Monday, December 16, 2019


CONVERSATIONS with a Hypoxic Dog (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other inanities.  CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website majikwoids. A link is provided below and in the sidebar. 

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CwHD 91

A glossary of archaic or uncommon words is added at the end of the essay.

Chop Wood, Carry Water

Sir Isaac Newton is noted for his concise descriptions of the physical world. His three laws of motion are well known and the third law is so often cited that it has become something of a cliche. The third law states that for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. If object A exerts a force on object B, then object B also exerts an equal force on object A. The lift generated by a wing exemplifies this principle as does the game of billiards, the martial arts of aikido and judo, tsunamis, marbles, walking, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

While this exchange of forces is quite predictable for inanimate objects and the autonomic movement of animate objects, any attempt to apply the principle to human behavior is far more problematic.

How does one respond to an upraised middle finger (action)? Certainly, context is critical to any informed decision. However, the phallus finger seems to trigger such an emotional, visceral response (reaction) that informed reasoning is short circuited, adrenaline surges, and before we can say oh fooie one's middle digit is raised in return, the arm outthrusted, jaw clenched.

Thus the conundrum. Controlling one's emotional reactions is often beyond reason.

Neville Chamberlain is often reviled for his vain attempt to appease Adolf Hitler. Appeasement, of course, is most often considered a form of flight. In order to avoid confrontation, one attempts to pacify and conciliate one's opponent. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, is often lauded for his famous speech to Parliament in June of 1940 that proclaimed " ... we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and streets, we shall fight in the hills ..." Two of the Bible's most often quoted anecdotes suggest either course as correct: One can passively turn the other cheek or vengefully take an eye for an eye.

The United States Supreme Court, that once august body, has given this opinion on unbridled responses: "fighting words," speech and actions that incite others to imminent lawless actions, obscenities that might do the same, as well as certain types of defamatory speech and specific types of threat are not protected by the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and so can be regulated and even punished by the legal entity involved (the state of Pennsylvania in this case). Laws that have been upheld as constitutional are laws whic range from a simple summary offense of Disorderly Conduct to felonies such as Terroristic Threats.

Controlling one's limbic system, it seems, might well be imperative in order to remain at large and free from the capricious nature of some hanging judge. No simple matter apparently. Statistics from the Bureau of Justice from the year 2012 give the total of federal, state and local expenditures on prisons, jails and the like at just over $80 billion.

So consider the movement of water which is, of course, a body of knowledge encompassed in the science of hydrology. Moving water offers an analogy that might serve to untie the Gordian knot that is the feedback from one's limbic system. If one embarks on a river of some size, or a coastal voyage in a small boat whose motive power is the wind or one's muscles, the analogy becomes more apt.

The Columbia River does not need much encouragement to run at four or five knots. If the main channel is narrow or the flow is constricted by islands, the water will crown and carry away the less than intrepid sailor or paddler. Head on confrontations with currents, however they may arise, rarely profit the small boat sailor, paddler or rower. Flight is the order of the day. Back eddies, slack water and the lee side of some prominence provide the means to tame the aggressive current (might such current be labeled the aqueous world's limbic system?).

Flight, unfortunately, carries a connotation of cowardice. So euphemisms are in order.

Flight can mean simply running away; but the word surely connotes more than that. In terms of the working analogy, both back eddies and lee sides can equate with avoidance, a more complicated form of flight which involves keen awareness of one's environment as well as an astute awareness of human nature. Slack water, my personal favorite, at first glance appears to be merely indifference. The following anecdote implies much more.

Morihei Ueshiba, the man who put aikido on the map, often traveled by train. As a slight seemingly frail old man, eighty-something, he had his students carry the luggage. No matter how crowded the platform Ueshiba was able to walk sprightly along, parting the waters as it were, with his students hustling along behind in his wake. Committed to neutrality, focused, the old man lived upon slack water. He gave no thought to fight or flight. His only concern, to add an old Chinese analogy, was to chop wood and carry water.

Concentrating on one thing at a time seems beyond possibility in this digital age. Focus is wanting generally. But there is this: Sick with flu, prostrate on the couch, wallowing in self-pity, the cell phone rings (vibrates, chortles, clangs, dingdings, whatever) and reluctantly the call is answered. A long lost friend has reached out. Smiles and laughter and hail-fellow-well-mets blossom and flourish. And the flu? Well, one's illness is apparently in remission for the moment. Similar focused moments are common experience, if one but considers. And it is such moments that I label slack water: the disconnected haven between Scylla and Charybdis. And if moments are possible, why not hours or days or a lifetime.

Asians seem better at this mindset than western folk. Two prominent individuals who attained neutrality (centrality?) were Mahatma Gandhi and the Dali Lama. In an interview with Bill Moyers (still available on YouTube), the Dalai Lama was asked a question that cut to the core of the issue. How did he deal with insect pests like mosquitoes. The Dalai Lama laughed (a very happy fellow this fellow) and said at first he would gently wave a hand. And if that didn't work? asked Moyers. Ah, then perhaps a puff of air. And ... The Dalai Lama laughed his laugh, and then smack, he slapped his forearm. Chop wood, he said. Ha ha ha.

autonomic, involuntary or unconscious, relating to the autonomic nervous system which includes heartbeat and breathing among other less obvious examples (cellular homeostasis, e.g.).

conundrum, a confusing and difficult question or problem.

limbic system, that part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviors one needs for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for one's young, and fight or flight responses.

Scylla and Charybdis, in Greek mythology, Scyylla was a rather nasty six-headed monster who lived on a rock on one side of a narrow strait (said to be the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily), and Charybdis was a whirlpool on the other side.

summary offense, the least serious type of crime. Felonies are most serious and misdemeanors less so. Summary offenses can be decided without jury trial.