Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Careful People

On Sunday morning last, Studio 360 featured as a guest a choreographer to expound, along with the host whose name eludes me, on "extreme art." I never really figured out what they were talking about, as I was reading the Sunday Times and drinking coffee and just generally finding my wakefulness far too fragile for the mellifluous murmur of the host (whose name still eludes me), which threatened to send me sleepward every time I attended to it.

[Upon hunting down the S360 link, I discovered that the host is Kurt Anderson and last week's co-host was Elizabeth Streb. -- Moon]

This isn't really about that show. Except to the extent that it is.

Toward the end of the program, the guest posited that there are two kinds of people in the world (a formulation that always blinks red for me and thus commanded my attention): careful people and their obverse, people who are not inherently careful (I imagine she would object to me re-stlying these people as "careless," though the dispute would be idle, semantic, and diversionary).

Aside from the necessarily tendentious two-kinds-of-people-in-the-world conceit, the underlying idea, that some people are more inclined (or indifferent) to risk, seems straightforward enough. We are surrounded in our daily lives with the courageous and the complacent -- often, the latter work for the former, especially in smaller enterprises, although sometimes in larger organizations one must search long and hard to find a brave person, and sometimes in small organizations all of the principal players are risk-takers.

As a rock climber and cyclist I'm familiar with the assumptions people tend to make about my personality based on my choice of recreation -- that I court danger for the adrenaline, for the rush, like some swinging dick with a child's inability to conceive his mortality. The grain of truth in this is trivial and beside the point, but nobody listens when I note that I experience a greater adrenaline high before speaking to a group, even a small one, than I do halfway up a challenging bouldering route. Sometimes on rock the situation becomes perilous, and then the intensity is elevated along with the visceral response. But this is the exception rather than the rule; there is, to be fair, a great deal of pain involved, but pain doesn't induce adrenaline, at least not at the level I have in mind. Climbing pain isn't scary in a way that engenders a fight or flight response. With cycling as well, adrenaline rushes are few and far between, even when danger looms. Adrenaline, even as it heightens awareness and improves reflexes also can obscure simple solutions to straightforward problems. I can count on one hand the adrenaline rushes I've experienced in the car in the last five years, and I attribute my accident free driving largely to this: an absence of panic keeps me from overreacting. Similarly: on the bike, on the rock.

In short, notwithstanding the implicit danger in my chosen hobbies, I don't consider myself a thrill seeker. I'm petrified of heights, I feel naked driving without my seatbelt on or riding without a helmet, and I don't do anything that I think is inordinately dangerous in any really grave way. Sure, climbing rocks makes it more likely that I'll blow tendons or break a leg than my weight-lifting peers, but that doesn't make it likely in any really material way. Twice a miniscule chance, is still a miniscule chance.

So who did this woman have in mind when she suggested that some fraction of the populace is courageous in a way fundamentally divergent from the balance -- presumably the majority -- of people? Is it possible to divide people into the risk-averse and the non-risk-averse? Are these people courageous in all areas of their lives? I imagine -- though I can't point to any one individual at the moment -- that I have seen climbers gripped by fear who are risk-takers in the workplace; similarly, I've little doubt that some of the bravest professional performances I've seen are, in their principals, mated to cowardly tendencies in their emotional or social lives.

I tend to equate ambition with courage. But perhaps it's more accurate to say ambition is a necessary, but in itself insufficient condition for courage. But tacking this on to the discussion begs a question of the relationship between a willingness to embrace risk and courage. Is it courage to take a risky course when the same end might be achieved without such exposure or is it just stupid. To return to climbing for a moment, there are risk averse climbers who are very very capable and climb extremely well. Indeed, the climbers I perceive to be this way are my chosen partners -- not because they accomplish less and take the heat off me, but because I can trust that what they're doing makes sense, even when I'm not able to discern their tactic. Only with climbers like this am I comfortable; people who barrel up the rock wasting energy and taking unnecessary risks scare me -- both for their own sakes and mine. As with other dangerous activities, this old saw: there are old climbers, and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers.

It's funny: that aphorism is more literally accurate for climbing than for other pursuits to which it might be pithily applied. Bad climbers, stupid climbers, climbers in it for the rush, really do die from time to time. Good climbers die too, once in a while, but usually when they neglect the very fastidiousness and mental acuity that earned them the "good" descriptor in the first place. And I suppose it's this that people get hooked up on: there is, however small, a lethal risk in climbing. There is also a lethal risk in cycling in traffic. And these risks are, statistically (for what that's worth) elevated by comarison to the office- and tv-room-dwelling masses. But risk has many faces, and the same people who shake their head at my foolishness think nothing of getting in the car on an icy morning and commuting to work in a sea of 4,000 pound steel behemoths.

I don't consider myself to be courageous in the professional sphere. So perhaps I resist the proposed bifurcation because it leaves me in limbo, neither here nor there, at least to the extent that I am among the "careless" in my recreational activities. I don't like limbo; I'm so fundamentally equivocal and ambivalent in so many respects, I'll fight people who suggest yet another way in which I'm out of place here or there. Well, I probably won't fight, since I'm not all that courageous in that regard either, but as a figure of speech it will serve.

There's really nowhere for this little ramble to fetch up. I just found the whole line of discussion to be effete, reminding me that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think humanity can be divided into two kinds of people and those who are sufficiently comfortable with complexity to reject this convenient fallacy.

(And anyway, what the hell constitutes an "extreme" coreographer [evidently, forcing dancers to dive through glass; I just caught that on the website but missed it on the radio -- talk about stupid risks . . .]? Tell you what, Miss Extreme Dancer, come on out to the rock some November saturday morning, and my friends and I will show you extreme. Or at least that's what my non-climbing friends think.)


Blogger matt said...

Pfft... climbing, cycling, driving fast... you haven't felt heart-pounding excitement until you've done some ironing... TO THE EXTREME!!!!!!!

7:55 PM  

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