Traveling forces people to understand that their human experience is not the human experience.
In the span of a couple months, I traveled to Montreal to run a half marathon, two of my grandfathers died, and I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for one of my short stories. This is how things come together.
In a lot of ways, it makes no sense to drive eight hours from Philadelphia to Montreal, bike twenty miles, run 13.1 miles, then drive eight hours home in time for work the following week. In a lot of ways, such a decision is mired to criticism: convention yelling “Why!” as if adventure was a word soaked in the pejorative juice of expectation, tradition, and rudimentariness. But when my Mamu died in 1995, my Papu (her husband)—who had already buried their two children—got a motorcycle license at the age of 78 and rode around the country, yelling “Why not?” back at a world that tried to break him; so, it’s in me to not make sense either. Maybe there is something to blood relation; maybe there’s truth to the thought that progeny harbors some atomic thing of the ancestor. Whatever the reason behind things, here’s the fact of the matter: I had never been to Montreal, so I went to Montreal.
By the Atwood Market on the Canal de Lachine, there was an art display that read: Je voudrais me reposer en paix avant de mourir (I would like to rest in peace before I die). I don’t like to rest when I travel—ask my beleaguered wife, who I made fly from Vietnam to Brussels on her 30th birthday and hike into the Grand Canyon on her 32nd. She’s no beach-chair bad-novel traveler, but likes to at least sit around a little bit when vacationing. I have no human conception of this activity. And this may be a character flaw, but as every second of travel is sacred to me, I am piously motivated to be in constant motion. The requisite of sleep: my albatross. To that end, maybe it was a good thing that she didn’t come to Montreal.
With my smoothie and panini, all ordered in the broken faux-formal French I had begun to learn, I sat alone at an outdoor table of the Atwood Market, watching children run through stalls of verdant vegetables and fruit, contemplating the city I had just spent the day cycling through to its extreme ends.
Later, when I’d tell the young lady who rented one of the rooms of her condo to me for the 48 hours I was there where I’d been all day, she’d exclaim, “Comment etonnant!” though she could have said, “Comment etrange!” (I was still getting used to listening to the particular phonetics of Quebecoise French).
What people always say is that Montreal is a “Little Paris” or that it is the “Paris of North America.” What this really signifies is, to some people, any place that harbors French as the municipal language must be just like Paris. (Mexico City must be just like Madrid!!). Here’s the truth: Montreal is nothing like Paris (I’ve been to the latter three times). It doesn’t look like Paris, it doesn’t sound like Paris, and it doesn’t taste like Paris. But I don’t say these things to be dismissive. When we begin to compare places—especially based on rudimentary elements like a shared language—we instantaneously create a hierarchy of derivatives. One place must be better than another. Trust me: I’m from Philadelphia; for a city so unfortunately stuck between NY and DC, such hierarchies become disproportionate from any one place’s grandeur. All of this to say Montreal is its own place. It has its own culture and architecture and food and language. Go there looking for baguettes and sauces that end in aise and you’ve really missed the point.
For most of the year, it’s cold in Montreal. The people, personalities a mix of the cosmopolitan urbanity of big cities and the charming self-degradation of most of Canada, tend to live in tiny apartments or condos that are their only protection from frighteningly oppressive winters. In a Learned Helplessness sort of way, the roughness of the intemperate season is simply a part of life; one accepts one’s lot because there isn’t a lot else for one to do about it. There is, I suppose, an attempt to frustrate the season through innovation and engineering, by way of the massive underground mall that takes up most of the downtown’s subsurface space and simultaneously allows for pedestrian traffic in the more unbearable times. But really, Montreal’s response to the oppressive winters—and this is the best part of the city—is to be one of the best outdoor cities during the truncated, calm, non-winter. I’ve never understood the proposed dichotomy wherein folks suggest a separation between city living with the great outdoors. Perhaps a better observation would be the oppositional binary of suburbia and the outdoors. But in cities, people tend to spend much of their time outside. True, we’re not talking woods and mountains here, but outdoors is outdoors. In other words, there’s a lot of wild in civilization. With Montreal, a city that only gets to explore the outdoors a few months out of the year, a great effort is spent in trading in the cramped condos for parks galore.
Parc du Mont-Royal is literally a tree-covered mountain bobbling like a beautiful boil out of the center of town. Designed by Frederick Olmstead (of the “I designed Central Park” Olmsteads), Mont-Royal is swirl-sliced by bike and hiking paths that host more innumerable amounts of city denizens than I care to enumerate. Most paths culminate at an observation platform that boasts views of the entire city and surrounding environs.
Knowing little of where I was or how I was to traverse the city mountain, I steered my bike in its direction nevertheless, content to get lost on its paths. Under shade, I propelled myself against the uphill. Having transported my bike the eight hours on the back of my car, I felt it would be criminal to not make the best of it; so I sped along the gravel, took detours through the dirt, and selfied my heart out with the downtown’s biggest buildings at my back. I bought my Gatorade from a young woman at the summit (“Lequelle?” “Le bleu, s’il vous plait.”) and flew down the mountain without pedaling—stupid smile inescapably plastered to my sweaty face. The mountain is Montreal’s jeweled feature, but there was much more of the city to explore and I had mere precious hours. Writing back on it, it’s strange; the day I recount had such a long grandeur to it. In progress, it felt neverending—like I was a bobbling cork adrift in the sea-tranquility of being alone in a new place (it’s weird to not hear your own voice; so I’d hum). I don’t attribute this so much to Montreal itself, but to travel; when people take themselves so far out of the normalcy of their everyday lives, there can be a stunning result. I like that cork bobbling metaphor; I’ve learned that there’s a sort of—je ne sais quoi—joy in letting rather than choosing every element of life. Getting out of bed in the morning is as much an onus as it is a privilege to be amongst the world without really knowing or caring to know what the world will do to us in all its spinning. One of my most blessed feelings is bumping into random people, other corks!, (people who woke up somewhere else, thought something else, wanted something else) and sharing some stupid space with them for some small time. It really wraps the whole human business up in a pretty nutshell. This is relevant to travel but maybe also to life.
There were protected bike lanes, there was that weird stadium where the Montreal Expos played, there was all the glory of poutines at outdoor cafés. I rode through the city until my legs about gave out, then instantaneously chided myself because I had a long run the following day. But, teeth blue and veins filled with sugar, I felt such an intimacy with the city. Who cares if I died mid-marathon the next day? At least I’d be buried there.
When I ran the half marathon the next day (surviving), I traversed bridges to and from islands, cocked my head curiously at the Biodome, negotiated the broken glass of the industrial river port, and ran just a little bit faster when the locals shouted, “Allez allez!” The marathon medal might be cheesy, but bring on the fromage, because it didn’t hang so heavy that day.
There wasn’t a lot of resting in Montreal, but I was at peace, and I got it before I die.
Edgar Allan Poe taught us that, though we may never recover from the death of a loved one, it is a part of our human condition. Represented by the raven, if we were to mark the sufferings of those around us, there would be an unkindness (the collective noun for ravens) circling the heads of most. This is philosophy; this is literature. What it hopes to illustrate and maybe thusly negate is that there are aspects of the human condition—particularly death—that warp us, that bend us like vinyl records left in the backseat of a car in summer. We are weakened at the fragility of those we cannot protect, of ourselves. Stealing from Shakespeare now, we all owe God a death; it just so happened that two of my grandfathers paid their due within a couple months of one another.
Here is my eulogy.
In an incidental happenstance, one of my grandfathers was named Robert Walton, though this one did not chronicle the end of Victor Frankenstein in the arctic. This Robert Walton was interned in a Chinese prison camp during the Korean war, ate tuna from a can, and idiosyncratically remained upstairs during family holidays if anyone in the family was sick (or, had been sick any of the previous weeks of the month). He never spoke about being a POW, about what he went through, but I believe some of his unique personality traits were a direct result of what he experienced there. Growing up, I seldom thought of it; that was just Pop Pop. Now, I am grateful; because men like him suffered in war, men like me didn’t have to. When he passed, the company fired blanks into the air. After, I walked around the space the company had occupied, finding the spent shells to give to my relatives and to place on the windowsill by which I now write.
I did a similar thing when Papu died, a short time later, the shell casings littered intermittedly in the graveyard in rural West Virginia, where we had to drive wooded back roads for half an hour from the main road in order to find the plots where he would join my Mamu, his wife, and my grandfather Arch, Papu’s son. Papu was really my great-grandfather and he died when he was 97, having buried his wife and two children. When someone gets to be that age, it’s hard to be completely sad at their passing; the belief is that they’d lived a long life. Perhaps a long enough life. But one drawback is their funeral is rather empty. You bury enough people—family, friends—and there’s little anyone to bury you.
This is not the first time I’ve written about Papu. As a figure, a figurehead, a character, I am strangely drawn to him. He featured greatly at the end of my first novel, Into the Everything, and in a more recent short story “Harold and Madeline,” which to date is—in my own opinion—my best work. He was a strangely intrepid man; for most, who would deteriorate to nothing at the loss of all his immediate family, he found a strange purpose to life in simply living. Upon an old hill in an old house that used to overlook a valley but for forty years now overlooked an Interstate, he orchestrated the myriad plans of the end of his life. When I’d visit him (admittedly, regrettably: less as I aged too) he’d entertain me for hours with stories that can only aptly be called yarns about flying sea planes in Vancouver (see the Canadian connection?) and happening upon a concentration camp in Poland while a soldier in WWII (note this: it will be relevant when I begin talking about Pushcarts). He told stories until I had to stop him, until I was too tired to listen anymore. He never seemed to exhaust himself, never seemed to not laugh at his sad but energetic life. The unopened mail he was sent piled on his coffee table (his eyes were too weak for him to read anymore) and cascaded to the shag carpet below, and he would look at me and remark about the remarkableness of my likeness to his son, my grandfather. And I was saddled with the strange feeling of looking like a man I never got to know (he died when I was three), of looking like this man’s son, who he’d lost so many years before.
At his funeral, everyone said I looked like Archie. My red beard (“You’re grandpa was so handsome. He’s the reason I married a redhead.”), my stature (tall, broad-shouldered), my playing a stringed instrument (me: guitar; Archie: mandolin). At Papu’s viewing, people looked over at me wearily, as if they were looking at a spirit, but also lovingly, like they missed that spirit. I sat as still as possible, giving them that solidarity only achieved in the hope that one lives on in their offspring; I was also still as to not tremble. The man in the coffin did not look like Papu. He looked the way funeral homes did their best to remake vitality in inanimation: plastic and proxy. Gone was the childish thought that he’d open an eye, look over. Gone was a great-grandfather who, I’d learn—like me—liked to sleep with his feet over the end of the bed.
And I looked like his son.
What struck me most about how Papu was spoken about at his funeral was people’s remembrance of his guile to do whatever he pleased; to bob (perhaps) corklike. The similarities between us felt so surreal, like someone was playing a trick on me. But why would they? I was that distant relative who lived in a big city out East; there was no purchase in picking on the Yankee (Phillie?), so I had to just accept that there was something elastic between us, stretching despite distance to hold a connection.
The shell from his military salute is on the same windowsill as my other grandfather’s, rifle casings side by side; I feel that elasticity even now, despite a distance that is more than geographic.
I’ve been writing more and more about the Holocaust, about Jewish identity. My particular claim to Judaism comes from my father’s side, which is the other side of the family from which my two grandfathers died. In other words, there was no special, organic or genetic reason that would connect my Papu’s war experience with the other side of my family’s extermination experience. If anything, we’d have to begin thinking in some sort of metaphysical realm to justify all this. I don’t think we should do that—it’s a blog (the sound of the monosyllabic phonetic seeming to indicate that meaningfulness should check its pretention at the door). What I will do, however, is that silly, clever thing that writers like to do: connect two seemingly meaningless elements through prose and paragraph buffers that demand purposefulness in all of the randomness of our cork bobbling (I swear, I’ll stop, soon).
I wrote “Threads” after a Holocaust Literature class I took a couple summers ago. It was published (graciously) by the same literary journal that nominated me for the Pushcart Prize: Glassworks out of Rowan University. If you’re not my mom or my wife and you’re somehow reading this, go pick up the latest copy. They’re real nice folks.
The Holocaust is literally so complicated that no literature could hope to do it justice. Frankly, perhaps there is no justice in a thing so unjust, so writing about it is immediately futile and instantaneously important. This is the thesis of “Threads.” I can’t comprehend what went through Papu’s mind when his troop stumbled upon a concentration camp, but I tried to articulate it in fiction. In “Harold and Madeline,” Harold (née: Papu) sends his wife a letter the day after they find the camp. It reads thusly:
Damndest thing. There we are walking the fields—you should see the endlessness of the fields; it’s like the whole damn continent is uninhabited save for dry produce. Everything almost yellow. But there we are, field walking, and we hit what they’re calling a camp. Well, I won’t bore you a bit about it, but I’ll say it’s a shame what folks do when pressed (or not). Sometimes I try to figure what kind of species we are, anyway. Mutts seem better, times (how’s ours?). But all that’s morose. Strange, main thing was it made me think of you all again. Stronger, though, this time. I sort of just began to feel appreciative. Funny, huh, appreciative all these miles away. But appreciative still. Don’t know why, miss your hair. And don’t go around flaunting it when I get home and I complain about you arguing to always get what you want. It’s the heat of the moment, Mad, remember that. Don’t whip this old leaf out when I won’t move the couch or pull out a jutting nail.
Love to Archie, love to Kate.
That’s the best I can do. Two pieces of fiction talking about something I could never properly talk about. There you have it. And for that (well, for the other story, “Threads”) I was nominated for a Pushcart. My first literary glory for failing before I ever started.
And here’s the thing: there’s no way in any world I’ll win this thing—there are like, what?, 1 million nominees?—but I’m still really honored for the nod. Very seldom will something like this happen to a writer in their lifetime, so permit me for a second the vanity to hope Papu would be proud, Robert would be proud, that their grandson cared enough about their stories that he used them to make the war-torn world not seem so embarrassingly wretched.
I’m not yet at a place to miss them. Perhaps I’m too near their deaths. Or perhaps the trace of them in me is enough to keep them near, like the subtle gunpowder smell that remains in the shells of their salutes. When that smell dissipates, maybe then I’ll feel something different, write something different. I can only now pledge to try to live my life the way they did: to brave war so others won’t have to (I’ll have to figure this out), to live without consideration for correctness or worry of standards. The best way to honor someone is to mirror their greatest traits. So, if you can’t find me, look in the place you’d expect the least.
Running a marathon is kind of a stupid thing. What bunch of geniuses got together and thought it would be a great idea to do something the body is not designed to do? After my first full marathon, I told the Dean of my college and he said, “Didn’t the first guy who did that die?” He was referring to Pheidippides, the soldier who died after running the distance between Marathon and Athens to deliver a message; what he was really asking was, “Why?”
But the only thing running through my mind as I finished teaching, packed my gear, affixed my bike to the back of the car, drove 450 miles, answered inane border questions, biked all over, ate too much (poutine: yum; Montreal bagel: eww), drank nothing (training, bro, training), ran around, packed up, and drove home was: “Why the Hell not?”