The Push by Tommy Caldwell

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In this memoir, doubt dances with glorious vistas where success, aspiration, and limits all fight for a grip on the same dime-thin ledge.

Caldwell, Tommy. The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits. New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2017. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, memoir

Summary: Caldwell’s memoir chaperones readers up treacherous escarpments and deep into the human psyche. Doubt dances with glorious vistas where success, aspiration, and limits all fight for a grip on the same dime-thin ledge.

Critique: As bullet points, Caldwell’s life story is remarkable and riveting. The young climbing phenomenon who is taken hostage by terrorists; who loses is confidence to searing self-doubt; who continues climbing and redefining the sport even after he loses an index finger in a freak DIY home carpentry project…

Expanded into entire paragraphs, the story is about as claggy as an under-whipped Genoise sponge. I suspect a faulty combination of ingredients may be the culprit. Each chapter either begins with or is punctuated with italicized vignettes. These short scenes combine succinct sentences and punchy verbs to land the reader smack-dab in the middle of a climb or dire situation. The memories encapsulated in these scenes are rich and poignant. The writing is gripping. All too soon, however, these vignettes break off and yield to “the text.”

The text comprises dense paragraphs flooded with long, wordy sentences. Perhaps not ironically, each paragraph resembles a sheer cliff…a Dawn Wall built not from granite, but instead, from daunting exposition.

Why grunt through the pages when you could just jaunt through those zesty, refreshing sloped, slanted sections? In other words, why eat the claggy cake when you could just lick off the fantastic frosting?

With a new movie featuring Caldwell’s amazing feats, perhaps now is a prime time to reassemble the ingredients and convert the mountainous memoir into a graphic novel.

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My Bearings

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The bear track halted my run. It and a string of identical cousins imprinted the sandy trail ahead of me. If I paid no attention to the crescent moons pressed by the claws, the tracks resembled a child’s delicate footprint. Rounded, plump indents. Chubby toes.

The cherubic tread traveled north on the trail, the same direction I was going.

A thought shoved stiff rebar down my spine: how fresh were these tracks?

I am no practiced or professional tracker. I have friends who are. If only they were there with me. Or, if only I had cell service! Then I could beam them some pics and they could tell me, “Bah, those tracks are weeks old. You’re fine.” Or, “GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!”

The other shoe prints and horse hoof indents decorating the trail all appeared mottled with time or wind-smudged; their edges indistinct. Only my marks and the bear’s were crisply defined, trodden atop all the others.

A wintry gust shoved through the canyon. It pried under the insulated clothing and licked goosebumps across my skin.

I traced the tracks backwards. How long had I shared the trail with them without notice?

Quite a while.

My stomach dropped somewhere below my knees. That bear might be only a few yards ahead! And I was miles from the trailhead, completely alone.

With clumsy, shaking hands, I unsnapped my water pack and rummaged its pockets. I heard in my stooped position nothing but the chrrgg-chrrgg-chrrgg of adrenaline-laced blood surging through my system. At last, I procured the little canister of pepper spray.

As I slid the pack back on, my nostrils scoured the breeze for that unmistakable tangy, musky bear body odor. When I smelled nothing but the cold, many thoughts crowded in. I was being irrational. Bears avoid people at all costs. Even if those tracks were fresh, odds were good that my scent and my noises had probably prodded the bear to jog way ahead and hide to evade me entirely.

I resumed my run. Calm returned gradually and with it came the question I’d been taught to ask whenever my overactive imagination led me too far into fear’s terrain: Does this feel familiar?

While my imagination serves my writing well, it often skews reality for me. When I am afraid, I can spin a thousand fictitious narratives around the potential causes and outcomes. But those scenarios bear zero connection to the reality of the moment. They are usually a facade, a replica or facsimile, compiled from some past trauma.

Essentially, from a young age I became adept at buying fear’s tickets and riding the panic coaster through every loop dee loop.

When I asked myself if this fear in this moment and in this place felt familiar, I readily answered: yes!

On another wintry day in this very canyon where the sandstone cliffs resemble shortbread castles and baggy elephants, I had experienced fear. Perhaps exactly a year ago, I hiked this trail. At that time, I was facing the last winter and holiday season I’d ever get with my beloved best friend. On some level, I’d probably elected to do a strenuous hike because I needed to prove that I could endure. That I could survive the looming loss.

How could I possibly go on writing without this most trusted reader delighting in my creations? Who would I be without this person in my life? I was certain the answers to these questions awaited me at the end of the hike.

Back then, this trek was arduous for me. I’d packed gobs of food and water. The eight or so miles took most of the day for me to walk, with plenty of breaks to rest my aching feet and legs. I can still remember how I wanted to turn back after the first couple miles. No way could I complete this hike. But I did, practically staggering the last mile back to the car.

Fast forward, and here I was, out for a leisurely run. I knew I’d finish the circuit in hardly more than an hour.

The irrational fear dusted up by those bear tracks had nothing to do with the present moment. They stirred up fear I’d known in the past.

I marveled at my transformation. My skill. My strength. My power. That girl in that situation was a thousand miles away.

And the bear tracks? Gone. Although I never saw them veer off the trail, they did vanish, freeing me to forge my own way forward.

 

 

Photo credits: “Rock Creek Trail” and “Sandstone Castles” copyright Jennifer Mason; featured image “Canyon Curves” also copyright Jennifer Mason; “Black Bear Tracks” by K Young CC 3.0.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

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I need only one word whenever I am asked, “What’s your all-time favorite book?”

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial life. 1872. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1994. Print.

Genre: fiction (19th century British)

Summary: An idealistic young woman and a noble-minded doctor enter disastrous marriages. The consequences of their choices ripple through the wider community. Both doctor and woman might find redemption and rediscover hope if they can find each other amidst rigid class structures and isolating social barriers.

Critique: True, all print editions of Middlemarch are roughly the size and weight of a brick.[1]

Doubly true, you are unlikely to heed even my most urgent pleas and gushing recommendations to read any brick-like book.[2]

I urge you nonetheless because Middlemarch is precisely the brick we all need to come crashing through our windows.

Writers can gawk at Eliot’s tenacity. To construct the masterwork, she wove together two going-nowhere projects that chewed up countless months of her writing time. At first, there was the tale of an ambitious doctor, Tertius Lydgate, foisting modern medical treatments on a backwards British village. When that rough draft petered out, Eliot switched to a new story about the ingenuous Dorothea Brook, whose marriage to a fusty scholar twice her age does not result in the spiritual and intellectual self-refinement she desires. Once again, the rough draft stymied. While most writers might have abandoned the second project and gone on to a third, Eliot saw a connection between the two protagonists. She identified parallels in the stories and combined them.

I suppose she hit two stones with the same bird.

All readers—whether they are writers or not—can marvel at how Eliot’s narrator[3] repeatedly expands the focus out from the two heroes to the supporting cast of characters as the repercussions resulting from the unfortunate marriages rumble across the community. The more we learn about other characters and how their lives are impacted by Dorothea and Lydgate, the more we discover our untold potential for compassion.

Of course I could readily empathize with Dorothea—the pitiable young dynamo who marries an abusive nerd-turd, Mr. Casaubon. I was that young dynamo at one point in my life. I was in that very relationship. But then, the narrative shifts and presents Casaubon’s inner working. Suddenly, I discover how, at other times in my life, I have also been a nerd-turd—jealous, suspicious, and trying to mask my paralyzing self-defeating fear with pedantry. The more I read, the more I realize how many “others” I am and have been. When I read Middlemarch—which happens annually at this point—I feel my fundamental connection to all beings.

When I read Middlemarch, I feel my own infinity.

This brick-like book smashes my perception of the world made of strangers. Through the eyes of the Middlemarch narrator, we are all familiars.

[1] I am borrowing, and promise to give back, the brick comparison from Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014), a memoir told through the guise of a literary examination of the novel plus a biography of George Eliot.

[2] Naxos AudioBooks produced an exceptional, unabridged recording of the novel. Juliet Stevenson’s reading is powerful. Her finesse with diverse character voices is also stunning!

[3] Jonathan D. Culler notes in his 2004 essay “Omniscience” that Eliot’s narrator is not actually omniscient, but heterodiagetic. That is to say, a person who is not directly involved in the plot or the world of the novel (AKA the diagesis), but who has elected to sift and present germane information for the reader’s consideration. Indeed, the Middlemarch narrator refers to itself as a historian making a case study of the town and its folk. (Culler’s larger point about the impossibility of god-like omniscience in any story is well worth reading.)

 

Note: As always, I do not earn commissions or other compensation for any of the books/audiobooks I recommend.

The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy

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Eyes do not see; they touch. Vision evolved from skin gathering light in minute detail. The brain does not think; it smells. It evolved from a large olfactory nerve in skull. It helped us sew memories and scents together.This book will change how (and who) you are in the world.

Meloy, Ellen. The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature essays)

Summary: A collection of essays explore color’s spiritual, emotional, and biological importance to humans; how our humanity has been shaped and how our impact on the planet shifts as our connection to colors diminishes.

Critique: Touch. Contact. Connection. Having a tactile experience with the physical, natural world is at the heart of each essay in this collection. Meloy demonstrates through her own adventuring how to be fully alive and awake and seduced and ecstasied in the great outdoors.

To bring readers into her experience, she converts our ability to perceive colors–especially one as slippery as turquoise–into a haptic experience. More than that, she stretches into synesthesia when she reminds us the eyes can touch and the brain can smell. It can even smell colors. Turquoise, in its hybrid not-quite-blue-not-quite-green existence is really just the scent of the wind (or so said ancient Middle Eastern cultures). Native cultures across the Americas transcribed the color into sound, one that guided souls to the afterlife.

Magical and sensual though that is, Meloy laments the modern world’s loss of color. Or, it’s increasing colorblindness to the natural world which has been dammed, funneled, paved, monetized, and commodified. Either every scrap of this planet is put to our direct use and benefit, or those scraps which will not submit to our utilitarian desires will be removed. However, this very practical and clever war-rationing approach to nature strikes Meloy as too narrow.

On a recent trip to Moab, I marvel at a stone’s skin.

Instead of using the world, why not enjoy it? Marvel at it? It is a place we can revel in. Get lost. Drown. We can be bedeviled. Seduced. Overwhelmed. Ignored. All these things, and more, the world can do to us if we only let it. But why allow it to take such liberties with our bodies and souls?

Because it cracks us out of our slumbering shells. It enables us to live in a constant euphoric state of quivering, goose-prickled tingles.

Even better, enjoying the world enables us to be what we truly are, rather than what we think we are. And what we are, according to brilliant biologist E. O. Wilson, is a species of biophiliacs. Forget sapiens! Biophiliacs are insatiable lovers when it comes to nature.

“Our sense of wonder grows exponentially,” Wilson writes, “the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery.”

Or, as Meloy phrases it, “Lives without access to sensation are lives that edge out the earth’s raw, pervasive sweetness, that deeply biophilic connection to all life.”

But these essays come from an almost gentler, more idyllic time: the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back when we were taking our first baby-steps into sustainability and renewable energies. Today, we cannot be sure the EPA will survive the current White House administration. We cannot be sure our public lands will remain in our hands or wind up so privatized that in order to enter them (let alone enjoy them), we will first have to download and accept a standard EULA.

Now more than ever is the time to read this book and feel the world in a whole new way. Now is our best chance to confront the essential questions: are we locusts or lovers to this natural world? And, given the savage, ravenous course love takes, is there any difference between those roles?

Myths Across the Map by Yours Truly

We know what happens when entire nations cannot stymie their collective fears. We know what happens when whole civilizations select a scapegoat for inexplicable suffering. History maps these trends.

Throughout the Myths Across the Map series (now available through Gareth Stevens Publishing), I chronicled 4 of the 6 major global myths. I tracked down the beasts, the monsters, and the marvels universally recognizable to all people everywhere.

Why does everyone know and recognize a vampire? How did dragons creep into the skies, wells, caves, and rivers of every inhabited continent? Why are the symptoms of werewolves the same whether you are in Russia, South America, or Louisiana? And just how many ancient kingdoms did zombies mob before noshing on our modern metropolises?

Our currently fraught geopolitical landscape may have us all hoodwinked when it comes to fear. Fear, the pundits claim, adds to our isolation. It divides us. It shuts down communication. However, history indicates that shared fears actually unite us. They give us a common language and a way to communicate across boundaries and borders. What is more, they give us good reason to work together and defeat a common threat (such as a deadly disease).

What better time than now to get young people navigating and debating the nature of mankind’s fears and the power of humanity’s myths?