Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Some Notes on Certainty






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Notes on Certainty

                        There’s only three things that’s for sure
                        Taxes, death, and trouble.
                        This I know, baby.
                       
                                    --Marvin Gaye, Trouble Man

                            There are an enormous number of general propositions that count as                             certain for us.  One such is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not                             grow again.
                                   
                                    --Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 273, 274

I remember once talking with my friend the eco-critic Scott Slovic about academic writing.  “Academic writing,” he said, and he shuddered, an involuntary physical reaction to the idea, adding, “all that certainty.”

Jn just about every paragraph, no, every sentence, of the last chapter of Walden is a kind of jewel.
“In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is . . . Any truth is better than make-believe.  Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if he had anything to say.  ‘Tell the tailors,” said he, ‘remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch.’  His companion’s prayer is forgotten.”

Here’s a truth I learned last weekend from Betty Crocker: “ Grease the bottoms of loaf pan for fruit or nut breads.  The ungreased sides allow the batter to cling while rising during baking, which helps for a gently rounded top.” 
Of course, the consequences of not doing so are minimal: a flat-topped bread.  The horror!

And here’s a “certainty” with potentially more serious consequences when ignored:
“Here it is crucial to stay right (away from Temple Crag) or you will either a) end up in a dangerous snow gully, or b) end up on a loose and dangerous sandy slope.”
                        --From the description of the descent from Temple Crag, from High                                         Sierra Climbing by McNamara and Long.

The new edition of Laphams’s Quarterly takes Death as its subject.  A chart of odds begins with death itself, giving the chances at 1:1, confirming Marvin Gaye’s observation in Trouble Man.  Often, we live as if this were not the case, and most of the time we probably ought to do so.  Marvin himself met his death way too early—45 scant years old-- at the hands of his own father.  He left us the sublime What’s Going On, a work of musical genius and a wake-up call to the culture.

My father met his death in 2011.  I was only a little surprised that he left almost no personal material possessions.  I have his rosary and a belt buckle that he bought from a street vendor when we visited Tijuana together in the early 1980s.  He also left no writing whatsoever that I know of.
Last summer we were helping my mother clean out the garage at the cottage on Blue Lake. There against the wall, in my father’s unmistakable script was the note that begins this posting:
                                                            SMALL BOAT
                                                               ____________
                                                            4 GAL TANK
                                                            W/ HOSEs
                                                             ____________
                                                            1 QT--OIL
                                                            4 GAL—GAS
                                                             _____________
                                                            16—1 RATIO

I think Thoreau would have appreciated that; I know I do.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Writer's Block?" Pffffff.



“Writer’s block” is the ultimate first world problem.  I deny its existence.  Laziness, procrastination, misplaced priorities: I am well-acquainted with these.  And, sometimes you’re (i.e. “I”) just not smart enough to solve in language the problem you have set out for yourself.    But “writer’s block?”  Pffff.

I was walking down the street in Berkeley the other day when I discovered a typewriter repair shop.  Sweet. I was able to acquire a typewriter ribbon for my Olivetti lettera 22.  Also, I saw the exact same Royal, with the specific gravity of a small tank, I used in undergraduate school.  I had typed out a line from Coleridge, my first literary love, and taped it to the machine: “Should Sloth around me throw her soul-enslaving leaden chain!”  The line come from Quae Nocent Docent, which translates to “What hurts, teaches.”  (Coleridge was very Nietschean, eh?).  Of course, if I was at the typewriter I was already not being slothful.    I should have taped it above the television.  But then, in the years I wrote on that typewriter I didn’t own a television.    I must have just been spending a lot of time staring off into space.

Nancy Please, the film by Andrew Semans (2012) appealed to me greatly, but maybe you had to have “been there.” It’s about a graduate student in English who has a serious case of “writer’s block.”    Thus, it’s really about weakness and neuroses.  But it’s pretty funny and spot on.  The guy “can’t” write his dissertation because the “key” to it is a copy of book that his ex-roommate is holding hostage.  Actually the film might function as a good wake-up call to anyone who thinks she or he is suffering from  “writer’s block.Check it out, if that shoe fits.

Back in Illinois we had a priest, Father Pricco, who I think was not necessarily always a gifted speaker.  But once he said simply “Do your work.  Say your prayers.” Somehow, this was exactly what I needed to hear.  Sometimes it’s that simple. I’m grateful to him for that.  I think this actually embodies the crazy blend of Roman Catholicism and zen that Kerouac was onto (yes, Kerouac: still on my mind though my writing on him is done.  I am reading the Kerouac/Ginsberg letters now and once again Jack has me under his spell!  I cain't quit him, he gotta hold on me).

Pynchon.  Pynchon of all people.  Pynchon of the contemporary doorstop masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon.  Pynchon who seems to have all the output of Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King and exponentially more linguistic energy.  Pynchon had, typed out above his computer (or typewriter—can’t remember which): “Eschew Sloth.”  I think he capitalized it, as in, one of the seven deadly sins, a subject he actually wrote about.  He eschewed it, all right; he must eschew it every day.

So, let’s go then, put your shoulder, queer or otherwise, against the wheel.  The page is blank and you are not “blocked.”


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Notes toward an essay on Kerouac






                        Frontmatter to: "Kerouac in (and mostly out of) California"

Just in the last month, well after I set out to revaluate my own dwindling appreciation of Jack Kerouac at least four prominent Kerouac-related articles appeared in the national news. The first was a review of the Library of America edition of Kerouac’s poetry by Bruce Bawer in The New Criterion.  To give you the gist of that critique I will cite a couple of the more entertaining passages.  Bawer says, “the best way to get through Kerouac’s poems is to approach them not as literary texts but as private ramblings of the sort you might find in the files of a psych ward.”  Further, speaking of the Beats in general, Bawer observes “ . . . with their glib contempt for capitalism and mainstream society, their romanticization of criminality, drug abuse, and the tragedy of mental illness, and their narcissistic rebranding as virtues of their own shiftlessness and dissolution—they would turn out to be, to an amazing extent, the seed of pretty much everything that was rotten about the American 1960s and their aftermath.”  I was also amused by his description of Neal Cassady as a “footloose priapic young psychopath.”

2.  In the September 6 New Yorker Ian Scheffler researches biographer Joyce Johnson’s question: “Did the effects of cumulative damage to the brain over Jack’s lifetime contribute to his deepening alcoholism and depression?”  Johnson was Kerouac’s girlfriend when he showed up at her door broken and beaten after a drunken episode in a Greenwich Village tavern.  The beating included Kerouac’s head being smashed repeatedly against a street curb. Scheffler tracks Kerouac’s traumatic brain injuries, mostly from football, and concludes that most probably he did indeed suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalitis as a result of so many violent concussions.  The most prevalent of all CTE symptoms is depression, but also impulse control (which leads to substance abuse) and memory loss, which Kerouac began complaining of while in his late twenties.  This is the affliction that plagues former National Football League players who just won a ¾ of a billion dollar judgment from the league.  But CTE can only be proven by physical examination of the brain itself, so this foray into forensic literary diagnosis must remain somewhat speculative. 
            I am reminded here of William F Nolan’s essay on Hemingway titled “Last Days of the Lion” published in 1974.  Its second very long paragraph listed the traumatic physical accidents Hemingway endured including several before taking the 237 pieces of shrapnel in World War I down to the two plane crashes, both in 1954 that he miraculously survived. We think of the tragedy of his suicide, but Nolan’s conclusion was that he was physically exhausted, there wasn’t much left.

3.  The death in August of Beatrice Kozera, or as she was portrayed in the On the Road Terry, the Mexican girl.  She was 92.  She had only known for three years that Kerouac had written of their relationship. When the writer Tim Hernandez, discovered her, Bea’s daughter said to him “ “She doesn’t know any famous writers.  She’s not of that world.”  By that time, 2010, she wasn’t quite sure of his name “Jack, or John?”   She said she knew nothing of about a writer named Kerouac. After her death, her son searched her library for signs of Kerouac’s books and found none.   The passage describing Kerouac’s abandoning Terry the Mexican Girl has always struck me as one of the saddest moments in the book.  

4.  Finally Carolyn Cassady “ the grande dame of the Beat generation,” died just a few weeks ago at the age of 90.  She had been the second wife to Neal Cassady and slept with Kerouac, writing about it all in her two books Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal, and Off the Road, My Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg.  She her the book as a “sobering corrective to what she considered the essentially unhappy lives of these men.”  This an assessment with which I will essentially agree in the essay that follows.


Although I do fully intend to make good on my promise to discuss Kerouac in California, particularly in the California as portrayed in the many iterations of On the Road, I will begin by disclosing that what I’m really concerned with is Kerouac’s influence.  That is, his enduring influence on American culture and his waning influence on me.

These are three notable moments in my on my road to disenchantment with Kerouac:

1)     Teaching On the Road to my lower division general education literature class was basically a disaster.  I have always been slow to teach books I love most.  Why?  I think that “love” of a book is deeply personal and hard to articulate. Some books I don’t even wish to reread (much less try to teach): I want the memory of my first reading experience to last.  I don’t wish to be woken up to the fact that I was sentimental reader, naïve, beyond belief, filled with youthful notions long outgrown.  I don’t want Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s prophetic line “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now” to become an unheeded warning.  Suffice to say that in teaching the book the women students in the class were unimpressed by both the portrayal of women and the male characters’ treatment of them.  This is of course further complicated by the book’s genre, which is best described, I think by one of his earliest biographer’s, Anne Charters, phrase,” confessional picaresque memoir.”  I couldn’t think up an adequate defense.  Talking about this later with the writer Rebecca Solnit, she generously let Kerouac off the hook: “He was writing in a decade that wasn’t so favorable for my gender.”

2)     The late photographs of Kerouac.  How I wish I hade never seen them!  Ginsberg sums up his last photograph of Kerouac at their last meeting in 1964, three years before his death:  "Jack Kerouac on visit to Manhattan, last time he stopped at my apartment 704 East 5th Street, Lower East Side, he then looked like his father, corpulent red-faced W.C. Fields yawning with mortal horror, eyes closed a moment on D.M.T. visions.”

3)     The new (2012) Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road to film.  On the Road has always felt to me to be a particularly American novel, and I think the film succeeds in its peculiar Americanness.  And yet, I can’t erase, from my mind, just like I can’t erase the image of the bloated alcoholic dead-in-life long before his time, the facts of the film’s making: the fact that its director is Brazilian, that two of the three leading actors are British and that the American landscape filmed in Argentina, the interior scenes shot in Canada.  The America that Kerouac wrote about surely doesn’t exist today; I wonder if it ever did exist.  As the credits of the film role down the screen there are scenes of the Neal Cassady figure walking down railroad tracks in the desert.  These, of course, are prefiguring his death just one year before Kerouac’s own death at 47, in his mothers’ home of internal bleeding which was complicated by cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.  He was drinking a glass of whiskey and malt liquor and writing notes about his father’s print shop when the bleeding began.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Journal: Nepal, October 6, 2012


Saturday, October 6, 2012  Overland from Kathmandu to Syange






7:00 a.m.  We, that is––the staff–– load the equipage to the top of Toyota Land Cruiser.  In addition to Karma [our Sherpa guide] we have a driver and two porters.  None of these people have names; we must be on a need-to-know basis (a vestige of the caste system?).
            We begin winding our way on nameless roads, stopping for gas coupons, then gas, and then we’re out of the city on a paved road.  Our driver is good, but it’s still scary between the other manic drivers and steep roadsides.  We only see one truck overturned on the road, its rice bag cargo stacked alongside like sandbags against a flood.
            We stop to stretch our legs, the stop dragging on until we suspect that the driver has some unstated personal business in the village.  Other trekkers are stopped here as well.  A long fruit and vegetable stand lines the road, its roof of blue plastic tarps held in place by logs.
            In Beshihar we stop again for lunch this time and again the driver disappears , this time we laterare told there is some mechanical-related problem that he is working on. In Beshihar the trekkers are walking through town and it sinks in that the road we are driving on is the actual Annapurna Circuit for trekkers (here navigable by vehicle).  Not very appealing for walking, it’s highly–rutted with lots of water.
            From Beshihar the road is a rocky roller coaster ride and I doubt we get above ten miles per hour very often.  Sleep is impossible. (Note: I have been asleep for much of the seven-hour drive up to this point).
            Lots of domestic animals on the road.  Women carrying gargantuan stacks of greenery (what is it?) much larger than their small thin bodies.  The little teahouses begin to appear regularly & I can see now the casualness of the planning borne out: here, or there, no difference.
            By the time I get to Syange I am done—between the car-sickness (inevitable) and the bug in my stomach, (not to mention the mélange of drugs ingested to combat both), I go straight to sleep (5:30 p.m.?).
            In the dining room of the teahouse waiting for Karma to arrange for the rooms.  A team of porters is watching a soccer match on television in rapt silence.  I don’t remember this until the next morning when I am trying to sort dream from reality.
            Karma awakens me (when?) to look at my down jacket to assess whether it will keep me warm at 6,000 meters.  I think he says it will be insufficient but I insist it will be fine.
            John is in and out of the room, his headlamp moving around the room like night burglar or underwater explorer.
            My dreams are vivid and somewhat Macomb-based, though I couldn’t say what about them had anything to do with Macomb [a town in the Midwest I moved away from four years prior].  They included: a large party uncomfortably over-crowded with people, being told we won a million dollars and then having it not be true.  Finally, a conversation with my father [passed away six months prior] in which he inquires whether I have bargained hard enough for my salary in a job interviewer- (it is unclear whether this is anew job or some past job).
            All night the river rushes through my dreams and in the morning I see that our tea house is perched over the it and we are staying at the New Waterfall Teahouse, Syange, Room 114.
            The trekkers have been much-dampened, presumably today, and their shoes sit out in from of the rooms, tongues open to the air, shirts hanging from balconies to dry.



Monday, June 17, 2013

Final Ski Report: a Late Winter Encounter



I am lucky enough to been on skis just last week (June!). A couple days ago driving over Turnagain Pass I could see lines on Tincan Peak still holding enough snow for some long runs.  But I expect not to ski again this season due more to my schedule than to conditions. 
So I’ll perform a quick post-mortem on the season which began in October with the dream of skiing a Himalayan peak. This didn’t happen, but not for lack of effort, including mostly the effort of our Nepalese porter who carried my Rossignols about a 130 miles.  I had a great time at the Tour of Anchorage, the local cross-country ski race, and am inspired to race even harder next year.  The downside to the season would be the downhill racing season at Alyeska: just abysmal.  Slow and tentative. Maybe only once did I complete my two runs without crashing and burning.  Some exhilarating moments nonetheless. Probably I just didn’t ski enough at the resort to ever find mid-season form.
            I had a great day skiing from Arctic to Indian, a 23-mile day in perfect weather with Dave Ward and his daughter, Suzanne.  A long day and good preparation for our recent nine day expedition on the Harding Icefield, days of heaven. More about that trip another time. 
            One of my more memorable days of skiing was late season on the Chester Creek, an urban trail that winds through a sliver of wild land.  Sunday morning, early, and I hadn’t encountered a single person.  But up ahead, on the trail two men were stopped, obviously waiting for me to approach.  I slowed to a stop.  Two Native men.
            “Are you training for the Olympics?”
            “No, no, just out for some exercise.”
            “How much are those skis worth, eh?”
            This set off my inner alarm system, probably a moment or two late.
One was short, the other slight.  But I was on skis and there’s a kind of vulnerability there.  You could be knocked off your feet easily.  I am usually thinking about this in regards to possible moose encounter.
            I downplayed the value of the skis, which was in fact true—they weren’t worth much, but I sounded like a liar to myself, as I tried to explain.
            The shorter man said suddenly, “Why are white people such mean motherfuckers?”
            “I know,” I said,  “There 're a lot of pricks out there.”  This was when I noticed that his eye was swollen shut, blackened.
            “Butch,” his friend said.
            “This motherfucker,” the shorter guy continued, “I jacked him good.” And suddenly he had closed the space between us and imitated a powerful uppercut with a tremendous burst of energy.
            “Butch,” his friend said, “This isn’t the same guy.”            
             I had way underestimated Butch’s power, and, naively, not even considered his bitterness.
            “So, where are you guys going?” I asked.
            “We’ve got a foxhole out in the woods.”  He gestured outward at the frozen forest.
            “Where are you from?” I asked.
            “Kotzebue.”
            (For you non-Alaskans, that’s about 1,000 miles from Anchorage and no roads go there.)
            Despite the small talk, Butch was still agitated, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a boxer between rounds.  It was clear that his friend was familiar with the role of keeping Butch out of trouble.  Also clear was that he was not always successful.
            “Stay warm you guys, I have to move on,” and I pushed past them into the morning fog.  When I got a few meters down the trail, I pushed harder, sprinted, and I didn’t look back.



Sunday, April 28, 2013

Old Climbers, Talking



i.
At the gym I see another old climber on the stationary bike, sit next to him and begin pedaling. What have you been doing? I ask.
Eating, he says.  He’s pedaling hard.
I haven’t seen him since early winter when we spent a day skiing over Hatcher Pass on about three inches of snow.  We had a slow start to the winter that’s just now winding down in late April. We begin talking about the recent American Alpine Club meeting, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first American ascents of Everest.  These guys are mostly in their 80s now. The leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, is 94.  This reminds Old Climber Number 1 to make a little speech about the pussification of American climbing. 
So, he says, these AAC climbing grants.  What a joke.
Do tell.
They gave one to these guys to do a route on Deborah (a remote peak in the AK Range) and they didn’t get anywhere near the climb.  I’m not sure they left the spot where the plane dropped them off.  You know why?
I shake my head.
Guess, he says, just guess.
Don’t tell me, I say, too cold?
TOO COLD!!  He laughs maniacally and I join him.  Of course, it’s too cold.  It’s always too cold up here.  Ridiculous, he says.  Too cold, shaking his head
OC1 has climbed Denali in winter.  A life-long Alaskan, as teenagers he and his pals routinely camped in winter conditions that would be major expeditions for outsiders.
I remind him that the AAC isn’t just for elite climbers anymore.  He had forgotten about that.  Okay, he says, I guess we should just hand out money randomly for average folks’ bouldering tick lists.
Pedaling, pedaling.

ii.
OC1 says he was invited to the Ruth (a glacier in the AK Range, where all the climbing is hard and dangerous) What am I going to do there?  Sit in a tent and drink?
There’s nothing to do.  It’s either the south face of Dickey (a 5,000 foot rock climb in arctic conditions) or nothing.  Indeed, my only trip to the Ruth the snow conditions were so sugary that we ended up just skiing around.  Great trip, actually.
Anyway I’ve already spent two months up there, he adds.
I’m not sure what he’s driving at.   I think he’s finding compromise . . . difficult.
Pedaling, pedaling.

iii.
He tells me about the backcountry skiing he’s gotten in this season—a considerable amount.  I tell him that most of my time was spent on the Nordic trails.  I don’t mention my disastrous season racing slalom in the Town League down at Alyeska.  Then I remember that I skied Arctic to Indian, a long 23 mile point-to-point day.  That’s something, he said. Something, in OC1’s book, is actually . . . something.
Yeah, I said, but it kicked my ass.
It’s supposed to, he said.
Pedaling.
I tell him that most of the time I’m on the wrong skis.  Plus, I never have the right stuff in my pack.  I should have had a stove, an extra pair of socks and a huge pair of mittens.
You didn’t need that stuff.
I should have had it.
But you didn’t need it, did you?
I might have needed it.
Pffft.
Pedaling, pedaling.

iv.
We talk about other climbers, our age, their lecturing about climbing to some star-struck young  climbers.  Same old stories, nothing new.  It’s embarrassing, he says.
They were telling those stories twenty years ago.
What are we supposed to do? I said.  I am thinking about privation, exhaustion, frozen digits: not all that appealing to me, now.
He shrugs.
I know what he means—our best days in the mountains are undoubtedly behind us, and it’s hard to reconcile oneself to that.  Further, who wants to hear it?  Ancient history.  Move along people, nothing to see here.
Pedaling, pedaling.

Coda
We agree to do some long road rides when it warms up.



Saturday, April 20, 2013

Herzog(s): an Appreciation

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Last week I saw the Werner Herzog film Happy People: a Year in the Taiga.  The taiga is in Russia but is much like the villages of Alaska, unreachable by road.  I will see anything with Herzog’s name on it, any time.
The taiga is the blank map Herzog was thinking of, I think, when he said, “Adventure is over. All the white spots on the map have been discovered.”
“Herzog never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting.  Even his failures are spectacular.” So said Roger Ebert, getting it exactly right.  The condition to which every artist should aspire.
I own two films by Herzog, Every Man for Himself and God Against All (later titled The Mystery of Kasper Hauser–its subject), and The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the cave paintings of Chauvet. I also own three books by him: Pilgrims: Becoming the Path Itself, Conquest of the Useless, and Of Walking in Ice.  Somewhat odd, in that his films are exponentially more numerous than his writings. These are among my favorite possessions.
Pilgrims is a book of photography by Herzog’s wife, Lena, portraying the sacred Buddhist trek around Mt. Kailais in the Himalaya.  Herzog provides the text.  The subtitle is from Gautama Buddha: “You cannot travel on the path before you have become the path itself.”
Herzog on Ecstatic Truth. “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.”—Blaise Pascal.  And then Herzog, in a speech in Milano: “The words attributed to Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness, are in, fact, by me.  Pascal himself could not have said it better.”
Later, in the same speech: “Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power.  But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.”
In Conquest of the Useless Herzog confirms that, indeed, he did threaten to kill Klaus Kinski during the filming of Fitzcarraldo.
“At the end of November 1974, a friend called from Paris and told me that Lotte Eisner was seriously ill and would probably die.  I said that this must not be . . . I set off on the most direct route to Paris (from Munich), in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.” -–from the preface to Walking in Ice.
“It was an insignificant bullet.  I am not afraid.”  Said Herzog after being shot by a sniper with a pellet gun during an interview with the BBC.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylXqc8TQ15w
Herzog has made two films whose subjects are close to my heart: Scream of Stone, based on a climb of Torre Egger in Patagonia, and The Dark Glow of the Mountains, featuring the great climber Reinhold Messner, first to climb all 14 of the 8,000 meter peaks.  I have seen neither of these films. 
In an effort to inspire his friend Errol Morris to finish his film, Herzog vowed that if he did finish it, Herzog would eat his boot.  Morris finished.  Herzog ate his boot.  Inspiring the film Werner Herzog Eats His Boot, by Les Blank.  Herzog hoped it would inspire artists experiencing difficulties to bring their work to fruition.
Maurice Herzog—no relation to Werner (whose “real” last name is Stipetic, anyway; Herzog is his father’s name, in English: Duke)––was on the first team to ever climb an 8,000 meter peak, Annapurna, in 1950.  Although he lost his fingers to frostbite, he dictated from the hospital the book, Annapurna, which has sold 11million copies to date.
The most famous line in Annapurna is at its end: “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”
I might prefer: “I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances, it is because the planned, organized predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete. It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied."
The profits of those 11 million copies did not go to Maurice Herzog, but to the national French mountaineering association.   In addition, Herzog’s account differs wildly from events as other climbers remember and recorded, most notably, Lionel Terray.
When Maurice Herzog died in December of 2012, I felt that I ought to have met him.  I was, after all, in Chamonix during the time he was mayor.  Then I lamented that I ought to have a signed copy of Annapurna.  I have four editions, including a first edition, in French.  And then, browsing through my office copy, I realized it had been signed.  The peculiar signature of a fingerless man.  Herzog: his mark.
Terray’s book, Conquistadors of the Useless, 1961, is so good that for many years it was speculated that he did not write it himself.  In 1996 Terray’s original journals were found, proving, more or less, that in did indeed write Conquistadors.  And, incidentally, showing a whole other side to the ascent of Annapurna than the one Herzog (M) made famous.
Before 1996 an edited version of Terray’s journals was available.  It seemed to concur with the version of the expedition in Herzog’s Annapurna.  The editor of that version of Terray’s journal: Maurice Herzog.
Werner Herzog’s book Conquest of the Useless takes its title from a line of dialogue from the film Fitzcarraldo, the making of which it documents.  The character. Don Arajuo proposes a toast “To Fitzcarraldo, the conquistador the useless.”  It is never acknowledged that Werner Herzog is aware of Terray’s title, and, yet, their themes are similar: human folly.
But not just human folly.  The awareness that the appropriate response to the knowledge that all actions are folly is to nonetheless commit oneself the single minded pursuit of what one knows to be folly.  The larger the folly, the better.
Terray asks: “In any case, outside of primitive societies where every gesture springs from the instinct for survival of the species, what is, in fact, a “useful” action?”
Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, is my second favorite of his novels, the first being Humboldt’s Gift. In Herzog the main character, Moses Herzog, compulsively composes letters in his head, letters that he never actually mails.  Thus the letters are doubly removed from Bellow himself, existing only in his narrator’s head.
When pointed out the many similarities between his character Herzog and himself, Bellow said: “I don’t know that that sort of thing is really relevant.  I mean it’s a curiosity about reality which is impure, lets put it that way.  Let’s both be bigger than that.”
Bellow’s Herzog said “Unexpected intrusions of beauty.  This is what life is.”
When Werner Herzog arrived in Paris, frozen and exhausted, Lotte Eisner was alive.  She gave him a look of “understanding.”  Herzog: “For one splendid, fleeting moment something mellow flowed through my deadly tired body.  I said to her, ‘Open the window.  From these days onward I can fly.’”
In my only travels to the Himalaya, although not by design, we found ourselves in the Annapurna region, and at some point what had begun as a mountaineering trip evolved into a trek, a pilgrimage.  Every stated goal of the trip had been foiled by this or that, the weather, the terrain, altitude, the frailties of our own bodies.  On the second to last day, I noted in my journal that suddenly none of us knew with any certainty what day of the week it was.  I don’t know if we became the path itself, but I know that sometimes the other Annapurnas in the lives of men, are, actually, Annapurna.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Report from the East: Heard, Overheard, Read at AWP and Beyond


 Heard, Overheard, Read at AWP and Beyond (NYC) 2013

one
Clerk (owner?): “Are you a poet?
Customer: “Yes.”
 “Would I know you? Do you have a name?”
“Mary Jo Salter.”
“Oh, semi-famous.”
At which my wife puts her arm around the poet and says, "Of course you're famous, dear."
                       
                             --at the Grolier Bookstore, March 6


two
“We would like only for once to get to where we already are.”

              —the  poet, Ewa Chrusciel at Jane Carman’s fabulous Festival of Language 2013, March 6


three
             
            . . . He stares out
            through sooty glass
            at Coldwater Road, past
            an expansive parking lot
            littered with LeSabres,
            Impalas, Bonnevilles.
            Wildcats, Corvairs––
            a sea of made-in America
            pride, before Toyota,
            before Volkswagen,
            before those distinctions
            seemingly mattered.
                       
                           --from “Ternstedt Division, 1961” by Larry Dean, who also read at the                                                Festival of Language, and was a cool guy

four

Jeff Kleinman, super-agent, to me: “Of course you know Freddy Brown?”
    
“No,” I say, thinking Downtown Freddy Brown, guard for the Seattle Supersonics in a past lifetime.

Then, too late, I realize he is talking about the writer, Fred Leebron.  Whoops.


five
“I keep taking the same photo over and over
As if to say. Look and Look.”

       ––from “Fixing Antarctica” by old friend, Katie Coles, or, as it says on the book
                (The Earth Is Not Flat) cover “Katherine”


six
           
             D’ou venon-vous?
            Que sommes-nous?
            Ou allons-nous?
Where do we come from?  What are we?  Where are we going?  Gauguin wrote this in the upper left corner of the painting which takes its name from these three questions.  His masterwork.  In the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.


seven
“Everything is unavailable, everything is unavailable, and now, everything is available.”

                    ––Dana Spiotta, author of Stone Arabia, sharing the stage with Don DeLillo, March 8



 eight
“I noticed I had written a sentence with 19 words and 18 of them only had one syllable.  All of them had the letter ‘a.’” 
          
                        --Don DeLillo, on stage with Dana Spiotta

nine
“I will never not love that sound,” said a museum-goer upon hearing the satisfying thunk of a slide projector working through its tray automatically.


ten
“Abstraction marks the demise of painting as craft and its rebirth as an idea.” Said of Duchamps in the Inventing Abstraction 1915—1925 exhibit at the MOMA.


eleven
“Jazz is a woman’s tongue all up in yo mothafuckin mouth.” from Right On!  Danska’s film about spoken word civil rights poetry, from 1970, viewed at MOMA, March 11.  The birth of rap.


twelve
“I wept when I saw The Starry Night . . . and then I ordered a tuna fish sandwich.”—yet another museum–goer at the MOMA.



Monday, January 7, 2013

My Ideal Bookshelf



I used to be embarrassed if someone “caught “ me looking at the books on their shelves.  I’m over that.  I am a book person.  I look, no apologies. 
I love the new book My Ideal Bookshelf wherein the editors asked a bunch of people, some writers, but also artists and designers of all kinds, to assemble their ideal bookshelf.  Then an artist did watercolors (at least, I think they’re watercolors) of the books on each shelf (when in reality it’s doubtful that they occupy a single shelf.  Mine surely don’t, not even in the above photo).    One guy chose his ideal bookshelf based on the colors of their spines.  Why not?  He is an artist.  An ideal bookshelf for me is tough to assemble. I could probably assemble a dozen ideal bookshelves, depending on mood, the weather, alcohol intake, etc.  For this list, I began to think of books that were influential to me, books that have been read over and over, books that were touchstones for important experiences or relationships in my life.  My Ideal Bookshelf.  Here it is.
Paddle-to-the-Sea, Holling Clancy Holling.  This is the classic 1941 children’s book illustrating the Great Lakes and the romance of the north.  Holling was an artist and this is geography, gorgeous and inviting.  My father’s mother, a children’s librarian, gave this to me, signed and dated.
Lives of the Saints, 1955.  The only book in my Grandmother’ Flynn’s house (other than the bible).  Furthermore, she had no television (actually, she had one, just no reception).  Thus, we read this book, looking mostly at the illustrations of the violent ends of the martyrs.  After my Grandma died my Aunt gave my grandmother’s copy to me.
St Joseph’s Daily Missal.  The standard Confirmation gift, consulted at daily mass, and also Sunday mass.  I read it until the covers came off.  I probably had mine for only three years before they stopped saying the mass in Latin.  I recently acquired another copy, this one in near mint condition, except the child owner’s name and address in the front. Doubtless a Confirmation gift for a would-be Catholic who never attended mass again.  I am happy to have the Latin at my fingertips once again.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.   My father gave me these for Christmas in 1969.  There are four volumes, bound in red leather and the pages are gilt with gold leaf on the top.  The print is too small for me to read now, without a magnifying glass. The same Christmas he gave me a stopwatch, as at 16 I was a serious runner.  The first (of few!) early hints that my dad knew what I was about. 
Mount Analogue, Rene Daumal, 1952  I had heard of this in the climbing underground long before I found a copy of it.  I now own two translations of it, a hardcover first edition in English, and a copy in the original French. The cult classic for all hippie mountaineers, wanna-be mystics of the 1970s.
Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry, 1947. How can a story about death by dissipation be so beautiful?  How can I love a fictional character who is so utterly . . . helpless?   The miracle of language is here.
foto Hnos Mayo.  1992.  This is a book of photographs taken in the forties and fifties in Mexico by the Hermanos Mayo, Spaniards who fled Franco’s Spain and championed the working class.  The book was an extravagance that I bought at the Los Angeles Museum of Art when I couldn’t afford it.  It became a touchstone for my novel Forty Crows, which is set mostly in Mexico City.  It was published in a limited run as a catalog for an exhibition.  I love owning it and thinking of its scarcity.
Climbs on Alpine Peaks, Abate Achille Ratti (Pope Pius XI), 1923.  The ecstasy of climbing as recorded by the then-not-yet pope. The main climb he writes about here is an early ascent of the Dufourspitz of Monte Rosa from the Italian side, a peak John McInerney and I climbed in 1980.
The Mont Blanc Massif: the 100 Finest Routes, Gaston Rebuffat.  The 100 finest routes in order of difficulty.  A guidebook, a history, a coffee table book.  I carried it with me on European climbing trips and copied out the route descriptions on scraps of paper that I carried in my pocket on climbs.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004).  For thirteen years we lived in a town that didn’t have bookstore.  Thus whenever we had to go to a larger town, for medical reasons, say, we also went to the bookstore. Thus I bought my copy of this the day I was diagnosed with cancer.  And I read it weeks later after surgery and in a morphine haze.  (See last post, .)
The Path to Tranquility, Daily Wisdom. The Dalai Lama.  These are short daily meditations.  I try to read them every day.  I read them as I once read St Joseph’s Daily Missal (sporadically, but with good intentions!).
Of Walking in Ice, Werner Herzog.  In 1974 Herzog travelled by foot in midwinter from Munich to Paris under the belief than the pilgrimage would somehow ensure the survival of his friend the film historian Lotte Eisner who was dying of some terrible illness. The book purports to be a transcription of his journal from the trip.  I know of nothing else like it: it's an interior look at an artist’s mind.  Although I have only had my copy for two years, it has gone out of print again and used copies are rare and expensive.  I am lucky to own it.