Rubbing Shoulders with Doom, What My Tattoo Really Means, and a Poll

The follies which a man regrets most in his life, are those which he didn’t commit when he had the opportunity.

~ Helen Rowland

When I think of crazy, I think of Chris McCandless. He would be almost nine months older than me, and alive, had he been not a little less crazy but a bit more prepared. Instead, he walked into the Denali National Park and Preserve without a compass, without a map, and with a plan incomprehensible to anyone but himself. I can appreciate his passion, the way he made the deliberate choice to abandon the upside of advantage and hit the road in pursuit of something besides what others envisioned for him. But in attaining the rewards that accompany the follies of youth, he paid the ultimate price.

I first encountered his story within the pages of writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild. Still in my 20s and on the verge of major changes both professionally and familial, the story of Chris McCandless struck a tender nerve. Perhaps it was because at that point I knew my chances of experiencing a personal hiatus of the sorts he chose were slim to none. I had a kid and a wife. Doors were opening for the career change that I’d been anticipating. And people in my position didn’t just drop everything and go on a walkabout looking for inspiration. I’d never had the mental and physical resources for that sort of adventure anyway. But a part of me secretly wished that an opportunity to do what Chris did had come along. Without the tragic ending.

The best part of Krakauer’s book, however, is his own account of climbing the Devils Thumb. These two chapters, sandwiched between episodes of Chris McCandless’ unfolding journey, spoke to me for the simple reason that he had survived, and come off the mountain wiser about our primordial hunger for all-things-crazy. Krakauer writes . . .

All that held me to the mountainside, all that held me to the world, were two thin spikes of chrome molybdenum stuck half an inch into a smear of frozen water, yet the higher I climbed, the more comfortable I became. Early on a difficult climb, especially a difficult solo climb, you constantly feel the abyss pulling at your back. To resist takes a tremendous conscious effort; you don’t dare let your guard down for an instant. The siren song of the void puts you on edge; it makes your movements tentative, clumsy, herky-jerky. But as the climb goes on, you grow accustomed to the exposure, you get used to rubbing shoulders with doom, you come to believe in the reliability of your hands and feet and head. You learn to trust your self-control . . .

It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.

Do I regret that I have no such story to share? That I never went skydiving? Never sang before Ed McMahon? Am I sad that most of the crazy things I’ve done occurred vicariously – adventures lived through the lives of others? Maybe just a little. But unlike Chris McCandless, I have lived to tell my tale. If you’re reading these words, then so have you. Crazy is as crazy does. And though my crazy is not terribly exciting, it is my crazy. These are my hands and feet, clinging to the slippery slopes of my pathway up the mountain of life, and yet this mountain doesn’t define me. It’s what I’ve learned along the ascent that matters . . .


Remember my tattoo? Well, I am sad, though not completely surprised, to report that it doesn’t mean what was intended. I did some digging online and came across a Chinese forum with an entire section devoted to translating tattoos. I posted a photo of my tattoo and the moderator very kindly wrote, “Sorry, you’re a victim of the gibberish Chinese font. Interestingly enough, the first two characters (i.e. those corresponding to GJ) are 武術 (wushu) which is a word, and means martial art. Unfortunately though they are badly drawn. The third ‘character’ is actually not a character in its own right, rather it is what is called a radical (a common part of many characters). The radical is known as “three drops of water” and if a character contains this radical, it usually is related to water in some way.

So I have a poorly-drawn tattoo that means, literally, martial art, hydro-.  Sweet!

He continues, “It looks like they were going to write a word related to water like perhaps hydroelectic or hydroponic or hydrate, but then stopped before they finished. And then imagine that maybe all the t‘s were written backwards, or the rt of ‘martial’ was combined into one letter that looked more like a backwards h rather than two separate letters rt, and that the l in martial looked more like a backslash \ than an l. That’s kind of what you’ve got tattooed.” So I think a new tattoo, one that actually means something, may be in order . . .


My heartfelt thanks to Pamela, Sally, Travis, Christine, Ed and Erika for their contributions to the “Just A Little Crazy” series. I hope you enjoyed reading their posts as much as I did, and that you took the opportunity to contemplate your own craziness. So, a question: Would you enjoy reading more Crazy posts? I’m thinking about making this a by-weekly thing and inviting a few more folks to contribute. Let me know what you think by registering your vote below. And if you feel led, leave a comment or send me an email to share further thoughts about the series. In the meantime, have a great day . . .

[photo credit]

26 thoughts on “Rubbing Shoulders with Doom, What My Tattoo Really Means, and a Poll

  1. Interesting revelation on your tattoo.

    Personally, I’ve found I’m rarely a fan of guest posts. Once in a great while they will encourage me to read the blogger’s personal blog, but often if I’m busy (as was the case last week) I read the intro, realize it’s not the blogger I want to read, and skip the post.

  2. If I choose to continue doing the series, I will more than likely set it up as a separate blog. A few people have said they’d like to contribute, so there is at least some interest. Still chewing . . . and I appreciate the comments.

  3. I saw the movie, Into the Wild. It was beautiful and painful, all at once. The adventure spirit run amuck. But also, a depiction of the tragedy that can be untreated mental illness (though not as clearly depicted as I would have liked, the mental illness component). I so admire his family for telling his story, however.

    • I wonder about the mental illness part. Has this been considered as a theory elsewhere? I don’t think Krakauer touched on this in his book and, as you said, it wasn’t even hinted at in the movie, other than perhaps to consider it as a possible outcome of the deprivation he endured while trying to survive in those final days. His notes seem to be written by someone clearly not insane . . .

      And I wonder how much support/assistance Sean Penn received from the McCandless family while making the movie? I need to watch it again . . .

  4. I liked the series! I found myself wishing that I had some crazy deed to share…

    Maybe just do it on a monthly or bimonthly basis so people don’t get burned out and you don’t run short on material.

  5. …and yes, get another tattoo!

    But don’t let your new information diminish the worthiness of your old tattoo. Regardless of whether it’s misspelled or inaccurately drawn, if it has meaning to you, then to heck with whatever anyone else says about it. It may, in fact be all the more meaningful in that its imperfections make your tattoo truly unique.

  6. I read the book and watched the movie several times and didn’t catch any reference to mental illness. Family abuse? Got it. But that doesn’t mean he was mentally ill at all. I thought he was an idiot for going to Alaska and didn’t even know how to fish, for God’s sake, but in general I think his spirit was sweet and his intentions to find himself; not in the cheesy, meditation, drink only sparkling water and have high colonics way, but in the way of any one of us who has questioned the “why am I here? What is my purpose? Who the hell AM I ” phenomena.

    That said, I have enjoyed your guest posts, but was a brand-new reader to the blog prior to them, so I really can’t sya much about it. Whough, um, the tattoo thing? Is hilarious. Should I apologize for laughing?

  7. McCadless was not prepared. Even I, Wisconsin girl would’ve avoided some of those tenderfoot mistakes. When I read the book, I wanted to explain some basic outdoor survival skills. My Pop Pop would not approve.

    I wondered if he had a death wish.

    The movie romanticized his journey,

  8. My daughter used to draw nonsense chinese characters on her arm and the arms of her softball teammates before games. They all knew they meant nothing, but liked the way they looked anyway. I think she’ll get a kick out of your tattoo story.

  9. I have loved every post in this series! Still need to comment on two, but I have read them :)

    I definitely think you should continue! These guys are incredible writers so hard shoes to fill, but I would love to read more!

    It has made me think of what I did that was crazy… And at first I thought and felt out of place, but with the wide variety of ways your friends have defined crazy, I realize thatr yea, I’ve done some crazy stuff!

    I loved that book, but I hate tragic endings :(

    Oh and sorry about your tattoo, I kinda laughed when I read it…sorry ;)

  10. Funny about your tattoo. But regardless, it’s nice looking, it’s part of you and it meant something to you at the time. The literal translation is then not so important.

    I loved your guest posts. Loved them. Loved hearing all about their adventures and your introductions. If you did the guest posts on a separate blog I would still be interested so be sure to clearly link them to you!

  11. Your tattoo is what you make it. When people ask you tell them what it’s supposed to be. Any tattoo artist would do proper research and do their best to get what you want. At least I would hope so.

  12. I enjoyed the guest posts. Kind of interesting how the definition of “crazy” is a very personal one, as is the one for “normal”. But the different writings end up as a verbal “crazy quilt” which might make for an interesting published compendium.
    About the tatoo – whenever you explain it you might want to say it’s a new language form – pig-chinese or some such. Who would dare question that explanation. Heck, you might want to elaborate on the tatoo -for fun. G

  13. “crazy is as crazy does.” so true. overall, i have very little crazy in me. well, at least not a lot of adventure-crazy. mountain climbing, sky diving, etc., are just not up my alley. i’m very “safe.” sometimes that good. sometimes it is sort of sad. but, like you said, i’m here and alive and pretty happy. i have had some adventurous friends die, or worse.

  14. If you read “The Climb” by Anatoli Boukreev, you’d realise that Krakauer is not someone to envy, but rather, to despise.

    You have more honour, wit and wisdom in your dandruff than in all of him.

    By the way, you can’t have everything, but from where I stand, it looks like you’ve got the important things covered.

    As for tattoos, let’s face it, no matter what tat you got, you’d eventually regret it. I’ve never met an old person that I respect who thought that their tat was a good idea. Yep, I’ve thought about getting a tattoo when I was youger, but in the back of my mind I knew that my tastes would change and the tat would only get blurrier.

    • I picked up Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” several years ago for a buck at a garage sale, but have never taken the time to give it more than a cursory flip-through. In light of your comment, maybe that’s more than it’s worth. My copy is the first edition hardcover, and in doing some reading about the book you mentioned, I learned that the paperback versions of both books contain combative postscripts in which both Krakauer and Boukreev defend their account of the events on Mt. Everest. Chasing this tale is something I don’t have time for at present, but I’ll take your word for it that Krakauer’s book is not the final word on what happened. However, I envy Krakauer simply because of the places he’s been and the things he’s seen, not necessarily for the kind of individual he is.

      As for the tattoo, I imagine many people get them for the rush of the moment and not with a desire to see it stand the test of time.

      As always, you leave me thinking, and I like that . . .

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