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Charlotte Austin

 11-26-2013

 
Charlotte Austin
 
Ten Things About Love
 
1. The first thing I learned to love about the mountains was the sharpness of cold water on my tongue. I loved that cutting burn immediately - a painful gulp that felt like truth - and I knew that I could not live without something that was so honest inside my chest.
 
When I am guiding, every morning starts the same: I wake up, bundled in layers of down, and wriggle one arm free to reach for my Nalgene. Bracing the bottle between my knees, I crack the ice that has frozen the bottle shut, shake it hard to make the ice-slush drinkable, and put my mouth to the rim. The taste is glacier ice, chopped into chunks the day before with my battered axe and melted just to liquid over a wobbling white gas stove. I am careful to keep it from touching my teeth, instead sliding it straight to the back of my throat and feeling it burn down the inside of my chest and deep into my belly.
 
Then there is a shuffle while I find a headlamp, cram my legs into long underwear, and stuff my feet into boots that have frozen solid overnight. There is the slow unzip of the tent door, the careful setting of the bottle onto the snow, the flustered ejection of a girl onto the cold glacier.
 
When I uncurl my body to stand, it is into air that is colder than the water in my belly. The first thing I notice is that - no matter what time it is - the snow reflects enough light to read a newspaper. It is painfully beautiful: a cold gray-blue light on a harsh, angled landscape of glacier and starlight. I stand still and breathe, letting the cold sink deep into my skin. Sometimes I listen to the wind rustle the nylon of the tents nearby; sometimes there is silence. I stoop, lift my water bottle from the snow, and take another long sip of cold water.
 
This is how I first learned to love the mountains.
 
2. When I see a man who works in the mountains look at his body in the mirror, it reminds me of the way a driver would look at a race car. I loved one once - a man - who would run his hands over every inch of his own body: his battered feet, his sinewy thighs, his flat abdomen, the coiled muscles of his ass. He squinted at the wrinkles in the skin, the scabs on the tips of his pinky toes, the tendons around his knees that were visible in his thighs. It was part of his morning routine: he'd lay on the floor of the shower, letting water scald his body, then walk, still dripping, to the mirror to assess his naked reflection. He knew every cell, every blood vessel, every hair. At any given time, he could tell me his heart rate and blood oxygen levels just by closing his eyes. His profession was climbing the world's most dangerous mountains, and he needed to know exactly what he could and what he could not do.
 
His self care was precise. Inputs and outputs were carefully assessed: grams of protein, hours of sleep, the color of his urine. He stretched every night, opening his hips and breathing deeply. When he touched his own body it was with reverence, but when we were out in town - which was rare - he never looked at his reflection in a window. He was undeniably a striking physical specimen, which he knew in an absentminded, objective way. But he didn't need to admire his appearance; only to know intimately the machine that was his body.
 
When I started guiding, I did not treat my own body with that kind of care. I've been climbing mountains for years now, but I still don't know if it's possible for a woman to love her own body in that matter-of-fact way.
 
3. People who don't climb ask what it's like to find yourself on a mountain. They imagine some spiritual place, some ethereal journey bookmarked with prayer flags and picturesque Sherpa children and lean, wind-hardened people gazing into the distance wearing name-brand parkas.
 
You don't find yourself on a mountain, I tell them. Mountains are beautiful and harsh and wild, yes, but mountains are also both more and less than most people imagine them to be.
 
When you reach a summit, you only find the things that you have carried with you. To get to the top of a mountain you will bleed and sweat and cry, maybe mark each switchback with a small puddle of vomit in the snow. You'll lose things along the way, dropping them down a slope or choosing to leave them behind. But when you get to the top, you'll reach into your backpack, and you will know that there are things that you have carried with you through the night. And you will love deeply the things that have survived that journey.
 
4. Our clients are primarily wealthy, middle-aged, goal-oriented men. When you are the gatekeeper between those men and their ability to brag about conquering a summit, they will pay you heavily for the right to shit-talk around the office. They sniff a sexy new Facebook profile picture - arms raised in a triumphant summit pose - and they will do anything to get it. Those men shower guides with respect, promises of tips, and idolization, forgetting that we have been hired specifically for our decision-making capabilities and for our healthy fear of death. There's a saying in the outdoor world: to be a good guide, you are either a nurturer or a god. It is easy to see how power dynamics get confused.
 
I've never cared about summits. It's my downfall as a professional mountain guide: it doesn't matter whether I stand on the pointy part of the mountain. I am motivated by being outside, breathing in the sky, and I can do that from a thousand feet below the highest point on the horizon.
 
I was on a climb once with a son and his estranged father. They hadn't seen each other in twenty years, and their first father-son activity was climbing Mount Rainier. The son faltered, and the father pressed on. As I led the son down the mountain, holding the rope tightly in my gloved hand, I thought: I had no idea how much I could love a stranger.
 
5. At the ripe end of a September, I took a friend to a town at the base of a mountain. He was a city man, visiting to take photos of strong young men. After a day of shooting, we sat on picnic benches with pizza and cheap beer and talked about a calendar that is produced every year.
 
The calendar features twelve glossy panoramas, each month a different photo in high-contrast black and white. The man who produces the calendar every year goes to some of the world's best climbing destinations: Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Red Rocks. He shoots young women climbing, nude skin against rock. The juxtaposition of strong bodies against hard stone is beautiful, and every year the calendar sells out.
 
Word on the street is that he tried to make a male version, but nobody bought it. Apparently men's bodies are different. The photographer and I talked about that for a long time as we sat in the sun that day. "You have to be willing to love a body to shoot it well," he said. "Your lens needs to fall across the skin like light."
 
I knew exactly what he was talking about.
 
6. Once, while I was leading a line of clients up a hill in a slow trudge, the man I loved came scampering down the snow. We hadn't seen each other in weeks, and I peeled off the line to say hello. We kissed, once, then he took the chance to describe the conditions on the upper mountain. It was important information, and it was his way of trying to keep me safe. Then we high-fived, smiled at each other through our sunglasses, and ran to catch up with our teams.
 
The line of climbers that I had been leading uphill had passed me while I talked, another guide taking the lead and kicking steps into the deep snow. Rather than tucking into the end of the line, I broke trail parallel to the climbers, using the excuse to say a few words of encouragement to each of them as I climbed past.
 
Most of the climbers had their heads down, focusing on their breath, and nodded at me as I walked by. There was one man, though, who looked up at me and winked. "Are you going to get some later?" he asked, too loudly. "Is that dude going to climb back up here and help you get to sleep?"
 
"Not likely," I said, fantasizing about reaching for my radio. I would have loved to call my partner on VHS, ask him to climb back up and put my client in his place. I had been fending off comments for months, diverting attention with silence or a sassy comment or by setting a pace too fast to speak. I wanted, just one time, not to defend my body from the prying eyes who paid my rent.
 
But it was my job, not his, to manage my team on the mountain. I'd tell him later, I knew, whispered in the tent pitched on a river that we called home during those summers. I told him every word of what men said to me on the mountain, carrying those comments like grains of sand until I could spill them into his hands. He would listen quietly, then find a way to make me think of something other than what it felt like to be undressed by the eyes of the men I kept safe.
 
7. At the end of a guiding season, there is a process. First I sleep: my body is wrecked, broken down. I am calorie-deficient muscle with a sunglasses tan, and I want nothing more than to watch Modern Family and eat fruit that has never been dehydrated. That stage lasts for a week, more or less, depending how long I was in the field.
 
The next stage varies. Sometimes I want to spend time with my family, hear my father's stories of adventure and feel my mother's delicate skin against my sandpaper hands. Sometimes I want to create, and I'll spend weeks writing and then deleting words as I try to describe the smell of cold air. Other times I want to travel, responsible only for myself.
 
The final stage is an inevitability: rage. I rage against my home, my partner, my family, my art. I rage against the city lights, and the way they encroach on the perimeter of the sky at dawn. I toss and turn until I rip off my blankets, stumble blindly out of my home, gulp the cold night air in desperation. I know, then, that it's time to go back to the mountains. I miss the brutal truth, the purity of my love for those places. I stand on a street corner, out of breath, and look for snow-capped glimpses of freedom on the skyline between the city lights.
 
8. The ropes we use are made specifically for climbing: they are the diameter of a thumb, coated in weather-proofing chemicals, and designed to hold the weight of a Honda Civic. When loaded, they stretch and groan and quiver, but I have never seen one break. The first time I saw a man fall and be caught by one of those ropes, I thought: that rope reminds me of the way a woman loves.
 
As he dangled by his hips he struggled and gasped for air, clutching the rope like a lifeline. He did not let go, even after his feet hit the ground.
 
9. For a long time, I loved the men of the mountains. They are simple and elegant, clean in the lines of their bodies and in their motivations in life. The way they know how to love is hard and rough and unthinking, and they keep their lives simple so that they can bend, unobstructed, at the altar of their chosen truth. They sleep in their rusty hatchback cars, eating rice and beans that they call Mexican food, and cut their own hair.
 
Those men are hard to live with, I eventually realized. They love hard and simply, but they expect their women to be waiting when they come home.
 
It took me most of my twenties to realize that the thing that attracted me most to those men - their single-minded pursuit of what made them feel whole - was something I wanted to find in myself, not in a partner. Loving that in someone else, I learned, got me close enough to reach out and touch it. But the feel of self-worth deep and cold in my belly was something I needed to earn. I had to carry it with me, no matter the cost.
 
10. Sometimes, as we push up a route in the dark in the mountains, a struggling client will ask me a simple question: Why does anyone choose this pain? It's all imaginary, a client will say; summits are arbitrary, the suffering is too much. I could live my life without this experience. They turn to look in my eyes, blinding me with their headlamp, searching for an answer to their question: Why?
 
I hand them some water, tell them to drink. "I don't know your truth," I say, forcing them to breathe. "You may not find yourself here."
 
Most clients leave it at that, slumping down to put their hands on their knees and pant in the thin alpine air. But some press me, asking why it's worth it, how I handle the pain. And sometimes, every once in a long while, I tell them the truth: it is that pain, I tell them, that lets me know I'm alive.
 
                                       -from The Better Bombshell
 
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Charlotte Austin is the editor of The Better Bombshell: Writers and artist redefine the female role model. Her writing has most recently been featured in Seattle Met, Mountain Sports + Living, Digital Americana, Blue Water Sailing Magazine, and The American Alpine Journal.  Her work can also be found in many anthologies, including The Ends of the Earth and Tahoe Blues. In October 2013, she was the writer-in-residence at the Oregon State University’s H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest as part of the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER) program. In February 2014, she will lead a panel on transmedia storytelling techniques at AWP in Seattle.
When she isn’t writing, she works for International Mountain Guides, where she leads climbing, mountaineering, and hiking expeditions around the world. She is a Wilderness EMT, a Leave No Trace (LNT) Trainer, and holds AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Education and Training) Level 2 Certification. She recently became an extra class ham radio operator, and dreams of one day sailing around the world with Huckleberry, her dog. Learn more and read her work at CharlotteAustin.com.
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Defusing the Bombshell: Female Icons Reexamined by Alison Sargent, first published by CityArts
In 1933, MGM unleashed the buxom blondness of Jean Harlow upon the world and the Hollywood bombshell was born. 

This month, 80 years and countless detonations later, the bombshell is being reconsidered through the eyes of 40 writers and visual artists in the pages of a new collection entitled The Better Bombshell.

Bombshell drops from the minds of three Seattle-based artists: writer Charlotte Austin, visual artist Siolo Thompson and graphic designer Amanda Paredes, who conceived of the project last spring as a way to fuse their respective artistic communities. Austin and Thompson fired up their networks of writers and artists, paired them off, and asked each match to consider the question "Who is the better bombshell?"

It's an essential if tired debate in a society that now has as many genres of feminism as there are shades of lipstick. Culture may have re-embraced pin-up girls and brawny men, but gender constructs are bombs that never stop going off.

"Part of what [the title] does is address the explosiveness of the issue," says Thompson. "Pretty much everyone in the book is like, ‘The better bombshell is a bullshit concept.'"

Contributing writers range from Stanford professor of feminist studies Valerie Miner to Pulitzer Prize-winning toilet humorist Dave Barry, working with Northwest artists like Kate Protage and Chris Sheridan. Most striking is a collaboration between Alaskan writer Tim Lash and artist Chris Crites, who specializes in mug shots painted on paper bags. Lash wrote a gritty, 60-second screenplay about Yael, a figure from the Hebrew bible who kills a general with a tent stake; Crites' accompanying illustration is a portrait of Black Panther Angela Davis.

"They wrote this artist's statement that asks, ‘How are strong, powerful women remembered?'" says Austin. "Angela Davis is remembered as a hairdo. And there's this biblical figure and there's only one line about her."

For both contributors and editors, the discovery has not been in building the bombshell but in dismantling her-taking her apart piece by perfect piece to examine a core that glows with desire, violence, shame, duty and power.

"I love the idea of bombshells," says artist Levi Hastings. "As a gay guy growing up, a lot of my role models were powerful women. Not only are you beating the odds but you're doing it with a great sense of bravado and class." Hastings created watercolor and ink illustrations for a story by Nicholas Dighiera entitled "Naked Pictures of People You Know," which explores objectification and intimacy, consent and violation in pornography.

Austin and Thompson didn't set out to become self-published authors or even feminists. What they envisioned as a stapled-together zine has exploded into a production company (Wolfram Productions), a blog that receives thousands of hits a week and a tour through bookstores, community colleges and womens' correctional facilities from British Columbia to Maine to Tijuana.

"It comes from a genuine place of wanting to have this conversation with people," says Austin. "If we spark one conversation everywhere we go-that's what we're trying to do.'"

 

In 1933, MGM unleashed the buxom blondness of Jean Harlow upon the world and the Hollywood bombshell was born.

This month, 80 years and countless detonations later, the bombshell is being reconsidered through the eyes of 40 writers and visual artists in the pages of a new collection entitled The Better Bombshell.

Bombshell drops from the minds of three Seattle-based artists: writer Charlotte Austin, visual artist Siolo Thompson and graphic designer Amanda Paredes, who conceived of the project last spring as a way to fuse their respective artistic communities. Austin and Thompson fired up their networks of writers and artists, paired them off, and asked each match to consider the question “Who is the better bombshell?”

It’s an essential if tired debate in a society that now has as many genres of feminism as there are shades of lipstick. Culture may have re-embraced pin-up girls and brawny men, but gender constructs are bombs that never stop going off.

“Part of what [the title] does is address the explosiveness of the issue,” says Thompson. “Pretty much everyone in the book is like, ‘The better bombshell is a bullshit concept.’”

Contributing writers range from Stanford professor of feminist studies Valerie Miner to Pulitzer Prize-winning toilet humorist Dave Barry, working with Northwest artists like Kate Protage and Chris Sheridan. Most striking is a collaboration between Alaskan writer Tim Lash and artist Chris Crites, who specializes in mug shots painted on paper bags. Lash wrote a gritty, 60-second screenplay about Yael, a figure from the Hebrew bible who kills a general with a tent stake; Crites’ accompanying illustration is a portrait of Black Panther Angela Davis.

“They wrote this artist’s statement that asks, ‘How are strong, powerful women remembered?’” says Austin. “Angela Davis is remembered as a hairdo. And there’s this biblical figure and there’s only one line about her.”

For both contributors and editors, the discovery has not been in building the bombshell but in dismantling her—taking her apart piece by perfect piece to examine a core that glows with desire, violence, shame, duty and power.

“I love the idea of bombshells,” says artist Levi Hastings. “As a gay guy growing up, a lot of my role models were powerful women. Not only are you beating the odds but you’re doing it with a great sense of bravado and class.” Hastings created watercolor and ink illustrations for a story by Nicholas Dighiera entitled “Naked Pictures of People You Know,” which explores objectification and intimacy, consent and violation in pornography.

Austin and Thompson didn’t set out to become self-published authors or even feminists. What they envisioned as a stapled-together zine has exploded into a production company (Wolfram Productions), a blog that receives thousands of hits a week and a tour through bookstores, community colleges and womens’ correctional facilities from British Columbia to Maine to Tijuana.

“It comes from a genuine place of wanting to have this conversation with people,” says Austin. “If we spark one conversation everywhere we go—that’s what we’re trying to do.’”

- See more at: http://cityartsonline.com/issues/seattle/2013/02/defusing-bombshell-female-icons-reexamined#sthash.PvYK6QJd.dpuf
Via Collaboration: A Review of The Better Bombshell by Andrew McFadyen Ketchum, first publshed at DIAGRAM
 

Let's face it: we readers are a skeptical bunch. When we open a newly minted book of poems, a novel, or an anthology, we do so with trepidation. We are as hopeful, however, as we are doubtful. Hopeful that which we find between cover and blurb will inspire. Hopeful the books our mothers gift us on birthdays will move us. Hopeful the random books we borrow from the library will become our latest discovery.

When I first learned of Charlotte Austin and Siolo Thompson's anthology, The Better Bombshell: Writers and artists redefine the female role model., I had my doubts. Austin is a writer and mountain guide and Thompson is a self-taught artist. Not only was The Better Bombshell to include writing and artwork exclusively created for the anthology; these original works were to be produced via collaboration between artist and writer. This, I thought, sounds too good to be true.

Then I actually read The Better Bombshell and, I am happy to say, was proven wrong. Weighing in at 10 x 8 inches and spanning 272 glossy pages—sixty of which are dedicated to full-color and black-and-white paintings, photographs, and illustrations—The Better Bombshell looks and feels like any book recently published by Simon and Schuster or the University of Pittsburgh Press. Austin and Thompson's stable of writers and artists is as eclectic as it is impressive (Dave Barry and Rick Bass are positioned next to writers yet to publish a book). And the range of fiction, non-fiction, essay, poetry, painting, photograph, and collage is as entertaining, enlightening, and inspired as is the anthology's design and execution.

While The Better Bombshell asks some tough questions—"Who is the modern, empowered sexual woman?...Who are the role models of today's young woman? Who should be?"—its strength lies in its cross-genre approach to the questions it poses. The first collaboration of the anthology, "The Amazing, Incredible, Indelible, Human Resource" by Allison Williams, preceded by Hillary Gore's painting of a nude woman posing in a shallow pool, "The Power of Influence," tells the fictional story of Janie, an eight-armed superhero strong enough to "bench press a Volvo" and her unexpected expulsion from the "League of Heroes." The essay that follows, "A History of my Breast Cancer in Bombshells" by Eva Saulitus, depicts the author's experience with breast cancer in ten, second-person sections—a rather radical shift from genre fiction to personal narrative. 

Genre shifts again in Roxane Gay's "Important Things to Know," an organic, highly-organized series of third-person meditations on our culture's penchant for judging and labeling women in sections titled things like "Important things to know About Loose Women" and "Important things to Know about Frigid Women." Valerie Miner's "Amazon: 3 Versions," tells the story of a mother and her twin daughters in sections of alternating first person followed by "Ying: Anima/Animus," a photo essay by Paul Szynol that "confronts stereotypes of women, particularly the reductive view of women as the sum of their appearance." Elaina Ellis's "Five Prayers for the Divine Miss Ann Lee" is a series of prose poems. Hanna Brooks Olsen, Timothy Thomas, and Shyn Midili's "Queen of In-between" merges interview, email exchange, observation, and photography to explore the notion that "men and women [are] rarely exposed to examples of what gender is beyond the traditional men-are-like-this-women-are-like-that archetypes..."     

All the more intriguing is how little editorial intrusion Austin and Thompson have imposed on their contributors. "Some stories were written," Austin writes in the introduction, "then illustrated; some pairs worked backwards from a visual image. Other collaborators...worked individually to interpret the idea in contemporary ways." The Better Bombshell pairs writers and artists the editors believe do beautiful and important work, not writers and artists they believe will create hard and fast definitions of the modern woman. As a result, The Better Bombshell makes conversation rather than argument, bringing writers, artists, and audiences together under a simple rubric: let's talk, let's work together, let's see where that takes us.     

This interactivity results in an anthology that fails to answer the questions it poses; this failure, however, is its success. The Better Bombshell "fails" to answer these questions because there are no answers. There is no "better" bombshell in this day and age. There are no guidelines women must fulfill to be desired or successful or liked in the 21st Century. There are just women. Women in all their shapes and sizes. Women of various purposes and position. Women we love. Women we hate. Women we wish we were. Women we wish were ours.     

Perhaps most importantly, The Better Bombshell reminds us skeptics why art (visual and textual) is important in the age of...anything but. Art is not about product. Art is not about argument. Art is about process. Art is about investigation. While much of the art we process gets tossed into the trash, sometimes the art we make speaks to the human experience. Sometimes this work ends up in museums and in books. Sometimes this work is made in one place and presented to the world.     

In this case, The Better Bombshell does just that, and the results are well worth Austin and Thompson's efforts. "You may not agree with the voices in this book," Austin concedes in the introduction. "We've had hard comments already...one striking voice of criticism asked if creating a better bombshell was akin to creating a better nigger. But that kind of dialogue needs to be had."

 

Click here for a review of The Better Bombshell at Seattle Met

 
 
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Click here for an audio interview about The Better Bombshell




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Charlotte Austin



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