Friday, March 28, 2014

Pause for a Whisper

It’s funny how memories come back. One minute you’re strolling out to the compost bin with a full bucket in your hand, and the next minute, you’re somewhere else entirely. As I walked across the lawn, with my poodle Topher following dutifully behind me, I looked up at our house. The light in the office window was on, because my wife was working at her computer. Otherwise, the house was dark, and the fading light outside made the house look somehow small, insignificant, against the darkening sky.

I was walking to the compost bin, and in my head, I heard the words “Pause for a Whisper.” Pause for a Whisper. I hadn’t thought about those words in at least ten years. The story of those four words, like the reality of those four words, had long since receded in the distance, like train cars following the engine past the vanishing point of the two parallel tracks. That train had long left, and the stories following the train had left as well. As I walked across the lawn in fading twilight, though, those words came back. Pause for a Whisper.

What was I, eighteen? I must have been. I was young enough to be filled with a strange cocktail of angst and optimism, of recklessness and hopefulness. James and I were ice climbing in Orient Bay. We had done the classic, fat, safe climb called Tempest, and we were lingering at the base. James was smoking a cigarette. We had climbed Tempest easily, and we were looking for more challenge. I spotted a line to the left, and after paging through the guidebook, we determined that the line was called Pause for a Whisper. The ice looked thick at the bottom, but it got thinner at the top. Or did it? There was enough snow on the ledges that the whole face looked white and nondescript. James suggested we climb it and he started racking up. “Why don’t we leave the ropes here?” I asked. From James’s wry smile, I could see that he agreed.

James and I had driven up to Orient Bay while we were on break from college. It must have been winter break. James had just broken up with his long-term girlfriend, and she had given the ring back. I enjoyed reminding him that he had gotten disengaged. James laughed halfheartedly at the first few times I worked it into the conversation. By the time we crossed into Canada, he wasn’t laughing anymore. He seemed only to stare at the photo of his ex-girlfriend that he had taped to the dashboard.

I didn’t happen to be experiencing any relationship upheaval, at least not any that I remember. I do remember that I was just starting to get good at climbing. I had spent a lot of time toiling on the lesser climbs, but I sensed a renewed power in my climbing. I began to see new horizons, and those vistas led to the realm of 5.13 and 5.14. But I wasn’t there yet, and looking back now, my belief in myself vastly outweighed my actual ability. I climbed on credit, realizing that if I didn’t have the strength at the base, I would eventually repay myself by the time I reached the top. I was filled with bravado, which I took to be confidence, but which I now see as youthful, na├»ve, insufferable hubris.

James and I approached the climb, leaving the ropes behind. I set up first, and my swings were just a bit harder, my kicks a bit more pronounced. I moved with rhythm up the ice, but the music started playing faster and faster, like a blue grass band reaching a crescendo. But, the ice was thick, the sky was blue, and I was young. So, so young, and I had no compost, or poodle, or wife. I had Pause for a Whisper, and James following below.

My pick hit rock. Doink. I swung again. The pick sliced through the snow like it was air. It hit rock again. Doink. I tried a different spot. Doink. Doink. Doink. Shit.

“It’s really thin up here,” I yelled back to James. James said nothing, but stared at me with a look of concern.

“I’m going to brush as much snow off as possible.” Still no reply from below. With my crampons at the top of the thick ice, and my gloved hand resting on a ledge, with the ice tool dangling impotently from my wrist, I searched with my other tool for a ledge or something, anything to support my weight. I looked down, and saw the 200 feet of the climb below me, and I saw James, moving a bit to the left, away from me.

I don’t remember the rest of it. I really don’t. I remember hooking my right arm around a spruce tree at the top of the climb, so that I could lean over and look at James. I don’t remember the solution to the problem into which my hubris had led me. But is it hubris if you don’t fail?

It was James’s turn now. I leaned over to try to encourage him. To cheer him on. He could do it. I was sure he could do it. He had to do it. There was no option. His tools searched the rock just as mine had done. He found the edges that I must have found, and he got to a stance just below the safety of my cedar tree. Just out of my reach. He just had a few more swings left and he was at the top.

His tool shook. I do remember that. His right tool was securely into the ice now, but I saw his tool shaking. Then his wrist began shaking, and the shaking moved up his arm. Next his whole arm was shaking. He looked at me. He said nothing. I said nothing. I just looked at his right ice tool, shaking, and wedged a half inch into the ice. He looked up, and said “I can’t swing Jay.”

I remember what James said as clear as I remember the name of the climb. I said nothing in response. I just looked at him. What could I say? You have to? Your whole being depends on your swinging your left tool into the ice? You can never experience heartbreak again, or sadness, or happiness, or anything if you don’t swing that damn tool into the ice. You have to my friend. I can’t be 18, and dumb, and bold, and full of shit if you don’t. Please swing James. Please.

And he did. He swung his tool, it landed into the thick ice above the rock section, and he topped out at my cedar. We met up with friends who had just climbed Tempest, and we rappelled together. “What the hell happened to you guys?” Hearing this, we embarked on the story we would tell with decreasing frequency to friends. “I can’t swing Jay” always provided a pleasing climax to the story.

Walking out to the compost bin, I can’t recall the details. Only the high points, the trite slogans we remember not from the event, but from the retelling of the event. As I walk back from the compost bin, I pause, and take in my life, now almost twenty years later. How much things change. How I’ve changed. I pause, for a whisper, and I walk into my house, and turn on the lights.

Friday, April 16, 2010

April is the cruelest month.

T.S. Eliot began The Waste Land with the line, "April is the cruelest month..." I'm sure he used the line to create the feeling of dread and bleakness that permeates his entire 434 line poem. I am choosing to use the line because, well, my back hurts.

It hurts right between my shoulder blades. But more on that later. Right now, it is snowing outside. Yesterday was beautiful, but today, it's snowing. Why is it snowing? It is snowing because it is New Hampshire and I have the day off. The climate knows when I have the day off. Don't ask me how it knows, but it knows.

I spent a beautiful day at Waimea yesterday, climbing with Kayte. It wasn't crowded, the humidity was low, and the bugs weren't out yet. Basically, the day was perfect. I kept thinking to myself that this would be a perfect day to send my project. I wasn't putting the pressure on, but a voice in the back of my mind kept saying, "You had better send today Jay, because this will be the last nice day in a long time. This is your last chance. For the love of God, don't blow it." Alright, maybe I did have the pressure a bit cranked-up.

And then I blew it on the project, falling at the very top. And then my back started to hurt again. And then I climbed a different route to "loosen up," and then I fell weird off that route and hit my hand really hard on the rock. And then I ended up in the Plymouth Hospital getting x-rays.

My hand is not broken, thank God. Just severely bruised. But my back still hurts his morning while I sit at my computer, drink coffee, and look out the window to a dreary April day. The snow has now turned to rain. The weather outlook predicts rain for the next ten days. Great.

Though we have had an amazingly good spring, I feel as though I have been ready for this rain for a while. While it feels so good to spend time in the sun, I can't seem to ignore that the rain is just around the corner, just the next day out on the Intellicast chart. (I have learned that a 20% "chance" of rain means that, in New Hampshire, it will rain for approximately 20% of the day). I have come to see this attitude as detrimental to my happiness.

Why can't I simply enjoy the present? Where has my focus gone? Perhaps it is bombarded my those little aches and pains that have begun springing up. Why does my back hurt? I have no idea. It just started one day and it has persisted ever since. There was no trauma, that is, unless you consider the combined trauma of living on this earth for 32 years. Sure, April may be the cruelest month according to Eliot, but May brings bugs and humidity. And it is supposed to rain for the next ten days.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


There is a psychological malady called Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka SAD), in which one experiences persistent depression-like symptoms during the winter, and interestingly enough, craves carbohydrate-rich foods. Notwithstanding the carbohydrate stuff, which I love, be it winter or summer, I can see the relevance of SAD. These long winter nights, the oppressive cloudiness, breed in me a feeling of hopelessness, a distinct sense that this winter will never end. All of this, in turn, causes me to reach for that third helping of pancakes.

The hopelessness breeds inactivity. This inactivity starts as a notion, and then expands to encompass my entire being. Should I go for a run? Naw, I'll sit on the couch and play Madden, while eating my pancakes. Should I go to the climbing gym? I better not. I feel sick from eating too many pancakes. I think that SAD could be more properly defined as SED: Seasonal Effectiveness Disorder. In the winter, it seems like I just can't get anything done. That is, unless you count singlehandedly keeping Mrs. Butterworth out of Chapter 11.

This brings me to my second bleak point. I am an unabashed news junkie; however, I can't seem to open the Times without seeing words like "Recession," or "Depression," splashed in bold letters across the page. I might add that the word "Crisis" has lost its meaning with me. We've had The Mortgage Crisis, The Credit Crisis (which may be the same thing, but I'm not sure because in economics class all I learned was how to write checks), The Consumer Confidence Crisis, (I know I've been feeling a bit self-conscious lately), and more recently, The Peanut Butter Crisis. Why don't they cut to the chase and get it over with? Lets just name it The Apocalypse and call it good.

So the optimistic person, who I categorically despise, may mention that it's important to find happiness in the little things. The light glinting off individual crystals of snow. A really good orange. These things are inexpensive. I prefer, however, to look at the big things that I have a tendency, during this time of year, to forget. I have the wonderful, loving family. I'm married to a the bride of my dreams. I'm trying to be conscious of the atmospherics. I can tell my grandkids of what it was like during "The Crisis Years." I am an inspired citizen of a country that finally got itself right again. Maybe, my SAD Crisis will eventually subside.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Apples of Blood

In this life, danger lurks at every turn. You think you are safe, swinging that nine-iron, trying to get a few rounds in before the thunderstorm, and wham, catastrophe strikes. You can't let up, because that's when life will beat you down.

Sadly, I had forgotten that little truism. It was a lazy day last Thursday, a day when I decided to celebrate the end of my semester by spending the day on the couch, relaxing and getting ready for the weekend's climbing plans. I walked into the kitchen to cut an apple up for a snack. I love apples and peanut butter. I love scooping huge mounds of peanut butter onto my pre-cut apple pieces. Anyway, I went in to cut up an apple, and wham, lightning struck.

There, sitting next to my my tidy apple slices, was the end of my thumb. It took a while to register what had happened, that that lifeless piece of flesh had actually come from me and had not in some way been attached to the apple. The mind does funny things in that moment before the pain starts. It's like the mind knows that a cascade of searing pain is on the way, but it wants to amuse itself with a funny, irrational thought before all thought ceases. My thought, at that moment, was that I could have protein with my carb-heavy meal, which would thereby make the snack more "Zone." Then the wave hit.

The blood was astounding. You know how the doctor will prick your finger to get a little drop of blood for a test? Well, this was like my finger was pricked with a 12 gauge straw. The blood gushed. I held my hand over the sink as the blood poured out of the end of my thumb. It began to look as if the Manson Family had previously rented our apartment and had set up shop in the kitchen. Kayte came out of the office and began to tend the finger.

Her first concern, understandably, was to stanch the flow. She put a band-aid on the end and that just made the blood shoot out the sides of the fabric. She determined that despite my histrionics, I had not, in fact, "cut off my thumb." Yes, I did have a sizable flesh wound, but people have survived far worse. She made clear that you cannot, in fact, "bleed out from the tip of your thumb." She then wrapped a bit of gauze around it and went back to work.

It began to become clear to me that my weekend climbing plans were slowly dripping away, like blood from a...okay, I'll spare you the pun. Basically, my chances of climbing were shot. I still went out, though, with my thumb wrapped in a bee-hive of bandaging. I learned that doing a few easy routes was a bad idea, as blood began to seep through the bee hive making it look like the bees were experiencing some sort of horrendous genocide. I spent a lot of time belaying and telling the above story over and over and over.

So, you can never be too safe. Remember that when you think you are making yourself a nice, semi-healthy snack. Those apples could really be blood apples. Really.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I woke up sweating. Tornado. The covers were disheveled, wrapped around my right leg. My mouth was dry. Had I been gasping? I’m not quite sure, but I did hear that word, clear as day: Tornado.

It was Suzanne’s voice, just her voice. Do they have tornadoes down in Atlanta? I got out of bed and turned on the Weather Channel. No, it was going to be a clear, warm day down there. Maybe it was metaphorical. Maybe it meant something bad, perhaps a “windstorm of danger” or something like that.

I never really thought about Suzanne’s voice. It’s pretty. But then again, could it possibly be otherwise? I have a beautiful younger sister. I grew accustomed to my high school friends’ seemingly innocuous questions: “Yeah, we could drive around town for a while . . . hey, do you think Suzanne wants to come with?”

I noticed that. I noticed the lingering stares from my friends. I noticed the slight lowering of decibel level in the cafeteria when Suzanne walked from the lunch line, tray in hand, (she and I always joked that the trays looked like barf, with the colored splotches mixed in with the grayish plastic), and took her place at the table. While in college she dated a Green Bay Packer football player. He had a million dollar signing bonus, but she ended up moving on because “he just wasn’t very smart.”

To this I would respond in that most brotherly of terms, that term that says so much with so few syllables: Duh.

We would fight. Not as older, ostensibly mature high school kids, but as awkward, gangly, uncomfortable in our own skin, middle schoolers. I would chase her around the house. Once she ran for the basement, and suddenly my foot kicked out and she was falling, down the stairs, knocking bottles of cleaning supplies off the shelf along the edge of the stairs. She landed on the concrete with a bloody nose. I remember a faint twinge of remorse, of sadness. I also remember looking at a stool she had turned into a kind of mock-stove, to be used in her mock-kitchen, with stuffed animals filling in for her mock-family. On this bench cum stove she labeled the shut off switch “oof.” That was during the divorce.

She was not beautiful then. At eight years old, she had red glasses, and these glasses were her trademark. She did not make her own decisions, as her glasses were bought for her, her trademark given to her by parents who wanted to insert a specific identity into that existential blank. Looking back now, her hair was a disaster. I enjoy reminding her of her hair back then, the short front and the long back. She had a boyish, hamster-like face. Her hair seemed to accentuate the confusion and represent a sort of mullet-by-default.

Tornado. But it was just her voice. Not her image. I haven’t seen her since Christmas. We talk though, on the phone. We talk about our parents, both divorced now, a second time for each. That’s three divorces between us, we say.

I would drive her to school. She wrecked her car on the first weekend of having her license. “I was only going fifteen.”

“But, you flipped the car.”

“Still, I was only going fifteen.”

So, every morning, we would take my rusty white Escort to school. On this day, the country road we lived on was covered with a dubious layer of either snow or ice, depending on subtle atmospheric conditions that I do not really understand. I took a corner too fast. Or, more accurately, I intended to take the corner too fast. I intended to let the rear end swing out just a little, to release my pent up seventeen year old’s energy or aggression or whatever in the momentary feeling of freedom, of gliding, of careening. I meant also to scare my sister.

I heard a thump.

Suzanne had slammed her right hand against the door, probably in an effort to hold on to something. She sat rigid, her legs held an inch off the seat. She looked at me, crying. There was no happiness at all in her face, just tears. Her face was all sad. I realized at that moment that there would be no more sliding. I would drive to school slowly, deliberately. I put my old Bob Marley tape in the tape deck. We would be safe on the way to school.

There are no tornadoes in Atlanta. There are other things, though. And there is just a voice, disembodied, identified by caller ID with a strange area code, and with a voice that is absolutely not strange. Not strange at all. We talk about our dog Margalo, about the time when we put pants on her, and about the time when Margalo ran into the screen door. She was embarrassed. You could tell.

In the winter, we would go outside and Margalo would sneak up and snatch the mittens right off our hands. We would run after her, laughing, tripping, sliding in the snow, Margalo’s stumpy tail wagging. Sometimes, Margalo would even take the hat off my head.

One time, Margalo clamped onto Suzanne’s scarf. The scarf cinched and Margalo dragged Suzanne across the field. I remember looking out our big picture window, seeing Suzanne on the ground, hands waving, Margalo making jerking, backward pulling motions. The scarf cinched so hard that it broke the blood vessels in Suzanne’s neck. It was black and blue for days.

I sat next to Suzanne on the couch. “You can have the remote Suzanne. You can watch whatever you want.” She smiled an awkward, six year old’s smile. It looked strange because she had been crying. Mom clanked pots and pans in the kitchen. Dad was not home. When I thought about it, interspersed with thoughts of school and of burning things and climbing trees, I thought that something didn’t seem right. Mom and Dad didn’t talk to each other much. Neither Suzanne nor I had ever heard the word divorce, but it was looming, tracking our direction. It can send a toothpick through a telephone pole. I looked at Suzanne’s swollen, bruised neck. She almost died.

These days, Suzanne and I talk on the phone about once a week. We talk about her job at Bloomingdales, though I call it Bloomingtons. We talk about memories, some remembered, some half forgotten, some patently made-up. They swirl around in our conversation, pick up others, gain speed, and soon I am not in New Hampshire and Suzanne is not in Atlanta, but we are somewhere else entirely. Somewhere that doesn’t now, and never did, exist.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Snow banks

I have been taking stock of my life lately. I don't know if it this New Hampshire winter, the six-foot-tall snow banks in front of the cottage, and the my general state of inactivity, but things just seem a bit daunting. Whereas my existential funk had a certain cache when I was in college, today it seem less interesting and more sad.

In the movie The Weatherman, Nicholas Cage's character says, "All of the people I could be, they got fewer and fewer until finally they got reduced to only one -- and that's who I am. The weather man." I wish I would have said those words, aside from the weatherman part. I could say that the idea of being an astronaut slowly faded away, as did the ideas of being a lawyer, a race car driver, a marathon runner, and a member of a think tank. All that's left is me, right now, at this moment, here at my computer, looking out at the snow banks and hoping for the spring.

This is not to say that my life is in a bad position. It certainly isn't. I have a whole lot to be thankful for. Yet, I feel that there is a whole lot behind me now, a whole lot that has faded in the rearview mirror. And I feel like some of those images that slowly fade away are very important images: the tree on top of El Cap, dimly lit from my headlamp, the knobs on Lotus Flower Tower, the way my mom and my sister look when they are laughing in the kitchen of our house in Wisconsin, my walk from Siurana, through the Spanish countryside, to pick up groceries four miles away. These are the big moments.

I often think that I am defined by the big moments--those moments of exaltation and success. It is more likely, however, that I'm defined my those innumerable times that offer no big moment for remembering. Like yesterday. What did I do yesterday? Nothing really; I just went through my normal routine. Who is to say that the thousands of yesterdays don't equal a significant sum that is applied to my current existential bank account? Who is to say that the day I topped out El Cap represents more capitol than those thousands of forgettable days? The yesterdays of my life. Maybe the yesterdays define me more, make me who I am now. Maybe I have no choice but to be me, at this moment, sitting at my computer and looking at, though not really seeing, the snow banks in front of the cottage.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

After the Wedding

Again, it has been a long time since I have written. I've been quite busy. I got married last week.

For a long time, I thought of marriage to be this vague, theoretic concept. Sort of like algebra. I thought, sure, it will affect my life someday, but don't ask me to explain what it looks like or how it works. It was just smoke and mirrors to me.

Well, all of that changed in the months leading up to the wedding. This concept, which previously was so ephemeral, became very very real. Marriage took the form of Kayte saying, "Honey, please remember to get your haircut tomorrow." Or, "What do you think of this dress for the rehearsal dinner?" Evidently, my reflexive shrug (what, she thinks I could have an opinion on a dress?) precipitated a flurry of stress (on her part) and confusion (on my part) as she instantly packed the dress up and shipped it off to be returned for a model that didn't bring about the reflexive shrug. When she showed me the new one, I went to my happy place and smiled. All was right with the dress.

It was months of this. As I dozed happily in the bed on weekend mornings, Kayte would be up at her computer, with her mom on the phone, saying things like "We can't put the place cards on the table until AFTER the plates arrive." I became very comfortable in my happy place, which was much simpler than the world of charger plates (?), guest lists, first dances (don't even get me started), and the dreaded vows. We wrote our own, mine on hotel stationary the night before the big day and Kayte's on nicely-printed paper that matched the programs.

My last-minute, cobbled-together vows are not to suggest that I wasn't invested in the process. I loved the idea of joining with the most wonderful woman I have ever met, who is smart, beautiful, and also happens to be a fantastic climber. I also loved the idea of friends from all aspects of my life in the same room with my family. And honestly, the wedding went off perfectly, at least in my eyes, though there could have been some unforeseen snafu with the charger plates clashing with the place cards. Maybe the program had a misprint. If so, I was blissfully unaware of such things.

I remember wanting to get another plate of food at the reception. It was good food, and as is always the case with good food, I wanted more. Somehow, though I got distracted. I remember doing the heralded "leg-dance" on the dance floor. To my knowledge, this dance had not been seen by the general public since one night at a bar in Oshkosh, WI, in 2001. I remember looking across the room at Kayte in all of her radiant bride-glow, the stress subsided, replaced by enjoyment, and from the looks of it, a slight twinge of satisfaction. It was a great wedding. It really was.

Now I have time to do all of those things that were so easily placed in the "after the wedding" column of my life. I can get out to Rumney and climb more. I'm able to write this blog. I can focus a bit more on my health, and less on things such as tuxes for my guys. That, by the way, was my only responsibility and I nailed it. So, this begins the after-the-wedding segment of my life, and it's a wonderful place to be. It's a quiet, calm, simple place, and it's next to my beautiful bride.