nonBlog – July 2010

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Altitude Gain—Saturday, July 31, 2010

I knew I was ready to leave Bishop when Tom and I were climbing Mount Langley on Tuesday and I noticed I wasn’t having fights in my head.
Every year on or about our anniversary we climb—or at least attempt to climb—a California fourteener. We usually schedule it for the early part of our trip, and we had done the same this year. But Tom’s company required his presence and he ended up spending most of the first two weeks back in San Francisco, so we had to bump Langley into our last week here. Instead of inaugurating the trip, our climb closed it out.
So it was during Week Four rather than Day Four that I was humping a 40-pound pack several miles into the back country, my mind a sunlit room rather than the rat-infested basement it usually is on the first leg of the hike. Normally as we hit the trail I am fresh from the city and whatever issues I’m failing to resolve. On the earliest climbs years ago I’d have imaginary fights with my mother; later the arguments would be marital or with some neurotic friend or boss. Rassa frassa frassa, my brain would snarl, and at some point I’d look up at the sparkling scenery and realize I’d been staring angrily at my feet for 30 wasted minutes. It was awful, but I guess it was a necessary annual purge, the kind of emotionoscopy that only nature can perform.
Not this time. After a month in Bishop’s toasty embrace, I strolled merrily tra la la up the trail toward Langley, the southernmost California fourteener at 14,042 feet. Nothing hurt me; not my feet in their nicely broken-in boots, not my sticky-outy collarbones protected by balled-up athletic socks from getting their usual two-inch eggs from the pressure of my pack straps. The trail was the most stunning I have ever, ever seen anywhere. We may as well have been in Switzerland, in Austria—certainly not the U.S.  I blithely played sappy alt-rock ballads in my head and composed sentences for my new book that I convinced myself would win me untold awards and sales. It was like being someone else for a couple of days—someone balanced and at peace with herself and the world.
And then, magically, as if my mellow mind controlled all of Owens Valley, the climb went off without a hitch. For the first time, Tom and I summited a fourteener on the first attempt. We camped overnight by a shimmering lake and woke to clear blue weather. As we ascended Old Army Pass, ominous gray clouds passed overhead without drenching or electrocuting us. We lost the trail, only to bump into two groups who knew the way and led us to an intimidating boulder field at the base of the summit plateau, which turned out to be strenuous but scalable. Tom’s ACL-free kneecap didn’t go flying off his leg and the ankle he turned playing soccer with the dog didn’t swell. The worst thing that happened was on the second day when we descended from camp and were beset by the most aggressive, pesticide-resistant mosquitoes in North America. I was bitten no fewer than 100 times and my shoulders were so covered with dime-sized welts that I waited to fall into some form of mosquito-induced anaphylactic shock. But no, we made it to the car, ingested all the greasy calories a 21-mile scramble at altitude had earned us, and drove home. The next morning, Tom was sore and I was itchy and sore, but neither of us was hobbled and we were one fourteener closer to having climbed all fifteen.
I feel closer to a lot of things. I can go home now. Reluctantly.


Baked and Ready to Serve—Sunday, July 25, 2010

When I can’t figure something out I engage in as many non-normal activities as possible, because I imagine the answer is going to come from thinking differently. I go to concerts and climb things and take classes and try to prompt my brain to make connections it’s not currently making. When I came to Bishop at the beginning of the month, I hoped that being in my beloved mountains would in itself help me understand whether I’m taking the right steps in my life and my writing. Uhh…not so much. So then I attempted to swim and downward-dog and hike my way to the answers. Not so much enlightenment there either. I turned to homemade pie and microbrews from Mammoth Lakes—nope. Then we went to Death Valley, the place no one can understand why we’d want to go in summer, and bang! Answers.
Perhaps the brain needs a little extra heat to bubble up solutions. Perhaps it needs to cook before it is juicy. Because last night Tom and I got to have our first official date in Death Valley, courtesy of Olivia. We strolled over to the Badwater Saloon and ordered a couple of bottles of Death Valley Pale Ale, whereupon I began to cry. No doubt not the reaction Tom was expecting to a nice cold beer on a Saturday night. I told him there is a storm in my head and I can’t stop it, and as usual the center of the storm is my writing, which is never quite there. I know my book projects are good—my agent thinks they’re good—but they’re not great. Something is missing. And he said, “I think what you’re looking for is a call to action.” And within 30 seconds, I had thought of one.
The body, the brain, the system knows when something is not exactly right. I am convinced I have the answer now, because the storm cleared. We went from the bar to Mesquite Dunes, where Tom took some moonlight photos in 111-degree heat that felt just a little bit dangerous—but in a good way. I jotted down some notes about how to transform my memoir into a call to action and wiggled my toes in the sand and enjoyed living for an evening with a weather-free brain. Today we took the kids to Badwater, lowest point in the contiguous U.S., and it felt the hottest I’ve ever experienced it in all our trips to Death Valley. As we drove away, the car told us it was 126 degrees. And I thought: well-done.


Somewhere in Time, Eastern-Sierra Style—Friday, July 23, 2010

This place is full of time machines. You can take one and visit another age, or visit a time when you were another age. Last night I took a ride on a Rhino, back to when I was in high school. And today I’m at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley, where it’s the 1930’s. My neck hurts; I have time-travel whiplash.
A Rhino is a bouncy off-road utility vehicle with no windshield that is parked in every other driveway in Bishop, ostensibly to motorvate around the hills. Until last night I didn’t really get the Rhino thing, because when I consider the backcountry I am thinking in terms of my own two feet and how far into it they can hike. But we were spending the evening with our Bishop neighbor and her sister’s family up in the Rocking K section of town drinking far more beer than is strictly necessary and getting real, and the husbands offered to give Tom and me a ride. The next minute the wives offered babysitting for Ava and Greta, and we were off, further beers in hand.
I have taken two extra days to finish this post because I swear I am not a good enough writer to tell you how it felt to zip around off-road in this little jeepy thing. I would say more about being 18 again, but I have to confess that I wasn’t really 18 when I was 18. My parents were busy blowing up their lives and I was busy making sure that my sisters got to school in the morning and that I got into a college good enough to get me the hell out of Dodge, permanently. I was careful and scared and didn’t get rotten grades or try drugs or lose my virginity to the sweet and handsome boyfriend who was standing at the ready to divest me of it, so I guess what I’m telling you is that for 45 minutes I got to see what it would have felt like to really be 18 if I had been 18 when all the other 18-year-olds were busy being 18.
We drove past a monumentally weird Pet Sematary, up and up above Bishop, cruising by an abandoned mine and topping out at a viewpoint of the two-street town, streetlights ablaze below and stars ablaze above. We talked awhile and tipped our bottles and climbed back in, going faster and faster until Tom said that only pussies drive with the lights on and the driver complied, grinning like a kid stealing the last brownie. I was so happy I held my breath, so happy there were tears squeezing out of my eyes that I’m not entirely sure were from the wind, so happy I couldn’t think of one other thing than how happy I was. I wanted to drive in the dark forever, worrying but not worrying that we’d hit a rock and roll over, wondering but not wondering how in the hell I can live up to all the possibility of such a night, and then—bam! It was over, and we were back in the driveway. The best I could do to say thank you was to kiss the driver on the cheek and hope he knew what a gift he had given me. I suspect he did.
Stovepipe Wells, on the other hand, will never know or care how it transports its visitors. It sits there, year after year, being 115 degrees on the outside and 75 on the inside, utterly insensate to the experience it delivers to me every year we come here. We always go to Death Valley for a weekend during our summer stays in Bishop, and no one can ever understand why we’d want to do such a thing. But if I were to explain it to them, I’d describe the moment that always comes after our first dinner at the Toll Road Restaurant. At some point in the night, I walk outside by myself for a minute. There’s a sign about the original road that came through the site where the motel now stands, built to ferry borax to market, and I read the sign and look at the original streetlamps and I swear I can hear the first few bars of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” By then it’s late and a mere 106 with no humidity, and I notice I am ever so slightly cooking and stand there enjoying how abnormal I feel.
As long as I’m in Death Valley, I never shake this feeling that it’s simply not now. I think it may be because there are so few signs of the present; other than paved roads, it may as well be 1939 or 1949 or 1959 or any ’niner, including Fortyniner. I am such a frustrated pioneer, a busted explorer, born so many years too late to discover something undiscovered or climb something unclimbed or do something no one has done, but for a weekend in the hottest place on earth I can forget all of that and exist yesterday.
The agents of transport surround us, but you have to pay attention to notice when you’re tripping.


Eyes Wide Closed—Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bishop’s night sky is wall-to-wall stars. Every evening I sit on the deck in the warm and read memoirs or work on my own. I think about how I got here and what it means and what to do next and pretty much torture myself. Then I attempt to remember that the only moment that matters is now, and now I am sitting on a green plastic Adirondack chair with my feet up on another green plastic Adirondack chair on a warm starry night in Bishop. There are not too many moments better.
I am focusing on the concept of living in the moment because I am taking a four-day yoga intensive with H. S. Arun, an eminent Iyengar guru from India who is on a teaching trip in the U.S. Arunji is as big as a minute and calls me “Long Girl,” as in, “Long Girl, you are very long and very flexible—unusual!” My Bishop yoga teacher, Mary, says that I must look like an extraterrestrial to him because I am the exact opposite of Indian women, whom she characterizes as short, dark, and thick. But if Arunji is impressed with my skills, he shouldn’t be. Arunji does not know that I am the longest blondest yoga cheat imaginable. Since I was little I have been sleeping in an unlikely position that is hard to describe—I cross my legs and fold over like an envelope—and I can put one leg behind my head and stand on the other with no preparation. I am a long blonde human German Shepherd. But as calm and bendy as my body is, my mind is jangly. I have a long blonde way to go.
I was surprised to find that Arunji talks, and that he talks often about happiness. I would think an Indian yoga guru would not engage in discussion about happiness, since happiness is a form of attachment and attachment is the root of all human suffering. But he said that happiness is living in the moment and living in the moment cannot occur without happiness, so you must identify the things that make you happy. There was a point today near the end of a two-hour class when we were doing an elaborate form of shoulder stand using a chair (“Long Girl, you need a big chair”), and Arunji said, “If you are feeling happy, close your eyes. If you are feeling depressed, you should open your eyes.” And without a moment’s hesitation, I closed my eyes.


Accidental High Chaparral—Monday, July 19, 2010

One of the things we love to do away from home is to start driving on an unknown road with absolutely no idea what we’re going to do when we get there, if there even is a there when we arrive. In the Eastern Sierra you can easily end up nowhere—you can literally bump into a dead end after an hour of driving, game over—but that’s the fun of it. (I must concede that the kids do not agree with this philosophy.) Yesterday our gamble paid 20:1.
It was one o’clock and about a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. I was back from yoga and Tom had finished a conference call. We were heading for a pool party at 6:30 that evening, so it made no sense to spend the afternoon swimming in the pool. We had already eaten, so it made no sense to go to lunch. There was no afternoon matinee of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Saturdays only in this little town). The three girls concluded that watching TV all afternoon was called for. On vacation. In the middle of the prettiest mountains in California. I said, “Let’s go to Benton!” They said, (1) “What’s Benton?” followed by, (2) “Do we have to?”
Benton is one of the oldest existing towns in Mono County, which is perhaps not saying much. It’s an ass-of-nowhere scrap of land with about 50 residents and 100 mules. It’s also the site of Benton Hot Springs, which is one of those hippie-naked-tub places I’ve always wanted to go to, but we’ve never really gotten our act together to pick a night and make a reservation and head out, since it’s 40 minutes outside of Bishop. Why not check it out in the daylight?
The kids were so opposed there was a mutiny. I admit threats of punishment were involved in getting them into the car. We drove to Benton, which was easily the ugliest, scrubbiest place I have ever seen. No hot springs in sight. No signs for the hot springs. If you have only one business in town, wouldn’t you advertise it? Our many daughters were sure they had us. Then we saw that Highway 120 intersected Route 6; that would take us to Tioga Toomey’s Whoa Nellie Deli, which is a gourmet restaurant located in—wait for it—a Mobile station. It’s just south of the town of Lee Vining at the bottom of Tioga Pass (the Eastern-most entrance to Yosemite National Park). The Mobil, as it's known in these parts, overlooks Mono Lake—a body of fresh water inhabited by alkali flies and bizarre limestone formations called tufa. To eat a lobster taquito and drink a beer outdoors while staring out at Mono Lake is one of the Eastern Sierra’s great pleasures. We promised the crew eats.
We set off up the road, suddenly finding ourselves in beautiful high desert chaparral. A sign ahead said DIPS so, grasping for anything that would appeal to our three restive girls, Tom and I exclaimed “Dips!” (I wasn’t sure what “dips” meant exactly, but it must be better than, like, flats.) They stared at us, unamused. Then the car sank. We were on a rollercoaster ride through some of the prettiest country I’ve ever seen. Up and down we went at 80 miles per hour, our bodies alternately rising and falling, while Ava and Greta and I squealed with delight and Liv smiled shakily, reminding us how much she despises rollercoasters. “Woooooo!” we said over and over as we went from one stunning green vista to another, coming upon Mono Lake from the reverse angle—a way we’d never seen it.
At Tioga Toomey’s, Liv ordered salmon salad and I had the carnitas taco with mango salsa and Tom had a burger with fries, and as we finished two guitarists started a gorgeous acoustic set and gave us a free CD. Afterward we took the littles to the Tastee Freez where they had soft serve ice cream that melted as fast as they could lick. As we stood up to get back in the car for the hour’s drive back home, we asked them if it was worth it. They looked at each other sheepishly and said, “Yeah.”


That’s Me Not Me—Thursday, July 15, 2010

The other day CBS MoneyWatch posted the video from the interview they did with me last month when I was in Manhattan with Greta. It feels odd to be in the post-phobic phase of my occasional TV life; I’ve been battling irrational levels of performance anxiety since I ran for Secretary in junior high school and found to my everlasting surprise that I was scared stiff to get up there and make my little speech. Sometimes I think the entire reason I was meant to write and publish “Office Mate” with Helaine was to conquer this particular nut—that’s it. I’d be embarrassed to still be discussing the topic of office romance on camera except that every time I do it, it helps to convince me that my comfort level on The Early Show this winter wasn’t a fluke.
Post-phobic or not, I can’t watch myself on any of these spots more than once, with one eye closed and my body turned away from the television curled half in a ball. It causes me physical pain. I’ve always thought I look exactly like a Muppet, but on TV I’m convinced the effect is magnified times two. Also, I am entirely too much myself and I'm not sure that's a good thing. It’s moments like this I actually ache for my dad; he died before I ever appeared on national television. I can’t even imagine what he would say, except that it would be the precisely correct thing—the thing that somebody who is profoundly proud of you would say. Boy, his spirit is so gone from the waystation between life and death; I just tried to conjure up a sentence from him and I came up with nothing.
How funny—when I started this post I wasn’t thinking about my dad at all and I wouldn’t have guessed for a second it would end up being about him.


A Whiter Shade of Paleface—Monday, July 12, 2010

I truly welcome Bishop’s high-desert heat, but the fact that we are 4,000 feet closer to the surface of the sun must be acknowledged as an issue. It is impossible to keep ahead of its rays here. There is no goop goopy enough, no SPF high enough. Every day I can I swim 2500 yards in the hot springs pool, and by the end my white ass is red and there are Speedo straps tattooed onto my shoulder blades. I can practically hear the noise as my freckles pop out and my hair is bleaching to the childhood tone that got me nicknamed “albino” and made me wish I looked like my mother or Sharon, with their rich chestnut hair, eyes, brows. I wonder if people think I am one of those fortysomething women who has no idea how ridiculous she looks with her hair dyed such a tacky shade, but I figure my yellow eyelashes might make them take it back. I look like a kid with crow’s feet.
Over the weekend we had a bit of what would appear to be sunburn-mitigating weather. The sky is so Montana-big that you can see cloud systems miles away. Over White Mountain, which Tom and I climbed the last summer we were here, there was a film of virga that made me wish I was up there, even though any weather at all on White Mountain means lightening that threatens to zap the tallest thing on its moon-like landscape, which is usually me. Our friend Bryan, whom Ava renamed Franklin, was visiting just for a day, so I drove him deep into the mountains to Lake Sabrina anyway and we took our chances. The clouds threw shadows on the still-snowy peaks and the waterfalls ran hard and fast like I’ve never seen them. We ate pie and french fries in that order and watched the storm system advance and retreat until it threw up its hands and let streaks of yellow break through. By the time it was sunny and we were ready to walk out onto the dam, Ava declared the breeze too chilly and we got into the car. When I arrived home and glanced at a mirror, my nose was as red as a clown’s. I must have stared at it for a good 30 seconds; I have absolutely no idea how it got that way.


A Cathedral of Trees—Sunday, July 11, 2010

If I had a church, it would be Schulman Grove in the Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains, where the oldest living organisms on the planet twist toward the sky at 10,000 feet. I would be closer to The Force there, and I would ask it to explain a thing or two to me. If it were silent I would understand. I wouldn’t know what to say to me right now either, except: Behold these 4,700-year-old trees and put aside your questions long enough to stand in awe, you self-involved snert.
I was in the Grove today because Tom’s and my friend Franklin drove all the way to Bishop from San Francisco to keep me company for a mere 42 hours and I refused to send him back without showing him the forest. He said, “I’d cross this off my list of things to do before I die, but since I didn’t know it existed it wasn’t on my list.” And I told him that’s why I don’t have a list. I don’t know what the things I have to do before I die are going to be before I do them. It’s good I recognize this, but I am beginning to think it causes me a teensy bit of as-yet-unaddressed stress.
Here’s the fact I didn’t know about Dr. Edmund Schulman until today, and it gave me a zingy thrill. First you need to know that his finding the grove changed his life; it changed all our lives. It ushered in the era of radiocarbon dating and provided humankind’s first record of every climatic event from today backward 11,000 years, and as I discovered this afternoon he turns out to have bumped into the thing. He had no idea what he was going to find. Schulman’s defining moment was serendipity. Defining moments are like that; you can’t plan them. Oh, and I might add that the reason these trees are so long-lived is that they grow in extreme adversity, with little water and poor soil, which protects them from pests and disease. Why are these lessons I have to keep relearning?
Whoops, I guess The Force did say something to me today. I just wasn’t listening.

Fear and Self-Loathing in Bishop—Thursday, July 8, 2010

I am in Bishop sans Tom and Olivia; Tom is back in San Francisco running his company for the rest of the week and Liv is still watching over lake swimmers at Wavy Gravy’s circus camp. I am working mornings with the assistance of a mother’s helper and funning about with Greta and Ava from midday on. We have been here for several days and normally I would have written a thing or three, but so far nothing. I think it’s because I am confused about how being in Bishop this year is making me feel, so I can’t describe it.
I could tell you that the long drive into Gold Country, through Yosemite, alongside Mono Lake, and past Mammoth while listening to sad deep folkies like William Fitzsimmons and Tracey Thorn was its usual transcendent self. I could add that the house we’re borrowing this time is small and perfect and owned by climbers who have every book I’ve ever loved on the subject on their shelves. I could mention that the town’s 4th of July fireworks show at the airport, which we waited for while watching people set off firecrackers as the sun set behind 14,000-foot peaks, filled me with gratitude. But I don’t feel transcendent or perfect or grateful, so none of those things I could tell you would tell you anything.
I am feeling just plain lost. I don’t know whether my love of this place means I’m ready to leave the city and learn the next set of lessons from living near wilderness. I don’t know whether I should be moving mountains to live closer to family instead moving to the mountains. I don’t know whether the book I’m writing is going to sell when I’m finished with it, or whether I should put all my substance into the multi-book proposal I just submitted to my agent instead. I don’t know whether I should start shilling for articles again when I have steady paid work from consulting. I don’t know why I’m focusing on questions when this has been a year of answers.
Next week is our anniversary, when I get my big chance to climb a fourteener; we’re thinking of Langley since it’s relatively easy and I’m rather de-trained in the wake of breaking my hand in April. There’s always something up there that I need. I hope I will recognize it.

New, or Practically New

  • Fame and Fortune: Currently working on, and shocked to find I’m making headway with, the latter. Partly because of a bit of movement on the former. Perhaps endurance is the key to everything after all.