Monday, May 20, 2019

Dragonfly Time: Notes from the Oregon Coast

Visiting family in Portland.  In the kitchen my eyes are drawn continually to the clock, the place where a clock would logically be.  But it’s not a clock, it’s a round bowl-shaped, screen-thing decorated with dragonflies.  Many glances before my brain is convinced my eyes will not find a clock there.

On the beach there has been an enormous die-off of little crabs, about a nickel or quarter-sized diameter.  Their bodies mark the long uneven lines of high tide.

For Mother’s Day the community has hid glass balls–floats–on the beach for people to find, not unlike an Easter egg hunt.  These are decorative newly-made glass balls, not the old ones designed to keep fishing nets managed.

Groups of people are searching for the glass floats, randomly, combing through the grass and log-strewn dunes where we typically enjoy solitude.

My wife Aisha and I believe that certain small found objects are tokens of good luck.

Historically, I have been good at finding beach glass, water and sand erosion rounded shards and scraps.  Over these seven days I am finding almost none, but Aisha is finding much.

But, oddly, I am finding many agates.  I am thinking of an old Jesse Colin Young song:

 And my front pathway markers
Are pieces of granite and chert.

Note to self: research the difference between chert and agate.

Note to self: hold on the vinyl LPs (which I haven’t played for years).

The Green Flash.  I have always wanted to see this near mythical phenomenon which occurs over the horizon as the sun sets in the Pacific.

Is that a real thing, Aisha asks, the Green Flash?

I tell her I believe it.  The cloud-dancing coast of Oregon in late spring will probably not be the best place to see it.

“The Blue Men,” my favorite story by Joy Williams.  The line:

The blue men! We wanted so much to see them but we never did.

Written on postcard from the main character’s now-dead son.

We visit Mo’s for dinner, an indulgence, a ritual.  There’s a touristy junky toy shop alongside the line to be seated and I remember Macklin finding this bottle opener with a pirate’s head as the handle.  The pirate looked exactly like him.

Outside of Mo’s is where the Siletz River meets the ocean and the water roils with the meeting of the fresh water emptying out and the salt water rolling in.  Seals are out in the water by the dozens rearing their head above the surface randomly, sleek water dogs, a couple dozen of them.  Above, an equal number of seagulls squawk and wheel and dive also seemingly at random. In the sky above all this the sun is radiating through spectacular dark clouds.  There won’t be green flash tonight but it truly is grand.

We’ve been meeting with a real estate agent here at the coast.  We trust her, and like her.  She reveals a surprising amount of personal information about herself, unbidden.  Which seems somehow unlike her.  She tells us about the time when she and her twin sister were attacked by an intruder at their home in Ketchikan.  Their father arrived in time to prevent disaster.

            Did they catch him?  We wanted to know.
            No, his footprints went through the snow in the backyard, over the fence and into the woods.

None of the houses we look at inspire us to imagine we could love them more than the house we live in now.

How many kids do you have?  The real estate agent asked.
One, we half-lie.  It’s easier.

A few days before he died Macklin and I had a long conversation.  He was thinking, he said, of moving to Lincoln City.  This surprised me because when we took him to Lincoln City he sulked the whole time and barely left the hotel room.  He also asked if I had a spare crucifix.  I did.  He asked if he could borrow a shirt for a job interview.  That blue striped one.  Of course.  Could you iron it for me?

I wish I could remember all the details of that long conversation.  I mainly remember he was calm and wise, as opposed to his more frequently presented self: agitated and smart.

Beach reading.  For a piece I’m writing: David Roberts, Dee Molenaar, Jim Whittaker.  For pleasure: Valerie Luiselli, Jenny Offill, Laura Van den Berg.  From Van den Berg:

Behind every death lay asset of questions. To move on was to agree not to disturb the questions, to let them settle with the body under the earth. Yet some questions so thoroughly dismantled the terms of your own life, turning away was gravitationally impossible.

Because my friend did it, I enter some bits of information into The Death Clock.  According to the Death Clock I will live to be 69 years, 11 months and 2 days.  My last day will be Wednesday May, 10, 2023.

At the shortest life cycle a dragonfly from egg to the death of the adult is about six months.

Which is why I have almost always avoided fortune-tellers, psychics, tarot, and even shamans and lamas.  Don’t ask about what you don’t wish to know.

For Mother’s Day my wife asked me to accompany her to Sunday mass.  The priest was dreadful, a  second-language speaker who paused a full breath between each word.

Through     these     mysteries     may     grace     be     given,     O     Lord,     that    understanding     our     earthly      desires     we     may     learn     to     love     the    things     of      heaven.

My wife demanded a refund from me.

At the shopping center.  My wife points to a penny on the ground.  I pick it up.

I put it there, she says, for you to find.
Yes, my shirt was $9.99 and they gave me penny.  I felt sorry for you because you haven’t found any beach glass.

On our next-to-last morning we find a dead baby seal on the beach.  We had seen them riding on their mother’s backs.  This one shows no sign of trauma and I wonder if it has somehow drowned.  Its lips are curled upward as if in a smile.

The room we are staying in is right on the edge of a bluff looking over the beach.  We have stayed in this exact room, by request, many times. The windows look west and north.  Because we are so close to the edge, the birds swoop past the windows as if we’re in tree house.  We look down at the beach with a bird’s eye view.  People, whose actions are mysterious from this height.  Dogs, running with joyful abandon.

In the last photograph of Macklin, the one the trooper showed me on his cell phone to identify him, he has just been pulled from the water.  He is not smiling.  No, he is not smiling at all.

At the memorial service I am sitting next to his girl friend.  She reaches over to hold my hand, I think, but instead she passes to me the pirate bottle opener. He continued his spiritual journey dressed in the shirt I ironed for him with the crucifix he asked for.  I hold on to the bottle opener.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

I Went Rockclimbing

I had shoulder surgery early spring last year and missed a whole season of rockclimbing. There were two winters in there, about 17 months all tolled.  Longest stretch of not-rockclimbing since 1971.

Naturally, it was ten degrees cooler than yesterday and it’s spitting on the windshield as we drive down the Arm.  Also: we had this big earthquake last November and there have been piles of rubble at the bases of all these crags.  Loose rock is on our minds.  Mine anyway.  We add a puffy upper layer.

Charlie leads.  He’s so damned measured.  Watching him I can’t tell how hard the climbing is.  Whatever the move is, he’s through it both unhurriedly and unhesitatingly.  Whereas hesitation is the name of my game.

Charlie keeps the rope fairly tight as I follow.  I hadn’t asked him to, he just knows. I want to holler out for tension at a couple spots, but contain myself, settling for blurting out “watch me” a couple times.

It’s high tide and the waterline comes nearly to the road here.  The water is roiling below us.  From high up it feels like if you launched yourself off the rock you’d hit the water, but that’s not remotely true.

The upper pitches are all easy and it’s windy as hell so we rap down and do another pitch from the ground up.  This one I’ve done many times before and it’s a tad easier anyway.  It’s almost as if I know what I’m doing.

We wander back to the car looking for signs of fallen rock and commenting on the routes, walking under Garvey and Sweeney’s Road Warrior, one of my favorites.  They put it up in the rain.

My toes are smooshed and my hands are scraped up and bloody.  We weren’t out too long, but my god it felt good to be back home.

Photo: Climbing above the Seward Highway with Joel Chasteen on a nicer day!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

More Blue

The month I graduated high school Joni Mitchell released Blue.  For me and my friends the draft loomed (but never arrived) over us and it was hard to focus on the hazy future. Mitchell’s Blue was a particular person, James Taylor, but we felt she had all our backs somehow: Now you've got to keep thinking/You can make it thru these waves.  Most of us did.

Cyanotype is a 19th century photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. The first book of photographs, published in 1843, was composed of cyanotypes made of British algae by “A.A.”   Originally attributed to Anonymous Amateur, the book was soon found to be the work of Anna Atkins.  The algae itself floats ghostly white against the blue background. The New Yorker refers to the Atkins prints as “delicate collisions of science and art.”  The process was used into the 20th century, particularly as blueprints.

When our blue-eyed son Macklin was in first grade he came home one day singing.
It turned out to be a Euro-techno world-wide pre-viral sensation by an Italian group
called Eifel 65.

Yo listen up, here's the story
About a little guy that lives in a blue world
And all day and all night and everything he sees is just blue

We often wondered whether Macklin possessed an eidetic memory.

The idea that the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for blue comes from Goethe’s Theory of Colors.  This is his rationalization for Homer’s famous description in the Illiad of “the wine dark sea.”   But Goethe wasn’t entirely wrong.  Caroline Alexander observes that the Greek word for blue, ku├íneos, was not used to describe the sea until the late sixth or early fifth century BC. by the lyric poet Simonides—and even then, it’s not clear if the word is used to describe color or light.  The city where I live, Anchorage, is bordered on the west by the Cook Inlet and the north by the Knik Arm.  An enormous tide of forty feet reveals an expanse of mudflats when the tide is out.  The water is never blue, always brown.

Robert Hass’ “Stanzas for a Sierra Morning” seems to begin in the real world and shifts midway to the more elusive:

You couldn’t have bought the sky’s blue/Not in any market in Samarkand

He continues, speculating that such a blue exists, but maybe in poetry.  He concludes, advises, “Keep an eye out for the immaculate azure.”  Wherever we may see it, I presume.

We picked blueberries in the summers near a town called Oquakwa near the Mississippi.  Oquakwa was famous as the site of the death of circus elephant, Norma Jean, struck by lightning and buried on the spot in the center of town.  The circus, it was said, closed down shortly after the loss of its star attraction.  I remember the time the heat and humidity were overwhelming and we gave up early and got ice cream cones as we drove out of town.  The photograph of Macklin that day is etched in my mind: his short, styled hair, sweat-beaded face’ he’s sitting on a blue metal lawn chair.  The ice cream cones melted so fast we threw them out the windows of the moving car.  We froze the blueberries individually on cookie sheets and ate them into the fall.

Oliver Sacks believed that indigo blue was the color of heaven, the color of eternity and he wanted to see it.  He believed that the right drugs would enable this quest. He writes in his book, Hallucinations, that after imbibing, suddenly “as if thrown by a giant paintbrush,” a “huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob” of color appeared magically on the kitchen wall. It was a miracle of blue. It was, he says, “luminous, numinous; it filled me with rapture." He would never see this again.

An inorganic pigment, Yln Mn, was created in 2009 when oxides of manganese, yttrium, and indium were heated together at 2000˚ F in an Oregon laboratory. 
Considered the first new complex inorganic blue to be manufactured since cobalt 200 years earlier, it absorbs red and green light waves while reflecting a “superblue.” Crayola’s newest crayon flavor, Bluetiful, is based on this.  Since then a more recent bluest blue has been created.

Macklin, our lost son. He often used my laptop, mostly to access music.  I stumbled over a file of his recently: ten most played songs.  Seven of them were by Modest Mouse.  The one he listened to most is called “Baby Blue Sedan.”  It begins: “A nice heart and white suit and a baby blue sedan/and I am doing the best that I can.”  And later: “And it’s hard to be a human being/And it’s harder as anything else.”  Though this song may speak to and of him best, I can’t bear to listen to it all the way through.

Haint blue is shade of blue that Gullah people painted on the ceilings of their porches to prevent haints from passing into their homes.  Haint is form of haunt, translated loosely as ghost, or more specifically as a witch-like creature that chased its victims to their death by exhaustion. Haint blue was intended to either to imitate the appearance of the sky, tricking the haint into passing through, or to mimic the appearance of water, which haints traditionally could not cross.  I have not painted the ceiling of our porch haint blue.  The ghosts are already inside; more are welcome.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Tipping Point: Notes from an Aging Alpinist

Consensus on television game show: 50 years of age is the point at which men “let themselves go,” physically speaking.

I have signed up for two ski races this season.  Goals.

By ski races I mean cross country ski races.  I gave up downhill racing a few years ago after getting progressively slower over three seasons.  And by progressively slower I mean that in my last season I racked up more DNFs than completed runs.  The DNFs included some pretty dramatic crashes.

I haven’t participated (“raced” would be an exaggeration) in five years.  The reasons for this being, in no order: race called off because of lack of snow, death of son, rescued by helicopter out of the mountains, heart surgery, shoulder surgery, self-pity.

“Do not go gentle in that good night.”  I didn’t need Dylan Thomas to tell me that.

Thomas died the year I was born.  His last words were “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies.  That’s a record.”  However, he didn’t die of alcohol poisoning, but a host of other maladies, mostly self-induced.  I don’t know if he went gently or not, but he went early. He was 39.

There is absolutely no research to support the commonplace notion that men think about sex once every seven seconds.  But say it is true.  If it were ever true for me there was a kind of tipping point: now I think about death once every seven seconds.

In 2015 my friend Charlie Sassara and I climbed Peak 11,300 in the Alaska Range.  “How fast did you go?” someone asked.  “As slow as we possibly could,” Charlie said.

Ueli Steck, the Swiss Machine, climbed the north face of the Eiger in less than three hours.  I would imagine he maybe could have done 11,300 in about the same time.

We turned back due to high winds the other day before we got to the summit of Flattop.  I hike with three guys who are more fit than I am, younger, too, I add now in self-defense.  So they are above me when they turn around and pick me up, so to speak, on the descent.  And I am always glad to “retreat.”  And I wonder: will there ever again be a time when the others want to fold and it’s me who wants to continue pushing upward? Or have I passed a tipping point there?

According to an Institute of Medicine report, a good death is: "Free from avoidable distress and suffering for patient, family and caregivers, in general accord with the patient's and family's wishes, and reasonably consistent with clinical, cultural and ethical standards."

Before his record on the north face of the Eiger he had climbed the route around 40 times.  Ueli Steck died soloing on Nuptse.  He was 40 years old. 

My best estimate is that I have climbed (walked up) Flattop around 200 times in the last decade.

I had the cornice dream again last night.  In this one I am skiing close the edge of a summit ridge and the cornice begins to crack and slowly give way.  As I am falling I believe I am going to survive, that the snow will somehow cushion the landing.  I know there is a shelf that will catch me 150 feet below.  For some reason this seems completely survivable.  I awaken before I find out whether the dream-me survives or not.  In the light of day, of course, one would not survive this scenario. But in the dream world, I was certain I would.

“For when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” So Nietzsche famously said.  I have been guilty of the naivety of taking Nietzsche (and others) literally.  That is: I have gazed into many literal abysses. In the mountains.  What has been on my mind foremost in those moments was a note to self: "Don’t fuck up here.”

Peter Habeler climbed the north face of the Eiger at the age of 74.

We had made two or three good climbs, depending how you count, the highlight possibly being chased off Mt Temple by an enormous grizzly.  We were having breakfast at the little restaurant in the Alpine Club of Canada’s hostel at Lake Louise.  The room had a stone fireplace and was decorated with antiquated climbing equipment.  Among which we recognized the gear we first used on our first Canadian Rockies excursion, 1973.

I had kidney stones that would not pass and they put me in the hospital to manage the pain.  The pain would not be managed.  Ironically, when I had life-threatening cancers there was hardly any pain at all.  Anyway, they had me on an i.v. morphine drip which I could self-administer (up to a point, of course).  I maxed out quickly.  I was curled up in the fetal position and I remember there was a television up in the corner of the room.  It was turned off and in the screen I could see my colorless reflection: a shrunken man curled up in pain in a white hospital gown.  I remember thinking, so there’s Nietzsche’s abyss. I remember thinking, “So this is how it ends.”

But Habeler had also set a speed record on the north face in the 70s with Reinhold Messner.  With whom he was also the first to ascend Everest without the use of bottled oxygen.

Cancer wore my dad out at 82.  Nonetheless his last words were reported to be “get me up, goddamnit.”

Fred Beckey made over a thousand first ascents, mostly in North America.  The first time I met him was in the mid-70s.  He came by Early Winters in Seattle trolling for prospective partners. He would climb with anybody, but not everybody enjoyed climbing with him. 

As late as his early nineties Beckey was still trying to do hard climbs with the aid of younger, well-meaning climbers.  He had a tick-list of four routes he was desperate to accomplish, any one of which would  kick anyone’s ass.  He was unable to get further than to the base of them, which was a considerable achievement.

I’ve climbed Beckey routes all over the west.  In 2014 we tried to climb the famous West Ridge of Mt. Forbidden in the North Cascades, a route Beckey first put up in 1940.  We were super slow on the approach and exhausted when we arrived at the high camp.    We discovered the glacier had all but melted out leaving a dangerous gauntlet of tottering seracs and an exposing an additional several hundred feet of rock climbing where there had once been snow.  We abandoned the climb.

The last time I saw Beckey he was bound to a wheelchair.  He would pass away later that year at home, in the arms of beloved friend.  He was 94.

I have a tick list of climbs I still want to do.  The north face of the Eiger hovers just off it.  I am superstitious about revealing what is really on the list in the same way I am superstitious about talking away the potential magic of a writing project not yet completed.

I turn 66 this year.  Six more centuries and I become a beast.

Mountaineering history is filled with many haunting deaths.  On Nobukazu Kuriki’s fourth Everest attempt frostbite took nine of his fingers to the middle joint.  He was 36 years old last year when he perished on his ninth attempt, solo.  His final You Tube message: “I hope to keep climbing with you in spirit.”

The Tour of Anchorage is nine days out. We have enough snow. The ten-day weather forecast is good. My training has been . . . consistent. 

In the cornice dream I am not panicked, or even stressed.  I know I am going to survive.  I think, even, that I will live forever.

Photo: North Face of the Eiger from the side, 2007