Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Acquiring The Shining Mountain, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he a little off? My wife asks.

Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five, I say.

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Third Thing: Early Winter Notes

When I walk into the room the device known as Alexa flashes its green light twice in acknowledgment of my presence, the way an old dog might thump its tail a couple times in recognition, perhaps opening a sleepy eye, to confirm. Each time this happens I feel like I’m living in an old Twilight Zone episode.  It occurs to me I have outlived my era.

My St. Bernard medal seems to be irritating my skin, so I take it off, though I am leery of going up into the mountains without it.  Bernard, patron saint of alpinists and skiers. That day, I slip on a thin invisible layer of black ice in our steep driveway and go down hard.

We just saw a Ram Dass movie, noting that the audience was almost universally people of our age who had probably once been enthralled with Be Here Now, as we, I anyway, once were.  I was more skeptical, or equally skeptical, considering him now. But some of his observations are clear and unquestionable: “We are all just walking each other home.”

“Drinking too much is not a thing,” advises my friend, Nick Dighiera.  He’s wrong, of course, but he says so out of kindness.

My bathtub drains so slowly that dirt (where did it come from?) coats its surface and I procrastinate and procrastinate about calling the plumber.  It’s like this for three weeks.  My wife looks at it for five minutes and says the drainplug is stuck. Now it drains perfectly.  I envision my future self a doddering old man with his house falling down around him because he doesn’t have the common sense of 12 year old.

I love these dark winter hikes when we set out, as we’ve done dozens and dozens of times, into the darkness with no need of headlamps because the way is so familiar to us.  Now the snow is fresh and soft and underfoot the rocks and gravel are unconsolidated, the footing more work than usual.  Pre-dawn cold. It never once occurs to me to wonder why I am doing this, only to be glad that I can. The summit is fiercely windblown and the sun still not risen and we walk right over it without pause, downward facing dogs in one fluid motion.

What to make of strange dreams?  The dream of falling off Carl’s roof, while Carl and Charlie discuss a renovation project.  Which segues to crawling across a grass and hard dirt field during which I discover a hidey-hole filled with drugs and cash and am convinced that because of this discovered knowledge drug dealers are chasing me and I crawl and crawl and make no progress though I can see my bicycle leaning against a brick wall in the distance.  When I awake, the word “perfidy” is prominent in consciousness with not a known connection to anything, not the preceding dream(s) not any conscious thought.  Too much television news and facebook.

The poet Donald Hall once wrote of his marriage to Jane Kenyon: “Most of the time our eyes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing.”

“Other people’s dreams are boring.” So declared a Robert Stone character in a famous short story.  As evidenced above.

When I was about 15 I had an intense friendship with Drago. We would talk for hours.  We lived almost a mile from each other, but I remember walking with him to his house, but we weren’t finished with our conversation, so we walked back to my house, and then back to his house, kind of a form of Zeno’s paradox, arrows never arriving at their destination.  I think of Drago often now as he confounds the doctor’s death sentence by remaining alive months after they predicted otherwise. I am hoping he is holding on until I can see him again.

Hall added: “Sometimes you lose a third thing.”

This morning I was out shoveling the driveway at 5:30 a.m.  Quiet. The snow, which continues to fall, muffling all sound.  I was thinking about my father and what a comfort he was to me when our son died.  Then I remembered, whoops, he wasn't there, he had already been dead for three years when our son died. And then, I thought, but yeah, he was a comfort to me then.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Re-wonderment: Notes from the Residency 2019

During the MFA Residency I usually have no fewer than three things on my mind at all times and it’s  hard to focus on any single thought.  Nonetheless, I jot down notes on the schedule to be unpacked at a later time.  Now is that tim.

“Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment.”~  Robert Macfarlane, cited in an epigraph to Erin Coughlin Hollowell’s poem “Force”

“Good luck and bad happen at the same time.  Don’t be surprised by either.” ~Dana

“Pay attention to important strangers.”~DL

“All anyone has to offer is their unprecedented experience of being alive.”~Vijay Seshedri, cited by DL

“Do not whack the art.”~Hollis Mickey

“A canon is a weapon no matter how you spell it.”~Valerie Miner

22 years passed between my finishing graduate school and the publication of my first book. ~DS

“The bossy e makes the letter say its name.”~Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

Before Tom, the drunk guy, disturbed our evening reading he introduced himself to me.  I confess: I sized him up as probably homeless, but not inebriated. He asked me: is your cancer in remission?  Have you read The Great Gatsby again?  I was stunned and it took me a beat to realize he was referencing some lines in an essay that I read on the stage ten years ago.  I had not met him or seen him ever before.

The showing vs. telling distinction, which writing teachers love to talk about, universally valorizing showing over telling, is a false dichotomy. There is only telling, which can sometimes foster the illusion of showing.~So I declare.

“Envision a stanza as a guy you dumped.”~NSO

“Lots of black roses and bleeding things.”~NSO speaking of her teenaged writing

“Hot pads and aprons.”~ MoHagani Magnetek

“Why did Slick have to die?”~ Barry Donaldson asked me about a character in my book.

“What’s she trying to do to us?”~ Cameron Murray asked me after I was openly weeping at Lauren Heyano’s singing about her grandfather at the Writers Block.

Also, Cameron to me: “Jesus, do you not know how to pour a beer?”

“Dear Sex Acquaintance~” Keriann Gilson

“I want to be a fly on my life’s wall.”~Sarah Mouracade

“Revise toward strangeness.”~ Brenda Hillman, cited by DL

Revise toward strangeness, David Stevenson concurs, But not when writing your thesis essay.

“Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relations.”.~Wallace Stevens, cited by DL

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Building the Roaring Bonfire

                                                Building the Roaring Bonfire

When I was in graduate school I began to experience a heart condition that would go undiagnosed for years.  I went to the cardiologist.  The visit was the first time I went to a doctor who was about my own age. Now, of course, they are all teenagers.  So, this doctor and I chatted as peers.  She was in her very first week of practicing medicine and she confessed to me that she feared she had made a terrible mistake. 
            What would you rather be doing? I asked
            Baking bread, she said.  But now I have a fortune to repay in school loans, so I have to do this.

Do you remember the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” from the 1980s?  I hope so. In the video David Byrne hitting himself in the forehead with his open palm, shouting in terror, as if woken from a dream: “This is not my beautiful house!  This is not my beautiful wife!  My God, what have I done!?”
Thoreau said, because most of you in the room know I can’t speak long of these matters without citing Thoreau, said he hoped not to get to the end of his life and find out that he had not really lived.

We are here [at this residency] to live, as Thoreau advised, deliberately.

We are now watching a whole generation of writers and artists leave us.  Since last summer: W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Donald Hall, Philip Roth.  Much loved writers, or in Roth’s case, admired, if not loved.  There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over these losses.

But there shouldn’t be.  These writers lead long and extremely productive lives.  They did their work, said what they had to say.  We need not mourn.

We should mourn the tragedies of the creative lives that are never lived.  The unwritten books, the young who leave us before they find their true selves, live their best lives, which, by the way, is what you’re here to do.

Alice Hoffman wrote:

It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even speak of: to

write a book we can leave as a legacy.  And although it is sometimes easy to forget,

wanting to be a writer is not about reviews or advances or how many copies are

printed or sold.  It is much simpler than that, and much more passionate.  If you do it

right , and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last


This spring I was writing a long piece that required mostly research and my main  source was The American Alpine Journal, a record of mountaineering published every year since the  1902.  I own copies of this dating back to 1966 and the whole set of them is searchable on-line. I was completely immersed in the work and I had experienced a kind of thrill that this amazing historical record even exists.  And then, I remembered that I’m a part of the Journals: I’ve been the book reviews editor since 1995.  I felt humbled and honored at the same time: I am a part of this enormous enterprise.

I remembered a passage from John Cheever’s journals that describes this exact feeling and I went to his journals, collected in a single volume to find the line.  Do you know Cheever’s journal? It’s one of the most harrowing documents in American letters.  He was a profoundly unhappy person, an alcoholic, in an awful marriage—perhaps his  bisexuality lent to this awfulness.  He would re-read his books, throw them into the fireplace.  A truly tortured soul, who experienced just enough transcendent moments to keep himself alive.

Anyway, I went down the Cheever rabbit-hole and never found the lines I was looking for.  But I found these that I wanted to share with you:

From early in his life:
We are as poor as we have ever been.  The rent is not paid, we have very little to eat, relatively little to eat: canned tongue and eggs.  We have many bills.  I can write a story a week, perhaps more.  I’ve tried this before and never succeeded, and I will try again.

From middle age:
To disguise nothing, to conceal nothing, to write about those things that are closest to our pain, our happiness; to write about my  sexual clumsiness, the agonies of Tantalus, the depth of my discouragement—I seem to glimpse it in my dreams—my despair.  To write about the foolish agonies of anxiety, the refreshment of our strength when these are ended: to write about our painful search for self, jeopardized by a stranger in the post office, a half seen face in a train window; top write about the continents and populations of our dreams, about love and death, good and evil, the end of the world.

From near the end:
Literature is the only consciousness we possess.  Literature has been the salvation of the damned.  Literature, literature has inspired and guided loves, routed despair, and can perhaps, in this case save the world.

This feeling of being part of something larger than oneself.  Once I was at the MLA [Modern Language Association] conference and I walked out of my hotel room and just as I closed the door, a woman walked out of her room, and it was Toni Morrison, arguably, the greatest American literary figure of our times.  I couldn’t believe it: I felt like I should crawl behind her, head bowed, and ask permission to touch the hem of her dress.  I was half-stunned to realize I breathe the same air as she, walk the earth at the same time.  What a marvelous coincidence!

She is, by the way, short, and has magificent hair.

My novel took a long time to write, a decade, depending on how you count, and a long time to publish, another decade.  Throughout these years, for some reason, I shared it with no one, not even with Aisha, my wife and usually my first reader.  When she finally did read the novel, she walked up to me, and asked, “Who wrote this book?”

There is a writing self that is mostly hidden from public view.

“The story of your life is not your life.  It’s your story”––John Barth

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

Do not call your life by hard names, Thoreau admonished, it is not so bad as you.

Salvatore Scibona, author of most recently of the novel, The Volunteer, writes this in a recent essay about effort:
An older writer I admire, when asked the polite question what he did for a living, used to snap, “Nothing.” Yet he worked constantly for more than fifty years on story after story, nearly all set in the town, painstakingly described, where he still lives. It must have helped him somehow to claim his effort didn’t count. Recently, upon coming home from his daily walk, strong as ever in his legs but so deep in dementia that he no longer knows his wife’s name, he told her, “There’s an extraordinary town out there—somebody really should write a book about it.”

And from the same essay:
Pride comes not from the extent of our territory but from a belief that the territory is completely ours. No art with any life in it can be made by insisting like this on self-sufficiency. To write with only your own power is to make a dead letter if you make anything at all.

 The writer Lauren Groff­, do you know her work­?  Her most recent book is a collecction of stories called Florida, highly recommended.  She recently published a collaborative work in Tin House with her friend the graphic artist, Leela Corman.  In her prefatory notes to the project, she wrote:

These are hard times, my humans. It is a beautiful and life-giving thing to find your most furious friend, match your brain to theirs, and make art together.  Build a roaring bonfire in this deepening dark.

We are here, my friends, to build this bonfire together.  That is the work of the next two weeks.