A Short Walk with Terray

March 1963. I am living with Linnea in an eleven room apartment in Barcelona. The apartment is on the fifth floor, and at the front a small enclosed balcony overlooks the street below, overlooks the lamplighter as he comes at dusk to light the street lamps. He turns a gas valve at the base of the lamp and then reaches up with a long pole that has a flame on top to bring the light to life. Gas light has a soft but warm glow more conducive than electric light to walking quiet streets, especially if your life is suffused with romance. Linnea and I are not usually up when the lamplighter makes his rounds in the morning to turn off the gas.

Royal had written me, giving me the address in Barcelona of Manuel Anglada, one of the better Spanish climbers. Anglada and I got in touch, and he invited me to go with him and some other climbers for a weekend trip to Montserrat, an area north of Barcelona with many conglomerate domes, spires, and faces. As it happened, the great French climber, Lionel Terray, was also in Barcelona to show movies of his climbing and skiing adventures, and he would join us. Indeed, the trip was organized for him, not for me, but Anglada was a good fellow, and we got along well. Continue reading

Bionic Woman

Three days after we got back from Barbados I drove Rosamond down to Lennox Hill Hospital early in the morning. Soon she was being prepped, and an anesthetic dripped into her arm. When she was unconscious, Ken, her surgeon (and as it happened the best friend of her son, David, since high school) used his scalpel to make a five inch incision deep into the upper part of her left thigh. He then went in and sawed off the top of her femur. You may have heard that doctors take an oath to do no harm. Like many other things, this simple principle obviously needs to be qualified.

Rosamond herself has often pointed out that we let doctors do things we wouldn’t let others do, like cut into us with knives and give us poisons and ask about our bowel habits and sex lives, all this presumably for our own (eventual) good. So, since doctors have these special privileges (and special knowledge and skills), they should have special duties and obligations. Foremost among these is to seek trust and deserve it. This may seem a universal principle, but the trick is in the deserving. Melville’s confidence man, the sellers of mortgage backed securities, Bernie Madolf, and the prototypical used car salesman are all experts in fostering trust but can hardly be said to deserve it. Physicians, though, cannot successfully ply their trade without trust, cannot act for our good, so any breach of trust jeopardizes the enterprise as a whole. Or so Rosamond quite successfully, I think, argues. Continue reading

Migrants

I’ve been busy. And lazy. Too busy and lazy to blog. For a few months. I am sure you can live with it, but it isn’t good for me. So here I go again, about to take that ride again, starry-eyed again, taking a chance . . . .

In early January, Rosamond and I went to Barbados for two weeks, our annual retreat to the Caribbean from the frozen north. We rented a small condo on the south shore and on arrival were greeted with the sight of colorful kites, some twenty or thirty of them, flying like a disorganized flock of birds out over the water. The kite surfers shared the water with wind surfers, and they all zipped around, plowing through waves, tacking and then tacking again. They moved at high speeds and seemed quite close to each other.  I thought that there was a risk of running into each other or getting the shrouds of their kites tangled, but apparently they had developed rules of the road. Continue reading

Goin’ to da Gunks

“Good morning. Today is history class.”

He pauses to rest his bones on a high stool and assess his charges. Some slouch in their seats and doodle on their desks, others stare vacantly out the window, a few girls pop their gum and twiddle their tresses. But telling tales of the past has its rewards, at least for the teller, in that while those who can, do, those who no longer can, can be comforted by the knowledge that once they could.

“Today’s lesson is the beginning of a quest story, although no dragons will be slain, no castles stormed, no cities razed and pillaged. Before the end, though, a fair maid will be wooed and won, albeit all too briefly.”

Noting that no one in his audience was yet asleep, he relinquishes his perch on the stool and begins leisurely pacing the head of the room, measuring his thoughts with his stride.

“September, 1960. After Royal, Chuck, Tom, and I climbed El Cap I got a job as a busboy and soda jerk at the Yosemite Lodge Coffee Shop. The plan was that Royal and I would save some money over the winter and then go to the Alps in the summer. In the spring, however, Royal confessed that he had decided not to go. But I was committed. I wanted to pace the paving stones of Paris and wander the back lanes of London, to essay a yodel or two in the Alps and take the summer sun on the Riviera. Also, a comely English girl was waiting for me. I had met her while she worked as a waitress in the coffee shop, and before she returned to England that fall I bussed her tables and she jerked my soda, if you catch my drift.” Continue reading

Old Year

Last night Rosamond and I rang out the old year. Why not? It was a good year deserving of a retrospective. Besides, we have a fair idea of what last year was about, while next year is only a cliff, good if you are a base jumper but otherwise perhaps not.

Almost a year ago, we spent two weeks in St. Croix, walking the usually deserted beach, snorkeling, writing, playing games, a kind of annual honeymoon we enjoy away from New York’s winter cold. In February, I went to Montana to see Lorca and Vedra and their families and to ski. I can no longer ski from the lift’s opening until it’s close, but I am not one who sashays down the groomers either. Going fast is still irresistible, although I suspect that my grandkids will soon leave me behind. Continue reading

Accidents Happen

“Into each life a little rain must fall,” or so they say. And also, “it never rains but it pours,” so get out that big umbrella like the one wielded by the little girl on the Morton salt box. So who is (are) this “they?” Someone who wants something I would wager, if nothing else than to appear wise, knowledgeable. Best to take such “wisdom” with more than a grain of Morton’s salt. Except when coming from Ray (Charles), “They say, Ruby is like a dream . . . .” Who could doubt it? And Johnny Hartman seductively intoning, “They say that falling in love is wonderful, wonderful, so they say  . . .” But, hey! I digress.

Accidents in the mountains are often, but not always, connected to weather. A climber, cold, wet, in haste but cowering before the storm, scrambles over slippery terrain as Thor hurls bolts of lightning peakward.

The rain came early, seven thirty in the morning. No one asked for rain, unless it was the potato farmers over in Idaho. It was August 1976, and it had been a dry summer. But now it was raining, and we were not far from the Upper Saddle. Go back. Continue reading

The Omen

It is morning.  To the north

dark clouds shroud the mountain.

Its pine-covered lower reaches

are also dark. Nearer at hand

the sun slants in, lighting

oaks and aspens on a western hill.

It is fall. They shine

burnt orange and yellow

like costumed characters on a stage.

 

From the wings a solitary bird,

white and shining, flies

through invisible sunlight,

luminescent against clouds

and dark trees, like a comet

only alive. Surely

it is an omen, but of what

I neither know nor care,

satisfied with any light

against the dark.

 

published in “Galley Sail Review”, Spring 1990

Roy Lichtenstein – Dot Man

It seems like ages ago but it was only toward the end of October when we visited Washington D.C. (see “The Greening of America” post) and took in a retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein’s work at the National Gallery East. I wanted to write about it at the time, but reality intruded, and art (his, not mine) had to wait as is all too common. The intervening few months have dimmed or erased certain memories, but perhaps have served to sharpen others like pencils at a drafting table. If I err, bear with me.

I had thought I knew Lichtenstein. He did cartoonish paintings (or were they painted cartoons?). People called it Pop, and, more than anything, it seemed fun. A lot of it still seems fun, but it seems a mistake to subsume his work under such a narrow rubric as Pop. The early section of the exhibit features abstract expressionistic works, as if he were trying to find place in the then current art scene. These works are not memorable. Then he found a technique—the dots used for cheap reproduction in newspaper photos and comic books, and his success was assured, although it is difficult to say why. Maybe because Continue reading

The Open Line

About the time I was a sophomore in high school, I discovered (was told about by a fellow student) the open line, a fluke of the telephone system about as close to Alice’s rabbit hole as we’ll ever get. You dialed a certain number at any time of day, and you were in. In to what? A telephonic space occupied by any and all of the other bored souls who happened to dial that magic number, mostly kids older than me as far as I could tell. This being the telephone system, people talked. Unlike normal telephone conversation, all talk was anonymous, and there was always someone talking, frequently a boy/girl conversation, a kind of faceless seduction. The seduction could never bear fruit of course, because it had to end with the conversation. And these conversations were always at risk of someone Continue reading

Wayne Thiebaud – Painter

It is a commonplace that theoretical physicists do their groundbreaking work, their let’s-prove-Thomas Kuhn-right work, when they are young. They often continue to do important work later, but it isn’t the kind of thing that shakes things up. It’s more like extending the vision, tying up loose ends. Among artists, things are often different. Breakthroughs in vision and strength can come late in a career. Think Matisse, Serra, Diebenkorn, Lichtenstein, Thiebaud. The Aquavella Gallery on 79th Street in New York recently had a select retrospective of Wayne Thiebaud’s work that vividly demonstrated this.

Ten or twelve years ago I saw a retrospective of Thiebaud’s work at the Whitney. The early galleries had pictures of cakes and pies and gumball machines that were familiar, but nothing grabbed me until I got to some later pictures of San Francisco. It turns out that you won’t find Thiebaud out on the street with his palette and easel painting landscapes. He grasps the essence of a place and then goes home and constructs that essence, in the case of San Francisco, tall buildings and streets that seem vertical, a result of foreshortening but not just that. The point is that you could not find any place in San Francisco that would correspond, even roughly, to any of his paintings. And yet they are clearly paintings of San Francisco. Continue reading