Brain Cloud

The unidentified man with drug-resistant tuberculosis arrived in Denver this morning, and more details have come out about the information he had before leaving for his European wedding and honeymoon.

When this story broke, all we knew was that some dude with a highly contagious disease had been through several countries on several airplanes, and my first reaction was:

“What an A-hole.”

But now he says doctors suggested to him, don’t travel. He says he had (and still has) no symptoms and the doctors hadn’t confirmed what was wrong with him when he left for his wedding.

At the end of Joe Versus the Volcano, Meg Ryan’s character demands to know why Joe (Tom Hanks) didn’t seek a second opinion for such a dubious diagnosis as a brain cloud.

If you’d planned a wedding and honeymoon in Europe and some doctor told you that you could have this bizarre form of tuberculosis, but you felt fine and had no symptoms, what would you do?


Tomorrow, the CDC will probably come out with a statement that they expressly told TB man not to travel, throw in a few other contradictory statements, and the journalists will all have to scramble with this new information and deal with it. But in the meantime, I think Queen Latifah would go on her honeymoon, and everyone knows she is not an A-hole.

Today’s Outrage: Idol — it’s not over

I thought it was finally safe to turn on the Today Show and not see American Idol updates played like real news.

But today on Today, they’re having an Idol blowout, complete with concerts by this year’s winner and runner up.

Next Today Show Outrage: Post-Timesism. I’m betting that tomorrow, Today will do at least one story that appeared in the NYT earlier this week.

The mark of the moron

The scars of my last cycling adventure are starting to fade, so I’m thinking of venturing out again today — but I still fear the mark of the moron.

I rode to Jamestown on Friday. It’s a popular ride in Boulder County, and even on a weekday dozens of cyclists hammer up the canyon and fly back down. Pre-graduate school (pre-fat), I used to ride up from our home in Gunbarrel once a week. Post-graduate school, well… I haven’t been up to Jamestown in a while.

Friday was a gorgeous Colorado day, warm and sunny, not too much wind. I was inspired. I was ecstatic. Sure, I’m out of shape, I thought, but the best way to get faster on a bike is to ride. So I slathered my face in sunscreen (had an unfortunate incident recently involving a sunny day, a snowfield and sunburned nostrils), filled some water bottles and set out for Jamestown on my sleek carbon steed.

It was one of those rides where it’s so gorgeous out there that you can’t wipe the dumb, giddy grin off your face. But it was also a ride where the insects are out, and they’re quite alive and smacking your bare arms and face and helmet, so do yourself a favor and grin with your mouth closed if you go out on one of these rides, okay?

When I arrived at Jamestown (after being passed on the way up by a very old dude wearing a very old Italian cycling team’s jersey and cap, no helmet, no panting) I crashed in a lawn chair, took my shoes off and sucked down water like a fish. Another cyclist came over to chat while others headed back down the hill or kept heading up. A woman who’d just finished her first year of law school at CU rolled up, and she was more ecstatic to be out riding than me. We talked a while, too, and eventually I decided it was time to coast down the hill and find my way home.

The last few miles home were rough, but I told myself it was worth it to suffer a bit. Cycling has always been about alternating suffering and joy for me. For the pros, I’m sure the extremes of emotion are far worse; then again, they’re mentally and physically so much tougher. So little old me, out of shape, exhausted on my afternoon ride — please. I need it, and besides, I’ll be eating cookies at home in 10 minutes, I told myself.

And I was. God it feels good to lay on the floor after a good ride! I ate, I sat, I ate, I sat. Eventually I got in the shower.

Oh no.

Cyclists typically look ridiculous naked. They have hard tan lines on their thighs and shoulders and ankles. My olive-skinned husband gets so dark he keeps his year round. I don’t. I’m fair. I burn.

I was burned.

My deltoids were throbbing orbs of red. On my wrists were little pink glove lines. My legs rarely burn, but a hot red stripe crossed my quads. My face, carefully sun-screened, flushed with anger. This was the mark of the moron — a nasty sunburn on a dumb girl who knows better. I could forgive myself for the legs, because this was an oddity. But my magenta shoulders staring back at me in the mirror? Never.

So aside from a class we took with the Colorado Mountain Club up on St. Mary’s Glacier (nowadays more of a snowfield) the next day, I’ve been cowering indoors ever since, hiding the mark of the moron.

But what a lovely ride. I’d do it all over again — just with more sunscreen. Maybe tomorrow.

The Mala Lady

I met the mala lady today.

I met the mala lady because after taking apart my mala (prayer beads) and re-stringing the beads — like many stories I’ve written — I couldn’t finish it off nicely. The frayed ends of the string stared at me. As a former rock climber, I am well versed in tying knots, so this was especially vexing. As a writer who has trouble with endings, this was fitting and expected.

So I dug out a page I’d saved from the Shambhala Center’s newsletter back in the fall, when I was a religion reporting intern for the Daily Camera. It had an ad that read:

ANTJE’S MALA STRINGING with great tassels/JEWELRY REPAIR and custom-made malas/jewelry. One-day mala stringing, so you don’t have to miss your practice.

Although I didn’t have a mala problem months ago when I decided to save this, I couldn’t help being curious about what my mala would look like strung by a pro with a “great tassel.” I’ve always had a frankenmala, cobbled together by yours truly with a little help from my friends. I got caught in the rain with it once and the string shrunk, sucking the beads too close together. I used to be kind of proud of it, but last night I thought I could improve its homemade, crafty feel. Well, good thing I saved that ad, because I just couldn’t knot it up without having it look like I’d hog-tied my prayer beads.

If there’s ever been a lesson on not being attached to appearances, this is a good one. What does it matter what a mala looks like? To some extent, it should be treated as an object of reverence. But a mantra’s potency doesn’t depend on whether a practitioner’s mala is made of amethyst or sandalwood or plastic, and I doubt a sturdy, if ugly, knot will undo the good intention of my mantras.

Even so, I didn’t want to be that girl with the hog-tied mala the next time I go to a retreat (I’m a slow learner), so I called the mala lady, Antje. I could drop it off at the store she works at, she said, but it would really be better to bring it to her house so we could meet. That way she could get a better feel for what I needed, what would suit me.

“I’m a visual person,” she said with an unidentifiable accent, “and this is important, these are your prayer beads.”

Just after noon, I dropped by her home in North Boulder, which had a realtor’s “For Sale” sign in the yard. Now, my house was a total disaster when we moved. If you’re moving, you just can’t help it. But when I walked into the mala lady’s house, I was still overcome with the feeling that I was back in St. Louis’ South City in my great-grandmothers tiny bungalow stuffed with everything she’d ever owned since the Great Depression. The mala lady gave my great-grandmother a run for her money.

Among all the stuff (oh, the stuff!) was what appeared to be the mala lady’s work area. She moved quickly, whipping out thread for my custom tassel (“Blue? Do you want navy, or a more royal blue? Or more purple? Because the navy will give it more of a gray feeling.”, counter beads and string (“Would you rather have fishing line?”).

I cleared a place to sit as she fired off questions. If I didn’t answer fast enough, she moved on to the next one.

“How much space between your beads? Half a bead?” she asked.

“I don’t know, uh, not too much space, I don’t want them loose. What do you think?”

“Here, this one is no good for a counter bead, it is too close to the size of your other beads, I think we need smaller…which string do you want?”


“These beads look like horn or bone or something.”

“Actually, they’re made of yak horn.”

“Ah. Well, that’s not traditional, but that’s okay. How close together do you want your beads? Half a bead apart?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” I have no idea.

“Do you want a new guru bead? Because this one, it looks like what you’d find in the seat of your car.”

“Yes, I want a new one.” Finally, I had a definitive answer for something. She dug around in the multitude of plastic trays for a guru bead, which is the big bead at the start and end of the mala. A traditional Buddhist mala has 108 beads, plus one guru bead, and apparently is not made of yak horn. I chose two counter beads and an angular guru bead — $3 extra to drill into it — made of lapis lazuli (traditional?) and several hues for my custom tassel, which will hang from the guru bead.

I know I could have ordered something online, but that’s not the same as meeting the mala lady and getting a custom “great tassel.” I can’t wait.

“Okay, when do you need it? Thursday night okay?” she asked when we were done. Once again, I’m going to leave you with a lousy ending — at least until Thursday night.


The mala is lovely, and the tassel really is great. The mala lady found two wooden beads on my mala that didn’t belong, so she removed them, substituting with the counters, but forgot to bring them with the mala when I came to her store to pick it up. (She is moving soon, and she was out and about on moving errands, so I picked it up late in the day from the store she where she works rather than her house.) I told her not to worry about the two extra beads, but she was kind enough to call me the next day and double check when she found them at home. The mala lady gets two thumbs up, five stars, six Buddhas (my own new rating system), etc.

Today’s Idolatrous Ads

This isn’t the first time I’ve complained that the Today Show is an advertising front for American Idol. But today American Idol was in their speedy little 7 a.m. this-is-what-you-really-need-to-know introduction. We’d literally been watching Today for seconds when American Idol came across the screen.

Is there really nothing else of importance to stick in that slot?

Pounding sand into rat holes

Just when I think I’m a huge waster of time, I see stories stuck in the 24-hour news cycle like:

  • Rosie v. Donald (both “disgusting losers?” You decide.)
  • The D.C. Madame (not exactly a licensed massage therapy service)
  • Richard Gere (kissing Bollywood stars)
  • Paris Hilton (going to jail, but probably upgrading to a Hilton-esque rich-kid prison)

And the list goes on and on. I guess I’m not the only one wasting time. Maybe I should have gone into broadcast journalism…

Anyway, this is why the famed Dr. Ajari (I’m doing research for a book on him) used to yell at his students to go pound sand into a rat hole if they were irritating him. Apparently during the Black Plague, folks actually pounded sand into rat holes to keep them in there. (Better than bathing? You decide.) So if a student was driving him mad, this was his way of telling them to go do something useful with themselves and leave him alone.

Maybe tomorrow morning, instead of watching the Today Show, I’ll go pound sand into a rat hole.

My other vehicle is the mahayana

This bumper sticker, often spotted on the backs of Subarus in Boulder, is desperately needed by my dear friend Lib in Milwaukee. She’s reached a level of frustration with the city’s parking situation (and meter maids) that rivals my frustration with the Today Show.

Perhaps she just needs to start a venting blog. Coincidentally, is available.

H.H. the Dalai Lama was in Wisconsin this week, so we wondered what His Holiness would say about her parking frustration. In other words, WWDLD? Some of you might remember my What Would Queen Latifah Do? posting. This is a different take, but really, I suspect in most situations you’d get the same answer. For example, what would Queen Latifah do if her homeland was invaded (she is a queen, so this is a valid example)? You know she’d escape, continue her government elsewhere and fight for her people diplomatically on the international stage, or at least in those Cover Girl commercials.

See? Same answer.

But in light of H.H.’s recent trip to Wisconsin (who knows when QL was there last?) we’ll stick with the question:

What would the Dalai Lama do if he couldn’t ever find parking, had to pay through the nose for parking everywhere he went, got parking tickets on technicalities and didn’t want to take the bus home from his job that kept him in the newsroom until two or three in the morning, especially because he is single and living alone in the city?

Okay, so that last part is a little weird, but it applies to Lib, who is also, I might add, surely gorgeous even after a long, late-night shift at the paper. She probably doesn’t even have circles under her eyes at 3 a.m. I mean, if I saw her on my bus at 3 a.m., I would start stalking her, and I don’t even go for tall people. Or women.

Moving on, I have a feeling the Dalai Lama would just abandon his car entirely. Who needs it? It’s causing stress to the driver and the environment, he would say. It would be healthier to walk or cycle. It would cost less, in gas and ticket fees and meters. Yet we cannot seem to get rid of our cars, he would say. We are attached to the individual freedom they offer us. But are we free if we’re cursing meter maids and crowded streets as we circle the block looking for a place to park?


(As an aside, if we were to ask WWPD?, well, the Pope cannot abandon his car, because what would he do with the Popemobile? It’s not like anyone else can ride around in something formerly known as the Popemobile. I suppose the Vatican could auction it off for charity.)

Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I think the Dalai Lama would do. WWJFD? First, cry over my parking tickets. Next, fume. Third, dust off my bike. Fourth, drive anyway, because I was running late and didn’t have time to ride, but I had to park so far away because there were no spots that I was even later and might as well have ridden my bike. Fifth, fume more, chastise myself for being a lousy environmentalist, then be good and ride my bike for at least a week before resorting to my car again, which, now that it’s summer and gas prices are up, costs me a bazillion dollars to fill up with gas. Then fume again.

And that, friends, is one of many American middle-class versions of the First Noble Truth — all life is suffering.

Now, what would Lib do? Hopefully she’ll answer here and let us know. No pressure with the Dalai Lama comparison, Lib. I mean, we can’t all win peace prizes and have compassion for people who drove us out of our homelands and killed and tortured our countrymen and whatnot. Well, we could, but it sure isn’t easy for us non-lamas. Some of us deserve a peace prize simply for not saying something nasty to the next meter maid we see.

Haiku to Paco

Paco the iguana died. She was 14. Or maybe 15.

Aunt Robin took me out for dinner anywhere I wanted and then bought me anything I wanted (within reason) for my birthday every year when I was growing up. When I was 16, Aunt Robin bought me an iguana (not really within reason).

My cousin Jeff took Paco when I went off to college. Paco had her own room (yes, Paco turned out to be a girl) in his house. Paco was potty trained. Paco grew to be six feet long. Paco had the best life an iguana could have with Jeff, and her veterinarian had never seen an iguana live in captivity so long, a tribute to the care she received.

Paco was cremated, and someone took a bronze impression of one of her paws (claws?). Paco is gone, and she will be missed.

A haiku to Paco:

to the tropics in

the sky, my old lizard, good

thing you’re potty trained.

The bear slogged over the mountain

…to see what it could see. But when it got there, it wasn’t sure it wanted to see what was there.

At least the bear had been there before to see what she could see.

Let me back up.

Years ago, before we got married, I was traveling about Colorado with my climbing partner around Labor Day. We decided to leave the ropes behind one day and hike in RMNP. I believe it was Labor Day itself, which meant we followed a herd of cotton-clad dehydrated flat-landers up Flattop Mountain.

What I saw at the top of that mountain is firmly etched into my psyche twice over, and probably into my next lifetime. Whether the perpetrator/victim was a flat-lander or Colorado native, I’ll never know. Whether he was young and foolish or at the peak of a mid-life crisis, I’ll never know. I only know what I saw him do and the name his friend screamed out when things went so predictably wrong — Jordan.

In the mountains in early September, chances are quite good that there is no fresh snow to be found anywhere, freak summer squalls aside. It can snow any time of the year in the high country, but it just doesn’t last in late summer. Even the glaciers are dirty and unkempt, littered with rock debris at this time of year. Tyndall Glacier, which sits in a cirque next to and in full view of Flattop, is no exception.

I sat with my climbing partner on the summit, soaking in the late summer sun and the smug satisfaction anyone feels when they reach the top of anything. We looked over the valley at Hallett Peak and the glacier that slept between the two mountains and watched hikers, like ants, making the wide traverse around to Hallett. It looked like fun, but my butt was firmly planted on a rock on Flattop.

As we scouted out the various ants, one in particular caught our attention. One of the ants, it seemed, was inching its way to the top edge of the glacier.

“What’s that guy doing?”

“Is he carrying skis?”

The glacier was more brown than white.

“He’s carrying skis, I think.”

“Is he crazy?”

The glacier looked quite steep from our vantage point.

“He’s pausing.”

“Maybe he won’t do it.”

“Maybe he’s rethinking it.”

“God, I hope so.”

We weren’t the only ones who had noticed the rogue skier on the edge of the brown glacier. The herd of people on the summit — families, people with cameras and binoculars — were pointing at the top of the glacier and the tiny figure presumably fiddling with his skis. They were having conversations similar to ours.

But one photographer nearby with a huge lens wasn’t talking to anyone on the summit. He was talking excitedly with someone else on a walkie-talkie. The huge lens was fixed on the top of the glacier.

“That your buddy?” one of us asked.

“Yeah,” he said, grinning proudly for his bold friend.

He might have said more, but I simply can’t recall. I only remember his joy and pride, and how quickly it changed to panic and horror.

By now, all eyes — at least 50 pair — on Flattop Mountain were trained on the ant on skis at the top of Tyndall Glacier. Binoculars and cameras were trained on the ant; others shielded their eyes from the afternoon sun to get an unobstructed view. There was a collective holding of the breath.

The ant pushed off.

At first, he wasn’t going anywhere. Was there enough snow to ski on? Was he stuck on a rock? The collective anticipation grew. He pushed again. Finally, he was moving downhill in the way one expects a skier to move. He made a turn. This guy might actually ski this filthy hunk of summer ice, I thought.

The skier was near the top still when he fell. For one hopeful moment it looked like he’d just gotten stuck for a moment and could recover. Then he began to cartwheel down the glacier toward the rocky moraine hundreds of feet below.

“Oh shit oh shit oh shit!” the photographer whispered as he lowered his camera and rose to his feet to watch his friend tumble further and further, more and more out of control.

“Jordan!” he screamed.

From the top, it looked like the skier had landed in a contorted heap among the boulders of the moraine. All of the hikers on top of Flattop peered over the edge, watching Jordan, waiting.

Jordan did not move.

His photographer scrambled to gather his things into his pack and started down the side of the mountain in a beeline to Jordan. This didn’t look like a safe route to descend, and I wondered if the photographer would fall, too. Behind us, one of the hikers was trying to make a call with a weak cell phone signal.

Jordan still did not move.

Minutes passed. I removed my hands from in front of my mouth and remembered to breathe. We stared at the moraine and waited for something to happen.

When you spend time in the mountains, you see things you don’t want to see. I once saw a helicopter disappear into the Maroon Bells to recover a climber’s body; a limb hung from the helicopter’s basket when it returned. In Montana, I saw a ranger just after he’d been charged by a grizzly bear. His pack was thrown far from his body, and he was physically unharmed but seriously shaken. “Go!” he’d said. We sent. We saw the bear running above us not far down the trail, and bears run fast — really fast. He blew past some elk; we blew past more people on the trail. Eventually, rangers on horseback with rifles came up the trail toward us.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the lead ranger said. “Bear emergency.”

On Flattop, the lady with the cell phone had successfully reached someone. Jordan’s friends reached him, presumably safely, but from so far above them we couldn’t tell what was going on. Jordan still wasn’t moving. I’m not sure how much time had passed, but the day was fading and we needed to get down the mountain.

Below treeline, we heard the whipping echo of a helicopter bouncing off towering walls. It was a sound I didn’t want to hear again after that bright morning at the Maroon Bells. (It was the first break in the weather since we’d arrived; the climber had been dead on the mountain for days.)

Was the helicopter coming in to recover Jordan’s body or rush him, still alive, to a hospital? We could only wonder.

That night we stared into the fire at our nearby campsite and processed the day. I suddenly remembered a dream I’d had a few weeks ago. My climbing partner wanted to climb Snowmass Mountain, which has a massive snowfield on one side. I’d seen a shadowy figure cartwheeling down the side of a huge snowslope, and the fuzzy apparition scared me. I thought it was him falling down Snowmass at the time.

“My dream,” I said, and we stared at each other slack-jawed with the realization that I’d seen poor Jordan fall weeks ago.

This past Saturday, Jeremy and I headed up Flattop Mountain in snowshoes. There were no helicopters, no fallen skiers, and only a few people on the mountain. Tyndall Glacier was bright white, and the cornice on the edge of Flattop was shedding snow in the warm spring sun. It was so still up there I could hear the snow slope below the cornice melting. And I thought of Jordan and wonder if he lived. Lower down the mountain, backcountry skiiers were flashing white smiles and taking advantage of the last of the spring snow on gentler slopes as we slogged through the slush in our snowshoes. I was exhausted from repeatedly sliding and catching myself in the snow. My knees stiffened, my ankles gave, my hands ached from gripping my trekking poles. But Saturday, no one faced death. No one screamed a friend’s name in horror. No one fell down the mountain.