Friday, December 4, 2009


If you haven't seen Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic, Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, you should. Considering its debut in 1955 rattled moviegoers with its frank, voyeuresque perspective, it's one of those films that challenges the common, and perhaps false, perspective of 1950s innocence. There's nothing innocent about this film - it portrays communal living with a sort of unflinching construction of both observation and critique. Stereotypes are used in wholly new ways, and it's clear the film itself is pushing the envelope of censorship and decency for the era.

It's a thinking person's film, the sort that just aren't made very often in our contemporary time. Dialogue matters (instead of being used to just move plot or set up the next "money shot"). And like good fiction, "the devil is in the details." Hitchcock does a masterful job of placing the viewer in the chair of L.B. Jefferies (Stewart). I think that's just one of the things that makes me love this film.

Hitchcock builds on the common trope, the one equating wheelchairs and injuries with supreme vulnerability, and uses it to get inside the viewer's psyche. Often, when we're at our best, we think of chair confinement and injury as an interruption in "normalcy," a weakness to be healed, and even internment. This view has shaped the cultural view of those permanently living in such a condition - so much so the pro-rights movement for the physically challenged began its confrontation of society with a rhetorical campaign to change "handicapped" to "handicapable."

To lose mobility is to lose one's Western sense of self, of living, as Stephen King highlights in the 1990 film, Misery, starring James Caan and Kathy Bates. There's nothing more horrifying than injury, than internment and dependency or even the codependent relationship between hostage and captor. When Paul Sheldon (Caan) betrays Annie Wilkes (Bates) by attempting escape, she intensifies their bond by changing the nature of their relationship. She hobbles him, and in the process, increases both his dependency and hers:

Annie Wilkes' (Bates) connection between capitalist behaviors in the diamond mines, behaviors that created hostages of the working class, is an interesting (and haunting) connection. However we enter the capitalist machine, we all become hobbled by it in some way eventually. We won't quit or leave a bad job for fear of losing what we have - our dependency becomes the very nature of our internment. We'll critique the economy, hold it responsible, for our stresses instead of considering employers themselves manufacture and support our subordination with help from a ruling class and culture.

What really sucks: Ideologies are just as hostile to our well-being as our working conditions. What we value limits us, curtails our sense of independent agency, shapes our sense of "being" (in the philosophical sense) by making the day-to-day conditions seem normal, inarguably true - "the given circumstances" everyone encounters. Everybody works, so we say, so everybody has to "deal" with the limitations of that employer/employee relationship. Or as the song goes, "Everybody hurts ..."

I've been thinking about ideologies and normalcy all day - probably because my injury won't let me get too far from my apartment. One can do homework and read philosophies only so long before everything makes dangerous sense and one's mind wanders off, regardless of the limitations of metaphysics. When I'd get this antsy, disconnected feeling in the past, I'd either get on my bike or head to the wall (sometimes both). With all exits blocked and some regrettable chaffing in ye olde pits, escape isn't so easily won.

So I've been thinking, perhaps too much, about climbing and philosophy. In my jacked-up little world, I've come to think of climbing as a respite. But I'm thinking today that as marvelous as that may seem, I shouldn't afford myself such a hiding place. Climbing can be restorative, but it's not naturally so. In fact, I'd argue that climbing is always a litmus test. Even climbs one has done before can present a new challenge. So as one does come to wall or rock wanting the easy, self-removed hour or so of leisure, that isn't always what one gets. Climbing has a way of baring one's hidden limitations, the "I can't" and "I don't think I can do this" constructed on and off the climb.

I know I come to it looking forward to facing down my own thresholds, to push myself past my own sense of limitation and skill. And the sense of relief, the respite from daily drudgery, isn't anything but the shirking of chains I myself have cast. In other words, I've made choices - like my relationship status, my program, my job - that come at a cost. I don't always feel as though the consequences of these choices are just, tolerable, or even surmountable, but that doesn't equate to a loss of free will. Each day that I get up, go to work, crack a book - whatever - I am affirming my original choices.

Climbing, then, is a microcosm of larger psychological workings. It puts into route all the struggles that seem unrelated into a linear progression. Climbing is a condensation of the stakes. One can either go up, go down, or bail. Seems to me that's pretty much how life works. When it comes to work, I go up. When it comes to the day-to-day, I descend because one always wakes up, just as one hits the sheets and "goes down for the night." What I hate to admit, though, is that when it comes to love in all its constructions, I bail.

When I get close to friends, and begin to feel attachment, I often disappear or foster conflict - subconsciously - to alleviate a sense of vulnerability I have, until recently, perceived as uneasiness. When I have been within reach of a relationship, I have withdrawn, held firm a sense of awkward incompetence that is completely counter to my personality, because loneliness is a condition I know well and trust in a sick sort of way. You want to fuck me up? Love me and mean it. You'll soon see that I panic and squirm, claw and howl, like a cat going into a warm flea bath.

A few years ago, I thought this had more to do with my past than my present. I thought abuse had made me wary. But that was an old, crippling view, a limitation, chains forged from my own self-doubt. Just recently, with the changing of seasons, I came to believe that my way of coping with vulnerability is simply to bail. Climbing, in just a few short months, taught me the cost of bailing, the personal critique that follows when one bails on a route or project too soon. It has taught me to approach larger issues as a shorter set of "problems," and then to work out the skills, problem by problem, necessary to tackle the larger work.

Harnessed in and on-belay, I am the most physically vulnerable I'll ever be of my own will. When I'm working my way UP, I don't think about the move before - everything is on a future trajectory. One move at a time, one problem. In a world praising the value of multi-tasking, such mono-focus may seem archaic, pedestrian. But this ability to concentrate on just the present circumstances is saving my soul at the moment, when it's all I can do to get through my apartment without snagging on some outcropping of furniture, dragging a discarded something along with my crutches, or thwapping my Boot of Doom against the kitchen trash can no matter how often I remind myself of its location.

I used to possess a modicum of grace ... now I'm just sticks and momentum.

But when I lay awake, foot propped, book in my lap, I'm completely in that moment. I'm no longer thinking of all the things I need and want to do. I don't have a ticker running at the base of my consciousness, alerting me of my responsibilities and desires. Instead, I have just the words in my lap and the sense that time has been stretched into a pliant frame. What else do I have but presence? The past belongs to history, and the future has yet to be claimed. So all there is to worry about, to shape, to defy, is the present.

Well, and myself.

I think some define climbing as reckless because the thought of being so confident in one's ability that one would climb high and away from the stability of the ground is terrifying. People will say, "I can't do that - I'm afraid of heights." But I think, really, what they mean is that they don't want to experience not a loss of control, but the full accountability to oneself. Up there by choice, secured by a knot tied with one's own hands, there's not much room for a lack of self-respect. I'm no braver on the wall than I am on the ground - it's just that my self-trust and challenges are exposed. The wall becomes a mirror to the soul, and the soul's a fierce warrior.

Sometimes I think it's easier to accept one's weaknesses than embrace one's strengths. Compliments have always made me uneasy. And today, while sitting in my chair, clacking out a new entry for P'UP, I decided that was prima facie evidence of my own limiting ideologies. I raised my own bullshit flag. In the moments after, reaching for my crutches, I decided that they were the last ones I would ever allow myself to use. I'm thinking that this injury and its recovery is a demand for a different sort of climbing - a scaling of my conscience. And to make matters worse, its a free solo.

Bailing is not an option.

No comments:

Post a Comment

It's no fun to write into a void. Got something to share?