Tag Archives: love

A Romance for the Ages

Even before the UN, we could see it coming. One tin-pot dictator can always recognize another, and once their eyes meet across a crowded international stage, destiny takes over. A love affair is inevitable. For, an affair with an autocratic kindred spirit is the closest that either will ever come to his core aspiration: simultaneous actual and metaphorical auto-fellatio.

The passion between Rocketman and Cap’n Reality is extra special, though.  It is special because the younger partner’s pallid complexion, chubby cheeks, and Kim family glasses, perfectly complement the older man’s crispy ‘do, orange naugahyde integument and conniving squint (not to mention his teeny-tiny hands).

And it is special because both partners are imposters. Each having found himself in an awkward situation as a result of pursuing his fondest dream with too much gusto, they are both making it up as they go along. That makes their passion a refuge as well as the sole substitute for special sucking.

It is no wonder then, that each mounts the other in turn, in public, on a daily basis.

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Tabula Rasa

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

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

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

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

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

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12/22/13, 0200

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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