Saturday, January 26, 2008

Silliness at Verizon Center

There appears to be nothing too silly for intermission at an NBA basketball game. If you can imagine it, the Washington Wizards will do it.

I’m 60 years old. My first experiences of professional sporting events came when my Dad and Mom took me and my sister to Yankee Stadium to watch the Bronx Bombers, late 50s – early 60s edition, march through the American League on their way to another World Series victory under the leadership of the Ol’ Perfesser, Casey Stengle. Taking me to those games was a significant sacrifice for my Father. Although we lived in suburban New Jersey, he had grown up in Massachusetts a committed Red Sox fan. He once gave in to my pleas and read me an entire book about the history of the Yankees. But, he so hated the New York team that every time he book used the word “Yankees,” Dad substituted “Oompahs.”

Fine, you say. But, what does this drivel about baseball in the 60s have to do with silliness at NBA games? Read on impatient one, and you shall learn.

Baseball at Yankee Stadium in those days was a solemn affair. The sport was the National Pastime. The Yankees were its Gods. The “House that Ruth Built,” its temple. The grass was green, the stands were grey, and in center field, right there on the playing surface, stood tombstone-like monuments to departed deities: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio. There were no dancing girls, not even any ball-girls. There were the umpires, dressed all in Navy blue as befits any self respecting ump, the grounds crew, the bat boys, and of course the ballplayers. No one else; whom else did we need?

As game time approached, the Yankees would take the field in their ever so dignified uniforms: white with Navy blue pin strips, the reverse of the uniform worn by the Wall Street bankers and lawyers who made up much of their fan base. (The blue collar guys had mostly been fans of the Giants or Dodgers, and were in mourning because those teams had betrayed them for filthy lucher on the West Coast.)

Once the Star Spangled Banner had been sung, the stately tones of Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ PA announcer, echoed through the half empty stands, “Leading off and playing second base for the Boston Red Sox, Pete Runnels” (or whoever it was). And that was it. No fireworks, fancy introductions, mascot antics, or contests. Just a simple announcement of the name of the first batter. It was, after all, a baseball game we had come to see, not a vaudeville act or a circus.

And what games they were! We saw Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit homers in 1961, the year that Maris broke the Babe’s record. Tony Kubeck and Bobby Richardson turned double plays right in front of us. The “little lefthander” Whitey Ford struck men out. One day we sat in the right field stands quite close to where Yogi Berra, on a rest day from catching, was playing the outfield. My sister fell in love with him.

Yesterday, my daughter Valerie took me to a Washington Wizards basketball game. She and I go back to the days when the Wizards were still called the Bullets. When she was a little girl, we sat on a love seat in the kitchen after dinner and watched them play on TV. Those were the days of Juwan Howard, Chris Webber and George Muresan, the ungainly, odd-looking 7 foot 7 inch giant who played center. They had a couple of good seasons, and Val became particularly fond of Big George. We went to occasional games back then; more recently Val has taken me to several Washington Nationals baseball games. These trips have taught me that professional sporting events are no longer the somber, almost holy rituals of my youth. There is a certain amount of “entertainment” in addition to the game itself: the Nationals amuse us with racing Presidential mascots and the like. But nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard at last night’s basketball game.

We got there early. As we took our seats in the almost empty arena (named of course, not for the team, but rather after Verizon, the sponsor that had bought the “naming rights”), the faces of two insufferably perky twenty-somethings, a boy with stylish hair and a grinning blond girl, appeared on the giant TV screen hanging over the court. She was holding a microphone and babbling about the “Parent Makeover.” She had cornered to two reluctant gentlemen and was insisting that they put on various pieces of Wizards apparel (game jerseys, hats, sweats, etc.) and jump around like fools (while being shown on the giant, in-house TV screen) to prove they had as much “Wizard Spirit” as their (probably mortified) children. Neither fellow got into the spirit of it. Whom they had pissed off to deserve this treatment I could not say, but it must have been someone awfully important.

As Val and I were shaking our heads over this spectacle, a flying mini-van appeared! It made a slow circumnavigation of the arena. Then, apparently liking what it saw, continued to take laps. I suppose it was intended to advertize something; geniuses, these admen. But, I mean, what does a flying mini-van have to do with a basketball game? Everything, apparently, because the thing made numerous reappearances during the evening. (If anyone reading this ever meets Ezzy, my mini-van, you must be careful not to mention the flying van. I have enough trouble satisfying her demands to be taken out on the racetrack as a reward for pulling the race car and trailer. I can’t afford to pay for her to learn to fly.) After witnessing this aeronautical marvel, all I could suggest to Val was that we go get something to eat. She agreed, and bought me my dinner.

As we regained our seats, the floor filled with smoke, the lights dimmed, strobes flashed and music thundered. I expected at least the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse (apologies to Bob Dylan), if not the Second Coming. I was a tad disappointed when an over–excited voice intoned, “Yooouuurrr Waaashiiiingtoooon Wiiiizaaaards” and 11 tall guys dressed in white underwear trotted out. At least they were wearing the home whites and not the gold shirts with black shorts that make them look like a rec league team.

Just as I was settling down to concentrate on the first quarter action, some fool coach called a timeout, which afforded the blond girl the opportunity to inflict “Smile Cam” on the assembly. She instructed that the fan caught on camera with the “best” smile would be rewarded with a prize. It being “H & R Block Tax Preparation Night” at the old gym (sure glad I didn’t miss that one), the prize would be a certificate to have your taxes done for you. (Nothing about them being paid for you, though. Damn!) So, while several thousand eager taxpayers did their best imitation of Ronald McDonald, the camera panned the stands and projected their hideous grins onto the giant screen. Finally, Blondie picked a winner, he was given his much coveted tax certificate, and the basketball game was permitted to resume.

Next up we had “Dance Cam.” Yeah, it’s what you think. The camera pans the crowd looking for the best dancer, who won some prize or other. That really wasn’t so bad. Some of the kids, at least, looked really cute dancing. A fat guy won the prize. He could make his body go one way and his belly, go the other.

After a brief interruption for basketball, Blondie got back to work. The giant TV showed her shoving the microphone in the face of a big fellow slouching on a couch. It seems this piece of home furnishing is called the “Budweiser couch” (no one should be without one). With the unerring instinct of a Washington Post reporter tracking down a political scandal, Blondie asked the guy, “How did you get to sit on the Budweiser Couch?” She seemed at a loss, however, when all he said in answer was, “Drank a lotta Bud Lite.” A sudden resumption of basketball spared us most of her pained silence.

In the fourth quarter, as the game got close and the tedium of watching the players run, pass, dribble and shoot was becoming more than most in attendance could tolerate, Blondie came again to our rescue. She announced “KISSING CAM.” I wish I were making this up. If I were, I wouldn't make up this part. I'd jsut tell you the fianl score and be done wiith it. But Kisssing Cam really happened. She offered another prize, this one for the couple who did the best kissing while the panning camera was on them. We were treated to pecks on the cheek, decorous kisses on the lips, passionate embraces, and full tongue-in-the-mouth action. A young man and woman, who Blondie said were on their first date (how does she know these things?), refused to kiss at all. But they turned a lovely pink as they sat staring forward for what seemed like an hour with the camera on them. Who won the prize? How could you possibly care?

There was more silliness, but I was too numb to remember it. I do know that the Wizards won, holding off a late rally by the Memphis Grizzlies. And Val and I had a terrific time watching the game, laughing at the “entertainment” and chatting about this and that. Afterwards, she drove me home. I love having adult daughters.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Getting Ready for Red Rock

O. K. Bill, we’re going to do this one straight. None of that supposedly “funny” stuff you usually try to write. Just a nice, simple account of the progress you’re making getting ready for the trip to Red Rock. You are making progress aren’t you? We know all about those plans of your: building the bed for that beat up old van, digging all that camping junk out of the basement; lining up climbing partners, getting in climbing shape, blah, blah, blah. Well, have you got anything done? As for the climbing, old man, what makes you think you are going to be able to get up, much less lead, those long “moderates” you’ve been drooling over in the guidebook? They are pretty high and look awfully steep.

Who is that guy? And why does he bug me so? Seems like he follows me almost everywhere I go. When he’s not pointing out what I’ve messed up or haven’t got done, he’s telling me what will go wrong and what I can’t do right. Does everybody have one of those fellows riding around in his head? Oh hell, who knows?

Any way, buddy, I have gotten a lot done for my trip, thank you! I’ve lined up several climbing partners; and identified likely routes that don’t look too hard and get sun most of the day. I’ve made lists of the gear and stuff I will need to take, and am assembling it. You know you’re going to forget something you need, dummy. Probably, but I can always buy it once I get there. Las Vegas may not be civilization, but it does have stores, including Desert Rock Sport, said to be a fine climbing store.

Ezzy (the minivan) and I will take the Southern route: down Interstate 81 and then across I-40. There appears to be a good supply of campgrounds along I-40 that are open year round. The trip ought to take about 4 days. Leaving bright and early on February 11th, we should arrive at the Red Rock campground late Thursday, affording one day to get oriented before my first climbing appointment. Yeah, but what if that old heap of junk minivan breaks down? It’s pretty much a wreck. Well, I guess we’ll just deal with that if and when it happens. Ezzy has been to the car hospital where my racing buddy Ed York (an outstanding and honest mechanic) gave her a once over, repaired her front suspension (which has been making funny noises for about 5 years), and put new shoes on her. I’ll bring the auto tool kit, floor jack and jumper cables. I’ve got my cell phone. We’ll cope.

Today I built the bed and installed it into Ezzy. You really think you’re gonna be able to sleep in that thing? I don’t see why not. I’ll just drive until I am really tired and then ..... ZZZZZ. The bed is very narrow and the van will be cold at night. That “southern” route of yours doesn’t exactly run through the tropics. Hah, I got that covered. My old Eddie Bauer -20 deg. down bag is going to make a reappearance, along with a Dacron bag. If they aren’t enough, my old expedition Parka is coming too. I’ll be drowning in fluff. And you really think that bed is wide enough? For a person who can sleep each night wedged into a 12 inch space between his wife and his cat, the bed will be plenty big.

The kitchen is shaping up. I dug out the old Coleman camp stove and bought some new gas cylinders for it. I got a really cute little tea kettle and a Melita funnel and filters so I can make the essential morning cups of coffee. Add in some pots, plates, a cup and a bowl and food making is taken care of. The first aid kit is restocked. Good. Probably going too need that puppy. Hope you have lots of stuff for aching muscles, sore joints and sprained ankles. Oh, shut up!

What about the conditioning program? How’s that coming? Truth to tell, it’s not coming so well. It was doing OK in December and early January. Week before last I climbed 4 times, twice outdoors (we had some really warm weather here near Washington D.C. Hard to understand why with the candidates and their hot air all in Iowa, but we did). Then I got sick and have been house-bound for the last 10 days. Gonna try back at the gym tomorrow, so we’ll see. But I should be totally recovered well before leaving for Red Rock.

What makes you think that, at your age (60 years) and having been out of climbing for 35 years, you have any business trekking all the way across the county to climb 1000 foot cliffs in Nevada? Are you nuts? Probably. But this trip to Red Rock is certainly no less reasonable than was that day in the Gunks 18 months ago when I did my first trad lead in 35 years. Indeed, since then I have worked back up to where I am leading 5.7 at the Gunks, at Seneca and on Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. Those areas have pretty stiff ratings. If I can lead 5.7 there, I should be able to climb it at Red Rock. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Good luck, you’re going to need it! Thanks, I guess.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Rock Climber Girl

I stumbled on a blog called "Rock Climber Girl" the other day and found it quite interesting. There are entertaining trip reports (including one about Red Rock, where I am about to go) and gear reviews, as well as thoughtful pieces about life and climbing, for example one about the vicissitudes of roping up with your lover. But I liked best the way RCG infuses the stories with her personality and perspective. It gave me a window into another's delightful view of climbing and life.

Of course, I found some of that view perplexing. Climber Girl devotes a whole article to the best way of "de-funkifying" (getting the stink out of) synthetic climbing garments. Now, why would anyone want to do that? In the summer of 1972 I proudly wore the same shirt for about 45 days straight while climbing in Yosemite. The fouler the better was my mantra. With apologies to TM Herbert, "I started climbing when men smelled like men, and we nailed 5.8." Of course, when I tried to hitch-hike back east, all my rides were really short. Hmmm? Is it a female thing, this focus on odor? No. I don't remember even the few girl climbers back in the day getting touchy about olfactory issues. It must be something that intruded into the sport, like sticky rubber, cams and "sport" climbing, while I was away for 35 years.

Now wait a minute, Bill. Perhaps there is something to be learned here. Is it just possible that, if you smelled better, you could actually climb and not have to aid 5.8 or .9 or .10? Is a "fresh clean scent" the real secret to "sending" 5.12c? Not likely, but who knows? I think I am going to take some clean shirts with me to Red Rock in February, shower regularly at the local rock gym (for a samll fee, says the guidebook) and see if it helps. Watch this space for a full report.

Kidding aside, I really enjoyed Rock Climber Girl. Check it out at

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Fun Hog Trip to Red Rock Canyon

According to Susan Schwartz in “Into the Unknown,” her biography of Hans Kraus, it was Kraus who persuaded Jim McCarthy (my first climbing hero) not to become a climbing bum, but instead to go to law school. McCarthy went on to become a successful New York litigator and President of the American Alpine Club. Schwartz writes about this episode as another of Kraus’ many fine achievements. But, when I read about it, I wasn’t so sure he gave Jim the right advice.

Like McCarthy, I climbed at the Gunks in the 60s. Unlike him, I wasn’t very good at all. While he was putting in new 5.10s, I was falling off Moonlight; it’s a 5.6, thank you. Also like McCarthy, I went to law school. I did a lot of litigation, married Lois (the best bear), own the house in the burbs and three (old) cars, and raised two terrific young women, Valerie and Karen. Climbing got lost along the way, returning to my life only in the summer of 2006 (see “Return to Easy O” under December on this blog). But I never quite shook an idea that had snuck into my head at some point between 1965 and 1970: it would be cool to be a climbing bum.

In the late 70s (before kids) Lois and I talked about taking a year off from jobs and driving down the Pan American Highway. We got the idea from an old article in the American Alpine Journal written, if memory serves, by Yvon Chouinard and entitled “The First Annual Fun Hog Expedition to Patagonia.” Chouinard and three other climbers (I think Tom Frost may have been one) loaded up a Red VW Micro Bus (was there any other possible vehicle in the 60s?) with all their “play” gear and drove from California to the tip of South America, “hogging as much fun as possible” along the way. Once at the tip, they spent a month playing cards in a Patagonian ice cave waiting for a break in the weather. When it came, they ran up some jutting tooth of shear rock in a couple of days, packed up their stuff and drove home, hogging still more fun. Lois and I were never up to climbing one of those rock fangs in Patagonia, but the idea of skiing, swimming, biking, climbing and sightseeing all the way down and back appealed to us greatly. We even bought a big, brown Chevy van and built a bed and closets into it in anticipation of the trip. We called her “Sweet Rotunda” after a Song of that name by Tom Rush (“Sweet Rotunda, you haul your ashes, Babe, and I’ll haul mine”).

But there never seemed to be a good time to quit our jobs. The trip was postponed and finally abandoned. Rotunda sat in our suburban car port decaying from disuse. We finally had to give her to a fellow who did some work on our house in return for his hauling her away. I don’t think he ever did get her running.

It seems, however, that my desire to be a climbing bum, or at least to travel around in a van and go climbing, didn’t die with Rotunda. Now that I have retired, the little monster has poked his head up again. And, why not? Karen and Valerie are on their own, Lois is supportive (but her job prevents her coming), and I have time. I even have a van, or at least a mini-van. Her name is Esmeralda (“Ezzie” to her friends) and she is 12 years old. She took us on family vacations. Each of my daughters learned to drive in her, and each used her for transportation in high school. When they went to college, I converted her into the tow vehicle for my race car. Now she is about to begin yet another new life.

I think it was Richard, a very experienced Gunks hard man, who first suggested climbing at Red Rock. He said that, although the rock is sandstone, the climbing is in some ways similar to the Gunks, but with much longer moderate routes. My friends Jean and Annie also spoke of climbing there and seemed to have liked it. In any event, as the weather in the Northeast got cold and snowy, I began to think of making a trip to some warmer place. (I also thought about doing some ice climbing, but that's another story.) I investigated Red Rock and learned that the temperatures, while not really warm, appear quite climbable in February. There are a lot of multi-pitch trad routes in the 5.6 to 5.8 range. I’ve worked my way up to leading 5.7 at Seneca and the Gunks, so there should be stuff I can do. I was sold!

Now, I suppose that to be a real climbing bum, I should just throw gear and some clothes into a pack (it would have to be an old-style external frame deal; I don’t have one of the new, spiffy ones I see at the Gunks these days), walk out to the D.C. Beltway (I-495) and stick out my thumb. I did hitch to Yosemite back in the day. But I am not ready to be that authentic. So instead, I am going to build a small bed into Esmeralda and outfit her with a couple of sleeping bags, my old propane stove, some cooking gear purloined from the kitchen, and other odds and ends. Starting about February 10th, I’ll head for Las Vegas and the Red Rock Canyons, planning to climb there from February 16th through March 2nd.

I’ve acquired a couple of guidebooks, including the apparently encyclopedic new Handren guide. I’ve picked out some routes that look good. They get sun most of the day so they should be reasonably warm, are multi-pitch and look to be easy enough for me to handle.

My regular climbing partners all have to work for a living (bummer for them), so I will be going alone. I’ve read that Red Rocks can be a tough place to meet partners on the spur of the moment. So, I’ve been working the internet to find some folks to climb with. If you asked me what is the biggest difference between climbing in the 60s and climbing now, I would say the internet as a means of finding climbers. It is wonderful. Since starting up climbing again, I’ve connected through the internet with at least ten climbing partners and in each instance the experience has been excellent. Three folks have already agreed to climb with me at Red Rocks, and another very kind climber has offered to let me stay for a bit at his house.

Ezzie and I are also going to camp for some of the time at 13 mile campground. We’ve been warned it is very windy, so we’ll tie everything down. My first climb, if all goes well, will be Johnny Vegas on February 16th. Everything I read abut it makes it sound like an ideal place to start: short approach, sun, moderate, fun climbing.

On re-reading the last couple of paragraphs, it occurs to me that there is more planning going on here than is suitable for a real climbing bum. But hey. Cut me a little slack. I’ve been a lawyer for 35 years; planning is the name of the game in litigation. Give me a little time to ease into this bumming thing.

I have arranged to borrow a lap top with a wireless connection from my daughter Valerie. Using it, my digital camera and the wireless connection I hear is free at Desert Rock Sports, I hope to be able to post reports and pictures of my trip to this blog. Look for them starting the second week of February.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


I watched as my father scraped the mixture of pureed meat, peas and squash into a pile on the side of his plate and then awkwardly scooped some onto his spoon. With complete concentration and a shaking hand, he moved the spoon slowly toward his mouth. Just as it seemed he would drop the load of mush and have to start over, he brought his mouth down and slipped the spoon in. After swallowing, he started over, again and again. A meal took him well over an hour of hard work. He would let the staff at the nursing home feed him, but obviously preferred to do it himself. The aides seemed proud of his ability to do so.

He was 94. Since his stroke 8 years earlier, his right side was partially paralyzed and he had trouble finding the words to express his thoughts. He had worked hard at the rehabilitation hospital and been able to live at home with help from my mother for several years. Finally, when she turned 90 and his ability to care for himself deteriorated, he went into a nursing home near my sister’s house in Wolfeboro, N.H.

For most of my life, I had seriously misjudged my Dad. My mother is a very strong personality; she dominated the family as I grew up. Dad seemed a background figure: always doing whatever was needed to support what the rest of us were doing. I mistook his selflessness for weakness.

His response to his stroke and the last years of his life not only showed me how strong he was, but also gave me keys to living.

Dad seldom complained and never seemed to spend time resenting his condition or disabilities. I always found him pleasant to be with and interested in me and what I talked to him about. The staff at the nursing home emphasized how he was friendly and appreciative of what they did for him. The called him “Morty” (his name was Morton) and seemed genuinely to like him. He smiled often and sometimes gave them backrubs (as best he could). He apparently enjoyed life enough to want to keep on living it: in his last years he fought off several bouts of influenza that we all thought would kill him.

I think the key to his attitude was acceptance. He accepted that the stroke had impaired him and did not bother spending time and effort resenting that fact or lamenting what he could no longer do. But acceptance did not equate to surrender.

Dad continued to work to do all the things he could. He laboriously fed himself each meal. He crept around the nursing home in his wheelchair, investigating each new or interesting thing and trying to open every locked door. He followed the activities of the portly house cat with interest. He played catch with my sister (a physical education teacher) on her nearly daily visits. He always fussed over Sophie, my sister’s Chocolate Lab when she came to visit. He was unfailingly interested in the doings of his grandchildren. When I told him a story he recalled from my childhood he would get a big grin on his face and say, “I remember that!”

I once asked him how he was doing. He responded, “Pretty well.” Then he added, “For the way I am now.” To me that said it all. He accepted “the way” he was; but instead of resenting his condition, he focused on the “pretty well,” that is, on what was good in his life and what he could still do. His last years had a quality of gracefulness I greatly admire.

In the early morning of November 8, 2004 I was awakened by the ringing of my sister’s telephone. It was the nursing home calling. We had better come very soon. Dad had been unconscious for a couple of days and we knew the end was near. I dressed and drove over. My sister was already there. I held his hand and listened to him breath. He made a small, throat-clearing sound that was unique to him. Soon that sound will be gone from the world forever, I thought. I bit later, his hand twitched in mine and he stopped. Just stopped. No breathing, no movement, no warmth. My father was dead.