Monday, July 24, 2017

My Closing Words to Our MFA Residency '17

I’m not sure how much of what I have to say here will have anything to do with writing.  These are just the thoughts I have had over the last two weeks while we were sharing this long/short intense journey.

I read on the internet about a young kid fishing in a pond who hooked a purse that had been lost 26 years earlier.  It was returned to its owner and the kid said, “I was lost for words.”

I am lost for words when I try to explain what happens here at the Residency.  I wish I knew the physics to explain the peculiar behaviors of time here.  Some days seem to never end and our time will go on forever.  By the time it’s over it seems to have occurred in a blink of an eye.  Jo Ann Beard’s visit ended three days ago, but those three days feel like a month.  I hope it takes 50 weeks for you to unpack all you’ve absorbed. I hope that, like me, you have a list of books you can’t wait to read and a list of work you can’t wait to write.

The Tour de France, the most famous bike race in the world, occurs every year during the Residency.  It comes on Alaska television at 4 a.m..  I start watching when I wake at about 5:30, every day.  I was telling this to Jo Ann and she asked, “What’s so interesting about it?”

Here’s what happened a couple days ago, I tell her.  They’re going downhill at 45 miles per hour.  A rider, one of the favorites, misjudges a curve and his rear tire slips off the pavement and he goes down.  He shoots across the pavement so fast he hits a bike that was a head of him and that guy goes down.  The guy who was hit pops up, but his heel inadvertently hits the derailleur of third rider.  The kick to the derailleur jams it into place so that the rider is stuck in that gear for the rest of the day; he can’t shift.  So: the guy who first fell, a pre-race favorite, breaks his pelvis and collarbone and is out of the race.  The guy he hit loses a full minute of time, but manages to finish in the top ten.  The guy whose derailleur is stuck?  He never has to think about shifting, he’s stuck on a very high gear, hard to pedal.  He just goes as hard as he can.  Relieved of the burden of strategizing, he finishes first on the day 3/10,000 of a second ahead of the second place finisher.

And, by the way, the announcer tells the audience to visualize it this way: “Imagine jumping out of a car going 45 m.p.h. wearing only your underwear and a styrofoam cup for a hat.”

Like I said, I don’t know if it has anything to do with writing.  Take away from it whatever you may.

Last week, my novel was rejected for about the 30th time.  I don’t get too worked up about it, as it happens three or four times a year.  This rejection letter was a particularly cold, though:

“Dear Contributor, We have selected a winner to our contest.  It was not you.  We posted the results on this link: . . . .”

This is only barely an exaggeration.

As I have told you many times, the rewards of writing are mostly personal.  The amount of money I have made from my writing over the years has been minimal.  I would hate to calculate it by dollars per hour or dollars (pennies!) per word.  But over the years I have experienced many gratifying moments.  One of the most gratifying also happened last week, within about 48 hours of my novel being rejected.

I received an email from Gary Snyder telling me how much he loved my book, how much he learned from it, and thanking me for writing it.  He’s 87 years old and I sent it to him as a gesture of gratitude, never really expecting him to read it.  So, there’s an unexpected highlight from the writing life.

I have gotten into the habit of sending a note of appreciation to writers whose work I really really love.  I do this about once a year.  I don’t say too much, do all I can not to give the impression of a stalker: “I just finished reading your book and was deeply moved by the experience.  Thanks for writing it.”  Usually, they write back to say thanks; sometimes a correspondence develops.

Last spring I read Manana by William Hjorstberg.  It was brilliant.  After reading three pages I could immediately see the inadequacies of my own novel (explaining, perhaps, the 30 rejections!).  So, I found his email address and told him how much I love his book.  That was on a Tuesday. He died the next Saturday.

In The Great Gatsby, a book that has been a touchstone in my reading life–no actually, just in my life period–the narrator Nick, who for much of the novel has mostly been just reporting what he has observed, tells Gatsby, “ You’re better than the whole damn bunch of them put together.” Gatsby will be murdered shortly after. 

After the funeral, attended only by Nick and one other person, Nick goes to one of Gatsby’s business associates, Wolfsheim, to find some answers to the mysteries of Gatsby’s life. He also wants to know why Wolfsheim hadn’t attended the funeral.  Wolfsheim explains that he believes that the time to express your love or admiration for someone is when they are alive.  When they’re gone it’s too late.  Move forward.

As you move forward now, my advice to you is that you tell the people you love that you love them.

See you all next year~

Friday, June 23, 2017

Misty Mountain Walk, with Dogs


I was six hours on a mountain yesterday and most of those six were spent in a cloud so that despite our constant movement it sometimes felt we were stationary, running in place within the same cloud bubble.

This was the longest mountain outing for me since my heart surgery six months ago.

I saw my cardiologist last week and he gave me full renewal of my license to kill (myself) in the manner I choose, as opposed to heart failure, an option which I did not select.

On the mountain we knew where we were about 90% of the time, though sometimes triangulation of our three opinions were required.   I would not call the other 10% dicey, exactly.  But I will note that the dogs, all five: Curzon Eleanor, Hyde, Van, and Zhia, took turns crying at the prospect of descending the rocky trailless terrain.  The dogs say, we can do it, but we don’t have to like it.  I was glad to have hands and ski poles.

With us was my friends’ brother-in-law visiting from out of state.  On the summit I remarked to him that it was shame we were so socked in because the view is spectacular in every direction.  He said he preferred not seeing the view as it also allowed him to ignore what else we had told him: that the sides of the mountain dropped off precipitously in every direction.

My cardiologist had been out of the office.  Vacation? I asked.  No, he said, Family.  He found amusing the fact that my atrial fibrillation episode in the high mountains resulted in a helicopter evacuation last fall.  In fact it was this drama that had moved him to recommend the surgery.  His family lives in Poland.  When I mentioned that many of the very best Himalayan climbers, winter specialists, were Polish, he replied, Of course, but they are all dead.  Not all, I said.  His father was a friend of Wanda Rutkiewicz, lost on Kanchenjunga in 1992.

You know that feeling that you have when you’re sitting in a parked car and the car next to you begins to back up and for a second or two you thinking that it’s you moving forward?  It was little like that.

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain then there is.  So said Donovan.

The rain was constant but very light, sometimes the word falling would be an exaggeration.  So, yes, we were wet.  But no wind, a blessing, right?  From the summit I could almost see the path that leads back to my stronger, younger self.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


When our local bookstore downsized their retail space they sold bags of books for five bucks, then, closer to their deadline, two bucks a bag, then, finally, free bags of books.  I found this very depressing.  A conversation about Amazon selling books for a penny, that’s $0.01, led further to a guy my friend George knows who bought books in bulk, not to read, not even to sell, but to shake their pages out and see what falls from the leaves.  Whatever shook out, this was the stuff he sold.  Ephemera.

ephemera plural :  paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.

Yesterday I cleaned out a file cabinet in my office and came across a program from The Mountain Summit, which took place at Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon in 1988.  I can’t remember attending, but the participants came down to Salt Lake City where I had some of the luminaries sign a program: Chris Bonington, Jeff Lowe, Yuichiro Miura (the man who skied down Everest!!), John Roskelly, Galen Rowell, Lou Whitaker, Jim Wickwire, and Sharon Wood.  Messner is conspicuously absent. I don’t remember collecting a single one of these autographs, except for the surprise of noting that Bonington was not the enormous mythical giantkiller I had imagined, and a long talk I had with Jeff Lowe about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.  This would have been three years before his sensational and barely survived solo first ascent of the route he would call “Metanoia” on the north face of the Eiger.

Much more interesting (to me) is the ephemera the program held, stuff I had randomly filed within its pages over the years:

A small map of The Vallée de Chamonix.  Rather mysterious as to how this found its way here.  At the time I had only been to Chamonix once, eight years earlier.

A postcard from my friend Mike from Glencoe, Scotland where he claimed that the Scotch tab was so high he was going to have to sell his soul to the devil for a few more years to pay for it. Can’t read the date, but it was sent to Davis where we lived from 1992 to 1995.

Another postcard, this one from my brother John, dated 1999.  It’s from Nazca, Peru and features a photograph of windblown skulls in the desert.  He was on his way to the Amazon.  We would see him a few months later in Michigan where we celebrated the turn of the millennium with my family.

A receipt from REI dated 2008.  I had ordered a snowboard for Macklin from Illinois to be delivered to the Anchorage store for pick-up when we would arrive there in August.  I can only guess that this was the last occasion I saw the program, unearthed during our move from Illinois to Alaska, and filed away again until just now.  That board is still around here somewhere.

A photograph of me carrying my dog Frances after a 5 K race in Salt Lake City.  The story was that this race was a benefit for the SPCA and all competitors had to run with a dog on a leash.  Frances insisted she would not be beaten and dragged me though the first mile in first place, inadvertently dragging me to a personal record in the mile.  After the first person passed us, not too far after the mile marker, Frances slowed down and slowed down further with every person who continued to pass us until at the end of the race I had to carry her over the finish line.  I would be remiss if I did not admit that I was rocking a mullet in this photo. Hey, it was 1988!

Why these five disparate pieces of paper were saved between the pages of a program for summit I didn’t really attend, I can’t say.  But I can’t bear to throw any of it away either.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

All the Fluttering Unknown Gods

When the Star Spangled Banner ends . . . “o’er the la-and of the freee, and the home of the braaave,” I reflexively say to myself “Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.”  It was the nun at St. Michael’s, who invoked us daily: “Praised be Jesus Christ,” and we, her third graders, who chanted in Pavlovian response: “Now and forever, Amen.”  1961.

The things you learn from the other kids in the neighborhood: step on a crack, break your mother’s back. But it was easy to not step on a crack, the new sidewalks blocked off in large squares.  Still, you had to concentrate, you had to remember.  Or you might easily step on a crack.  Taken to the extreme we now call this OCD.

When I recited the Apostle’s Creed I used to love saying that I believed “in all things visible and invisible.”  However, what the words are supposed to mean is that we believe that God created all things visible and invisible.

Sacred Heart occupied the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Miltary: a parish church, a couple of school buildings, rectory, and convent.  These buildings housed the center of our lives for four or five years and kept most of the rest of the world at arm’s length.  We wore neckties, and plaid skirts to knee-length. 

In almost every classroom at Sacred Heart a familiar print of Christ hung on the frontwall, one hand appearing to bless the viewer, the other pointing to his heart floating visibly in his chest, appearing to be on fire and wrapped in thorns.  No one I knew there grew up to have a vocation, though it was generally agreed on––but not examined too deeply—that going to mass was good thing.

We prayed before football games, knelt on the church steps of Sacred Heart in our game uniforms, helmets in hand, eyeblack high on our cheekbones.  We were supposed to be praying that no one got hurt, but we all knew we were praying to win.  The other schools we played were all Catholic as well; they were praying to win, too.

The walk from football practice back to the locker room was about a mile. Tom Bailey and I believed that if we did not walk this mile together after every single practice bad luck would befall our team.

We lost only four games in three seasons, so who’s to say it didn’t work?

Tommy passed away suddenly and too soon.  But without knowing more of the facts I couldn’t say whether that had been a matter of luck one way or the other.  I know he’s gone, but it’s hard to believe.

The Litany of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is rather unremarkable, though in my St. Joseph’s Daily Missal the litany is prefaced by its spiritual value (italics mine): “An indulgence of 7 years.  A plenary indulgence once a month under the usual conditions, if the entire Litany with its versicle and prayer is recited daily for a month.” A drop in the bucket of eternity.

Stevie Wonder provides a pretty good definition of superstition in his eponymous song from 1973: “When you believe in things you don’t understand . . . .”  But you have to listen very carefully to catch the next two lines: “Then you suffer, Superstition ain’t the way.”

“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” So observed Oscar Wilde. 

In the Liard Hot Springs in the Yukon my friend observes the red ribbon my girlfriend tied around my neck for luck and to keep thoughts of her close.  We are on the Al-Can Highway on our way to the big unknown.  1977.

For many years I wore a yellow plastic Livestrong wristband as a talisman against cancer, which I have survived, so far, many times.

My cardiologist, profoundly indifferent to the concept of bedside manner, has assured me that, although my heart will require surgery, I will die of cancer.  My heart problem, my cardiologist tells me, is electrical.  His actual title is Cardiac Electrophysiologist.

On an excursion to Long Beach, Washington in the summer of 2015 to see Jake the Alligator Man I had my fortune delivered to me by Zoltar, a glass-encased automaton: “As blessings of health and fortune have a beginning, so they must also find an end  Everything rises but to fall . . . .”

Of the three medals I wear around my neck only one did I choose myself: St Bernard, patron saint of alpinists and skiers.

I take my friend John into St George’s, a small church in Banff, to see its simple beauty, stained glass. You made the sign of the cross, he observed, And, genuflected.
Yeah, I said, barely conscious of having done either, or at least not conscious of him. Yeah, I did.

After our climb we have an early dinner at that Chinese restaurant on the road just past the bridge over the Bow River in Banff.  My fortune reads: Be persistent in pursuing the goals in your life.  I have been.  Perhaps there is some question as to whether I shall continue to do so.

John’s cookie has no fortune.

The third time I drive the AlCan I am with my sons, their second trip up.  They are not eager to stop at the Liard Hot Springs.  I fear perhaps they had heard that a woman was mauled to death by a grizzly in the upper pool.  No, they say, we call that place the pools of misery.  I am baffled.  Yeah, they said, it’s all old people who are miserable, complaining about their health and how the world has gone to shit.  The place is a drag.

The summer before my son Macklin died he attached the kayak to the roof rack in a hurry and when it flew off, it shattered the car mirror on the passenger side.

I have always picked up pennies, almost obsessively. I then irrationally connect finding them to any good thing that happened that day.  And I sometimes knock on wood.  Black cats, walking under ladders, Friday the 13th have no hold on me.  Though, walking under a ladder seems kind of stupid.  I see that mirror every time I drive that car. I’ll wish on a falling star every chance I have.

As a writer I have always adhered to Faulkner’s dicta from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, that “the human heart in conflict with itself’ is the only thing worth writing about.

The two people I prayed the hardest for died within six weeks of each other.  I don’t pray for them any more.  I pray for the living.  I suppose I should have praying for their souls all along.  But let’s face it: I was praying for their lives. 

“When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” Again, Oscar Wilde.

I used to take a “natural” supplement, glucosomine, for hip pain.  Now I take shark cartilage for same.  Neither has been shown scientifically to be effective.  My brother who lives on Maui told me about this, although his hip has already been replaced.

Every day I apply sunblock to my face, even though here in the Alaskan winter we have about five hours of cloudy daylight.  Most of my melanoma, was caused, I have been told, by exposure to sunlight as a child.  So what does it matter what I do now?  It’s a ritual. 

In his poem “I Believe” Jim Harrison admits mostly to things of the world: used tires, brush fires, as well as memories: “the thunderstorm across the lake in 1949.”  But he ends by expressing belief in “the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see/ from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling/ to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.”

Thirty-five years later I am on my way to Nepal, My wife, the young girlfriend of 1977, ties a small medallion around my neck.  An amulet, for luck.

I was spinning every prayer wheel between Syange and Tatopani.  There were many.  John is utterly indifferent.  I explain that I need all the luck I can get.  My first cancer had 95% mortality rate, and I survived.  My next cancer, just a year prior to the Nepal trip, the odds were 1000 to 1 that it would spread to my lymph nodes.  It did not spread to my lymph nodes. There is not a day I don’t feel lucky to be alive.  I try to explain this good luck to John.  No way, he says, your luck is bad, that’s how you got cancer in the first place.  My good luck is a luck he wants no part of.  But I’ll take it.

Our base camp below Chulu East was at about 16,000 feet.  After our first night there I woke with all the signs of cerebral edema, fatal if unattended.  We had to descend and abandon the climb.  But, I was alive, and therefore very lucky, right?

At a relatively young age I figured out that prayer was just another way of saying I want, I want, I want.  Thereafter, for many years, I did not pray.

I don’t want to visit a psychic, have my fortune told, palms read, astrology charted.  But once I fell for the facebook algorithim that would figure out my cause and age of death: I would drown in a river trying to save a dog.  Okay, I thought.  However, the fact that this would occur when I was 103 years old rather dampened my expectations.

A few days before he died unexpectedly at 22, my son asked me if I had an extra crucifix I could loan him.  I gave him an old one on a string and ordered a nicer one.  He was alone when he drowned.  We put the crucifix in with him.  His brother added a spliff of marijuana about the size of one of Castro’s cigars.  Accidental drowning.

Water enters the lungs, changing the chemistry of the blood, causing it to become more concentrated.  The heart cannot bear the extra weight.  Thus to drown is to die from heart failure.  A broken heart.

When Macklin was child he nursed a tiny bunny to health.  The veterinarian had said that the odds of successfully doing so were 1000 to 1 against.  He considered the thriving bunny to be a miracle.

Subsequently, he rescued a small hawk, that sat on his shoulder but which, ultimately he could not save.  Thus crushed his hope for the second miracle, for sainthood.  I like to think that he found another road to sainthood.  But why it had to be such a tortuous, but nonetheless fast, path, I will never understand.

When my heart’s electrical system overloaded I was deep in the Talkeetna Mountains trying to ski home through three feet of new snow.  In the long night before the helicopter appeared we clung to each other for warmth in a shallow snow cave. Someone later would ask, What did you talk about all night? The truth was that we didn’t talk much; we used all of our powers of concentration to conserve warmth.

I suppose what those people may have meant by that question was, Did you pray?  The answer is the same: I had only one thing on my mind: what could I do to not freeze to death?

My idea of prayer, to the extent that I believe in it, is that it may be performed only with the intention of serving others.  In this way it’s like Aristotle’s idea of courage: an act can be courageous only to the extent that it benefits other people.

My son Dougal asks me if I remember the time we found a hawk, dead in our backyard in the Midwest.  This was not the same hawk his brother had tried to save, but another.  I remembered that hawk vividly because its heart had been cored out of its body, very precisely.  And this was an eerie fact that I hid from my sons.  I had wanted to consult a biologist as to the cause of this phenomenon, and considered preserving the hawk in our freezer, although I ended up burying it at night, alone, in the frozen earth.  The other memorable fact concerning this event was that it was Christmas day.

The crucifix I ordered for my son arrived the day after his funeral service at St. Benedict.  I gave it to his brother.

Harrison was right, the world will grind us underfoot, along with our fluttering unknown gods. We must summon all our resources, real, and hoped for.  I think God help us all. I’m not sure it’s a prayer, exactly, but I will confess to you I am sneaking myself into the all.