Vermont Travelogue for A. Wildman

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I remember Advent Calendars having a rancid kind of chocolate behind their ornamented doors.  They tasted like the painted paper that housed each day’s kitschy, Christmas-themed weirdness.  Perhaps I remember this so fervently because the entire month of December—when I was a boy—I’d wake up at-the-ready to rip through another cartoon evergreen or red-cheeked Santa face to get at the slightly yellowed, amorphously-molded chocolate piece.  My satisfaction at the treat was always checked immediately by the strangeness of the taste and the twenty-four hours of lamentation before I could have at it again.

I was a dumb kid.

Maybe the best stories don’t start with “When I was a boy…”; maybe we get too Freudian for our own good: all hunger and desire and wishing-well-holes for brains.  But Christmas is one of those things caught up in childhood.  I know this because I’m in my mid-thirties, am childless, and couldn’t care less for the 25th of December.  Nowadays, I think of pre-packaging: of how long those chocolates had to sit in their plastic places before moms could buy the calendars at thrift stores, of how much preservatives they must have put in them to keep through the end of the year.  Of how little they have to do with Advent.

Some of my best recent memories of Christmas don’t consist of egg nog, pajamas, and fasting to afford presents.  In 2007 I spent Christmas on my best West Coast friend’s parents’ couch, just outside LA.  I’d arrived after driving on a Kero-whacky road trip from Seattle in time to search for a pickle in the Christmas tree.  In 2010, in Dessie, Ethiopia, the proprietors of a hotel that was also a brothel erected (pun intended) a tree and decorated it with clouds of white cotton—ersatz snow—to make the American travelers feel at home.  In 2011, in El Salvador, I learned that you only say Feliz Navidad! on Christmas Eve, right before the fireworks, liquor, and dance parties ensue.  In 2012, my wife and I rode bicycles out of Chiang Mai, Thailand then climbed the mountain of Doi Sutep to the Wat that overlooked the region.

This is what Christmas has become for me in my adult life.  Gone are the days when I rise giddily for cardboard chocolate and tinsel, presents and carols (I’ve always hated the carols).  Perhaps, when I reproduce, as I’m so programmed to want to do, I will revisit these things subjectively, through the focus of tiny, widened eyes.  But for now, it’s all get out of dodge and prepare for something new.  To begin again.  Empezar.  An advent.

Enter Vermont: the Green Mountain.

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For the previous three years, I’ve been home for Christmas.  And let me make it clear that I’m not ruing family time or taking for granted any of the obvious collections of Christmas benefits: time off, big-full bellies, quasi-free stuff (the “quasi” because you pay into gifts for others, right?).  But I have to admit that each year, come end of December, I get an itch to move.  It may be the end of year=end of times, winter of discontent metaphor of end-life so richly portrayed in every literary text featuring the season, but I see the new year approaching like a trumpet-call toward some kind of oblivion and off I run.

This year, I was able to sucker Amy and some friends to come up to Vermont with me for my X-Mas expatriation.  As far as state destinations go, Vermont had every likeable quality: breweries, mountains for skiing and hiking, Ben and Jerry’s, coffee, the Appalachian and Long Trails, and the dubious assignment of being a state I’d never visited before.  One AirBnB on the side of a lonely mountain later and off we went, speeding north to vacate everything we know about holidays.  (Quick and interesting note: nearly everyone I spoke with after returning lamented their own Christmases—bemoaning family fights over politics that mirror more reality shows than government and bitter eternal familial grudges spanning decades.  And I’m the crazy one for emigrating?)

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For the week, we took to exploring Burlington, imbibing at too many breweries, hiking the Long Trail (a vertical trail stretching the entire length of the state), practicing yoga (you can take the kids out of the bourgeoisie city but can’t take the bourgeoisie city out of…), team cooking, jogging dirt roads past tractors, and not once realizing it was Christmas.  We searched for and found Vermont’s Holy Grail: the sought-after beer that never leaves the state, ranked as one of the best beers in the world (who does this?)—Heady Topper, another piece of Americana to sample from its aluminum housing.  I don’t know if it’s the best anything, but it was good.DSCN1064

But what I really want to talk about is Camel’s Hump.

When we recycle things so much, they can lose their inherent value.  Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion or shopping; sometimes, it can be about climbing a mountain.  And every once in a while, “a” mountain can become “the” mountain for a person, when it enters the mythos of one’s life experience.  When a mountain is so much more than a rock that it carves into you, putting its shadow-negative weight into your memory so that you carry it always, gladly.  And you realize: mountains are big things until they are inside of you.

Two US states use foreign idioms of mountains for their namesakes: Montana, which, inserting the ~ tilde of Spanishness equals “montaña,” or “mountain” (not too subtle there Big Sky State); and Vermont—truncating some French: Vert (green), Mont (mountain).  And what do you know, there are actually green mountains in The Green Mountain State.  There’s something about mountains that draws me—heights call to climb, peaks beckon like lighthouses, seductive as if up is where I’m from.  I’ve recently gotten into rock climbing, which adds to my already innate desire to scale rock faces and immense myself in wood.  When I’m there, on mountainside, I feel simultaneously an adventurer and an athlete, a journeyer and one in-tune with my natural surroundings.  Wherever I go, I look up; I aim my sight to the great heights, then trace them down to locate the nearest path up.  Little invigorates me like a mountain ascent; little satisfies me for so short a time that I must quit my sea-level environs to again look for where I can find sky.DSCN1072

Camel’s Hump is Vermont’s third-tallest mountain, is on the state quarter (remember when your grandmother was excited about these?), and—via the Burrows Trail—follows a stream to its apex, where a bald spot in the Alpine line makes for a—you guessed it—humplike promontory where the entire region opens to the hiker intrepid enough to try it in winter.  Our design was to wake early, drive to the trailhead, and ascend.  When we arrived, it was 18 degrees, and we knew there was a long trek in front of us.  It was only 2.6 miles to the ascent, which I thought would be relatively simple.  I was, splendidly, wrong.

We donned our costumes (Hadley’s jacket included) and took to the trail.  At first, it was delicate and fair-going; there was sun, flat land, and agile legs.  Soon, however, began a treacherous (read: fun) ascent along a river frozen over by the arctic temperatures.  The climb was perilous: we had to traverse using nearby tree branches, often following Hadley in her more wizened path decisions.  It was steep, mostly solid ice, and very slow-going.  It was amazing watching Hadley’s athleticism; timid about feats of agility normally, she made daring decisions: jumping six-foot gaps, climbing ice slides, etc.DSCN1106 It seemed she was enjoying the trail as much as her human counterparts.  There was some falling and an increasing cold, but the fresh-white environment was nothing like I’d seen.  It seemed an illusion—an optical trick—the odd whiteness of it; snow frozen to twig as if in motion.  From our photos, drenched in color as we were, the backdrop seems false, a department store paper background, a Hollywood green screen; us: superimposed.  Ultimately, it was the perfect backdrop for our challenging climb.

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Using much more time than we’d expected, we reached a small clearing about 0.3 miles from the summit.  Here, fortified by flasked bourbon, some of us pushed on to peak (Had came too).  The rest of the ascent was pretty ridiculous.  It was all up and it was all ice.  Without scrambling, we’d never have made it.  In fact, I even had to boost Hadley a couple times.  Eventually, however, exiting the timberline and meeting the clouds, we broke forth onto the mountain’s crown, the eponymous hump of the camel.  The temperature dropped; our beards were frozen stiff with our exhales, but we’d answered the call that reached us 4000 ft. below: come to the top of the mountain.DSCN1099

The valley, the ranges. No words.

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Going down was equal parts fun and horrifying.  Often, we simply had to sit and slide down long sections of frozen river, as we didn’t have crampons or polls. DSCN1102 There was a lot of falling, a lot of turtling (a word I’d learned hiking the Appalachian Trail that essentially means, when hiking downward on slippery rocks, let your feet come out from under you if you slip so that you land on your pack rather than some other unprotected part of your body), a lot of laughing, a lot of damning our mountain, and a lot of celebrating the ludicrousness of it all.  Darkness came quickly, but after what seemed hours and hours (six in total), we made it out just as dusk fell.

All of us were bruised, sore.

Aches.

Hadley: cold/limp tail.

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Flowering hip bruises.

Sprains.

But here’s the thing.

Beyond the pain, beyond the treachery of the whole thing, it’s important to understand what climbing that mountain meant.  It’s not all fun.  It’s not easy.  You challenge your body and your fear beyond capacity, you struggle, you hurt, but you reach the apex and make it out again, only to look for the next higher peak, the next ascent.  You see some of the most beautiful things on Earth. What that is isn’t just some random Vermont vacation Monday hike; it’s life.  It’s everything that life is and is supposed to be.  The bruises remind of the beauty; the scars prove endurance beyond the impossible.  I will not remember most of my life when I relinquish my living, but I will remember Camel’s Hump with my very good friends and very good dog—saddled with ice packs and soreness after, one thing that cannot be taken from us is the view from that peak, when it called us, and we came.DSCN1097

Just like living.  For that mountain, too, I come.

That night, I was reading Hiram Bingham’s seminal and controversial memoir Inca Land, about “discovering” Machu Picchu (he did no such thing).  Very strangely, I came across a passage where he spoke of his father’s teaching him to love mountains, “My father was an ardent mountain climber, glorying not only in the difficulties of the ascent, but particularly in the satisfaction coming from the magnificent view to be obtained at the top.”  I thought this was apt: glory in the view and the difficulty.  I never dog-ear pages, but I dog-eared this one.vermont-015

On the day our Vermont vacation ended, Amy, Hadley and I were the last to leave.  One last morning walk on the frosted grass, a last run through our haunted house, a few waves goodbye to folks from whom we live only a few blocks away in the big city to which we’d all be heading back.

I opened the attached garage and chose from a collection of sleds—blue-to-orange, toboggan-to-disk—the one that might slide the fastest.  I climbed the hill on the property slowly, aimed at the house, sat, lifted my legs, and let gravity pull me back toward the new year.  A new calendar.  An advent.

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—I dedicate this post to my friend Alex Wildman, whose abbreviated name indeed is A. Wildman, and couldn’t be more fitting.  Years ago, he sold me my first real pair of hiking boots and is now climbing a pretty steep mountain against cancer.  I have to say though, never before have I felt so sorry for the disease.  I think it picked the wrong fight.

Hold fast; all storms pass.

The Spray-painted Underbelly of Undulating Umbrellas: Bigotry and Complicity underneath the Glitter of the Mummers

It has been thus far well documented how much an abomination much of the Mummers parade has become for Philadelphia and the United States as a whole.  The abject, unapologetic, and pathetic display of racism, misogyny, and homo/transphobia illustrated by many New Year’s Associations are threatening to the very fabric of our democratic society.  Every year, we—as Philadelphians—have to be embarrassed by the hordes of draconian “tradition” who bum rush the PHL 17 cameras, undulating umbrellas bobbing like the booze in bellies, while their children learn how to hate.

To be clear, I’ve never liked the Mummers.  Maybe that one time I had a friend who lived on Two Street and we watched Penske box trucks blaring “Who Let the Dogs Out” (ten years after that was cool) while face-painted celebrants threw Pabst tallboys to everyone in the crowd (including kids) and the police just stood there smirking.  Maybe, at that time, I was like, “Wow, this is a real Philadelphia tradition.”  And maybe it is.

But maybe it’s time for it to be over.  Some things deserve to die out.

Because here’s the truth, whether Philadelphians want to hear it or not: the Mummers are shameful on three major counts, which can no longer be ignored:

1) The Mummers Parade is internationally televised, so a city that is on the up and up for progress, development, and prestige is beleaguered by a yearly reminder that smoking cigarettes and drinking Pabst on Broad Street while shouting racial and homophobic epithets is underneath Philly’s shine.

2) The Mummers represent the worst of Philly.  Philadelphia is a racist city.  Perhaps no more racist than any other city in the US, but unlike Chicago or New York or San Francisco, Philadelphia’s racism is on blatant display every January 1st.  It’s a foolish citizen of this country to claim that racism is extinct or dead.  As a culture, we like to cloak this (“Hey, we got a black president!!!”).  But the truth of the matter is we live in a city that is majority minority, but some traditions represent blue collar prejudices that have supposedly been eradicated from Americana.  The Mummers prove there is much to still be fought for—perhaps we should at least thank them for exposing the false consciousness of racial democracy in the US.  The majority of Mummers are blue collar, Christian, white, working class people with little education and experience in diversity.  I’m not trying to be a hater here; I’m just calling it.  The harshest thing about this is the people they hurt.  Imagine being black or Latin American or trans or a woman and—on the first day of the year, a time of new beginnings and clean slates—you see people in black/brownface cursing homosexuals and mocking trans identity, pissing in the alleys and punching people.  And here you are, in the fifth most populous city in the United States, this new mecca of industry and development.  Here you are in Philadelphia and this is what you wake up to in the new year.

3) The kids.  Racism exists because it is impossible to change the minds of weak-minded people.  We will never convince uneducated, inexperienced stalwarts of a bygone time that human beings should be treated as such.  It just won’t happen.  Our only hope as a species is that the next generations will advance and evolve beyond this blind injustice, allowing their sick forefathers—and their crass ideas—to die off.  I hate to be so blunt about it, but I think I’m right here—we just have to wait for them to die off.  Unfortunately, there are children both in the parade and behind the fencing of Broad Street and Two Street watching this.  They see mocking Jenner as okay.  They see mocking Mexicans as okay.  And they can perpetuate the fear and insolence when it’s their turn to don the golden shoes.

Listen.
I’m not hating on the Mummers just because it’s in vogue to do so.  I’m hurt by what I saw, because I have a tremendous love and pride for this city.  I see so much good and wonder here that I am thankful daily for living in its bounds.  But I also agree with Julian Sands, from his book Flaubert’s Parrot, when he says, “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.”  So here you go Philly, do something.

January first made me want to move out of Philly; find some cabin in the Poconos where I can be a misanthropic hermit and not believe what I saw.  Then, I instantly realized that that solves nothing.  Rather than run: run to the suburbs, run to disbelief; I need to stay and challenge this.  And I happen to be a writer, so…

I’ve written about the Mummers in two pieces of fiction.  When I complain here, I do so only about the Wench and Comic brigades that participate in these indiscretions.  Note that I do not believe all Mummers participate in this behavior.  I think the Fancy brigades are amazing, I think the String Bands are remarkable; hell, I even think the Pabst consumption is awesome—it’s so Philly.  But things have to change.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Boycott the Mummers.  Until these things are addressed, we don’t go to the parade.  We don’t go to the museum.  We don’t give them money.

2) We punish the NYAs that participate in this behavior.  Yearly suspensions and defunding of any group where an individual of the group or the entire theme is racist/misogynistic/homo/transphobic.

3) The city defunds them.  Here’s the most important part of my diatribe: WE pay for the Mummers to act this way.  That’s right, the city gives money to this parade, which means my tax dollars allow for this to continue.  If there is a sustained silence, the city is complicit in the infraction.  I’m a fan of free speech—as a writer, I have to be.  And I’m okay with a bunch of racist idiots shouting about how racist they are because that’s their American right.  But I’m not going to pay to enable it.

Jim Kenney is a South Philly guy who probably knows thousands of Mummers.  It will be interesting to see how he responds to what should continue to be voices culminating in a banshee cry against this blatant and overt horror.

Until things change, I will not strut and my silly string will remain in its can.

Montreal and Two Grandparents in a Pushcart

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.DSCN0937.JPG

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.

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Atwood Market

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. DSCN0914 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 uDSCN0913p 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.DSCN0894

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.DSCN0919  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. DSCN0932

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.DSCN0897

 


 

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.Camera Roll 8-24 009


 

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:

Maddy—

                                    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.

                        —Har

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? DSCN0952 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?”

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Travelogue: Peru

DSCN0344            At 3 o’clock in the morning I heard the loose rap against my tent’s tarp door alongside what had become the typical call for mate de coca by young red-eyed porters with a thermos.  We’d known it was coming, the early start, and so our things were packed; but nothing really prepares you for the deep darkness—the Milky Way-seeable darkness—achieved at altitude on the Inca Trail.  Nothing prepares you, not even tea with 1/5th the alkaloid power of a line of cocaine.  I exited into the darkness, the headlamps of the porters illuminating first my face, than their thermos, than a metal mug of the Peruvian panacea for altitude sickness.  I burned my tongue with it, looked out at the Milky Way, and then at Machu Picchu Mountain, around which was the terminus.  The lost city.  The enigmatic Incan fortress or burial ground or summer vacation home of the king or whatever: the Machuest Picchuest citadel around.

I put on my boots.

* * *

DSCN0228  In being perhaps momentarily reductive, Peru is a country of relatively coexisting binaries; its duality pervades in its east-west geography which, like in much of Latin America, is represented by the nomenclature “orient” (East) and “occident” (West).  Lima, the capital, is a metropolitan, contemporary, post-colonial megacity in the middle of a coastal desert.  Spanish is spoken there.  St. Martin’s square—if not for the red-and-white striped flags—could be Paris.  Lima’s complement, Cusco, in the orient, is in the midst of the Andes mountains: a lush, verdant place where Incan culture thrives—where Quechua is spoken—, where there are guinea pigs on dinner tables and there’s a whole lot of altitude.

The complements continue:

Seafood of the occident, bone-in four-footed meats of the orient.

Westernized culture of the occident, native culture of the orient.

The grey marine layer of the coast, the grey rainclouds of the mountains.

The food fusions: Chifa (Chinese/Peruvian); Nekkei (Japanese/Peruvian).

The lavish haves, the abject have-nots.

I believe that every place in the entire world has something worthwhile to explore.  DSCN0454If one is intrepid enough, if one chances the fear of discomfort that absolutely comes with leaving home, than the world becomes this priceless thing; it reveals in its most unexpected corners its rarest prize: that it is worthy of being called our home.  Amy and I left for Peru for two weeks to discover its binaries, to walk around its mountains, but most importantly, to look in its corners.  Because life’s a panorama, not a telescope, we have to look out from the highest places, not just ahead on narrow paths.

Cusco

DSCN0255Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level, which means you’re going to wake up in the middle of the night with Vader’s mind-grip squeezing your lungs like a stress ball.  Sometimes, walking Cusco’s romantically antiquated streets can feel like running an uphill marathon breathing through a straw.  There’s just no air in the air.  Or, more sciencey mixed with slang: there ain’t a lot of oxygen in that jawn.  So it’s best to take Cusco as Cusco makes you take it: slowly.  And really, there’s no better way; the city is, after all, a delightfully beautiful place.  If you can ignore the camera-clad hordes of tourists (I’m not casting stones; I brought a camera) and the ware-peddlers abounding, you’re left with the remnants of two cultures particularly proud of their architecture.

It’s very necessary (S n P—throwback) for me to mention that the two DSCN0265aforementioned cultures did not coexist as well as their structures seem to beautifully.  Cusco, being the center of the Incan civilization, was home to temples and palaces that are all, essentially, gone now.  In the great imperial European way, when the Spanish came along, they determined anything not oriented to the Christian God heretical, and thusly tore down all of the Incan buildings in town.  In their stead, the Spanish built what we see now in Cusco: huge, ornate, cathedrals (seriously, there are four cathedrals in the center of town, which begs the question: how many do you need?) and buildings with ornamented balconies.DSCN0398  And because we in the West are so oriented to the West, the buildings are astounding.  But thinking so immediately calls into question the cost of such construction and the predisposition of preference: do I think European cathedrals are pretty because I’m a European descendant?  Psychology aside, it’s valuable to be mindful of how treacherous colonialism was (is) despite the beauty that remains.DSCN0264

In the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s center square, hawkers hawked and hawks (see: pigeons) scoured for leftovers.  The cathedral on the north side of the square was built atop the destroyed Incan central temple, rendering the ground holy in two cultures—something one can feel.  Interestingly, if not somewhat arrogantly, the Spanish built the cathedral out of the remnants of another destroyed citadel just outside of the downtown (Sacsayhuaman: epitheted phonetically as “sexy woman”).  So, the Spanish church is made from Incan stone on Incan religious ground.  In a lot of ways, this juxtaposition is very representative of Peru as a whole.DSCN0420

Passing through the Plaza de Armas, a bootblack told me my zapatos were malos.  Yo lo sé, amigo.  Yo lo sé.

It’s touristy; it’s loud.  It’s like any place in any town: it’s the historic center and it’s where you’re supposed to go.  So go.  But then, like hell, get out of there.  There are people trying to sell tourists cocaine, there’s a Northface store, there are people trying to herd you into every restaurant in a never-ending cacophony of bad food one-upmanship (here’s a great phrase to know: ya comi).  There’s a Starbucks.

The real sauce, the place you’ll find any—and it seems every—well-balanced Cusqueño enjoying a lunch is the San Pedro market.  DSCN0280There are tourists there, but most of them are too timid to sit on the long, parallel, white pews huddled close to fellow humans to enjoy a lomo soltado, chicha morado, and bowl of soup for around an American dollar from one of the hundreds of women nestled into 4X4 stalls with nothing more than ingredients and a stove.  No tables; no bullshit.  Obviously, this is one of the best places in the world.  Wherever you go, go to the markets.  This is where people collect their necessities and eat their lunches.  If you ever want to know where the locals are, they’re in the markets (and I don’t mean ACME).

DSCN0329DSCN0330We also trekked out to the Templo de la Luna, a cave-laden spiritual site in the mountains just north of the city.  We took a cab to the site and spelunked for a while before walking back.  Though I enjoyed the templo, the long descent from the mountain and through the outlying neighborhoods of Cusco was, for me, the treat.  Destinations are not as interesting as the routes that lead us to and from them.  The city opened itself up to us, a beige blanket, until we sunk beneath the rooftops and were again in its streets. DSCN0318

Back at the plaza, there was an Incan festival replete with music, dancing, and traditional garb.  Cusco’s motto is “Ciudad de todos”: everyone’s city.  And despite a history of violence and colonial subjugation, ancient customs seem alive in this handsome place.  Maybe “everyone’s city” is a euphemism of inclusion distracting from an oppressive reality, but standing there amongst the dancing people, not being looked upon sidelong at all, I felt the tremblings of something indescribable that—without my even knowing it—would hit me with might the next day.DSCN0380

The Inca Trail

In my travel journal, written under the glow of a LED flashlight in a tent while rain fell in toddler finger taps on the tarp, the sky so impossibly full of stars that I had to look away, was the only line I could think to write at the end of my first day on the Inca Trail: “And there’s nothing—NOTHING—I could do to describe any of this—so I won’t.”

DSCN0442     Despite my penchant for long dashes, this line resonates with me most in how I remember the trail now that it exists only in my memory.  And despite that night’s certainty of the sublime indescribable, it’s my job here, now, as a travel memoirist, to do the very thing I found impossible then: describe it.

The Inca Trail is a rite of passage.  It is a religious experience,DSCN0457 stretching from the aptly named Sacred Valley not too far from the city of Cusco all the way to Machu Picchu.  Really, it’s only around 30 miles and can be traversed in a couple days; but what it lacks in distance it makes up for in ecosystems, vistas, and ruins that are in no way ruinous.  (Note: the Inca constructed hundreds of miles of trails; what is now referred to as the Inca Trail is the previously mentioned stretch hikers can trek with the blessing of the Peruvian government).

There’s an easier way to get to Machu Picchu.  One can take a train to Aguas Calientes (which is just a nickname for Machu Picchu Pueblo, but even Google Maps calls it by the nickname) then a bus to the front gate.  And listen, this is okay.  I understand that physically, hiking thirty miles at close to 14,000 feet is impossible for some folks.  But, if you have the stamina and the wherewithal, the hike is a spiritual pilgrimage.  It was one of the more valuable experiences of my life and I would reDSCN0491commend it over the shortcut to anyone interested in seeing Machu Picchu.

So here’s where a little bit of controversy comes along: the only way to access the Inca Trail is via permit issued by the government.  I’m fine with this; the trail is in Peru, Machu Picchu is a global destination, why shouldn’t they be able to capitalize on the tourist economy?  I’m also okay with the mode of transferring permits to tourists: through trekking agencies.  What this means is that if you want to hike the Inca Trail, you have to pay to do so with a hiking group, which are mostly based out of Cusco and with which you must book your trip nearly six months in advance for the popular season.  Not all these groups are the same.  There’s a humanitarian outcry that should be heeded concerning the treatment of porters hired to carry tourists’ crap along the trail.  In effect, porters carry tents, water, food, and—for extra—even your personal stuff.  Some agencies force porters to carry despicable amounts of weight for low pay.  On the trail, we saw such porters, often wearing flip-flops, with packs that had no waist straps.DSCN0504

Aware of these pertinent issues, we did research and went with an organization called Llama Path, which, to the best of our knowledge, pays fair wages, provides a house and gear for porters, and limits the weight they can carry.  We pay more, but we also avoid some of the more nefarious enterprises of unfair human labor.  Even this being the case, it’s weird to have someone carry your stuff for you.  There’s a conundrum in it all: portering has servile roots and can be a frustratingly subjugative practice, but it is the only way to hike the trail and it gives people jobs in a country where jobs are scarce.  Most of the porters are from poor villages outside of Cusco.  Some don’t even speak Spanish (in favor of Quechua) and so carrying the propane tanks and water of paying tourists is a way to help them earn money for their families.DSCN0550

Beyond what the porters were mandated to carry, I carried the rest of my own stuff—about 50 lbs. worth—in my own pack; I just didn’t like another man carrying my crap.  And it’s not a bravado move; I just felt like a rich white guy (comparatively rich) who was trying to get a poor brown guy to carry shit uphill for thirty miles.  I know it’s more complicated than that, but I was very mindful of the problem when I was there.  We tried to be more responsible, but regardless, it was a tough reality of our being there.DSCN0532

The porters would hike in groups up ahead and set up camp for us.  They’d have food waiting.  I was never exactly sure what they felt for us (I can imagine), but they seemed content, at least in one another’s company.

The trek begins at Km 82 and follows the Rio Vilcanota for quite a while before heading up into the mountains.  On the second day of the hike, we scaled to Dead Woman’s Pass; at just around 14,000 feet above sea level, the pass is accessed by steep climb where hikers are forced to break every few steps because of the dearth of oxygen.  It was a challenging ascent, doubtlessly, but I was buoyed by the flow of other humans in similar struggle and for the DSCN0511promise of incomprehensible vistas upon arrival.  Getting there, a kind porter handed me a cup of mate de coca—a stimulant tea made from leaves of the coca plant and said to help with altitude sickness; this is dubious—which I took gladly.  I sat, laughed, and looked out over what may well be one of the more perfect sceneries our spinning stone has produced.  Agnostics believed a little more.  What was most apparent was why the Inca chose this land: they were as paralyzed and rapt with it as I was, as we all were.  As anyone would have to be, seeing it.DSCN0510

The vistas were incomparable; the Andes, replicating in crests as far as I could see, faded a shade the further away they got.  Some were rock, some were tree-lavish, some were snowcapped.  All were indicative of the mighty wonder that is plate tectonics, when the fingertips of the Earth’s crust steeple together to pitch the land where it seems we can’t go.  But being human, of course, we are drawn to them.  Mountains.  We’re drawn to them and we go.

The trail was everything and nothing I expected.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail through PA six years ago, I was told that hiking great distances is something you do because there’s nothing else to do.  A trail tells you where to go, you just go.  And so the Inca Trail just went, and I went with it.

DSCN0560   The Inca sites along the way described a culture of artistry and industry only impeded by Western colonial trespass, but what was most astounding was their reverence for nature and community.  The Inca, like many other Native American populations, were very connected with spirituality, the Earth, astronomy, and brotherhood.  Sitting on the tiered terraces of one of the sites, I couldn’t help but think back on my own culture and how disconnected from spirituality (minus dogma) and reverence we are.  Our lives are so intellectual and independent that we may have lost something essential within ourselves.  Maybe we should examine our lives in a bigger context, as not an absolute but as a transitory action—a single leaf falling—that should be spent in the pursuit of connection.  Our existence is so incomprehensible, so primordially strange, that any hope to discover it is an immediate movement toward vanity.  The Holy Grail.  But really, we’re just people walking on a trail, who will get to an end.  So perhaps we should just meet others, treat them like little gods, have experiences, take what comes, and expire.DSCN0579

The Inca Trail is a special thing.  A difficult hike.  Ancient history.  Mountains.  And man does it get you thinking.

On the last day, after our 3 o’clock start, after the mate de coca, after a short final hike, we arrived at the first vantage of Machu Picchu, to watch the sun gently rise and illuminate our path there.  Sun Gate sunrise.  When the world was fully awake, entonces, fuimos abajo.

DSCN0602 We went down to enter the famed city.

And what we found—were tourists.

Hordes of them.  Flocks of them.  Tankards of tons of them.  Endless endlessnesses of them.  They bore make-up, perfume, flip-flops, fanny packs, and were often aggressive.  Machu Picchu was crowded, speckled with the diverse colors of tourists’ t-shirts.  It rang with the clicking of a million cameras.  It was Disneyland.

The truth is, Machu Picchu was an amazing place, but I think there is too much focus on the structures of the city.  For the Inca, the structures were just where people lived, where food was stored, etc.  DSCN0625The real treat was not looking in, but looking out.  In doing that, we got a sense as to why the Inca built their magnificent city there.  I’m certain that if one of the original architects could be there today, he/she’d tell us to stop looking at the structures and start looking out at all the wonder around the walls: the valley, the mountains, the river.  The Inca built Machu Picchu where it is using the same rubric by which we value houses today: location location location.

Machu Picchu was just a symbol.  It was an excuse.  Beautiful in the extreme for sure, but really just a terminus.

We’ve been warned often enough to know that favoring destinations over routes is a foolDSCN0634-hardy endeavor.  The trail, all of it, was, well, what was sacred.

I don’t know much about the world or existence, but I know this is right: traveling, walking, with loved ones and friends by your side.  What the Hell else is there to life?

LimaDSCN0650

Lima is a sprawling, big, complicated, grey, dirty, congested, insane, wild, convoluted city; in short, everything I like about my metropolises.  It is, like most cities, a place where the cultural heritage of present-day Peru can be found; it is the locus of art, food, and humanity: as 7.5 million folks call it home.  If you’re from a big city, like I am, you’ll find a lot of comfort in Lima.  You’ll figure out the public transportation system, know how to Yelp good restaurants, and know perfect sidewalk café people-watching etiquette.  You may also be more apt at stomaching the reality of Lima’s darker sides, not unlike those of many or any urban areas.DSCN0651

But wait.  It’s easy to get caught up so much in the grandiosity of a grand city and in doing so, forget to parse out the particulars.  After all, it is—and has always been—the small things about big cities that make them so special.  Lima is no different.  Generally, the commonalities among all cities force me to find more intrigue OUT of the metropolitan places than in, while traveling.  For these reasons, I deem it necessary to hang in a city for a few days.  Museums, cultural centers, restaurants. . .peace out.

DSCN0655  Perhaps one of the first things you’ll notice in Peru is that people are nice.  I mean, extraordinarily nice.  Extra-terrestrially nice.  Three hours before we were to arrive in Lima and taxi to our AirBnB apartment, we got word from the proprietor that the apartment had flooded and we were out of a home.  Without internet access or a phone, we boarded the plane from Cusco with a standing question mark as to our lodging.  But, in the great Peruivian way, our proprietor rustled around and actually got us a place to stay in her boyfriend’s mother’s apartment in Miraflores.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: that is the most hair-brained circumstance to ever find pleasing when entering a new and big city.  But let me retort to the presupposed question before its utterance: though it may seem uncomfortable at first, we ended up hanging with a legit Peruvian family, who not only were kind and accommodating (the mother, by the way, who didn’t speak English, told us we brought light into her house) but gave us a locals-only DSCN0719understanding of the entire city.  So before you book that hotel, where the only local you’ll meet will be paid to clean your unmentionable sheets, consider the advantages of accidently thrusting yourself into the world of happenstance, where the real magic happens.

If you’ve ever read a blog or travel book about Lima, you’ve probably read about a bunch of horror stories.  Narratives about bad travel experiences proliferate like Catholic bunnies in sardonic circles and pessimistic pow-wows.  You’ll inevitably hear about Peru’s crime, scam artists, and anything else that would worry your mother.  And though I grant that these situations surely occur, they are not what happens with the most frequency.  They are isolations multiplied to hysteria and often taken out of context.  (Imagine what a travel blog to Philly would look like!)  What’s good to remember is to remember that people are good.  Mostly.  If you’re in need, I firmly believe there will be someone to help you.  If this is a youthful arrogance, I’ll take it.  But in my experience, it’s real.  Fear draws too many people away from the experience of travel.DSCN0689

So don’t believe everything you read.  Strike out headlong into that old world.

Lima was a bit much to take in—the rambunctious city life—after spending four days on a spiritual pilgrimage through the Andes; but I’m a city boy at heart, so the metropolis is, ultimately, my home.

Lima, like all good cities, is a patchwork of neighborhoods.  Here, the economic disposition of neighborhood families is in huge contrast: the airport area of Callao is obviously less affluent while the economic center of San Isidro or the beaches of Miraflores are replete with gated communities, public parks, and high-end restaurants.  The schism between haves and have-nots is enormous in Peru and nowhere is that more apparent than its capital city.

We were in Miraflores because our first apartment flooded, but also, if I’m being honest, because that’s where tourists go.  That’s where people flock.  That isn’t to say we didn’t spend time in Callao or neighboring San Miguel; but the majority of our Lima-DSCN0715gallivanting was in the neighborhoods that expected to host international visitors.

Lima is also in stark contrast to Cusco.  There are skyscrapers, a tremendous stadium, hulking municipal edifices.  The key to understanding a city is understanding its public transit system, so Amy and I rode that puppy to its lengths to discover places further from the travel-books’ eyes.

In the downtown historic area we climbed down into catacombs of human remains and ate ceviche at an inconspicuous joint.  In Miraflores, we walked the parks along the DSCN0707cliffs that cast out into the Pacific Ocean while paragliders hung like hovering hawks over the surfers below.  In Barranco we drank craft beer (cerveza artesenal) and crossed the Bridge of Sighs holding our breaths (for a wish, duh).  In San Isidro, we sat in the shade of an olive tree in the Bosque de Oliver, before walking down the buffered median parks that separated the lanes of the main avenue.  Our goal was to exhaust ourselves in a relentless pursuit of city life.  We caféd at cafés every afternoon.  I read Harry Potter y el caliz de fuego in parks where Peruvian teenagers were ceaselessly DSCN0764and passionately making out.  We searched far and wide to taste Lima’s globally famous food scene.

This last point…yes!

From pork belly sliders at Mercado to a sixteen-course Nekkei dinner complete with ceviche ice cream (don’t hate) at Maido, Lima was exactly what they said it was: a DSCN0760food capital.  We ate tacu tacu, a sticky rice dish with sweet sauce and a protein.  We drank pisco sours and Cusqueño beer.  We even had a Lucha sandwich (which was a cheesesteak) with a jugo de mango con leche.

We got fat in Lima.  Gladly.  Greatfully.DSCN0754

And right up to the moment we were to depart, despite the perfunctory longing for home that occurs occasionally along the way, I languished over leaving.

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* * *

Five years ago, when I returned from Ethiopia, it took me nearly two months to reacclimate to the United States.  There was a sort of depression, a reverse culture shock, where I had to get used to my own country.  Returning from Peru, I felt a similar pang.  Traveling makes you look at your own culture and perhaps analyze it in ways that are more critical than you are capable of while plunged inside it.  It’s like how we don’t know what our faces look like until we happen upon a mirror.  Traveling is such a mirror, and sometimes our faces make strange gestures.  Sometimes there are scars.

DSCN0402Leaving home, we see more clearly where we live.  The United States is a country of velocity.  I love it and consider myself a patriot, one not concerned about criticizing my home where I see fit to hopefully improve it.  It’s beautiful here.  It’s scary.  And returning from a place where there is so much emphasis on spiritual connection, I can’t help but want to bring that here.  Maybe that’s a vanity, but there are worse things.  Peru taught me that I can feel like I’m in the Andes when I’m kicking through trash in Philly.

The Inca Trail beats in me through my heart.

DSCN0617And whenever I happen to think back on my too-few days there, whenever I hear the word “Peru,” an instant rush of recollection will descend upon me: dew.

Why Creative Writers Should Stop Taking Creative Writing Courses

Yellow journalism–full disclosure: using slugs to get readers to click on your blog is bad business.  Bad bad business.  Penance.  Now let’s move on.

Here’s what I mean.  For those who do not know, I’ve been spending a good majority of my time over the last two years studying for my PhD in Literature and Criticism.  That means I’ve been reading, writing, attending classes, and taking exams (sometimes in foreign languages) in order to satisfy the requirements of an elusive but materializing dream of mine to force everyone I know to call me Doctor.  (Side note: I know this will not happen).

And here’s what we need to know; here’s how this relates to my writing life: I do not have a degree in Creative Writing.

BA: English and Psychology

MA: English Literature

PhD: Literature and Criticism.

That essentially means that I have no credentials to be an author nor to be the Director of the Creative Writing Certificate Program at CCP.  And perhaps I don’t.  Perhaps my friends with MFAs and Doctorates of Creative Writing (this is a thing now!) are more apt to teach and direct classes and programs in creative writing.  But wait, before I get fired, let me postulate a little here.  I firmly believe that it IS in fact my study of literature that lends knowledge and aptitude to my writing (let’s leave my credentials for another discussion, one where I’m not so sensitive).  I’ve always believed that a close and concise study of literature is best to inform the creative production of artistic text.  I mean, who better to learn from than the authors and poets we so genuinely admire?

Ok so naturally I’m not being antagonistic for the purpose of antagonism, nor am I being histrionic concerning the values of creative writing classes.  Here’s the truth: I teach creative writing classes.  I’ve taken them.  I love them.  And even though I love teaching literature just a little bit more, I see real value in learning craft; sitting with other artists, workshopping, and learning the ins and outs of what it means to be a writer (not just being a person who writes but BEING a writer, identity-wise).  All I’m saying is we (writers) need to study literature.  We need to read until our eyes fall out, until our foveas wish to emigrate to less hyperbolic sense centers, until we can appreciate those who’ve come before us in our wild, strange, and beautiful art.  I know literature is studied in creative writing classes; I, myself, spend a lot of time analyzing literature to teach creative writing.  And, really, if I’m being honest, I’ll probably sign up for an MFA program when I’m finished with my PhD, (one with study abroad options) because I don’t like stasis.  Further, everyone I know with an MFA can write like the Dickens, if not like Dickens or Dickinson.  But, for me, I’m a lit guy.  Through and through.

As I say to my classes, read 100 books for every book you intend to write.

As Thoreau said, “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

And I just finished my last literature class ever.  I could really have an existential crisis about how my writing is seriously going to go downhill from here, but I’m too busy gazing over at my on-deck bookshelf for the next victim of my endless literary thirst.

So go read something.  Then write something.

Threads

As this is, to some extent, a blog concerning my particular writing exploits, I thought it necessary to introduce when new works of mine get published.  Rather than simply post a calling and link for people to rush away from whatever they’re doing in favor of reading literary fiction that even my wife considers, “too sad,” I figured it would be more interesting to talk about the piece in a contextual sort of way.

So…

I’m happy to announce that Rowan University’s literary journal Glassworks has graciously published my short story “Threads” in their Spring 2015 issue.

Glassworks

Read it online here.

I have blond hair, blue eyes, and a red(ish) beard.  I was raised Catholic, was confirmed, and am fair-complected enough to require SPF above the 50s.  But my last name is Markovitz.  For the first twenty years of my life, that meant nothing to me.  Wrought perhaps from an estranged relationship with my father and his side of the family, I adopted a very real admiration and classification with my maternal Irish-ness.  All out.  Celtic cross tattoos, unhealthy moshing at Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys concerts, four trips to Ireland, etc.  I even forced myself to try black-currant Guinness.  I even went by Jeff Mark when publishing my first novel.  I didn’t think much of it then, but removing the “ovitz” from my name, removing my paternal ancestry, removing my Jewishness seems to me now an unconscious commitment to neglecting any Otherness in my own person.  As an adult, I’ve dedicated a lot of my writing life to finding out why.

Now, in my thirties, my hair is thinning, my eyes red with deep-day tiredness, my beard freckled with wayward grey; I am no longer a Catholic.  I avoid the sun in general.  And more and more, I want to explore my Jewishness.  That isn’t to say I am a spiritual Jew; I have no real deep interest in the Torah or Temple, etc.  What I am interested in is first: my ancestry and second (perhaps more so): why it was so important to me to deny myself a very real piece of who I am.

I don’t intend on going into a lengthy discourse on race and Otherness, though perhaps one is warranted.  Rather, as I age, I’ve tried to discover the Jewishness in me through literature.  That is, through my own literature.  In researching my second novel, I spent time in Germany and at Auschwitz, in Poland.  And this past summer, I took a graduate class in Holocaust Literature.  The course, a grueling array of victims’ journals and accounts, a historic tracing of Antisemitism, and Nazi justifications; was a very difficult class to consume emotionally.  The daily readings, films, and assignments were enough to bring classmates to tears and bring me closer to understanding my own apprehensions about my Jewishness.

The class was based on the concept of witnessing witnessing.  That is not a type-o.  The term suggests that there were those who directly witnessed the Holocaust, aka: victims and victimizers.  Then, there are those who witness the testimonies of these people, aka: us.  The questions become, how can we interpret the events of the Holocaust when we are losing the first witnesses?  How can the way we interpret the witnessing actually skew the weight of the event itself?  And mostly: what role does the creative writer play?  Do they have a right to even attempt considering something like the Holocaust, if they’ve never experienced it?

My professor, a wise woman whose mother survived Auschwitz, decried much of the popular literature of the Holocaust: Life is Beautiful, The Diary of Anne Frank, etc.  She and I, in our personal discussions about our exclusive travels to the death camp, talked about how a creative writer can attempt to develop responsibilities in writing about the Holocaust and its consistent aftermath.  I modeled the mother character in “Threads” off of her mother and much of what appears in the story is from discourse from that class.

I have no idea how she would react.

I wrote “Threads” as the first of two stories to examine how I understand my own Jewishness and how Jewishness–the pejorative–is understood throughout the world.  The second story, “Flowers for Tikkun Olam” is coming out later this year.  I’m grateful they’ve found homes in places people can read them.  This does not mean I’ve fully comprehended what it means to be a Jew by blood, or what it means to feel guilt in ignoring that for decades.  All it means is that I’ve got a very little utility in this world and that writing, for better or for worse, is how I explore.  It is my ship, my vessel, my only hope to call into the past and wait for echo.  Nothing about my Jewishness takes away from my agency; I am very much a straight, white, man in a world that fosters these traits as if they were divinely ordained.  But I resist the agency nevertheless; I do not deserve what I have, especially considering what I’ve given up: my ancestry.  I want to take it back, not to claim a home in a marginalized people, but to understand how I marginalized that part of myself and how that is indicative of how culture overall does the same thing, to a great many, everyday.  It all connects: my self-abolition of my Jewishness and the ancient setup of hierarchies humans use to disenfranchise an Other.  And though I don’t think I’m heading for a Bar Mitzvah any time soon, reclaiming my Jewishness feels right.  It feels like the right direction.

My name is Jeffrey Scott Markovitz.

Despite my studying, despite my writing, I have absolutely no sense of what the Holocaust means or why it has to be a part of us.  But, I suppose, the “no sense” is the most appropriate reaction to such a thing.  Holocaust writing is immediately and always problematic; it is a witnessing that flirts with spectacle and, therefore, misrepresentation.  For this, I must apologize for my part in it.  But, as I am a human, it is my duty to put myself there, as Charlotte Delbo suggests in the novel mentioned in “Threads”: Essayez de regarder.  Essayez pour voir.  Try to look.  Try to see.

Travelogue: Failing Angel’s Landing

DSCN8090For most of my scholarly life, I’ve been interested in Gender Studies.  I did my MA Thesis on the novels of Margaret Atwood and the reversal of hierarchal gender roles in her male antagonists.  I teach Gender Studies in my literature courses and am generally interested in how a fidelity to gender roles acts to suppress one’s identity and reinforce heteronormative oppressions in our very patriarchal society.

But, I’m kind of a guy.  I like beer, I drink my bourbon neat, I watch all the football games every Sunday, and my day feels better when I’ve done a lot of pull-ups.  These things are gender role-specific to men, which can be reductive if, say, a man doesn’t do them or if a woman does.  We think, they’ve violated the male/female binary and are therefore different, Other.  And in a world where even the gender question, at least quantitatively, is in constant question, I think it important to question and even violate the roles our genitalia mandate.  I like to read poems.  I think flowers are lovely.  Et cetera and ad nauseam.

But, I’m kind of a guy.

DSCN8041And one thing that I’ve adopted for better or worse (I’m thinking worse) is a need to develop and sustain my courage.  Perhaps against much of what I believe scholastically, I am really uncomfortable and shamed when something challenges my courage and, under that pressure, I buckle.  So, most times, I don’t buckle.  This puts me in situations where I may not make the best choices, only to save face and sustain my hyper-masculine courage level.  And let’s note here: I have no need to sustain such for others; it’s me: I need to prove to myself that I’m brave.

Let’s not all run and call Freud at the same time.

So, when Amy and I traveled out west to hike some of America’s most incredible landscapes (this country, man) I immediately centered my focus on Angel’s landing in Zion National Park.

We left Philadelphia’s cold for Utah’s cold.  I knew, it being January, that things wouldn’t be pleasant, weather-wise, but I sort of like the cold.  I like jackets and hats and hiking around in what most would like to glare at from their living room windows.  What I didn’t expect, getting to Zion, was that the entire place would be under snow and ice cover.  Before one thinks this a burden, however, I have to let you in on a little secret: it was amazing, perhaps better than during the summer, and here’s why.  First, there are less people.  There’s a paradox here: I hate tourists but am one; when I travel, I try to stay away from other people traveling, even though I’m one of those people.  But at Zion, in the winter, folks just aren’t there.  So this place, this Holy and sublime specimen that could turn an agnostic priestly, is near empty of human violation. DSCN8093 And Zion, folks, is differently fantastic.  It’s one of those places for which words are inappropriate and pictures are reductive (notice my words and pictures, because I’m the king of contradiction here).  So anyway, second reason Zion winter: snow and ice. DSCN8065 I mean, the interplay of white-scaped mountains and the canyon floor, precarious icicles dropping from hundreds of feet when the sporadic sun brushes their root to stone, wildlife tracking where they’ve been.  It’s just, in so many ways, perfect.  And Zion, any time, is easily one of my favorite National Parks.  It runs parallel to Glacier for me.

DSCN8102So, then, courage and Angel’s Landing.  Angel’s Landing is a is 1500 foot rock face accessible by an ascending trail of non-compromising switchbacks that arrive at a peak with vantages of the entire canyon…or so I understand (more on this in a second).  After a couple miles, the hiker arrives at Scout’s Overlook, a popular turn-around point for folks not willing to risk the final .5 miles of treachery to surmount the mount.  I, of course, oozing with machismo, was so keen on this last ascent that I could hardly sleep the night before.  (Note that Amy was extraordinarily antagonistic to my hiking this.  The Park Service didn’t help; they’d posted signs about how many people die attempting it).

DSCN8100The trail to the top is thin, to say the least.  It is traversed using a chain rope that guides the hiker along precipices and drops that surely even the angels questioned when choosing a landing zone.  (Google image search this, you’ll see).  And the kicker: it was covered in ice.

And I didn’t do it.

It wasn’t Amy’s admonishment and consternation.  It wasn’t a lack of ability: I’ve hiked the PA Appalachian Trail, am a distance runner, and do resistance training and yoga almost every day.  It was fear, plain and simple.  Just looking at the trail and its snow-laden terrain and I knew I was done.  And it stabbed.  That shame of cowardice that clings deep on the coattails of a man’s soul, reminding you like a nagging child that you failed, that all of your posturing and pontificating about travel and courage goes out the window with one failed ascent.

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I didn’t beat myself up too much about it and, naturally, I promised I’d go back (in nicer weather) to surmount it no matter what, but even sitting here in Philadelphia, part of me shakes my head at myself.  It’s important for me to understand that I didn’t fail in Zion, that really, I could have been killed (but what better way to go?), that I’m still a man. That fear is okay.  So I tell myself these things.  I take deep breaths and I purge by admitting it all on the internet.

But in Utah, there’s a place that calls me, that near mocks me; and that one day, I will return and–with a beard and bravado–I will climb that mother…

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