Tag Archives: travel

Arts and Letters – A Day in New York City

20 Jul

I recently took a sojourn to the greatest city in the country (New York City, if that needs clarification, which it should not). A living cliche, I admit that “I love NY” – the city moves, a shifting sea of sight and sound. Around every corner there’s a different energy and possibility, someone or thing new, infinite microcosms swirling within the whole. But hell, people have been waxing poetical about Gotham since practically forever. Jacob Steendam is the earliest example I know of, a Dutch poet who in the mid 17th century arrived in New Amsterdam (as NYC was called before it was NYC) to seek his fortune as a landowner. There he wrote plaintive poems with titles like “Complaint of New Amsterdam, in New Netherlands, to her Mother, of her Beginning, Growth, and Present Condition” – proving that even since its inception, the City has always inspired a love/hate sentiment.

At least that’s how I feel about it. I’ve lived in Brooklyn off and on throughout my life, and it gets to you. Or at least it gets to me. The constant bombardment of energy creates this sort of permanent mental/emotional/spiritual defense. But that’s the trade-off for sharing such a small geographic area with such a humongous and endlessly diverse population, and all the commerce and culture and chaos and cacophony it brings. The upshot, I love NY, always will, but I don’t mind relegating myself these days to visitor status rather than inhabitant. Blasphemy to many, I know.

So anyway. Whenever I fly solo on a trip into the city, I try to strike this balance between new and old, action and contentment. You want to feel that comforting familiarity of your favorite spots, but you also want to soak in some of the new. You want to pack as much into the day as you can, but you don’t want to be so stressed out that the experiences are flying by you without adequate appreciation. To this end, as I came up from the train at Penn Station, I headed first to the West Village, with my mind set on A: breakfast, and B: getting out of midtown as quickly as possible.

On my way to breakfast, I passed BookBook on Bleecker Street – a bookstore I had previously and indifferently brushed off, mostly for its hiply redundant name (sorry guys), but have now discovered to be a sweet spot manned by friendly book lovers and stocked with an interesting and well-priced selection. It’s a mixed of new and used, including a “Bargain Poetry” shelf – two words you don’t see together nearly often enough. I scored a hardcover of Chabon’s essay collection Maps and Legends, a PKD novel (been getting into him recently), and a book of collected writings of Isabelle Eberhardt, which I was quite surprised to find, since I already have two books of her writings in translation, and had thought that was all there was to be had. Happiness!

Following Bleeker swept me down near Mamoun’s, my favorite falafel joint in New York, mostly for being cheap (although the prices inevitably seem higher every time) as well as fast, and good. It’s the perfect eat-and-run option, nibbling your sandwich as you continue to walk the pulsing veins of lower Manhattan. Licking tahini off my fingers, I headed to Generation Records, another inevitable spot for me, and one of the last bastions of the glorious days of the punk record shop. There I picked up a shirt from Ukranian black metal band Drudkh. It’s true, I enjoy the occasional black metal, for me though the lyrics are half the battle. I generally need interesting/creative/intelligent lyrics in my music, or I just can’t dig it. Drudkh are interesting because their lyrical themes include Slavic mythology and regional poetry – notably, they crib the work of the poet Taras Shevchenko. Also… it’s pretty metal.

Next came a visit to Mercer Street Books, a landmark for media whores like myself, always great selection. I can’t visit this place without finding an item to squeal about. On this trip, I grabbed Charles Simic’s collection Charon’s Cosmology, along with The Blue Fox by a beautiful and surreal Icelandic writer known only as Sjón, known for, among other things, his collaborations with Björk. Also scored some D.F. Wallace nonfiction and a hardcover of the essay collection Convergences from Octavio Paz. Paz does not get enough love for his excellent nonfiction, I think.

After that I paid a visit to two old friends – one a person, which involved hopping over to Brooklyn for a while, and the other the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which involved going uptown, ugh. But how can you not? It’s the Met! I spent a few hours with old favorites – Picasso, Gérôme, Gauguin, and the ancient Near Eastern section, which houses some of my favorite things in the museum, like the palace of Ashurnasirpal II. Then explored an area I don’t get to often, the Asian Art wing, with its fantastic Buddhist sculptures. Sadly the museum began to close, so to top off the day, I grabbed some dinner at a nearby Belgium place (I guess this is a thing now?) called Brasserie Magritte. The specialty here is mussels and a wide selection of Belgium beer, both things that I have a deep appreciation for. And it was oh so very glorious. PEI mussels served one of four ways (I opted for “northern style”, which the waiter said was best) along with crispy Belgium fries and a delicious ketchup. In the interest of novelty, I went for a “house” beer, their Magritte Witte, which is brewed off-site exclusively for them. It was light but good, perfect for summer. Next time though I intend to delve deeper into their esoteric bottle list. And there will be a next time.

~

So, that was my day. Sorry for the lack of pictures – I am hopefully upgrading my phone soon, so I’ll have a decent camera on hand in the future. It never occurs to me to bring my actual camera when I go exploring for some reason. Oh well.

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Destination: Cleveland! Pt. 2 – Cuyahoga Valley, Loganberry Books, Happy Dog!

1 Aug

Pardon my insidious slackertude.  Discipline – that’s the thing I’m still wrestling with.  Fortunately I’ve been getting work done with my fiction, but I haven’t done enough with the blog.  So then, where was I?

Ohio-Erie Canal & Towpath Trail

Cleveland!  Right.  Hell of a town.  The lady friend and I were thus far impressed with this unsung destination.  But before exploring the city further, we wanted to experience some of the green and the wild of surrounding O-hi-o.  So we headed over to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which runs north and south between Cleveland and Akron, covering some 30,000 acres.  The Canal Visitor Center happened to be right down the road from our hotel in Independence, perfect place to start.  We chatted with a ranger about the history of the Ohio-Erie Canal, conservation efforts, and local fauna.  Within the Center’s large 19th c. building one finds numerous exhibits on the history of the canal area, a history I’d say is pretty underrated.  Us upstate New Yorkers are aware of how monumental the canal boon of the Transportation Revolution was.  The construction of our own Erie Canal, bisecting New York from Albany to Buffalo, connected the Great Lakes with the Atlantic, enabling an explosion of industry and commerce that spread across the northeast.  New York state would not have become what it is without it.

What I didn’t know was that Ohio owes a similar debt of gratitude to man-made waterways.  In the 19th century, there were two major canals in Ohio running north to Lake Erie, and we had stumbled upon the largest, the Ohio-Erie Canal.  It ran from Portsmouth in the south up to Cleveland, connecting interior Ohio to the Ohio River and the Erie Canal, and thus to the trade and industry of the rest of the country.  No small thing for a nation in the midst of an industrial revolution.  These days, the canal is a source of regional historic pride, and the axis of northeast Ohio’s outdoor recreational opportunities.

We asked the ranger where a first-time visitor should go to spot wildlife and were recommended Beaver Marsh at the southern end of the Valley, which also afforded an opportunity to drive through most of the park’s length.  We arrived at a parking area south of Everett where we could pick up the Towpath Trail, running alongside the canal (this is the path donkeys would use while pulling barges along the canal).  This segment of the trail would take us through Beaver Marsh, a thriving ecosystem designated by Audubon as an IBA (important bird area).  The marsh itself has a bit of history, having once been a dairy farm, and then later a field where used car parts were dumped.  Some time in the 1980s, the area was totally cleaned up, which attracted the beavers, who then reshaped the landscape into a waterscape with their industrious labor.  It was amazing to see just what beavers could accomplish!  They had turned a 70 acre  field into a 70 acre marsh.  We walked along the boardwalk, looking down into the water at massive carp gaping their mouths up at us, and glimpsed a huge snapping turtle swimming by.  But the biggest stars of the marsh were the Great Blue Herons.  As we arrived, a group had gathered to watch one perched and preening on a dead tree poking from the water.  As we walked on, we had another heron swoop low right over us, it’s large wings flapping slowly, an audible “whoosh!  whoosh!” -unforgettable.  We later saw another heron standing at the edge, being pestered by a little ol’ blackbird of all things.  It kept dive-bombing the big heron, which, despite its size, seemed at a total loss.  Eventually it flapped laboriously away, clearly confused and annoyed.  Who knew blackbirds could be so fresh?

Great Blue Heron

The Beaver Marsh was great, and we wished we could go there every morning.  The only annoyance is that the Towpath Trail is used heavily by bicyclists, and when one is not a bicyclist, the traffic gets irksome, bikes zooming by next to you, startling birds, threatening collision or a soggy tumble.  Like all National Parks, it’s good to go in as early as you can.  There were other activities at Cuyahoga that we passed up – a waterfall, a train ride, guided walks, so on.  The park region contains a bunch of small farms and quaint eateries, little villages and lots of trails.  It’s a nice thing for Cleveland, to have such a great green area right outside the city.

After the marsh we decided to head back into Cleveland proper.  For the unaware, I’ll mention that I happen to have a serious used book addiction.  Thus it wasn’t long before I discovered the existence of Loganberry Books in the Shaker Heights neighborhood, an “up-and-coming” (as they say) area with lots of shops and a walkable vibe.  I was just looking for my book fix, you know?  Maybe a little paperback or something on the history of the area.  But Loganberry turned out to be a very impressive shop, much larger than it looked from the outside.  They seem very involved with the community, and there was a steady flow of visitors.  Loganberry had some interesting collectibles (passed up a lovely illustrated antique volume of Russian folk tales), and a decent poetry section.  Grabbed some Seamus Heaney, the complete works of Percy Shelley, and an over-sized edition of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, solely because it included large prints of the Gustave Dore illustrations.  I could have spent the rest of the day there, but we were getting hungry and headed downtown to hunt down dinner.

Downtown Cleveland was… not my kind of scene.  There were a lot of restaurants, many that looked very good, but the atmosphere was a jarring blend of tourism and urban hustlin’.  We trekked all over, meticulously looking over menus and meticulously not-looking at the sketchy oddballs who loped around the city with strange looks in their eyes.  Maybe it was a full moon that night, I don’t remember.  Normally I love sketchy oddballs, but there was an unsavory vibe.  It didn’t help that we had a hell of a time deciding where to eat – everything seemed gimicky or over-priced or was already jam-packed.  We gave up and committed ourselves sight-unseen to the next place we came to, which turned out to be an Irish joint called Flannery’s Pub, where I had passable fish and chips and a draft of Old Speckled Hen.  They have an extensive Irish and English beer list, so if that’s your thing, this might be your spot.

Happy Dog!

Our dining experiences took an upswing on the next day, when we went to the acclaimed Happy Dog for an early lunch.  Now this place is awesome.  You can get either a quality hotdog or a vegan “sausage”, and smother it in as many of their fifty (FIFTY!) toppings as you can stomach.  I had the vegan sausage with black truffle mustard (yes, seriously), marinated mushrooms, onions, relish, and garlicky escarole.  Sounds like a hodgepodge, but somehow it all worked beautifully.  Most delicious dog of my life, hands down.  The staff is laid back and the beer selection is extensive, lots of craft brews on tap and bottled.  If I lived in Cleveland, I’d be here every week.

The main event of the day came next – the Cleveland Museum of Art.  That, along with Lake Erie and the West Side Market, coming up in the next post!

Destination: Cleveland! Pt. 1 – Great Lakes Brewing Co. and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

9 Jul

North America is a beautiful continent, vast and diverse, and I’m lucky to have seen a lot of it: sweeping rivers, rolling mountains, the majesty of ancient forests, the severity of the desert.  But in my travels, there’s often a tendency to hop from one end of the continent to the other, leaving the vast center of the U.S. as part of the journey, but rarely the destination.

More the fool, me.

When it recently came time for my lady and I to choose a locale for a short 5-day summer jaunt, we thought of the usual hot-spots here in the northeast: Montreal, Boston, NYC, DC, Philly.  We wanted somewhere within a comfortable day’s drive, with a lot of cultural activities as well as some nice green spaces, and of course, the more affordable the better.  The hot-spots of course are pricy by nature, so I started looking west for some place new.  My eyes settled on Cleveland, a smallish unsung Great Lakes city that I had heard good things about, but had somehow never stopped in.  A city that, I soon learned, had a lot to offer.

The cityscape as viewed from the highway

When I began researching Cleveland, I was mainly motivated by the belief that it would be a cheap vacation.  Which it certainly was.  What I didn’t expect was how culturally and historically rich the town is.  Cleveland, previously unbeknownst to me, boasts world-class museums, a huge zoo and aquarium, five-star restaurants, amazing local food and beer, and varied neighborhoods from the hip to the historic.  It’s the perfect city-size: full of interesting and varied activities, but easy to navigate (once you get used to the crisscrossing highways).  It’s also a surprisingly “green” city, with large expanses of protected land, a lovely university campus (CSU), a renowned arboretum, and even a national park.  It had everything we wanted, and ended up costing us half what we would have spent elsewhere.  Definite win.

An easy highway drive brought us to our hotel, located in nearby Independence, OH, a small suburb only ten minutes from Cleveland proper.  This is a great area to stay in because 1.) you save a lot of money compared to hotels downtown, and 2.) you are right next to the Cuyahoga National Park.  Independence also has easy access to restaurants and stores, handy for last-minute meals or when you suddenly need a pharmacy.  My more-adventurous side would have sooner found a secluded spot to camp in, rather than shell out for a hotel room at all.  But my lady had this crazy idea that a proper vacation to a city should include things like running water and a roof.  Weird right?  We decided to save the camping options for our next visit (and if anyone has tips, please share).  Anyway, you’ll get the best lodging deal over in Independence, where you can choose from a dozen hotels ranging from the luxurious to the usual cheap chains.

For our first night in Cleveland, we hit up the Great Lakes Brewing Company (GLBC).  I was already a big fan of their beers, and couldn’t wait to visit the source of such libatious glory.  It’s located in Ohio City, a downtown neighborhood with some nice brickwork and neo-classical architecture.  We had dinner at the GLBC brew pub and ordered some stupendous fish n’ chips.  The cod was battered with their Edmund Fitzgerald porter, a dark and malty ale named in honor of the famed shipwreck in Lake Superior (GLBC has a lot of regional pride).   The house fries were worthy of epic balladry – possibly the best I’ve ever had.  It is not often that a french fry becomes a sensory experience in one’s memory, yet I can conjure up that taste even now.  I paired this feast with a draft of a flavorful dunkelweizen (dark wheat ale) dubbed Lorelai, a pub-exclusive brew unfortunately not for sale outside of the bar.  If anyone at Great Lakes Brewery is reading this: bottle that beer!  I’d be a happy, happy man with a case of Lorelai.

The glories of the Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Next up came a tour of the brewery.  Our guide made it fun and educational.  Fair warning, Ohio state law prohibits the actual giving-away of alcohol, so the brewery is obligated to charge 25 cents per tasting.  So have some quarters on hand.  And be sure to spend some dough in the gift-shop, because GLBC is a worthy cause!  Not only do they brew fantastic beers, they do so with an eye towards sustainability and integrity.  They use locally-sourced ingredients, strive for zero-waste manufacturing, use green energy designs in the plant, and their delivery truck runs on veggie oil!  These guys are doing it right.  I even bought a t-shirt!

(And I never buy the t-shirt.)

African elephant

Next day, we headed over to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.  Now, I hadn’t been to a zoo since I was a teenager, and I do harbor some ethical qualms about them.  On the one hand, education and conservation are worthy missions.  On the other, a cage is a cage, and there is arguably an innate cruelty in confining certain animals that are biologically wired to roam over miles of territory.  But, I took off my activist/philosopher hat for the day, and just enjoyed myself.  The Cleveland Zoo is big (165 acres), much bigger than it seems on the cartoonish map you get at the entrance.  It’s laid out well, although part of it was built atop a hill, which involves a bit of hiking (unless you’re a wuss and opt to take the shuttle).  The zoo is laid out by bio-region, and there are buildings with indoor exhibits which are like mini-zoos in themselves – a rainforest building, an aquarium, and the largest primate collection in North America.  Throughout you’ll find the sorts of animals one expects – elephants, camels, lions, giraffes – as well as rarities like the aptly named aye-aye and the sleek fossa, which looks like a cougar mixed with a dog mixed with a weasel.  It took us about five hours to see everything, and we are the type of people who like to go slow and savor.

The animals all seemed active and in good health, although (and here comes that activist hat) one never knows what sort of mental or emotional issues are going on internally.  There was one thing I know I’ll always remember.  I was approaching the gorilla exhibit and I saw these thick, black fingers gripping through the fence with what could only be bored resignation.  The stoic ape was hunched over, brow furrowed, staring at the ground.  I met this gorilla’s eyes, and saw such a complexity of intelligence and emotion in them that I wanted to knock down the walls (this of course would not have been an improvement for anyone’s situation).  It was a haunting thing.  But in the zoo’s defense, they also have the Gorilla Health Project, which aims to address health issues of zoo-bound gorillas.  So that’s good.  The zoo in fact seemed to have a lot of ongoing conservation efforts, which is what I like to see.  Gorillas of course are highly endangered, so the question of holding them and other higher species in captivity becomes more complicated.  Is it right or wrong to detain thinking, feeling individuals for the sake of preserving the whole species?  Perhaps an argument for another day.

Young black rhinoceros

Despite these bittersweet musings, the zoo was a lot more fun than I expected.  We saw things we’d never otherwise see, sometimes at very close range (I could nearly pat the heads of the rhinos), and got a bunch of good exercise.  For dinner we returned to Independence and ate a great meal at Aladdin’s Eatery, a restaurant chain that is far too delicious and mindful of quality to be a restaurant chain.  They offer wonderful and affordable Lebanese food and revitalizing fresh-made juices and smoothies.  Best falafel I’ve had outside of NYC.  We rounded out the night back at the hotel with a sixer of Dortmunder Gold (GLBC’s flagship German-style lager) and the lame novelty of cable television (we don’t have t.v. service at home, so it’s always an amusement when we come across it).  We watched three hours of Mythbusters and made fun of stupid commercials.  Pleasant end to a pleasant day.

Coming up: the Cuyahoga N.P., the Museum of Art, and Cleveland’s renowned West Side Market.

Ruben Dario: Voice of Modernismo

14 May

“What sign do you give, O Swan, with your curving neck
when the sad and wandering dreamers pass?
Why so silent from being white and being beautiful,
tyrannical to the waters and impassive to the flowers?”
(Longman 837)

Ruben Dario (1867 – 1916) was a poet of tenacious drive and discerning passions, the founder and foremost advocate of a vital artistic and intellectual movement.  It was called modernismo, and it had a tremendous impact on the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, though today it often evades popular awareness.  Coalescing around the turn of the twentieth century, it was a literature that blended influences of Romanticism and Symbolism, and concerned itself deliberately with emotional intensity, individuality and creative freedom.  Dario himself was the embodiment of these ideals – a poet of vibrancy and dreamlike urgency, an artisan of words both tactile and hypnogogic.  As seen in the stanza above, he had a special fondness for the symbolism of swans, and would often juxtapose their beauty with sadness and death, giving them a mystical status that recalls the Romantic and classical.  It’s an example of what made Ruben Dario the champion of Spanish poetry in the early modern era.  His modernismo style was impassioned but classically melodic, radically exploratory while revering the legacies of the past.

Dario was a cosmopolitan man, a product of a growing sense of global connectivity.  He absorbed all of the influences of the literary scene abroad along with the experiences of his travels, yet his poetry reflects a singularly beautiful insight.  His sensibility is well-illustrated in the opening line of one of his most celebrated poems, a piece which has retrospectively become the standard of the movement:

“I seek a form that my style cannot discover,
a bud of thought that wants to be a rose.” (Dario 60)

As Octavio Paz notes in his prologue to Dario’s Selected Poems – this particular line “is a definition of his verse… He seeks a beauty that is beyond beauty, that words can evoke but can never state.  All of Romanticism – the desire to grasp the infinite – and all of Symbolism – an ideal, indefinable beauty that can only be suggested – are contained in that line.”  (Dario 14)  But even as we dissect the influences of Dario’s poetry, there remains that abstract, indefinable “something else” which makes it inarguably his, penetrating and sublime.

When Ruben Dario first pursued the writer’s craft, his efforts were suppressed by the reactionary government of his native Nicaragua.  At the tender age of fifteen, he tried to obtain a scholarship to pursue the literary arts in Europe.  He read some poems to the authorities, who immediately denied his request, fearing that exposure to European culture would only breed further liberalism in the young man.  Dario’s restless artistry led him to leave Nicaragua on his own and begin a new life, traveling all over Latin and South America, writing poetry and forging relationships.  He soon found himself quite successful, receiving official recognition all over the Latin world, where before as a youth he had been denied.  He was appointed consulate in Colombia and the ambassador for Nicaragua, which would later rename his home town of Metapa to Ciudad Dario, in his honor.  As his fame grew, he eventually did make his way to Europe.  Spain welcomed him as a diplomat and as the most celebrated artist of the New World.  From there he was drawn naturally to Paris, the epicenter of art and poetry, where he came under the spell of the French symbolists.  This was a defining moment, both for Dario and for the movement he was leading.  From then onward, Dario’s poetry would become increasingly complex, dreamy and profound.

The modernismo movement was giving a new voice to Spanish artists while socially and politically redefining Latin America.  While Dario was recognized as the movement’s head, the movement as a whole grew from a scattered network of poets looking to redefine the art of their language.  They were examining themselves and also looking to France for artistic queues: Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine top the list of influences.  These influences informed much of the structure and tone of modernism, but it was the singular Spanish sensibility, the natural rhythm and fire, which gave the poetry its power.  Modernismo is said to have “officially” begun with Dario’s first manifestos, and with the international publication of Azul (Blue), his first collection of poems and stories.  The poetry of “Azul” is at once familiar, and breathtakingly new:

“Month of roses. My poems
wander through the vast forest
to gather honey and fragrance
from the half-opened flowers.”  (Dario 41)

There is a clear Romantic sentiment here, but there is also a uniquely sensual flavor.  And Dario was every bit a sensualist; a man of deep feeling and endless curiosity.  Gerald Brenan calls his verse, perhaps a bit disparagingly, “hedonistic, pagan and steeped in a violently sensual and erotic atmosphere.”  (Brenan 428)  This is where the “modern” in modernismo shines through.  Such unabashed liberty of expression was something novel to Spanish literature, and though there were many disagreeable reactions from traditionalists, the fresh air was largely welcome to the younger generation.

Octavio Paz dubbed Dario “the bridge” between these old and new spheres of Spanish verse.  “His constant travels and his generous activity in behalf of others made him the point of connection”, notes Paz in his prologue.  (Dario 11)  Poets rallied around Dario for inspiration and leadership, and he in turn led them to reinvent not only Spanish literature, but the language itself.  Between the end of the “golden era” of Spanish literature in the seventeenth century, and the beginnings of modernismo in the late nineteenth, Spanish had stagnated.  During the conservative Napoleonic age, literature and poetry (a largely liberal endeavor) had utterly ceased.  The language was largely stuck in the baroque.  There were some achievements in the Romantic period, notably from Gustavo Be’cquer (an influence on Dario’s early work), but nothing as profound as that in England, Germany or France.  And then Dario and his modernists came along, and breathed new life into the Spanish language.  Through them, Spanish verse regained its vitality, became once again a viable and effective literary force.

As we see, the effect of modernismo was monumental, and it spread beyond poetry.  It gave a powerful voice to Latin American communities who were feeling the pressure of outside forces, particularly those of American imperialism.  Ruben Dario was not a particularly political artist, but even he could not keep his pen still about the problems facing Central America.  As a journalist for a paper in Argentina, he covered the Spanish-American War, illuminating the struggle of Hispanic cultures.  And when U.S. President Roosevelt began to strategically foment the Panamanian revolution in 1903 (with the goal of acquiring the valuable Canal Zone for America), Dario called him out in verse:

“You think that life is a conflagration,
that progress is an eruption,
that where you put your bullet
you set the future…
…Beware. Spanish America lives!”  (Longman 836)

The acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone and the building of the canal was of course a major component of America’s growing global influence.  It gave the U.S. tremendous economic and military power at the expense of much bloodshed and upheaval, and the Latin American people would not soon forget the manipulative self-interest of the U.S.  Poetry was at least one way in which they could vocalize their grievances, though the Canal Zone would continue to be a violently contested issue for most of the twentieth century.

Along with its importance in the historical context of its time, Ruben Dario’s modernismo was a surge of energy for all Spanish literary arts to come.  As Brenan notes, regarding the publication of Dario’s most innovative volume Prosas Profanas, “These new, intoxicating rhythms and cadences burst the narrow banks in which Spanish poetry had long been confined.”  (Brenan 428)  The eruptive effects of Dario’s verse make it a vital subject of study for world literature, while the verses themselves continue to enthrall generations with their deep emotion and magical imagery, their profound and unequivocal artistry.  Federico Garcia Lorca says it best, in this excerpt from a speech given in Dario’s honor in 1933:

“He gave us the murmur of the forest in an adjective, and being a master of language… he made zodiacal signs out of a lemon tree, the hoof of a stag, and mollusks full of terror and infinity. He launched us on a sea with frigates and shadows in our eyes, and built an enormous promenade of gin over the grayest afternoon the sky has ever known, and greeted the southwest wind as a friend…”  (Dario 140)

~

Works Cited

Why Write? In Defense of Discontentment

25 Apr

“Why do you write?”

This question was posed to me recently for a class assignment, and harmless as it might seem, it immediately sent my mind into a spiral of abstract and tangential questions, like “What is art?”  “What is beauty?”  “What is meaning?”  “What makes it meaningful?”  “Why do we search for it?”  “Why do we do anything?”

It was a long night, I’ll tell ya.

Well, people are weird.  That much I know.  For as long as we’ve been banging rocks together and looking at the stars, we’ve channeled our weirdness into amazing displays of creativity and thought.  We’ve painted cave walls and church ceilings, built towers and tanks and toilet bowls, blasted our brethren into outer-space.  But why?  What makes humans so uniquely obsessed with all this constant mucking about and manipulation?  When it comes to simply being animals on planet Earth, why are we so weird?

Goya's Sleep of Reason

Goya's "Sleep of Reason"

When people talk about the “human condition”, what immediately comes to my mind is our perpetual discontentment.  This might sound like a negative thing at first, but actually it’s what makes everything move forward; culturally, scientifically, politically, artistically.  With our tremendous capacity for conceptualization, we can’t help but analyze and reinvent everything around us – tearing down and building up.  It drives our achievements, and the fulfillment of that urge, the attainment of satisfaction, means a slow, mediocre death for progress.  The constant restlessness of humanity is both essential and inescapable – the bane and the boon of our existence.

Now, a question like “Why do you write” can certainly be a fun intellectual and creative exercise, and no doubt I could muster up some sort of profound bullshit to make it all seem very inspiring and inevitable.  But really, there is no easy answer for me, and I won’t pretend there is.  Me, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer.  When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist.  And then I wanted to be a cartoonist.  And then I wanted to be an architect.  But throughout all that, the one thing I’ve always been, and always hope to be, is an explorer.  Explorers are impelled by insatiable curiosity and unrest, and I see every artist as an explorer, in league with Jacque Cousteau or Ernest Shackleton.

Exploring is how we grow, personally and as a civilization.  And one of my favorite ways to explore has always been writing.  I was the kid in class who loved essay assignments while everyone else around me groaned.  Still am, actually.  Later on, as an angsty teen, I began to write terrible poetry (who didn’t?).  I was exploring my identity, trying to understand who I was and where I fit.  Then as I got older, and the pressure was on for me to choose a direction in life, people began pushing me to pursue a writing career.  And when my first college made me the “Featured Writer” of their journal, I considered it for a minute. But discontentment soon reared its head.

I was a good student, but I wasn’t satisfied with where I was or where I was heading. For better or worse, a stronger force began working within me.  It was what my grandmother would call “that old gypsy blood”, the restless seduction of the new and uncharted.  I was feeling directionless and powerless, unimpressed with the options on the table and drawn to the Siren song of new adventure.  Thus, in true explorer fashion, and without very much thought for the future, I abandoned the predictable and turned my back on school, home and economic viability.  I quit my job, broke my lease, sold my stuff, and hit the road.

Frontispiece from the book - South: Shackleton's Last Expedition

I traveled about for years, settling momentarily here and there, but never long enough for roots to touch ground.  I was thirsty for life and drunk with freedom, an American pioneer.  But I was also running away, Peter-panning, breaking through the atmosphere of a prescribed world that simultaneously bored and terrified me.  I didn’t want to carve out a career, or start a family, or improve my credit score.  I just wanted to explore.  I guess I figured life would figure itself out, and all I had to do was drift, let the eddies do the work.  Then I blinked, and I was twenty-eight years old, and I realized I’d become stuck somehow.  I hadn’t actually escaped anything; I’d simply let myself sink, let the world wash over me.  I hadn’t outsmarted the system, or created anything new, or even found any meaningful answers, at least not any that, deep down, I hadn’t already known.

And that’s when I really began to write.  Poetry, short stories, essays.  Once I stopped running, and faced my discontentment head on, I discovered that the real “uncharted realm” wasn’t out there on the highways and train-tracks – it was something broader and deeper than physical space.  I wanted to be a vagabond on the sphere of ideas, a pilgrim of imagination.  I realized how much I love to think and research and learn and argue.  How much I love words, and lyricism and well-crafted language.  I realized that story-telling, whatever form it takes, is probably the greatest achievement that us weirdo humans ever came up with.  Right up there with hammocks, beer and bicycles.

The more I wrote, the happier it made me, so of course I did it some more – an animalistic pleasure response.  I discovered the beauty and acuity of poetry, the sheer joy of fiction – a thrill of omnipotence and creative surrender that made me feel like a kid again.  I had found a way to hold on to my fascination and creativity, a way to focus my restless, discontented energy in a way that might actually matter.  I had found my Neverland.

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

So that’s why I do it.  I definitely don’t write under any illusions of fame and fortune waiting on the horizon.  I don’t know whether my words will mean anything to anyone but myself.  I just write, because I want to share, and understand, and create, and expand.  I write because if I didn’t get at least some of these synapses down on paper (or computer screen), I’d be just a little less happy and a little more nuts.  There’s no easy answer to why we feel this compulsion to create, to push boundaries and be heard.  Perhaps, like George Mallory climbing Everest, we do it because “it’s there”, a crucible standing before us, waiting to see if we have what it takes to go just a little further.  Maybe there is an intangible divinity of human spirit pushing us to become the best versions of ourselves.  Maybe we’re dissatisfied, over-thinking apes, screaming defiantly into the void.  Or, maybe we’re just weird.

Personally, my money’s on that last one.

~

Forgotten Places

9 Apr

Whenever I come across abandoned space, I’m drawn in.  I want to rummage in the shells of the past, imagine the stories left inside of forgotten walls.  The above picture doesn’t seem like anything very special, just a closed-down pool supply store on a busy highway outside of Philadelphia.  Yet, as I drove past it, I had to pull over, poke around, take a picture.  It wasn’t specifically amazing, and I’d bet I was the only person on that highway all day to give the building a second glance.  But there was something beautiful about it, and I spent the rest of the day dreaming of that building’s past and of its future, wondering about the people who invested themselves into it, and the happiness or despair it may have witnessed.  I imagined the space in a hundred years, wondered if the building would still stand; would it be converted into a store selling Tang and personal jet-packs?  Or would it be devoured by the surrounding woods, covered in creeping vines, with young trees growing straight through the roof?

I’ve always loved to explore abandoned places.  As a kid I would poke around boarded-up houses in the neighborhood, wander empty lots, even walk into big drainage pipes, feet sloshing through rain water.  I was fascinated by anything discarded or unacknowledged.  I’d peek into dumpsters (when my mother wasn’t watching, of course) and wonder what kind of strange treasures might lie therein.  When I got older, this impulse did not leave me as I started traveling the country.  Abandoned buildings became not just a fascination but also my temporary homes.  I’ve inhabited some odd places: neglected school houses, empty office building rooftops, condemned ghetto high-rises, the iron ruins of old factories.  There was a thrill in exploring these places, climbing and crawling around, bedding down among the artifacts of a forgotten life.

And, I discovered that those mysterious dumpsters of my youth really did have treasure in them.  It’s true!  The sheer glut of American excess would astound you.  One could find all kinds of working electronics, surplus clothing still wrapped in plastic, books, appliances, even whole cases of still-packaged, unexpired, completely salable and edible food.  And there was a simple, child-like joy in it, like being on an Easter egg hunt, the wide-eyed pursuit of unknown fortune.  It also brought to light the heart-breaking waste of the first-world, waste which certainly still happens.  Except now, the dumpsters have been replaced by unapproachable trash-compactors, much to the dismay of scavengers of all species.

A friend sits writing in the hall of a squatted high-rise

 

The crazy thing about a life on the road – and I mean really on the road, no hotel rooms, no rental cars, no brunching at the vineyard – is that you never actually know what is going to happen on a day to day basis.  This sounds like a simple enough thing, but think about how controlled our lives are.  How often do you wake up without knowing, at least generally, what lies in store for the day?  And whenever we are shaken out of this security, it is unwillingly, unpleasant, often due to some kind of tragedy, making us long for the comfort of our routine.  But what if you made the choice to nurture the possibilities of the unknown?  What if you consciously discarded the predictable, and let “fortune”, whatever name you want to give it, write your story for a while?  I don’t mean to romanticize things; I’ve slept in dumpsters and alleys too, battled frost-bite, rain and angry property owners.  It isn’t all carefree vagabondage: sometimes it’s getting mugged by random crackheads for your beer, or diarrhea in a remote span of woodland, with nary a toilet for miles.  But sometimes… sometimes it is a beautiful, indescribably liberating, utterly joyful and peaceful thing.  Sometimes you sit on a cliff-side and eat sandwiches in the early morning, as the sun is just inching over the horizon, and look down on the world and smile.  Because that world is yours, and you are it, and you are fully your own self yet part of everything else, too.  In our anxious and disconnected times, it’s a feeling that can really approach holiness.  I would not say it’s a path for everyone.  But I would say that however you do it, it’s good to sometimes find ways to step out of your insulation, to let go of our conditioned control over life, and let life happen to you.

Down & Out on a Desert Mesa – [Retrospective]

25 Mar

Not far outside of Taos, New Mexico, there’s a stretch of raw, scrubby desert inhabited by the oddest assortment of people.  Here you’ll find young eco-yuppie families living in yurts and earth-ships, burnt out war veterans in sheet-metal shacks, gun-hoarding wingnuts, cultish hippies, freedom-loving anarchists, ranchers, ramblers and rogues.  They’re drawn here by dreams or desperation, hoping to start fresh, paint new lives on the desert’s wide, blank canvas.  Some are just hoping to play out the rest of their days unnoticed and unfettered, quietly drowning in their own histories, demons and addictions.  And some have simply washed up there by chance, relegated to society’s fringe by circumstance or lack of options.  This somewhat uncivilized off-grid realm is known locally, and often with a tone of disdainful mystery, as “the Mesa”.

Now I don’t know what it’s like these days, but when I lived there, the Mesa was considered by the “townies” of Taos to be a lawless and chaotic Neverland.  The roads were packed, rutted dirt, that mangled axles and became an impassable mess in bad weather.  We’d often walk or hitchhike those treacherous roads, sooner than drive them – even when it meant hauling water or food back home on our backs.  Dwellings were spaced far apart, dotting a drab landscape of sage-like silvery wormwood, spreading monochromatically like asphalt in every direction.  I compare it to asphalt because the plant is an introduced species, overly-proliferative, smothering what little diversity a high-desert ecosystem might normally have.  It suppresses the growth of any other desert vegetation, thwarting the potential of beneficial grasses and vibrant flowers: squashed before they could even bloom.

Pulling up sage became a daily job on our half-acre of land, the humble patch of dry, scraggly Earth which I had bought with my closest friend, right at the onset of winter.  We had bought this land as an antidote to the trappings of the culture around us, a chance to rebuild at least our own subjective realities.  We were young and full of ideas, pursuing self-sufficiency and sustainability and freedom.  We wanted to build houses out of dirt and grow corn and beans, write books and push boundaries.  So we pulled up those scratchy sage bushes to clear areas for building, pulled them up to dry for firewood, pulled them up because we were sick of looking at them.  For me, the sage became a ubiquitously irritating metaphor.  But at least it smelled good when it burned.

I had loved the western high-desert at first sight.  Some combination of the crisp, thin air, the endless skies, an indefinable sense of directness and truth.  It felt boundless – an ocean of possibility, and we were ready to dive in.  We purchased our half-acre from a rather shady character, bundled in a puffy coat, shifty and mysterious behind dark sunglasses.  He had made it clear that he needed to get out of town.  Fast.  And was thus willing to give us a pretty excellent deal on his property.  We handed him a wad of cash at the county clerk’s office, and relished our apparent good fortune.

We didn’t ask questions.

The half-acre had good drainage and a nice view of a nearby hill, actually an inactive volcano.  It came with some tools, a run-down RV, a basic shed, and a smashed-up SUV.  The tools were a blessing, as was the RV, since my friend had a wife and a baby to worry about, and adequate shelter was something they had been sorely lacking.  After we installed a wood-burning stove in it, the RV became a pleasant and relatively safe little home for their budding family.  The junked SUV left on the property was less useful.  It was an ugly eye-sore, and at times we would go at it with a pick-axe or a sledge-hammer, enjoying the satisfying crunch of metal meeting metal – our cathartic, symbolic revolt against the suburban culture we had grown up to despise.

While my friends now had the RV, my only home was still my van, furnished with several plastic storage bins, and a large sheet of plywood laid over top for a sleeping surface.  The storage bins contained mostly books.  A lot of books.  Way more books than someone who was, for all intents and purposes, a homeless traveling bum, would ever actually need to keep on hand.  I also had a bin of clothes, though that one stayed shut most of the time, since it was winter and I was pretty much wearing everything I owned.  The New Mexican high-desert is, technically, part of the Rocky Mountains – the lower foothills.  Our elevation was around 7000 feet, and the winter was bitter.  Luckily, I had a quality down-filled sleeping bag that a friend in Virginia (I’ll always be grateful, Hap) gifted me when I first started traveling.  That, combined with multiple hooded sweatshirts and three layers of socks, kept the threat of frost-bite at bay. But the chill nights did offer one spectacular compensation – the most amazing, mouth-gaping, breath-taking starry skies I have ever seen, and maybe ever will.  A fair trade, I say.

Living on the mesa was, at first, a liberating but challenging adventure.  We were free from the utility grid-system, the duties and despair of consumer/wage-earner culture, and the oft-oppressive constraints of society at large.  Ensuring our supply of things like adequate water and firewood was a daily concern, but there was something satisfying in working for our immediate survival.  We had big dreams about growing our own food, building with sustainable techniques, using wind and solar, learning new skills, et cetera and so on.  My friend had been my closest cohort for a few years at this point, my hetero-life-partner I liked to say, and this was our dream coming true.  I felt optimistic about everything, like we were truly reinventing things – not just with arm-chair theorizing and reactionary protest, not just with letters to Congress and pamphlets and angry music, but by actually going out and creating the lives we wanted.

Three Peaks

Three Peaks Mt., as seen from our half-acre

But something happened out there.  The disconnection from civilization, while a welcome respite for me, seemed to gnaw at the happiness and sanity of my friend.  His less-admirable tendencies began to take over, and he became isolated, a bit neurotic.  Meanwhile, other people  had come to stay on our land with us, a turn of events that didn’t turn out so well for me.  Without divulging messy details, I can only say that I saw some dark sides of human nature during these months.  It eventually became clear to me that it was time to move on.  My friend and I had a falling out, culminating in my escape from the desert, and the abandonment of my emotional and material investment therein.  The dream, unceremoniously, came crashing down.

My exodus from the desert was, in retrospect, a good and necessary thing.  It allowed me to grow, though I was sorry that it came at the price of a friendship.  We’ve since made amends, and perhaps he is stronger for having faced the “abyss” and returned.  Me, I had a new chapter of life ahead of me.  Because fortunately (and thank the gods!), it seems the old adage is true – when one door closes, another always opens.  During that strange and dramatic period out on the Mesa, I had also met a girl.  My love.  And we soon began our own dream together, on greener pastures with happier endings.  We traveled insatiably, all over the country – first cramped with a dog in a sub-compact car, then later wandering the country again in another van, vastly more comfortable than my last (this one had an actual bed installed – goodbye plywood!)  Nowadays, we’re a bit more sedentary, and we’re saving up to buy another piece of land, our own version of paradise.  So that particular dream, bruised and tangled as it is by the past, does smolder on.  Dreams can be resilient things.

When I think about the mesa – with its population of the untamed, the hopeful and the hopeless, with its bleak landscapes and extreme conditions, its drug-addicts and activists and lost, aging souls – I think about dignity.  Simple dignity, the goal that I believe underlies many of our decisions in life.  It’s the hunt for dignity which pushes us into low-paying jobs and car leases we can’t afford.  It’s dignity we long for when arguing with relatives or fighting alcoholism or talking our way out of a speeding ticket.  And it’s dignity which has me still hoping to one day own my own bit of Earth again, to create a home and a name and a purpose in this crazy, chaotic, beautifully confounding world.

“Without dreams, there can be no courage. And without courage, there can be no action.”

– Wim Wenders