news & appearances

12 December 2009

This brief appreciation of the late mountaineer Charlie Houston appeared in shorter form in the December/January 2010 issue of Mens Journal.

Charles S. Houston who died at the age of 96 last September at his home in Burlington Vermont was one of the legendary mountaineers of the 20th century, more famous for the summits he didn’t reach than the ones he did. In 1953 following his brush with death after his second attempt on K2 – the “mountaineer’s mountain,” second to Everest in height but far more difficult – Houston tackled the inevitable question of why climb mountains. “How can I phrase what seems to me the most important reason of all?” he wrote. “It is the chance to be briefly free of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off the nonessentials, to come down to the core of life itself. Food, shelter, friends—these are the essentials, these plus faith and purpose and a deep and unrelenting determination.”

There in a Sierra cup was the essence of Houston himself, his drive, his humanism, his reservoir of optimism and resilience. When he quit Himalayan climbing he turned his energy to the study of the effects of altitude and became the dean of mountain medicine. For 12 years he led the High Altitude Physiology Study on Mt. Logan, the highest peak in Canada. I was one of eight guinea pigs recruited for the HAPS season in 1975. We were based at a camp on the wild shores of Kluane Lake in the Yukon territory: a scattering of tents, wooden cabins, a dining hall, seminar room and a gravel airstrip from which the single-engine high-altitude Helio Courier 66 Delta would ferry people and equipment to a staging camp on the Donjek Plateau and then on again to a high camp on the Logan massif.

Our five week season was cursed by bad weather, and other mishaps. 66 Delta blew an oil line and made an emergency landing on the moraine of Kaskawulsh Glacier. A back-up plane “crashed” into a snow trench and had to limp down to Calgary for structural x-rays. By early July Charlie could sometimes be seen prostrate on the airstrip pounding the gravel with his arms and legs. And then he’d bounce up and say “We’re not beaten yet!”

One day toward the end when Logan was hopelessly weathered in, some of the doctors and guinea pigs took off for a scramble up Sheep Mountain overlooking Kluane Lake. We climbed for hours. We saw blonde grizzlies. We saw the transcendent light of the St. Elias ice fields. Then we undid our hours of climbing in 60 joyful minutes of descending on a voluptuously soft and untracked scree slope. At the bottom we flung ourselves into the icy lake. When Charlie drove up, I asked him where he’d go if he had no planes to fix, no data to glean, no reports to write.

I’d go that way,” he said, gesturing not to the south and west where the great peaks and all-but-impassable ice fields of the St. Elias Range were hidden behind the mountain we’d climbed, but to the north – to the green round-shouldered wilderness of the Kluane Range. “There’s a logging trail in fifty miles and a road after another seventy-five. You could walk for days. There’s nothing back there. God’s country.” He was 62 that summer. The glorious, awful ordeals of his youth in the extreme parts of the world were done, but not what he once called “the lure of unknown regions beyond the rim of experience.” I still remember how keen the quiet was as the bunch of us he’d come to fetch glimpsed the wild country through his eyes, lake water dripping from our hands, all of us briefly freed, it seemed, of the small concerns of our common lives.

2005-2010 Magazine Publications

"Inside the Mayhem of the Newest Olympic Sport,", 12 Feb. 2010
“Generation Gap,” T: The New York Times Style Magazine, 6 December 2009
“A Tribute to Charles Houston,” Men’s Journal, December/January 2009
“Opera’s Coolest Soprano,” The New York Times Magazine, 20 September 2009
“Enlightenment Therapy,” The New York Times Magazine, 26 April 2009
“The King Herself,” National Geographic, April 2009
"It's Good to Be Immortal," PLAY: The New York Times Sports Magazine, June 2008
"Russian Revolutionary," The New York Times Magazine, 25 May 2008
"Behind the Scenes in Santa Barbara," Food & Wine, April 2008
"Beauty's Fool," Hallmark Magazine, March 2008
"Not to Get Too Mystical About It," PLAY: The New York Times Sports Magazine, November 2007
"Revolution in Tights," New York Magazine, 22 October 2007
"How to Be A Citizen Winemaker," Food & Wine, October 2007
"The Confessor," The New York Times Magazine, 29 April 2007
"Alle Montagna Con Papa," PLAY: The New York Times Sports Magazine, 4 March 2007
"I've Got a Feeling," O, The Oprah Magazine, March 2007
"The Elle Word," Elle Magazine, December 2006
"Virtually Cool," The New York Times Magazine, 10 September 2006
"The Obsession of Cindy Stern," New Jersey Monthly, April 2006
"The Freshman" The New York Times Magazine 26 February 2006
"In the Balance: Wendy Whelan" The New York Times Magazine 22 January 2006
"The Smart Bomb: Scarlett Johansson" Elle Magazine, January 2006
"Born Again: Salt Lake City" Travel + Leisure, November 2005
"My Parents Are Driving Me to Drink" Food & Wine, October 2005
"The Great American Checkup" Men's Journal, August 2005


23 June 2008 Monday

We wanted to let you know that Kate's mom and fellow Pisces, Glynne Robinson Betts, died over the weekend, Saturday morning, June 21 at 9:55 AM. She was 74. The myeloma cancer she had been battling for five years had gotten into her spinal fluid this spring. One month ago she was hospitalized, and treated with palliative radiation. A week ago on Friday June 13th, she was transferred to the Calvary Hospice in the Bronx. Kate and her sister Liz and her brother Will had been visiting Glynne every day. The doctors thought she might “linger” for a few months, but a few days after entering the hospice, she became "non-responsive."
On Saturday morning, we drove our kids Oliver and India up to see her. They understood “grand-mommy” would be “sleeping” and might not be able to wake up and hug them and say hello. In the past few years when she was still able to walk, Glynne had often come over to visit them. Her grandkids were one of the main springs of her happiness, along with traveling, reading, writing, seeing friends and shopping at Bergdorf’s. (Kate thinks a better vessel for her ashes than some grim urn from an obsequious funeral home would be a silver box from Bergdorf’s.) India, who is now three and a half, had proudly got herself dressed Saturday morning, in a mismatched floral skirt and blouse, and silver shoes. She clutched a couple of snapshots she wanted to show grand-mommy. (Since there hasn’t been anyone she hasn’t been able to wake up at whatever hour of the night, I think she thought she would be able to rouse Glynne too.) Ollie put on a new blue polo shirt. Kate had gathered a big bouquet of spring flowers in a vase.
We got to the hospice and were walking down the hall, thirty feet from Room 318 when the nurse intercepted us. She said Glynne had just stopped breathing and that the doctor was on his way. I took the kids to the waiting room. Kate came back a few minutes later, crumbling with grief.
“She’s gone,” she said.
The story we cling to is that she held on until we were near – that somehow she knew we were near and that helped her let go.
We asked the kids whether they wanted to see her one last time and say goodbye. For India who had refused to leave our apartment last Halloween because of all the ghosts trick or treating in the streets, going into the room was too scary. Ollie who turns nine next week said he would like to see Glynne. Glynne had picked him up from school most every Tuesday afternoon when he was in second grade. Even when it wasn't his birthday or any special occasion, she was always sending him cards saying how much she loved him. I took him in. The door was ajar. A chaplain with a kind face was standing by the window. Glynne was semi-reclined on her bed. Her eyes were closed. Her hands were resting on her stomach. She looked very peaceful. The walls were covered with pictures of her and her grandkids in better days, those live-long summers in Sag Harbor where she had rented a house in 2005 and 2006, and spring and fall and winter weekends at Liz’s house in Norfolk Ct. I encouraged him to touch Glynne if he wanted to. He reached for her knee and then briefly laid his hand on his grandmother’s. “You’re a brave young man,” the chaplain said. I could see Ollie struggling with what I was struggling with, which was the strange emptiness of the body when the spirit is gone. Glynne so familiar, such a constant presence in our lives, was now almost unrecognizable not because she had wasted away or her features had been distorted from the labor of her last days but because – well I don’t know why. Maybe we always see the spirit in each other and just don’t recognize it as such until we see what the flesh looks like when the spirit is gone. It is easy to confuse the wrapping with the gift, but impossible to do so once the gift is gone, just as it is impossible to forget that being is immeasurable moment to moment until our time has measured it and there are no more moments.
Later that afternoon, all Glynne’s children and grandchildren went back to her apartment on E. 91st Street with no real purpose other than to linger among her things, in the place she had never been able to get back to when she went to the hospital a month ago. We wanted to hold onto her presence, and yet in some ways all the touches of her life only sharpened the fracture. On the living room table was a new copy of Turgenev’s short stories. She always had new books around, she was hungry for experience right up until the end. I was struck by her glasses on her dresser, and passages she’d underlined about the creative life in a book about how to write a memoir. She was a talented photographer and writer. In 1981 she published Writers in Residence: American Writers at Home. She wrote the text and took the pictures. She had pictures of her kids and grandkids everywhere, and in the little study where Ollie and I had spent the week after 9/11, refugees from the catastrophe that engulfed our neighborhood, there was a toy box the kids loved, filled with books and little wooden trinkets she brought back from Russia and Finland and other places. You pulled a string and a wooden bear moved his arm and painted a picture of a bear. You pulled a string and six chickens pecked a wooden paddle. There was a picture book with wheels left over from the days when nothing fascinated Ollie more than graders, dump trucks and car carriers. India swung the little wooden ball that made the pecking chicken peck, and then asked me “Is grand-mommy still dying?” Glynne was there in her hairbrush and her shoes and her date book, filled sadly at the end mostly with doctor’s appointments. Later India she came up to me with a very serious face, wrestling with her decision not to have gone in to see Glynne in Room 318. She announced that when she turned four next January she will not to be scared and would visit grand-mommy in her room.
It is heartbreaking to have to introduce your kids to the finality of death. Ollie took it in so stoically. He went through the toy box again as he used to, reliving the first part of his childhood. Then he sat on grand-mommy’s four-poster bed and watched her DVD series on the Planet Earth. For better or for worse, we have offered him no religious doctrines to soften the blow, or to hold out some hope of an afterlife, mainly because we have none ourselves that we could affirm un-hypocritically, or practice without doubt. Death is as inconceivable to us as it is to our children. Kate took care in the last few days to explain to India that grand-mommy would always live in our hearts; in the case of India who bears the most uncanny resemblance to Glynne (they look almost like twins in some baby pictures) this may be actually and genetically the case. I could see India grappling with what it means to live in someone’s heart, until finally the idea clicked and she was able to express it in pre-school terminology: “Grand-mommy is in our group,” she said. I can’t think of a better way to say it. In our group, she was; she is.

7 March 2006

Here's a link to the complete text of the New York Times Magazine article "The Freshman" republished in the 28 February 2006 edition of the International Herald Tribune.

Backpacking with India 11 Nov. 2005
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India Brown, at home, nine months old, October 2, 2005 Posted by Picasa

4 January 2005
We wanted to let you know that at 11:05 AM January 4, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Kate finally completed her own version of Passage to India, giving birth to India Josephine Brown, 15 pounds, 2 ounces. Just kidding: 7 pounds, 10 ounces. She is 19 inches long. Her ERB scores haven't come in yet. She was wearing a coat of tan vernix. She stopped crying as soon as she was laid on Kate's chest. Kate is as fine as anyone has a right to expect after abdominal surgery. India looks remarkably like her big brother Oliver looked when he was her age. Cleft in the chin, a dimple, Churchillian cheeks, and those fierce dark eyes that seem to suggest a mix of marvel and annoyance at being dragged from the Edenic life in the secret sea. --Chip

10 February 2005
7:30 PM Barnes & Noble at 4 Astor Place, New York
I'll be reading from "The Waiting Game," an essay in the forthcoming anthology "Committed: Men Tell Stories of Love, Commitment and Marriage" (Bloomsbury 2005). Also reading are Louis Begley, Colin Harrison and Jonathan Mahler.

11 September 2004 Third Anniversary: A Letter from New York Written at 3 AM 12 September 2001

This is just to say thanks for some of the emails and calls that came in yesterday, sorry if I was a little short or spacey on the phone, and to let everyone know that we're....whatever, fine, I guess, fine as you can be when you're in shock or dumbfounded by tragedy and stupidity and chaos. I am wanting to write something about yesterday if only to make it seem real at the moment because it doesn't seem "real." I'm also writing because it's 3 AM and I can't sleep, and I feel the need to do something communal, like send off an email to a group. Kate is in California, so yesterday morning, it was just me, Ollie and Ollie's nanny Yvonne who'd come in from Brooklyn. Yvonne was about to take Ollie out to what was once (and I hope will be again) the best playground in New York, which is in the middle of the north section of Battery Park -- Ground Zero, as they're calling it on TV. We lived 13 blocks from the where the World Trade Center Complex begins, and the Battery Park City playground just north and across West Street from the towers has been our communal front yard. Our front windows look north, and the bedroom windows look south, with what was a great view of the Twin Towers -- "the Big Tow-ahs", as Ollie calls them – the upper 50 or so stories of the north one with the TV antenna in full view, the south one half visible behind it. They never inspired the sort of affection of the Chrysler Building, or other New York landmarks, they were strange looking things -- massive and vaguely totalitarian expressions of modernism with all the charm of those punch cards that were once used to load data into computers in the late 1950s. But for the last two years we've been living with them, and I often changed Ollie's diaper by their lights, and they made for beautiful spectacles during night rain when half veiled in clouds. I realize now they served to bring to the city rats the touch of the empyrean that usually comes from mountains.

Anyway, we didn't hear what a lot of neighbors heard at 8:48 which was the hissing shriek of a jet engines passing no higher than an flock of park pigeons, and then the tremendous "sonic boom" of impact, as one of the guys in the building described it. In fact this apocalyptic tragedy started off as a fire engine festival for Ollie, a fun exciting morning as seen through the eyes of a boy who is 26 months old. But the fire engines and the police cars kept coming and coming and the sirens were unrelenting, and suddenly the traffic stopped issuing from the Holland tunnel, and we could see all the workers renovating the lofts across the expanse of the tunnel's exit Plaza staring south. Yvonne went back to Ollie's room, and cried out, "My God! The World Trade Center is on fire!" We didn't know it was a suicidal plane attack then, it seemed like some terrible explosion had blown open a hole three quarters up the north face of the north tower, the aluminum cladding had been exploded off the structure of the building, there was a ghastly hole that showed the profile of the aircraft's wing, orange flames were burning were along entire floors above and below; each window looked like the window into a kiln. Roiling black smoke was being shunted away to the east and south in good wind – and the air was otherwise all cleared out on a beautiful day after a night of thunderstorms and high humidity. It was a paralyzingly horrific sight to see the tower burning and then suddenly, kaboom! standing at the window in Ollie's bedroom we saw the fireball and heard the battlefield concussion of the second plane. An enormous black and orange-veined cloud mushroomed up the face of the south tower. What looked like confetti after another Yankee championship came fluttering out of the sky. The foreshortening effect makes it hard to realize how tall and massive the towers are – but this explosion would have engulfed a 30 story building. I found my binoculars and went up onto the roof of our apartment which is 12 high-ceilinged loft stories over the street, and is one of the highest and closest building. From the roof you have an unobstructed view of the towers rising 70 stories above the surrounding buildings which are between 30 and 40 stories. It's just far enough away to make you realize how big the buildings are. The fire was getting worse on the north tower and oddly seemed less dangerous on the south tower. I raced back down stairs, turned on the TV, and learned that planes had hit both buildings, but the first footage they had made the plane that hit the south tower look like a Cessna. So how bad could that be?

Back up on the roof. With the binoculars I could see a man waving a white flag from perhaps the uppermost floor of the north tower, in the bay of windows closest to the river. He kept waving and waving the white flag. Media helicopters were circling around, and suddenly they were gone – grounded evidently. There were two NY police helicopters standing off. It was astonishing and terrifying to watch the flames spread, but still inconceivable that that the buildings would not survive even as charred hulks. But the fire kept spreading. Chairs came flying out in splashes of glass, and then – and maybe this is why I'm writing this down – people. When I went up to the roof, a bunch of workers and residents from our building said, "People are jumping" but I didn't believe them. It would be like jumping off Yosemite. I looked with my binoculars, and what they were saying were people were clearly debris – sheets of metal, chairs, unidentifiable stuff, and then a... oh God, a man in khakis and an open blue suit jacket, feet up in the air, falling down the side of the building facing the river, three, four, five seconds, gone, vanished between a low silver-skinned building and World Trade No. 7 in the foreground. I actually thought maybe the fire department had set up a giant air bag down there. Nobody was doing anything. A lone F-16 made a couple sweeps around the towers. Then more people began to jump out the riverside of the tower, and then out the front, where they fell against the backdrop of the windows, almost in sequence, like paratroopers bustling out of an aircraft. I stopped counting after about a dozen, but there were at least 20, I think. And where there had been the man waving with the white flag there was only thick black smoke pouring out of the window like exhaust from a coal burning train. I didn't think anything could be more terrible than the sight of those people leaping to their deaths but in retrospect... I had to go downstairs. On the news, they said the south tower had collapsed – but again, it seemed impossible to believe. I went back up to the roof to see for myself, but you couldn't tell what was there, there was too much smoke. I was up there one other guy from out building, and about 20 minutes after the south tower went down, the north one began to go. It was the single most frightening thing I have ever seen. The huge antenna began to tip and sink and the massive structure telescoped in on itself. For a moment it was like seeing some huge evil huge octopus emerge as immense angry-looking tentacles of dark gray dust and smoke and steel arced out the crumpling tower, huge cascading arms of destruction raining down like hell. Even from the street and other rooftops we could hear people saying Oh my God. The whole tower went in a kind of slow-motion which was only an effect of the distance. And then it vanished in that terrible cloud.

And just a while I go I went into Ollie's room, and stood at his changing table, oppressed by the darkness in the sky and god knows how many dead below it. It's one thing to idly say "Whirl is king" and another to see it hammered out in darkness. There was a moment up on the roof yesterday morning before the second tower fell where I was looking for planes – the F16 went by, thanks for nothing, Bush was in Florida reading to school children, the police helicopters were watching people jump to their deaths, and suddenly I saw another aircraft flash across the my binoculars. Maybe somebody was doing something. I looked again: it was seagull coasting toward the river; alive and utterly unconcerned with anything going on in the streets below. It was deeply comforting at that moment to think that Life has many other faces.

-- Chip Brown

7 January 2004 7:30 PM: A lecture at The Explorers Club 46 East 70th Street, New York NY Wilderness, Land Ethics and Identity: The Life and Death of Guy Waterman Tickets are $15 and go to support the Appalachian Mountain Club.

20 May 1:40 PM EST: Interview on "New York and Company" WNYC-FM

14 May 2003 5:50 EST:
All Things Considered interview

May 2003:
"Best Books" column from The Week magazine /Chip Brown

1. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
There isn’t a better how-to manual for young fiction writers, or for that matter writers of any age working in any form. If you have the misfortune to be facing the demon of a blank page, you can spend many happy hours procrastinating with the brilliant analogies Gardner arrays in defense of his thesis that fiction (or any kind of writing, I would say) is a “continuous unbroken dream.”

2. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
Deservedly considered one of the great novels of the 20th century, this story of an Italian prince confronting the political upheavals of the Italian reorganization culminates in one of the most transcendently beautiful death scenes ever written.

3. Freud: the Mind of a Moralist by Philip Rieff
A mid-century masterpiece of explication and criticism that appreciates Freud as the prophet of “psychological man” who embraces the paradoxical idea that health lies in understanding we are chronically ill. Rieff dissects Freudian ideology with a cool uncultish eye and separates the wheat of Freud’s genuine insights from the chaff of his smug reductionism.

4. Typhoon by Joseph Conrad
Here’s the real “perfect storm” next to which most examples from the current class of killer weather books are so many paltry zephyrs. “This is the disintegrating power of a great wind: it isolates one from one’s kind,” writes Conrad. The countering genius of his description – the greatest meteorological event in the English language – is that it reconnects what typhoons wrench apart.

5. The Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram
This lambent meditation by a long-time Sports Illustrated writer who died last year manages to sustain the poetic compression of a magazine article across the length of a book. It is a beautifully composed and fiercely argued account of the rivalry of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, he of the emptied, “dance-hall at daybreak” eyes. Kram finds the men beneath the myths.

6. The Reenchantment of the World by Morris Berman
This pioneering holistic work is still one of the best discussions of the spiritual havoc wrought by the “disgodding” of nature and the split in the Western mind between facts and values. As Berman writes “For modern science, ‘What can I know?' and ‘How shall I live?’ are totally unrelated questions.” Although his attempts to reunite ethics and epistemology ultimately seem unsatisfactory, his learned and lucid discussion of how these two realms of discourse were severed infuses a kind of magic into the heaps of data on which we both thrive and founder.