Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fair-Weather Skier

Skiing 'Ozone' in the Bowl at Aspen Highlands
During a normal ski season, we would be enjoying the best snow of the year right now. The cold, dry conditions of late January and early February typically produce the light, fluffy snow that is perfect for skiing. Not this year. Western Colorado is just coming out of a solid month of single-digit temperatures, crystal-clear skies, and no wind. A temperature inversion had settled in and then refused to leave, preventing any new snow from falling and making skiers miserable.

I have skied only twice this season, and not once since December 30. I can't remember an entire January passing by without going skiing at least once since I started skiing forty-five years ago, at the age of ten. It occurs to me that I have become what is known as a "fair-weather skier." This is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the reasons I moved to Colorado from Wisconsin back in 1986 was so I could pick and choose my ski days, not be stuck with whatever conditions existed during annual week-long ski trips out west. My buddies and I would ski some of the most terrible conditions you could imagine, because that is what there was. Also, growing up skiing on Wisconsin's icy runs, we really didn't know any better.

Living in Colorado spoils a skier quickly. Now I won't go skiing unless the weather is good and the snow conditions are decent, even though I live less than an hour away from Powderhorn ski area. It's no fun to freeze your butt off on slow chairlifts to ski rock-hard, month-old snow. Why bother? But our frigid drought ended this weekend. While it was raining non-stop down in town yesterday, it was snowing hard up in the mountains. I just checked Powderhorn's snow report, and it showed seven new inches. Today would have been a great ski day, but there were things that needed doing. I'll just have to wait until next weekend to get up there. I may get to pick and choose my ski days now, but work still limits those choices to weekends only.

A note about the photo above: It's a picture of me skiing "Ozone" in the Bowl at Aspen Highlands, taken by my friend Dave Johns on March 8, 2003, almost ten years ago. The reason you can't see anything but blue sky behind me is that the run is so steep that the camera is pointed up at an angle of almost 45 degrees.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Becoming van Gogh"

"Self-Portrait with Straw Hat" by Vincent van Gogh, 1887
Last weekend, Nan and I were in Denver to celebrate her birthday by attending the "Becoming van Gogh" exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. Curator Timothy Standring had brought together seventy different works by Vincent van Gogh, along with twenty works by his inspirational contemporaries, to chronicle van Gogh's rapid artistic development over his brief ten-year career, before his untimely death at age thirty-seven. The works were displayed in roughly chronological order, with van Gogh's hanging next to those of his post-impressionist associates. The differences were startling.

Early in his career, following a failed stint as a missionary in Belgium, van Gogh's efforts to depict the people and places of that region look crude and dark compared to the beautifully detailed and brightly colored work created by other artists of that time. Apparently, van Gogh recognized his shortcomings and undertook a nineteenth-century do-it-yourself drawing course, copying the illustrations in his course book over and over again until he was satisfied. What he lacked in early talent, he made up in devotion to his craft and clear-eyed self-evaluation, aided through his frequent correspondence with his older brother Theo, a Paris art dealer.

As Nan and I shuffled slowly through the over-crowded exhibit hall, dutifully listening to our audio players in front of painting after painting, we witnessed a remarkable transformation. Van Gogh was experimenting with every style he encountered, from Seurat's pointillistic brushwork to Japanese solid-color backgrounds, trying them on for size and then incorporating the best of what he discovered into his own artistic sensibility. He began to use "vibrating" complementary colors with varied brush strokes and achieved stunning results from subjects as simple as a bowl of oranges against a blue background.

At this point in the exhibit, the works hanging next to van Gogh's began to lose their luster compared to what he was able to achieve. I stood looking at his 1887 painting, "Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples", for several minutes, wondering at the shadow effects which give the impression of the fruit lifting off its abstract white background. I couldn't help but think, this is not how a normal person would paint this still-life. The effect of the concentric brushstrokes and the liberal use of white highlighting were almost psychedelic. Vincent was losing it, I thought.

But just two years later, he would paint "The Starry Night", which many, myself included, consider one of the greatest paintings of all time. Whatever mental or emotional troubles he may have had, van Gogh was able to command his faculties to channel his vision of the world into works we will love and admire forever.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Nan is back in Wisconsin visiting family, so I spent the weekend in our freezing garage working on a gangplank for our sailboat, Whispering Jesse. It's based on an idea I've had about how to get our dog Scout up and down the steep companionway steps, and in and out of the water when we're at anchor. The gangplank, when not being used in the traditional manner to bridge the gap between the boat and a marina dock, would serve extra duty as a ramp into the cabin and, with floats attached to the end, as a ramp into the water. It's sized at 6'7" so that it can be secured in front of the port-side settee when not in use.

Several weeks ago, I found a good-quality pressure-treated 2x12 at Home Depot. A contractor friend cut it to the required length and then I let it season in the garage. Yesterday I used a vibration sander to remove any rough edges and smooth all the corners. I cut four lengths of cedar 1x2 using a mitre board to give the ends 45-degree angles and then fastened them 3 inches from each end on both sides using 2-inch stainless steel screws. They will act as friction reducers to save wear and tear on the heavy-duty non-skid tape and floating lines that will be attached after the wood is sealed with several coats of Cetol. But the sealing will need to wait until the temperature in the garage gets above 50 degrees, at least 20 degrees above where it is now.

Next, I drilled 5/8" holes 1-1/2'' from each corner for the floating lines, which are 4-foot lengths of Samson 3/8" Floatine multi-filament polypropylene. As a final touch, I wood-burned our boat's initials, "WJ", on one side at each end so there's no question about whose boat the gangplank goes with.