Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2016 – Part 1

This is Part 1 of my 2016 journal excerpt from the series “Climbing Bryan’s Mountain.” Part 2 features a Video of a bike ride slogging up to and zooming down from Bryan’s Mountain, otherwise known as Bell Rock, an iconic formation in Sedona, AZ.



July 28.  For some reason the Oak Creek Estados, our condo complex, no longer allows the Arizona Shuttle to drop people off here.  I asked the driver about this, and he called into the office to get permission to do so just this once.  I was occupied with this change until I stepped off the shuttle and looked up. I kept looking up every chance I got as I hauled my suitcases into our little Arizona home.  Next day I biked up to Bryan’s Mountain (what most people call Bell Rock) and sent this text to family and friends: “I arrived last night under a spectactular sky, the Milky Way arcing brilliant overhead. But it’s been a frantic year and I felt hurried and unsettled all night and morning until I dropped all the unpacking, cleaning, rearranging and biked back up to Bryan’s tree. I’m beginning to settle down. I think it’s because he still speaks to me up here from some eternity that shows how small time is and also most of what we worry about. Love to you all from Bryan’s mountain.”

Last year when I got here I found an April issue of Kudos (a local paper) that one of our guests had left.  It carried a front-page story about the Village of Oak Creek going for Dark Sky status, one of only seven cities, including Sedona, so designated.  (It got it.) But last year there were either clouds or a bright full moon wiping out starry brilliance, so that I was a full five days into my stay before I got my first magnificent sky. Not this time. A magnificent sky always brings back one of my strongest memories of Bryan. The first night we spent in the condo when we brought Bryan and Mike with us to help rehab it, Bryan and I sat on the patio looking up, stunned at a sky so bright and deep and alive.  He kept saying, “It’s crazy we have a place here. Crazy.”  Every night, brilliant sky or not, I step out on our patio and remember.

Sedoona-DroneAugust 24.  At least once during our stay Linda and I climb up to Bryan’s Mountain to have dinner by his tree, trying to time it so we get here just at the height of sunset when the mountains glow with amazing bright reds and deep oranges. Airport Mesa supposedly has the best sunset view and every evening you’ll find dozens, or hundreds, of tourists there, but for us nothing beats the sunset we see on Bryan’s Mountain.  So a couple of nights ago we’re there munching on snacks and sandwiches when suddenly a drone appears about 100 feet over our heads. Its owner has been flying it around the mountain but has definitely stopped to have it look at us.  We laugh and wave and see some lights or lenses seem to focus on us, then seem to nod at us before it zooms off.  Shortly afterwards another drone zips over our heads, not stopping as it shoots down SDN2015 (102)bthe mountain side before disappearing into some short pines below.  And today while biking up there I ran into three people—father, mother, son—just putting their drone away into a impressive looking padded carrying case.  The father’s a photographer.  He said he’d send me a pic, but since he seems to want to sell some of these aerials, I doubt I’ll ever hear from him. It seems I should say something about technology intruding, spoiling nature and our few precious moments in it, but that just seems heavy.  One of these days maybe I’ll get a drone myself and fly it around up here, and when the first drone seemed to wink and nod at us when we were having dinner we just laughed.

 Go to the Lead Post in the “Climbing Bryan’s Mountain” series.

 In 2016 Emmanuel House, the organization started as a living memorial to Bryan by Rick and Desiree Guzman, was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

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Code Switch: Students’ Choice

CodeSwitchNational Public Radio presents several shows and podcasts of immense help in understanding issues of race, ethnicity, culture and identity, among the best being CODE SWITCH: Race and Identity Remixed.  This summer a dozen graduate students in my course Race, Ethnicity, and the American Experience chose a favorite Code Switch episode every week, and the list below begins with some of their picks.  By far the most picked episode is the first one on the list, the one about the indefensibility of cultural appropriation.

NotWhite2We all switch “codes”—that is, simply put, we know how to talk and act depending on the situation. You’re one way with your parents, for example, another way with your friends. Many also talk in “code,” so that your in-group understands fully, but outsiders—whoever those are—understand only partly, if at all. But for all minorities code switching grows more important—sometimes even becomes a matter of life and death—depending on their distance from being “white.”  ”Whiteness” is still at the center of American culture, though the recent resurgence in White Supremacy groups indicates an historic shift in the centrality of whiteness, a shift that goes deeper than the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.  He’s as much a symptom—though a very important symptom—as a cause of renewed racial hostility.  James Baldwin was more than 60 years ahead of the times when, in 1955, he wrote, “The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”  We’re in the midst of that shift now, and White Supremacists don’t like it, nor do they understand how much better things would be without their ideology.

PrivilegeAmerican blacks still remain the furthest away from whiteness, but Noel Ignatiev’s seminal 1995 book How the Irish Became White showed brilliantly that almost all “white” immigrant groups weren’t considered “white” at first, even though their skin was “white.”  They had to become white through a series of assimilations and accommodations, many enormously aided by something people of color  will never have: white skin.  In addition, Baldwin and many other writers have analyzed how the history and atrocity of slavery weighs so much on the national psyche—creates so much deep national guilt—that assimilation and accommodation become that much harder, especially for blacks, as long as White Supremacy remains a central tenet of our culture.  When that changes, their will be more space for everyone…including whites.  I have said for years that the new frontier of race/ethnicity studies should be white studies. If whites understood how their ancestors also struggled against White Supremacy—how they had to fight for “white privilege”—that would do much to help change our country’s racism and free whites in many deep, deep ways.

NPR’s Code Switch will help us along the way to a more spacious, inclusive America.  And, as some of this summer’s students reported, Code Switch will be adding an “Ask Code Switch” feature where you can ask questions about race and ethnicity.  Read about that HERE. And check out the following links for some important reading and listening.


Among NPR’s many other diversity programs is Parallels: One World, Many Stories, like this story about Feminist Film in India.

Go to the Teaching Diversity page on this site.  For a very famous take on how White Supremacy works in every day life, see an article on “The Invisible Knapsack” by Peg McIntosh.

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A Low Water Man

—This articles is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay

“Leave the astronauts out of it, or the paratroop teams that free-fall for 10,000 feet…Leave out the six people who have survived the 220-foot fall from the Golden Gate Bridge, and the divers of Acapulco, who swan dive 118 feet…Leave out even the ordinary high diver,” writes Edward Hoagland to begin a classic Sports Illustrated essay.  In “A Low Water Man” he wants us to, “Come down from such lofty characters to Henri LaMothe—who on his seventieth birthday…dove from a 40-foot ladder into a play pool of water 12 inches deep.”


The essay is full of quirky facts about LaMothe, a Chicagoan: his association with the Art Institute, how he got his nickname—Frenchy—how he quit jobs so he could be a full-time competitive Charleston dancer, etc., but no fact is stranger than his explanation of the essential technique of diving from higher and higher heights into shallower and shallower pools of water.  Counter-intuitively you survive by sticking your vitals—your stomach and genitals—out, flying spread-eagle, back arched, stomach bowed downward, looking a bit frog-like as you do the biggest belly flop in history.  His eventual goal, to jump from 50-feet into a 6-inch kiddie pool with break-away sides, creating the illusion of diving into nothing at all.  I don’t know of any actual videos of LaMothe, but others—imitators all, I presume—have since taken LaMothe’s lead.  You can watch one—Professor Splash—explain the technique then dive 35-feet into a shallow pool as the audience explodes into gasps of disbelief, then applause.

The end of the LaMothe dive pictured above.

The end of the LaMothe dive pictured above.

In my first piece on a Hoagland essay—his classic “The Courage of Turtles“—I speak about a tension central to nearly all of Hoagland’s greatest essays, the tension between Connection and Disconnection.  I imagine it would be hard not to gasp at LaMothe’s feat, but because of this Connection-Disconnection theme Hoagland downplays any applause there might have been.  ”A Low Water Man” ends this way:

“Since the death wish of a daredevil who is seventy years old must be fairly well under control, perhaps the best explanation for why he continues is that this is what he is good at.  Humiliation is a very good school for clowns, and, watching him, as with certain other notable clowns, one is swept with a tenderness for him as he lands, God’s Fool, safe and sound and alive once again.  As with them, our fascination is enhanced because at the  time he has sought our applause, he has seemed to try to obscure our appreciation, make the venture difficult for us to understand, and thereby escape our applause—a ‘low water man.’”

Connection-Disconnection centers most of Hoagland’s greatest essays in ways I allude to in “The Courage of Turtles.”  Also, as I say there, it is no more central and moving than in “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain,” where Hoagland also explains how this theme is deeply rooted in his own being.

 Go to the Lead Post in The Arts of the Essay, and to articles on Hoagland’s “The Courage of Turtles,” “Dogs and the Tug of Life,” “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain.”


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