Back To Conferencing, Thanks To The Mountains

Last year, indeed, almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post titled My First Academic Conference. In it, after describing my reluctance to attend academic conferences, I closed with the following lines:

Now, I don’t go to conferences any more; the travel sounds interesting, but the talks, the questions and answer sessions, the social schmoozing, the dinners, (and the conference fees!) don’t sound enticing. I prefer smaller-scale, more personally pitched interactions with my fellow academics.  But perhaps a suitable conference venue–with mountains close by–will overcome this reticence.

Well, that ‘reticence’ was ‘overcome’ and unsurprisingly, mountains had something to do with it. Last week, I attended the University of Calgary Philosophy Graduate Student Conference to deliver a talk–as one of four plenary speakers. Calgary is, of course, wonderfully proximal to Banff National Park and the Bow Valley; hiking opportunities would be ample; so I gratefully accepted the invitation. My wonderful host was Justin Caouette, a doctoral candidate in the department who had organized the conference, and amazingly enough, offered to put me up and arrange a couple of hikes too. His hospitality and friendship made this trip memorable; he is a professional ethicist engaged in a constant struggle to abide by the theoretical principles he espouses; I can extend no higher praise to a practicing philosopher.

On arriving in Calgary on the 2nd, we drove up to Banff for coffee and some pleasant strolls around the stunning local lakes.  The next two days were taken up by the conference; I attended all the talks and participated in most question and answer sessions; I’m glad to say that these went well and were not hijacked by the kind of querulous interactions that are the bane of academic philosophical discussions. My talk closed out the conference; the time allotted to my session was generous and allowed for a very engaged interaction with the audience. (More on the content of my talk in a separate post.)

Once done with the conference, Caouette and I headed off to hike Mt. Yamnuska in the Bow Valley. The hike is an elementary one in terms of distance and elevation gain, but the scrambles above the treeline make it an exciting one, as does a short cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section leading up to the final summit ridge. Descending by a looped route requires scrambling down long scree slopes, an experience which was utterly novel. The views from the summit were stunning; the good ones always require a little work. (I will write more, in a separate post, about the personal challenge that the cabled section presented to a terrified-of-heights person like me.)

On the following day, Caouette and I had planned to hike Mt. Rundle, but locals in Banff informed us that avalanche conditions made that too dangerous. We settled for a pleasant hike from Lake Louise up to Lake Mirror and Lake Agnes. The lakes were still frozen; they were stunningly beautiful. The forested paths leading up to them were blanketed in snow, and hikers were rare. We were able to enjoy the stillness of that snowy walk in relative solitude.

Finally, on Sunday, we went for a little indoor climbing–my first crack at this endeavor. I chose a wall equipped with an auto-belay and tried a few routes; the 5.7s were elementary but the 5.9s defeated me. I consider myself a reasonably strong and fit person but was amazed at how quickly my arms grew tired; some failures resulted just because I could not hold on or pull up any more. (Much more on this experience too anon.)

I’m back home now, and have already notched up a full day’s teaching. But I’m only partially here; one part is still dreaming about the mountains.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – II

Yesterday, I made note here of my activities on the first of a pair of days of guided climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Our plan for the second day was to try to summit Mt. Washington, a beastly business in the winter. I had hoped a) to become proficient enough in climbing to attempt one of the gullies in either Huntington or Tuckerman Ravines as an ascent route and b) that the avalanche risk in those ravines was low enough to allow us to do so. Neither conditions were realized; I was still far away from being competent enough in climbing to try to do a gully ascent, and moreover avalanche risk ran high in those ravines (the Forest Service assesses the ravines’ conditions and posts updates on their website.) We would stick to the standard Lion’s Head Winter Route.

On Saturday morning, Nick Aiello-Popeo (of Synnott Mountain Guides) and I geared up at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and set off; the snow lay thick about us, and kept falling lightly. I found the going hard; winter hiking is slow and tedious at the best of times. I was also still coming to grips with the cold-induced clumsiness and stiffness; everything–putting on crampons, changing layers, grabbing a quick snack–was harder to accomplish. Once the Winter Route began, the slope pitched steeply upwards, and some caution, including roping up, was required on a couple of sticky sections.




We slowly cleared the treeline, heading for shrubs, which is where we encountered a fierce wind and swirling snow. We pushed on for a while; our steps were slow and labored. The wind–which had been forecast to pick up during the day–was strong enough on occasion to push me back down the slope I was attempting to move up on. I followed Nick, who kept breaking trail, but even his steps were quickly wiped out by the snowdrifts that came cascading down. My goggles were fogging rapidly, and my slightly shortsighted vision meant that I kept misjudging the depth of the snow in front of me. Indeed, the swirling snow and poor visibility meant that at one point, I lost sight of my leader and had to call out to confirm his location. (Thankfully, Nick was only a few meters ahead.) Finally, Nick walked back down the slope, and suggested we call it off; unsurprisingly, I agreed. Conditions were pretty hostile; we were moving too slowly; we ran many risks in pushing on. (Especially as, I suppose, Nick must have reckoned that my inexperience was unlikely to be an asset in pushing on.)

Our return wasn’t much easier; I kept slipping and sliding, finding it hard to internalize the simple lesson to place my cramponed heels first on the downward slopes. At one point, the endlessly patient Nick’s patience ran out, and he suggested I rope up for going down as well. I agreed; I had had my ice axe knocked out of my hands once on one slip, and a repetition would not be pretty. Fortunately for me, my slip-sliding adventures ended quickly thereafter, and we made it down to the end of the trail safely. We had been unsuccessful in making to the summit; a disappointment for sure, but it wasn’t clear to me that I could have pushed on in those conditions. (This photo gives some indication of what it was like in the Dragons’ Lair just below the Lion’s Head; as you can tell, I had my head down as I tried to move on.)


I was cold, exhausted, and sore all over once we had finished; I drove back to my motel, changed out of my wet clothes, stripped off the multiple layers (five on top, three below), and tried to warm up. Four of my fingers and two of my toes still complained about their treatment by the cold; one blister on a finger showed I had acquired a little frost-nip. Sustained further exposure might have made things worse.

All in all, winter climbing was an educational and humbling experience.; I need to be stronger, more practiced, more flexible, mentally more resilient. Like most things pertaining to the mountains, you get your ass kicked, but still harbor a curious desire to repeat the dose. Which I will, soon enough.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – I

Last week, I drove up to New Hampshire–more specifically, to the White Mountains in New Hampshire–to do a little guided climbing. (With the endlessly patient and tremendously knowledgeable Nick Aiello-Popeo of Synnott Mountain Guides in Intervale, NH.) Climbing in the winter is supposed to be hard work; this past weekend turned out to be just that. Friday saw some of the coldest weather of the year as temperatures fell to below zero Fahrenheit; Saturday featured steady snowfall, and then later, up on the higher reaches of Mt. Washington, high winds that eventually forced us back down, aborting our attempt to make it to the summit.

During my drive from Brooklyn to North Conway, NH, on Thursday I sensed, from the falling temperatures during the day, that the guided climbing that lay ahead of me would be good and frigid. My impressions weren’t mistaken; my abiding memory of my time in the White Mountains was the bone-chilling cold. Nick and I spent most of Friday practicing some elementary moves on Willey’s Slide and Frankenstein; on the former cliff, we did some basic ice axe and crampon work, moving up and down a snow and ice slope to get comfortable with controlled moves on those surfaces.


I made a small belayed ascent using some front-pointing and low-dagger technique; the slope featured some thin ice over rocks which made this interestingly challenging for a total novice like me. We also spent a lot of time just trying to warm up: windmills galore issued from our freezing bodies. We then changed venues to a): warm up a little by returning to the car and driving to a new location and b) work on a steeper slope to do some ice climbing.

At Frankenstein, Nick set up a bottom belay–anchored to a tree a little way up the slope–and I made two ascents using a pair of ice tools and my crampons. (I rappelled down while being belayed by Nick.)


This was very hard work. I was clumsy and uncoordinated, and frequently slipped. To make things worse, the ice on the rock face was not very thick, making most of ‘sticks’ into the ice of not very good quality. My poor technique didn’t help either as I often forgot to front-point and ended up standing sideways on my boots, which had the bothersome effect of scraping off more ice and snow than was useful for my next move up the face. At one point, I heard Nick reprimand me gently from below, “Ice climbing isn’t a sport in which you can jump or lunge!” I took short breaks to rest and warm up my hands; I was learning in short order just how hard swinging an ice-tool can be when your hands are frozen. (Nick also provided a couple of quick lessons in ice anchoring; I continued to marvel at the amount of gear he carried, and how deftly he was able to manipulate it all while wearing heavy mittens in the freezing cold.)

Finally, with the light starting to fade, we packed up our gear and headed back to the warmth of the car. I headed back to my motel to get some sleep and rest before trying our ascent of Mt. Washington on Saturday. A report on that failed attempt follows tomorrow.

An Unforgettable Image, Appropriately Contextualized

In the summer of 1992, I traveled to India to visit my family: my mother, my brother, his wife (my sister-in-law), and my little, then barely six months old nephew. The monsoon lay around the corner, promising mixed relief from the brutal heat of the North Indian plains; the humidity would still oppress, but evenings and nights promised to be cooler. My days at my brother’s air force base passed quickly: morning teas with my mother, playing with my nephew, indulgent afternoon beers, a lazy nap, then a long walk with my mother through the leafy, broad-avenued cantonment, and finally, at night, an old Indian favorite, several whiskies with club soda to accompany a hearty meal. It remains, to date, the most treasured of my many trips back ‘home’ since migrating to the US in 1987. Much was to change after that trip; those few weeks marked the end of an era of sorts.

Among the many pleasantly nostalgic vignettes of that trip that I can summon up quite effortlessly in my mind’s eye, one particular afternoon stands out clearly. That day, my mother and I returned to my brother’s residence on base from a brief train trip to meet some family in Central India. On arriving, my brother asked if we had had lunch, and on hearing we had not, suggested we get some take-out from the local market. My ears perked up, and I suggested we sample the wares of a local shop, which specialized in making the North Indian snack called kachori; this establishment’s products were known far and wide for their lip-smacking taste, and every daily batch produced by the cooks sold out in a few minutes. My brother looked at the time, saw it was just about that hour when the kachoris were to go on sale, and suggested we bust a move if we wanted to get lucky. I complied. We scored, picking up two dozen of the savory, spicy snacks. A dozen were to be consumed that afternoon itself; the remaining would have to bide their time till the evening. On the way back, I suggested to my brother that it would be a shame to not wash down our meal with a cold beer. He agreed, and we stopped off at a local shop to pick up a few three-quarter-litre bottles.

As we rode home on my brother’s motorbike, we noticed an unusually powerful afternoon monsoon shower brewing: grey rainclouds coalesced rapidly into gigantic black thunderheads building and lifting ominously as the winds picked up and little dust devils began dancing by the roadside. We arrived home, placed the food on the dining table to be sorted out into plates, opened our chilled bottles of beer, and stepped out into the lawn to watch the show being put on for our pleasure. As I drank the beer, its cold wetness in my gullet bringing relief from the heat, I felt exhilarated; the buzz was kicking in. All was well; I was at home with those I loved, beauty was all around me, good food awaited.

As we watched the storm brewing, my sister-in-law, a painter and artist, standing next to me, spoke softly: ‘Look at that; my most favorite vision of all, white birds flying with the black rainclouds as backdrop.’ I looked up; there they were, ivory-white wings silhouetted against the now-almost-ebony-black clouds, a stark and stunning contrast. It was, without doubt, one of the most startling and striking visions I had ever had of nature; it remains so to this day. And I knew, even at that instant, that my assessment of the beauty of the image presented to me, was directly and immediately affected by my placement (an air force base my father had flown out of many years ago), my company–those I missed so acutely once I had crossed the black water, my sense of belonging in a space that felt familiar, the love I could feel around me (and perhaps the beer too.) Without those accompaniments, I would not have seen what I did.

Note: In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, his psychoanalytic study of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sudhir Kakar writes:

The artistic streak in Ramakrishna was strongly developed, and it seems appropriate that his first ecstasy was evoked by the welling up of aesthetic emotion; an episode of ‘nature’ mysticism, it was the consequence of an aesthetically transcendent feeling: “I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my rice. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly till it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The puffed rice was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An access [sic] of joy and emotion overcame me….This was the first time I was seized with ecstasy.”



Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

Richard Holmes On Biography’s ‘Physical Pursuit’ Of Its Subjects

In an essay describing his biographical work on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Holmes writes:

[A] biography is…a handshake….across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is an act of friendship.

It is a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open, on both sides of that endlessly mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.

Holmes bases this view of the work of the biographer on two claims about the art, the first one of which claims that:

[T]he serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed.

Biography is a famously reviled literary genre–sometimes described as fantasy, sometimes intrusive voyeurism, sometimes ideologically motivated hatchet job. Holmes is right to describe it as being animated by an ‘endlessly mysterious question.’ (He is also perspicuous in describing it as a ‘handshake’ and an ‘act of friendship’ of sorts.) That question’s mystery–which becomes ever more prominent when we think about its unanswerability with respect to ourselves–does not make the attempt to answer it necessarily ignoble or ill-motivated. But it does bid us be circumspect in assessing how much of the biographer’s task is ever ‘complete.’

To acknowledge that difficulty note that Holmes adds a variety of physical emulation to the task of the biographer: we must be where our subject has been in order to assess what his experiences there might have been like, and thus evaluate what their contribution to his life’s work were. Thus the Nietzsche biographer must make the hike to Sils Maria and ascend the heights that surround it. There, perhaps, one might investigate what Nietzsche had in mind in his constant invocations of the ‘clean air’ he experienced there, and wonder about the sordid life he might have left behind. Because we are not disembodied intelligences, but rather embodied beings in constant interaction with our environments–physical, mental, and emotional–Holmes’ injunction is a wise one. The biographer who writes of Jack Kerouac without undertaking a long road-trip on American highways, and does not wonder about what effect the sights seen therein–big skies, the black asphalt stretching to the horizon, the lonely houses and farms, the lives of fellow travelers–could have had on an endlessly restless and fertile imagination is crippled, fatally, in his task.

But even as we set to work in this dimension, we realize how much is still hidden away from us, how much remains inaccessible. We are still left to play, unavoidably, with our speculations, distant third-person reports, and autobiographical confessions of dubious fidelity. Perhaps this is why Holmes concludes by describing biography as an ‘act of imaginative faith.’

Notes: This essay begins with what must be a distinctive entry to the ‘not-so-humblebrag’ genre:

By the time I had finished my eight-hundred-page biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1974, I was nearly thirty.

A Grandmother’s Gift: A Curiously Significant Number

I’m a numbers nerd; in all probability, this stems from being a sports fan. I calculate sports statistics in my  head; I can effortlessly multiply any pair of two-digit numbers in that same location; I retain an astonishing number of odd numerical markers in my cranium. As such, some numbers acquire a significance that goes well beyond their mathematical properties. Over at ESPN-Cricinfo, in the course of my blogging on cricket, I’ve written two posts on ‘curiously significant numbers’;  here and here. Some numbers, of course, possess a significance that owe little of their provenance to sporting connections. One such number is 7290.

That number represents the amount, in Indian Rupees, that my plane ticket to the US–for my original, home-leaving journey–cost in 1987. But I didn’t buy the ticket myself; my grandmother did. That’s what makes this number special.

In the summer of 1987, shortly after I had obtained my student visa from the American Embassy in New Delhi, I traveled to Central India to visit my grandmother (and sundry other members of my father’s side of the family.) My grandmother was not happy to see me go; she remained entirely unconvinced I needed to travel so far from home to obtain an education and find a career; she was concerned about the effects of ‘Western culture’ on me; she worried I would marry ‘a Christian woman’ and be lost to our family forever, discarding my familial and cultural roots and transforming myself into a stranger. But she could not bring herself to discourage me from going; she could not, indeed, muster up more than a worried query or two about whether I would be sufficiently resilient in the face of all the temptations that would soon be sent my way.

The reason for this reticence, of course, was that my enthusiasm at my impending departure was palpable and visible; I was eagerly awaiting the date of my long flight and my first glimpse of what would be my new home. My grandmother knew I had encountered many disappointments and frustration through my undergraduate years; she had heard me kvetching about them on many an occasion; she knew I had invested considerable hope in my graduate studies; and she knew the US had come to represent a promised land of sorts. She would not piss on this parade; she would not dampen my glee with wailing about how she was going to lose her beloved grandson to the evil forces of cultural imperialism. I like to think she trusted me to not lose myself; I like to think she loved me too much to not have too many ambitions for my life.

So, putting her troubled thoughts temporarily to rest, she resolved to give me a going-away gift. One afternoon, the day before I was to return to New Delhi, she called me into her room, and told me she wanted to give me a little something that would remind me of her in the US: she would pay for my ticket to the US. She asked me how much the ticket would cost. I told her the quoted price. She called our family accountant and asked him to bring a checkbook. Then, sitting on her bed, she bade him write me a check for the amount I had indicated. I returned to New Delhi with that precious check in my baggage. I paid for the ticket a week later. And caught my flight another week later.

I visited her five more times–in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1996. On each occasion, not knowing whether I would see her again, I burst into tears at the time of departure. In 1998, I received news from my brother she had passed away–at the ripe old age of 87.

She had been right; I never forgot her gift. Or her.