Tying into The Sharpest End

When my friend, Alex, was diagnosed with lymphoma, I didn’t know what to do. I retreated to what I always retreat to when I’m similarly confused: writing. I asked him, in a coffeeshop in South Philly, mere hours after his first chemo session, if I could write his story into a book. I intended it to be my gift to him, to be the panacea an author could offer.

I had never written book-length non-fiction before, but was enthused at the prospect. After all, I’ve long thought of myself a Writer (capital W) rather than a novelist or a poet or a journalist or an academic writer or an emailer. I write. That’s my identity. So why not try writing that I hadn’t done before?

From the summer of 2018 through 2019, I’d meet Alex at various coffee shops and ramen bars throughout Philadelphia, slowly learning his story, recording his voice, filling notebook after notebook of information. I know how to research, but researching a person, a friend, was different. Our efforts, five years later, are this book.

Back in that first coffee shop, Alex exhausted because of the chemo, he thought for a second before agreeing, then said: “We’ll do this on one condition.”

I thought oh great.

“We have to hang out and climb together throughout the process.”

And so began five years of outdoor climbing and writing, laughing and drafting. Too much coffee and too little time.

Endless thanks to Alex, Conrad Anker for writing the Forward, Fred and the staff at Sharp End Publishing for picking up the book, and all the readers.

We hope you find something important inside.

Buy The Sharpest End Here.

Pre-Order Permanent for Now

It is with great pleasure to finally be able to offer the link to pre-order Permanent for Now (said link).  It has been a long time coming to see this book in print and the thought of anyone reading it brings me great joy.  I hope you have a few bucks to spare to support the novel and the press that brought this privilege to me.

PFN CoverA word on the cover art.  My constant and talented friend (and great poet in his own right) Kelly McQuain painted the cover for the novel based on my very basic notions of design.  He labored over this and produced an image that, for me, pairs perfectly with the text.  I could not be more proud of it and of collaborating with another great Philadelphia artist for a novel’s cover art.

Permanent for Now, Finally

I think I can be forgiven for revealing only now what I knew back in February: that my second novel, Permanent for Now, will FINALLY by published by Unsolicited Press in December 2018.

I signed the contract and have been working on edits throughout the summer.  The next few months will include design, galley copies, and marketing.  So, four months from now, a novel that was originally drafted in 2010 will finally meet the open air.  The last eight years were full of revisions and close publications (see Jeffrey Marko and the Cursed Novel) but now the book will be realized in print.  It is a relief.  I was hesitant to announce its release because I’ve been burned before, and literary trauma burns like few others, but now it seems real.

Unsolicited Press has been very professional in their dealing with me and their editorial suggestions have made my novel better.  I’m really excited to continue working with them in promotion of the book and press.

As the origins of this book were really in 2008/9, it has been a long time since I sat in the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, researching subjects associated  with this book; a long time since I traveled to Germany and Poland to see, photograph, and feel the places that would become settings of the novel; a long time since these characters did the things I asked and did things on their own that surprised me.  Therefore, over the next few months, I’d like to go back over my notes of the last ten years in an effort to explore the novel that came out of me then and is coming out to the world soon.  I suppose I’ll occasionally post blogs about the process and background of the novel, all leading up to the release and any readings/events associated with it.

In the meantime, it’s valuable for me to reflect on what has been true of my writing career since it began and is likely true for most writers: I never know where my writing will go, what it will do.  Typing, I am often stalled in thinking all the work, all the effort, all the suffering, will lead to a file abandoned on my hard drive.  I fight through this fatigue, this cynicism, and write on.  As my hard drive would attest, I’m usually not too far off in logic.  But in December, as some bookshelves will attest, I’m sometimes wrong, too.

For Tony

I never met Anthony Bourdain but I always imagined I would.

In some far off fantasy, one laced more with delusion than potential, I imagined us sitting in some cafe in Philly while I extolled the wonders of my underdog city: we were having a Yards and eating Pho at Thang Long under an El that had us pause our conversation until it screamed by every few minutes.  There, I’d tell the famous travel host and chef about Philly’s vibrant diversity, about all of the foods you could eat and languages you could hear while walking its variant neighborhoods.  He’d smile his snaggle-toothed grin and rub a grey, unshaven down before we went on a bender.

It’s not so much that I thought I’d ever be famous enough for Bourdain to want to sit with me at a meal that provoked this imagination; it’s how much I–like, I think, everyone–just thought of him as a friend.  He presented himself in that way: someone you knew.  I remember the first time, on one of his shows, I heard someone call him “Tony.”  I thought, of course, he goes by a nickname…like I do!

Like everyone does.

Because Tony Bourdain was one of us.  Egotistical, sure.  Brash, stereotypically.  Foul-mouthed, take a number.  Wild, cast a stone.  But something in his books and shows made me feel like I knew him; or, better, that he knew me.  What amazed me about Bourdain was he was an artist who made it.  He was a writer and a chef who succeeded in a world that increasingly seems to care less and less about creators.  He wasn’t of that world of cut-throat capitalism and xenophobia.  He was with us, in the trenches, creating, and knowing how special it was that he was known for it.

I watched every episode of his travel shows.  Read two of his books.  Like a lot of people, I romanticized that lifestyle: wanted to move around the world, to meet the people he met, eat the things he ate.  Reality teaches me that such a lifestyle is not conducive to raising a family, to having any sort of anchor to stability, but Tony’s taking a walk around this beautiful world has always kept me content in my relative stasis.  And in the traveling I have done, part of how I’ve interacted with the world (with boldness, with wild adventure) was learned from watching him.  The tender way in which he met other cultures, his resistance to tyranny, his openness to try whatever came at him, all teach me to do the same, even in my small house in Philly.

Unlike most of our heroes, he was someone I’d like to get a beer and bowl of noodle soup with.  I won’t get the chance (probably never had it in the first place) but the emptiness of the lack hurts.  That we’ll never share a meal feels like a broken thing.

He was in the world with us for a bit and in so being here, taught us.  I’m not much of a celebrity-seeker, I don’t know the latest actors or musicians, but this one celebrity, gone, seems to have taken some of the world’s steam with him.  We’ll get it back, of course, and in so, hopefully we’ll live lives close to some of Tony’s ideals: to move and experience.  To create art and consume it, until we’re gone.

I don’t believe in an afterlife; I believe in life.  I believe matter cannot be created nor destroyed.  I believe Tony’s molecules are still in the world and his lessons are still in us.  In that way, maybe, we can eat together.



Only Connect…

A great fall continues.SKR

Publishing has the duel distinction of completing the writing process and leaving an author with a sense of orphaned loneliness.  For many of us, writing is valuable because it helps us identify and make sense of the human condition in which we unwittingly participate; it is also a means of communication, cautionary tales that humans have shared over time and geography.  I’ve always tried to maintain the mantra, despite failings and successes in publishing, that if one person reads one thing I’ve written, I’ve at minimum satisfied literature’s requisites of me, that I’ve given back to the pool of an art form from which I’ve drunk so much.

It may be a defense mechanism, but I sustain the notion that my work is complete with only a solitary reader because I, like most writers, have no other option.  It is difficult to presume one’s hard work will ever be read, so, in the scant time during one’s career when it actually is, we must revel in the glee of it, be grateful.

The Saint Katherine Review recently published my short story, “Only Connect…” and it makes me proud to see this story in print.  You can find it here.

I developed the idea for this piece and began pre-writing over Thanksgiving last year, as I spent it fireside in a retrofitted AirBNB barn in the Catskills.  Donald Trump had (dubiously) just been elected president, and I was in the common stupor shared by many worldwide at how such a place of potential could be reduced to a tragedy of errors.  The United States, now a misnomer.

I’m no stranger to writing social criticism and that’s what this story is.  But rather than attack the antagonism of the administration, what I attempted to do with “Only Connect…” was to focus on people: how in the face of great national tribulation, in the face of a dying human morality, we can turn to one another for buoy.

Indeed, the story is set fireside in a barn (writers are only so creative, after all).  But the story’s title comes from E.M. Forster’s epigraph from Howard’s End, which for me means that no matter what else in the world, our task and greatest victory will be to connect, only connect, with others.  In barns, but also, in stories.

Seeing Bones

With great glee, I get to announce my latest publication with The Swamp Literary Magazine: “Seeing Bones.”

Not only do they offer print and online options to read (my favorite sort of publisher), but they’ve kindly included an author profile on me that includes some discourse on my motivation for the story, a recording of me reading the story, and the story itself.

You can find all of the above here.

About the story (taken from The Swamp’s interview):

“Seeing Bones” was written to be both an examination of our fascination with binaries as well as the bonds of family as they are made fragile by parental expectation. To the former, I was interested in pitting opposing notions against each other: urban vs. suburban, marriage vs. weddings, parents vs. children. Although these aren’t true binaries in the best sense of the word, I felt they acted well to oppose one another (at least in the narrative) and work to establish a moment where the narrator and his estranged cousin can reconnect despite the ways life separates loved ones.

The term “seeing bones” works at two levels: it refers to Edward’s job, an X-ray technician, which he chose simply because his father expected him to find a well-paying job instead of pursuing passion. This feeds into the second construct of the titular notion where family members have the uncanny ability to see deeply into one another, perhaps due to some metaphysical and incomprehensible familial bond. Talking with Edward about his occupational predicament, the narrator then ruminates about how he may also expect too much from his young son, thus perpetuating the problem. Though it isn’t directly stated, my intended hope was that the narrator, in seeing how Edward’s father’s expectations shackled him to a dissatisfied life, will now be more open to his own son finding his own way.

Perhaps a bit covert in the narrative, but nevertheless a driving force, was a criticism of vocational higher education.  As an educator myself, I value vocational education as a means by which students who do not have academic interests or aptitude can still find meaningful employment in our society.  However, vocational education has largely become a method to disenfranchise the potential academic pursuits of the most marginalized students of our culture, particularly in community colleges.  In layman’s terms: inspiring students to choose a vocational education truncates their passions and potential development for the dream of modest economic gain.  Edward’s choice to be an X-ray tech, though economically valuable, illustrates how much of his self he had to sacrifice for this elusive and illusionary boon.

Personally, I’ve been very interested in exploring ideas of family (particularly fatherhood) in my recent writing.  I’m intrigued at how family members create and maintain bonds based not on choice but nature and accident.  Family is both tender and frustrating, and “Seeing Bones” hopes to understand this binary, too.


I’ve been a very fortunate person this year as far as my writing and publishing is concerned.

I had an academic article published earlier this year and have three short stories pending for the Fall.  It never ceases to amaze me that editors and publishers admire my work enough to publish it in their journals.  I’ve been writing now for over ten years (fifteen if you count my actual exodus [but those were bad writing times; bad bad writing times]) and publishing just as long, but I am still giddy with delight at every acceptance letter.  I make no mistake to assume I’ll ever find popularity or financial sturdiness for this craft, but this was never my object. La litterature pour la litterature: writing for writing’s sake.

Things keep picking up.  My second novel, which has received abundant attention but has breathed no free air (the cursed novel) is under a full-read by an agent and has been short-listed by a publisher.  I’m currently in the throes of a new book for which I am very excited, something that is a stretch for me but enthralling because of it.

But all of this busyness and concentration stalls my general joy of writing fiction.  I wrote “Delayed” between chapters of this new book, partially because I wanted to write a bit of fiction (the new book is non-fiction) and partially because I wanted to experiment in flash.  For the longest time, I’d eyeroll at “flash” fiction.  Every time I saw a call for flash I’d skip the magazine, thinking it was something I’d never attempt.  I’m all long form, baby.  Because I am in the midst of something longform, however, I thought I’d give it a shot.  With all of that luck, why not?  The Cardiff Review subsequently agreed to publish it and you can read it here.

I still don’t know how much stock I put in my flash fiction, but I will say that after Cardiff took it, I wrote another.  There may be a niche for me yet in this realm.

I like flash because it’s curt.  It’s to-the-point.  The reader is in and out and the thesis is achieved without the necessary pomp of longer forms.  I’ve always loved short fiction because of this; flash fiction just does it faster, less “flashier.”

I still feed off of the dedication necessary for long form but this whole little flash thing may be a nice appetizer while in-between projects.  More to come (hopefully).

Travelogue: Mount Kilimanjaro

DSCN1947Not very long ago, a good friend and perhaps the wildest man I know asked me what my definition of adventure was.  We were coming home from Birdsboro Climbing Quarry, where I had just led my first sport climbing route (where the rope is attached to the climber, so safety consists of clipping oneself into protection as the climber ascends), easily one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done.

I was tempted to say, “Leading my first sport climbing route at Birdsboro Climbing Quarry” when I checked my sarcasm to look into his eyes.  There was a sincere interest to understand adventure in all of its vague mystery and connotation.  And this coming from a guy who has climbed his way through some of the most dangerous and iconic mountains in the world.  And me, a mild-mannered teacher in Philly capable of only rudimentary cliché self-descriptors.

But the exercise gave me a little pause.  What is adventure?  At the time, I ambled through some lengthy, post-adrenaline-hazed diatribe that probably set his expectations of my eloquence back, but I’ve since had time to think about the weight of the question.  I’m sure of at least a few things: adventure has nothing to do with radical or dangerous experience.  It’s not necessarily about a foray into nuance.  It most certainly doesn’t cede to other people’s notions of what adventure means to them.  In short, the answer is DSCN1959subjective.  Adventure is anything that demands a person appreciate being alive.  Climbing El Cap in Yosemite is adventure.  But so is parenting.  So is learning to appreciate your dirty neighborhood when you walk to the local coffee shop.  So is visiting that one painting in the corner of an art museum that draws you without logic.  So is being told you are loved.

The appreciation of being alive.

We’re here anyway.  Don’t know why.  Nothing we can do about it.  But we can adventure: we can appreciate the basic and inevitable.  The etymological root in question is the word advent, which means to arrive—draw your own conclusions.

Exactly one year ago, I climbed the tallest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, largely because mountains are my appreciation of life, but mostly because, yes, it was there.  The trek proved to be one of the most difficult of my life on account of the drastic altitude and frigid cold but it was simultaneously an advent into the ethereal for me: I plod forth on my own mortal timeline but perpetually find hash marks of wonder that my intellect cannot understand, but my bones feel.

DSCN2089Uhuru Peak (Swahili for “freedom”) is 19,341 feet above sea-level.  Note that altitude sickness and some of its severe side effects begin for most people at around 8,000 feet.  Note that that height is over 3.6 miles straight up.  Note (if you’re a Philadelphian) that this is the equivalent of almost twenty Comcast Centers stacked end to end.  The roof of Africa, and I was going to climb to its peak from its base in six days.

From Moshi, the small Northern Tanzanian town that acts as base camp for many a Kili hiker, I couldn’t even see Uhuru Peak, obscured as it was by clouds.  What I could see was the enormous base of the mountain that stood sentinel, intimidating in the otherwise flatland surrounding.  Kilimanjaro was massive, an unending upturn of rock Earth that was almost too difficult to look at, particularly when knowing you were about to attempt to scale it.  Wandering Moshi, I’d steal glances at its bulk, tempt a challenge from it.  I was an adept hiker and climber; I had prepared my body for this ascent and had trekked at altitude before (see Peru Travelogue).  But there is no doubt that Kili looks down on you, cloud bearded, and near smirks—playing the odds that you’ll give up DSCN1987before achieving its crown.

Sure, I anthropomorphized the mountain a bit.  But this was how I psyched myself up to meet the impending challenge.  I knew that what lay before me would be difficult; as much as it fought me, as much as I fought back, summiting was the ultimate kinship between mountain and man.  I would learn its peak, its highest and most vulnerable exposure, and it would learn my weakness and dedication to be there; something of a symbiosis drives this: we feed one another and cease to co-exist as separate entities and grow together—stone and flesh—into some new communion.  I know how this must sound at sea-level, but everyone who’s ever been on that mountain knows precisely what I mean.

And the world is magic magic magic.  Remember that this was the final leg of my Tanzanian trip.  Already a month in, I had recently shed my beautiful students and colleagues and was now alone in Moshi, with a few days to wax histrionic about rock and be careful what I was eating to not enter the trek with any sort of foodborne illness.  I spoke with Azizi, the owner and operator of my trekking company (Trek2Kili) and he mentioned that a member of my hiking group had also checked into the hotel where I was staying.  After a brief investigation, I knocked on a door, interested in meeting a fellow adventurer on this errand.  It didn’t take long after Lisa and I introduced ourselves to find out that we were from the same place.  Not only was Lisa a doctor working at a hospital in Philadelphia, but we had a mutual friend in common back home.  Literally, in a small Tanzanian village in what felt like the opposite side of the world, I was preparing to climb a mountain with someone who was only one degree of Kevin Bacon away from me back home.

We were soon joined by Chen and Amy, and our quartet was complete: four travelers of the world converging at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, ready or not, but willing to walk.

DSCN1953In the day or so before the trek began, we wandered more around Moshi, trying to politely reject street hawkers who were endlessly magnetized to the obvious foreigners, located the closest convenience store for post-hike booze celebrations, read in coffee shops, watched obscure movies on dubious internet connections, and huddled together to discuss the unknown—the reason we were together: the ascent.

DSCN2037Much like the Inca Trail, summiting Kilimanjaro demands a traveler book a local tour company.  This makes sense on many levels but also has a number of problematic associations to it.  Specifically, like in so many developing places, there are a number of tour companies that abuse their porters: the folks tasked with carrying the heaviest and most burdensome necessities of the trek.  Low wages, poor equipment, and other dubious working conditions make the lives of these people—who are otherwise economically disenfranchised—particularly difficult.  Therefore, in choosing a touring company, I was careful to research and select a group that belonged to the Kilimanjaro Porter Assistance Project (KPAP), an organization that establishes and regulates working conditions for the hundreds of people who help tourists trek Kili each year.

DSCN1994I landed upon Trek 2 Kili because it fit all of my needs as a responsible traveler.  There was no way I’d be able to ascend Kili on my own, so I needed a company that was as adept as it was fair to its workers.  Azizi, the owner, was at one time a porter himself, and so was empathetic to the needs of those in his employ.  The KPAP ensures the working conditions of porters are humane: lodging, clothing, weight restrictions, food, pay, etc.  The KPAP also sends one of its own porters with companies to determine if standards are constantly met.

Like in Peru, it was difficult for me to stomach the fact that I was paying other people to lug my food, water, tent, etc. up the mountain while I strolled in luxury.  It’s how it’s done but it doesn’t blunt the force of the hierarchy involved in such an enterprise.  And indeed, on the mountain, we saw some nefarious circumstances with porters.  Talking with Azizi, we realized just how Trek 2 Kili was different.  We crunched some numbers and realized that each porter was paid double the fair compensation rate set by the KPAP.  Also, to ensure there was no suspicion that Azizi was skimming tip money (a practice I actually saw from the head of another company on the mountain), he packaged all of our money, pre-trek, in envelopes that I carried with me the entire journey to hand out to the porters at the end.  It could be argued that these were clever rouses to fool a trusting tourist, but our porters seemed genuinely content the entire way; we hung, ate, and spoke with them as we climbed together.  And, at the end, a number of porters from other groups were clearly trying to defect to Azizi’s company, as they came over to our porters to ask about jobs.  This makes me feel better about my choice of trekking company, but it also underscores the unfair practices still at play on Kilimanjaro.

Day 1

I decided upon the Macheme route because, though it was more difficult (okay, I chose it because it was more difficult), it was more scenic.  There were no lodges along the way; DSCN1973only tents and camps and the rapidly changing climate zones—from rain forest to glacier.

The first day we hiked six miles through a beautiful and dense rainforest, replete with thick brush, vines, and mud.  This was to be the most relaxing day of the trek.  It was about easing into the hike, adjusting to the altitude, and practicing a Swahili slogan that would become mantra from our admonishing tour guides in the succeeding days:  poli poli (slowly, slowly).  To which, I’d always reply: haraka haraka (faster, faster).

DSCN1990We arrived at Macheme Camp (10,000 ft.) and got our first view of Uhuru.  It literally stalled me.  There was the ice cap that was ever receding would likely be gone in just a few years.  In only a few days, my boots would crunch through that ice.

We were 2,000 ft. above typical altitude sickness range and I had no real symptoms yet.  I knew about myself that I am one of the more fortunate people who doesn’t suffer the worst of altitude sickness.  Perhaps a little shortness of breath, a tiny headache, but otherwise fine.  What I wasn’t necessarily prepared for, was the cold.  Of course, I was prepared for it: all throughout my month of arid Northern Tanzania and tropical Zanzibar, I lugged along heavy jackets, gloves, scarves, and hats just for these few days on the mountain.  But still, when the sun went down, even donning all of my clothing seemed not enough.  Before bed, we asked the porters to boil water so we could fill our nalgenes and sleep with them.  Pro-tip: I kept one at the foot of my sleeping bag and cradled the other like the warm baby it was.

Day 2

DSCN2004This may have been my favorite day of the hike.  It was a rigorous uphill jaunt that left the treeline behind and ceded to the sharp volcanic rock of Kili’s higher climates.  We scaled a spine of said rock until we broke above the cloud line.  There’s certainly something strange about the celestial being above clouds.  Unlike in an airplane, when you’re there in the open, in the impossible way that clouds buffer away the sounds from below, it seems peacefully apocalyptic.  The sublimity of the cloud bed below and forever DSCN2031out and the silence—it’s easy to trick oneself that there is nothing below the clouds, and never was.  The ocean of undulating white below.

We arrived at Shira Camp, at significantly higher altitude, and watched the sun set below the clouds, Mount Meru peaking through, breeching to meet us.  At dusk (my favorite time of day), the cold swept in, but it wasn’t enough to have me retreat to my tent; I stood on a rock promontory and looked out, incredulous that I could actually be there.  The altitude was getting rough but I was still reasonably okay.  A little shortness of breath but that was understandable: there wasn’t much oxygen in what my lungs took in.

DSCN2058The impending summit enticed, daunting but exhilarating.  In rock climbing, the crux is the most difficult part of any given route.  The best advice is to have the climber work their way through the crux, to concentrate on it, approach it ready, attack it, and revel in its failure to stall them.  Of course, some cruxes win.  But they win only long enough for the climber to get stronger and smarter, to attack again and again until the fortifications of the problem are bested and the crux is behind, below.

Day 3

(Taken more or less verbatim from my journal)

DSCN2011People may wonder why I—or anyone—would put myself through so much just to climb a mountain.  To PAY to climb a mountain.  To agonize physically and psychologically while smelling like high hell for no discernible reason but to do it.  Perhaps I can elaborate.

Climbing a mountain is life.  It is living.  Perhaps in the way that watching TV or going to work is indeed living, but may not feel like being alive, climbing a mountain is an unreasonable, illogical practice of figuring out what living might feel like.  (Don’t worry, I watch plenty of TV and go to work all the time).  We don’t live because we have a quintessential purpose in doing so.  Waking, we may ask, “What for?” but we get no answer.  We climb mountains because they are there, but we do it more because it is a concentration of all the affirmations of being alive.  Nothing about it is easy.  Everything is beautiful.  Like life.  You do it because you breathe and that is a miracle and mountains are miracles and your walking is a miracle and all you’re really doing is combining miracles.

DSCN2075The trek from Shira Camp to Baranco Camp was pretty strenuous, mostly because we achieved 15,000 ft. at our highest point (Lava Tower), which was the highest I’d ever hiked.  Altitude plays funny tricks.  Indeed, the most obvious tribulation is the lack of oxygen to breathe.  You breathe deep and constantly but are never satisfied.  No oxygen in the air, no oxygen in the blood, no oxygen for the muscles, and you end up exhausted and unable to urge your limbs into compliance.  This, however, seems almost bearable if you understand to take deep breaths and go slowly.  What perhaps challenges more is the equilibrium assault, which greatly decreases one’s balance and decision-making (i.e. where to place a foot) and the psychological distortion.  As much as I’d been trekking, hard and strong, the altitude made me think I wouldn’t reach the summit.  While at rest, I felt reassured; but when huffing along, it seemed a long shot.

15,000 feet.

Let that sink in.

DSCN2086You have to respect the mountain.  Kilimanjaro wanted me to climb it.  Static as it’s always been, it welcomes visitors, urges them to its tallest peak, beckons them to rest in its valleys and on its plateaus.  But we have to honor it.  We have to earn its goodwill by suffering through its realities.  We have to know, first of all, that it is large, that it predates us and will succeed us, that it deserves the reverence of our pain.  The suffering, our offering.  Kilimanjaro—the rite of passage.  I went because it was there.  I suffered because that’s what it demanded.  But, if I kept on, hopefully it would welcome me at its peak, where I’d live.  Where I’d always live.  Suffering over, I’d have learned to live my life.

Day 4

From the Baranco Camp to the Barafu Base camp, there was an orchestra of slow steps.  Tiny steps.  Paced out with breath.  I do this thing, have done this thing for a long while: designing a breathing sequence that matches the strenuous activity I’m doing.  It’s like Lamaze for the athlete.  Three quick bursts in the nose, one hiss out of the mouth.  Three quick in, one ujjayi out.  Variations ad nauseam.  Whatever the hike or bike ride or climb demands.  This day’s hike was a lot of that and even more strange surroundings.

DSCN2098We pressed through what seemed the moon—bald and barren, all dust and grey.  Altitude pressing.  When we arrived at camp we didn’t have a lot of luxury.  Because the idea was to summit prior to the sun’s rising, we were going to wake up before midnight to start our summit trek, and Barafu was so cold that entertaining the idea of being anywhere other than deep into a sleeping bag when the sun went down made going to bed at seven an easy choice.

Day 5


When we began the trek from camp to peak it was so dark that it felt like walking through a void.  True, we all had headlamps on lighting the way, but they only illuminated so far, and the terminus of my light’s beam seemed devoured by the encroaching dark.  The chemical heating packs I’d jammed into my boots, gloves, and pockets did little to ward off the cold, and so this was what desolation felt like: ravenous dark and puncturing cold.

When we got the base of the steep ascent, 400 feet of elevation gain in less than 5 kilometers, all I could see was the snaking rope of head-lighted climbers switch-backing up the vertical face, their lamps in single file, a human constellation of challenge and endurance.

I’d never been so overcome when hiking.  A crushing squeeze on the lungs.  My blood was so oxygen-deprived that I became dizzy and confused.  The entire ascent was the same grey-dirt trail lit by my dim lamp, the swooshing of canvas legs before and behind me, people retching, loud breathing.  It wasn’t agony so much as a state of semi-consciousness.  Not fatalistically, I thought I might die that day.  I certainly wondered if I’d finish.  The entire abyss of heavenly bodies glowed brighter than I’d ever seen them above and inside of me I could not string together two clear thoughts.  I was sentient enough to wonder about insanity and its relationship to what I was feeling; I was clear-headed enough, under two shooting stars, to know that I’d get there be damned.

We’d break every ten paces or so.  We’d sit.  Rising felt impossible.  We rose.  We stepped on.  My steps only as long as one foot’s length: right heel to left toe, left heel to right toe.  I thought we’d take years.  But in just a few hours, we arrived at Stella Point, atop Uhuru.

I could never have prepared for it.  Not the trek, the being there.  Filthy, sunburnt, muscles hurt, lungs a mess, delusional—absolutely no regrets.  My feet chomped ice and I looked out over the rim of the roof of Africa as the sun rose into new day.  All around DSCN2107me, the glacier ice spiked up like waves of fingers, a science I didn’t know, and I wasn’t on Earth anymore.  I couldn’t have been.  Nowhere on Earth was like this.  The horizon was a ruler’s edge where space met cloud and rather than make me feel vulnerable, I felt powerful; I felt myself a part of this cosmic thing that I’d never understand but was in me as much as it was in everything around me.  Stone and flesh.  Adventure.  I’d arrived: my body on the mountaintop.

For the next half hour, we hiked a sickle bend around the extra elevation to Uhuru Peak, where an obligatory sign announced that we’d officially summited Mount Kilimanjaro.  There, we took photos.  Some people puked.  Some people did pushups.  Some had Champagne.  None of us could breathe very well.

It was enough to make a man weep, and I’m not afraid to say it.

DSCN2100And this was at sunrise, the beginning of our day.  We then trekked all the way down, rested for an hour or so, and preceded to hike to Mwenka Camp, which was about 10,000 feet below.  I had no idea how fresh air could seem.  I was so tired and beat up and overjoyed that I don’t think I said very much.  I didn’t eat a whole lot.  I just marveled a bit.  I’m still marveling now.DSCN2120

The next day we trekked quickly off the mountain, the lure of showers and bourbon too much to keep us on Kili any longer.  Back in Moshi, we sat at the same tables.  But they were not the same tables.

And just like that, after a month away, after the study abroad and craters and coral reefs and mountains, I was about to board an airplane home (well, the first of a few).  Of course, I was ready for home; but another part of me, the part that bonded with Tanzania in the long comforts I’d found there—in the people, the land, the culture, the food—that part wondered what sort of longing I’d have when the plane took off and I left Tanzania for the first time.

I was the beneficiary of a study abroad experience that crafted me as much as I hope to have helped the growth of the students in my charge (about this, how could I ever know?).  Ngorongoro’s walls still capture me.  Zanzibar’s waters still ripple below me.  And Kili: I’ve never left and it’s here now.

The ends of things—all illusions.  All perfunctory temporalities we utilize for lack of better conclusions.  So now, all I can say to Tanzania and its incredible, transcendent, incalculable wonder:






Travelogue: Zanzibar


As an exercise of connectedness, I’ve imagined myself at the center of a crowd composed only of people I have ever met in my life, whether deeply or briefly.  Toward the center and closest to me are the immediate family, the profoundest friends.  Perhaps just out of this circle, my co-workers, students, neighbors.  Further, old friends and loves who were foundational to me but have since moved on.  Beyond them: that one person passed on the platform as the express train rushed through, that one shoulder I brushed in a crowded marketplace, that one shared airplane aisle smile.  Looking at this scene from above, I wonder at the crowd’s size, this reasonably solipsistic study to imagine the wide and complex structure of human lives interacting with mine.

There’s chance in it—and deliberateness.

Off the Eastern coast of Africa is an island anchored to the mainland by a dubious political tie that harbors tourists and students, but also harbors a history of various DSCN1727travelers who rooted there, changed its culture, and brushed shoulders with strangers so much so that it would make a beautiful and curious crowd from above.

Flying into Zanzibar, the corrugated metal roofs of houses reflected sunlight and gleamed in a metal grid like studs on a punk rock jacket.  When I stepped foot on the island, I was struck simultaneously by the humidity and with the humanity.  Stonetown, Zanzibar’s capital and major city, points back at the mainland from the western coast of the island and is a collection of enigmatic streets that seem to lead as much to nowhere as they do to everywhere.  They take you to smells of curry and signs in Arabic, to cafés that serve unforgettable milky-white spiced tea and extraordinarily-detailed wooden doors replete with brass studs and spikes for ornamentation, to markets full of color and flies and to an ocean of greenblue DSCN1722translucence that is warm and deep and constant.

Stonetown is beautiful and strange.  It is DSCN1850controversial.  Speak to a denizen of Zanzibar and they will tell you they have no interest in sustaining a relationship with the mainland, which, before forming a united nation with the island, was called Tanganyika. (Tanganyika + Zanzibar=Tanzania).  It makes sense for the Tanzanian government to want Zanzibar: it boasts most of the country’s tourist industry, it produces exports like cloves, and it acts as a buffer for trade to parts east.  But Zanzibaris believe the government takes from the island without giving back and the political discord is a simmer that could become boil.

But what Zanzibar lacks in political tranquility, it more than suffices when it comes to motley cultures inhabiting the same space.  Stonetown has had many residents over the years—from the Afro-Swahilis, Arabs, British, Portuguese to the Indian—all of which leaving their mark in architecture, food, music, and clothing.  This of course leads to a cosmopolitan place that isn’t as immediately recognizable as are other destinations.  In just a few weeks there, I ate traditional Afro-Swahili fare, Ethiopian, pizza, Indian, danishes, and Spanish tapas.  I was on a tropical island where the mosques called for prayer a few times a day.  I tasted various spices from a nearby farm and waded through blue water.  If I wasn’t so used to travel, Zanzibar could have easily short-circuited my brain.

The students, too.  Don’t forget that my role in Zanzibar was to be a teacher, to provide DSCN1729for as much learning for our intrepid students as I possibly could.  Where we were, I didn’t have to do much; our entire environment was a collection of stimuli so rich that mere looking was enough to fascinate.  It meant a lot to me to be there with them, to experience my own awe through their enthusiasm.

But here’s part of the real truth: despite all of our gallivanting and learning and loving: I know Zanzibar isn’t my experience of it.  Stonetown is largely a tourist’s haven (though it seems most of the people there are locals) and I am deeply aware that people are suffering on the archipelago.  Political corruption, rampant poverty, a dearth of education; Julius Nyerere’s ideal independent socialist nation is suffering.  When we walked around, eating our way through hundreds of years of history and culture, I knew that my experience there was largely a superficial one.  The island paradise.  The karibu.  The hakuna matata.  It was in the eyes of the street peddlers, the laconic waitresses and fishermen, the children.  Every fruity cocktail drunk there was in some way a perilous ignoring of a greater human tragedy all around.  This didn’t make Zanzibar less charming or the people less amazing, I just needed to use some space to make acknowledgements, if not amends.

There is a lesson to this: when keeping your eyes open, do not close them.

DSCN1934We had arrived in Zanzibar in June, which was in the middle of the holiest time for the majority of the island’s Muslim population: Ramadan.  Though in no way more peculiar than the idiosyncrasies of any religion—drinking savior blood, building/destroying sand mandalas, circumcising baby boys—our deeply-introverted Western culture turns a skeptical, peripheral eye towards Islam and its holy practices.  Ramadan is a deep tradition, but what results practically is a calm and pensive time of prayer where the devout fast from sunup to sundown each day in order to subscribe to their devotion.  On a hot tropical island, notwithstanding, many go without even water.

Of course this makes for tricky tourism.  Many restaurants and activities are closed DSCN1771during the daytime hours.  Muslims on the island don conservative attire and practice conservative behavior while praying numerous times a day.  In many ways, this makes the experience of Stonetown an unusual and remarkable place during Ramadan.  Having never been to the city outside of the holiday, I have no basis for comparison; but it is easy to imagine the level of piousness and tranquility felt in the chaos of the winding streets is substituted for typical cosmopolitan life in the more secular months.

The students and chaperones tried to adhere as best we could to the customs of the place.  We wished to be respectful, and so covered our extremities despite the heat.  Some of us even fasted, sharing fresh dates with local hosts to break the fast only after DSCN1770the sun went down.  We were complemented by a man by the memorial erected to honor slaves who passed through the island for our courtesy, noting that many tourists did not show such deference.

Watching an entire culture practice a devotion with collective sincerity—it reminded me of every time I’ve been in the presence of the religious who care not for politics or dogma or ritual but are enraptured with the deep-set mysteries of their own faith, and it warmed my agnostic heart.DSCN1868

I have been privy to and privileged by an exotic life of travel that has shown me repeated wonders that strike redundant as ocean waves incessant enough to encourage drowning but that do not harbor the wrath of malevolence.  I have been lapped by these wave strikes in glee, all along shaking my head at the world’s majesty, which renews my faith in people each time I feel at the end of my hope.  One evening during Ramadan in Zanzibar, I was again refueled to live on amongst and in service to all of us on this rewarding planet.DSCN1806

As part of our college’s planning of the Zanzibar leg of our study abroad trip, we connected with Salam, who was to be our point person while on the island.  One of the activities we’d planned was to enjoy an Afro-Swahili cooking class with local cooks in an effort to understand tradition and sample local fare.  But it was Ramadan, which meant our original plan had to be augmented to fit the customs of the place.  Salam, in true Zanzibari form, took us home to his family.DSCN1819

About four hours until sundown, we were introduced to Salam’s entire family, his beautiful children and kind-beyond-comprehension wife, brothers, sisters, and more distant relatives; all gathered together to prepare to break fast in the courtyard just as soon as the light began to sweep away.  The women of our cohort respectfully wore the proffered head scarves and, together, we prepared one of the most elaborate, specialized, from-scratch, and delicious meals imaginable.  We made coconut milk from actual coconuts and leavened bread by making and kneading dough before twisting it into long tendrils, coiling it into saucers, and DSCN1814frying it in oil over burning coals.  We peeled yucca.  We rolled tiny balls of dough.  We fried mandazi (African doughnuts like beignets).  We kabobed lamb (for the Americans).  We made Zanzibari milk tea with lemongrass, cloves, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and who-knows-what-else.  We made an enormous and elaborated dinner that took a very long time, which made me a bit weary from hunger and exhaustion: I thought about how selfish I was.  All month, all around the world, Muslims were fasting all day—and I felt weary because I hadn’t eaten DSCN1836since lunch.

When the dinner was ready, the family refused to get their food until we were all served first (kerplunk, goes the heart).  Plates full of food that, four hours ago, I wouldn’t be able to identify but now knew intimately having been a part of their every development, we retreated to mats along the courtyard and, as dusk faded out the last of that one day’s light, ate together.

It may have been the best meal of my entire life.


Etymology: breakfast = to break fast (presumably, upon waking from sleep).

There’s a lesson in this: this group of American travelers, welcomed to the home of a devout Muslim family during their holiest month to share a delicious meal and some human peace.  How wayward we become when we ceaselessly don’t understand how to first love one another.

The Chumbe Island lighthouse extended its white-tiered layers from a small patch of green vegetation surrounded by blue-slick glazed water.  As we approached in our single-motor boat that had to fight unpredictable currents and volatile waves, the lighthouse’s length brought our gaze down to where we’d dock and begin our day: a small pavilion inhabited mostly by marine biologists both researching and protecting the unique biodiversity of the island.DSCN1896

If it wasn’t clear by now, note that Zanzibar is not a singular island off the mainland, but an archipelago of main islands (Unguja and Pemba) and occasionally-inhabited islets that are home to myriad and vulnerable species of flora and fauna and coral reefs that, if neglected, could cease to exist.  Chumbe Island is an eco-protected habitat where researchers and—aren’t we lucky?—teachers and students can explore the habitats in an effort to understand the critical nature of man’s impact on the environment (which, is a thing).  The increasing global temperature warms the ocean, which kills marine life on the coral, rendering it an ashen, ghostly white.DSCN1879

We met with a few marine biologists who taught us about their preservation efforts, hiked us around the island, and climbed with us up to the top of the lighthouse before preparing us for our snorkeling adventure at the coral reef.

Our boat took us from the beach out to where the coral reef rested in the shallows.  I have donned a snorkel before, but I am in no way an advanced snorkeler.  I have the cognitive capacity to understand how a snorkel works, am reasonably adept at mouth breathing, and have little self-consciousness concerning the foolishness of my visage when wearing a snorkeling mask; but what I’m not is a strong swimmer.  Looking out over my shoulder, the coast seemed far away, the waves oscillated with vindictiveness, and the furtive glances of all the students wondering which of us would plunge first anchored us to the wooden seats of the boat.  Not an advanced snorkeler am I, but content to be the guinea pig I am.

I shrugged and jumped.

I first tried to swim against the choppiness of the waves, using all of my might and memory of Michael Phelps to resist the eventual obviousness that I was no match for the entire ocean.  I was struggling and drinking more than a share of ocean water to boot.  For a good long moment, I hated marine biology and all of its oxygen-less inquiry.  But then something happened: I sort of just let go.  I stopped the spastic windmilling and foot slapping that was my wanting freestyle form, I stopped craning my neck to maintain my airwaves above the surface, and just went limp.  It wasn’t some deathwish, come-what-may limpness, but a sudden realization.  My struggle against the ocean and its waves was futile because I never had a chance to match it with my body; it was a body that was far more ancient and far more powerful than my own.  If I let it have me, perhaps it would buoy me.  And buoy me it did.

DSCN1888I floated and breathed, face down, with the snorkel extended up as it should be.  Above the surface, it was loud, windy and violent; below, it was silent and calm.  I almost couldn’t believe the difference.  How was it possible that on the one side of the water, the side I lived my whole life in, it was so rough and unwieldy, and underneath there was such peace?  I could hear nothing but the muted din of the boat’s motor that floated further and further away, but the water was transparent so I could see all the way to the coral and below; and what’s more—I could swim.  I would kick a little, slither my body, separate my arms in one breast stroke, and I’d glide a few meters in any direction I’d choose.  I swam amidst the reef, submerged more in awe than water, and floated amongst flirting fish that playfully swam in schools around me (more students) then scattered each time I rolled like a barrel to face them.

I was underwater in Africa and only surfaced an hour later when the boat motor approached and, perking my head back up into the world, realized everyone was looking at me with the “you done yet?” faces of endearing impatience that I typically see on those closest to me.  That ring near the center of my crowd.

There’s a lesson in this: at times, it is right to stop struggling.  There is peace and a beauty that you can’t really know, in just letting go.

DSCN1747As I write this, it’s been nearly a year since these moments.  The world, in that time, has become a difficult place.  Of course it’s been difficult, for many, always, and that the difficulty has bided its time to find me in my relatively safe confines should serve to neither shock nor marvel me.  In truth, I am still largely protected from the greatest difficulties abounding.  Still, I find myself challenged by it all.  From the White House to the white Nissan with Jersey plates whose day is more important than any of ours, I can sometimes see the disillusionment that came to many folks as they matured in this world.  But I’m reminded and energized by the Oscar Wilde quote: “It takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it.”  I’m trying Osc.

When our formal CCP study abroad trip was complete, not long after Chumbe Island, the students and my wonderful colleagues were preparing to return home, while I had plans to stay in country for a few more weeks.  The prospect of being alone did not concern me; the vulnerability of solo traveling in a foreign place was not daunting.  I was mostly just preemptively missing my travel companions.  But as they boarded the bus that would take them to the airport and home, and I looked toward the near future and great elevated peaks, I felt in our parting what Wilde called for.  We had spent a lovely time amongst one another in a mesmerizing place that would forever be sewn into the fabric of our selves.  As they drove away, I knew that we’d never have that particular experience again: these people in this point of our lives together in this place.  That part was over.  But it is also constant in its perpetuity.  We are always there together.

I have traveled alone enough.  I know how to find comfort in what is uncomfortable.

For my last few days in Zanzibar before heading back to mainland Tanzania and the tallest mountain on the continent, I spent the mornings reading in Forodhani Park, a local public area by the harbor.  I cannot say I got a lot of reading done, conspicuous as I was the obvious interloper there.  After a few flips of pages, I’d be visited by numerous local Zanzibaris, who were curious and courageous enough to come up and introduce themselves.  Most wanted to practice their English, and so much of my mornings were spent in conversation that was premised on the pretense of rudimentary discourse, but moved swiftly to profound dialogue.

DSCN1920One day, I was approached by a cohort of schoolgirls, all headscarfed and precocious who—in developing a giggling courage—asked me if they could “practice their English,” whereby they launched into a prescribed soliloquy that included their names, hobbies, and academic aspirations.  It was a sweet few moments.  We talked through mostly language-barriered speech (they insisted I practice my Swahili, which naturally made them hysterical) and they performed a song and dance for me.  I couldn’t help but notice that their interaction with me was beginning to get the attention of park denizens, so after taking a few selfies with the group, I made my way away.

DSCN1737I got lost in Stonetown every few minutes or so.  It didn’t matter; I don’t really believe in being lost.  Walk long enough and you’ll always find your way somewhere.  I met Muksin for drinks at the Africa House where we watched the sunset over the ocean.  I spied hidden restaurants where there were no tourists or outsiders in sight, and waited until sundown to enter and eat with the locals.  One such place, Lukmaan, served Afro-Swahili fare that was perfect.  Walking in was like experiencing one of those chaotic maelstroms of intimidation that force you into considering running and screaming, tucking tails and peacing out.  Luckily, that temptation lasted only a foolish second.  The restaurant was small and crowded and served food a la carte, lunch counter style.  I knew next to nothing about any of the options, but also knew this was one of the best situations in which to be.  I ambled up to the counter and, throwing my hands out in a shrugging question mark, said to the man there, “Listen, I have no idea what to get but it all looks great.  Give me whatever you want.”  Yellow rice, pea and carrot masala, butter curry sauce, breaded and deep fried cheese balls.  All for $2.50.  And I loved the world’s tainted glory.

My crowd growing ever greater.

Preparing to leave Zanzibar, the final leg of my Tanzanian journey was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  I mean, even Hemingway only got to the base.  I looked forward and up to this most prized hiking mecca and looked back on a diverse tropical place beyond expectation.  Like many of the places I’ve gone and loved, I promised Zanzibar I’d return.

There’s a lesson in this: I write these journal entries for my own memories and the hope that other people find them intriguing enough to find their own adventures.  Because I’m really just like everyone else; I get scared.  Being alone is a foreign place where the customs are so unique from my own drums up in me the very real consternation everyone would have in similar scenarios.  I’m not heroic or immune to the intimidation in all of this.  What I am, however, is accepting of it all: the fear, the immersion, the splendor, the wonder.  I open and absorb it.  I guess what I mean is, whether you’re a student or a teacher or just a person moving in the world, the key has always been to approach with interest and courtesy and leave with affirmation and joy.

I know I know I know this is easier said than done.  But so be it.


New Scholarly Article on Pedagogy

I’m happy to announce a scholarly article on teaching early American literature has been published by Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice.  My goal with this piece was to share my experience teaching early American lit using critical theories in an effort to emphasize previously and currently marginalized voices within the master narrative.  In my experience, the American lit classroom that makes room for diverse voices beyond the problem of canonical inclusion in the period provides students with a much broader understanding of the value of literature as cultural artifacts as well as helps them connect seemingly archaic themes to contemporary issues.

You can download the pdf from the journal here.

The abstract from the journal is as follows: Early American Literature, as a survey course for undergraduate students, is challenging both pedagogically and philosophically.  With the proliferation of literary theories in the mid-to-late 20th century that aim to describe the experiences and oppressions of marginalized peoples, Early American Literature’s perceived value is problematized as a stalwart of a hegemonic master narrative.  It is difficult to promote the value of analyzing and criticizing the literature to contemporary students when much of it is exclusive: patriarchal, colonial, Euro-centric, and hierarchal.  Applying the literary theories of the mid-to-late 20th century to undergraduate survey courses and analyzing minority voices in early American literature reestablishes a working value between the texts and contemporary students, who are invested perhaps more in these issues than what seems to them archaic literature.  This is even more viable to community college students, who are apt to identify with marginalized voices and can see the relevance of situating Early American Literature in contemporary frameworks with an effort to promote social, democratic citizenship.