Making It Right

February 11th, 2014

When I once again came back from Joshua Tree scary-tan, I resolved to join my climbing sistren and brethren in yet another fashion decision and get some sort of trucker hat to protect my delicate visage from the effects of the desert sun.

While heading into Yosemite Valley a couple weeks back, I found myself quite taken with a camo visor on the shelf of a gas station mini-mart somewhere between Mariposa and Midpines. This visor would be a perfect addition to my head-to-toe all-green climbing outfit that has come to vaguely resemble that of a ranger, if a ranger wore a green shirt printed with tropical flowers. The visor would take it to the next level of paramilitary–and it was fully adjustable with Velcro, useful for accommodating my abnormally large head and equally abnormally large amount of hair. All this for $14.

My climbing buddy and confidant Jacob quickly approved the purchase, as did our two additional buddies waiting in the Deerhunter, Jacob’s road trip-mobile outside–so named due to a fatal run-in with a deer last spring in Tuolumne. As the story goes, Jacob was driving and hit the deer. James swiftly put it out of its misery with a rock to the cranium. Then they had a nice day out climbing Fairview Dome. Jacob’s SUV now boasts a distinctively dented front bumper that makes it easy to spot in gym parking lots.

When I recounted this story to the Young Republican I tutor, trying to relate to him about animal slaughter (something with which I have little personal experience beyond smaller, bird- and chipmunk-sized roadkill-and-wince incidents, and that one time I watched a formerly vegetarian river guide kill a chicken with the aid of a YouTube video) and hoping to inspire him to move forward in life toward such adult freedoms as running over deer and then finishing them off with your bare hands (while maybe also subtly insinuating that male bonding need not necessarily involve firearms?), he remarked, “Wow, that’s some primal stuff.”

The Young Republican also wears a camo hat much of the time. Now that I had this visor, we could be twinsies in the library Homework Center. It had visage-preserving purposes, fashion purposes and pedagogical purposes. I was really on a shopper’s high.

“It has a duck on it!” I marveled. “It says ‘Duck Dynasty!’ Neat!”

My road buddies informed me that Duck Dynasty was the name of a television show. Had I not heard of it?

“I don’t have a television,” I sniffed with the unwarranted superiority of a person who spends 90% of her solitary waking time either producing or consuming content on the internet. “What is this ‘television program’ you speak of?”

Someone started to explain the premise of the show, but we quickly got sidetracked passing around comestibles and listening to Jacob’s Alan Watts recording. All I got was “reality television” and “duck hunters” and we never got around to the horrifying racist and homophobic remarks of Phil Robertson.

It didn’t take more than one additional wearing of my new visor to be told of its unfortunate connotations. I felt just terrible. I had just put $14 in the pocket of an organization that willingly provided a public forum for an asshole. Of course, this outcome was no different than if I had donated to a political campaign, or even just paid my taxes, but this particular choice had been more uninformed.

I didn’t want to destroy the visor, as that would only waste resources and the labor of Chinese workers while taking up abnormally-large-head-sized space in a landfill somewhere. But I also could not use my own brow to advertise what I now knew was a public forum for an asshole. I covered up the duck with a patch depicting the nuclear missile near my old writing studio, and tore out the stitching of the words, “Duck Dynasty.” As a great man once said, “This aggression will not stand.” (I speak, of course, of The Dude, not George H.W. Bush.)

But that still didn’t seem like enough. To truly make this right, I had to even out the money part. The best I could come up with was to double down. I have therefore made $14 donations to both the NAACP and the Lambda Legal Defense Fund–both in the name of Phil Robertson. I thought about making one to PETA, but that seemed hypocritical, given the roadkill, meat consumption and leather use inherent to my lifestyle.

Isn’t this all very colorful–the too-tan Jew tries to beat back the hate of a self-proclaimed redneck she unknowingly supported with the purchase of a visor in several shades of green. Another day in the U.S. of A.

Little Lady Leader Learners’ Multi-Pitching Day Out

January 27th, 2014

As we drove into Yosemite Valley, Jacob recounted a gruesome scene from a premium cable zombie show depicting a traumatic zombie birth, reminding me of the equally traumatic vampire birth scene from Twilight. As the morning’s hippie speedball took full effect, I picked up this thread and began yammering about the effects of birth control pills on mating habits. The conversation continued in this vein until Jacob and Jamie dropped Summer and I off at Manure Pile Buttress and went off to climb Super Slide.

In a rapid manifestation of this disturbing reproduction discussion, there appeared a small herd of families at the base of After Seven, Summer’s and my chosen route for Little Lady Leader Learners’ Multi-Pitching Day Out. The giggling toddlers lent a festive air to the overcast morning as I racked up.

The crux of the climb, on the first pitch, consisted of a brief runout of 5.8 face. I remembered following this climb on a hot June day, on my first proper climbing trip to the Valley. It had taken the guy who led it a while to psych himself to climb this crux. But then, not two weeks later, he climbed the Nose. Should I be more scared, because the crux of this climb appeared to have given pause to someone who had shortly after climbed the Nose? I am always trying to decide in advance how scared to be. Then I am reminded that my body will decide for me at the appropriate time.

There was already a rope on the first pitch and some guy was bringing up his girlfriend. I was once exclusively and still often am this girl, or friend. But as I watched another too-clean be-Spandexed female follow the rope, my need to lead reasserted itself, no matter how scared I might sometimes be. I wasn’t born to follow.

As I finished my knot, I looked up and saw three little girls perched atop a nearby boulder. I thought, bizarrely, of the havoc children could wreak on one’s body and lifestyle–especially if they were zombies or vampires. If any of these even apparently human children were mine, I wondered, would I still be tied to this end of the rope? A storm front of worry about all of that met up with the existing light fog of fear about the climb itself.

The ensuing weather system of neuroses and societal pressures evaporated as I nodded in the direction of Summer’s belay device and slotted my hand into the crack. That was why I did this, every time. It quieted the voices. Even, paradoxically, the voices about it.

But as I approached crux, one of the babies at the base started fussing. Not just fussing, but issuing that distinctive wail of airplane and restaurant torture. The “Staying Alive” section of the SuperTopo warns us of sudden squalls in Yosemite–but this was not the kind of squall I had anticipated.

I looked down at Summer, who looked up at me encouragingly, then slumped back into belayer boredom now compounded by the type of screaming some of my friends with children refer to as, “Baby Gitmo.”

“Doin’ great!” she shouted.

“The soundtrack’s a little rugged,” I said, summoning an approximation of the attitude of irreverent calm I have always admired in others.

Right below the crux, I saw that there was indeed a good placement at eye-level for a yellow Alien, as the previous leader had pointed out to me during our brief shout-chat. But I had been waiting for the Aliens to go on sale again, and, now that we were off the co-ed/gearhead reservation, there were no other nearby racks to raid. The closest size I had–my beloved, bootied HB–would only fit at my ankle, extending the runout by another body length. I placed, yanked, feared, fiddled, yanked, confirmed, and clipped.

The baby screamed louder. Was this some kind of metaphor? Mental challenge? Message from the universe? Was I escaping babies? Or did I need to relate more to the baby, since, in climbing, I myself am like a baby, stumbling, falling, trying, failing, learning, growing, being continually reborn? Was I the baby? How would I know when–if ever–it was time to have babies? Would my body decide for me at the appropriate time? Would I know just like I would know when it was time to make the next move?

This was the sort of unsolvable life crux best avoided by focusing instead on the climbing crux. These were big questions, but there were immediate imperatives of noise and verticality.

The crux wasn’t bad at all, but like every crux on the short list I have led, in the middle of it I experienced some mix of obliterating fear and the total calm that is accessible only through the coexistence with–and willful obliteration of–obliterating fear. As usual, I had every possible thought during those twenty feet. “I will fall, the piece will pull, I will deck, I will die, the gear is good, I am safe, I will not fall, I will not die, I will live, I am alive, I want to live, hand goes THERE! Foot goes THERE! I’m pulling UP! Now pushing DOWN! I can do it! I am doing it! This is the BEST! This is the only! THIS! THIS! THIS! ALWAYS! FOREVER!”

Yet, in another way, I was only thinking, breathe and up.

I was soon(ishly) anchored to a tree and bringing Summer up. Having been trapped closer to the screaming baby and for longer, Summer was in a foul mood that registered as adorably aggro by the time she arrived at the belay.

All the dads are going to climb this now,” she hissed. “I hate climbing this shitty stuff. Where families come.”

“I know, it’s not that great. But it is the longest multi-pitch we can swing leads on today. What would you like to lead?”

“Stuff like Outer Limits.” Outer Limits is a glorious, classic finger crack our hard-climbing friend had put up the previous weekend. Summer, typically, had followed it gracefully. I then hangdogged it through the entirety of the golden hour while enjoying breathtaking views of the river before finally topping out. It had been my third attempt at even hangdogging that pitch, and my first time topping it out.

“Did you climb it clean?”

“I fell once.”

“You should lead that.”

“I am going to toprope Outer Limits one more time and then I’m going to lead it,” growled Summer.

“Great! I can’t wait. You will crush it. How about you lead this next pitch, though, since we’re here?”

I have a plan to dissolve Summer’s reluctance to lead that has so far has worked perfectly in both Joshua Tree and Yosemite. I drag her to the base of one of the ridiculously easy climbs I can rope gun, promising to lead the entire thing. Then I get us one pitch off the ground and give her all the gear.

One of the dads was approaching our belay.

“Do you guys need to pass us?” Summer asked, in a tone somehow both defeated and confrontational.

“Nope, just setting a toprope,” the dad said evenly, and began slinging the tree, politely avoiding our anchor. A slightly pissed-off random chick at the top of the one pitch he might climb today was probably no match for the screaming baby and tired baby-mama back at the base.

After he lowered off, Summer said, “Do you know what they were talking about down there? Low amniotic fluid levels.

“Ew,” I said. “That’s on the list of things I never even thought to worry about. That baby was screaming the whole time I was cruxing. There is only one solution. We must fully dial our lead heads and multi-pitching skills and then lead better, harder stuff. Off you go!”

Summer stomped up to the 5.7 hand crack, placed minimal gear and veritably ran up to the next belay. We then decided to link the next two pitches, but misread the topo and so I tried to climb 210 feet with one 60-meter rope length. I duly came to the end of my rope exactly 10 feet below the multiple oak trees I was meant to sling.

“I am at the end of my rope!” I thought with amusement. “Like, literally! Now it’s more exciting.”

All 200—or apparently, 210—feet of the two pitches had been extremely cruiser. I had had my first experience of genuinely wishing the climb were harder. Now it was.

I was in the process of building what I thought was a very creative belay that included a slung chockstone, looking longingly at the trees so close yet so far away, when a brilliant idea came to me. I couldn’t reach the trees, but maybe I could throw my cordalette around one tree to lasso and then girth-hitch it. Then I could use my two double-length slings to lasso the other tree in the same manner, and then equalize the two of them to make an extended anchor that I could also reach from where I was.

As I lunged to sling the tree, pulling on the last bit of rope stretch, I felt my harness begin crushing my innards. Maybe it would crush my uterus and I would never have to hear a screaming baby I would be biologically bound to soothe, nor face the complications of zombie birth, vampire birth, or this new problem that had just come to light, about the low amniotic fluid. My plan worked (the anchor plan, not, thankfully, the uterus-crushing plan) and I created a bomber anchor that extended the ten feet from the actual belay to my person.

We hiked up the rest of the climb, our mood and efficiency improving with each quieter, screaming baby-free pitch. We topped out, now euphoric. No matter how easy, moderate, or noise-polluted your climb may have been, as soon as you top out you feel like a total badass, and it is all worth it, and all better. But then as soon as you come down, you have to go back up again to feel that, which is why you have to live in a van, down by the river.

Summer popped the Torpedo and began coiling the rope. I got out the pouch and started rolling. “Now this is teamwork,” I grinned.

It was the golden hour. We passed the beer and smoke between us and watched Half Dome go from gray to white to yellow to pink. Summer loaned her phone to two nerdy engineer types who were trying to call a friend. We called Jacob and Jamie and arranged for a parking lot pickup in half an hour. We took a summit photo. We had been planning to take a naked summit photo, but the two nerdy engineer types were still there.

“Oh, well,” said Summer. “Maybe next time.”

But she had already shown me how to sling my shoes around my neck by hanging them from two quickdraws and clip my chalk bag to my belay loop to chastely cover my baby-making bits, “so, you know, you can put it on the internet or whatever.”

“No way, man!” I protested. “We got our shoes on quickdraws and everything! We are so totally taking a naked summit picture.”

I explained our situation to the two nerdy engineer types. “So, you can look or not look as you see fit. But now you have advance warning. About the nudity.”

They said that they would be happy to leave us to it, but they were waiting for the guy in the party below them to top out and return to them a #2 cam they had loaned him.

“Oh, we should so totally be naked when he gets up here!” I exclaimed. “That would be an act of public service!” (Public service? Or sexual harassment? The two are so often mixed in our culture.)

My logic was this: if this man with the #2 cam were a heterosexual, as he was statistically 95% likely to be, and he topped out and found two naked chicks, he would be motivated for the rest of his climbing career by the slim possibility of this ever happening again. I had once heard Alex Honnold say in an interview that he sometimes imagined there were “pretty girls” at the top of his epic solos. If Honnold was motivated by the mere thought of girls, what might it do for this weekend warrior to see actual, naked ones? This was a karmic opportunity.

Just then, the guy with the #2 cam appeared while we were still fully clothed, missing out on a lifetime of motivation. We repeated our Approaching Brief Nudity warning to him.

“Ok, fine,” he said wearily, engaged in rope management.

We rapidly stripped and hit the self-timer. Getting naked at the top was a new and fantastic feeling. The sun dipped behind the Valley wall.

“Hope we didn’t scare you too much,” said Summer politely to the rest of the climbers, as we walked off toward the walkoff.

We started our descent, laughing at the idea that after a whole day of climbing, it was the two girls who shared their beer and phone and then took off all their clothes that scared those guys. And yet they did look somewhat scared. I myself had been scared at the crux and scared again when I ran out of rope, but now I was simply content. It was scary to think about what scarier things we might try to do next. And yet, as we happily scrambled down in the last of the light, I had the arresting thought that lately, it was life on the ground that scared me even more.

Local Women Climbers Inspire the Shit Out of Each Other

January 21st, 2014

by Summer Danger

January 20, 2014 Yosemite, CA — Two female friends passed an enjoyable 24 hours discussing their love lives while road tripping to the mountains and subsequently encouraging the shit out of each other while climbing The Cookie, Right (5.9) at Cookie Cliff in Yosemite National Park.

“You can do this, Em! You are climbing so hard!” climber Summer Danger shouted 80 feet up to friend and climbing partner Emily Weinstein, who grunted her way up a grovelly and awkward chimney, which was purportedly rated 5.6 but felt much harder. Both arrived at the top safely, at which point they simultaneously exclaimed, “Awesome job! You are such a good climber!”

At press time, the two were still congratulating each other on the day’s accomplishments and planning an all-female lead-swinging multi-pitch session. Both friends agreed that the highlight of the day was switching sports bras.

This guest post was inspired by The Onion.

Indigenous People’s Day Weekend at Sugarloaf

October 14th, 2013

In which I take my first whipper on my very own gear.

The weekend got off to an early start with a rare and welcome tutoring cancellation.

IMG_2541

The motherlode of my nascent climbing rack (the Camelots!) had arrived earlier in the week. As if by magic, I managed to turn stuff like this:

Uh-oh.

Uh-oh.

Into stuff like this:

Keee-ristmas!

Keee-ristmas!

Before buying the gear, I consulted a half-dozen trusted climbers in my trusted climbing community, all of whom were conveniently gathered in one extremely inconvenient location. They were very opinionated and contradicted one another. I should have doubles from #3 down to .5. No, I should have doubles down to .4. No, I should not have a .4 at all. I should have a .4, but it should be an X4, not a C4. I should have Metolious master cams. I should not have Metolious master cams. I would need master cams, but only if and when I did a big wall. Offsets were indispensable. Offsets were unnecessary. For small stuff, TCUs, definitely. No, Aliens, obviously! C3’s were great. C3s sucked. C3’s were irrelevant now that there were X4’s. C3’s were still relevant.

When they began contradicting even themselves, I realized that there was no one right answer, and, as Rilke said, I would have to live the questions. I sat down in front of a computer, availed myself of a discount, and put some shiny objects that were the same as the ones most everyone else seemed to have into a virtual shopping cart. I am not ashamed to admit I had my hand literally held during this process.

I spent the rest of the week arranging and re-arranging the cams on my coffee table, testing which of my furnishings could bear their combined weight on a single sling, and sleeping with them in my bed with me in batches. If co-sleeping cements bonds between humans, I reason, then surely there is some spiritual merit to practicing this with inanimate objects. So far it’s worked with my rope, the Holy Guacamole, shown here tucked in on the first night of our life together, still factory-coiled:

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As I read, wrote, cooked, and computed, I would periodically pick up the cams and squeeze their triggers, thinking, “Which of you will be the first to save my life?”

Will you be the first to save my life?

On the eve of their first trip out, I threw myself a little going-away party. I don’t get many visitors at the tiny house, so I was the sole attendee. I watched the video Jacob posted on my Facebook wall for psyche. I pored over the guidebook, looking for the perfect pitch of 5.8 (my current trad lead limit/plateau) on which to take the shine off my gear, then devoured online back issues of Rock & Ice, seeking lifesaving tips.

In the midst of my rituals, I took a phone call from James, the individual I hold responsible for gateway-drugging me into this addiction. We don’t communicate often, but when we do, it always feels like espionage.

“I hear you’re going climbing,” said the familiar voice. “I called to wish you luck.”

“I’ll need it,” I said. “I just got my own cams.”

“Now you can take HUGE FALLS on them,” he chuckled.

As usual, James’s dangerous laugh made me feel strangely safe. His own method of learning to lead was to climb Tuolumne runouts with a single set of cams, routinely reducing anchors to two pieces, or sometimes, he alarmingly shrugged, even one. (Among his other unorthodox opinions is that a severe Giardia infection can serve as a Master Cleanse.)

Compared to these practices, my shiny new doubles and intention to build textbook three-piece anchors suddenly seemed the equivalent of a protective bubble, though it was actually just normal, to whatever extent that climbing up a vertical rock and then trusting your life to a bunch of metal objects you stick in some cracks, some 8mm-wide nylon, a guy you can’t always see, and most/worst/best of all, yourself and your own decisions, mental fortitude and will to live can be said to be normal.

They say learning to lead is the most dangerous time in your climbing career,” I fretted.

“Well, you’re well past that,” James replied, charitably referring to the one 5.8 I had onsighted so far, a feat I performed after getting lost for nearly an hour on the alpine approach.

Thus blessed, I continued my evening. With only a single Sierra in the tiny fridge, I soon got into the whiskey. Somewhat blitzed and sufficiently blazed, I watched several hours of climbing videos depicting feats I will not achieve in this lifetime, hoping to absorb the single sentence that might come back to me, Lebowski-style, at a crucial moment.

I talk myself through cruxes by whispering things I’ve heard other people say like mantras. For a while, the only climbing-related phrase I knew was “Spread your legs and trust the rubber.” It was of great comfort to me. This time, it turned out be Lynn Hill saying, “Don’t rush the move.” This all went on until 4 a.m., and then I was so excited and scared I couldn’t go to sleep until 5.

*

The next afternoon, we massed at Jacob’s house on a suburban dead end. For the first time, I wasn’t the only female on the trip. Summer began taking things out of the trunk of her Toyota, things that greatly resembled the things in the back of SubyRuby. “I’m kind of prepared for everything, all the time,” she said, almost apologetically, winning me over immediately.

We packed Jacob’s car, pre-partied by his mom’s pool and made the obligatory Trader Joe’s stop for tortillas and salami before heading to Sacramento to rendezvous with Clark. After In-N-Out burgers, we arrived at the bivy shortly before midnight and bedded down. At 4:30 a.m., we awoke to rain that quickly turned to sleet. I had a horrible thought: maybe the rest of the group would see this as an opportunity to get an alpine start. But luckily, everyone piled back into the car to cuddle-puddle until a reasonable post-dawn hour.

Once we set off, I got mildly lost on the approach. Summer retrieved me from where I was wandering on the wrong side of the formation and we laid out the gear at the base of a 5.7 for me and Clark to start with, next to a 5.9 for Jacob to warm up on. The 5.7 started with an runout chimney. This was exactly the kind of thing I would normally defer to Clark to lead, i.e., anything less than perfectly protectable.

“The second pitch looks good,” I said hopefully.

“I want that one,” said Clark. “You already said you’re leading Pony Express.” This was the 5.8 I had selected.

It seemed wrong, somehow, not to place all that shiny gear immediately, and wronger still not to do my part leading my share of less-choice pitches. I could almost see my training wheels skittering down the side of the mountain as I started racking up.

Jacob was already near the top of the adjacent route by the time I tied in. I was inspired by his effort. ”This is kind of physical,” he was muttering. That meant it was hard. If it were easier, Jacob would say, “This is pretty mellow.” The Jacob Decimal System ranges from “pretty mellow” to “kind of physical.”

The SuperTopo said that the chimney should be climbed “outside, while reaching in to place gear,” but this had probably been written by some tall male with an ape arm. I placed a cam in the bottom of the chimney, but once I established myself in it, there was no way I could reach into its crease.

One of my earliest pseudo-leads came back to me. Three Brits, a U.S. Marine and I had all taken off from the Valley for a road trip to the East Side. We stopped in Tuolumne to climb a an easy but runout route on Stately Pleasure Dome in what the Brits described as a “gongshow.” The day before, one of the Brits had taken me over to Swan Slabs and begun teaching me to place gear. The other two had come with folding chairs and beers to watch. When I promptly got a cam stuck, they freed it with an ice axe. Then, for my second lead, two of them, both 5.11 climbers, soloed next to me while I learned to place gear. (I am often reminded that such luxuries are a perk of being a novel female in a male-dominated environment.) Or rather, they soloed next to me while I climbed with gear on my harness while attached to a rope that was below me. The climb was so runout there was nowhere to put the gear. Then, a thunderstorm came in, and we took shelter in a chimney, ate chips and salsa, swigged tequila and took a smoke break.

Now, in my own chimney, I thought fondly of my safety-soloers, long gone with my training wheels. Ralph was digging wells and putting up new routes in the Ugandan jungle and John was conducting a systematic vertical exploration of Patagonia. But this chimney was only a fraction the length of that runout in Tuolumne, and far more secure. There was at least some gear, and no thunderstorm, nor tequila. I could see the part at the top that would feel good to grab. Up I went. For a moment, I was genuinely scared. To fall now would be inopportune, and unpleasant. I understood, both mentally and physically, that the way to cope with my fear of falling was not to fall and more importantly, not to stop. The seconds were long. As my eyes came over the horizon of the top of the chimney, I saw the next mountainside, the road below, the world at large. Born again.

I brought Clark up and he led the next pitch. “Where’s the walkoff?” I asked when I arrived at the belay.

“There’s another pitch,” said Clark. In my haste and excitement about the chimney runout, I had tossed aside the guidebook after reading about the first pitch. I had already learned the hard way during a recent epic on Eichorn’s Pinnacle that incomplete knowledge of the descent and total dependence on one’s partner could be problematic. Or I thought I had learned this.

Clark set off on lead.

“You’re on belay,” he said, too soon, from above. “But I’m not sure this is the end.”

“Do you see a walkoff?” I shouted up.

“Not really,” said Clark.

“Next time we’re bringing the book,” I said testily, noting that we were ironically engaged in the classic male/female “ask-for-directions” conflict, but in the vertical world.

“Are you sure you’re still on route?” I asked.

“No. But maybe we can just rap down.”

“No, we can’t! You can’t rap this route with one rope. It says so in the book. That part I remember.”

“If you guys can’t get down, you can just rap down to me,” came a voice.

“What?”

“You can just rap down to me. I’m on a ledge below you, and I’ve got two ropes we can rap on to the ground.”

I could hear this person, but not see him. “Hey,” I yelled toward the voice. “What’s your name?”

“Eric!”

Labor Day weekend, Jacob and I had climbed at nearby Lover’s Leap. While we ate lunch in the shade, a seasoned climber had come over to us, cracked open a beer, and held what amounted to a Climbing Story Hour. He chronicled every time his van had broken down in Benson, the town nearest to Cochise, a climbing area in Arizona. A tow-truck operator named Dave was a recurring character, and had the last word. Jacob and I, entranced, consumed most of a salami and all of a spliff.

“You can live the life you want,” concluded the seasoned climber. “It just takes some careful planning and management. Some people will hate you for it, though,” he added.

After we borrowed his pre-SuperTopo guidebook and selected Surrealistic Pillar Direct, his parting words to us were,  ”Well, I hope you guys have a great adventure!”

“When I get older,” I said to Jacob, “I wanna be that guy.” His name was Eric.

“Eric!” I shouted. “It’s Emily! Remember me?”

“Emily! Of course! Do you feel better now about rapping down here?”

“Much! I guess we got in a little over our heads,” I sighed.

“In over your head is the end of your rope with no rap station,” replied Eric cheerfully.

This might be true, but in the future, we could not hope that every time we got into a jam or lost our way, a seasoned climber we knew and trusted would appear with an extra rope and an open beer like a magical, shaggy fairy. (Could we?)

“I’m just gonna run up there, Eric, and see if I can’t find that walkoff.”

I climbed up to Clark’s belay and then asked him to feed out more slack. He had been looking for a chimney, but there was a tunnel directly ahead. I crawled through it and on the other side were ledges and an obvious descent. I yelled for more slack and started looking for a good place to make an anchor to belay Clark over. But I hadn’t stopped to get all the gear from Clark. I had only the #3 and #4 I had removed from the wide crack we had just climbed, and a double-length sling. I had an A-HA moment. This was just a puzzle–like the science team again, but outside, with worse consequences for failure, and beers at the end.

About a month before, Clark and I had gone out to Lovers Leap for our first climbing day all alone. We had always climbed before in the company of James or Jacob, our more experienced friends. As soon as they left us, we would often quickly get ourselves into some minor to major trouble. Once it was resolved, James would sneer, “That’s how you learn,” and Jacob would hug us.

I had been really scared that day we went without them, most of all to build natural anchors all by myself, even though I had been practicing, observing and reading about it for months. But my buddy had wise words.

“Just place three good pieces,” said Clark, “and let science take over.”

I remembered Ralph placing the first piece of gear in a crack in Squamish he was encouraging me to lead, but I was scared to. He rolled his eyes, stuck a cam in the crack and yanked on it.

“It’s not rocket science,” he shrugged.

Science,” I thought, as I regarded the gear I had. “But not rocket science. Let non-rocket science take over.”

I found placements for the #3 and #4 and slung a rock with the sling. It was my first piece of natural pro, and looked just like the picture in my John Long Climbing Anchors book. I grinned from ear to ear, at no one. I belayed Clark over and we headed down, having climbed our third multi-pitch together, all by ourselves, without requiring rescue.

Back at our packs, Summer and Jacob informed us that on their climb, Summer had dislocated her shoulder.

“So I’ll be the belay bitch for the rest of the day,” she said.

Had I dislocated my shoulder, I would probably by that point be loudly demanding Vicodin. Summer must be very tough, I thought. She had also put hot cocoa in our morning coffee. My girl-crush intensified.

Jacob and Clark went off to indulge in some 5.10. We hung out with Eric and his partner for a while and they showed me how to pass a knot and stack nuts. “Learn your nutcraft,” said Eric, in that momentarily stern voice they always use when their bravado gives way to crucial information.

The daylight was waning. It was time for Pony Express. Summer insisted she could belay me with one arm; the dislocated shoulder wasn’t the brake hand.

My good feeling about Pony Express got even better when we arrived at the base. It was a clear, giant, perfect flake, beckoning in the afternoon sun.

The rope was all in a pile on the ground. I would be the one to take it up there. I had never led anything without someone who knew more than me about climbing standing at the base, soothing me with the sound of their bored, vaguely amused voice, but now I was wholly in charge of this operation.

“You got this,” said Summer.

“I hope so,” I said.

I racked up and started up. I couldn’t believe this was allowed. I couldn’t believe I actually knew enough to do this. I missed, with an ache, the taut tug of the toprope. I looked, with a sick stomach, at the wet noodle of rope snaking below me. I experienced, with a bodily thrill, the elated relief of clipping that rope to something I wedged so tightly in the rock as to be immobile. I understood, as I climbed, why it was better “without the rope in your face.” I made each move with a quality of presence that was in and of itself a drug. By the time I had a few pieces in, this began to seem more–normal. Then I came to the business.

It was more serious business than I had seen before. A longer lieback, fewer feet, less rests, uncertain hands. I was standing on the last little ledge. There was certainly gear to be had. I reached up as high as I could and placed a #3. I pulled on it. “Bomber,” I murmured, comforted by the sound of my own voice whispering this word to the granite. I clipped the shiny silver carabiner to the cam’s brand-new brilliant blue webbing. I extended the still-white sling with its absurd red stripe as far as it went. I pulled up my green rope and clipped it to the other shiny silver carabiner. I was protected.

Now I had to consider how to climb beyond that blue object, to another place where I could remain, free a hand, and insert another object somewhere into the spaces in this rock. There was a place, up above, where this appeared possible. I had to get there.

I coaxed myself up off the rest on the few feet of toprope I had created. Then I was past the piece. But the next rest did not present itself easily. It was not as close as I had hoped, nor was I moving as fast as I would have liked to be. What had been working was no longer working. Upward progress stalled. My muscles were working, quite hard. I was starting to shake. Then I was shaking. Then I could not hold on. I wanted to. I willed myself to. But I could not. I reached up, but I was going down.

It was not so much a release as a failure of grip. Holding on became letting go. It happened against my will, but once it happened, I surrendered.

I do not remember the sensation of falling. I remember the sunlight sparkling on the granite’s black mica flecks in the moment before, the sound of my own breath and the smell of my own sweat, the inhuman noises of first the grunts and growls of effort and then the involuntary moans of slippage, the realization that these animal noises were mine.

I fell a not insignificant distance.

When the rope caught me, it was gentle and bouncy and fun. It was the endpoint of a split second during which my body believed at some level that it was all over. So it was a deliverance, a pardon, an awakening. As I fell, I had some time to consider whether or not I wanted to live. I did, very much. But I no longer had any choice, though I was responsible for what was happening in that moment, and what would happen next. I had to hope and trust. I had already let go. And in that brief, interminable, awful, wonderful fraction of a second, I tasted some new flavor of freedom.

I was always trying to let go of things—the past, the future, my ego, people I loved–but it seemed impossible. The only way I would ever let go of anything would be if I exhausted myself doing the opposite—holding on.

I was always raging against the system,  how much I didn’t believe in it, didn’t trust it. “What are you going to do, make your own system?” people always said.

Yes. I would make my own system. This was the system I trusted–the one I made.

I hung from the #3, more exhilarated than frightened. Two spectators reclining on a rock below us whooped and cheered as I panted and trembled, adding further positive reinforcement to the experience. I felt a sharp pain in my right ankle and understood instantly why pretty much every climber I know has a messed-up ankle. The pain registered for a moment not as pain but as a sign of having a body. Then it disappeared completely.

I looked down at my belayer. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in climbing,” she said.

“In some ways,” I said, “that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

I climbed back up to the rest from which I had placed the piece. It looked even more bomber now that it was actually serving its intended purpose. Now I just had to figure out why I had fallen off, and how to climb past it. I had fallen off because I had tried to layback where I should have been jamming. I saw now what would be a better way.

IMG_2558

Photo by Clark.

I made many false starts toward the crux, then finally powered through to a ledge. Once on the ledge, I realized that I had sewn the route up so much down low that I didn’t have much gear left for the remaining thirty or forty feet. “This is how I learn,” I sneered at myself. There were some bolts at the top of the adjacent route, about twenty feet below the bolts that ended my own route. I wanted desperately to clip them instead of climbing to the top.

Jacob and Clark had shown up and were grinning at me from below.

“Can’t I just clip those bolts?” I pleaded.

“That’s not a good idea, Em,” said Jacob calmly. “It could be 5.12 climbing to get to them. Better to just stay on route.”

I could hear the three of them talking and laughing down below and felt horribly lonely. Everything was all fun and games down there, while I was alone up here with my fear and my gear.

I placed one more piece as I powered to the anchor. In overdrive, I climbed right past the bolts at the end of my route by a good dozen feet, then downclimbed back to them. I suddenly felt like I could climb forever, and maybe like I needed to. Jacob and Clark shouted up that they would follow my rope and clean my gear, so I lowered off, admiring most of my brand-new rack, nestled in cracks, where it belonged. As is SOP after a Little Leader Learner takes a big whipper, my buddies prepared me a special present when I came in for a landing.

The Spliff (1 of 1)

Photo by Jacob.

I leaned back against the wall, lit up, and felt the relief mix with the adrenaline, producing the ultimate natural speedball.

I loved Summer, for saving my life with one hand while I battled my own mind with my body for no good reason, hanging a rope she couldn’t even follow with her injured arm. I had known her for less than 24 hours, but now I felt as if we were bound by some kind of Samauri code. Was I responsible for her forever? Or was she responsible for me? Or was it both?

Summer and I went to retrieve our packs from the side of the formation. When we came back, Jacob was still trying to clean my gold nut.

“Did you weight this?” he asked.

“I jump-tested it,” I said. “Eric told me how to do it, so you know if it’s good to bail on. I wanted to give it a try.”

“It’s really in there,” said Jacob, with characteristic equanimity.

“Maybe I won’t do that anymore unless I’m actually planning to bail on it.”

“Maybe not,” said Jacob.

“It’s okay if you can’t get it,” I said.

The nut had cost $9.95 at REI. That was more than a beer, but less than a single cocktail in New York. And yet it sometimes seemed extremely important to retain or obtain these objects that cost more than a beer but less than a cocktail in New York, because sometimes this all seemed like a 3D video game, and these treasures extra lives. They were–or under certain circumstances, they could be. But it wasn’t a video game.

Jacob freed the nut and rapped the rest of the way down. We began our descent. As usual, I quickly got left in the dust.  (At least when we are attached by ropes, and it really counts, my bigger, stronger, faster buddies can’t get more than 60m ahead.) But I didn’t fall too far behind this time.

“Where’s Emily?” I heard someone say.

“I am not going back for her,” said Clark, who is usually the one to go back for me. “How’s she gonna learn?”

“I’m right here!” I shouted, from a mere twenty feet away.

“Sorry, Emily,” said Clark, and gave me an apologetic hug.

We tromped out of the woods to the car and tailgated in the twilight while the cars sped by on Highway 50, circulating a Pale Ale and a Torpedo. Exactly twenty-four hours after our previous In-N-Out Burger, we were eating another.

When I finally got home and stepped out of my own car, a sharp pain shot up from my ankle, a whimper came out of my mouth, and I reflexively began hopping on the other foot. The ankle was badly sprained, but I had had enough adrenaline in my body that it took the combined time of our descent and drive from Strawberry to In-N-Out Burger Nowhere to Sacramento to Walnut Creek to Oakland for the pain to overpower my body’s natural painkillers, which had provided over four hours of total pain suppression.

“Good,” I thought. “Four hours is a long time. That’s long enough to get down from plenty far up–even at the rate I go.”

The Goog

October 8th, 2013

Would the for-profit Western medical establishment diagnose me with social anxiety just because I prefer to burn one before (and during, and after) attending a large party? I’m not afraid of people, but I don’t like crowds. Plus, it was the golden hour and I had parked facing the destroyer.

The decommissioned naval base where the destroyer is anchored is a bright dot in my California constellation. Some of my oldest Bay Area friends work at a renewable energy start-up in the base’s former control tower. This spring, their company was bought by Google X, Google’s top-secret “future technology arm,” which they refer to as “The Goog.”

The ragtag group of inventors, engineers, van-dwelling kite-surfers and shipping container-hoarding freegans got stock options, @google.com email addresses, and corporate credit cards. Now they were having a party at the tower to celebrate the purchase of their intellectual property and the continued funding of their valiant attempts to solve the global energy crisis.

I was pre-partying in SubyRuby, looking at the destroyer, exhaling out the cracked door and keeping a three-hundred-sixty-degree awareness of the vehicle via the mirrors. A large white bus offered protection on the driver’s side, but I detected a flutter of peripheral movement from the right, and reflexively disappeared the evidence.

A muscular man strode with purpose through the frame of my windshield. A curly earphone wound its way down the bristles of his buzz cut, disappearing into the collar of his blue polo shirt, which was embroidered, “Google.”

I had never seen anything like this at the decommissioned naval base before, but I quickly put it all together. The big white bus to my left was one of the Big White Buses—the ones that picked up the young Googlers from the neighborhoods in San Francisco they were aggressively gentrifying and took them to their Googleplex each day to incrementally vest Google stock and create our entire reality.

Google, such a constant but disembodied presence in my life, had just come alive before my eyes. I always knew it was everywhere, but now it was here. The Big White Bus had come to the tower, and with it, the human manifestations of a corporation of inhuman omniscience.

Where there’s one curly earphone there’s many, I know that much. Uniformed law enforcement never crosses the windshield or the parking lot alone. Your uniform is only a uniform if someone else nearby is wearing it. Otherwise, it’s just a polo shirt.

What is it about uniformed law enforcement that makes me so angry? I pondered this as I applied mascara. Maybe it is my history of negative encounters with local, municipal, state and federal law enforcement agents, encounters that I am acutely aware have only ended as comparatively well as they have because I am a white female. Maybe it is the fact that these uniformed law enforcement officials have surrendered their own free will to blindly enforce laws that they did not make up while sometimes brandishing or even firing weapons, often at the wrong people, sometimes with fatal results. Also and less gravely, these uniformed law enforcement officials confiscate people’s harmless—in fact, helpful—herbal medicines while saying things like, “I don’t make the laws, I just enforce them.”

Everyone says they are just doing their jobs, but their job is often to be at best a party-killer and at worst, a hired killer. Maybe, by smoking this herb or camping in these woods, I am just doing my job. In fact, I am doing my job without benefit of pay. Did you ever think of that, law enforcement official hassling me about smoking this herb or camping in these woods?

You know who else were just doing their jobs? The Nazis. I’m just sayin’. I know, you’re thinking, “Whoa there, Weinstein. Big leap.” But I am not saying that all uniformed law enforcement officials are Nazis. I am just saying that when you wear uniforms and take orders, best case scenario, you are taking those orders from douchebags. Worst case scenario, you are taking those orders from evil.

But Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil,” so this was all probably okay. Also, these polo shirt guys didn’t seem to be armed. Thought what did I know? Google, or Google X, could have developed invisible cyberguns by now, for all I knew.

I was prepared to make a festive entrance to the party, having added to my own uniform of jeans and adventure sandals a gold t-shirt and even a necklace, but as I exited the car, a cold bay breeze came off the water, and so as is often the case after dark in Northern California, I quickly concealed my party top within a voluminous black puffy. No matter. In a party full of engineers, I knew there would not be even a hint of sexual possibility. The skillset required to invent things in a corporate environment comes with the side effect of complete immunity to my charms.

Sure enough, there was another curly earphone/blue polo shirt at the door. Security in business casual, I fumed. Security in chinos. “Just try me, Polo Shirt,” I telepathically threatened the door guy.

This was headed in a bad direction. A beverage would calm me down. I had it in mind and muscle memory to climb the many stairs to the tower itself, where in pre-Google times, parties here had always boasted a reliable stash of high quality liquor from the artisanal distillery a few hangars down the runway. But right by the entrance there were a couple of kegs and a few nearly empty bottles of unchilled white wine from the low quality winery in the hangar next door. This did not bode well. Still, I held out hope that the good stuff was upstairs, but in this brave new world in which polo-shirted security was posted in every doorway, how could I know this?

And then, I saw it. The future. The glasses. The Google glasses. The Google Glass. The iPhone in your eyeball.

Everywhere you looked, you could see at least one. It was a thin, rigid headband, but worn forwards instead of on top of your head, like Geordi La Forge’s vision device on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was kind of a non-object, a frame for empty space.  It consisted of the top rail of a pair of glasses, but without lenses. It just had nosepieces, and a small, boxy protuberance along the right side. At the very front of this protuberance was a tiny lens, belonging to the camera pointing at everyone and everything, all the time.

Every time I met eyes with someone wearing this non-object, I felt paranoid and exposed, and not only because I was stoned at a large party. I’ve been stoned at plenty of large parties, but this was the first large party at which people were wearing glasses with which they could photograph me just by looking at me and tapping the sides of their heads. And yet at the same time, I felt strangely unseen, because though the wearer of these glass-less glasses might appear to be looking right at me, they might also be looking at their email, or a live-stream from someone else’s Google Glass of a different party, somewhere else.

I know there are cameras everywhere, and the iPhone and the Facebook and the Instagram and the unerasable traceable digital evidence of our rapidly disappearing actual analog selves et cetera, but there is something different about this device. Primarily, it’s the fact that it’s headgear. The iPhone, as addictive and absurd and once-futuristic as it is, is still an object separate from us. It lives in our pockets, gently microwaving our gonads but otherwise dormant until we deliberately choose to interact with it. We take it out. We hold it up. We put it down. We put it away. The Google Glass is on your head. It’s on your face. It never goes away.

Muttering paranoidly to anyone who would listen, I was eventually informed that the glasses were only on if a small rectangle of light was visible on the wearer’s cheekbone. “It’s mostly a fashion accessory,” it was explained to me. “It’s not on all the time.”

With this reassurance, I was able to begin mingling. I had the same conversation several times.

“What do you do?”

“I work at Google. What do you do?”

“I do kids’ homework for money, write for free, and climb rocks for fun.”

“I used to do that. But I haven’t in a long time.”

“Why’s that?”

“I work at Google.”

I quickly got bored with this conversation, and convinced someone to let me look in their Google Glass.

“Do you work for Google?” he asked.

“No.”

“Then ignore all of the emails you are about to see.”

He put the thing on my head.

“Look up,” he instructed.

I looked up, but nothing happened.

“I think it can tell that you’re not me, because you have a lot of hair,” he said.

I pulled my hair away from the thing and looked up.

And there, before my eyes, in a teeny tiny screen in space that only I could see, I saw.

“Google Glass.,” it said. And on the bottom, smaller, it said “okay glass.”

“Say, ‘Okay, glass.’”

I said, “Okay, glass,” but nothing happened.

“Female voice in a crowd. Not super-sensitive.”

“OKAY GLASS,” I boomed in a lower register, and it came to life.

I focused my eyes in a plane I’d never had the opportunity to focus on before. I am so nearsighted that without correction, I can only see clearly about an inch in front of my face. The tiny hologram of the Google Glass projection is just about the distance my naked eye can see. I can have laser surgery, or I can get a Google Glass and watch my own live-stream.

I now realized, with a sinking heart, that throughout the whole party, I had had many urges to check my iPhone, to interact with my iPhone and the world it brought to my fingertips, to be with my own technology at the expense of human interaction, to disconnect from where I was and connect with where I could be, or had been, or might be, but wasn’t. And that this new device I was now wearing would allow me to do what at some level I wanted to do, which was be in it and on it all the time. And I knew, one day, I would own this thing, or something like it. We all would.

Google Glass

SuperLefty in Google Glass. (Photo by the Archivist.)

There was a reason for the polo-shirted security force. These guys were protecting the ideas of the future, the flying machines that would make the power, and the computers we would wear on our heads until they finally drilled them into our brains.

The party was thinning out. The Googlers were moving, as if by instinct, to their Big White Bus. My real friends at this party, the engineers with whom I have enjoyed beers in the tower and winter weekends in Tahoe, found one another and shared a partly-eaten abandoned sandwich. The Big White Bus of Googlers had destroyed all the party snacks.

A departing Googler came up to one of the renewable energy engineers.

“Hey, when are you guys gonna be finished with your invention? Does it work yet?”

“Don’t question their methods,” I interjected.

After all the free alcohol I had consumed in the tower and all the times I had left my car or climbing buddy’s van on their property for safekeeping while traveling, the least I could do would be to defend them from doubt that their flying machine would fly.

“Thanks, Emily,” smiled one of the engineers.

“Just doing my job,” I said, to see what it felt like to say that.

An Interview With Myself About My New Website

September 25th, 2013

So, Emily, your web site has a new look.

Yeah.

Can you tell us more about the process of re-designing this web site?

Well, I began the redesign process in the spring of 2012. I was trading GRE tutoring for web design.

Sounds like a good trade.

It was, but my web designer took the GRE before I was finished, and then she got married and I ran out of money completely. So site re-design was frozen in time from the spring of 2012 until fall of 2013.

Did you ever think of redesigning your web site yourself?

I did, but every time I would try, I would get really frustrated with all the new skills I had to learn and go climbing instead.

Isn’t climbing also a new skill?

Yes, but apparently I can only learn new skills outdoors under threat of bodily harm in the event of failure.

Did you acquire any web design skills during that time?

No, none. My brother, who is a maker/inventor, kept suggesting that I take an HTML class. Every time he suggested this I would have an anxiety attack. My brother doesn’t like it when I have anxiety attacks, so I would quickly change the subject.

Facing obstacles like this, how did you manage to persevere?

I threw money at the problem. I got some more tutoring work and earned enough money to both get a climbing rack and pay someone else to redesign my website, which was what I wanted all along. So I got back in touch with my web designer and we picked up where we left off.

On your second attempt, you got the web site done in record time! You are a known procrastinator. It can take you weeks to mail a package or do your fine washables. How did you do it?

Well, now my web designer is having a baby, so she wanted to finish everything up really fast. People get really efficient when they are having babies. And she seemed really busy, so I didn’t want to waste her time. And she’s really nice and pretty, so I didn’t want to make her mad. This motivated me to make decisions quickly. Also, after another year and a half of climbing, I’m getting better at making decisions quickly. It doesn’t even have to be life-or-death. You can just make a decision so you can go get a beer or a sandwich or whatever.

That’s fantastic. Can you tell us more about the new look?

I wanted it to be really spare. Mostly words, because that is what writing is.  I’m definitely a serif-font aficionado. I developed a real affinity for the font “Cochin.” It’s clean and yet it has character.

I was very specific about my rollover color. I wanted it to be a kind of army green, for two reasons 1) I see myself as a peaceable Army of One and I wanted my web site rollover color to reflect that 2) It matches my eyes.

Your web site is now ten years old and claims to contain over 300 essays. That’s 30 essays a year for ten years. How do you feel about that volume?

Both proud and slightly nauseated at the same time.

Are we to understand that you wrote the entire web site?

Every word.

An Autumnal Equinox Birthday Wine Review

September 22nd, 2013

My name, if directly translated from the German, is Emily Dregs. I discovered this while on tour with my friends’ punk rock orchestra in Germany. I had first assumed that the “stein” in “Weinstein” meant “glass,” as in beer “stein.” Then, when I Google Translated it, I found out that “stein” meant “stone.” I figured a “wine stone” must be a stone used to crush grapes for wine. No, no, corrected a German, in the near-perfect English of all northern Europeans. “The ‘stein’ is the little—how do you say?—the little stones at the bottom of the wine, that you do not drink.”

“The sediment?” I asked.

The German looked confused.

“The dregs?”

“Yes! The dregs.”

How fittingly punk, I thought at the time. Now that I climb, I am even more pleased by the many meanings of this moniker.

I am no stranger to sediment, though I have yet to climb anything other than granite, which is igneous. There is definitely some sediment in this unfiltered 2013 {Working Title} Pinot Noir Batch 001.

sedimentary wine

When the wine is drunk, the dregs are left.

Today is my birthday. The hour is fast approaching of the Autumnal Equinox, which occurs in seven minutes at 1:50 pm. Was there ever a more auspicious hour to taste wine? Is there really any inauspicious hour to taste wine? As the Equinox and my own death approach simultaneously, I conclude that this wine is worth drinking as the days of our lives come into momentary light/dark balance before they descend into long dark winter nights of the soul best weathered with a little wine. It is chewy.

All week I have been served things reminiscent of blood. First, I ate raw venison in some kind of pop-up bar celebrating the New Zealand America’s Cup team. Then, a bowl of what appeared to be Red #3 was inexplicably brought to me in a Chinese restaurant. And now, I drink this surprisingly tasty wine that my friend has fished out of a white plastic tote in his living room that he reminds me is food-grade.

Today, the winemaker informs me, the asssmans-hausen has concluded its obligations. The assmans-hausen is the yeast that digests the sweetness of the wine. I think “Assmans-Hausen” would be a good name for a German-themed gay bar. I see the names of gay bars everywhere.—“My Cup Runneth Over. Thy Rod and Thy Staff.” But what use is it to me, or anyone?

The wine is no longer sweet. It is finished, or beginning to be finished. Yet because it is full of sediment, full of skins, full of schmutz, it is not yet finished. But it is more than just begun. It is well underway. Not unlike myself. I, too, harbor some remnants of what I once was, swirling, in the bottom of the vessel that gives my shapeless existence form.

I will be reviewing this wine again on my half-birthday, the Vernal Equinox. We will see how it has progressed.

The Official Jewish New Year Post to the Bad Ass Climber Chicks Facebook Group

September 5th, 2013

L’Shanah Tovah.

Deep Playa in Long Island

August 4th, 2013

Though I am intrigued by Burning Man, I have never attended. I am haunted by the words, “and then it’s three in the morning and you’re on acid, trying to keep your fur cape out of the Port-A-Potty.” I am wary of desert environments without coin-operated bathing opportunities, and August is my brokest time of year. By that Sunday of months, I’ve long since spent my meager summer savings on gas, gear and beer. I’ve never been able to budget for that final thousand-dollar expenditure on granola bars, baby wipes and a styrofoam igloo, no matter how often I am promised by the growing number of Burning Man devotees that I will get it all back, and more, in experience and backrubs from strangers.

Furthermore, there is the matter of my aversion to large crowds, my firm belief that civilization minus sewage system equals refugee camp, and my discomfort with techno music and group sexual expression, which I can only imagine would increase under the influence of the psychedelic pharmacopia I would feel compelled to ingest at such an event.

Psychedelics are neither social nor sexual for me, though I keep making the occasional stab, ever since a friend told me that during the climactic moment of a psilocybin-enhanced sexual experience, she hallucinated a flock of butterflies. Maybe I’m in a rut, but lately when I blow my own mind all I want is a mountain stream next to which I might weep uninterrupted in solitude. My interest in public nudity is firmly tied to the presence of water (either very hot or very cold) and my interest in techno music is limited to the Pandora selections of the employees of my climbing gym. It has occurred to me that all of these so-called reasons not to attend Burning Man are just the type of hangups, neuroses and pre-conceived notions that Burning Man is designed to incinerate. And–I was momentarily sold when I was told I could wear a bikini, fur boots and goggles the whole time. But–I’d rather be climbing.

I related all of these concerns to a fellow lone wolf and one-time Burning Man attendee. He smiled, shook his head knowingly and said, “Deep Playa.”

Deep Playa, he said, was place beyond the place, the “there” beyond the there there, the edge, the outside, the empty space. It was the wilderness of the temporary city in the emptiness. The desert’s desert.

Out there, he said, you walked or biked across the sand, and found empty space, or a movie theater with red velvet curtains. It was quiet. You could see all the stars. You could stay out there all night.

So now, when I think of Burning Man, I think of Deep Playa. But at the moment, I am in Long Island, as far from Burning Man as you can get. I’m visiting my parents in the house I grew up in. They are kindly taking me to the beach every few days, first at dawn, today at sunset.

The beach is the best thing about Long Island. I would say that the beach is the only thing about Long Island that I would not like to see non-violently bombed back to its prehistoric state, miraculously without harming anyone, but that seems extreme.

This evening at the beach, we all swam. Then, we walked a little, together. Then I walked on, alone.

One thing I miss since I moved to California is walking for a long time on a warm, sandy beach. Beaches out west are cold, foggy, craggy and rocky. But on Jones Beach, you can walk for miles. The Eastern reaches of Jones Beach State Park are an unofficial gay nude beach. It was on this gay nude beach where, walking with my youngest cousin, when she was about eight, we saw a man with a Prince Albert.

Further out, the beach was mostly empty, save for the occasional naked man, or pair of naked men, not wholly unlike how I imagined Burning Man would be.

There were odd driftwood structures out here, a few crude teepees. Some of them looked purposeful, others sculptural. I had entered the Deep Playa of Jones Beach.

I was mostly alone on the beach now, save for a shimmering figure here or there on the horizon. Our passing greetings were slight. The borderland is not a friendly place.

Why is it that I am drawn to the edges? As soon as I arrive anywhere, I want to find the place where no one else is.

Bins

July 19th, 2013

Two years ago, I was very broke and living in my car for the summer. I had sublet my brother and sister outlaw’s apartment for the year, but now I had to find my own place to live in California.

I was talking to my dad on the phone en route from a river trip to a camping trip and he said, “Have you given any thought to getting a place to live in the fall?”

“DAD,” I said, “I live on the ROAD. I don’t need the shackles of RENT to tie me to SOCIETY where I will live like a caged FATTED CALF to be slaughtered for VEAL.”

My dad responded evenly, “Emily, I’m your father. It just gives me some measure of security to imagine you with a roof over your head. That’s where I’m coming from. I’m sorry I said anything.”

Thus guilted and reality-checked, I went on Craigslist and searched studio apartments for the rent I could maybe actually afford if I maybe actually found some work. “Have you ever wanted to live in your own boat?” said one ad that caught my eye. “YES!” I thought. “I have ALWAYS wanted to live in my own boat!” But it wasn’t a boat–it was a one-room cabin in the Oakland hills.

I went to look at it the next day. It was so small–12×15 feet outside, 9×13 feet inside–but perfectly-scaled and well-built. It had a deck. “If the bathroom is gross,” I thought, “I won’t be able to deal.” But the guy who owned it and had built it himself had made an awesome bathroom, with a copper sink and travertine tiles. “Oh,” he said, “And there’s this.” He pulled up a trap door in the middle of the one room to reveal a three-foot deep basement the size of the whole cabin.

It was just like the moment the year before, when the man who sold me my Subaru folded down the seats and showed me how I could fit inside. “Yes,” I thought, at both moments, with the certainty and totality I hope to one day feel about another human. “This is the one.”

I called my dad and told him all about it. When I mentioned the basement, he said, “Great! You can get some bins!”

When I was born, my dad, who is also a Virgo and was born 29 years and 5 days before me, constructed an entire wall of colored plastic, different-sized bins above my changing table, to organize the baby stuff. These bins are one of my earliest visual memories. I’m sure Freud would have a field day with the association between diaper-changing and a subdivided organizing wall, but I prefer the cosmic, astrological view that says my desire to put everything into a color-coded bin was ordained in the stars, because on the day I was born, the sun was passing by some dots some ancient people who had no other form of entertainment besides fire, drumming and sex once connected in the shape of what they imagined was a virgin, or maybe a fertility goddess, which are not the same thing.

I took the cabin, wrote a check for September rent, and continued on with the summer. On Labor Day of that year, I drove out of Yosemite in a traffic jam of dusty Burning Man vehicles and unpacked the contents of SubyRuby into the cabin. They fit perfectly. I got a 3-D map of California and nailed it to the wall.

I went to Target. I got some bins. A blue one, for river and scuba gear. A green one, for camping gear. A purple one, for bedding. An orange one, for towels. I put the stuff in the bins. (Soon, I am going to get a gray one, for climbing. Because gray is the color that rocks are, obviously.) And now, I am able to pack for four trips simultaneously (a camping trip, a climbing trip, a New York trip, and a river trip) by pulling gear from my color-coded bins, in my own little slice of Virgo heaven, right here on earth.