Cold Reading

Antarctic anecdote: earlier today, a guy told me the most important item in anyone’s emergency (ECW) duffel should be a thick paperback book! (in case you get stuck somewhere due to weather). Technically, I think the big fluffy gloves are still WAY more important, but I understood — he said he’d brought along just such a book, once, when other members in his party had nothing to read, and it got to the point where he had to tear out chapters of the book as he finished them, so everyone had something to keep their minds occupied.

Yesterday, I located the small McMurdo Library (I also familiarized myself with a great little Science Library on the top floor of the Crary Lab). An office just doesn’t seem like an office without a handy assortment of interesting books – and who knows what I could accidentally learn. A sample of books now scattered around me: books of poems by John Ciardi and Bill Fox, technical books on Antarctic Fishes, the Ecosystem Dynamics of the Dry Valleys, an overview of Antarctic Research, a Glaciology Report on the Ross Ice Shelf, an anthology of love poems, a book on the International Geophysical Year, and self-improvement books like Keep Your Brain Alive and the classic The Artist’s Way.

Since a large part of life in McMurdo seems to demand attention to interactions with self and others, I picked up a psychology book on the human mind, and a scientific book called From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement. I opened the book quite at random, to a section on earlier behavioral studies of Antarcticans, which includes a short quote from Alone by Admiral Richard Byrd, who over-wintered alone in 1934.

“Under such conditions it doesn’t take two men long to find each other out. And, inevitably, this is what they do, whether they will it or not, if only because once the simple tasks of the day are finished there is little else to do but take each other’s measure. Not deliberately. Not maliciously. But the time comes when one has nothing left to reveal to the other; when even his unformed thoughts can be anticipated, his pet ideas become a meaningless drool, and the way he blows out a pressure lamp or drops his boots on the floor or eats his food becomes a rasping annoyance. and this could happen between the best of friends. Men who have lived in the Canadian bush know well what happens to trappers paired off this way; and, mindful of these facts, I resolved from the beginning not to have Advance Base a two-man project.

Even at Little America I knew of bunkmates who quit speaking because each suspected the other of inching his gear into the other’s allotted space; and I knew of on who could not eat unless he could find a place in the mess hall out of sight of the Fletcherist who solemnly chewed his food twenty-eight times before swallowing. In a polar camp, little things like that have the power to drive even disciplined men to the edge of insanity. During my first winter at Little America I walked for hours with a man who was on the verge of murder or suicide over imaginary persecutions by another man who had been his devoted friend. For there is no escape anywhere. You are hemmed in on every side by your own inadequacies and the crowding pressures of your associates. The ones who survive with a measure of happiness are those who can live profoundly off their intellectual resources, as hibernating animals live off their fat.

For those interested, chapter 1 of Richard E. Byrd’s memoir can be read online: Alone, Chapter 1.

Two days ago (I think – it’s all blurring together) I heard two men discussing a past Antarctican who’d “cracked” and started believing there would be an alien invasion and such, and he had to be “sanity-vac’d” off the ice to New Zealand, where they said he promptly and unfortunately disappeared without treatment. He’d started getting paranoid, they said. “Like – what did he do?” I said. “Oh you missed it, like, for example, he started walking around to every table in the mess hall, just randomly talking to everyone about everything…!”

(Note to self: um, maybe I should stop doing this? I’m pretty sure this is exactly what I’ve been doing – talking with a different tables of folks at every meal…Hmmm.) The guy went on to explain, however, that everyone at McMurdo starting playing into his paranoid delusions about aliens. On the day the guy finally snapped, someone had put on an alien costume and rode a snomobile out onto the sea ice where the poor guy was working! As Byrd observed: how quickly we “take each other’s measure.”

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