Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Beam me up, Scotty

Today's confession: I like to watch. I especially like to watch interesting people--people who are doing something unusual, something strange to me, something I don't do. Voyeurism of this kind reveals reality as absolutely subjective. It creates alternate realities. It allows me to live more than one life, "to live deeep and suck out all the marrow of life."

My main life revolves around the academia: that's where I do what people would call "work." This reality involves dressing appropriately and expressing oneself in a dignified, somewhat elevated language. It presupposes a rational progression of events and a rational and well-mannered behavior of those around me. It necessarily distances itself from the uncouth, the uneducated, the lewd, the immoral, and the unpredictable. In other words, this reality has a prescribed set of rules, mannerisms, and behaviors. It is a very pleasant, sheltered existence filled with wine and cheese. It plays out to the soundtrack of jazz and classical music.

But who doesn't like to listen to some Guns 'n Roses once in a while? Who doesn't secretly crave a leeeettle bit of chicken fried chicken and biscuits and gravy? Who doesn't enjoy an occasional "ain't" and "y'all" to roll off the tongue? All of the above--to me a rarity, an excess, a sort of a luxury--form the quotidian reality of other people. Although I always feel like a fraud, an intruder in that reality, I enjoy watching that life and pretending to be part of it. I like to feel through that alternate existence.

Attending a biker rally for me is like walking on the moon. It's like reading a book or, better yet, entering a virtual reality simulator. The people who attend biker rallies usually live lives completely different from my own. They dress differently and talk differently. They react differently to pain and pleasure. They have a different sense of humor. And most of all, they have stories to tell, stories that are a mere fiction to me. This fiction is their reality. I wrap myself in it and feel. And live another life. I become somebody else. This metamorphosis allows me to see the world through different eyes. The strangeness, the uncanniness of that experience is intensified by the sheer contrast to my own. It is intoxicating. It brings immense pleasure. It feels like a taste of chocolate for the first time, like a hot shower on a cold winter day, like the sound of thunder tearing through the silence of the night. I am Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy Ball.

It feels good to be bad once in a while. Entering simulation:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Breakfast of Champions

The summer morning beckens with sunshine and clear blue skies. Grandma and grandpa are finally gone. Iza is back. Woooo-hoooo! Today is just for the two of us! For breakfast we're baking a nectarine tart and drinking honey-sweetened iced tea to the beat of some fabulous summer tunes.

Nectarine Golden Cake
from Gourmet Magazine, September 2009

Serves 8

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
Rounded 1/4 tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, soft
3/4 cup plus 1/2 Tbs sugar, divided
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/8 tsp pure almond extract
2 nectarines, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg (use freshly grated nutmeg, please!)

Equipment: a 9-inch springform pan

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F with rack in middle. Lightly butter springform pan.

2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.

3. Beat butter and 3/4 cup sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in extracts. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined.

4. Spread batter evenly in pan, then scatter nectarines over top. Stir together nutmeg and remaining 1/2 Tbsp sugar and sprinkle over top. Bake until cake is golden-brown and top is firm but tender when lightly touched (cake will rise over fruit), 45 to 50 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Remove side of pan and cool to warm.

Delicious! But the best part was making it with Iza! Now we're off to Boondocks!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Harvard or Bust!

After a warm-up on Princeton two weeks ago, it was time to go to Harvard. Mt. Harvard is Colorado's third highest peak. The hike from North Cottonwood Trailhead is 13.5 miles long with 4,600 feet of elevation gain. Saturday, August 14th we packed up the Jeep and headed West towards Buena Vista. While we went to get some water and provisions at 7/11, Indiana, who stayed in the car, devoured our breakfast: two egg and bacon burritos we made that morning! That completed his meal plan for the day!

We left Denver around 6:30am and got to North Cottonwood Trailhead (serving Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia) at about 11am. After circling the completely full parking lot, we managed to squeeze the Jeep in between two pines up in the forest and headed towards the trail. The plan was to camp out in Horn Fork Basin just below the treeline, at about 11,500 feet, and try climbing both Harvard and Columbia the next day, breaking camp, and going home. The trail entered the Collegiate Peak Wilderness, so Indiana needed to be leashed all the time.

We knew we had plenty of time to get to our intended camping area. It was about 3.5 miles in and 1,700 feet up. The trail gently weaved through San Isabel National forest crossing creeks and sharing with us its cornucopia of wildflowers, mushrooms, and wild strawberries. At about 11,000 feet my pack was beginning to weigh heavily on me, and I started getting impatient about reaching our destination. The thick forest did not permit a single glance at the mountains we were about to conquer the next morning. We finally reached the point where the trail forked: Columbia to the right, Harvard straight ahead. We walked a few hundred feet towards Columbia and started setting up base camp.

The afternoon was absolutely gorgeous: blue skies, sunshine, slight breeze, and perfect temperatures. The mosquitoes must have been enjoying the day as much as we had because there were hoards of them everywhere. I did not bring bug spray, so we started a little campfire so the smoke could keep them away. The campfire kept the mosquitoes away and instead attracted a lone doe. She walked through our camp, about 8 feet from us, until Indiana spooked her. He probably thought she was a gigantic dog!

After a nice dinner and coffee, and filtering more water for Sunday morning (Note to self: purchase a Nalgene bottle with a standard opening), we sat around the campfire and watched the hikers coming down Columbia's steep slope. Every one of them was cursing the day he/she decided to go up that mountain. Columbia's slopes are covered with scree, which makes for an unpleasant journey (whether up or down): it takes a toll on your knees and ankles as you slide down with every step. My enthusiasm waned. Since we had no direct visual reference, we took out our topo maps and compass and went over the routes again. From our base camp, we had about 1.5 miles to the end of the basin. From then the trail got steeper. Once on the summit of Harvard, we would need to circle the basin either on the top of Rabbit Ears ridge between the two 14ers or drop down to the valley on the East side and come back up Columbia's steep North ridge. I wanted to traverse via Rabbit Ears ridge; however, the route called for some, what looked like, short pitches of class 5 climbing. Dropping down the valley, meant no easy way out in case of bad weather: we would be on the wrong side of the mountain. But we withheld our judgment until next morning. I suggested an early start to summit at sunrise, so we could have more options open, but my partner was not much interested in enduring the cold of the night (Note to self: find another partner... just kidding!).

After a pleasant, warm, quiet night, I woke up at 4am, snoozed for a while longer, and started bustling about making coffee and repacking for the hike. It was still dark and the mountains enveloping the basin made sure it stayed that way until about 6:30am. We started out around 6am still in relative darkness. Once the trees thinned out, we saw the entire basin drowned in a deep fog.

About mid-way up the basin, the fog started lifting, and we could see Mt. Yale to the West in Alpine glow.

We kept on walking, crossed a creek or two, and once the fog lifted the peak came into view. It was not much of a peak: indistinguishable, kind of flat looking, and about the same size as the other little piles of rock on top of that ridge. Very unimpressive in my book.

We walked North in the basin until we reached a talus field. From there, we started a steeper incline up. The trail was very pleasant and well-marked and offered astonishing views of the surrounding mountains. Mt. Yale to the East was flaunting his stunning slopes. Mt. Columbia, much more distinguished, was towering to the Northeast.

Whereas Mt. Harvard we couldn't even see from when we entered the talus: it was hidden behind a slope that eventually evened out to expose another little basin. Once we crossed the grassy basin, the trail became very steep. It wound its way up Mt. Harvard's Southern slope at a steady 30-45 degree angle. I felt my legs turning to jello. Breathing became progressively more difficult. I adopted snail pace.

I also stopped taking pictures. I was too tired. I felt defeated by the darn pile of rocks! By the time we got just below the summit, I was exhausted.

The final push, was a class 3 scramble. Indiana leaped his way up to the summit. And I? The final step took all I could offer--a high step up a little slab with a nice little undercling--and I made it! It must have been about 10:30am.

The summit was tight. We did not find a registry or a marker. I started wondering whether we were at the right summit. But then, the trail led right up to it, two guys were downclimbing from it, and it was the highest thing on the horizon. Sitting on top, I knew I couldn't push for the traverse. I was tired. I was low on water. The Rabbit Ear ridge looked a bit too much for the dog. It was already too late: it would take us another 4 hours to reach Columbia and then the descent did not offer any relief--in fact, quite the opposite. By the time we'd be back at camp, it would've been 4pm. If we could end it there, it would not have been too bad. But we still had to break camp, walk down with full packs, and drive over 3 hours home. Another day, Columbia!

After we ate our peanut butter Sweet & Salty Nut granola bars (Delicious! Note to self: buy more!), we started down. We reached the camp at about 1pm, packed up, ate some lunch, and headed down the trail. In consequence of some motivational songs about steak and beer, at 3:15pm we were back at the trailhead. I have conquered my 15th 14er. It was time to celebrate at the Coyote Cantina.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Present Regained

If Byron thought the present had no existence (see Present Lost), Shelley managed to regain the present, although briefly, through love. In one of his last poems composed in June 1822, a month before his untimely death, Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici Shelley manages to hold on to "a state of immediacy," as Bloom explains, so intense as "to remind the poet, momentarily, of the possibility of living again the present" (Bloom 351):

She left me, and I stayed alone
Thinking over every tone
Which, though silent to the ear,
The enchanted heart could hear,
Like notes which die when born, but still
Haunt the echoes of the hill;
And feeling ever--oh, too much!--
The soft vibration of her touch,
As if her gentle hand, even now,
Lightly trembled on my brow;
And thus, although she absent were,
Memory gave me all of her
That even Fancy dares to claim:--
Her presence had made weak and tame
All passions, and I lived alone
In the time which is our own;
The past and future were forgot,
As they had been, and would be, not. (15-32; my emphasis)

The time spent with the girl in love's sweet embrace made the past and the future disappear, and he was able to live only for the present moment. He forgot the past as if it never happened and did not anticipate the future. For the time being he was perfectly satisfied to live in a time, which belonged only to the two lovers--the present moment. For Byron's Manfred, there is no present; For Shelley, in a moment of blissful sexual passion between two lovers the present only exists. So Manfred, like the poet in Shelley's Alastor, is guilty of self-inflicted solitude that leads to a disintegration of immediate reality into what was and what is to come. For Shelley, the only way to remain in the present is to experience an intense emotional connection to another human being. Bloom quite aptly writes, "The man cut off from others and from his own true imagination is in hell, for the Romantic hell is neither other people nor oneself but the absence of relationship between the two" (Bloom 371-2).

Friday, August 6, 2010

Present Lost

The fact that in mythology Prometheus and Epimetheus represent the past and the future respectively with an obvious lack of the personification of the present points to the ephemerality of the present. The absence of the Titan of the present suggests that the ancients recognized this ephemerality or, even further, that they felt the present did not exist at all. Perhaps Lord Byron feared the same. Manfred in Byron's drama of the same title in his habitual optimism explains,

We are the fools of time and terror: Days
Steal on us and steal from us; yet we live,
Loathing our life, and dreading still to die.
In all the days of this detested yoke--
This heaving burthen, this accursed breath--
This vital weight upon the struggling heart,
Which sinks with sorrow, or beats quick with pain,
Or joy that ends in agony or faintness--
In all the days of past and future, for
In life there is no present, we can number
How few--how less than few--wherein the soul
Forbears to pant for death, and yet draws back
As from a stream in winter, though the chill
Be but a moment's. (II.ii.164-77; my emphasis)

The present does not exist: we have only the past and the future, and those days--of past experiences and possible experiences--are filled with suffering and sorrow. There are only a handful of days when the soul does not "pant for death," but we fear death and choose to live still. If Manfred sounds very existential here, it is because he is expressing similar sentiment as Hamlet or Macbeth and Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. Since the Epimethean error, man began to desire (see The Fall of Man). His desires are driven by the irrational, instinctual force--the Will, which is the underlying principle of human behavior. The Will is also responsible for man's inherent drive to live and reproduce. So this drawing back from death Manfred refers to is completely irrational but natural.

Where did the present go? I think what Byron wants to emphasize is precisely that phenomenological problem of the intangibility of the present moment. The present is like a knife's edge: the past and the future have some kind of a durationl; the present none. However, Byron does say, "In life there is no present."  Does he mean that there is a present in death? Before the Fall, man was outside of time. After the Fall, man has no present but lives in time. Is Byron suggesting that once we die we enter another realm where another temporal structure applies?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Imagining the Cure

If Time is Romanticism's disease, then Imagination is its cure. There are two agents that help Wordsworth retain memories, stay connected to the past: the first is Dorothy as he explains in Tintern Abbey and the other are "spots of time" as formulated in The Prelude. Through Dorothy he is able to see himself as he once was (see Romantic Epimetheus). The "spots of time" are particular but trivial episodes in one's life that are vividly remembered when triggered by a circumstantial return to the same place:

    There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A vivifying virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight
In trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired--
A virtue by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen. (XI.257-67)

A vivid memory surfaces in the consciousness of another episode from the same place but a different time. It's an experience of a sort of time warp, but, as Wordsworth explains later in the murderer incident, the memory of the initial episode is stripped of its emotive content that might have been attached to it when it first occurred. This memory brings pleasure and "lifts us up when fallen." It has a redemptive quality. However, I doubt we can talk about "the function of the spots of time," as Bloom does in The Visionary Company (Bloom 161). "Function" implies an intention, but it seems that the initial episode so vividly stored in memory accessible at a later time is not consciously chosen to be stored or remembered and certainly the trigger that brings it back to consciousness is equally arbitrary.

In both instances--of enhancing his memory through Dorothy and repairing it through "spots of time"--Imagination is the faculty responsible for the correlation between the immediate and the remembered experience. In the first case, the act of memory through which the present Wordsworth can see his past self is possible because of a ritualistic displacement of perspective from his own to that of his younger sister, which can be accomplished in the Imagination only: he imagines himself enjoying the surrounding beauty of Nature with a younger, more acute sensibility. In the second case, Imagination functions through memory to revive an old experience in a new context. So memory is possible because of Imagination. If memory is redemptive and only possible through the power of Imagination, then Imagination alone is responsible for the leaps in time.

Therefore, Time--the objective, universal, clock time--can be bent, twisted, or otherwise manipulated through the Imagination on the subjective platform of temporality. If through the power of the Imagination we can escape the rigid temporal structures of phenomenal experience, then we can experience the world as we did before the Fall... before Epimetheus screwed everything up (see The Fall of Man).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Romantic Epimetheus

In my reading of Harold Bloom's classic, The Visionary Company I find parallels between Wordsworth and the Promethean myth and, at the same time, evidence that Romanticism was not really about Nature, not even about the power of Imagination (as Bloom supposes), but about the poets' preoccupation with that cultural anxiety about time, its passage, its relation to the mind, and man's final defeat by time in death.

William Wordsworth privileges the past. He looks back and reflects. He dwells on the past and thus is trapped in a sort of stasis. He's "more like a man/ Flying from something that he dreads than one/ Who sought the thing he loved," as he explains in Tintern Abbey. Seeking implies a look towards the future; fleeing one's own ghosts of the past is a blind leap into the future. There is nothing to look forward to, only a hasty withdrawal from what once was. Wordsworth is the Romantic Epimetheus! (see The Fall of Man).

The poet fears prometheia because after his disillusionment with the efforts of the French Revolution  he distrusts the Promethean gift of elpis. In The Prelude he confesses,

                                            now believing,
Now disbelieving; endlessly perplexed
With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
Of obligation, what the rule and whence
The sanction; till, demanding formal proof,
And seeking it in every thing, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.

Elpis dissapointed conditions one to fear. The enjambments of the passage support the feeling of confusion and the prolonging of this ideological stasis the poet finds himself in. For Wordsworth, according to Bloom, "Love of Nature had led to love of Man, love of Man to revolutionary hope for Man, and the thwarting of that hope to this unnatural abyss" (Bloom 158). By "this unnatural abyss" Bloom means the Blakean realm of Ulro, the land of the solipsistic self-reflection, the winter, Dr. Seuss' "waiting place." It is also the land of the Epimethean over-reflection. I find it curious that Bloom's explanation works equally well for both Wordsworth and Prometheus: his "love of Nature led to love of Man, love of Man to revolutionary hope for Man, and thwarting of that hope" to the fall of Man and his punishment. Now Wordsworth has chosen epimetheia as his guiding light instead of prometheia that has so chastised him for his revolutionary hopes that his dissappointment in those unmet expectations cause him suffering. He doesn't want to hope anymore. He is satisfied with the certainty of the past: whatever happened cannot be undone because it is factual and, therefore, it is certain. Hoping requires a belief in the unknown, an investment in uncertainty. So Wordsworth abandons the Promethean endeavor in favor of the Epimethean reflection because he fears the future now that hope yielded nothing more than disappointment.

But memories are fragile for Wordsworth: he fears he will forget. And since his privileging the past, the remembrance of the past is precious. In Tintern Abbey and in the poet's incessant efforts at revision of The Prelude there is a marked urgency to remember and fear of forgetting. In Tintern Abbey finds in his younger sister, Dorothy, a reminder of his earlier self, of his younger self who was so atuned to natural beauty:

                             and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister!

As in the passage from The Prelude, the enjambments betray an anxiety or perhaps even desperation: Dorothy is his time machine, through which he can access his earlier self. This realization that one needs another in order to remember, in order for the memory to stay true and alive, in order perhaps even to conquer mortality, is the reader's epiphany but not really Wordsworth's. Wordsworth continues to worship solitude and seeks Nature as his only companion. He fails to realize what Percy B. Shelley satirizes in Peter Bell the Third and, again allegorically, in Alastor:

But from the first 'twas Peters rift
   To be a kind of moral eunuch,
He touched the hem of Nature's shift,
Felt faint--and never dared uplift
   The closest, all concealing tunic.

As Bloom notes, "[Wordsworth's] bride was Nature" and that, according to Shelley, was his most tragic error (Bloom 131). This is precisely why Shelley has Asia--the personification of sexual energy and Love--be the catalyst of Prometheus' release in his lyrical drama, Prometheus Unbound. Love conquers all, may be a cliche but Shelley is convinced that solitude, celebacy, or sexual repression are unnatural, a denial of life.  Shelley's Prometheus is victorious because he shares his passions with another. Without this interchange of emotions, he still would be chained to a rock. Shelley offers another alternative to the Epimethean stasis of remaining in Ulro because of fear, a passage to the Blakean Generation perhaps--a step Mr. Wordsworth was not willing to take.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Going to Princeton

Reading, reading, and some more reading so I have no time for writing. In fact, I'm currently ruminating on literary criticism of the Romantic period with an occasional break for hiking or climbing. I feel I should write about my work but instead I will write about my extracurricular activities since they're infinitely more interesting. My last successful endeavor: Princeton, one of the Collegiate Fourteeners, not the educational institution.

Mount Princeton (14,197'') is one of the peaks in the Sawatch Range. We decided to take it on as the warm-up of the season because the hike is relatively short and there is some four-wheeling involved in order to get to the trailhead at 11,600''.

Wednesday, July 28th, we left Denver around 2:30am and reached Buena Vista at 5am. It was raining in Buena Vista. I was a bit concerned but still determined to proceed: NOAA called for a 30% chance of rain later in the afternoon, so I figured it would stop before the afternoon storms rolled in. Indeed by the time we reached Princeton Road, it stopped. The Land Rover swayed comfortably on the narrow, rocky road. The dogs looked out the window and tried to retain composure: one dog saw a wall of dirt on his side; the other, a steep drop into an abyss of darkness. We made it past the radio towers, the camping spots, and after a few more hairpin turns chose to park the car where we found a bit of room to turn it around. I did not know the condition of the road further up and driving backwards would have been rather scary. So at 6:30am up we went on our own feet still following the road to reach the stone steps that marked the beginning of the trail. It turned out that there was only one more turn where we could have parked before the steps.

We ate breakfast at the steps, while watching some guys trying to turn their truck around on the narrow road and commented on the irresponsible choice of a red SUV that just parked in the middle of the road. We started walking the trail after 7am.

Here's how we reached the top of Princeton. Most of the trail was a talus field. Although it was relatively easy to follow it, it tended to disappear sometimes and then reappear again. We missed an earlier turn off to go up the Tigger-Princeton saddle. Tigger is Princeton's 13'000-foot mascot that you skirt on the way up Princeton (to the left in the photo above). Having noticed a large cairn on the saddle, I headed up the talus to reach the trail proper. This is where we ran into the owner of the red SUV, who was rather apologetic about his unfortunate parking.

Once we reached the saddle around 9:30am, we could smell the summit. I tried to set a fast pace, because I've been watching the barometer all the morning and the pressure just kept dropping, which was bad news. It suggested a slow but steady approach of a storm, and I didn't want to be caught in it on the summit. I failed to share that information with my hiking partner.

Looking back on Tigger. The pale trail is within view.

Looking up at the remaining stretch to the summit. About 200 feet below the summit, we ran into this memorial plaque:

I wondered whether the unfortunate woman's accident was a freak occurrence or, more likely, an error in judgment. When I got home, I looked up the brief article on the Summit Post. Although the article was not specific, the fact that her friend turned back suggests that she was guilty of hubris and ignored the warning signs. RIP. We reached the summit at 10am and within minutes we were covered in a shroud of clouds.

After a short break to sign the register, take pictures, and eat a snack, we headed down the moutain. The trek down was not much faster than up: the talus required careful stepping. At least the breathing was regulated now. During the descent, the summit was completely covered in clouds. By the time we got to the saddle, my barometer shot up for the first time that morning. Soon the clouds dispersed and the sun graced us with its presence. For the rest of the hike, we followed the ridge all the way to where the ascent up Tigger began. Route finding was much easier this way. Then we dropped down the steep slope back to the trail. We were back at the steps at 12:30pm. Another 30 minutes and we reached the truck.

Going down Princeton Road was frustrating. We ran into a few SUVs filled with tourists who felt compelled to follow the road up for no particular reason. Passing on the road is tough so we had to back up to allow the other vehicles to squeeze through. We eventually made it down, slowly but safely, and headed to the Coyote Cantina in Buena Vista for a well-deserved beer and meal. All in all, a successful trip!

Coming up on August 14th: an attempt at Colorado's third highest peak, Harvard and his close college friend, Columbia.