Friday, July 25, 2008

acrophobia and cathexis

If I remember my M. Scott Peck correctly, cathexis is a term used in psychology to refer to the extension of one's ego-boundaries toward and around something outside oneself. Example: when a guy cathects his favorite football team, their triumphs and disappointments become his triumphs and disappointments, even though the team has no idea the guy exists. Cathexis is therefore often one-sided, as it can happen not only in dude-team situations, but also in dude-inanimate object situations.

With all that in mind, I confess that I've probably cathected my BlackBerry, and have cathected various other pieces of Walk-related equipment. This state of affairs was brought home to me today when, while my laundry was perking, I decided to take a stroll across the Bridge of the Gods.

The bridge is located a few dozen yards uphill from the laundromat; vehicles entering and exiting on the Oregon side must pay a toll. Pedestrians, as the grandmotherly lady at the toll booth informed me, may cross the bridge for free.

Not having read anything more than Alan Cook's comment (appended to a previous post) about the history of the bridge, I simply started across, my eyes sweeping the bridge for some sign of a pedestrian lane. Seeing none, I shrugged and moved onto the span.

Are you the kind of person who never watches his/her feet when walking? Long years of bad luck have made me the sort of person who watches where he's going; the moment I stop doing so, I'm sure to step on a stone or partway into a pothole (this may, in fact, have contributed to my fall back in Washington). Were I to look up while descending a staircase, I'd be Gerald Fording every time.

So I was looking down when I started across, and after a few yards I stopped cold, because what I saw froze my heart in my chest: the grating under my feet allowed a full view of the bridge's underlying structure and the Columbia River. Yikes.

It was years ago that I discovered I had a thing about heights. One summer when I was in high school, I worked construction. It was very educational, and the gentleman who hired me, a man from our church, paid me very well by 1980s standards: 20 dollars an hour.

But I spent only two weeks on the job because I learned I was a zero at construction. Three incidents motivated me to quit: first, I forgot to lock the wheels on a rolling scaffold, and the thing slipped out from under me while I was working on a joist. The scaffold rolled toward the rectangular hole in the floor that was to become the head of a set of stairs (I was at attic level); it fell sideways into the hole and stuck there, while I hung stupidly from the joist, watching the disaster unfold.

Second, while outside the house, I was asked to carry a bucket of nails up to some guys on the second floor. To do this, I had to use a long ladder that was leaning against the side of the house. As I climbed, I could feel the ladder shaking beneath me, and I was gripped by the conviction that I and the ladder were going to pitch sideways. I'll never forget how much that ladder shook.

Lastly-- and this was the straw that broke the camel's back-- I was on the roof laying out roofing paper, laying chalk lines, and hammering nails into the chalk lines to fasten the paper to the roof.

Laying out the roofing paper was easy and didn't even require standing (or maybe it does require standing, but no one ever told me otherwise). You simply sit on one side of the roof with your huge, heavy roll of black roofing paper, then bowl it across the roof so that it covers a strip of the roof as it unrolls. After you've done one strip, you shift to an uncovered portion and repeat the process with another roll of paper.

Creating the chalk lines did require standing, which is when it finally began to dawn on me that I might have a serious thing about heights. The device that makes the chalk line looks like one of those heavy metal tape measures. Once you determine where the underlying joists are, you hook the chalk line to the edge of the roof, move to the roof's peak while making sure the chalk line is exactly over the joist, then you snap the line, which is covered in chalk. If you've done your job right, you've just given yourself a reliable guide that'll help you drive your nails in a straight line, securing the roofing paper to the joist below (the joist generally isn't visible because the roof is usually covered, at that point in the construction process, by large rectangles of plywood).

I managed to snap a chalk line correctly, but it was when I began to hammer the nails into the roof that I knew this was my last day on the job. I had worn all the wrong clothing for construction (wrong clothing seems to be a recurrent theme in my life): I had on my New Balance running shoes and a pair of sweatpants, much like the heavy cotton things I just sent home. Bad move: neither my shoes nor my pants allowed me a firm purchase on the smooth roofing paper, so each blow of my hammer sent me inch by inch toward the roof's edge. I had started hammering from the very top of the chalk line, but as I drove successive nails closer to the roof's edge, I felt I was going to fall off. I can't remember whether I finished all the chalk lines or not; I suspect I quit early that day. I do remember apologizing to Mr. Lowdermilk for being a poor worker; he took the whole thing with good humor and paid me fairly for my work. Maybe "work" should be in scare quotes. Frequent commenter Max Watson is right: I'm a wuss.

So that's how I discovered that high places and I generally don't get along. That fear was brought back to me today as I realized that only a thin gridwork of rusty metal lay between me and a long plunge to the river below. The blowing wind, a near-constant feature of the Gorge when you're near the river's edge, wasn't helping matters.

My fear was irrational, of course: cars were rolling placidly back and forth across the bridge, a testament to its trustworthiness.* I also found that, as long as I didn't look down, the bridge appeared solid, and I was much calmer as a result.

While walking from the Oregon side to the Washington side, I pondered taking a downward-pointing photo with my BlackBerry, a thought that sent a new thrill of fear through me. This is where cathexis played its role today, for I couldn't help feeling that, if the BlackBerry slipped from my fingers and fell into the river (the gaps in the bridge's surface could easily allow the BlackBerry through), this would be like me slipping through the bridge's surface and into the river.

It wasn't until I'd forced myself across to the Washington side that I decided to take the BlackBerry out and get it ready to take pictures during the return trip to Oregon and my laundry. I snapped a pic of the bridge's entrance from the Washington side, then started back across, keeping my eyes up until I was far enough to be over the river. Cars in the oncoming lane passed me with polite, deliberate slowness; I began to wonder how many pedestrians crossed this bridge each day. Once I reached a decent spot, I steeled myself, looked down, aimed the BlackBerry at the grid, and snapped the photo you saw in a previous post.

While I'm perversely proud to have crossed the Bridge of the Gods twice on foot, I admit it's not an experience I'd care to repeat. However irrational it was, the fear was real.

One final note: never having been to a therapist, I haven't been officially diagnosed with acrophobia (come to think of it, I'd also like to be tested for dyslexia). I do know that I'm OK with heights when I'm on soaring balconies, bridges with high railings, and mountain paths and overlooks with safety features like handholds and such. I've been up Seoul's Bukhan Mountain a few times, and that's a place that might scare a severe acrophobe. I mention all this in anticipation of questions like, "If you're so afraid of heights, why are you doing this walk? Didn't you realize you'd be dealing with heights?" I have a problem with heights, yes, but in general, if I feel that security is within arm's reach, I'm OK. A staircase can be a thousand feet tall, but if it's firm and has high railings, I can climb it. By contrast, I can't see myself tackling an obstacle like the US Air Force Academy's Tiltin' Hilton. No, sir.

*There's an interesting philosophical discussion to be had here about the rationality of trusting something merely thanks to a history of trustworthiness. David Hume comes to mind as an empiricist philosopher who would hesitate to conclude the bridge was safe merely because of its track record (beware the pitfalls of inductive reasoning!). But as a pragmatist, he probably wouldn't have hesitated to use the bridge.



Anonymous said...

I've been across that bridge. You're right- it'd be seriously wacky on foot. It's surprising just how thin/lightweight some bridge decking is when you consider the amount of weight it can hold up.

The current position of the BotG is some 44 feet above its original spot, thanks to the damming of the mighty Columbia River.

The links that we build with objects that are not-us are interesting, aren't they? As a reasonable newcomer to Buddhism I find it a particular challenge, because I'm so completely American- my stuff is me and I am my stuff, right?

I'm thinking right now in particular of how, when you go to visit someone in their house for the first time, they've got give you the "grand tour" and show you the place. (I've done it too.) We're so defined by our boundaries, or so we sure seem to believe.

Anonymous said...

Those bridges give me a mild case of the willies even in a car. The grid tends to make the tires slew around a bit, or that's how it feels anyway. I'm not sure why, but there are several around and about Oregon with those latticework grid decks.

Max said...

Sometimes heights give me the chills too, but generally I'm okay. Even though it's been a long time, there's a couple of subway stations in Washington D.C. that I'll never forget.

Nor will I forget crossing the Banpo Bridge in Seoul for the first time on my bike, on the wrong side. I took the very narrow path that couldn't have been more than 2ft. across, and the barrier on side couldn't have been more than 2ft. tall. It's not that I feared death, as the fall into the water from the lower level is only fatal to those who cannot swim, but rather feared the whole suckiness of me and my bike falling into the river if my right pedal just so happened to catch on the right-side barrier.

Being stubborn, I successfully crossed the entire bridge with great focus, which is how I imagine you did it today too.

Too bad your photo of the bridge doesn't have a size reference; before reading today's entry I wouldn't have guessed that the lattice surface was big enough to allow an chunky Blackberry to slip through.

John Mac said...

I can relate! Had a very similar experience when I tried my hand at construction work just out of high school. I think I lasted two days. I'm just like you if I have solid safety features the heights don't bother me so much, but a swinging suspension walkway without sides just mess with my head.