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Ski school: John Frohnmayer on powder, politics and philosophy

Ski school: John Frohnmayer on powder, politics and philosophy

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When you’re hurtling down a nearly vertical slice of mountain with two sticks strapped onto your feet, going Mach 3 through knee-deep powder finer than Hawaiian shave ice, it’s natural to ponder the Big Picture.

For some of us, those thoughts might be limited to, “Am I going to live through this?” or, “What’s going to happen to my soul if I don’t?” or even just, “AAAHHHH!”

That’s OK, according to North Albany author John Frohnmayer, because fear is philosophical.

“Danger is one of the ways that we learn about ourselves,” he said.

It’s also how we learn about politics, democracy and our place in this nation — other factors Frohnmayer is keen to explore.

And those musings are what bring him to the third in his trilogy of books on sports and philosophy, “Skiing and the Poetry of Snow,” published in early October by Luminare Press.

Hold that skiing image. We’ll come back to it. But there’s much more to say first about how Frohnmayer got to the point of writing about it.

An author and much more 

A retired attorney who served as the fifth chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, Frohnmayer, 78, has far more than books to his credit.

He graduated from Stanford University in 1964 with a degree in history. He served in the Navy during Vietnam as an engineering officer on the USS Oklahoma City and was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for bravery.

He was editor in chief of the Oregon Law Review at the University of Oregon, where he earned his law degree in 1972. His chairmanship of the Oregon Arts Commission from 1980 to 1984 helped lead to his appointment to the NEA.

The timing wasn’t great, however. Robert Mapplethorpe and other provocative artists were under fire from cultural conservatives in the late 1980s, and the challenges of constantly walking the political line eventually prompted Frohnmayer’s resignation.

That situation also led to publication of his first book in 1993, a memoir titled, “Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior.” He followed that work in 1995 with a collection of essays on the meaning of freedom of speech and its effect on democracy, “Out of Tune: Listening to the First Amendment.”

Frohnmayer already had authored multiple commentaries and op-ed pieces by the time the two books were published. “Attorneys, particularly trial attorneys, are writers, whether we know it or not,” he said. “We write all the time.”

It was natural to keep doing so, he said, even though he’s now been retired for more than a dozen years.

“You know, you write — I think most people write — because this is something that’s part of me that I want to express. It’s something that I do,” he said. “It’s not quite as automatic as breathing, but it’s kind of like that. If I don’t (write) every day, I don’t feel like I’ve had enough to eat.”

An internationally recognized master rower, Frohnmayer wrote about that activity in 2017 for the first in his sports trilogy, “Socrates the Rower: How Rowing Informs Philosophy.” Two years later, he followed that with “Carrying the Clubs: What Golf Teaches Us About Ethics.”

(In between came a coffee-table book about Sunriver, but that’s outside the trilogy and a story for another time. We still have to get back to skiing, after all.)

Rowing was the catalyst for the trilogy, Frohnmayer said. “It struck me that there were an awful lot of lessons from rowing that were instructive to philosophy.”

Rowing requires, among other things, courage, steadfastness and community. Philosophers have mused on those same subjects for millennia.

“So I thought, let’s turn it around. Instead of the philosophy of sports, let’s have sports talk to philosophy, and see if we can get a dialogue going here,” he said.

Frohnmayer and his brother Dave — well-known to mid-valley residents as attorney general from 1981 to 1991 and president of the University of Oregon from 1994 to 2009 — were golf course caddies as youngsters. It was a tremendous learning experience, Frohnmayer said, and the catalyst for the second book in the trilogy.

“You’re there with adults, and you’re essentially invisible as a caddy, and the adults are relaxed and you learn all sorts of things about adult behavior,” he said. “And my brother and I would take stories home and discuss them with our parents. It was a source of great hilarity and moral instruction.”

Some of the golfers were cheaters, Frohnmayer recalled. Some swore. Some treated the young caddies well, while others didn’t.

“I was reflecting on that, and that’s sort of what ‘Carrying the Clubs’ was about,” Frohnmayer said. “Golf is a five-hour game. There’s lots of time between shots to look, listen, absorb and reflect.”

And “Skiing and the Poetry of Snow”?

“The skiing book was trying to get at an inner sense of mysticism and transcendental feelings that there’s something out there beyond the world that we know,” Frohnmayer said.

As for the poetry, it’s there because he “realized prose wasn’t really going to carry the day” in terms of how it feels to go cannonballing down a mountainside.

“People talk about deliberately scaring themselves and being on edge. I think that’s part of why everybody skis,” he said. “On whatever level, you have conquered some degree of fear to do that. It just goes with the territory.”

Fear plays a greater role in “Skiing” than just the unease about potentially careening into a crevasse, however. On the book jacket, Frohnmayer describes himself as “competitive rower, avid skier and worried citizen.” All his books, in some way, reflect that worry — but the nation’s political scene in 2020 really drove it home.

“I think that democracy is very fragile. My sense is that we as Americans don’t understand democracy very well,” he said. “That’s going to sound elitist, and it shouldn’t. Regardless of how you vote, you should know as a person in a democratic society that voter suppression is absolutely contrary to fairness and to the survival of a democracy. Likewise, we seem to be really challenged in knowing what the truth is and being willing to accept there’s different levels of truth that don’t have anything to do with facts. That cannot support a democracy. We have to be able to decide what facts are true and be able to act on those.”

As an example, he said, in “Skiing,” he summarizes a speech that Lincoln gave around 1838 — before he was president — saying the danger to democracy will come from within because some person of great abilities will arise, and “this field already having been plowed” — meaning, the creation of a government by the people — he will instead want to do something new. And if he can’t build up, he will tear down.

“You read that and think, my goodness, did he write this about us?” Frohnmayer said. “Because it absolutely is what’s happening right now.”

And as for how that connects to schussbooming: “I ask myself the same question. In my introduction, what I say as I got into this, I started it as an investigation of mysticism, to get to a sense of the world behind the world. The more I studied it and thought about what we had done to nature and to our own society, (my voice) became more and more shrill.

“It seemed to me we were blowing it, in terms of nurturing and caretaking, in the kinds of society we were willing to call our own,” he went on. “So one of the last chapters is a suggestion of things we can do post-COVID. We’re going to come out on the other side, and our society will be changed. So the question is, will it just change because it changes, or will we pay some attention to changing it in a way that makes us better citizens and better stewards of our world?”

If it sounds like the book is getting into deep powder, it is — but like the powder, it’s light reading, too, Frohnmayer said. Some lessons are learned in laughter, like the ski trip he recounts with his family when his sons were preteens. Nearly everything about the trip ended in disaster, from a snowmobile wreck to Frohnmayer’s own lack of understanding that “Rocky Mountain snow was different than the stuff that comes down on Mount Hood.”

“All three books I think are pretty funny. And I hope people will get a laugh out of some of the things I said,” he said. “Philosophy is usually deadly serious, but the subject of philosophy, which is humankind, is pretty funny. I think it behooves us to look at ourselves and laugh when laughter is appropriate.”

Music is next

Frohnmayer figures he’s done writing about sports for the moment, but he plans to turn next to another great love, music.

As with pretty much everything else he’s ever turned his efforts toward, Frohnmayer was and remains an accomplished singer and musician. Two of his siblings were professionals and he was semipro himself, although these days he simply plays his guitar and looks forward to getting back to singing in retirement homes.

“I think the next book will be sort of along those lines, still about philosophy, but to capture the beauty that is expressed in music,” Frohnmayer said. "I think the working title is, ‘Music for When I’m Dead.’”

He laughs, but he’s not really joking. “Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of music I thought was beautiful. When I’m dead — it’s going to happen to all of us — I would love it if my friends would play some of the music I have most loved and been most familiar with in my life.”

Like skiing, music is another way of getting to the world beyond the world, Frohnmayer said. So is poetry. So is simply being silent.

He isn’t necessarily planning to go to that new world anytime soon, but he takes inspiration from those who have gone before: particularly his nieces, and particularly niece Amy, all of whom died of the rare blood disorder Fanconi anemia.

The last chapter of “Skiing” is dedicated to Amy, and the chapter includes three of her poems.

She died at 29, but “she was the most alive person I ever knew,” Frohnmayer said, “taking every day and being joyful in that.”

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