Saturday, December 24, 2011


Cold, a seventeen minute film by Anson Fogel and Cory Richards is an amazing evocation of human achievement, self-induced suffering, and, well, cold. Filmed by Richards on his and Simone Moro and Denis Urubko’s winter ascent of Gasherbrum 2, this film lives up to its title. This was the first winter ascent of the peak and the first winter ascent of an 8,000-meter peak by an American, Richards. The thing about climbing films is that almost no one can keep their finger on the shutter when things turn dire. But Richards did, mostly. It won the grand prize at Banff this year and the reason is not far to seek: the film delivers. For some virtual coldness it ranks up there with Cherry Apsley-Garrard’s The Worst Journey on the World. I don’t know when this will become widely available, but keep on the lookout for it. You can have a taste here:

Last winter I red Dan Simmons’ The Terror. Yet another winter sufferfest, here Simmons tells the fictionalized story of the infamous 1848 Franklin Expedition. Necessarily fictional, because no one really knows what happened to them. In Simmons’ version the arctic is so cold that men’s teeth shatter. It is an astounding feat of research, and it’s utterly compelling, and mostly convincing. I mean, something happened to those guys.

Which reminds me of my friend Jon Waterman’s solo arctic venture over two seasons recorded in Arctic Crossing: A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture. Jon once confided in me that he had probably discovered the graves of some of Franklin’s party. But, for now, he has kept this private. Oh, and by the way the line between the theme of “cold” and the theme of “sufferfest” is blurry indeed, as Jon, perhaps inadvertently, has pointed out. Actually, Jon was probably colder when he did the Cassin on Denali in the winter.

And speaking of “The Terror” (the name of one of Franklin’s ships) Jim Shepherd has also tried his hand with a speculative fiction on the subject, published this fall in Zoetrope’s horror issue. Do you know Shepherd? He is the ultimate in-your-face answer to the old “write what you know” platitude. Every story arises out of a different world, one which the author has not literally lived, yet pulls off as if he had. His list of acknowledgements at the end of his books gives us as many as ten sources per story. His story “Poland Is Watching,” from his new story collection, You Think That’s Bad: Stories, describes a Polish winter Himalayan expedition. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t himself been a Polish Himalayan climber in winter, but, hey, that’s fiction, right? You can actually find a video of Shepherd reading this story aloud here:

This brings me somewhat full circle to Bernadette McDonald’s story of the actual Polish climbers who pushed the limits of the human achievement in the actual, not literary, Himalayan winter, in her recent book Freedom Climbers. The achievements she recounts are astounding, but equally astounding is the service McDonald does both to the climbers and her non-Polish reading audience. Most of these exploits were for years confined to Polish language reports. To write the book McDonald had to commission translation of several books, and basically conduct first-hand interviews (with the survivors). The result is a testimony to, well, as I said, full circle: suffering, cold, and human achievement. The book has deservedly won the Banff Grand Prize for Mountaineering Literature (which is not too surprising because McDonald was a prime force in the Banff Mountain Center Festivals for many years before she retired [I think this is her fourth book since “retiring”]). She has also won the coveted Boardman-Tasker Award, which is more surprising as the British only rarely bestow the honor to non-Britains. Well-deserved on both counts.

I’ve been cold. And the 7 degrees Fahrenheit outside the door right now here in Anchorage doesn’t even earn a blip on my radar screen. I used to say that the coldest I’ve been in my life was delivering the Detroit Free Press through three Michigan winters. That was cold. But my single coldest moment actually occurred in southern California. I entered myself in a cross-country ski race in the mountains north of Los Angeles, off I-5. The course wound through a hilly forest and I was quickly dropped by the pack and lost in the loops of trails. Knowing how to ski probably would have helped. Then, my ski tip broke. I was wet and colder by the minute, postholing and plunging my cotton-gloved hands into the drifts over and over again. Only blind dumb luck allowed me to get out of there in the fading daylight. By the time I got back to the parking lot, not only was the race over, but everyone was gone. My hands were so cold I couldn’t get them into my pocket to find the car key. Once I found the key I couldn’t hold it in the block-o-ice fingers. After I finally managed to get the key in the lock and open the car, I had to repeat the maneuver with the ignition. Then I sat there screaming as warmth and feeling inched their way back into my hands.

A few weeks later the race results arrived. I had actually finished the race, but since no one knew it, I expected to see my name at the bottom of the list with the inglorious DNF, Did Not Finish, following. But despite the fact that the race organizers had my address, my name did not appear on the list of participants. It was as if I hadn’t been there at all.

Stay warm, my friends!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

C-notes, and I don't mean hundred dollar bills

When I see the subtitle, or mere descriptor, “a memoir of cancer” or “a memoir of survival,” or “addiction” or, and perhaps worst, “recovery,” I figuratively run like hell.

I was not devastated by the news that I had cancer “again.” “Again” is the operative word. To say that my cancer is “back,” would have been wrong. This is, they tell me, completely unrelated to my earlier cancer. Aside from telling my wife about it, and my parents, I think I was pretty calm about it. I tried to adopt a Dylanesque view: “It’s life, and life only.” I heard the words in my head in his voice.

On the second day after my surgery, still two days out from hearing the biopsy results, one of our students, an international caliber runner from Kenya, “went missing.” He was last seen Sunday evening, lightly dressed. He did not have his car keys or cell phone with him. It has snowed almost steadily since then with nighttime temperatures approaching the single digits. His roommates reported him missing on Monday morning. Also: his former roommate, another world-class runner from Kenya, killed himself here in Anchorage last spring. I am thinking about this guy and his long strange trip.

I have alluded, somewhat elliptically, in a couple pieces of writing to my experience (now experiences) with cancer. But even though it has taken up a disproportionate space in my psyche, I tend to prefer to write about the things that have always interested me, namely my love of the literary world and my love for the mountain life, each a deep well that I have yet to exhaust.

That aside, here are a few cancer notes written on the morning after I heard that the biopsy report on my melanoma and lymph nodes has come back negative (which is, of course, positive).

I noted that Steve Jobs’ cancer was discovered in a routine CT scan for kidney stones. Exactly how my kidney cancer was discovered. This would be about the only thing I have in common with Jobs, so far as I can tell.

When I first met Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, a Yu’pik elder, in the summer of 2008 he was walking on crutches and already in his mid-seventies. I asked him about his crutches and he said that it started with kidney cancer, but that he never doubted it would come back at him. At the time of our conversation he had lived about ten more years since his kidney cancer was first diagnosed and he lived three more until his death earlier this year. He knew it would kill him, but we talked mostly of the terrible problem of suicide of young men in the native villages of rural Alaska. He was among a handful of persons I have met in my life who I felt have possessed wisdom.

Last summer I met Richard Rodriguez. Among our many commonalities was a Catholic upbringing in a shared historical moment, a love of books from an early age, and kidney cancer. Richard became aware of his through night sweats and various actual physical problems. I experienced none of these. “Ah,” he said, “you were asymptomatic.”

I don’t much care for the language of cancer or even the word itself. Or even talking about it in a round about way. My cousin Terri said, “Mel is a bad ca.” I know, that’s about all the letters I wish to use too. I never liked Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor.” I always thought that her objection to the metaphors people use to describe cancer was purely personal, as if what she really objected to was other people talking about it at all, as if what she really objected to were people talking about her, as a “victim.” I object to that, too. But it’s hard to object to the aptness of war as a metaphor for cancer. A more timely analogy now might be zombification, the process by which the self is not the self, but is taken over by this other life-force which is a death force. I think I have vowed to never use the word “zombie” in my writing. At least, I meant to do so. So that’s my one and only transgression.

This melanoma that they found a few weeks ago was odd. It had no melanin in it. It was, the surgeon said, “amelanomic.”

My friend Tama, a melanoma survivor herself, said, “You are a two-time cancer survivor (how weird is that?).” Well, it’s pretty damned weird. Because this cancer, too, was without symptoms. My suffering, such as it has been, has been mostly not physical. And weird too because, though aging, I am more active and more fit than ever. The weekend before my surgery I skied to Rabbit Lake, a twelve-mile plus roundtrip on sketchy snow with about 1200 feet in elevation gain. Then, the next day I made my weekly visit to the summit of Flattop in gnarly winter weather. I felt great every minute of those outings.

When the surgeon called Tuesday night, long after office hours, to report the good news of my negative tests, I was flooded with relief, but it is a calm relief. By the time I fell asleep, the runner from Kenya had not been found.

Since my last cancer (2005) I have tried to move forward, keeping in mind that every day is a gift. Last night, when my friends heard my good news, many used the word “celebration.” Oh, I’ll celebrate, (writing this is a celebration, I promise) but the celebration I have in mind is simply to return to my “every day is a gift” philosophy. I am celebrating every day, believe me.

I can return to my work, my writing projects, my skiing life. I can return to training for the Tour of Anchorage and the Alyeska Town League. I can train with Aisha for her triathlons, and keep doing yoga. Hit Alyeska with my sons. Enjoy the holidays. I can return to planning a climbing trip to the Alaska Range in the spring and a trip to the Himalaya in the fall.

“You are alive,” Richard Rodriguez told us, “And you have your pen in your hand.”

The runner from Kenya was found, alive (against all odds, in my opinion). He appeared, severely hypothermic, in the lobby of the hotel on campus at 3:30 a.m. this morning. I am wishing the very best for him, and would love to hear his story (though not entitled to it).

“It’s life, and life only.”

If someone had said to me, six years ago, “”Every day is a gift,” I would have been polite, but inwardly dismissive. But I believe those words today. I hope you hear me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Airports, the Monkey Egg, Missoula

For the most art we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an

infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence

are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.

––Henry David Thoreau, Walden

When I am on my computer, particularly when I am on-line, where am I? Oh yeah, I’ve already answered that: on my computer. So, this morning I was sitting in the Sea-Tac Airport and where was I, Oh yeah, on my computer. But then I got to thinking, where am I really?

Seattle is a city that has enormous emotional resonance for me. I lived here for three years in my early twenties and these were heady days, intense days somehow disproportionately more formative than any other three-year period n my life. I started a business, made life-long friends, climbed, met my wife (Note: this list is chronological, not otherwise hierarchical), climbed, finished school, and climbed. I launched myself, right here in the Pacific Northwest. But Sea-Tac Airport? I’m not feeling it. The Seattle vibe: it’s not here, even if there is an Ivar’s (keep clam!). There are two problems: first of all, the airport is in neither in Seattle or Tacoma; secondly: it’s an airport. An airport isn’t really a discrete place. It’s like an embassy of the country, Airport. When you’re in an airport, the word airport can easily be interchanged with the word nowhere. You’re in the waiting room for the next non-airport place.

Reading is not dissimilar, except that it’s generally pleasing as opposed to disconcerting, although sometimes reading is disconcerting, but in a good way. You’re in the book, but usually you’re in the world, too. In fact the measure of greatness in writing is the proportion of you it occupies: 90% in the book 10% world is a very good ratio (for the book). A book is good if we are absorbed by it and the time during which we read it we have been transported from our quotidian world. “There is no frigate like a book . . . “

Then there are stories that themselves occupy two worlds. I’m thinking of the Kelly Link story, "House on the Hill," in the new Tin House that I just picked up at the airport. A new Kelly Link story is endorsement enough to pick up a copy of Tin House, even though Tin House is reliably good in general. In this, as in many, Kelly Link story we begin in the real world, that is, a linguistic representation of the everyday world. On the middle of page two: “He held it out on his palm; one of Fran’s old toys, the monkey egg. ‘Now you know I don’t like these. I wish you’d put ‘em away.’”

We don’t have to know what a “monkey egg” is to continue reading. We know it’s a toy that hasn’t been put away, and structurally that works . . . for the moment. We’ll read for six more pages (big Tin House pages of about 500 words) firmly, we think, rooted in Fran’s world, new to us but recognizable, until the monkey egg reappears and Ophelia, an outsider, like the reader, is welcomed into the strange world that makes a Kelly Link story a Kelly Link story. As a reader you occupy two worlds simultaneously within the story. In a Kelly Link story this balancing act is pleasing.

When you’re in an airport—not so pleasing––the environment is so conspicuously manufactured and the air is stale. The best thing you hear in there is the question: “Add a shot to that for three bucks?”

I like small airports, like Missoula’s. When the plane lands, a staircase is wheeled to the airplane door and upon exiting the plane you descend to the ground. You’re in one place. You’re in the world.

Friday, September 16, 2011

"Where Do You Buy Your Books?"

“Where do you buy your books?” Sweeney was asking this in the context of a longer rant about the state of publishing. This post is accompanied by a photograph of Sweeney taken on “the happiest day of my life,” in June 2010 at the bar at the Land’s End, in Homer, Alaska. Sweeney had just read his story “Over the Mountains” to a highly supportive and enthusiastic crowd at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference. By the way I strongly recommend Sweeney’s book, The List, available from the publisher :

It will set you back to the amount of about three glasses of Fairweather IPA, and is, actually, more satisfying (which, if you know how much I like Fairweather IPA, is saying a lot).

Anyway, his question is a good one and, though I claim to prefer independent booksellers, is that really how it boils down, in practice? So going back to my last post about summer reading, I am tracking here the scenes of purchase for those titles.

The Atlantic Summer Fiction issue: Barnes & Noble, Anchorage (the only place I could think of to get it).

Jim Harrison, The Farmer’s Daughter: Tidal Wave Books, Anchorage. This is my go-to bookstore. The place I most wish to stay a vibrant business forever.

Dan Simmons, Drood: Mecosta Book Gallery, Mecosta Michigan, about midway between Mt. Pleasant and Big Rapids on M-20. A shockingly awesome used bookstore in the middle of nowhere. I would have bought more books, even had the titles picked-- but would have had to ship them home—too much of hassle.

Fermor, A Time of Gifts: B&N, Grand Rapids, MI. Surprised to see it, had been searching.

Woman In White, Wilkie Collins A generic bargain books joint in a dying Grand Rapids mall. Saw a lot of remaindered books, more than a few I had paid full price for in years past (always the way!).

The Herzog and the Japanese graphic novel came from Amazon, where I had a massive coupon.

The Roskelly and Murch/Ondaatje came from independent booksellers through Amazon.

The first edition Teton Guide by Leigh Ortenburger came from Tidal Wave.

What does all this mean, besides the fact that I have an out-of-control book buying jones?

I’m not sure.

I want all these places to keep doing business—even Barnes and Noble. I actually miss Borders—which happened to be the nearest bookstore to my current home. And I want writers to continue to be able to get their work published, and I want publishers to keep publishing. What’s the best way to operate to ensure all those ends?

Wish I knew.

I don’t think anyone does know the answer to that question.

I’d buy every book I could directly from the author selling it out of the trunk of her Ford LTD, if I could. If the hypothetical she could. But most of us, whether consumer of books or writer, can’t operate this way. Although, now that I think of it, the aforementioned Sweeney has given it one hell of shot.

Next: a couple cases about publishing: BlazeVOX & the curious case of Kiana Davenport and the Big 6.

Photo disclaimer: Sweeney actually looks a lot less goofy in real life than he does in attached photo. Sorry about that , Jim!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Summer Reading: August 2011

For me summer reading takes place in the month of August. June and July are by most hectic working months and, up here, September is not really summer.

I started with the Atlantic Summer Fiction issue, which I read cover-to-cover. That fact alone is an endorsement. Stuart Dybek was a highlight (when isn’t he?”) back in “Hot Ice” territory with “Vigil,” and a guy named Jonathon Walter, whose bio reads “Jonathon Walter lives in Wisconsin,” does the dust bowl in “the Great Zero.”

Then I read Jim Harrison’s The Farmer’s Daughter, another set of three novellas, one featuring the recurring character, Brown Dog. I never get tired of Harrison. And, am astounded that he seems to be writing a book a year, even though he looks like someone who has come back from the dead (if not from liver failure). He has a new novel coming out soon, and is one of the few writers whose work I buy sight unseen. If he wrote it, I’m reading it.

Then, influenced by Jonathan Rosen’s article in The New Yorker on Wilkie Collins, I picked up a used copy of Dan Simmons’ Drood, about Collins and Dickens. I worshiped Simmons’ The Terror when I read it last winter and I think I’d follow him almost anywhere, so why not to Victorian England, where he already was more or less when he wrote The Terror? But having acquired Drood I remembered (duh!) that I’ve never actually read Collins, so I snagged a copy of The Woman in White. Which was surprising in its rhetorical sophistication. (Note to self: do not lightly dismiss them Victorians.) I loved it and which took up a lot of “lake time” up in Michigan, Labatt’s in hand.

At this point in the month I shifted from lake country to mountain country and began reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts - On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977). I hadn’t known about Fermor until alerted to him by my long-time climbing patrtner John McInerney, who was also reading Fermor. Fermor had died early this summer at the age of 96; he was widely regarded as England’s greatest travel writer. The book is astounding for two reasons: its erudition and its innocence. The three year journey he writes about took place in the early 1930s, before the Nazi stranglehold on Europe. The book ends mid-journey and I can’t wait to read the next installment, primarily because I did not have a dictionary at hand and the man’s vocabulary is staggering.

I finished Fermor in the airport in Denver and picked up a paperback copy of Charles Wu’s How to Live Safely in Science Fiction Universe. It’s more Calvino-ish than Niffenberger-ish, if that means anything to you. I am reading this now, but was distracted over the Labor Day weekend by 55 ways to the Wilderness in South Central Alaska by Helen Nienhauser and John Wolfe Jr. We spent the weekend in Seward where the steady downpour did not prevent us from exploring no fewer than four of the 55 ways. An awesome time.

In the month of August I formulate my writing plan for the fall, my most productive time. Check. But I tend not to speak of such plans: bad juju. I also find that I am compelled to acquire set of books that for whatever reasons have been swirling around my mind in the weeks prior. Thus, one of my first orders of business upon returning to the real (non-vacation) world is to place a few orders.

The first thing I ordered was The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje. Why? Am I interested in editing film? No. Nor writing it. I am, however, interested in writing scenes. Two different writers at Kachemak Bay recommended this book, which came to me out of the blue. I love Ondaatje, of course. I had known nothing of Murch. Turns out that he edited The English Patient for the film version and also, won an academy award for sound on Apocalypse Now. Sold.

I had an Amazon coupon for $30, so I bit on the third volume of Jiro Taniguchi and Yummajura Baku’s Summit of the Gods. These are graphic novels set in the mountaineering world. I loved the first two volumes and am pre-committed to the next three—can’t wait for the third to arrive. They’re gorgeous books, by the way.

For a long time I have wanted to read Werner Herzog’s Walking in Ice-Paris 23 November to Munich 14 November. Fermor’s story of travel in Europe on foot has pushed me to explore Herzog’s story. I had just read Herzog’s Conquerors of the Useless about the experience of making Fitzcarraldo, which I watched again recently to see if it was as crazy as my memory told me it was. Confirmed. The new book has already arrived. It is an elegant and very simple paperback. Can’t wait.

Dang. While researching a new mountaineering title I noticed that there are at least a dozen climbing books with the word “last” in the title. Why this preoccupation of climbers with “last” things? So I ordered a used copy of Roskelly’s Last Days for further exploration off this topic. I’ll get back to you on this.

Yesterday I found, quite by accident, a mint hardcover copy of Leigh Ortenburger’s Climbers Guide to the Tetons. 1956. I had never seen such an edition (I own three later editions, including the colossal posthumous edition published with Rennie Jackson.) Ortenburger, by the way, survived a life of mountaineering, only to perish fleeing the great Oakland fire, in the late 1990s (I think). They were almost literally giving the book away. Had to have it.

We were warned long ago (Ecclesiastes, I think) that “of the making of books there is no end.” Nor of the reading (or, gulp, acquiring) of them. If you've read this far, you're probably as daft as I am!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Notes on Daumal's Mount Analogue

If there’s a more often-cited remark or passage about mountaineering than Mallory’s famous “Because it’s there” it may be René Daumal’s

You cannot stay on the summit forever: you have to come down again . . . So why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above . . . . One descends, one sees no longer but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

If my opening observation isn’t true, it should be. Daumal’s lines come from his “novel,” Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures, a book well known to cultish group of hippie-mountaineers in the early 1970s. Intermittently hard to find over the years, today it’s a few clicks away in a relatively new translation by Carol Cosman in a Tusk Ivories paperback.

If the book retains a cultish following, it’s due to its eminently quotable prose as well as to the cult of personality following Daumal himself. Daumal died of tuberculosis in 1944 at the age of 36 and the story is that he was working on Mount Analogue the day he died. It’s a better excuse than Coleridge had, but one has the sense that it would have been a hard book to finish. The text proper ends in mid-sentence:

“Without them [wasps!], a great many plants that played an important role in stabilizing the shifting earth, . . .”

Undoubtedly here Daumal was to deliver an early lesson in ecology and species interdependence, which is not what one might expect from a tubercular Sanskrit scholar on his deathbed in the waning days of World War II in German occupied Paris.

I used the term “text proper” because many of the memorable lines about mountaineering, including the lines cited above, are from a postscript including an outline that his wife Véra appended to the novel. The reader is left with the sense that if only Daumal could have finished! We would have become so enlightened! Not likely, but isn’t it pretty to think so? Which reminds me that Daumal translated Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon into French—worth another look in his light.

It’s said that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 cult film The Holy Mountain is based of Mount Analogue; maybe so, but tempered with massive quantities of psychedelics. They’re both allegories I suppose, but you’ll have better luck synching up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to The Wizard of Oz.

The premise of the story concerns a group of seekers who believe that there is an unknown mountain on earth that is higher than Everest and which connects earth to heaven, a symbolic mountain like Mt. Olympus, that they must find and ascend. Most of the extant five chapters describe the organization of the expedition and travel to the peak. We never get to the actual, make that symbolically authentic, mountaineering.

The prose is somewhat reminiscent of the great French alpinist Gaston Rébuffat who wrote gorgeous romantic (i.e. purplish) prose extolling the fraternité de la corde–brotherhood of the rope–at about the same historical moment. In fact, structurally, Rébuffat’s Starlight and Storm resembles Mount Analogue in that its appendix lays out the author’s philosophies in more exacting and memorable prose than does what precedes it.

Daumal included a few simple drawings, not unlike yet another great French romantic, Antoine St. Exupery. I’m particularly fond of the cosmos portrayed in chapter two and pictured above.

The last chapter was to be titled “And You Reader, What Do You Seek?” Maybe it’s a cheap rhetorical trick, but I’ve always fallen for these moments of direct address by great artists, such as Melville: “What are you reader but a fast and loose fish too?” or as appended to the famous eponymous Gauguin painting, “Where Do We Come from? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

Mount Analogue is at once sweet and wise and enigmatic. When I first read it many years ago it appealed to me because I liked to think that mountaineering was in fact a spiritual pursuit. I suppose I still do. But I love more than ever that the story ends in mid-sentence and we are left forever wondering not only how the story might have ended but, as Daumal has asked, what is it that we seek?

Friday, May 6, 2011

A List of 10 Items not even related enough to be called a loose baggy monster

1. Front page articles from The Northern Light, UAA newspaper, March 29, 2011:

Avalanches bury unprepared thrill seekers

Two top ski coaches set to resign

Pot culture in Alaska reaches a new high

2. Three of my writer friends seem to do more photography that writing, though only one has renounced writing. Curiously, he was the only one of the three to ever make any money on it. Of the three, one shots mostly infra-red and the other two shoot almost exclusively at night. I hope this doesn’t fall under the list suggested by Jessa Crispin’s, “And there are those who might not even bother anymore [to write].”

3. Two photographs of George Mallory’s personal effects contain:

A cheap (by today’s’standards) pair of glacier goggles;

A jack-knife;

A tin of “meat lozenges” (portable nourishment at all times) (yucko);

A box of Swan Vesta matches (they still package them just like this, by the away);

A watch;

An altimeter.

I make note of this because the altitude needle on the altimeter, as well as the hands of the watch, have disappeared completely, turned to powder (?) and vanished. How weirdly insubstantial they must have been from the start. Rust marks, the residue of the watch hands, suggest it stopped at ten minutes after five. 5:10, coincidentally the estimated degree of difficulty of the rock climbing at “the Second Step,” which Mallory and Irvine would have had to climb at 28, 280 feet in order to obtain the summit. A mystery for the ages.

5. Wisdom from hockey coaches during the Stanley Cup Playoffs:” You can’t fix stupid and you can’t teach fast.” Luckily I have tried to reduce contact with the stupid and I’m not in a hurry.

6. My friend, and uaa mfa alum, Don Rearden had to make a trailer for his website to promote his new novel, Raven’s Gift, set in post-apocalyptic Alaska. For this, he just drove around Bethel with the camera running. Bethel didn’t have to de dressed down to suggest the scene of some mass tragedy.

View the trailer here:

7. From Pamela Kearney, author of The Sunflower Wife, a line from writer John Dufresne “If you don’t write today, you will be diminished.” (I don’t think blogging counts; it doesn’t for me, anyway.)

8. From Sam Sacks homage to Pauline Kael:

“Kael’s most memorable writing came during the Nixon years (I think that Deeper into Movies, which collects the New Yorker pieces between 1969 and 1972, is her best book). These were some of the worst years in America’s history, and Kael wrote with a passionate fervor against the national disillusionment that was saturating the culture.”

The point being that the specific years cited coincide with my high school years. And don’t think that our relative innocence shielded us from the disillusionment of which he accurately speaks.

Read the article here:

9. I heard Carl Zimmer this week on the radio pimping his new book, Brain Cutting (electronic only, oh-oh!). He was talking about “default consciousness,” that is, how your brain continues to work even when you are not concentrating on anything at all. And I wondered if this is like dreaming, or speaking in tongues. I wondered if this is what “automatic writing” is. Or is this what has happened when you wake up in the morning an your writing takes an unpremeditated turn, one you couldn’t have predicted the night before (when you gave up)? Is this what is happening when a writer says that a book “wrote itself”? I suspect my default consciousness—the one I can’t direct—is smarter than I am. What is this “I” of which we speak, anyway?

Musical accompaniment to the last entry:

10. Avalanches. I can think of five deaths off the top of my head that occurred in the last two weeks. Two in the Tetons, two in the Sierra, and one on the Root Canal Glacier in the AK Range–all places I have climbed. Sometimes, the only way to have prevented such deaths is simply to have never left the house. Which is unacceptable. Condolences to their loved ones. Be careful out there my friends.

Note: the opening photo of Jewel Lake was taken last night at 10:30 p.m. This morning the ice was gone.

Friday, April 29, 2011

In which I argue with the Bookslut

When Henry James minted the phrase “loose baggy monsters” he was referring to 19th century Russian novels. Which ironically, are less loose and baggy than most of his own work, The Golden Bowl, for example. But “loose baggy monsters" really best describes some blog entries (my own included), which being not subject to any editorial (or generally renumerative) forces, are free to wander all over the place. Such is the case of Jessa Crispin’s recent column in The Smart Set (she's the book slut, apparently, of Bookslut).

Whole article here:

Reading a loose baggy monster puts a lot of pressure on the reader to ferret out what’s interesting. But mostly a loose baggy monster will just send a reader to another link, or, optimistically speaking, to a physical text.

Crispin’s “A Sea of Words” is about a lot of things, among them: a complaint that there are too many books, a snarky review of Anne Roiphe’s Art and Madness, as well as various books about writing, a complaint about the MFA degree, a complaint that people don’t read enough, a complaint against the work of writers who have an MFA.

It’s a depressing damned piece of writing. Why do I respond at all? Unfortunately the truth within it compels me to weigh in on her more ludicrous statements.

Her first paragraph is absolutely sobering: she lives in Berlin where she receives 30 books a week, unbidden, for review. Down from 15—30 per day. “Now,” she says, “they have landed here with a clip-art book cover, a cheap binding, and a $12.00 stamp to send it to critic who doesn’t even review fiction anymore.”

I return often to this line from Walden, usually in reference to some undertaking of my own: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?”

In fact: I myself had been looking at clip art for an idea I had for a cover of one of my own books. When I read that line, I felt that I recognized my own desperation. And I didn't like it. I hereby renounce desperation.

Further on Crispin observes:

“The books disappear as quickly as they are released, unable to cut through all the noise. And there are those that might not even bother anymore. Does one dare to raise one’s voice above the commotion, try to draw some attention away from those taking up the spotlight? Who gets in that rarified space is still determined by the writer’s gender, connections, beauty, nepotism, youth, or “platform.” Not even the most idealistic among the cultural critics bother to argue that the system is merit-based.”

(Well, Prufrock may not have dared, but it's a rhetorical question and the answer is "yes.")

Thinking about it, that’s an interesting, and sort of uneven, list. Gender–we’re given (although some even mess around with that); connections–well, actually you make those yourself; beauty–yeah, it probably helps, I wouldn’t know; nepotism–see connections; youth–arguable; “platform”—completely self-determined. I think her list is not so depressing as she is (to paraphrase Thoreau again).
But it is definitely true that the system is not merit-based. Yet by complaining about this she is implying that it was merit-based at some earlier un-debased time. Not. Same as it ever was.

Nonetheless, talk about an example of a bestseller not being merit based: when I learned (i.e. became obsessed with) the Greg Mortenson fiasco, all I could dwell on was the fact that his donation financed non-profit spent 1.75 million in the year 2009 promoting his book Three Cups of Tea. Oh! So that’s how you stay on the NYT bestseller list for over four years. Now I get it. (The pisser is that the profits of the book went to GM himself, not to the non-profit. Oy, what a mess!)

I won’t comment here on what Crispin actually says about the books she purports to be reviewing, except to say, she’s probably right about them.

I am moving to the red cape she has waved in my face. I must charge. “ . . . because everyone is now invited to be a writer we have an industry built up to teach writing to the masses. I’m not alone in thinking of the MFA industry as predatory.”

First, of all: she can’t really be aware of how elitist that first part sounds, can she? Secondly, “predatory?” Please. She seems to base this on unstated assumptions about what an MFA “promises” its students. Her assumptions, whatever they might be, are wrong.

We don’t promise publication, or employment. We only promise to improve a students’ writing as much as it can be improved in whatever amount of time it takes to get the degree. Fuzzy, I know. But that’s the “contract.”

Furthermore, I would like to point out that basically MFA degrees are only predatory in the way that any university humanities program is predatory. Does she really think less literacy is a preferable state of affairs?

She makes me laugh (with her, this time) when she asks, “what could the appeal possibly be? Writers are the social embarrassment in our culture, generally portrayed on television and in movies as sexually hapless, overweight, balding, constipated bores who can’t dress themselves properly.”

That cracked me up, although I have absolutely no idea to what portrayals she refers.

She concludes: “Those taking their money [MFA programs, presumably] probably aren’t going to do much to question their motives, or clue them in on all the other ways to go about things.”

And that’s where I think she exactly does not know of which she speaks. We do exactly what she thinks we don’t.

Dear Jessa, we are sorry you’re depressed. Why don’t you take break from your blog and read a book for pleasure. Or get way from language for a while (even though watching television and movies don’t seem to be working for you either). It’s spring in Berlin, right? Get out of that apartment, take a walk, it might do you some good. Peace--ds

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"I am a strange trio": Shields, Hofstadter, and de Chardin

Secret Practice

from David Shields: The culture disseminates greater and greater access to the technology that creates various forms of media. The “ordinary” person’s cult of celebrity is nurtured by these new modes of communication and presentation and representation. We’re all secretly practicing for when we, too, will join the ranks of the celebrated. There used to be a monopoly on the resources of exposure. The rising sophistication of the nonexpert in combination with the sensory overload of the culture makes reality-based and self-reflexive art appealing now. There are little cracks in the wall, and all of us “ordinary people are pushing through like water or, perhaps, weeds.

Commentary regarding secret practice: When we were seniors in high school, we won our league title in football; actually, I think we “won” the tiebreaker. The prize for this was a game in the Catholic League Playoffs against, a powerhouse school four or five times the size of ours. During the week of preparation for the game, which would be sort of close at halftime, but not for much longer, the coaches devised a plan whereby the team would load up from the locker room into a gigantic Awry’s bread truck and be driven to a secret practice facility. Thereby, eluding Brother Rice’s spies (real? wishfully imagined?) who would be staking out our practices at Ford Field. It was a strange exercise, but it helped us to believe that Brother Rice had something to fear in us (they probably didn’t) and, indeed, for a week, we were oddly “celebrated.” A few days later, our senior year of football would end and we would taper off to June, trying to ignore the likelihood of being drafted to serve in Viet Nam.

Commentary number two, concerning the ordinary person’s cult of celebrity: mountaineering. Ordinary people climb Everest now, which sort of defeats the purpose. If you can pay the $65,000 guide fee, and you are fit, and the weather is okay, and you don’t succumb to edema, pulmonary or cerebral, you can climb Everest, with all the others who are able to manage these criteria. The primary hurdle would seem to be cash, which, back when climbing Everest meant something other than what it means now, was not in and of itself the primary criterion.

Kilimanjaro, is somewhat worse in a way. It is relatively high, over 19,000 feet and must, by local law, be guided. It is often done by non-climbers. Esquire magazine, just this month, has included an article about an everyman’s ascent of Kilimanjaro, editorially forgetting that they published almost the exact same article on the topic about five years ago. I’m not speaking to actual people , friends of mine even who have done, or aspire to do the actual climb. I’m speaking to its symbolic value, which must necessarily shrink, as more people ascend, as, in fact, the fabled snows melt away under the magnifying glass of global warming.

Anyway, I thought the point was to be a climber, not to “have climbed Everest. Or Kilimanjaro, or whatever.

I am a paradoxical level crossing feedback loop

From Douglas Hofstadter: And yet when I say “strange loop,” I have something else in mind—a less concrete, more elusive notion. What I mean by “strange loop” is––and here goes, a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit, but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.

Commentary on loopiness: Well, T.S. Eliot beat Hofstadter to this concept by about seventy years in the Four Quartets, particularly the oft-quoted lines from "Little Gidding" (although it’s conceptually present from the very first (obscure) lines of "Burnt Norton":

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I was thinking of the strange loop effect last weekend as I topped out on Peak Three for the third time in three weeks—I am strange loop, I thought, and here I am back on top of Peak Three and it’s always new, the experience always fresh. I am never bored. I always enjoy, as Emerson had it, “a perfect exhilaration.” There is this here-I-am-on-the-summit feeling, where I always am.

Everything that Rises Must Converge

From Teilhard de Chardin: Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.

Commentary on rising and converging: Flannery O’Connor is amazing, as I was reminded again last week on reading “Everything that Rises Must Converge” for the uncountable-eth time.

Consider her on the sentence level:

The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness though no two were alike.

This, I fear is the site of the convergence to which she alludes: may we decline the invitation? Thank you very much all the same.

I can never disentangle her religion, her illness, and her early death from her writing and in fact Everything that Rises Must Converge (the book) was published in 1965, just after her death (the same year Eliot died, though the span of his life was, of course, much greater). I was shocked to learn that O’Connor’s mother died in 1997. Her writing lives in that timeless space occupied by the kind of Truth reserved for classic stature.

Even though she took her title from Teilhard de Chardin and even though he was a Jesuit theologian (although censured) and she a devout Catholic (why is it, by the way, that the word devout is hitched almost exclusively to Catholic?) it is impossible she did not mean her title ironically. For de Chardin it seems a literal joyous vision, for O’ Connor, the rising is more of a “leveling,” the point of convergence, is rather . . . uh, low. O’ Connor’s Catholicism and the subject of her writings have always seemed somewhat perplexing, if not disconnected.

I think de Chardin did not quite take note of (conveniently ignores?) the fact that not everyone rises, a fact which O’Connor can never forget. We recognize, live in, O’Connor’s world, but aspire to the dream world of de Chardin in which mankind is the collective Christ (was he censured for fuzziness?).

Now, in the new electronic leveling, in which everyperson has an equal voice, everyperson a celebrity (and not just in the Warholian 15-minute sense), in which every moment is both the beginning and the end, we most definitely have convergence, but who wants it on the terms it offers itself?

Monday, March 14, 2011

On David Shields' Manifesto

This is the NYTBR mini-description of the new paperback edition of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto: “Comprising 618 numbered fragments–more than half drawn from other sources–Shields’ spirited polemic argues that our deep need for reality is not being met by the old and crumbling models of literature. The book itself is an example of what the author calls “recombinant” art: appropriated, adapted, and remixed to crate new meaning.”

That’s a mostly accurate description. More precisely: he is bored by linearity and plot. Although he eschews fiction in one breath, in another he wishes to acknowledge that once it’s on the page it’s all fiction, and, in fact, though he enjoys playing the curmudgeon, there is much he loves about literature. This list from his website is basically drawn from the book:

Go to the “Very Partial Reading List” link. It’s a terrific list.

I could, I fear, write a long essay concerning the very conflicted feelings that the book engendered in me. I find that I love arguing with it, and true, to my fashion, tend to question my arguments.

Those last two sentences describe exactly how I feel about this book. And yet, these sentences are not mine (but Shields would say they, in fact, are mine). They are Shields’ words, from fragment 586. However I present them exactly as Shields presents the thoughts or works of others, that is: unattributed and lacking quotation marks. At the end of the book, at the insistence of his publishers (he says) is a vague list of sources. (I found myself turning back to it compulsively and often, although Shields claims he really wishes we readers wouldn’t do that).

My only real complaint is that his debt to David Markson is, I think, much much greater than he lets on. Markson deserves better. But I suppose he would say that Markson had his sources, too: Nietzsche, for example.

Despite, as the NYTBR claims, only about half the work is actually fresh to Shields, I have to admit, he holds his own among the luminaries he unattributes. No small thing, believe me.
An example (of the Shields within Shields, from #455):

“The entire play is the Hamlet Show, functioning as a vehicle for Hamlet to give his opinion on everything and anything, as Nietzsche does in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And then, down a few lines, this parenthetical observation: “(Melville’s marginal comment on one of the soliloquies in the play: ‘Here is forcibly shown the great Montaigneness of Hamlet.’)”

This leads to Shields’ very interesting conjecture that Hamlet is killed to fulfill the needs of the plot, otherwise he could go on talking forever (except, of course, for the plot of Shakepeare’s life which due to his presumed humanness would have to end and thus end the outpouring of words from Hamlet’s mouth). Oh, but wait, “reality” doesn’t have plots, according to DS (the other DS).

But the point that strikes me here is this: what a lovely chain! If we “straighten it out, chronologically (oh no! linearity!):

Me (and Shields’ other readers)
You (that’s, like, three people)

(Into this scheme, insert arrows, most downwards etc)

Melville sees Montaigne in Shakespeare; Shields sees Nietzsche in Shakespeare: not chronological, of course. This reminds me of Nietzsche’s reversal of cause and effect: we know the pin has pricked our finger because we feel the pain, thus we move from effect to cause.

In any case, Montaigne is hardly the Big Bang, right? Montaigne has his influences, too.

Thus we are all links in the metonymic chain.

So, these are my thoughts on one of the 618 fragments. And I have one more anecdote (for now) concerning this book. I was reading this interview by Caleb Powell conducted with Shields on The Rumpus:

Shields comes across as a bit prickly, and Powell has an axe to grind with the book, yet the interview did nothing if not convince me that I had to get a hold of the book as soon as possible. I went to Amazon, saw all the books in my “cart” that I haven’t yet been able to convince myself to buy and got depressed. I allowed the “cart” to defeat me.

No less than a half hour later, the mail came to my office and I had to sign for a package. It was an unbidden examination copy of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, sent with compliments of the publisher. As Shields would say, this is a better story for the fact that is true; anyone could have make it up. It’s only interesting because it happened.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

AWP 2011, an itemized list

1. Walking a nearly deserted sidewalk near the Washington Monument a day before the conference starts, a man approaches and asks, “Are you here for AWP?” Wasn’t aware we were attired in AWP uniforms.

2. Lunch at Kramerbooks. I see a man who looks like Maurice, a chef I worked with in Salt Lake City in a former life. So much so that when he leaves I approach and ask, “Are you Maurice?” No, he’s not, he’s Eugene.

3. Reminded, at the Sackler, that I love the books section of museum gift shops, buying a copy of Lena Herzog’s photo essay on pilgrimage to Mt Kailais.

4. Judith Barrington, Nancy Lord, Valerie Miner, Sherry Simpson and friends discuss the narrative stance in memoir, or “the glory of an achieved persona” (Gornick) to a sitting-in-the-aisles crowd of devotees. Once again reminded how lucky we are at UAA to be surrounded by such brilliance.

5. Out of the rain and into happy hour at the Russia House: Baltica # 5 served in clear 20 ounce bottles and a large bowl of borsch served by a beautiful short-skirted over-powdered young Russian woman.

6. At the book fair I’m talking with a guy at the Cutbank table remembering I have had a piece there for a long time, mentioning it to him. When I check my email that night the piece has been rejected.

7. I meet Julie Paegle whose time at Utah did not quite overlap with mine. However, she was briefly married to a good friend of mine who now lives in Fairbanks. Her lovely book of poetry, Torch Song Tango Choir recently published to wide, and well-deserved, acclaim.

8. Do we or do we not teach the books we most love? Brock Clark reminds us that Denis Johnson wept when students did not like the book he most loved: Under the Volcano.

9. The Department of Education has enacted a law making it difficult to “deliver off campus instruction across state lines.” This educational Mann Act comes from the “Office of Integrity.”

10. Michael McGurl, author of a somewhat controversial book of scholarship on the rise of creative writing programs describes himself as a “museless pedant.” Also: the NY Times as “idiots” and acknowledges what we all know: that “there is a sadly limited amount of attention for writing today.”

11. What does it mean that the average age of the persons in the 500 vendor book fair is about 27? Or, more tellingly: what does it mean that almost no one in the room makes an actual living from writing, editing, or publishing?

12. Dana Gioia says that if Rilke wrote a grocery list it would be seraphic. And notes that John Haines writes in that same tradition.

13. I saw three of my former WIU students, two finishing PhD programs this year and one just starting after his MFA. Praying that I played a not-very-large role in their career decisions.

14. When I see at the book fair, other magazines where I have work out: Dzanc and Orion, I don’t mention this fact. And, I re-meet Eugene-not-Maurice, who turns out to be a poet from San Francisco currently exiled to the Midwest.

15. Michael Griffith leads a conversation, asking what sorts of literary ambition leads to awards? Three smart, passionate and generous people speak about the books they love: Brock Clark on Henderson the Rain King, Steve Almond on Mrs. Bridge, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum on Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. What is good about the good? Is there a better question to ask?

16. Sitting at the bar at the Tabard Inn watching the bartender, Chantal Tseung, gracefully mix two different drinks simultaneously. Drinking a glass of Laphroaig. I feel distant from everyday life.