Friday, October 29, 2004

Yosemite Psalm (Part IV)

**UPDATED new pic added 10-30-04**

Go Climb a Rock
That’s what it said — in big white letters across the back of Ron’s slightly faded red t-shirt. “Go Climb a Rock.” And that’s just what we were setting out to do.

Ron’s t-shirt was a popular one in those days; maybe it still is. It advertised the Yosemite Mountaineering School, a park-run service that offered instruction in backpacking, rock climbing and cross-country skiing. He had actually gone through the backpacking and rock climbing courses a year or so earlier to our making this trip, which is probably where he learned that nifty-dandy “bear befuddler” method of hanging up food from a tree that I mentioned earlier.

We set off from our camp in Little Yosemite Valley at about eight in the morning. The wimming stayed behind and took the day to relax after five pretty tough days of backpacking.

I remember the mountain air being so crisp that it almost crackled against my cheeks as we turned our faces into the breeze jetting through the mixture of fragrant pine and cedar trees that lined the trail.

The 1.5 mile hike to the east shoulder of Half Dome involved an extensive number of steep switchback trails along the way, making the altitude gain faster, but also giving my quads quite a workout in the process. However I really don’t remember being tired at all. I was so excited. This was the first time I’d done anything like this before. Ron had made the Half Dome climb previously, which also made me feel a little easier — easier that is, until we got to ‘The Saddle,’ the area between another small dome and HD’s eastern shoulder; the base of that huge, naked hunk-a, hunk-a plutonic granite.

If I’d been thinking, I probably would have taken this picture.* This is a great shot of the base of Half Dome, at the beginning of the cable climb. And no, that isn’t an optical illusion — it really is that steep. The cable climb from bottom to top is 900 feet over a 45-degree pitch of slick granite.

“Okay, AJ,” I thought to myself. “You’re really gonna do this?” Before I could answer, I was grasping the cables. I’m not sure if I decided to go first or if Ron told me to, but I lead the way. Fortunately there were no large groups, and very little traffic on the cables that day. I only remember having to stop a couple of times to allow descenders to pass by on there way down from the top, as is always the etiquette of climbing HD.

You can probably see it from the pictures, but allow me to describe the climbing cable setup. The cable assembly is composed of a series of waist-high metal pipes, placed every five to six feet apart into shafts drilled into the granite. I don’t know how deep the holes are, but they are just that — holes. You could pull a pole out if you wanted to. But not to worry, for the most part the poles are very secure and obviously strong enough to support the weight of the average would-be mountaineer. Half Dome is closed for climbing from Columbus Day through Memorial Day Weekend each year and the poles are taken down through that period to avoid damage from the severe winter weather.

Threaded metal caps top the support poles, sealing the “U”-shaped cups of the poles upper end. Through this "eye-of-the needle" opening, a sturdy, one half-to-three-quarter-inch diameter braided steel cable is threaded, interconnecting all of the poles on either side, from the bottom to the summit.

Additionally, there are three-foot wide 2" x 4"s, bolted into the base of the rock, resting against the uphill side of each pair of support poles, providing surer footing for the climber on the slick granite.

“Hey baby, let’s get perpendicular!”
It is truly an amazing feeling to come to the realization that one simple move, such as letting go would mean almost certain death. But there I was, scaling Half Dome, at one point, nearly perpendicular to the mountain, with only my grip on those cables separating me from life and being a greasy spot on the granite below. What a rush!

Now lest someone think I need to be given some kind of award for courage, I need to tell you, it’s a lot easier than it sounds. That’s not to say the climb isn’t a daunting one if you have the slightest fear of heights. But if you don’t, it’s easily the coolest experience short of real mountain climbing that one can have in my opinion. The secret is to keep moving, grasping the cables hand by hand, alternately, left and right, and taking as large of a stride forward as your legs will allow.

It seemed as though the climb took an hour, but in reality it was about 25 minutes. There were a few times I briefly paused to look around at where I was, and when I looked down, it was in wonder, not fear. It was truly one of those life-defining events that I will never forget, and hope to do again some day, hopefully next summer.

**New pic added 10-30-04**

About a third of the way up on the cables. I believe I was sitting on one of the 2" x 4"s when I took this. You really need to click on this one and see the full-sized version to fully appreciate the perspective of our angle to the ground!

Ron makes his triumphant approach to the top. I sure had a great time doing this with him. What a big kid at heart that guy was!

Another borrowed shot. The view from the top. In the foreground, the end of the climbing cables, and Half Dome’s jaw-dropping northeastern vista on the horizon. Cloud’s Rest (near right-center), Cathedral Peak (distant center), and Tresidder Peak (distant left-center) are in clear view.*

When we reached the top of Half Dome there were only a few people already there. The top of this big rock is gently concave, like a saddle, and a about the size of a half a football field. This makes it a pretty comfortable experience from the top unless you venture too close to the edge, which, of course, we did!

Unintended Enlightenment
I had anticipated the opportunity to get some really great photos on this trip, and Yosemite didn’t let me down. Unfortunately, however, my camera did. Due to a light leak in my camera lens, a bunch of the breathtaking scenery shots I took ended up looking like a polar bear in a snowstorm.

My camera, a Canon AE-1 was a little over a year old at the time. It came with a versatile 28-80 mm macro-zoom lens that I really loved. However less than a month after receiving it as a birthday gift from Michelle in 1980, I had dropped it while we were walking on the beach in Santa Barbara. After the incident, the camera still seemed to work fine, but the zoom and focus rings on the lens were noticeably loose from that point on.

As it turned out, I wouldn’t become aware of how much the damaged lens would effect my pictures until this trip to Yosemite.

Previously, following my dribbling the camera, the exposure on my pictures seemed to be fine under normal or low-light conditions. But now in this high-light circumstance on Half Dome, with the bright sunlight reflecting off the granite, nearly every picture I took looked severely washed out. I was able to salvage some of them through heavy manipulation in Photoshop, but many were just too far-gone.

These were the ones I was able to save....

Staring down the face of Half Dome. Yeah I was crazy enough to step right up to the edge to snap a few pics. I can only remember one time looking down and getting slightly spooked.

Same position panning to the left toward Glacier Point and the southwest Valley.

Ron, sitting on top of the world.

Me, standing with my foot on the edge of "the diving board," the finger-like precipiece that projects out the furthest from the face of Half Dome. The view behind me looks back northward toward Tenaya Canyon..

After about 45 minutes to an hour up on the summit, it was time to head back for camp and the women folk. It was a lot more fun going down than coming up, and of course you could see the incredible view right before you. Here I stopped to turn and grab a quick shot of Ron about 50 yards into our decent. What an incredible adventure!

As I think about making a return trip to retrace the steps of this fantastic voyage, I’m quite sure that I’m underestimating the role of benefit that my being in such good shape as a gymnast played in my enjoyment of such a rigorous exercise. I remember being tired, but never exhausted; fatigued, but never sore. Never did I feel as though I wasn’t going to make it, or that my condition placed me in danger of falling of making errors in judgement that might place me in harm’s way.

However 23 years and more than a dozen extra pounds later, I have to remind myself that it most likely will not be half as easy for me the next time. I really have to seriously consider what I need to do in order to get ready to meet the challenge when it finally presents itself once again.

The hike back down the switchbacks were a lark for Ron and me as we excitedly talked about the exhilarating afternoon we had just spent ascending the landmark feature of grand old Yosemite. What a great time.

Take me to the River
When we made it back to our campground in Little Yosemite Valley, we were hot, sweaty, dirty and probably not too much fun to be close to. And while there were no showers for us to use, there was a river — the beautifully gentle Merced River which runs east/west through Little Yosemite.

There was a log floating in the river, so Ron and I took turns log rolling, with some pretty humorous results and plenty of wisecracks from the peanut gallery.

Everything was going pretty well until Ron let go of the log...

When the call of our bellies won out over our desire to play in the river, we cleaned up and headed back to camp. We were about finished for one very busy incredible day. I don’t remember what the wives prepared for dinner, but I know it tasted good. I remember that evening at the campfire just feeling blissful.

I still can feel it.

*Special thanks to Ryan Zurakowski.

Next: The trail home

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Yosemite Psalm (Part III)

Sunrise at Sunset
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. And that's a good thing, since I don't have the time to write more than a couple hundred of em today. For this segment, the pictures will tell the story.

Day Three: Cathedral Lakes to Sunrise Lakes
This leg of our journey would take us another five miles or so on the John Muir Trail southward to the offshoot trail at Sunrise High Sierra Camp. The Sunrise trail heads due West toward Tanaya Canyon where it joins the trail leading to our Day 5 destination, Cloud’s Rest. At near 10,000 feet, Cloud’s Rest trail would be the high point in elevation for our trip.

Back at our first backcountry campsite, near Lower Cathedral Lake, we made an early start, hitting the trail at around 8:00 AM.

The sun rises over majestic Cathedral Peak as we prepare to hit the trail.

Just before midday, we made the climb to Upper Catherdral Lake and closer proximity to Cathedral Peak, a favorite target for mountaineers and rockclimbers. We were feeling pretty good at this point.

Michelle peers at Cathedral Peak and wonders whether or not Glynda the Good Witch will emerge from that Bubble of Light thingy coming toward her. Sorry Dorothy. Clicking the heels of your hiking boots together won't get you too far out here.

"Grizzly AJ" at Upper Cathedral Lake. Please keep the hot pants cracks to yourself, thank you.

By the end of a tough climb, we reached Sunrise Lakes and camped near the southernmost of the triune lake group, overlooking rugged Tanaya Canyon. This was perhaps the most picturesque spot we saw on this trip, and the following are my two very favorite photos, taken at sunset.

At Sunrise Lakes looking southwest toward Cloud's Rest (center) and Half Dome’s east face in the distance.

Panning to the right, Upper Sunrise Lake and a magnificent High Sierra sunset.

Day Four: Sunrise Lakes to near Cloud’s Rest
The trail to Cloud’s rest along the upper edge of Tanaya Canyon was fairly dry, dusty and steep. This may have been our toughest day. Michelle was a trooper and didn't complain. She is a veteran backpacker and had about twice the experience as I did. She conserved her energy as best she could. Ron and I were fighting it, but were in good enough general shape that we really didn't have any problems. But poor Ellie was having a pretty rough time, so we took some weight off her pack and re-distributed it between Ron and myself. We tried to take it a bit easier for Ellie's sake.

The remaining climb to Cloud’s Rest’s 9,900 foot summit would be too tough to try on this day, so we stopped and camped about a mile or so short of the spur trail to the summit.

Mid-morning heading toward Cloud’s Rest (left) with Half Dome's less-often seen right profile (center) in clear view.

Same vantage point, zoomed out to reveal a beautifully reflective small lake just off the trail below.*

Another wannabe “artsy” shot featuring Michelle. It was at this area of the trail that I recall being my most weary. It was hot and steep, but oh so beautiful.

Exhausted, we stopped mid-afternoon at a spot with a nearby water source and pitched camp to conclude Day Four. Looking across the canyon, I caught another awesome sunset. National Geographic, here I come!...yeah, right!

Day Five: Cloud's Rest to Little Yosemite Valley
Being fairly close to the Cloud's Rest summit spur trail already, we set off and by mid-morning were sampling the incredible Yosemite panorama.

At Cloud’s Rest summit, taking in the view of everyone taking in the view at 9,900 feet. Looking northward from whence we came, Tresidder Peak is well visible in the distance just to Ron's left.*

Another one of my favorite shots. From the southern summit, Michelle, Half Dome and Yosemite Valley below.*

The obligatory “look at me” shot, holding a very bad “straddle ‘L.’” There was also an awesome shot of me holding a handstand in the same location, but it was so over-exposed that I looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost. This one was extremely light as well, but I was able to punch it up in PS to make it viewable (that’s why it's grainy).*

Half-way Thinkin’
With Half Dome so tantalizingly close, it was hard not to push on to climb it as well. However given Ellie's already spent condition, there was no way she was going to attempt that climb. Michelle had “been there, done that” several years earlier, before I'd even met her, so she was happy to sit this one out and stay with Ellie, while Ron and I tackled that most famous of Yosemite’s monuments of granite.

It was decided that we would stay an extra day. We would continue on to an area near the trail's junction with the John Muir, in Little Yosemite Valley and camp there. Bright and early the next morning Ron and I would make it a day hike to Half Dome, and the following morning we would make our descent into Yosemite Valley and head for home.

*Note: some of these photos came out horribly over-exposed (I'll talk about why later) and had to undergo considerable "fiddling" to even be worth posting (unfortunately, many otherwise good shots, couldn't be saved). Thank goodness for Photoshop!

Next: Go Climb a Rock

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Yosemite Psalm (Part II)

The Ground Rules
I never realized it until I came across the fact in researching this story, that we were among the first passengers on the shuttle bus that transported us to Tuolumne Meadows on the morning of Day 2. The free busses that carry visitors to and from various points in Yosemite Park were newly purchased just prior to the summer of 1981. However the government report that I read notes that those same vehicles are still running 23 years later, and now are in desperate need of replacement. But we caught them at the beginning of their life cycle, and I remember the ride, though long, as being a pleasant one. Loaded up with our backpacks and walking sticks, we arrived at the trailhead around noon.

When we arrived at Tuolemne Meadows, I remember feeling a rush of familiarity and warm memories of Michelle and my camping trip there two years earlier. At its high altitude (8,580 feet), even at mid-day, the breeze there was cool, as it whipped across the sunny meadow, dotted with bands of colorful wildflowers.

The first order of business was to check in with the Ranger at the Visitor’s Center. There we were given the ground rules of behavior and survival in the backcountry: avoid bears, of which we would see several, and he particularly stressed that you should never store food in your tent where a bear may be attracted to it. Yosemite has strict rules regarding food storage. Thousands of dollars in vehicle damage and hundreds of “human conflict” incidents occur every year due to people not following the rules and underestimating the intelligence of bears. They recognize the shape and purposes of ice chests, grocery bags, and other food-related supplies. Bears can clearly smell any food in a car, even when it's stored in the vehicle's trunk, and have damaged cars for things as little as a stick of gum or an empty soda can. You may be fined or your car impounded for leaving food in your car overnight.

Bears are smart and know what they’re looking for. So how do you avoid them? When near a trailhead or campground, there are strategically placed metal storage boxes that resemble mini-dumpsters that are available for you to use to store your food. However when you’re in the backcountry and not near an established campground you have to improvise. Enter good ‘ol resourceful Ron. He had devised an ingenious technique for safeguarding our grub.

We always kept the food in a single backpack so as to avoid the smell being transferred to the others. What Ron would do was suspend the pack from a limb of a tree, high enough that a bear couldn’t reach it from below and far enough below the limb that she couldn’t reach it from above. He used nylon fishing line so that the bear couldn’t grasp and pull it down with her paws. It worked like a charm, but Ron’s technique would not go without being battle-tested at least once.

Mid-way through our journey, or so they tell me, we all got a pretty good start in the middle of the night by the sound of a bear lowing in frustration from not being able to reach the food. I don’t know if she was going at it from the ground or in the trees, but the bear made enough racket to wake us up — that is, everyone but ‘ol sleep-thru-frikkin’-World-War-III, AJ. By the time Michelle had successfully shaken my brains loose trying to wake me up, the commotion was all but over. I have to say, I bearly recall a thing about it.

Must be something in the water
The other thing we were sternly warned about was the drinking water situation in the backcountry. California is prone to droughts, as you may know, but the period we went through during the late 70s–early 80s was a real beaut. The waterfalls for which Yosemite is famous were fairly underwhelming, with landmark Yosemite Falls merely a trickle compared to normal standards.

To make matters worse, it was August, a time in which the water flow is less anyway. The Park Ranger told us that we would have to boil all of our water used for drinking and cooking to avoid falling victim to Sierra Nevada’s Revenge, more popularly known as giardiasis , courtesy of a microorganism known as Giardia Lamblia .
The ranger said that runoff from naturally-occurring animal feces in the wild can cause the organism to be present in the water, and since the water is was low, concern for the higher probability of giardia concentration made this safeguard necessary. So that was certainly a bummer going in, but one that we could deal with. After all, there couldn’t be too many things worse than having to cope with gastrointestinal distress in the wilderness.

However the silver lining of that dark cloud, for me anyway, was that less water also meant fewer mosquitoes, to which I’m inordinately subject. I don’t know what it is about my blood, but those god-forsaken little vampires just go after it like nobody’s business. My wife and I can be in the same location at the same time, and if mosquitoes are present, on average I’ll come out with two or three bites to her one.

Armed with all the pertinent info, we then hit the trail and began our adventure in earnest. Destination for our first night: Cathedral Lakes.

Cathedral Lakes lie within the small Cathedral sub-range of mountains in Yosemite’s northeast quadrant. Directly adjacent to the group of two lakes is picturesque Cathedral Peak. Its sharply sweeping spires are appropriately named, because the surrounding countryside is awe-inspiring.

Given the length of the tram ride from the Valley to Tuolemne, our first day of hiking would be somewhat abbreviated. The journey from the trailhead to Cathedral is a good introduction to what lies ahead on the John Muir Trail. It’s not too strenuous (a steady, fairly even 1000-foot seven-mile climb), but by the time it’s over, you know you’ve been hiking.

We, or should I say Ron, had planned out our daily distance itinerary with the women in mind, not to mention the idea of “not pushing it” for the purpose of everyone’s overall enjoyment of the experience. Throughout the week, we averaged around five miles of hiking per day. As we climbed higher, that would become a much more important consideration.

We only got about three hours in on that first leg, pitching camp near the turnoff trail to Lower Cathedral Lake. The peaceful calm was mesmerizing. The whole week was like that, so I’m going to try to avoid overusing the concept, but it really was.

Again, Ron & Ellie, as the sun sets to the west of Tresidder Peak, at the end of a very busy Day 2.

Michelle and I were first up with the water-boiling detail, in which each night we switched off taking turns boiling everyone’s drinking water for the following day. By morning the water was frosty cool in our bottles and canteens, and nothing tastes better than cold mountain spring water when you’re hiking a hot, dusty trail with 75-90 pounds strapped to your back.

I’m sure we all slept like a rock that night, bears be damned.

Next: Sunrise at Sunset

Revisionist History

In my never-ending attempt to get my story straight, I'm posting this notice that I have screwed up, again.

One of my least favorite things in the whole world is to find that I have remembered something incorrectly. It's almost like lying to yourself. While rushing to get this story written while still performing my due dilligence to researching the facts and figures about the wonderful phenomenon that is Yosemite, I of course relyed on the script in my head that I've been reciting from memory to nearly anyone who would listen for the past 23 years. If you've known me for any length of time in real life, you will have heard about this story — that's how important it has always been to me.

However one important detail had apparently become blurred in my mind over the years — just how long was this trip? In my mind, I had based that answer off of my memory of Ron telling me that the entire expedition would be about 25 miles, and that we would average five miles hiking per day. So remembering that, it means the trip was five days, right?

Wrong. Try seven, elephant-brain.

I have been telling people we were in Yosemite for five days for YEARS. But I never really sat down and thought about it. Yes, we did spend five days in the backcountry, but in actuality, we were in the park for a full week overall — less a half day coming and going. We were there for at least parts of seven days.

Why am I making a big deal out of this? Well for one thing, because it's history — my history — and I don't like bein' no frikkin' revisionist. It may not make a hill of beans to you, but it does to me.

My sticking to that formula of "in and out in five days" caused a lot of skewing of how things played out in my mind. I had a helluva time synching up the travel schedule with the pictures I had taken, and the time of day certain things happened. I would look at a photo and think, "Wait a minute...that couldn't have happened then, could it?" I mean, it's hard to give an account of something when your memories tell you something happened at one time and the pictures tell you they actually happened 12-24 hours later.

So finally I went to Michelle with my quandry, and she set me straight. Reluctanly I accepted that I had allowed that one concept of a five day trip to completely screw up my recollection of the events.

So to make things right, I have re-written the last part of Part I of this story ("Checking in"), as well as inserting a new map with an accurate detailing of our travel route. The new map isn't as cool-looking as the first one (of which I may re-insert a "clean" version later), but it is 100% more accurate for comparing distances, trails and landmarks.

The next installment is nearly completed, and will be up by mid-afternoon.

Thanks for bearing with my anality, but this stuff is important to me. I hope you continue to enjoy the series.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Yosemite Psalm (Part I)

I really don’t remember who really got the ball rolling, but I’m inclined to believe that it was more my buddy Ron’s doing than mine. He was sorta like that. I’m sure it started out that we were just talking about backpacking, and how Michelle and I had really wanted to make one last big trip before we started our family — our last hurrah, so to speak. And the next thing ya know, we were making plans — not to merely go backpacking, but to do so for an entire week, across twenty five miles of the most famous and beautiful terrain anywhere. Ron made all the arrangements and began planning our route.

Ron was the kind of guy who was great to know for a number of reasons, but mostly because he was someone who just seemed to be good at everything. Not that he claimed to be all that — oh quite the opposite. He was almost too humble. He was totally unassuming, kind, and generous. He preferred to operate without fanfare. He never bragged. He never ragged. He was just a nice, resourceful guy who did things very well.

You probably don’t remember my mentioning him in a previous story (and if you do, well then, 50 bonus points for you!), but Ron was one of the over half-dozen roommates I had in the years before I got married. He worked as a diesel mechanic for some type of contractor, the type or name of which I’m quite certain I ever even knew. However I do know that he used to come home from work every day covered from head to toe in sweat and grease — which often didn't make him all that pleasant to be around. But man, if you had car trouble (which I did — often), you were sure glad that he was there! Ron saved me loads of money in repair bills, and ended up teaching me more about the elementary workings of the internal combustion engine than any single person I’d ever known, before and since.

He was great working with wood too, and made a cutout plywood speaker enclosure for the back deck of my car once. This was after I had already screwed up the original fiberboard back deck trying to cut the holes out myself. He just offered to do it. I didn’t even have to buy the piece of wood. He used to kind of clean up a lot of my messes like that, and always with a smile on his face. Fact was, I felt free to try just about anything I really didn’t know how do, mostly because I knew I could just ask good ‘ole Ron if I ever got stuck.

But for as rough and burley as he was on the outside, he was every bit as gentle and friendly on the inside. Ron was a big ole’ teddy bear and everyone he knew loved him for it.

Ron had some pretty varied interests, too. He built and kept a salt-water tropical fish tank in the apartment for the two years we roomed together. Yes, I said he built it himself. He had great taste in music too, and turned me on to artists like The Alan Parsons Project, Jimmy Buffett, and Al Stewart well before they hit it big on the pop charts.

And although, as you might guess, he’d have appeared to be a pretty good catch, Ron didn’t date much. He was pretty shy by nature — that is until he met Ellie.

Ron & Ellie, as the sun sets to the west of Tresidder Peak, Day 2.

About a year after Michelle and I were married, Ron and Ellie tied the knot as well. We hung out as couples occasionally on a social basis, but the idea of us vacationing together was really never anything I had considered. While I thought of Ron as a good friend and a great roommate, our friendship was never really on a ‘best friend’ kind of basis.

That’s why I’m pretty sure it was Ron who took the bull by the horns when we talked about backpacking in Yosemite; and the fact that he obviously wanted us to join them kind of introduced me to a side of him that hadn't always come through while we shared an apartment, spending more time saying "seeya later" than hanging out together. However I certainly knew him well enough to know the look. It was quite literally a gleam in his eye he’d get when he was excited about something, and I could tell he was excited about this trip.

The route Ron designed for us was either one that he was previously familiar with, or that he perhaps had read about and simply wanted to try. As you’ve probably guessed already, yep, Ron was an avid backpacker and outdoorsman among his other talents, which worked out pretty well for us. The level of expertise he would lend to our little expedition made all the difference in the world.

The Route
Yosemite is a pretty big place, with lots to see and hundreds of potential backpacking trails and routes. The primary place that the tourists and campers flock to is of course, picturesque Yosemite Valley. From there, the most famous and prominent of the park’s geological monuments and features can be seen and enjoyed. The Valley view is a 360-degree panorama of utter majesty. However the presence of all those people and their cars, Winnebagos and other camping vehicles go a long way toward spoiling the wonder. The course we would follow took us away from all that. We would start and end our trek in the Valley, but in-between, take the path less-traveled, without boom boxes or portable electric generators to spoil the experience.

I kept no diary, and like the nimrod I am, I made no notes as to specific dates on any of the pictures. So with the exception of knowing that we went in August (because that’s what I had written on the box of slides that these photos came from), I’m working here completely from the combined recollections of Michelle and myself (there is actually one other indicator as to indicate more precisely when in August we made the trip, but I’ll save that little tidbit for later).

However, there’s always the Internet. And fortunately there are a lot of people who are so enchanted with Yosemite that they too want to share it with the world. So through gathering information from web sites and photos other people have taken and written about, I’ve pieced together what info was missing from my aging brain, to illustrate our trail path. As I did before, I will indicate which photos are not mine.

Oh look…here are a couple now…

Here is a map detailing our daily progress, beginning at Tuolumne Meadows on the second day after spending the first night at the backpacker's campground in Yosemite Valley. (Click to view at a larger size)

I present this borrowed image only to provide a unique point of view that would have been impossible for me to capture myself. In this shot, taken from Glacier Point on the south side of the Valley, you’re looking at Half Dome (right) and Cloud’s Rest (left-center) from exactly the opposite direction of our backpacking trip. Tuolemne Meadows, our trail head, is approximately 20 miles north northeast of this vantage point.

Checking in
I remember being excited going into this adventure, having been camping in various parts of Yosemite on three previous occasions. But I had really had no idea what lay ahead.

The six-hour drive from Long Beach placed us in the Valley at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, as I recall. We parked our two cars in the assigned visitor’s overnight lot specifically for backpackers and campers. It was adjacent to the small ‘backpacker’s campground’ area that would be our initial accommodations for the first night.

Once we got all of our wilderness permit paperwork verified at the Park offices we unloaded our gear and pitched camp. The Valley would be both the starting and ending point of the 28-mile trek that was to be our weeklong Yosemite adventure.

Bright and early the next morning, the cars would stay, but we would catch the shuttle bus that periodically makes the 90-minute transport from the Valley to Tuolemne Meadows via Tioga Road, which bisects Yosemite National Park diagonally from southwest to northeast.

As the sun began to sink behind the western Valley wall, the temperature quickly began to drop as well. Even though daytime temperatures can be quite high in the Valley, the nights are brisk year-round, with August being the warmest at an average low of 53 degrees Fahrenheit. That campfire was sure gonna feel good!

Pitching our little two-person dome tent, I felt energized and alive. “How lucky I am,” I thought, “to be right here, right now.” I could tell that Michelle felt the same way. As it turned out, I got even luckier later that evening…!

Sleep was sweet that night, as billions of radiant stars kept watch over the Valley. Tomorrow I would need that rest, as I would discover negotiating Yosemite’s back country to be both more strenuous — and glorious — then I had imagined.

Next: The Ground Rules

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Yosemite Psalm (Prologue)

Purple mountain’s majesty
Like most kids born in the flat terrain of the Midwest, I didn’t have a lot of experience with molehills, let alone mountains. I certainly had no concept of the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. Sure, it was a name that I heard in school on occasion, and I’m sure I saw plenty of pictures of mountains in books and on post cards, and images of their splendor on TV. But none of it totally registered. Nothing like that ever really does until you experience it first-hand.

When we moved to California in 1969, I saw the mountains for the first time at age 13. I was awestruck at just the sight of the local San Bernardino range, which on a clear day magically appeared upon the eastern horizon from my home in Long Beach. On most days the mountains are completely obscured by the smog of the LA Basin. But occasionally, most often during the winter months, after a rainstorm or a period of high barometric pressure, the smog would subside for a day or two — sometimes as long as a week — and the often snow-capped ‘San Berdoo’ Mountains would tease us with a brief peep show, revealing their hidden beauty. In the years that I grew up in SoCal, I always looked forward to winter specifically for that reason — to see the mountains off in the distance. It was such a surreal sight for me, adding to the already ‘wonderland’ mystique of my new homeland. There never seemed to be an end to the newness of my California environs, and I’m happy to say, that feeling has never left me, which is the main reason I’ll never tire of returning to visit The Golden State.

One such visit that I hope will come, if not next Summer then soon thereafter, is a return to that most magical of all places for me in the mountains of California, Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is the subject of this story and has continually been the subject of my longing over the past 23 years; a longing to retrace a trip in which Michelle and I, along with another couple, backpacked 25 miles through breathtakingly beautiful wilderness via the John Muir Trail for one glorious week in August of 1981. It wasn’t my first trip there, but it was my longest and most recent. It is a place I vowed to return to one day with my children, before my children were even born. But while I realized that trip would necessarily be many years off into the future, I never figured that this much time would elapse before it came to pass.

This is probably the quintessential view of Yosemite Valley, seen as you enter the park from the Southwest. That's El Capitan on the left, and in the distant right-center of this magnificent vista stands the sentinel of the Valley, Half Dome. This series will feature a lot of pictures, most of which I took. This however, is NOT one of them.

Let’s get readeee ta’ stumble!
Let’s be honest. I’m not your typical goal-oriented guy, as my wife will quickly attest. But to return to Yosemite as a family and retrace that 1981 backpacking trip is one very tangible goal that I’ve had for years, and it’s never faded.

But the longer we wait the harder it will obviously be for the old folks. Due to the terrain, this is no easy jaunt. There’s an awful lot of uphill-downhill hiking along the John Muir Trail from Toulemne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. It would be no problem for my son, who next summer will be near the same age that I was in 1981, and is probably just as fit. He’s been a rock climber since he was fifteen and I’m sure he would salivate at the idea of doing it, provided of course that he could lead. My daughter on the other hand is no couch potato, but would probably not be in shape to make the trip if we were leaving today. But I’m sure she could get it together in time to be ready for next summer. I hope to make the reservations soon after the first of the year. There are just so many things hinging upon our ability to pull it off in 2005.

As for Michelle and me, with apologies to Michael Buffer, we are certainly not "ready to rumble" as of the moment ourselves. However I’m confident we could be, given a few months of training next spring.

But that’s so next year.

What I want to talk about now is twenty-three years ago, in a place whose name is based on the local Indian word for Grizzly Bear; the place where the earth and the sky collide with your soul.

It’s a place as holy and filled with God’s glory as any cathedral ever built with human hands; a place whose mighty and ancient monuments of granite remind me of how small and transitory a creature man is by comparison.

It’s a place that fills my mind with the music of wind rushing through the trees, water flowing through winding streams, and birds calling out nature’s song: a Yosemite Psalm.

Next: Ron

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Doo, doo, doo, Lookin' out my back door…
(Part II)

More Pics
Another few images from the archives. Again, these are just random shots I pulled out while collecting photos to be used in my next story series, coming possibly tomorrow, but most likely Thursday. Please forgive me for a few minutes while I wax nostalgic...

Click on the photos to view them at a larger size.

Michelle, my belle
This shot is pure self-indulgence for me. This picture literally makes me melt every time I look at it. How could anyone not fall in love with that face? This was taken at a back yard barbecue at the in-laws house in SoCal, sometime late in the summer of 1980, about a year and a half after we were married. I know this because the set of pictures it came from included several in which I had been testing out my new Canon AE-1 camera that Michelle had gotten me for my birthday that year.

This is quite possibly the quintessential shot of Michelle in my mind. The smile that could launch a thousand ships; those funky large-lens glasses that were so popular back then; and her wonderful signature, that gorgeous head of wild, curly hair. Her Dad, a big Southern bear of a man, who always seemed to love to playfully antagonize her back then, hated the hairstyle. His infamous line about her hair was that it reminded him of "the north end of a south-bound poodle."

The dress she's wearing is also a hallmark of her look in those years. It's a full-length white cotton Mexican peasant-type dress, with colorfully embroidered flowers across the bodice and shoulders. She had gotten it in Tijuana not long before I met her. She loved that dress and I loved looking at her wearing it.

There was just something so comfortable about the juxtaposition of the post-hippy-to-new wave fashion of the late-70s and early 80s. It is roundly belittled now, but at least it wasn't boring. The latitude of contrasting styles back then made it relatively easy to have one’s own "look" without necessarily looking like a freak. I suppose everyone naturally gravitates toward the norms of the time in life when in which they felt their youngest and most alive. And even though I feel pretty good about who I am today, I have to admit, the late 70s-early 80s were indeed my time — and always will be.

Jack’s Wedding
The year 1979 was an important one in my family. Amongst my four brothers and me, three of us got married that year, including myself. My wedding was in March, eldest brother Jack followed in April, and youngest brother, Lbro, in August. We all celebrated our respective 25th wedding anniversaries this year.

left to right: Jack, David, TK, AJ, and Lbro

What a great moment that was! This was the only time in our adult lives that all five of us would spend any concentrated time together, completely intact physically. David, who was 30 years old at the time of this photo, would begin displaying symptoms of Alzheimer's disease a little less than nine years later.

Big D
Finally, speaking of my big bro, a little more than ten years later, August 1989, we had our momentous family reunion in Telluride, Colorado.

This is the lasting image I have of David. Still lucid for the most part, but beginning to have problems, and trying so very hard not to show it. This photo simultaneously warms and haunts me. The playfully carefree demeanor he displays is exactly who he was, yet in his eyes, the life was beginning to fade. I know I'm reading more into it than the photo actually shows, but for me, this one really captures his essence from that time.

The next big thing
Sorry for the tease, but there's lots more early 80s faire to come. My next story will be about one of the greatest experiences of my lifetime, and I can't wait to share it. There will be more pictures of bad fashion and hairstyles, so get ready to snicker (um...except for Snick, cuz she does that all the time anyway — I think it goes with the name...). Look for it Thursday morning.


Monday, October 18, 2004

Doo, doo, doo, Lookin' out my back door…
(Part I)

Photo Synthesis
As a few of you might know, I’ve been a little preoccupied with some other real-life matters lately, so my blog has suffered. I apologize for that on a number of fronts. However I am currently working on a new story that I'm really excited about. While I was pursuing the ol’ photo collection in order to find some images to include as visual aids for it, and I came across a number of images relating to some of my previous stories that I wanted to post, both for you and for myself.

My next series will be posted Wednesday or Thursday, after I get the photos (which were originally slides) back from the photo lab and scanned. In the meantime, here are some random shots from yesteryear. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Click on the photos to view them at a larger size.

Gymnastics, circa 1976-82
In the spring of 1976, during my sophomore year of college, my Long Beach City College Men’s Gymnastics Team captured its first National Junior College Championship; I was lucky enough to be the individual champion on Rings that year as well. Soon after we returned home, a photographer showed up at the gym to take some pictures. I'm not sure what they were used for as I never saw them in the newspaper, but I am awfully glad I was able to get a set of the prints. The following ones are of me, but there were a bunch of others featuring my teammates as well; five of them JC All-Americans, and most of whom would go on as I did, transferring to a four-year university to successfully exercise their remaining two or more seasons of NCAA gymnastics eligibility.

What an awesome team we had! And what a powerhouse program it was, run by Head Coach John Draghi — one of the most influential men in my life. After coming close and finishing 2nd as a team the previous year, this would be the first of six NJCAA Championships for LBCC over the next nine years. I think it’s pretty safe to say that ‘City’ was one of the great Men’s Collegiate Gymnastics dynasties of that or any era.

It was widely speculated by leading national publications at the time, that our ‘76 team was likely as good as any of the top five NCAA Division I schools overall that season. I cannot express the pride I feel to have been a part of such an awesome group of athletes.

The “Iron Cross”
Probably my favorite trick. I mean c'mon. We're talkin’ real fun right here. Need I say more?

The “German Uprise”
Next is my claim to gymnastics history, or so I’m told. It's a trick called a German Uprise, and I am reportedly the only person in history to have performed it the way I did on rings.

To describe it, you have to be familiar with a swing skill on rings that you may have seen on TV recently if you caught any of the Men’s Olympic Gymnastics coverage. A Giant Swing is when you bail forward from a handstand, swing through the bottom, circling back up to a handstand. Well the way I did my German Uprise was similar, except that instead of swinging around, with the rings out in front of my shoulders, a ‘German Rise’ is done by letting the rings go behind the shoulders, allowing the rest of your body to swing through and slingshot back up to a support, or "L" position.

In the picture below, I'm swinging through the bottom on my way back up to holding an "L" above the rings. Think of it like bungee jumping without the bungee. Better yet, think of it like bungee jumping — with your shoulder sockets being the bungee...

It was always my "big" trick; one that nobody else did at the time, or even could do. And according to what I've been told (by the man who is currently the director for the US Men's Gymnastics program, another former teammate (from Long Beach State), Yoichi Tomita), I was the first and am still the only one (as of this posting) who has ever performed the skill from a handstand in the United States and perhaps even the world.

Above is another competition pic from the UCLA Bruin Classic Invitational of 1980. You can see the position of the arms a bit better here. By this time I was already finished with my collegiate eligibility and was competing in three or four open meets a year, just for fun. All of those annual meets are long gone now, as are most of the Men's and Boys gymnastics programs in high schools and universities throughout the country.

The “Double-Pike”
My dismount, while tame by today's standards, was still an elite dismount at the time, and another one of my best tricks, a double back somersault in the piked position (i.e: piked, meaning, with the knees straight). I loved doing doubles. It was truly something I could do in my sleep. It's also something that I would like to be able to do again. But that may be wishing a bit too much.

This is the first flip...(one look at my hair, and you can understand why they called me "Wolfman" after I got through doing a few of these things...)

...And the second, coming in for the landing.

The Last First
Following my two years at ‘City’, I went on to compete my last two years and (eventually) graduate from Long Beach State University. My first season there in 1977 was cut short by injury (a broken back), but I was able to come back for my senior year and made it to the NCAA Individual Finals.

I was always sort of proud of the fact that the last first place I ever took in a gymnastics competition was the final one ever to be hosted by my alma mater. The Long Beach Invitational was one of the longest-standing men’s invitational gymnastics meets in Southern California. In 1982, I was finally graduating after having taken an extra four years to get the job done, due to gymnastics having dominated so much of my effort and concentration during the first four.

At that point I was still working out with the team three times a week, so I was still in pretty good shape.

In the meet hit one of my best routines ever and earned the highest score of my career with a 9.65. The following year they dropped the Men's Gymnastics programs throughout the UC and Cal State University systems. Men's gymnastics became a club sport, and remains one today.

I continued to compete occasionally for the next four years, finally ending my competing days with a third-place finish in the Santa Monica Gymfest on Labor Day of 1986, a little more than a month after my 30th birthday.

Dang. Couldn't find that picture...

Next: More pics...

Monday, October 11, 2004

Life imitates Art
…or is it the other way around? (Part II)

The truth comes out
For me, the turning point of the play was when Serge responded sarcastically to Marc’s assertion that he “didn’t have the right” to have such an opinion about the white painting.

(Partially paraphrasing…)
“Oh, I was unaware of the extent to which you own me, Serge smirked.
“Of course I own you,” Marc asserted. “Friends need to be chaperoned, otherwise they'll get away...”

Marc went on to explain (again paraphrasing) that he simply could not abide the fact that his friend, the one whose purpose was to validate his own existence, could possibly turn to an ideal so foreign, so opposite of the sensibilities that he had. It was clear that Marc considered the gift of individuality to be granted only to himself. If his friends exerted opposing sensibilities, it would be simply unacceptable. He would not allow his world to be compromised in this way.

He wasn’t smiling when he said it. The audience grows silent. Somehow the joke is no longer funny. Suddenly the viewer is forced to form an opinion. Does Marc "have the right" to feel this way about his friend’s choices? Laughing off such overt self-centeredness was no longer an option. This wasn’t George Costanza asserting that he has “hand” in the relationship. This was a moment of abject frustration, forcing Marc to be frighteningly honest, revealing a sad side of human nature that we all should guard against falling prey to.

According to my personal observation, the number one target of Seinfeld’s satirical bow is the self-absorbed, mercenary nature of modern society. How often is our attitude based on “what’s in it for me?” instead of doing something for someone without outward reward or recognition?

How often do we join Marc in assuming that our friends “have no right” to change, grow and/or pursue interests which differ from our own?

Marc is so ridiculously mercenary in his opinion of Serge’s position about what is important to Serge, that it actually is comical — and sad. The question is how close to home does it hit?

Still too close for comfort
So how does this relate to my previous friendship-related stories? When I first decided to write about the play, I thought it interesting in terms of how much differently it posed the concept of friendship than what I’d just again experienced in re-connecting with my old friends in California. The unassuming nature of Bee, the always unsolicited random acts encouragement from Cindy. These relationships, I thought at first, are miles from the petty, controlling calculations revealed by Marc. What a wonderful foil with which to talk about how wonderful my friendships are. Once again, "Geeze Louise, I’m glad I’m not like that guy!"

Yet upon reflection of the play and thinking about how to describe it, more and more I was reminded how many times I have in my heart of hearts thought and responded so much like Marc.

I thought about the way I felt toward my friend Skeez, in the wake of our friendship’s all but complete atrophy in the years soon after he got married. How dare he suddenly not have time to hang out with me? Even more, how dare his wife restrict my access to the friend who was my constant companion for years before she even knew he existed?

And that wasn’t the only time I’ve been stupid enough to have those kind of petty thoughts. There have been times even recently that I’ve caught myself feeling jealous and hurt about friendships that inexplicably die off, regardless of my attempts to revive them.

The fact of the matter is that people and their circumstances change. Sometimes they take you along, and sometimes they don’t. Most of the time it’s nobody’s fault. It just “is.” Unfortunately I don’t always want to accept that.

Am I the only one who is that shallow? I certainly hope not — not that I’m looking for company, mind you. I’d really just like to forget that such a notion has ever existed in my head. I’d much prefer that the person I try so hard to portray on the outside is always the same inside, instead of the selfish, bitter self-serving twerp that still rears his ugly head from time-to-time, just beneath the surface.

But sometimes I do need to be reminded that he still exists.

And sometimes opportunities to peel the onion* a few layers deeper show up when you least expect them.

The climax of Art, interestingly enough is a happy one. Marc’s indignation is assuaged by Serge via a somewhat symbolic, yet meaningful gesture. The true tragedy in my opinion is that the wrong person acquiesced. Sure, we’ve all known a few “Marc’s” in our lives, and we also know that most of the time they’ll never allow themselves to be so introspective to be able, let alone willing to see their own shortcomings. So sometimes you just have to take the good with the bad and be the "bigger person."

But I think the most important thing I was reminded of is that I can’t worry about trying to make other people change — I can only strive to be honest with myself — and always be the best that I can be.

And that is an art unto itself


*Peel the onion is a registered catch phrase of Inanna.
©2004. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Life imitates Art
…or is it the other way around? (Part I)

Mixed bag
After a month-long series of posts centering mainly on the subject of friendship, I was rather in the mood to talk about something completely different, but life seems to be unwilling to allow me to move away from the subject. Things keep pointing me in the direction of pondering the gifts and the curses associated with the establishing and maintaining the relationships that add to the enjoyment and meaning of our lives on this planet.

A week ago last Saturday I had yet another moving experience that I initially received as one thing, yet upon delving deeper and searching my own heart about it, determined that the message said something else entirely different. The whole experience really gave me pause.

I’ve been sitting on this story for several days now, partially because of the shaking that I received from my little wakeup call. I took my first intentional weekend off from blogging and writing in general since beginning my new obsession nearly six months ago. It was good to get away from it for a bit, although I’m eager to get back into writing now. However from here I’m not quite sure which direction my blog will be taking in the short term.

But for now, this post will cover a number of topics, based upon a single subject, my daughter's play. This post will be nothing like I had originally planned when I began thinking of writing it over a week ago. However it was originally intended to be a tribute to my daughter Amy, and still will be. The difference is that her involvement in the events of this story have done a lot more than just making me a proud Poppa.

Cue me in, willya?
A week ago last Saturday Michelle and I traveled to Chattanooga, TN to have dinner with and attend the latest UTC Theater production with which Amy is involved. This would be her first major involvement in stage managing a play in college, and the first play we’d seen in which she was not an actor.

She has said ever since getting her first experience as a director’s assistant in her freshman year of high school that she enjoys the behind-the-scenes working of theater nearly as much as acting itself. I would be neither disappointed nor surprised if she ended up pursuing stage management or directing as her primary focus in the future. She is a tireless worker and obviously has the respect of all her peers in the department.

Until we got down there and spent some time talking with her, I never really knew much about what a stage manager did. I assumed it was someone who simply kept things moving behind the scenes and assisted the director.

Wrong, greasepaint-breath!

That which the title connotes is in fact the job description. The stage manager is the director during the play, communicating with the actors, as well as the sound, lighting and props personnel, and delivering them cues as to when to perform their functions. Amy explained that the actual Director of a play does all of their work prior to the production’s opening, and oftentimes, in professional theater settings, doesn’t even stick around beyond opening night. It is the stage manager’s task to take the feel and design the director creates for the production in pre-opening rehearsals, and put them into action during the actual performances of the play’s engagement.

So in other words, Amy was The Man for this play. And she did a phenomenal job.

The production was French playwright Yazmina Reza’s multiple award-winning Art, which in addition to garnering numerous European theatrical awards, in the U.S. won the Tony Award for Best Play of 1998. Being the theater maven that I’m not, I of course had never heard of it.

The play was very funny, uproariously so in some parts. It was a 90-minute, single act performance with only three actors and not more than three or four set changes. The minimalist set was altered only slightly to indicate a change in locale, usually with the switching out of a picture via a revolving panel on the main wall. So the effect of the subtle lighting and prop changes were very important in reflecting the shifts in mood and focus as well as delivering the impression that the scene has changed to another location. There are frequent points throughout the play in which the actors speak their thoughts directly to the audience beneath a spotlight. Amy’s crew appeared to be "spot-on" in all of those transitions. I was thoroughly impressed and proud of her as always — that, I rather expected.

What I didn’t expect was the effect that the play would have on me.

Being completely unfamiliar with the production I went in with a completely open mind — and proceeded to get it completely blown.

Art is a play about its namesake, or so it seems, until about sixty minutes in. It is set in modern-day Paris and centers around three 40something men, who had been lifelong friends until a certain divisive element is brought into their midst — a four-by-five-foot white painting. The play is regarded as and has won many awards as a comedy — much to the chagrin of its author I would later find out.

It has been said that art is akin to pornography in that while it’s impossible to completely define, people are confident that they know it when they see it. Art is capable of sparking such emotions that it rightfully should be added to the popular saying, along with politics and religion as one of the things that shouldn’t be discussed at the dinner table.

In the setting of the play, the definition of what is a “work of art” and what is “a piece of shit” is merely the surface decoration for the real subject at hand: “what is friendship?” and the proper expectations thereof.

After having spoken to someone who actually saw the Broadway production, I really wish now that I could say the same. The three actors playing the lead roles of the Tony Award-winning production were Alan Alda (of the M*A*S*H TV series), Victor Garber (noted character actor of stage and screen) and Alfred Molina (who brilliantly portrayed the tortured “Dr. Octopus in the recent Spider-Man 2 movie). It must have been spectacular. But that's not to diminish the performance of the three young men in the UTC production. They performed their roles extremely well — a daunting task considering the sheer amount of rapid-fire dialogue and length of scenes in a 90-minute one-act play. However it was difficult to watch three boys my daughter’s age and believe that they were forty years of age. Still, the job the UT Chattanooga drama students from pulled off was brilliant, and provided a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the audience.

The plot revolves mostly around two of the three men, Serge and Marc. Their friend Yvan (pronounced Ee-vaughn), the stationery store clerk, is the least sophisticated of the group. His lovable buffoon offers no pretense of class or position. His meek demeanor and comical quirkiness is a perfect counterpunch to the highly charged white-collar testosterone being spewed between the story’s other two characters.

The conflict between Marc and Serge centers on a painting by the renowned modern artist “Atrios,” which Serge has proudly purchased for the not-so-modest sum of 200,000 Francs (about $40,000 U.S.).

Serge, a dermatologist and nouveau aesthete claims that the painting “resonates” with him. He is obviously pleased with himself in making such a bold statement about his enlightened sense of sophistication.

Marc is an aeronautical engineer, a practical, down to earth man. As a traditionalist and not necessarily a fan of modern art, he initially thinks the purchase is a joke. Upon learning that it is not, he is incensed and can’t believe that his friend could throw away so much money on “this white shit.”

Yvan is caught in the middle as each of his friends individually attempt to win him over to their point of view. To make matters worse (and infinitely more humorous), he injects his own emotional meltdown into the mix, fretting over the crisis between he and his fiancée’s feuding mothers (and stepmothers) who are arguing over the wording of the couple's wedding invitations.

The spirited dialogue between the three rightfully evokes a lot of laughter from the audience. Everything is over-the-top, which is what makes it so funny. However I found that I was no longer laughing once Marc revealed the true source of his distaste for Serge’s decision. It was at that point that the play became much more than a comedic romp, suddenly morphing into a poignant study in human behavior.

In the lion’s share of the play’s dialogue to that point, Serge and Marc had engaged in a largely circular argument about the painting’s merits or the lack thereof, punctuated by the lighthearted diversion of Yvan’s melodramatic pre-marital crisis. However near the end we find out what it is about this whole episode that has really bothered Marc. The answer presents a darker side of friendship that many of us are guilty of if we’re honest with ourselves (and if you’re never felt this way, you’re a better person than I). As soon as I recognized it, I knew I wanted to write about it. I also knew that I wanted to know more about the playwright.

Reza’n my awareness…
In doing some research on the play and its author, Yazmina Reza, I found a lot of reviewers comparing the pace and humor of Art to that of Seinfeld. And while I agree that the play has a comedic bite reminiscent of the TV show, I would strongly suggest that the playwright’s intent is far different.

Seinfeld is a farce, and we gladly recognize it as such — that’s why it’s so funny. Co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David took all the foibles of pop-culture young America and beautifully exaggerated them to excess in the characters of the show. It’s hilarious. Why? Because everything that Jerry, Kramer, George and Elaine think and react to is an attitude with which most of us can identify. And because they’re so exaggerated, we can laugh at the comedic value for its own sake. After all, “I might be bad, but at least I’m not that bad, right?”

However something tells me that Reza isn’t a big Seinfeld fan. I was glad to have discovered a lengthy interview from 2001 with the playwright by an entertainment columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian. The interview was conducted in light of Reza’s current play of that time, which followed Art by five or six years. The columnist seemed surprised, almost devastated by the dark, brooding Reza, who has more than once expressed that she was disconcerted by reviewers’ characterization of her work as purely comedic.

“My plays have always been described as comedy but I think they're tragedy. They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it's a new genre,” she explained in the interview.

“Why is Art a tragedy?” The interviewer asked.
"Because it is a break-up of a friendship, a rupture between people ... it's a heartbreaking play if you read it," Reza commented.

Now I am hopefully a long way from being a culture snob, but that statement didn’t surprise me a bit. I completely “got” that Art is ultimately a tragedy. That the majority of ten or so reviews I read completely missed that point is just as tragic; perhaps even more so.

Next: The truth comes out

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

LA Stories (Epilogue)

As I’ve mentioned previously, I made two trips to Southern California this past spring/summer. When I began planning for them, the one thing that was at the top of my list from the moment the determination was made to go, was to figure out a way to hear Brian Hughes while I was there.

Brian is a Jazz guitarist, and is one of my very favorites. His genre has undergone numerous changes in description over the years, morphing from what was originally called “Fusion” (i.e.: a fusion of jazz and rock styles), into “Smooth Jazz” to what is now being called simply, “C-Jazz” (the “C” standing for “contemporary”). Now lest any of you latent Jazz aficionados take me to task for comparing Fusion with Smooth Jazz, please allow me to note that I worked in the Jazz Music business for eight years and yes, I do know the difference. In the 70s when Fusion got its start with Weather Report, John Scofield and Pat Metheny, Fusion was “out there,” “experimental” and “fresh.” As more and more artists adopted it, if became less so as it became mainstream. By the 80s, it had lost the Fusion tag and gained the somewhat nebulous moniker of “Contemporary Jazz,” which covered everything from Metheny to Natalie Cole. Artists such as George Benson, Al Jareau, Kenny G, David Benoit and Yanni made Contemporary Jazz, “Pop” music for almost a decade. And while all are fabulously talented artists, that inevitable homogenization for the masses transformed what was originally a spirited, edgy genre into largely toothless, formulaic elevator music. And in picking up that tag it has now been all but eliminated from consideration for exposure on a national scale. Jazz radio stations are few and far between on the radio dial in most areas of the country. I had to subscribe to XM Radio just so I could hear it here in Nashville, where only a single weak college radio station plays any kind of Jazz as part of its regular format.

It’s a damn shame, because it was my favorite music by far, and still is. How ironic that I would be completely cut off from it by moving to “Music City.” This place is an absolute Jazz desert. There is some of it here in obscure, often expensive dinner clubs, but it’s neither as accessible as I would like, or am willing to hassle with.

My absolute fave artist is Pat Metheny. He is one of the pioneers of Fusion and he never sold out. He’s still making awesome music (and is touring at the beginning of next year — I can’t wait!). So where does Brian Hughes come in? He’s a Metheny clone.

Now I don’t say that to cast any aspersions on Hughes’ talent or originality, because the guy is an ace. But his style is rife with unmistakable Metheny influences, and although the purists don’t like it, that’s what I love the most about him.

Brian Hughes is a Canadian native. When I worked for the record company, we signed a license agreement with his original Canadian record label to promote and market his only previous album in the US, which I worked on and immediately fell in love with. Unfortunately I left the company and moved to Nashville just before his second release, which also included a US tour. I never got to meet him but apparently he knew who I was, as I would learn several years later. In 2001 I discovered his web site and e-mailed him telling him how much I enjoyed his work. He responded saying that he did indeed remember my name in association with the work I had done on that first release.

It was during those exchanges that I discovered that he had moved from Toronto to SoCal, and did a monthly gig in Seal Beach, about five miles from where I used to live. I was determined that some day when I was in California, I would go hear him play and finally get a chance to meet him.

I really wanted to do it on the first trip Michelle and I made this past May, but he wasn’t playing during the time of the month we were there. So I thought I’d get the opportunity to “catch him on the flip-flop” when I returned in August. I saw from his web site that he was indeed going to be playing locally while I was there. But of course, as my luck would have it, it was the same night as my reunion.

So I determined that I would set aside the desire I had to see Brian Hughes. There could be other opportunities to see him in the future. There would only be one 30-Year Reunion. But I decided that I would leave the door open to maybe sneak out a little early and catch the tail end of his set, which was scheduled to run until midnight Saturday night.

As I said at the beginning of the Reunion story, I really wasn’t going back to see particular people. If Timmy and Laurie hadn’t been there, I’m sure I would have been disappointed, but the evening certainly wouldn’t have been a total loss. I was going back to recapture a feeling; the feeling I had walking across the grassy “quad” on a bright autumn day. The feeling of seeing passersby recognize me and smile; the feeling of belonging that my high school experience gave me. All I really needed was the crowd. What I got was actually much more. I can’t say that I’ve ever really “owned” a room before — that’s just not my personality (nor would I want it to be) — but that night I think I was close.

As things were already starting to wind down after 11:00, I knew I could stay another hour or two and still have people to talk to, but I decided I’d done what I wanted to do. The only people I wanted to see but didn’t, were a few who didn’t show up at all. I figured I still had an opportunity to make this night of personal joy and satisfaction complete. So I headed off to Seal Beach, to try and catch the end of Brian’s show at the Italian restaurant where he was playing.

I don’t think I hit more than two red lights the entire way.

As I got out of my car, I could hear that unmistakable sound wafting out to greet me in the parking lot. I walked into the restaurant’s bar area and on the far side of the room, on a small stage set up in the corner, Brian and his other four band members were jamming. The room was packed. I scanned around I couldn’t believe when I spotted a solitary, vacant table in the corner. It was about five feet from the stage. I briskly side-stepped through the room and seized my prize perch. There might as well have been a placard on it that said, “Reserved for AJ” — that’s how perfect it was.

I glanced at my watch, it said 11:48. I figured I’d arrived in time to take in two more songs, maybe three. From several feet away, a waitress smiled in my direction, I nodded. She came over and leaned in as I ordered a beer. Before I knew it she was back, and I just sat back and let the music have its way with me. Brian was jamming, his band, all of whom were extremely tight, were doing their thing, and I was in paradise. All I would have needed at that point were beaded cornrows and a pair of wrap-around shades to pass myself off as a white Stevie Wonder. I was smiling, with my eyes closed, swaying to the sound. Man, I can’t even describe how good I felt at that very moment.

The ride to paradise was a relatively short one, but it sure was sweet.

Following Brian’s final song and fittingly, my favorite of all his tunes, “…And Dreaming,” I went up and introduced myself to him. We talked for about a minute and then I shook his hand and headed for the door. Before leaving the building I decided it appropriate to answer’s nature’s call, with the restrooms just adjacent to the bar’s entrance, which was also right off the restaurant’s main foyer.

When I came out I noticed that right next to the door, Brian had a table set up offering his CDs and other merchandise for sale. Standing behind the table was a very pretty petite blonde woman. It suddenly dawned on me who she was. It was Pamela, Brian’s wife and promotions manager. I had corresponded via e-mail with both she and Brian off and on since discovering their web site back in 2001. I extended my hand and said, “Are you the lovely Pamela?” Her eyes grew wide as, looking a little embarrassed she responded, “Yes I am! Hi! And you are…?”
“AJ…from Nashville. I used to work for the Record Company. I had e-mailed you guys about my coming out for my class reunion, and I was hoping to get the chance to come see Brian. Unfortunately it was tonight as well, but at least I got here in time to catch the end of his set.”

OH, AJ!” Pamela said excitedly as she made the connection. “I remember you e-mailing Brian! Did you want to buy a CD so he can sign it for you?”

I let out a mild groan as I glanced down at the hand-written card that read, “All CDs, $15.00,” and said, “I only have a ten.”
“Hey, I tell ya what,” she said in a friendly tone. “The guy who just walked out the door gave me a twenty, and he didn’t want his change. That'll do!”
“Great,” I said. “…Are you sure?”
“Absolutely!” Pamela smiled as I happily forked over the bill.

She handed me a silver metallic paint pen, and pointed to her left. “He’s standing right over there,” a fact to which I had been completely oblivious.
“Thanks so much!” I smiled.

Another fan was just finishing his conversation with Brian as I walked up. “Man I just want to say how great it is to finally meet you,” I said.
“Same here, AJ,” he smiled as he looked down to autograph his new CD for me. It was then that I received another in the already generous helping of sugarplums for the psyche that evening. I realized that as we were standing there talking, I was looking at him eye-to-eye.

Whoa! Dude’s a shorty just like me! Now THAT’S serendipity, bay-bee!

We talked about his recurring schedule of dates there at the restaurant in Seal Beach. “It’s not set in cement, but I don’t expect it to change anytime soon. This is a real good venue for us. Like playing here,” he said.
“Then I definitely will see you again sometime soon,” I said, smiling.
I shook his hand, waved to Pamela and headed out the door. Only now, I was certainly taller than Brian Hughes by at least a couple inches…

What a fitting end to a spectacular night. The fusion of a night of good friends, and great music had solidified this day in my mind forever.

This has been a lengthy, but extremely fun series for me. I’ve taken the liberty to allow myself diversions in between these parts to really search through the events of my recent weeklong trip to California, and hold up even seemingly insignificant things to the light of personal scrutiny. That, as if you hadn’t guessed, is my bent. Thanks to all of you who endure and even enjoy that about my blog.

And again, the questions I mentioned at the beginning? Those are easy to answer now.
Who am I really? A really happy guy.
Where do I stand amongst my peers? In a position high enough to be recognized, but low enough to keep the pressure from robbing me of my joy.
What does that standing mean, and why? Only that I’m free to be the one person I’ve always wanted to be…ME. Why? Because that’s all that really matters.


Tuesday, October 05, 2004

LA Stories (Part X)

Redux (continued)
When planning my trip to California, I arranged my schedule so that my 30-Year High School Class Reunion was at the end of the week. It would be the crowning event of my trip, and I anticipated having a great time to wrap up my weeklong vacation.

Ten years ago I didn’t know what to expect. My 20-Year Reunion was a whirlwind that completely took me by surprise. Of course I had looked forward to it as well, but didn’t realize how much people would have changed; how much more accepting and mature they would be. I half-expected the “soches” to still be “soches,” rather than mature adults, genuinely happy to see everyone, not merely just the friends they hung around with.

I couldn’t believe the reception I got back then. People who I hardly knew and/or who had never given me the time of day were gleefully approaching me to say how good it was to see me. And not only me, it seemed that most everyone was being receiving equally well by all, regardless of the social “caste” they were in back in school. Of course most people gravitated towards those they were the closest to, but I was careful to note that the wallflowers were few and far between. Most of them appeared to be the spouses of my classmates who rightfully wished they were back at the hotel watching TV.

The theme of the 20 seemed to be all about displaying success. The sheer volume of the number of people who brought their wives or husbands resulted in a huge turnout. From a graduating class of over 900, I would guess the attendance conservatively at around 400-500. Everyone was dressed to a tee. No need for cosmetic surgery at that point, although some of the guys were already well into losing their hair; today’s advancements in hair-replacement surgery might have served them well. At the time I felt as though I held my own with most of the men. Now at the 30-Year Reunion, I would come to find that fortunately I was still at the front of the pack, according to my peers.

Latter first impressions
I was running a few minutes late when I pulled into the parking garage of the Westin Hotel on scenic Ocean Avenue in Downtown Long Beach. I was nervous in anticipation and unable to shake the nagging fear that in neglecting to double-check my invitation (which I had also neglected to bring with me), I may have gotten mixed up on the name of the hotel. It was the Westin, wasn’t it? Or was it the Hilton further down the street? Already heading down the parking ramp, there was no time to rethink. I was committed to find out.

As I took the elevator from the subterranean parking garage up to the lobby, I realized that I had no idea where the hell I was going. I found myself looking around for someone to ask when I realized the tall man in an expensive-looking suit, who had been standing beside me in the elevator, was doing the same thing. Then I recognized him as if he’d just taken off a mask. He was a former member of the basketball team, a jock who I knew only as a fellow passerby on campus or in the locker room. He didn’t remember my name and I didn’t remember his, but we both smiled broadly when we realized that we knew each other’s faces.

“You looking for the Reunion too?” I asked. “Yes I am,” he said nodding.

I spotted the concierge desk and we walked over to ask for directions. The attendant told us the reception was on the third floor and pointed us toward the escalator that would take us there. As we stepped into the escalator the tall man turned and said, “You were on the gymnastics team right?”
“Yep,” I grinned. “And I remember you from basketball, right?”
“That’s right — man, you don’t look like you’ve changed a bit,” he answered.

We continued to make small talk until we reached the top of the second escalator and began to hear the buzz of conversation coming from the reception area where our group’s cocktail hour was already underway. We wished each other well and individually dispersed into the crowd. This guy I had been talking to is a prime example of someone who would have never even stopped to talk to me 30 years earlier, regardless of whether he knew who I was or not. And just as I had experienced at the 20-Year Reunion, I was again reminded that time does change people. We all do eventually grow up in more ways than one. That surprising warmth I had experienced then carried me along for ten years in anticipation of more of the same. Now the time had come, and I wasn’t disappointed. Only this time it was even better.

Mr. Stillthesame
As I approached the reception area I stopped to register at the table that was set up out front, displaying name badges and the free commemorative “Memory Books” that had the names and addresses of all registered attendees. Of course the deluxe version, with the professionally photographed pictures and candid shots from the evening’s festivities (the one everyone really wants), was $30 bucks, and would have to be paid for separately.

As I was affixing to my shirt the name badge (which also bore my senior yearbook picture), I looked up to see Joan and Rick standing just a few feet away. They were both members of the Reunion Committee, and had been instrumental in making this event happen. Their eyes grew big as they approached and greeted me with hugs and handshakes. I don’t believe they were “together,” but just happened to be talking when I had walked up. With the Olympics having just concluded (Closing Ceremonies were going on that very evening), the Paul Hamm gold medal controversy was fresh on everyone’s minds. Rick immediately asked my opinion of it, and he wouldn’t be the last one. At least a half dozen people that evening would later tell me that they thought of me when all that mess was going on, wondering what I thought about it. I have to admit that really made me smile.

Rick and I had a long history. We went to separate schools during our junior high years yet often saw each other at a centrally located neighborhood city park that we both frequented, playing pick-up basketball, baseball or just hanging out. Rick was kind of a hybrid surfer-tough guy back in those days, and I remember well how he used to make fun of my size. He never picked on me physically, but I was always uneasy when he and his friends would come around.

Later on in high school, Rick went on to play football and became a fairly well known social jock on campus. As my star began to rise in gymnastics, he suddenly began to recognize me as a peer. His was a friendship that grew as much as with anyone I knew from that social strata, and I had always felt pretty good about it.

Joan, on the other hand, was a former cheerleader, and the primary organizer of both the 20 and 30-Year Reunions. In high school she was an unattainable beauty and was still stunning 30 years later. Although I can’t remember ever having more than just a “hi” conversation with her back in the day, I would get to know her years later. In the spring of 1994 when the 20-Year Reunion was being organized, I learned that she was taking the lead as the point person for the event. I contacted her for details and offered my services to design the cover for the “Memory Book,” which she enthusiastically accepted. So my friendship with her was completely generated via the class reunions.

Joan was the emcee for this evening and would later do her duty to embarrass me in front of the entire crowd.

After the cocktail hour, we were led into the adjoining dining room for a decent, but predictably unspectacular banquet dinner. At my table was one person I only knew by face, a few I didn’t know (or recognize) at all, and flanking me, two that I knew very well (and was quite relieved to see that they showed up). Timmy was a fellow former gymnast (one of only two other former teammates who came), and Laurie, with her new hubby, was kind of our unofficial gymnastics team manager. She was always around during practices and never missed a gym meet. She and Tim had become best friends over the years and had also come to the 20-Year Reunion together, although they’d never been romantically involved (to my knowledge anyway).

After dinner, Joan grabbed a mic and addressed the room. “Can I have your attention. Would the following people please come forward…” She called off three names. The last one was mine. Nervously I stepped to the front of the dance floor parquet at the front of the medium-sized dining room, wondering what the hell I had in common with the other two classmates, a man and a woman, — neither of whom I knew — although I did recognize the woman’s name, Penny.

Standing behind us, Joan announced, “It is the opinion of the Reunion Committee that these three people have changed the least since high school. And now we’re going to have a show of applause to determine who is officially “The Least Changed” person in our class.”

“Oh my gawd,” I thought. “I can not believe this.” It was a good thing I wasn’t wearing red, because I surely would have disappeared before their very eyes at that moment.

Joan stood behind the guy at the end of the row to my left. Cheers. Then she stepped behind Penny. More cheers — quite a few more in fact. Finally she stood behind me. Again, a lot of cheers, but I couldn’t really tell how many by comparison. To my relief, the winner was Penny! It was nice to be recognized, but to be voted better preserved than a cute, petite woman was one distinction that I really didn’t care to have. Later on, people would tell me that they thought I came in second. One guy joked that it was the gray hair in my goatee that held me back. “Damn,” I quipped. “I knew I should have brought my Grecian Formula 16.”

Tablemates: Right to Left, one of my former gymnastics teammates, Tim, yours truly, my good friend Laurie and her new hubby Fritz.

This is rugged-looking dood is Phil, an erstwhile local rocker who I’ve known since Junior High. He would later come on to help me coach our sons’ Little League baseball team back in 1991. We had a great season, finishing 2nd out of 25 teams in the city. Another really good guy.

The rest of the evening was a wonderful jumble of memories. While at the 20, everyone seemed to be determined to show how successful they were, the 30-Year Reunion took on a much more relaxed tone. It was almost as though we were all just glad to still be alive. The false aires seemed to be at a minimum, with several guys showing up in casual shirts and jeans. The atmosphere was relaxed, but the conversation was still filled with excitement. Everyone seemed to be as enthusiastic to talk with me as I was with them. I cavorted with all the old football jocks and they actually seemed glad to see me. I spent a few minutes with Dan, the other of my fellow gymnasts who attended, along with his wife. We exchanged photos of our families. I was dumbfounded by the images of his five daughters who all looked as if they were on their way to a Vogue photo shoot. There must be something in the water in Southern California.

Making a late appearance (and smartly skipping that ho-hum dinner cuisine), I was delighted to see Steve and Shirley, high school sweethearts, who were married a year after high school. Shirley was the one cheerleader that I always considered a good friend, even from before my entrée into “Jock Society.” She looked absolutely terrific, and when I told her so, she coyly quipped, “Yeah, it’s amazing what an augmentation can do for a girl.” I rolled. Her husband Steve, the captain of the football team, but as nice to me as any other jock had ever been, looked fantastic as well. This was Mr. and Mrs. King and Queen of the Reunion, and for me, it just wasn’t possible to do anything but marvel in their presence. This was a couple you just couldn’t help but like, and it just felt good to see them still so happy together.

Again, my primary reason for this second SoCal trip of 2004 was to attend this 30th High School Reunion. Here are a few of my former classmates who made the trip worthwhile. Most of these folks I have really only gotten to know well *after* high school when I started attending the reunions. Here the two folks to my right are now among my best ex-high school friends, Steve and his wife Shirley; the football god and his cheerleader girlfriend who got married right out of high school and have been going strong ever since — sort of an oddity for SoCal, but two of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet.

The fellow on the far left, Ted, was the most talented illustrator in my class. He was someone I was always envious of because I figured he would actually be the one who would go forth and make a living out of what *I* wanted to do. Today he has a successful construction company and I’m a web designer. Go figure.

And if the guy in the middle looks familiar, his twin brother is second from the left in the previous photo. They were both a couple of crazy mo-fo football players, and a helluva lot of fun to hang out with. That much at least hasn't changed about them.

I even received a casual flirting gesture from a woman named Ruth, who was one of the folks who sat at my table. It was one of those party conversation-type situations we’ve all experienced, in which you sort of roll off of one group of people and into another to begin a new conversation. Ruth and I were standing a few feet from each other involved in separate conversations. I looked over to see her now unoccupied and glancing in my direction. As she took one large sidestep toward me she said, “I…think I’ll stand over HERE…next to AJ…’cause he’s cute! I went on to tell her how fabulous she looked as well and we chatted for a minute or so and moved on. I’m not very used to getting complements like that, so it kinda made my night, and what a night it was.

You know, I’ve been writing this story kind of on the fly, with only a few mental bullet points as my outline. But the first half of this story that I posted yesterday has generated some comments that I want to non-specifically address here.

I fully understand that I am not in the majority when I say that my memories and experiences of high school were among the most special of my lifetime. I was thinking of this last night when I began to formulate the flow of my story. There’s is a reason that out of a graduating class of over 900, even 30 years later, that only 150 people would make the effort to attend this reunion. And I believe even that many showing up is a tribute to our school. And while there are certainly extenuating and discriminating factors that would preclude many from being able to attend, the fact of the matter is that there are probably more people whose high school experience was not as positive as was mine. If that is your story, I do not mean to rub my experience in your face. However I do think those who dismiss idea of going to a reunion because of the immaturity of the people they went to school with should consider one thing: People grow up — they really do. I saw it at my 20, and I saw even more of it at my 30. However I can only speak from my experience, and certainly not in absolutes

I recognize that my self-image, my station in life, and social experience has played a tremendous role in my perception of high school and the people I attended with, as it does everyone else’s. However if you’re one of those still hung up on how people acted towards you back then, I would challenge you to consider something. If you are not exactly the same person that you were in high school, why would you expect that others would be? If you have grown with your life experience, risen above your petty tendencies, and benefited from the maturity of years, wouldn't you assume that others have made the same discoveries? Think about it.

The cross-section of personalities and socio-economic types that gathered at my 30-Year Class reunion was as diverse as the day is long. Jocks, cheerleaders, geeks, ne’er-do-wells, cruisers, surfers, stoners and Jesus freaks all came together. The one demographic that seemed to be missing however was the losers — there just weren’t any. I really tried hard to find someone who looked like they weren’t having a good time, but I just couldn’t.

An early au revoir
As I made my way throughout the crowd, and said hello to everyone that I wanted to see, I had one eye on my watch — certainly not out of boredom — but due to a conflict in schedule that I was hoping to at least partially overcome.

At 11:15 PM, I reluctantly prodded myself to make my final good-byes. I found my way over to Joan, kissed her cheek and thanked her for again leading the wonderful effort in planning, arranging and hosting another very special class reunion. “Seeya at the 40” I smiled.

I gave a couple guys the high sign as I headed out the door. I had 35 minutes to get all the way across town for the grand finale to my magical evening.

Next: Fusion (Epilogue)