly dependent on a structure which deals with them on the basis of a flawed methodology.

They need a little less Ben Sasse, and a little more Cook Ding, when it comes to advice about how to grow up. Because maturity means dealing with your situation – not just endorsing it – and dealing with it artfully. It means getting over being The Cobbler, The Christian, The Cobbler-Christian, or even The Cook.

In Sasse’s terms, I have laid out the Romantic counter-argument to his Realist argument regarding the nature of the individual’s relationship to civilization. But I reject that characterization to some extent. There isn’t an inherent conflict between the individual and the civilization. We are stuck with our civilization. It lies before us like the carcass of a great ox, and it is just as indifferent.

We get chopped up in our interaction with it, but our own hand is on the knife. And I agree with Ben Sasse here,  maturity is the solution. Not the faux maturity which the senator espouses, which is just a form of selling out, but actual maturity which sets limits and carves its own way, not towards some magical future, but like the cook’s knife, in the present where we all reside.

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