Friday, February 7, 2014

Bookended by Whiteouts

           February 1 was the first serious day of skiing for me this year, beginning with a Friday morning drive that featured remarkable clouds in the closing arguments of their storm. The clouds moved around the peaks and valley quickly, breaking apart and reforming, dark grays in the middle and diamond white along the edges. I could swear I saw a cloud cradling a huge expanse of peaks that looked like a five hundred foot caterpillar. Skiing the afternoon shift in a full whiteout was nice simply because it felt good to be inside a storm and what it promised for the next day. Sunday morning began as a bluebird but was interrupted by another storm so after a couple hours of accumulation I was back in a cloud, skiing by Braille.           
            There was high quality snow in Mammoth this past weekend, with 10-degree temps at dawn Saturday morning and a harsh east wind blowing snow in the wrong direction, not down into the mountain creating sumptuous sugar deposits on all faces and in gullies but a wind blowing snow up and off of the mountain, but it didn’t really matter. This situation always causes the amusing entry routine on the upper peaks where riders approach ledges while covering their faces against a sandblast of a million tiny snow crystals.
            I skied alone until I ran into John Wentworth at the bottom gondi, a figure who features strongly in Yutaka and my paintings and drawings. He is a very fast skier, and he is adventurous. He courts trouble. He has the long face of a sleepy criminal, a mastermind.
            Untracked cakey feather pow was found all Saturday morning at the top of the mountain in a slot between Huevos and Climax, though every lap required intricate maneuvering to avoid hairball rock zones. 10 degree pow is not exactly a good binding base layer, so again, for the second time this season a cold dump of dry light pow has fallen on rock, so it was no surprise when a couple grand piano sized snow slabs separated, shifted, held—did not slide, while traversing underneath Top of the World. This was the first serious day of skiing this season. Five more chairlifts began loading for the first time all season, 22 & 23 among them, as well as 12, 13, and 14.
            Toward the end of the day I got petulant.
            I’ve never experienced a season so boney, I whined.
            Yes, the unforgiving rock lurking under seductive twinkling powder is a true mindfuck, Mr. Wentworth replied.
            I’m ruining my skis, I cried.
            Trying not to destroy one’s dear skis, the prophet Wentworth continued, is a challenge we all face, but you can’t ski with the wellbeing of your skis as the central thought while descending a mountain.
            Your precious skis, the oracle opined, are going to take a beating no matter what you do, you just can’t put any weight into your turns.
            No weight?
            You’ve got to ski like Gordon Lightfoot, he said.
            The guy who sang Sundown? I asked.
            Yes, Gordon Lightfoot, the sensitive Canadian with a voice like dry light powder, and you’ve got to pray your skis survive. You’ve got to become more like a butterfly.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Snow Starvation


            If snow is a mountain’s winter clothing then Mammoth is near naked right now. I was hoping to write a post that shouted joyously about how good the snow is. I was hoping to complain and brag about the tons of snow I shoveled and to suggest places and times to meet on the hill, but November through early January conditions this year are not conducive to that kind of experience. Yes, there are a few smooth carvey turns to be found on the mountain, but only if you start first thing in the morning with machine-groomed corduroy, which sounds like something only dentists can appreciate but has its perverse pleasures when nothing else is available.
            Last December it snowed 13 feet, possibly the most ever for December-in-Mammoth, but then very little snow came after that, a couple storms, yes, but the mountain closed earlier than usual in spring 2013. Mammoth has traditionally had the longest (non-glacier) ski season in North America, often ending on July 4. This season is shaping up to be something quite bad (pardon my snow-profanity) and a road trip might be needed. But to where? My associates at Alta/Snowbird say it’s pretty boney there too. Maybe by middle-late January something will change. Of course Mammoth is still an absurdly beautiful place and every dusk there’s alpenglow pink reflecting off what little snow there is. It’s snow as decoration, a backdrop for parties, not snow sufficient for skiing. The top of the mountain looks amazing with no snow, all gnarly, craggy rock, very intimidating.
            It’s not like zero joy exists on the mountain now. I rode a chairlift recently with two different civilians who were overjoyed to simply be on skis, regardless of the conditions. A bright-eyed San Diego man asked where I’d been skiing. Where? There weren’t any secrets. Only a few chairlifts were open with only a few common trails down, same with the gondola to the top. I didn’t want to bum him out with my ski enthusiasm hovering near its lowest setting. Simply being outside in high altitude mountain air is plenty euphoric, yes, but it’s dangerous to wander off piste when the snow is scant (piste is French for groomed trails, off-piste is the natural forest with snow untouched by snow cats). The San Diego man said he heard there was a 20-something inch base. That might be true, but only where snow has been sprayed onto trails with massive hoses. Snow making goes on all night and into the morning. You can hear it at night. It sounds like jet planes or sandblasting. There’s a huge igloo at the base of Canyon Lodge made out of the fake snow, but it is yellowed and looks more like a gargantuan bio-emission.
            There are days when the storms are fierce and most people are inside marveling at the weather event, waiting for the dumping to relent, hoping for the sun to come out and the so-called nice day to begin. Most core skiers like it stormy and want to be in the thick of it and are suffering tremendously right now, finding new ways to cope with a snowless Sierra winter. Ski movies help. There’s one new one that’s worth a connoisseur’s attention, called Into the Mind (also worthy is this, the making ofthe above mentioned movie). And this, JP Auclair’s freestyle street skiing from Sherpa Cinema’s first movie (my interest in chess began while on an assignment in Whistler a decade ago after watching JP play chess every night after skiing). Sherpa Cinema has more of a naturalist’s take on ski videos which makes they tonally different than all others, gentler, more attention paid to hallucinatory landscapes and animals, as well as the intricate gnarliness of rock climbing and mountaineering. Sherpa’s work also features non-macho dude music, like actually a female vocalist sometimes, plus old Canadian people skiing powder, and stellar camerawork pushed further than the amazing-usual, and trippy digital editing. But ski movies can also torture the desperate skier. Skiers pine, obsessively watch weather reports, and keep hope alive. They go inward, dredging up all the patience inside themselves, which is only there if we can go into powder-memory states of mind and drift back to epic days, specific runs, perfect voluptuous lines, face shot galore. As a life rule, when it snows I ski as much as I humanly can so when there are days, weeks, and God forbid, months, with no new snow, I’m not devastated (but I am). And I owe it to the mountain to not talk disparagingly about it. It’s nearly obscene to speak about it in any other terms besides curiosity, respect, and awe.
            The current Mammoth drought is long and ominous. The general future of global snow is in jeopardy. The Dweebs, or Howard the Dweeber, Mammoth’s amateur meteorologist, thinks it could be deep into January or February before real snow falls again, and don’t hold your breath he also says. I learned about El Nino from the Dweebs, and La Nina. But the other day Howard wrote that we’re experiencing La Nada.
            There’s man-made snow on most central groomers, but all off-piste skiing is tree stump laden, rock infested. Chair 22, the steep chair just above Canyon Lodge that accesses Lincoln Mt., a snow cone of steeps in every direction, featuring the Avie Chutes, Viva, Grizzly Ridge and everything in between, has not spun this season. There are rope closures at the top of Gold Rush, prohibiting scavengers from hiking. It’s truly un-skiable. Even modest little Blue Jay is closed.
            Mammoth local John Wentworth, who appears in several paintings by Yutaka and I, said he’s pulling out the mountain bike. Exquisite ermine are also telling me that they are remaining brown. There’s no need to change to white since there’s no snow.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Falsetto Flurries

At various times throughout the day I speak in falsetto. I’ve been doing it for well over a decade. How it began is hard to say. My mind returns to a moment 15 years ago, riding up an old 2-person chairlift on Mammoth’s less populated north side, Chair 14. I was with Logan, my most inspired ski pal at the time, a large ginger-headed, freckled lad with a linebacker's body. His shoulders were so wide I could barely fit on the chairlift with him. I had to lean forward when he leaned back and vice-versa. It was a perfect, sparkly powder morning with the sun just cracking through the clouds. Underneath the chairlift, the steepest line down the mountain, there was a snowboarder hauling ass through untracked pow, slashing turns, getting face shots, killing it, a spectacular run, and just as he jetted under our chair he turned between two trees and touched a snow-heavy pine branch with his mitten and let out a quiet little sound, like a squeak from a squeeze doll or a playful kitty mew.  Logan and I looked at each other in amazement.  Then, after a pause, we simultaneously made similar sounds. As soon as we got off the chair and skied that exact same line we found ourselves skiing in between trees, touching snowy branches and letting out little falsetto meows to signal a new peculiar giddiness, one that involved gentleness and absurdity. Our little disarming sound seemed the perfect compliment to the intensity of the situation, and evoked the right mindset, which was to not be overwhelmed by the killer moment, the deep snow, the steep mountains, the pressure of a super perfect powder day, but to be happy in it, mindful, playfully cautious, silly, to roll around in our baskets of yarn, hyper aware, on-point and so relaxed that we could squeak like pleased kitties and trust nearly everything around us. Softly meowing our way down the mountain was more satisfying than emitting a stock male bellow of joy. Maybe that’s what kung fu master Bruce Lee sounded like when he kicked and punched the crap out of his theatrical fight opponents, not a roaring lion but a softly yowling calico. 

  Around this time my wife Amy fell in love with a traumatized pup named Jasper who we renamed Hank. Hank is a 70 lb. German Shepherd mutt, with short, velvety tan fur and a white chest and tail tip and large brown eyes, like shiny polished chestnuts. He has naturally eye-lined eyes which makes him look like he wears make-up. He also looks like a pharaoh, which garnered him the nickname, Handsome Egyptian Gentleman. Hank was frightened of many things: wind, bags, brooms, closet doors, food (he was starving himself at the pound and had to be fostered nightly off-site just get some sustenance in him), human movement of any kind, raised voices, and men. All understandable fears. In order to become a more approachable pal or master or co-inhabitor of space with Hank I began speaking to him in a soft, high-pitched whisper-voice, which sounded like a strange old lady—or maybe a very nice, thoughtful old crone who gives up her living room couch in order to provide Hank with the largest dog bed in California. Hank seemed to appreciate my falsetto. Maybe with that vocal adjustment I seemed less like a dog harmer to him, more a benignly confusing food provider. Soon Hank developed his own falsetto in the form of a very high-pitched squeaky yawn. It was his method of relaxing himself, a deep gasp for oxygen. Dodger pitcher Orel Hersheiser used to do that, too, during the World Series, standing on the pitcher’s mound, rubbing the baseball, trying to relax and focus himself to throw a laser-accurate pitch, yawning. 

  I have a macho friend named Bill who feels competitive every moment he’s on skis. Whenever a random skier skis near Bill or past Bill it’s game on, a spontaneous race to the bottom. At the end of the day the race-episodes are retold in sweet exaggerated detail including descriptions of outfits, and highlights of radical maneuvers (“the guy was going 50 mph backwards”), close calls, and fantasy crashes (“I was 10 feet off the ground, traveling sideways for like the entire length of a football field.”). Macho Bill has a commanding presence and a light, naturally squeaky speaking voice that always seems on the verge of cracking or breaking. He sounds like an old door with corroded hinges. If Bill were in a choir, the group might be called the Rusty Sailors. Or maybe, Neglected Farming Equipment. He clears his throat and coughs a lot as if surprised by the unpredictable sounds coming out of his mouth. Whenever I go into falsetto around Bill he seems taken aback, which usually causes me to tread lightly. He can’t get a purchase on wholesale mockery, with he & me as featured fools, so he tenses up. He hardens rather than softens. The falsetto makes him feel, I think, that I’m making fun of his voice rather than just being a freak and needing to do it to escape the mundanity of it all. Bill does like to yodel though, and he does it beautifully, imperfectly, like a dying man in need of rescue. He seems attracted to the repetitive sounds. He’s a mountain man with a thick black beard. He has a long straight nose like a stick poking out of a pink leather-face with a shallow ridge at the tip. He has long eyelashes that never go unnoticed and a small scar by his cheekbone that he says was acquired in a knife fight (when he says this he waits a beat, then admits, from a car crash). If, when speaking in jest with him, I use my regular voice, or if I drop it down super deep, mocking masculinity from the register of a gloomy elder cleric, he’ll leap in and joyously participate, the two of us, baritoneing, commanding the landscape, pillaging, waving our arms around, reveling in potty humor and misguided clichés. 

When I see this macho friend who often scares me with his erratic moods, if I say “Hello,” in a high voice like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, he says, “Hey,” wearily, in a regular voice and slowly asks, “how are you?” as if to check on my sanity. “O fine,” I reply in a falsetto based on a stoic wounded matron who is eager for a cup of tea, “thank you for asking.” And do I get this urgent cup of tea? Of course not. He’s not a mind reader.  

When I’m skiing I often think of the song Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees, not because I need a prayer to help me stay alive—though of course I do, but because of the fantastically perfect falsettos shrilled by the Australian brothers and the indelible image the song evokes, John Travolta strutting down a New Jersey street with a gallon of paint, which occurs at the beginning of the movie, as the credits roll. I partly like this absurd mix of image and music because my mom liked Travolta so much, she was a big fan of his dancing. The Bee Gees’s light bulb breaking falsettos, the joyful comedy of the disco beat, and Travolta’s over the top swagger became the perfect little movie to keep in my head when skiing. The song enters my bloodstream like a vitamin blast and encourages me to believe in the beat, to swagger on my skis, to boost off little bumps and catch some puppy air. In fact, any time I hear someone who really knows how to sing ascend up the vocal register into notes that sound like bright speeding angels I am energized, enthralled. 

Motown, the land of sweetest falsettos. 

  Cussing in falsetto immediately defuses the vulgarity of words, turns nastiness and anger into something ridiculous. Jonathan Winters, a comedic genius from the previous century, had a remarkable falsetto that he applied to his old lady characters, and all five Monty Python gentlemen had their own particular falsettos with which to inhabit their female alter egos. 

  In Some Like It Hot, a movie where two male jazz musicians, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, dress in drag and join an all girl band to avoid mobsters who’re searching for them with lethal intentions, falsettos are a matter of life and death. Lemmon’s Daphne-falsetto is all squeaks and scratches, while Tony Curtis’s Josephine, in her high collared garments, is a deeper more regal type of lady horn. 

And what about Julia Child, Elenor Roosevelt, and the Queen of England? Of course, they are the high water mark. They are what we fellow falsetto-ers seek to accomplish.

Earlier this year I got an assignment from Powder Magazine to go to Telluride and write about Gay Ski Week. During one encounter with a gondola full of homosexuals I made an observation in falsetto, purely from habit, and the entire group fell silent, as if I had really done the wrong thing. Previously, all my falsettos had been in mockery of masculinity, or a way to enliven ordinary small talk. Suddenly, my mockery was offensive. Since no one really knew me in Telluride I seemed like an insensitive jerk, deriding gayness with a caricature faggy voice when actually trying to undermine uptight straight male patriarchal power structures (fellas, I swear!).

Several of my friends also veer into falsetto at opportune moments. Together we sound like a chorus of warbling pigeons. Communicating in falsetto provides a kind of protective shield around our conversation. A couple female friends of mine do it too, exaggerate their girl voices into fluffier falsettos, beautiful mockeries. One woman-friend boldly goes the other way, to a husky, witness protection program gravel-voice that is uniquely disturbing and evokes a paranoid animal-man with a hunchback. 

I speak in falsetto once in a while when teaching writing classes, sometimes as an initial greeting or to segue from one subject to another. It often works to lighten the mood. The students reconsider my mental state. Some of them simply cannot believe that their college-level professor is being such a maniac, and yet no one ever asks what the voice is about, they just go with it and hope the voice stops soon. At an art opening I’ll say “hi” to friends and x-students in falsetto and they’ll quickly follow suit. I overheard one guy say to another, “We’ve got to work on our falsettos.” 

I’ve never recruited fellow high voiced satirists. Well, not consciously, anyway.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Drive to Mammoth

The 4½ hour drive north from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes along Highway 395 is an excellent form of automotive meditation, not too long to exhaust the mind and body, and with an absurdly spectacular reward at the end. A 7am departure gives you the last three hours of the afternoon to ski, the perfect warm up to a 4-day weekend. The drive features a panorama of changing terrains: a desert landscape of anatomically perverse Joshua trees twisting into flamboyant poses that resemble strange family members with their intestines spiraling around them eventually gives way to cottonwoods, aspens, and pine. There’s minimal signage on the highway that crawls along the eastern edge of the Sierras Nevada Mountains, which begin like molehills on the left hand side of the street and gradually rise to gargantuan massiveness (14,505 feet).
Mojave is the first traffic light you’ll see on the 300-mile drive. It’s an interesting-sad town with most buildings and businesses on the east side of the street (numerous boarded up establishments) and the always-present train on the west side. The Army Surplus store is Smithsonian quality. But it’s hard to not think methlab hamlet when driving through the mile long town, especially when a rusty Hazel Motes type vehicle sputters out of a side street coughing black exhaust, briefly lurking, zigzagging, and then abruptly turning off and away, screeching down the next non-descript alley. Mojave is hurting. It’s also home to old junked jet liners, chunks of which festoon various blighted backyards. 
Time in the car with hours of good music and a destination of snow settles the mind and helps me work out problems with stories I’m struggling to write. While driving and staring at road I hear new verbal exchanges of characters arguing back and forth—lively private cerebral moments—it’s almost like my characters wanted me to go on a trip so they could develop who they are, since I wasn’t willing to facilitate their development during writing time at my desk. My big dog Teddy likes the drive, too. He knows the kind of quality walks that are in store. 
I used to stop and eat at The Still Life Café when it was in Olancha (a tiny town with no traffic lights), which is a hundred miles north of Mojave. Over a decade ago it was run by two French Algerian sisters: being their hungry customer was blissful—a simple specialty was burgers with Stilton cheese and a large chili pepper, French fries made in peanut oil. There was some pretty slick cooking going on. The menu was actually fancy, pricey, extremely French, unheard of in the desolate desert. When it first opened 18 or 19 years ago it was hard to believe it existed—the first good meal on 395. The sisters were so nice and even put my first book of stories on a bookshelf behind the bar by the cash register. Then the cook’s husband showed up and things changed. The hot non-cooking sister moved away. Happiness plummeted. Everyone’s buzz was harshed. The husband didn’t show a particle of the affection and joy that the sisters poured on us. He had a blank five o’clock shadow face. The service got slower, grimmer, but the food remained super good, you just had to not fall asleep waiting for it. Then they moved 20 miles north to Independence, a town whose main hotel has a boarded up windows, a big porch, and a lot of haunted history. And of course the erstwhile roadside llama farm was a main Independence attraction where I once took a double barrel nose load from a protective mother llama who didn’t like the way I was baby talking her offspring. There are huge mountains in view and the town will find itself with a couple feet of snow every so often, but it melts away quickly because of the not so high altitude. 
Departing from Independence means Big Pine is next, i.e., the excellent burrito made in the kitchen of the Chevron station. Their food is so popular among local farm people that they’ve got bricks of tamales stacked in the freezer to buy in bulk. I have the number programmed in my phone. It’s 21 miles away from Independence so I wait 6 or 7 minutes after passing through, then call in the order. There’s usually a rancher cow poke or forest service dude getting some to-go food (and in the summer all the rock climbing dirt baggers in sandals—the bouldering in nearby Bishop is world class). During an election season there will be posted signs of scary local men running for public office posing in antique triangular patriotic hats with muskets at their sides. In Big Pine and Bishop you see boxes of shotgun shells on the dashboards of trucks and ordinary cars. 
I could drink the green and red salsas from the Chevron Station without a taco or burrito present. The green salsa of course is the best because the tangy tomatillos and the cilantro are righteous brilliant together, but the red sauce has little tomatoes chunks and might be spicier and possibly even more exciting via a jalapeño or Serrano pepper presence. The Salsa Queen of the Sierras owns a very small tan and white Chihuahua named Chiquita who sleeps on the counter on a yellow blanket while her mistress rings up.
“How is Chiquita?”
“She is spoiled,” the lady says, turning her head halfway toward Chiquita. 
“Oh that’s good,” I say. 
Chiquita opens her eyes and barks.
“She say, that’s right, it’s good,” the burrito genius murmurs.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Dangerous October Behavior

            Like a cartoon version of a concert pianist who worries about damaging his precious fingers just prior to his world tour, as winter approaches and the ski life asserts itself in me, I begin to get nervous about my body. I traipse around the city fretting that I’ll slam into something sharp or a wayward wrecking ball will take me out when I least expect it. I worry about my wobbly ankles. Ditto my fragile Achilles, semi-reliable knees, standard issue quads. I avoid walking under scaffolding. I tip toe across ordinary surfaces as if they were ice. I never go barefoot. I’m scared that I’ll break or tear something right before opening day.
            On Friday, October 18 I opened the front door of my house with a coffee in one hand, an open-faced peanut butter and pickle sandwich in the other and my mind full of painting and drawing problems, writing deadlines, problematic students, and a beautiful white butterfly that fluttered above my head (a snowflake fairy?), I took two steps out the front door, stepped awkwardly on one of the little round spikey seed pods that fall from our Liquid Amber tree and fell forward off the front porch, severely spraining my ankle in the driveway. I was down on the ground in a flash with several minutes of blinding electric pain shooting from the top of my right ankle up through entire body. My wife, Amy, the exquisite being, heard me scream and bellow, and rushed to my aid. As she knelt down beside me I grabbed her hand and stuck it in my mouth and started to bite down. I had no idea what I was doing. She let me do this for a few seconds until it became painful and then she removed it and ran inside and brought back ice, a pillow, and a few minutes later, crutches. As a veteran of a litany of my sports injuries over the decades, she knows the routine. I just lay there in the driveway, unable to move, hoping no neighbors would come out for the show. It was 8am. I was about to go play tennis with Tall John. I had sunscreen all over me. Eventually, I rolled onto my stomach and crawled back into the house and began four stationary days of ice, elevation, Advil, and crutches, and semi-cured the ruined ankle quicker than usual by remaining on my back, foot above heart. But on days five-six-seven I had to go to school and teach. Then on day-8 there was a fundraising tennis tournament for the MAK center at a new private tennis court in Benedict Canyon. My doubles partner, Gunner Fox, a serious badass, wrote to me, “Can you walk? Let’s win this.” I wrote back, “Just barely. Let’s kick ass.” My decision to participate was reinforced with a ton of Advil, a lace-up double-wrap ankle brace, and a gentle woof of sativa. I wasn’t sure I could bounce or pivot in any direction, but the night before the little sexy tournament I tested the ankle by gently bopping to good songs in the garage while I was working on some paintings, and the ankle was purple streaked and swollen but felt okay. In the end, Gunner Fox and I lost to a strong doubles team in the finals, in a tiebreak. One of the guys on the other team, the tall one, was the super awesome musician Danger Mouse, of the soul duo Gnarls Barkley. He had a high-speed serve that handcuffed us at crucial moments in the end. It was fun (we want a rematch Mr. Mouse), but my ankle swelled up huge again once I got home and days later it’s still plump, tender, ugly, and I’m back to icing, elevating, though avoiding the Advil.
            The moral of this story could be this: Winter is coming or is already here, so, walk mindfully, be present, breathe, and don’t let super astonishing butterflies throw you to the ground. And if that does happen to you, get a pillow and chill, read quality fiction, and laugh off the disgrace because it really is comedy. If I failed to see my physical blunders as ridiculous no one would ever trust me again.

Amy’s black, silk, long-sleeved winter top, used as a sleeve to hold a 
blue ice pack that folded perfectly over and around my ankle.
 The words Cryotherapeutic Flex-Gel were printed on one side of the ice pack. 

Friday, October 4, 2013