Thursday, December 20, 2012

Immersion: the Case of Cloud Atlas

“I often find that a novel, even a well-written and compelling novel, can become a blur to me soon after I've finished reading it. I recollect perfectly the feeling of reading it, the mood I occupied, but I am less sure about the narrative details. It is almost as if the book were, as Wittgenstein said of his propositions, a ladder to be climbed and then discarded after it has served its purpose.”
Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

When someone asks me what my favorite book is, I often can’t even answer.  Or, I could give a different answer every time asked.  Or interrogate the question.  My go-to answer for a few years, if I happen to have half my wits about me, has been David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  When I say I might interrogate the question I mean, in the case of Cloud Atlas particularly, it’s my favorite as in favorite reading experience, as opposed to other kinds of favorites.
After seeing the recent film version directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, I was talking about the book with my friend Sherry Simpson, who also liked it and she said she couldn’t remember that much about it, that she remembers it as a kind of dream.  Yes to that.
I loved Mitchell’s first two books Number 9 Dream and Ghostwritten, and I knew I would read Cloud Atlas as soon as it appeared, as I have continued to do with Mitchell’s work, and will until he misfires, which he hasn’t yet done. 
In 2004 I lived in a town without a bookstore.  I lived there for thirteen years.  And yes, I worked in a university.  This, of course, begs the question, what kind of university town doesn’t have a bookstore?  Frankly, without Amazon, I may not have survived there for as long as I did.  So whenever we left town we wove a bookstore visit into the excursion.  Thus even when I drove down to Springfield to have some x-rays read (another thing that apparently couldn’t be done in that town) I left a couple hours early to hit Barnes & Noble.
I found a damaged copy of Cloud Atlas and bought it.  It had a little coffee stain and, anyway, the book hadn’t been released in hardcover in the U.S.  Then I went to the specialist and was told I had cancer.
The surgery was three weeks later and I read Cloud Atlas while I recuperated, during which I was in considerable pain and under a fairly steady dose of morphine.  Thus to say that reading the book was like being in a dream was exponentially true of this reading.  I was immersed, distracted from my pain both physical and psychic.  I was lost in Mitchell’s worlds, and they were marvelous.
The movie, by the way, is not nearly as marvelous, but I give the directors an A for effort, and, in fact, I would see it again.  But the problem with the film is that it is obvious where the book is subtle, at least subtle enough to not dispel my suspension of disbelief.  The book does not need to explain itself, as the movie seems to feel repeatedly compelled to do.  The book shows, the movie tells, for you writers workshop types.  The New Yorker critic, Anthony Lane, says of the movie, “one has to ask: does it allow for immersion?”  It’s obviously a rhetorical question: it does not, precisely because it presents itself as a puzzle, a test to see how capable the audience is of “paying attention.”  You watch the film as if you will be tested on it afterwards.  The book, however, is a world(s) into which one might be immersed.  I sure was.
Theory alert: skip this paragraph if theory makes your head explode.  If I remember Barthes with any accuracy (doubtful) I would say that Cloud Atlas is scriptible, as opposed to lisible; writerly as opposed to readerly.  Thus its effects on the reader are more of the jouissance variety: bliss, not merely pleasurable (plaisir).  Were I to say one more word about this I would certainly be wrong, if I’m not already.
To say that in another way: Consider the photograph that opens this post.  It’s a chart Mitchell made as he was writing his most recent book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The photo is from the Paris Review #193. When you read the book, you don’t see the chart, or imagine there had ever been a chart.  The book feels organic.  But in the film of Cloud Atlas, you not only see the chart, the movie feels like it is itself almost a chart.  Another way: in the movie you can see the strings that connect the marionettes to the puppetmasters.  In reading the books you can’t imagine such strings exist.
Cloud Atlas is one of those rare books that I love but don’t necessarily wish to reread, because eight years after reading it for the first time I remain entranced and I don’t wish to risk breaking its enduring spell.
I was planning to add some thoughts about the experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while on an expedition in Nepal.  Talk about a dream within a dream!   But that will have to wait . . .

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"No Mas": on Roberto Duran, Philip Roth, and Andy Kirkpatrick
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Bear with me, this will be about writing soon enough.  But I start with the somewhat iconic words of the great Panamanian boxer, Roberto Duran, when he walked out in the eighth round of the second Ray Leonard fight.  I loved Duran and it broke my heart when he quit.  Leonard was too quick, too elusive that night and Duran just couldn’t catch him.  Frustration.
When do you walk away?  Boxers often don’t know, that’s for sure.  Every climber whoever died in the mountains probably ought to have walked away earlier, that’s also for sure.  And writers?  That can be a pretty tough call, too.  Elmore Leonard thought he was writing his last book, until yesterday when he was awarded a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.  He said the award “energized him” and that he would write on.  Leonard is 87.
Last week Philip Roth announced that he wouldn’t write anymore.  This can hardly be considered a loss: he’s written more books already than almost anyone has read.  It would be highly doubtful to imagine that his best work would have been ahead of him: he’s almost eighty, with thirty books to his name.  When we need him, he’ll still be there in his thirty books.  I think I have only read four of them.
So, I’m not disturbed by that announcement.  But I do find his “advice” to Julian Tepper disheartening:
Disheartening because, well, it suggests that Roth would wish away those thirty books, wish away the life he’s led.  And that’s more than disheartening, it’s heartbreaking.
And good for Tepper. I’m buying his book immediately based on his reaction.
But the heart of this message is yet another public announcement of retirement from the writing life, by the British writer and climber, Andy Kirkpatrick:

Andy is a very very good writer.  Andy has two very fine books, Psychovertical and Cold Wars, to his name, and it’s very sad to think that there may not be any more.  
His books have won awards, justifiably, including our own little world’s most prestigious, The Boardman-Tasker.   And he has been terrific promoter of them.  I saw him at the Banff Mountain Book Awards in 2006.  His performance there was absolutely the best public performance by a writer I have ever seen in my entire life.  And I see a lot of such “performances,” including a few by Nobel Prize wining writers.  Kirkpatrick was the best.
So, I hate to see him “throw the teddy out of the pram.”
But the bottom line is this: Making a full time living from writing, and writing (itself) are two very very different animals.
You can write, and you can make it important in your life, even central.  But making a living at it, and it alone? My friends, buy a lottery ticket, play the horses, go to Vegas: you’ll get better odds.
One problem Andy alludes to, but I’m not sure the degree to which it has sunk in, is that when he started out he wrote to support his climbing. But the scales tipped and at some point he began climbing to support his writing.  This can be a very dicey predicament in which to find yourself.
His early climbs were already sufferfests.  Where do you go from there?  You up the ante, you up the ante, and pretty soon there’s nowhere to go but the cemetery in Chamonix or the crevasse on Denali.  Dead men tell no tales.
Look at the graceful writing career of David Roberts, who gave us at least two of the best American books on climbing: Mountain of My Fear and Deborah; his memoir, On the Ridge Between Life and Death is a third great book.  He kept writing long after his career of climbing at the bloody edge of the possible ended.  He became a kind of historian of exploration history.  He became a writer.  It looks like a great life, but don’t forget that the books don’t write themselves.
I know Andy is severely dyslexic and that he hammered those books out at a high price.  But I don’t know anyone whose books came easy.  Who is to say that there are not many ways to pay the high price of getting a book out into the world?  Time is the least of it.
Ray Carver used to give all of his students grades of A.  He said something like, who am I to discourage someone who may have a great masterpiece within them?  He encouraged every one of his students to try to find that masterpiece; or well, at least he didn’t discourage them.
Find your “day job,” Andy, but that doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive to the writing life.  Ours will be dimmer future without another of your books in it.
“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on drawing.”—Vincent van Gogh.
Pick up those pencils, friends!


Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Mostly Frill-less Trip Report

Trip Report: A Short Walk Around the Annapurnas, Post-Monsoon 2012

First: the obligatory epigraph for all Himalayan journeys:
Something hidden.  Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges––
Something lost behind the Ranges.  Lost and waiting for you.  Go!

John McInerney and David Stevenson had plans for the Khumbu region (Mera Peak, + ski descent) but were foiled by six days in a row of cancelled flights to Lukla due to bad weather.  Rather than languishing at the Kathmandu airport among the increasingly restless masses, we came up with Plan B: after ten hours overland via Land Rover to Syange, followed by seven days of trekking, most of it on the fabled Annapurna circuit, we found ourselves in basecamp at about 15,500 feet, preparing for an ascent of Chulu Far East (varied heights given; about 21,000 feet).  The hoped-for ski descent was nixed based on an “if-you-fall-you-die” terrain assessment.   This became a moot decision when Stevenson awakened with Acute Mountain Sickness with oedema-like symptoms.  After a rapid 3,000 foot descent we calculated that we didn’t have time for another attempt.  Or rather, we did, but then wouldn’t have time to both try again and get ourselves out of the Range and back to Kathmandu in time for our return flights.
            We continued to work our way around the Annapurnas to the west, crossing Thorung La, the highest pass in the Himalaya (about 17,760 feet) and descending to the sacred medieval city of Muktinath, birthplace of Vishnu (although we didn’t see the manger, or swaddling clothes.   Oh, wait . . . I’m confused.  Nevermind).  From there we continued around the trekker’s circuit through the deepest gorge in the world between the giant 8,000 meter peaks, Dhauligiri and Annapurna 1.  We finished walking in Tatopani (literally: hot water) where we soaked away the grime and soreness in the legendary hot springs.  From there we took a pair of tag-team taxis to Pohkara, arriving there 26 days after leaving home.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Opening Remarks, 7 July 2012

A re-creation from notes
 Down at the Kachemak Bay Writing Conference an literary agent named Jim Ruttman scared many novice writers with his frank honest appraisals of the current publishing scene.  Among other comments, he observed, “you must be equipped to hear no an excruciating number of times.”  But, he also said that we must believe: “I am worthy of an exception.”  Suspend these two truths in your mind and hold them there in dramatic tension.
I saw Footnote this week, an Israeli film buy Joseph Cedars, about a pair of scholars, father and son.  The premise of the film is that the father is mistakenly awarded an important national literary prize that was intended for his son.  The father is old, isolated, and embittered.  The son is the opposite, plus he’s productive. 
            The scenes that struck me were the responses of both father and son upon learning they have won the award. The father cuts the announcement out of the newspaper, places it in a folder, puts the folder in an envelope and files it, hides it really, among an indistinguishable stack of folders.  The son, is informed of the mistake and receives an official announcement that he is the winner. Not wanting to steal his father’s thunder he, too, hides the announcement from any one’s eyes.  These scenes are not at all the point of the film, which is more about sons and fathers.
There’s another film, and please forgive me that my first two references here derived from film rather than literature, that has left a scene in my mind, and it’s called Light Sleeper. I remember nothing whatever of the film except for one image.  Its main character was Willem Dafoe.  In the story he might have been a pimp, or something of that nature.  But all I remember of him was that he was a compulsive writer.  He filled up notebook after notebook, hardly removing his pen from the page.  And when he filled up a notebook, he opened the window and flung it out into the night and picked up a blank one and resumed scribbling.
            There is some quiet message here about the nature of awards.  If you’re writing for recognition, publication, the hope of external recognition: you will be disappointed. And yet, if you’re writing solely for yourself, as some sort of therapy, as was the Willem Dafoe character, you hardly need an MFA program, just go to it, no one’s stopping you.
            When in doubt it is best to remember Jim Harrison’s adage: “To be an artist is to be a member of a 10,00 year guild, not a competitor on a horse race.”
            When students ask, as they often do, why writers write about such depressing subjects, I turn them to Borges who said, “ I have always known that my destiny was, above all, a literary destiny, that bad things, and some good, would happen to me, but inn the long run all of it would be converted into words.  Particularly the bad things, since happiness is its own reward.”  But this line can also tell us something about writing, that it, too, must be its own reward.

I want to shift gears here to remind you how necessary it is for a writer to be a passionate reader.  Also, at Kachemak Bay was Barry Lopez.  One of his offhanded remarks—I don’t think he was stressing this at all, but it really struck me––was that before he turned sixteen he had read Moby Dick six or seven times.  He added that whenever he went to new country, he went to bookstore,  and bought that language’s translation of Moby Dick. He said he found this reassuring.  (By the way, Lopez was not reassured by much—that is a different subject).  This led me to think not just about Moby Dick, but of all the texts that I have read repeatedly over and over again.  How many of you own books that you have you read at least three times?  How many of your favorite books do you own in translation?
            I think of my life long love affair with The Great Gatsby—I never tire of reading it.  I think of my multiple copies of Lowry’s Under the Volcano—I have to read every new introduction—Spenders’ and Vollman’s.  Or translations of Daumal’s Mount Analogue, leading finally to the original French (which I do not even speak or read!).
The point being: without this passion for reading, your chances of writing anything your readers will be passionate about will be greatly diminished.

Finally, I wish to say something about influence, and in an backhanded way speak personally a little about our guest, Gary Snyder.  When I was finishing my graduate work I had a tough time with my oral preliminary exam.  I was practically struck dumb (by which I mean mute, though the other sense of dumb applies as well).  Probably I was over-caffeinated to the point of paralysis. But one of the interlocutors took pity on me and lobbed me an easy pitch, the obvious question: “Who have you been influenced by?”  Even on this question I hesitated, and François, Camoin, kindly added, “besides Gary Snyder, of course.” Now, I had never thought of myself as influenced by Synder, whose work I had known for years, but as a prose writer I didn’t necessarily think of him as a literary influence. However, this was enough of a “clue,” that I was able to speak, with reasonable lucidity about the influence of Gary’s Han Shan translations of the Cold Mountain poems as an influence, which to that second I had never understood before.  Later, I realized that Snyder had indeed been an influence, although the influence might be more personal than literary.
            Which reminds me: I don’t quite remember meeting Gary for the first time.  This is odd, as I had known his work for so long, forty years now—I must have felt that my relationship with him was already intimate, if not personal.  I know that we met within a three year period when I was teaching at UC Davis in the early 1990s, me as a kind of slave laborer in the galleys of the good ship Composition and Gary in a sweet chair that enabled him to commute from his mountain home (and most importantly, provide him with health insurance—which a poet needs as much as any other person).
            But I do remember being fortunate to introduce Gary to someone else. We were holding a literary event featuring American writers who had written about their Viet Nam experiences.  They gathered at Davis to mark the twentieth year anniversary of the fall of Saigon—the end of the American presence in Viet Nam.   I was teaching an undergraduate nonfiction course and I arranged for one of the guests, Larry Heinemann, to visit my class.  Unfortunately Larry is best known for winning the American Book Award for his novel, Paco’s Story.  Unfortunate because the context this appears  is usually to mention that the award should have gone to Toni Morrison for Beloved.  Paco’s Story is often cited as some kind of racist or sexist flouting of literary quality.  But, I have to say that literary awards depend on human judges and Viet Nam probably had more of a stranglehold on the American literary imagination in 1977, than Morrison’s issues did at that historical moment.  Note: see Harrison, above.
            In any case, Heinemann and I were talking after class and he said, not out of the blue, I realized, that the biggest influence on him as a writer was Gary Snyder. This caught me even more off-guard than the news that Snyder was my own most obvious influence, as the violence which could be seen as Heinemann’s subject was basically nowhere present in Snyder. 
            And, Heinemann said, could I arrange for them to meet?
            But I couldn’t really introduce them—Gary and I moved in separate universes, and he was seldom present on campus.  Just as I was about to explain this, up bounded Gary; he had a jaunty stride yet was ion no hurry.  And I left them there chatting happily outside of Sproul Hall home of the Department of English and tallest building in Solano County.
So, influence. It comes at you in surprising ways, it will strike you sideways from an angle you don’t expect. Watch for it.
At this point I probably closed by advising them to work hard, get some rest and exercise, and not drink too much, though these admonishments are not in my notes.  In the end, the only advice they took was to work hard, which is really, all I could hope for.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Exercising at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference

Everyone laughs at the film clip of Allen Iverson the basketball superstar who was too good for practice.  “Practice?” he famously whined, “Practice?  We talkin’ about practice?”  He could not believe that he, the league leading scorer at the time, was in trouble for skipping practice.  Whereas for most of us there’s a kind of cause and effect relation between practice and the real thing.  If you’re zen enough you know that there isn’t any difference at all between practice and the real thing.

I was explaining the value of exercises to some students at an impromptu class the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer, Alaska.  I was trying to convince them that you are actually freed up by prescription and teacherly coercion.  You don’t “own” the exercises, you’re just following instructions.  You’re sort of liberated by low expectations, you have nothing to lose.  Whereas in our real writing we feel we have everything to lose.  And yet semester after semester I would see students’ best work done in exercises.  Left to one’s own devices to fill up the blank screen (page) with no prompting gives a writer an infinite number of ways to fail.  As a writer you can sit, apparently idle, in front of a blank screen for a long time, but give a student writer an exercise and time limit and sure enough every pen in the class will begin to move.

I no longer get many chances to submit myself to the exercises, the prompts, a teacher demands.  And, I confess, I can be a real do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of guy.  But I did get the chance at the Conference this year under the prompting of two first rate teachers of writing, Debra Gwartney and Elizabeth Dodd, in two separate sessions.

Gwartney, whose memoir about parenting, Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir, is about as harrowing as such stories get, was trying to teach us how trauma (the hot) is best rendered coolly.  The great strength of her demonstration was its carefully chosen examples, Harry Crews and Darin Strauss particularly, to illustrate something that is really hard to articulate.
I’m pasting in my exercises here, because for me practice writing is like blogging; it lives in some ethereal limbo between the grocery list and real writing. 
What I wrote in Debra’s session:

Within five minutes of meeting my surgeon for the first time he told me I had a large cancerous tumor on my kidney. He pointed it out on the x-ray with the eraser end of long pencil. And nearly simultaneously he explained that he would simply remove the tumor, and that I would be fine.
            This was surprising news, as I was asymptomatic—without symptoms––but I believed him: that I would be fine.
            I was 51 years old and just a few weeks earlier I had made a long difficult ascent of a lesser known peak in the Teton Range.  At the time I would have denied this, but I know now it was my unstated assumption that I was invincible.
            The moment this illusion began to crack was when I told the news of my impending surgery to my mother over the telephone. My manner was casual, and matter-of-fact, but she burst into tears and put the phone down.  After a long pause my father picked up the phone and I realized that my manner with my mother had been all wrong, insensitive.  I realized that age 51 was a late moment in life to understand that I was not 17.

Elizabeth Dodd (she’s the author most recently of In the Mind’s Eye: Essays Across the Inanimate World) was trying to talk about showing and telling in a fresh way and she too used terrific examples: Dinah Lenney, Atul Gawande, Lia Pupura.  I think every example the two of them provided made me want to read the whole piece they were excerpted from.  That’s a gift, too. 

I already have my misgivings about showing and telling, although like most of my colleagues I too dispense such advice (that showing is better) to students as if it had been received in a divine revelation etched on stone tablets.  (My take, in short: there’s nothing at all wrong with telling and anyway, showing is only telling that is successful at pretending to show; in other words, it’s all telling.  The end.)
Here’s what I wrote in Elizabeth’s session, in which a chore was supposed to show an underlying darkness:

The numbers on the fertilizer bag describe the nitrogen levels, you think, but all you care about is the weedkiller.  The lawn is infested with dandelions.  What’s wrong with that? you secretly wonder.
You fertilize the lawn with a hand-cranked spreader.  You hold the spreader open with your left hand, which begins to strain and cramp before the fertilizer is all dispersed.  To make the fertilizer actually spread you spin the cranking apparatus with your right hand, similar to a fishing reel but more precisely like the winding of toy jack-in-the-box.
The fertilizer covers your feet and you wonder how much of it you have inhaled.  You wonder if your sons will really keep the dog out of the yard, as they have promised.  And then you think of the three incidences of cancer that you have now survived.  And how not once did the surgeons speculate as to their causes.

Observe that I can’t resist “telling” at the end.  Thus, I get an F.  But you can’t fail practice (actually, you can).

What was odd to me, when I stepped back from them, is that in both cases I wrote about cancer, which I have vowed to myself that I would not address in my real writing.  Despite this it has slipped onto my blogposts a couple times.   And that seems right: the blog is a kind of practice.  And the exercises did what they are supposed to do: drew, as if from the unconscious, something I was not aware of having been there.
So thanks to Debra and Elizabeth, and also to the maestro Carol Swartz who puts together a great conference year after year.

So far this post has been too unified, not enough of my trademark randomness, so I’ll add:
•  On the drive back to Anchorage as I was crossing the Kenai River in Soldotna I heard Tim Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.  The river of course brought to mind Buckley’s disappearance in the Mississippi and how, somehow, for me, that fact makes his version of the song the most soulful.  Though, even Brandi Carlisle couldn’t ruin that song; so far as I know there’s not a bad cover of it, a mark of its greatness.
•  Then I filled a liter growler at the St Elias Brewing Company with Big Timber Double IPA.  This, you have to take my word, is sublime brew.
•  It rained the rest of the drive north and further up the Sterling Highway traffic was held up by troopers who were cleaning up an accident scene, where today I learned a man had died when someone swerved a rented car over the yellow line.  If I hadn’t stopped at the brewery . . .
Here’s to us all keeping on the right side of the yellow line.  And you: you’re never too old for some practice.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Random Gravelly Thoughts

1.  On Memorial Day, sitting on a gravel bar off Troublesome Creek a tributary to the Chulitna River fed by the melting snows of the Alaska Range, reading a book set in London and written by a fellow native Midwesterner, pausing to look up at the sky and think about my father.

2.  Comic Books reviewed in the NYTBR, science fiction in the NYer. A good essay on genre fiction, also in the New Yorker by Arthur Krystal and an even better commentary on both by Lev Grossman here:
Regarding genre: does knowing a work's genre affect our judgment of how good it is?  Uh, yeah, but not necessarily in a good way.
When Phaedrus asked Socrates “Do we need anyone to tell us what is good?” (Muchly paraphrased here by me), I think it was a rhetorical question, that the good should be obvious.  But, clearly, what is good is not obvious.
When I taught an undergrad creative writing course last spring, the students—hard-working and highly-motivated—would have rather written fantasy, which is what they have read.
“Serious literary fiction” sounds pretentious, but that’s where my heart is.

3. On our bike commute, if we do it as a circuit, we cover about thirty miles and stay mostly in an urban wilderness that passes four lakes and the Cook Inlet.  It’s a remarkable ride, yet part of our daily bread.  On a single day: a large trout breaks the surface of Taku Lake, and we fly by three moose and a porcupine.  I promise to not ever take this for granted.

4.   I am reading three books at once.  No, that can’t be right: I am reading one book at a time and simultaneously there are two others that I stopped reading for whatever reasons but have not abandoned.  The threesome is:  Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, Lance Armstrong (with Sally Jenkins) It’s Not About the Bike, and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.
I make no apologies for the Armstrong—it’s an amazing story.  And, I didn’t start riding so much because of Lance or my own surviving of cancer (knock on wood, throw some salt over shoulder) but because my hips no longer tolerate running.
Niffenegger says, in an interview: “I don’t believe in electronic books.”  It’s nice to acquire the stature to be able to draw that line in the sand.  Most of us won’t be afforded this luxury.  I never read The Time Traveller’s Wife, but I like this book.
I have never read a Murakami book I didn’t love.

5.  Yesterday I passed four moose on my morning bike ride on Kincaid Coastal Trail.  Also, driving down to Homer I passed four more moose.  The difference between passing a moose on your bike and seeing one from your car is roughly equivalent to the difference between seeing a moose from your car and seeing one on television.  My pal Sweeney, who is camped out for the summer in some undisclosed location down here near Homer, encountered two bears yesterday on his bike commute.

6.  Driving down to Homer I heard this amazing NPR radio program about the attraction Europeans have for the city of my birth (59 years ago, exactly), Detroit:
This line stuck in my head: “Some other people say that it’s exactly what the future looks like everywhere.”  
Toqueville called Detroit “the utmost end of European civilization.”  There’s not much Euro left but for the tourists.
When I got to Homer, also an end of the road locale, I heard a talk by Barry Lopez, in which he asserted that very soon, all people will be sharing the same fate.  He wasn’t talking about death, the obvious shared fate (which we expertly deny). He was talking, though, about a near apocalypse, our degraded environment, the unlikelihood of the ability of our species to sustain ourselves, and the coming, related economic collapse.  At least that is what I assume he was talking about.  He never used the words apocalypse, environment, nor even sustainablity.  I thank the heavens for that, as those words are practically meaningless from overuse.  What he was really talking about was the role of art in warding off the coming storm.  In this way, he was very much echoing Faulkner’s 1953 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, when the holocaust was assumed to be nuclear and Faulkner staked out art’s role as an almost literal pillar of society. 

Faulkner believed we will prevail, but, I think Lopez believes we will be lucky to merely endure.
Lopez is worried, but so am I.  I worry that this stance amounts to the same thing as a diversion, the band plays on while the Titanic lists and begins its watery slide.

7.  Last week I wrote three sentences.  I mean real writing.  At least (I don’t mind saying this) they are very good sentences.  However, this also will work to explain the trajectory of my writing career, such as it is.

8.  Finally, Ray Bradbury left us this week.  In life he well knew that he was immortal.  I hope he believed it with his last thought.  Bradbury was brilliant, energetic, and generous.  We will miss him.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Among the Giants with Emerson and Kiko

If you’ve been reading all along you might remember that a central preoccupation is my books and the lamentable fact that I moved from a huge house to a small house, thus much of my literary treasure house is hidden away in boxes in the garage. There remain titles that have yet to be recovered, but I believe they are out there.  Imagine, then, my distress when the hot water heater in the garage imploded, flooding the place.  Six large boxes of books had to be rescued, and I found, happily, none were damaged.  I also found all my Bruce Chatwin and all my Charles Baxter, curiously, in the same box.  And, I found my Emerson, the Riverside edition, also curiously, in a box of mountaineering books, among Bonington, Cassin, and Shipton.  I suspect it was in that particular box for a reason, but I can’t remember what it might have been.  More worrisome: this means that for four years, the years these were cloistered in the garage, I have not consulted Emerson.  Shameful, and soon to be remedied.

I was just thinking of Emerson because my friend, the poet John Mann, has used a line from Emerson as an epigraph in his book of poetry Able, Baker, Charlie (winner of the 2011 national Poetry review Book Prize, forthcoming in August 2012): 
“Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable; as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex.”
I have to ask John where he found those lines; looking for it in Emerson’s essays could take days, weeks, though there are far worse places to be lost.

Inside my Emerson book was a folded piece of paper and I recognized it immediately as a student’s work from my high school teaching days, circa about 1985.
The short essay was written by Francisco Arteseros, who signed his name Fco and liked to be called Kiko.  I remember him well because, well, because of this essay, but also because he was dropped into our school as if out of the sky with not a word of English. His father was a physicist on assignment to the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, and both he and Kiko’s mother were elegant and worldly.  She, too, knew no English and was teaching herself by watching soap operas.  I liked the parents immensely and admired the panache with which Kiko and his brother entered into high school life in America.
I will now transcribe Kiko’s essay, exactly as it appears on the page, which is the original and covered (much to my embarrassment) in teacherly red ink.

It was spring, the moust beautiful estation of the year, birds flying, everything was just wonderfull.  THE sun was bright and illuminating the scenary of my experience. That night, I had a dream my new bicycle a shiny wonderfull machine made for run as fast as the win.  When I went to buy the bicycle, in the bicycle store, I sow a lot of god bicycles of all kinds, chrome, small bigs, smalls, all kinds of excellent bicycles, I was about to buy one really good but, then in the last moment I sow one bicycle, the bicycle of my dream the special bicycle, the best and mist beautiful machine I ever seen.  So I bought it and took it home, I cleaned it and fix it. The next morning I weak up early, it was not me, I was a different person, I felt stronger than ever before, I was ready for something I did not know. I went right to the garage, and I did not know and I went straight to the bicycle, it was there, it was the most wonderful machine I ever seen.  Something made me take the bicycle and started riding, the bicycle tuck me to the park, nobody was there, it seemed like I was the only one in the world.  The park was full of roses and all kinds of flowers,  could feel the wonderful powere of nature in the air in the flowers in the trees in the birds, suddenly I saw this big jump so I ride my bicycle straight to it, I was gaining speed by the seconds, I felt how my all body was getting ready for the jump, suddently I felt my self flying in the air I was floating in the space, I could feel myself becoming part of the nature I was nature too I could smell the aroma of the roses and the fresh air in my face.  In that moment I felt that God, nature, and my soul were the same thing.

At the bottom of the page are two notes from me, yes, in the red ink:
This is very good, and Please see me about the grammar. At least I underlined the This is very good.  In the end, I know that, well, I still have the original, meaning that he never did come to see me about the grammar, and also, I hope, that I realized my corrections were absurd.

I remember when Kiko got in a motorcycle accident my wife and I visited him in the hospital, where, when his mother left the room, he lit up a cigarette. I suppose this memory, this writing, is the best illustration I can offer as proof of the ephemeral rewards of teaching.
And, just this: the reason Kiko’s essay is tucked in among Emerson’s pages must be the same reason that Emerson was tucked in among the mountaineers, giants among giants.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Slender Currents

Good luck comes in slender currents, misfortune in a rolling tide—according to the Irish

It’s been a surreal winter for lots of reasons and I’m not going to go into the over-arching big picture here. All that feels beyond me.  But the slender currents I’ll tell you about here are local and manageable.  And the reasons for them aren’t at issue.  Good dumb luck, outside the karmic chain, so far as I can tell.
Night skiing at Alyeska with my sons.  Although we all skied a lot last season (this, if you haven’t yet given up—the snow is still out there) the three of us didn’t get out together until February.  And it was great night, with a layer of powder that kept blowing over the runs so that every run was untracked until we got on it.  Dream skiing.  And after, we got a quick meal at the Sitzmark, the classic ski resort bar at the base of the mountain.
When we got home my skis weren’t in the box on top of the car.  We racked our brains: could it be that we simply left them in the parking lot? Possible, but I almost always lean them against the car and we couldn’t have driven away without a clatter. And we had skied right to the car and I was sure I hadn’t driven over them.
Furthermore, Macklin had met us at the Sitz after taking a couple extra runs with his pals; he said he saw them in the box when he loaded his board in.  But when pressed, he couldn’t swear to it.  We never lock the box, because, with this single exception, we are always either driving the car or skiing.  I wanted to call them stolen—it felt better than saying I spaced them out.
I reversed the heinous 37 mile icey drive back down the Seward Highway to scour the parking lot: nada.  Made a call to lost and found—not hopeful.
I was heartsick, more or less.  These were new skis.  Skied on six times.  I hadn’t even mastered them yet.
Five days later I get a call from REI. Did I lose a pair of Solomon Suspects?  Some random person returned them to REI ski shop where the bindings had been mounted.  There was pink 3x5 card taped to them that read “Found at Alyeska.”
Six weeks later we are hiking up Peak Three with the plan to ski down.  It’s a perfect day, a good two feet of fresh snow, tracks to boot up, blue skies, no wind.  I’m with my son Dougal and his pals from Illinois, the Larson brothers, partners on many an adventure.
From the top of Peak Three you can see deep into the Chugach Range to the east and below us to the west, the glittering waters of Cook Inlet, to the north: Foraker, Hunter and Denali line the horizon.  Quite a vision for a couple of dudes from Illinois.  Quite view for anyone; I know I never tire of it.
The snow was so fine that I was skiing like a powder master (which I am not) slow-motion s-turns, amazing stuff.  Then suddenly I am airborne.  The good thing about powder skiing is the soft landings.  The bad thing was what I was about to find out.  One of my skis rested right on the surface, upslope, where I had ejected out of it.  The other was . . . where?  I set about searching for it like probing for an avalanche victim.  Probing every six inches with my ski pole in an ever expanding grid.  My son hucked himself up slope a hundred yards and joined me.  We blocked out an area about twenty by forty feet and went over it for a couple hours.  The thing was gone.  And worse, well not worse, but also bad: I was going to have to walk down through the best snow ever.  These skis and me, I think, were a match not made in heaven.
A few days went by and I was committed to the search.  However, even though it hadn’t snowed, the wind had swept the slope clear and cemented the surface in.  It would be spring before they emerged, like a fallen alpinist from the last century spit unexpectedly out of the glacier.  Nonetheless, that day, Macklin and I were halfway up the mountain and wanted to hit the summit.  It was windy and snowy, but we pushed on.  Once on top Macklin hit the fall line and was out of sight in a flash.  I work my way down the west ridge a couple hundred yards before entering the fall line, and have a pretty good run.  I hit the car in 18 minutes from the summit, a 2,400 foot vertical run.  
“Do you know how long it took you?” I asked Macklin. 
“Well,” he said, “the same song that I was listening to on my headphones on the summit was playing when I got to the car.  So, I’m thinking about three minutes.”
So, at the end of the season, I have another very minor surgery, minor, at least compared to the surgery that delayed the beginning of the season, and about the only thing the doctor says is, “Don’t go skiing.”   So I wait, for the stitches to come out.   And when my hiking pals ask, I say I have to sit out a week.
They call from the trailhead, “Was that a Solomon Suspect you lost?
“ Yep.” 
“We have it,” they said.
The one party that had been ahead of them that morning had brought it back and planted it like a flag in the snow next to the parking area.
So, my Suspects are returned to me.  I’m debating whether to take them out again—it’s May 6th, and I have other skis.  I’m thinking about starting out fresh with them next season.  I am knocking on wood, thankful for the slender currents of good luck, with no expectation of avoiding the rolling tide of the other.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dougal W. Stevenson 1931--2012

This is a photograph of my parents that I made last summer on my parents' 59th wedding anniversary in August. My dad looks pretty good, I think. In fact, he didn't look so bad the last time I saw him the last week in February. I was able to convince myself that I would see him again. But I was wrong; he passed away this week.

The piece I've pasted in below is part of a longer piece. I didn't write it to tell my dad's life story, or the story of our family, or anything so grand or thorough. I wrote it in the spring of 2011 after visiting him in Dearborn. He was between chemotherapy sessions and he had come out of the first round pretty well.

I expect I'll have a lot more to say about him later, but this is all I have for now:

Big Dougal

I made these travel plans at a time when we had been told to expect the worst. But the worst has not happened. Instead, my father has endured the chemotherapy and radiation with considerable luck and grace, though whether the treatment is actually affecting the cancer remains to be known. In fact, he looks better than he did the last time I saw him. He stopped drinking a few months before the cancer was diagnosed and had lost considerable weight, a good outcome from a bad cause.

The anticipation between the time he was diagnosed and when the treatment began was hard on him and my mother. Over the phone I said, “Well, you’ve had a lot of time to get used to the idea [of chemotherapy]. And he laughed. “That sounds like something I would have said to you.”

One day I was sitting on the dock at my parents’ house on Blue Lake. It was early morning. I was drinking coffee and watching the mist rise off the surface of the water. My dad walks up and sits down next to me.

“What are we going to do today?” I ask.

“We’re doing it,” he says.

My mother, who worked with autistic kids, has said that when I was child I was this close to being autistic. She holds her thumb and forefinger about one inch apart. I’m not saying she‘s wrong, but if she’s even this much (thumb and forefinger an inch apart) right, I’m claiming I got it from my father. The form it takes in him is talking, to no one in particular, in bits of received language that have stuck in his brain: ditties, sayings, punchlines, song lyrics, advertising blips. He’s been doing this all my life and every time I see him there is more. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” he whispers to no one, apropos of nothing.

Although my brother has been (wisely) named financial executor of their estate my father felt compelled to show me his financial paperwork: how much money there is and where it is all located. It was the notebook of man who had put his affairs in order. I wish he hadn’t shown it to me. And it wasn’t necessary, as it’s a well-known fact that my mother is blessed with immortality.

He’s a bit frail and has lost his muscle tone along with the weight. Basically he has been immobile for about six months. He has a feeding tube attached to his stomach, that hasn’t seen use, yet has to be cleaned out everyday. He also has some other needles and tubes attached to his arm. He bathes everyday and avoids all the things the doctors have advised to avoid: people, fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers. Stuff he pretty much avoided by nature anyway.

He was a tough guy, a strong guy, most of his life. His father burned the family furniture in the furnace to get them through the winter in the early 1930s. He played football in college, undersized, in the days before facemasks. He smoked a couple packs of Marlboros a day, back when that was not too uncommon. He drank Cutty Sark and didn’t have much use for golf. When we were in high school he could still hang with us in two-on-two basketball in the driveway. He lived most of his life in Dearborn, a notoriously white community, but was one of the least racist persons I have ever known. He believed in Detroit and the car industry. He owned some cool cars: a clean Falcon with three on the tree, an AMC something or other with a huge oversized engine, and later a Mustang that my brother John opened up to 140 mph on I-94 regularly between Dearborn and Kalamazoo. He started out at Ford and ended up back there, sort of, at J. Walter Thompson who did Ford’s advertising. I believe he voted Republican all his life until recently: unable to morally support Republicans he preferred not to vote at all. Also, I suspect that he no longer subscribes to the concept that what is good for General Motors is good for the country. The only time I remember him crying was trying to say grace at Thanksgiving, shortly after his mother died.

We watched a Red Wings game together and talked about our favorite Wings, mine being Gordie Howe, Federov and Shanahan. It’s pretty hard not to love Nik Lidstrom.

My parents let Eddie through the quarantine. They always liked him. He knew where the line was with them and stayed just slightly on the wrong side of it. Ed would pretty much say anything that came to mind, and somehow get away with it. My parents were thrilled to see him. He did his usual bit, good naturedly insulting everyone in the room, talked to my dad about Ford, and the buy-out he got from them after thirty years, talked about the work he was doing now at Detroit Diesel. Then he told them he’d drop me back home at 4:30 in the morning and to look for me in the snowbank out by the street. As we left, I could hear my dad repeating his name, “Eddie Schechter, Eddie Schechter” like a mantra, and shaking his head in wonder, as if Eddie were utterly unchanged since the day he first walked into our house in 1967.

The day I left town he checked into Henry Ford Hospital for another week of chemotherapy. I took a photograph of him at the hospital and you wouldn’t know he was sick by looking at it. My dad was up for the fight.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Window

“ . . . the guy locked away on the sun porch who the Young Doctors were taking apart an arm and leg at a time.”

––Mark Richard, “The Birds for Christmas”

I’ve always remembered this line but never, until now, thought of it as referring to me. These cancer surgeries are barbaric—they just cut away chunks of flesh and pray for “clean margins.” I’ve got another one next week.

We’ve got so much snow that even with a late start and probably an early finish (for me) I have skied more than in any other year. This is one advantage of not having skied so much as younger man. I came to skiing pretty late.

I was thinking of all the snow (800+ inches down in Girdwood!) and wondering how the crevasses might be all sealed up, and presumably safe, up in the Alaska Range. I think about that a lot more since reading The Ledge by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughn. It’s about these two guys who fall into a hidden crevasse on Mt Rainier. One guy dies and the other barely manages to extricate himself and later, to write the book. The book is chilling because probably hundreds of people had walked over that spot and not broken through the surface. I just count my hours on Mt Rainier and think about all the good luck I’ve had, much of it blind and dumb, as good luck so often is.

From up on Mt Kennedy we could see that down on the glacier below there were dozens of places in the snow where the crevasses were buried. They only were slightly shadowed. They were plentiful and parallel and they looked like shark’s gills. On the way in we had blithely, unawaredly skied right over them. But now we knew they were there. We tried not to think of them as we skied out.

This was the advice that according to Hemingway the Catholic Church gave: “Not to think about it." But, said Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter ego, “. . . swell advice, Try and take it sometime.”

Years after our climb, one of those very crevasses below Mt Kennedy swallowed up an airplane, killing the pilot. The climbers, who had successfully done the same route we had, were lucky to have survived.

We were drinking Old Bushmills, neat, on St Patrick’s Day, as is befitting a couple old dudes, and I was telling Charlie Sassara my theory that maybe all this snow would seal up the crevasses and it would be a good year for something in the Alaska Range. He was quiet for a minute and then said. “I kind of liked dry years. That way there was less stuff that can fall down on you.”

Crevasses and avalanches. Fire and ice.

Jim Sweeney’s a cat that has used up all his nine lives and then some. He used up most of them on one trip into the Alaska Range where he got seriously injured and barely extricated from the Ruth Glacier. I don’t think a reader of his new book can be expected to actually count the number of avalanches Sweeney survived on that trip. After eight or nine days they managed to get him off the glacier and into the hospital in Anchorage. The book Sweeney has written about this is called Alaska Expedition: Marine Life Solidarity and will be out any day. It’s about as harrowing a mountaineering book as you will ever read (that’s a long list, too: harrowing mountaineering books). The main thing they could have done differently: not gone climbing at all.

When I first got to know Sweeney a few years ago he said, “I don’t even dream of mountains anymore.” But over the weekend he was telling me of the ski runs he took down Flattop over the weekend (note: Flattop is not lift-assisted). So perhaps, after his hip was replaced and the writing of the book exorcised a few daemons, Sweeney is back to dreaming of mountains again.

Charlie and I are talking about the window. The window within which you are climbing at your best. I forget how this topic came up. Probably we were talking about elitism as it relates to climbers and membership in the American Alpine Club, of which Charlie has recently become president. The fact that today the requirement for getting into the club is having a credit card. Charlie, during his window, was as elite as an alpinist can get.

I tell him that I want to go back to the Alaska Range. The climbs I have in mind are not major. He nods.

“It’s a small window,” he says, “a very small window.”

Do you know the great Grace Paley story “A Conversation with My Father?” It is perhaps the ultimate metafictional story, in which a writer tries to write a story to please her dying 86 year old father. The last words of the story belong to the father, he says: “”Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?”

It’s a rhetorical question, right? And I think about it quite a bit, mostly disassociated from the context of the story. The answer is: “not until I absolutely have to.”

I don’t even want to think about the window, the small window. The surgery––minor, I have been assured––is next Thursday. All want to think about is how many powder days I’ll get in before then.