Monthly Archives: October 2006

And once again …

Congratulations to Yiyun Li for winning the Whiting Award, which comes with $40,000 she plans to use to take a semester off of teaching at Mills (where she was my thesis advisor last year) to finish her novel. Yiyun has won umpteen awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Frank O’Connor short story award, but she’s not alone this time. Micheline Marcom, another Mills creative writing professor, also won a Whiting Award (I never took Micheline’s workshop) as has Christina Garcia, a visiting Mills teacher, in the past. This photo of Yiyun was taken from her website. Go Yiyun, and go Mills!



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Climber Dies in Yosemite

A sobering reminder that climbing can be dangerous, famous climber Todd Skinner died in Yosemite Monday when his belay loop broke while he was rappelling. The only lesson to be learned from this is that if your harness is old or worn, spend the $50 on a new one ASAP. Here’s the story from

Todd Skinner’s hands were cut up and he was tired after a hard day of climbing, but he was a happy man standing high above Yosemite Valley on what is known as Leaning Tower.

He and his partner, Jim Hewett of Fairfax, had spent two weeks practicing what would be the first free climb up this route, one of the hardest they had ever attempted.

“We’d probably been up and down it 100 times,” Hewett said Wednesday. “We were working out the route, figuring out moves. He was the same super happy person he had always been.”

They talked about their plans for the next day, then Skinner began rappelling down from a ledge part way up the 2,000-foot face. Five minutes later, he was dead.

Skinner, a 47-year-old former rodeo cowboy and world-renowned rock climber, fell more than 500 feet to his death Monday after the nylon loop used to attach the climbing rope to his harness broke. The accident has sent shock waves through the climbing community, where Skinner’s outgoing nature was almost as legendary as his courage and skill on some of the world’s most dangerous rock faces.

“There is just general disbelief that this could happen to him, because he was such a safe climber,” said Ann Krcik, a longtime friend who also employed him as a motivational speaker. “He was the pioneer of big wall free-climbing, but he also affected every climber he ever met because he was so personable.”

Skinner, who lived with his wife and three children in Lander, Wyo., was a specialist in free climbing, a style in which ropes and other equipment are used only as backup in case of a fall. He is credited with more than 300 first ascents in 26 countries, and his adventures have been documented on film and in magazines in 12 languages.

Among the highlights was the first free ascent of the Salathe Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan in 1988. The route, which is considered by many climbers as the best and most intimidating rock climb in the world, is steeper even than the famous Nose route, also on El Cap.

Skinner’s other first ascents include the north face of Mount Hooker in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, the Great Canadian Knife in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Yukon Territory, the Northwest Direct Route on Yosemite’s Half Dome and the East Face of Trango Tower in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range.

He also led mountain and jungle expeditions to Pakistan, Vietnam, Mali, Greenland and Kenya.

Through it all, he gained a reputation as one of the world’s great storytellers. With a mirthful cowboy twang, Skinner would describe in colorful detail his bull-riding experiences on the professional rodeo circuit or his jungle adventures with National Geographic, often with an emphasis on shocking detail.

“He was a character,” said speed climbing record holder Hans Florine, who often ran into Skinner climbing the big walls. “He told me once that during an expedition in South America, their food drop didn’t happen, so he had to eat monkeys. He said the meat smelled like burned hair because the monkeys weren’t skinned before they were barbequed.”

Skinner, whose stories were generally regarded as 85 percent true, parlayed his gift for gab into a money-making venture as a motivational speaker, inspiring audiences at 30 events a year.

Steve Schneider, 46, of Oakland, said he met Skinner on the rock climbing competition circuit 20 years ago and was captivated immediately.

“One of the things I remember him telling me was that his heroes were the Japanese left on the islands after World War II,” Schneider said. “He said they found some of those guys 15 to 20 years later in the jungles still fighting the war. He emulated those guys in that nothing was going to deter him, and it didn’t matter how long it was going to take. He had that dig-in-and-never-say-die attitude.”

It was as much his attitude as his skill that made his death shocking to climbers, many of whom regarded Skinner as virtually invincible.

“It’s really affecting the climbing community because harness failure is pretty unusual — it is not supposed to happen,” said Ken Yager, president and founder of Yosemite Climbing Association. “It’s gotten people thinking about their old harnesses now. I know I’m going to go out and buy a new one.”

The part that broke, called the belay loop, is designed to be the strongest part of the climbing harness, but Hewett, 34, said Skinner’s harness was old.

“It was actually very worn,” Hewett said. “I’d noted it a few days before, and he was aware it was something to be concerned about.” Friends of Skinner said he had ordered several new harnesses but they hadn’t yet arrived in the mail.

On Monday’s climb, Hewett said the belay loop snapped while Skinner was hanging in midair underneath an overhanging ledge.

“I knew exactly what had happened right when it happened,” he said. “It was just disbelief. It was too surreal.”

Stunned and in shock after watching his friend fall, he checked his equipment.

“I wanted to make sure that what had caused the accident wasn’t going to happen to me,” he said. “I then went down as quick as I could.”

Hewett said he knew there was no hope. A search-and-rescue team found Skinner’s body, wearing the harness with the broken belay loop, about 4 p.m. Monday on the rocks near Bridalveil Fall. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Skinner had survived virtually unscathed on many harrowing climbs. His closest call, friends said, came when a huge block of granite broke off Salathe Wall just as he and his partner reached the top in 1988. The huge slab scraped by them as it fell, breaking their bones but not their rope, which saved them.

In a sport that is full of rivalries and increasingly driven by competition, Skinner was universally regarded as the most generous, helpful and encouraging of all the top climbers.

“It’s a huge loss for the climbing community,” Schneider said. “I pay him the greatest compliment by saying that I was really jealous of Todd. He turned climbing into dollars better than anyone in America, and by doing that he’s broken ground for other climbers. I really looked up to him for that.”

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My latest obsession

I’ve been obsessed with the Decemberists’ latest album since I went to their concert last Thursday. I should have taken a picture – we were on the floor and pretty close up – but I was too enthralled by the music to bother. My favorite songs on the album are The Crane Wife 3, Shankill Butchers, and Sons and Daughters. Oh but they’re all so good, and their last album is fantastic, too. (Can you tell I grew up in the 70s by the fact that I keep saying “album”?) My opinion of a band rests so much on what they’re like live, what their personalities are like, and my favorites of the ones I’ve seen live in the last couple of years have been Norah Jones, Belle & Sebastian and The Decemberists. I couldn’t stand Jack White, even though I love the White Stripes’ music. But The Decemberists are wonderful onstage. They have six members now and they played a gazillion different instruments – many guitars, a xylophone, an accordion, a stand-up bass, a cello, and a banjo to name a few. Some highlights of the show were Colin’s commentaries about the San Francisco Tenderloin, the whole auditorium singing “Hear the bombs fade away” over and over, and Colin taking a cell phone from a kid in the front row, calling his mom and playing the next song live into the phone.


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Supermodel Quote of the Day

There are a lot of great supermodel quotes (“We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day,” for example), but this one really – er – takes the cheese. From Danish supermodel Helena Christensen:

“Whenever my head is like a maze, I turn to the easy things in life, the things that mean the most to me: Sex and cheese. These things are connected. Truth be told, I love all cheese: French cheese, Italian cheese, even British cheese, but Danish cheese is the greatest. I get my best nightmares after I eat Danish cheese. Actually I’ve seriously thought about getting a cheese tattoo. A nice Edam on my shoulder, maybe.” (From GQ Magazine)

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Women vs. Men in the workplace

I’m reading this book about women getting rich. I love to read get rich books since I’m poor, and my favorite so far has been “Smart Women Finish Rich” by David Bach. Thanks to that book, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” and another that I forget the name of, I no longer have credit card debt and I have an IRA, a money market account, and several stocks. But, like anything, I need to constantly remind myself of the cardinal tenets of money management, like what David Bach calls “The Latté Factor” – saving those few dollars you spend each day on lunch or BART by taking a bagged lunch or riding the casual carpool, for instance. Anyway, this new book annoys me because it assumes women are math-challenged and spends several pages explaining what fractions, percents and decimals are, but it does have a lot of good advice, too. I forget what it’s called, or I’d tell you. Anyway, she mentions that men still make more money than women in the workplace and that one of those reasons is that men ASK for more money. Given the same offer by a potential employer, on average, a man will negotiate for a higher salary. I saw proof of this today when I was talking to someone who has begun to work as a writing coach for entrepreneurs. This guy once worked as a business consultant but now is a writer working on his first book, and I asked him how much he charged for his writing coaching. “$150 an hour,” he said. $150 an hour! This was his first job ever working as a writing coach and he asked for $150 an hour and got it. And he thought that was low, that he could have charged more and the guy would have happily paid it. Meanwhile, after several years of editing and tutoring, I am charging $60 an hour. Should I be doubling my rate? I think it’s so difficult to know how much to ask for when you’re freelancing, and yet now I really do believe that, under the same circumstances, men tend to ask for more money-and get it. (Of course, whether he could get full-time work at that rate is another question.)


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Population 300,000,000

The U.S. population estimate hit 300,000,000 today. Thanks to all those out there not having babies so there’s still a little room for us who do want to have them.

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They only want you when you’re 17

We saw Ladytron last night and I would give them a 3 out of 5. They weren’t bad, but not amazing either. You had to be in the mood to dance to electroclash I guess; or just stare at how cool and beautiful they are. The upside of getting bored and wandering out early is that we got posters, and the posters are better than the band. I had wanted to see Sufjan Stevens last week (my friend Amy said the show was AMAZING (she compared it to a religious experience), but I had forgotten when tickets were going on sale and they were sold out by the time I got around to trying to buy them. The band that played before Ladytron, CSS, short for Cansei de Ser Sexy (“tired of being sexy” in Portuguese), is a Brazilian band with a lot more energy than Ladytron. They were pretty entertaining, although I’m not sure I loved their music either. This Thursday’s Decembrists will hopefully be a better show.

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