Tuesday, April 28, 2020

A Fearful Symmetry: Notes from Isolation

                                       How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
                                      And come home in the evening and have nothing to say 

                                                           ~John Prine, Angel from Montgomery

I haven’t written anything related to the self-quarantining because I haven’t anything to add.  I’m simply living out my days as we all are. I feel our voices are mostly interchangeable in this moment.

I am wondering why the loss of John Prine, a COVID-19 casualty, has hit so many of us, so  hard.  I remember when I found a copy of his first album and Mike Schohnhofen was suspicious, as if you really needed to have permission to own this album, that some secret handshake ought to be required.

When you’ve suffered loss, relatively recent and unexpected loss, facebook memories can be a mixed blessing.  Yesterday a photo of Macklin and me, Easter dinner at Alyeska after a day of skiing, 2009.  He was such a giant that whenever I see photos of him and me together I think of those Wordsworth lines, “The child is father to the man.”

Our days are routine, patterned, the same. We’re lucky: lots of work to do, paychecks coming in. We take long afternoon walks, but in a place where social distancing is very easy—it’s not the most beautiful place.  After six weeks we decide to change the routine and walk to a beautiful place.

I found out that I knew all the words to all the songs on that album.  It took his death to unlock them in my brain.

We know this will entail some proximity to human beings, but we think we can keep socially distant.

So on our way down to the Turnagain Arm there aren’t so many people.  The trail dumps us out at the beach and there are always people right at that spot, usually easy to walk away from them, and we do.

Shortly into the hike we come across a dead moose, rather small, been there a while.  We saw one many years ago in this exact spot.  Some kind of winter death.

Then we noticed that the hillside had slid in dozens of spots.  Big alluvial fans of wet dirt a couple feet thick.  We had never seen this in our ten years of hiking this beach.  What did it mean?

Then an apparently injured raven hopping around very close to a family of four.  I worry about this bird.

The tide is way out there and in between us and the water a terrain of ice floes and erratics resting on the mudflats, melting, moving, alive.

We find a spot to lay out the blanket, eat our sandwiches, wash them down with cold beer.

Aisha naps. I am reading a story by Lauren Groff called “L. DeBard and Aliette.” I chose to read it based on its selection to Best American Short Stories.  I didn’t know that it was set during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.  This book has been on my shelf for years, yet I’m only reading it now during the pandemic.

This beach is close to the airport and the large planes arriving from the south circle way out to the west over the water, out of sight, and then come back to land perpendicular to the coastline.

The small planes come in from the west, too, but they’re coming from villages, off the road system, a tenuously tie to civilization.

“The plague hits New York like a tight fist.  Trains rolling into the boroughs stop in their tracks when engineers die at the controls.  After 851 new Yorkers die in one day, a man is attacked for spitting on the streets.” ~ Groff, writing in 2006

We pack up and head up the trail.  No sign of the raven, which is a good sign.  But the people.  Too many.  They approach, indifferent to social distancing.  There are too many.  No masks, no sense of space, too close.  We are doomed, I think.  We are emotionally exhausted when we get back to the car.

At the onset I thought covid was corvid—the crow family to which ravens belong.  Maybe I confused eating bats with eating crows, a subconscious transposition.

John Prine aficionados don’t agree on what his best song is, though many say it’s “Hello in There,” a heartbreaker about the loneliness of growing old.  He wrote it in 1971, the year I graduated high school.  The lines that get me now are:

            Well, it ‘s been years since the kids have grown
            A life of their own, left us alone

You don’t hear that song in 1971 and recognize your fate there, but, well, here we are.

On April 8, 2020 799 people died of COVID-19 in New York.

“Eating crow is a colloquial idiom, used in some English-speaking countries, that means humiliation by admitting having been proven wrong after taking a strong position. The crow is a carrion-eater that is presumably repulsive to eat in the same way that being proven wrong might be emotionally hard to swallow.”~ wikipedia

That night I look at facebook memories again and there ten years to the day is the photograph of the first dead moose we saw on that same beach.  “What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Looking forward to bumping elbows with you all in this strange new world we are just beginning to find our way into~


Friday, January 10, 2020

Reading Peter Boardman's classic The Shining Mountain

If you’ve read my earlier post about acquiring a new-to-me copy of The Shining Mountain, you know that I felt fated to read it again, immediately.  I don’t recall reading it for the first time, but most likely it was in this same American edition which was published shortly after Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker were lost on Everest in 1982.  The first British edition was published in 1976 shortly after the climb of the west wall of Changabang with Joe Tasker, the book’s subject.

So, as I read, I must have known Boardman was dead, but somehow I don’t remember this fact as affecting my reading of the book. 1982. The year we were married. Thirty-seven years Boardman and Tasker didn’t have.  It may be that in 1982 death was more of an abstraction to me.  Not so now.

The Shining Mountain is one of the most explicitly self-conscious expedition books, before or since.  I think this is due partly to Boardman’s acute consciousness of he and Tasker as a two-person team, with little margin for error and wholly self-sufficient.  His climb on Everest the previous year was one of those enormous old-fashioned, well-financed, and well-publicized expeditions.

My gloss on the passages (which speak best for themselves) is in italics.

I was still diary scribbling notes onto bits of paper. I had left my diary on the moraine at Advance Camp, thinking that if anything happened to us on the Wall, then at least someone might find record of what had happened to us up to that point. Also, I censored it–I didn’t write about the occasional disagreements Joe and I had, or worries I felt about the route.  I thought, “ What if this is the last thing I write and somebody read it?  I think things done in the strange world of an expedition, once recorded, become inflated and can be easily misunderstood by the non-mountaineer or uninformed commentator, eager for ‘the reasons behind the tragedy’. Joe was intrigued by my assiduous writings:
“I wondered why Pete wanted to preserved the situation, rather than use every conscious minute to savour them.  He was usually full of apt literary quotations and when I told him that Graham Greene had said that a writer’s greatest problem was not trying to remember, but trying to forget, he             thought that I had made it up to excuse my laziness in keeping a diary” (73).

It is often presumed that journal writing, because of its immediacy to events described, is a kind of primary truth.  But of course, experience mediated through language is always . . . mediated.  The gap between language and “the truth” can’t ever quite close.  Every word choice is a construct.
            I love that Boardman didn’t disclose his disagreements with Joe in his journal, yet chose to reveal them to the public in what would become the book.
         And then there’s Joe’s “living in the present.”  He would later publish two books and one wonders if he changed his view on this subject and kept a journal or recalled events and feeling s later “in tranquility.

The icefield had a symbolic aura about it, and entering it was like entering other secret places–there was the same air of privilege and mystery about it, I had the same feeling about the Spider on the North Face of the Eiger (80–1).

This is Peter quoting Joe. These secret places with their aura of privilege and mystery.  A big part of the allure.

I noticed he [Joe] had only clipped into two of the three angled pegs I had placed so apprehensively before.
            “Why have you only clipped two, Joe?”
            “They look all right.  Two should be enough,” he said
I hastily clipped into the third one.  Pegs always give an illusion of safety if you have not put them in yourself (132).

Love this last line.  It’s weirdly true.  Theoretically, we should trust only what we place ourselves, right?  But we tend to trust fixed pins and bolts, foe example, whose efficacy is quite unknown to ourselves.  Pete, here is like “I placed them, I know how sketchy they are!”  My friends Charlie at some point vowed never to rap off any anchor that ne didn’t place himself. And, every time I’ve climbed with him, that’s been the way it is.

Hurry up, there’s no time for taking photographs.” It was the first time Joe had sounded angrily impatient.
            “Don’t worry, “I shouted back, “You’ll be glad of them when you are an old man!” (135).

Just heartbreaking.  Because they never became old men.  But then, how often do I look back at my climbing photographs from 1982 or ’76?  They are among my most valued possessions, what I’d hate most to lose in a housefire.  And yet, I never look at them.

He was down it half an hour before I was, as I descended the last dangerous section, I looked down at him collecting our fallen belongings, envying his safe world of the glacier.  At last I was stumbling over the lumpy avalanche debris at the foot of the slope.  “Nothing can kill me now,” I thought as I walked across the glacier to help him (168).

We all know the  “Nothing can kill me now” feeling when we reach safe ground after an ordeal.  And yet, for most of us, we don’t stay in the “nothing can kill me now” zone.  We are slow learners.

As I strode through the main street I started to feel, for the first time, unkempt and strangely dressed.  But no one was noticing me and I felt confident.  So this was the outside—were its preoccupations off-centre or were mine? Did I need it?  It was twilight, transistor radios were blaring and naked bulbs were flickering dimly in the shops and sweet-meat stalls. It was crowded, and I had to jostle past through the crowds of shoppers, pilgrims, and beggars, carts and dogs.  My senses were stormed by a confusion of images, intense, momentary ‘takes’ freely flashing by the corners of my eyes.
            I walked into the rest house.  Joe was there, looking washed and rested.  I was still carrying with me the wilderness of mountain life and the aura of one of the newly returned amongst people (178).

Re-entry into “the real world.”  There is that zone between the vertical world and the world where we can once again, smell the grass, taste the ice cream, and feel the pounding of a hot shower on our wasted bodies.  The mountain world and everyday life can be separate universes.  I remember aching to be in the mountains, that I had been so far away from them.  Then I remembered it had only been two days.


• Peter Boardman’s body has been seen a couple times on the windswept ridge of Everest where they were last seen.  But Tasker’s has not.

• The Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, established in their names, has been awarded annually since 1984.

• The most recent winner was Kate Harris for her Land of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

2019: My Random N(qu)otes

I don’t keep a journal.  In fact, I am contemptuous of “journaling” when used a verb.  But I make a lot of notes. I keep lists.  Some of it finds its way into more formal writing, some never does. Here are some of the words, mostly gleaned from reading, I jotted down in 2019.

“When I started wring criticism, in 1965, in almost pristine ignorance, I discovered that I was the worlds leading expert in one thing: my experience.”
            ~Peter Schjeldahl, 77 Sunset Me, in The New Yorker, Dec 23, 2019

“. . . if a sublime situation is over-curated–that is, made so safe as to eliminate any sense of danger–the whole business is reduced to something ‘picturesque.’”

 I wrote this down but did not attribute it.  Unlike me, but I must have thought it impossible to forget the source.  I am guessing Rachel Cusk.  She’s smart in that way.

“Behind every death lay a series 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.”
            ~Laura van den Berg, The Third Hotel

My favorite book last year, a year in which I read a lot, even for me.

‘The universe will express itself as long as somebody will be able to say, “I read, therefore, it writes.”’
            ~Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

This line, written on a scrap of paper was tucked into my hand, by a friend at our party on the night before Thanksgiving.

 “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
            ~Carl Jung

I read this in Dani Shapiro’s memoir about marriage.  A book which, somewhat oddly for a memoir, holds the reader at arm’s length.  Not a critique, just an observation.

“Our lives were governed by mystery, when in fact that mystery was merely the extent of our self deception over the fact of our mortality.”
            ~Rachel Cusk, Kudos

            See what I mean about the way in which she is intelligent?

We surprised an enormous mammal in the tall grass and it moved swiftly with alarm for a few seconds before I was able to determine it was a moose and not a bear.
            ~in September on the trail coming back from Macklin’s bench in the Eagle River Valley

“A good book is more intelligent than its author.  It can say things that the writer is not aware of.”
            ~Umberto Eco

I am reasonably certain this is true.  Also, a corollary, perhaps, “How Do Some Authors Lose Control of their Characters?” by Jim Davies:



“Mountaineering, of course, is not a normal pursuit and we should not be surprised to find its adepts showing odd behavior in other spheres of life.”
            ~Robin Campbell, “The Brief Mountaineering career of Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast     666

I love his use of the word "adept" which I have only ever seen in reference to the occult. Climbing is a kind of magic, no?

On the north face of Flattop on what was supposed to be an early winter afternoon, but was unseasonably warm.  We are taking our crampons on and off and climbing with one tool, unroped.  This, actually, is one of our most preferred styles. At some point I realize that Charlie is assessing the terrain ahead and deliberately choosing the most difficult, unlikely, option. I ask about this. “Of course,” he says.

“Roosters wear out if you look at them too much.” 
            ~Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “No One Talks to the Colonel”

Roster was the name Macklin’s roofing bosses, Slim and Skeeter christened him with. Sometimes I think he was simply worn out. At 22.

“A free thinking astral traveler and spiritual gangster, he’s the official saxaphonist of your soul’s awakening.”
             ~from a description of Pharoah Sanders by Nick Marino in GQ

In summer 1973 we saw Pharoah Sanders at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit.  Almost no one in the audience. It was like a private concert.  We were, incidentally, the only white people in the room. No one cared. Sanders was transcendent.

“The heroes of climbing are the people who climb until they drop, who hold climbing as the antidote for this slave-like way the world is going—this politically correct, pathetic, SUV-ridden, color-coded, two-week holiday and back to work nonsense.”
            ~Stevie Haston, interviewed in Rock and Ice

            Pretty much agree.

Whether your family lives or dies is more rigorous than peer review.”
            ~on the accuracy of the oral tradition at the Franklin Expedition Symposium at the   Anchorage Museum

As is now well-documented, indigenous peoples generally knew the location of the Franklin ships ever since they were lost.

In the Inuit world some crimes were punishable by death.  Those sentenced could choose the means of their execution.  In the next world they did not want to arrive with a hole in them caused by a bullet, so they chose to be strangled.
            ~at the Franklin Symposium

            They also feared that their deities would not approve of their hunting whales with iron-        forged tools newly acquired from the Europeans.

Across from the McMenamins in McMinnville was a gorgeous art deco theater called MACK in red neon letters. On its marquee was this announcement: Music For a Happy Holiday at the Community Center Free Admission Dec 15 2019 at 3PM.

            Everywhere I go.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Acquiring The Shining Mountain, Part I

Peter Boardman would have entered his 70th year tomorrow, had he not disappeared on Everest in 1982.

An antique store on the east side of 101, coast of Oregon, where the young man behind the counter announces his name, asks yours, and where’re you from?  Then, he says, pick a color, and a pin of the color you just named is placed on a map on the ceiling on the place you just claimed to be from.

A few books, the Moncrieff translation of Proust in three volumes, paperback, the first volume missing and the second apparently much read.  There are probably only a hundred books in the whole place, but one of them is an unread copy of Peter Boardman’s The Shining Mountain, first American edition with no price penciled in.

Context: Peter Boardman disappeared with his climbing partner, Joe Tasker, on the unclimbed northeast ridge of Everest in 1982.  They were uncommonly fine climbers, and writers.  A prestigious annual award for mountaineering literature was established in their name.

I don’t even ask the price because I know I have a copy somewhere back at home in Alaska, maybe, probably, even two copies, and I let it pass.

The guy behind the counter, he’s a little off, yes, insisted we each take a beach agate out of the basket on the counter, as we leave empty-handed.

Fighting through the rain I take note of the piles of rusting junk everywhere outside the place. Perhaps at one time the idea was to sell some of it, but now it’s more of a display: an old cigarette machine, a car body with a mannequin driving, a phone booth occupied by another mannequin, a pair of mannequins in a boat, one waving, the other a babushka tied around her head, various other mannequins planted among the shrubbery.  It’s like one of those abandoned nuclear test cities.

Was he a little off? My wife asks.

Oh yeah.

This place creeps me out, my wife says as we drive off.

Later that night, randomly on the internet I see someone make the claim that The Shining Mountain is the best mountaineering book ever written.  I take this as a sign that I should acquire this particular copy.

Back to the antique store.  My wife announces she will stay in the car.  It’s raining, she says.

The young guy is still behind the counter, but an older guy, his father perhaps, emerges and I find the book, ask him what he wants for it.  The internet is the ruiner of bargains.  He looks it up on and says the going price is eight to sixteen, he’ll take twelve.  Twelve is a lot more than I want to pay for a book I already own two copies of, but eight to sixteen is probably for a used paperback in questionable condition.  I hesitate, reach into my pocket.  Normally I never have cash, but I do today.

I have a five and four ones.  He sees this and says, I’ll take eight. My old man told me you never take a man’s last dollar.

Take another agate, the kid says. And one for your wife, he adds.

I fight my way back to the car.  It’s raining sideways now.  My wife sees the book under my jacket.  How much? she asks.

Five, I say.

The mannequin in the forever beached boat waves good-bye as we drive off.