Monday, July 20, 2009

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Spent a long week off: on the beach, lying by the pool, getting my daughter onto a boogie board, running along with her riding her bike on the boardwalk, going to the Asbury Park Candyteria for sour patch worms and Smarties, watching her ride her bike around campgrounds, and standing on rock ledges and steel pipes of about an inch wide, 100 feet or far more from any remotely friendly surface.

We made it to the via ferrata at Nelson Rocks Preserve, and I made it through it. Yes, I know whole Boy Scout troops skip through this rock-climbing course hooting and hollering, but I am afraid of heights to the point that I used to need an escort to make a drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I got over it. I kept breathing.

And I liked it, not least because as with trail running, I had to think with my whole body; where each hand and foot would go next, and whether each surface would hold, and where I was headed. The difference is in trail running, you fall and maybe shatter your teeth, your nose, your knee, your hand; here, a fall means it all goes, maybe all at once.

You're always clipped in--if you do it right--in at least one place, usually two places, to steel cables, which are anchored in the rock and loop along your entire climb. That's the trick. Staying clipped and keeping moving at the same time.

My climbing style was much like my running style: slow. As our guide kindly put it: "Well, you've got the 'being methodical' part down all right."

Superlatives are boring. There's the view from the top; discuss. Because I myself am still too damn high on the experience.

I am catching up with what pissed me off over vacation, and it certainly didn't take long to find anything. Last Sunday by the pool I had only opened the New York Times Book Review to the Letters section last week to find A Victorian broadside against Cristina Nehring's “A Vindication of Love," a book that argues that maybe the human brain, body and heart are intended to cut loose and enjoy some wild, juicy emotion once in a while. That maybe we were made that way, capable of experiencing emotional complexities, for the pleasure of it, and that maybe a proportion of humans are meant to explore these the way others do the sheer faces of rocks. But with all the passion of a wizened Dr. Kellogg preaching against the evils of red meat and the sin of self-abuse, the letter proclaims that:

"Nehring’s central position supports impulsive, unthinking and self-destructive behavior in the service of what she calls love as elevating and worth it for those brave enough to throw themselves into relationships with no regard to how injurious they may ultimately be to the self as well as to those around them.

"Basically, what is described could serve as illustration for a manual of emotionally disturbed living.

"What she doesn’t do is affix a warning label: 'This book may be dangerous to your mental health and your ability to manage your own life; proceed with caution when reading.'

"The writer is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School."

Well, of course he is. There, there. You're getting yourself all emotionally disturbed, hon. But really, you don't have to worry about a thing! It's not like it will ever happen to you.

And to think the original shrinks were such brave, mythic explorers. Therapists today, you've got some splainin' to do. I blame the health insurance system--those bunch of half-assed mail-order MBAs would never want a human to spelunk his or her self, desires, or experience. Today's therapists just want to patch you up enough to get you getting and spending again. Take this pill so the wheel won't make you so godawful dizzy anymore, little hamster.

Didn't get a chance to read much further, and I didn't have to, because there was this soothing and bright lede to the review, by David Orr, of the Thom Gunn selected poems. There's a guy who knew his way around an emotional ledge, all right. And yes, I'm well aware of how he died. And he wrote poems about that, too. Because somebody has to. Because it's going to happen to all of us sooner or later.

"'All poets, if they are any good,' Charles Simic has said, 'tend to stand apart from their literary age.' The key phrase here, of course, is 'if they are any good'; average poets don’t just stand within their age, they compose it. But we sometimes talk as if ­poets are exceptions not simply when they write well, but because they write at all. According to this way of thinking, the art form demands such devotion to one’s individuality that every poet, no matter how lowly, is a kind of outsider — a Cheese Who Stands Alone. This perception frequently finds its way into depictions of poets in popular culture; it also emerges in the vehemence with which poets themselves regularly declare their opposition to labels, categories, schools, allegiances, booster clubs, car pools, intramural softball teams and so on. Yet when everyone is busy standing apart, how is it possible to stand out? What does real independence look like?"

I'll take that one for $500: For a writer and maybe for others, I think it kind of looks like standing on a very thin, crumbling ledge, but staying clipped in at all times to at least one of two places--to the earth, and to the other humans living on it.

Photos: Fins to the left, fins to the right...for once, I'm not using images without permission. They're shot by DH, and he gave em up free and clear.

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