Train of Thought: Meditations on NYC and the End of Summer

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If you ever find yourself boarding a train to New York City, with all its promise and premonition, I advise that you first fortify with a sandwich from that snug little kiosk at the Amtrak station in Saratoga Springs.

The proprietor’s name is Rich, and she shows me a picture of herself, before the colon cancer, when she had this headful of black, kinked curls. Quite a pretty lady, running the kind of store you’d never find in the security state of an airport or the dungeon of a bus station, Rich toasts for me a whole wheat bun, then announces she’s been to nearly all of the countries in Africa, that she’s heading to Guyana on the 15th of August. In her little store, she shows me homemade things for sale that line various wooden hutches. She says her late husband was the prime minister of Dominica, before he was killed, that she’s giving it all she’s got. Plucked from a half-size fridge, which is covered in lace, the cheese on my sandwich is of a kind of that comes pre-wrapped in a plastic sleeve, the orange more bright than I imagined, or recalled.

With time to eat, I kill my sandwich, which is really not that bad, and then I enjoy a seat warmed by the sun, and mourn the fact there’s no one to play the black piano in the middle of the room, so I ask one of the women sitting nearby if she can play. Oh, I suppose I could, she says, adjusting her hair. But it’s been years. I head outside, wishing I could play, reminded of my own games, wondering what it would take for me to stop, or to know when I’ve done enough. Then the humidity puts a bit of a sheen on my forehead.

It’s all aboard, and I enjoy the ease, as well as the generous overhead compartment. The conductor punches my ticket with a silver clicker, and it’s like I’m the millionth clicked, with a knot of loosened chads falling like confetti. We gain speed — don’t get too excited; this takes longer than you’d think, or perhaps you might hope — but on the Amtrak, following the Hudson on the Ethan Allen Express, we all bide our time, certain to emerge on the other end, like it or not, so until then, for a few hours at least, we rock in the stiff arms of an iron mother, as if the train, beyond wanting us to arrive, obliges we arrive well, rested, realistic.

Meanwhile, speaking of this dual nature of life, of dreams and disappointment, you’re all of sudden no longer aspiring, but instead — because the train was this place where your only real job was to sit still — you’re studying the backs of houses, an act that can be unsettling, because we spend so much time putting our best face forward, hoping, forgetting what we look like from behind, when, for instance, a train glides by, and then you have no choice but to wonder: Who are we, actually? How hard would it be to put some paint on those shutters? Is someone dying in that upper room, the one with the yellowed curtains? That El Camino will never run again. Unless you try hard enough.

Also, birds of prey: One sits in a treetop, with tree branches stripped bare, and the bird is waiting, a note of menace in its patience, because we all know the train is almost always late, and yet we are all hungry for something we don’t yet have, and hope, perhaps, to find in a place like New York City, even if we’re late, even if we’ve been pretending we don’t need New York anymore, and yet we also know birds will stop at nothing to find and rip to pieces a living thing, leaving blood and bones. We do what we do, pretending it’s possible that the world does not require violence, that death and disappointment are not the close friends of success. How slow is a train going that I can see the slight but perceptible footsteps of a turtle, which yanks itself into sunning position on a black log, most of it submerged under dark water and behind green grass? The turtle is small. I am big. I am grateful for what I can see on a train.

There is Internet on the train. A guy I know from the Internet posts this image of people showing their rear ends to a passing train. I do a little bit of reading and determine that I am reading the train on “Moon Amtrak Day,” when people drop their pants to salute passing trains. I look out the window, but instead of bare butts all I see are trees and bushes with red berries. I read more, realizing that only in southern California is it Moon Amtrak Day. So I’m feeling left out, like the good life is elsewhere, like I’ve been doing it all wrong, that I should have focused my energies on another coast, a different way of pretending New York isn’t everything, and then I see, on a weed-choked lake, what looks like some kind of tiki hut: Grey wooden pylons, a deck of two-by-fours, a jaunty spray of palm fronds. But it’s not a festive hut, it’s a hunter’s blind. Ducks must be very foolish.

But we’re all quite capable of ignoring even the very obvious. If you look closely, even in California, you can probably see the faint white globes of pollen floating on the summer air. You can see how likely or unlikely that any of it will work out. The lake is dusted with green, and in this green you track the frantic movements of water bugs, which have drawn accidental maps to themselves in the floating fuzz, and then I wonder if fish are smart enough to follow the trail, eat the bug, have some lunch. Who will follow?

Wow, there’s a freaking mountain out there. I keep forgetting New York is more than Yonkers, New Roc, and the Lower East Side. Then I see a great blue heron, flying north, and as we pass each other, I stifle an urge to say, Turn around, bird, New York City — where anything is possible, where it’s cruel but magical and big things can still happen — that place is SOUTH.

Summer’s pretty much over. It’s been hot, with too little rain and fearsome words like drought and disaster. At the beginning, I had some goals and I still do but I suppose I am also okay with coming to terms with what I have accomplished and what I am unlikely yet to complete. Ambling down the aisle, stretching my legs before it’s time, I see most everyone is typing or listening or reading or checking their makeup. Through the window, the last glimpse of a world that isn’t mostly covered in concrete, I see a lake where the water is low. Rocks usually buried are instead visible, and they bake in the sun.

They say anything is possible. That rain will come, oceans may rise, you might in the end become exactly who you wanted to be, or not. In New York’s Penn Station, the signs are so confusing you worry you might never begin. Then you find your way, and walk into a blazing afternoon, and there are hours and hours until sunset, when things become both easier to imagine and harder to see — and then it’s dark and we wait for a new day to come.

Image Credit: Flickr/Bernt Rostad

The Writing Life: From Beirut and Cambodia to New York, Florida, and Parts Unknown

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Because summer in Beirut was so brutally hot and because the grandparents missed their granddaughter and because the dream was still alive and I had signed up this winter for a low-residency creative writing MFA program in Tampa, which required me to travel from Lebanon to the Florida campus for 10 days in June, I began to sketch out an entire summer in America, anchored by that MFA residency and then two weeks at a writing conference four hours north of New York City.

Key to the plan was leaving my daughter in Illinois, where — with my dad’s recent death — my mom had recently bought a house on six acres, near my wife’s parents, Steve and Claudia, who lived in the same small town. All three were retired, and could do pretty much anything they wanted. But the world was a big place, and sometimes you stayed where you felt most at home.

Children can be an anchor. During the two weeks I was at the writing conference, where was my wife? Mostly in Yemen, where she met a boy who said he cowered in the rocks one night after what was an apparent American airstrike, waiting for daylight to try to find his father and brother. When the sun came out, he found them, scattered in pieces, a red sludge.

Once upon a time, she and I lived in Turkey and Iraq. And before that, it was Saudi Arabia, where our little girl was born. Before all that, it was a big job in New York, which I left to walk along the ocean. Why did I do that? I’m still trying to figure it out.

I can be a private person. Shy. It was a strange experience to hear the long-time director of the writing conference, Bob Boyers, stand in front of a room and talk about having lunch with the same guy four times a week, for 26 years. I’m not sure I’ve had lunch with the same guy four times, like, ever.

Ever since it was up to me, I suppose, I’ve been on the move. Early on, it was hitchhiking across the West, fishing in Alaska, a summer doing construction in Hawaii. I made it to all 50 states, thinking that mattered. Then I took a newspaper internship in Cambodia, where I met my wife. Eventually, we made it in New York, but then I decided to take that walk. Then Kelly said, OK, it’s my turn. So we moved to the Middle East.

So now it’s a life in Lebanon, and the decision to leave, and then the decision to attend this conference, where everyone hopes someday to succeed, whatever that might mean, but for now we sleep in the dorms. There’s the green poster on the door, about sexual assault, the number to call, how you shouldn’t wash your privates. The handicapped bathroom, with its flickering light and half-empty bottle of male body-wash. The thin carpet and the poster about studying abroad and the faded photo of an RA, whose favorite color is blue. Favorite hobby: watching movies.

In the dining hall, it was all you can eat — and I couldn’t stop, could you? We were all getting older, larger, with sophisticated appetites, as if we were almost a different species than the highschoolers on campus for their own summer improvement programs — dancers, jazz trumpeters, math nerds — all of the kids chirping at some higher register, like a dog whistle or a swarm of swallows, this mad rush at lunch for the french fries, a silver tray of meat, no idea of the complications that lay ahead. I’d owned leather jackets heavier than some of them, yet that gave no obvious advantage. Some day, some of them might be 33 years old, sitting at a desk, trying to write.

It wasn’t easy. I wanted to finish a book. Be a good dad. Get an MFA. Be a good husband. I’d lined up a teaching job at a university in Beirut. Got an essay in a publication that might impress you. Called my mom as much as I could. I couldn’t call my dad, he was dead. When do you know if it’s actually starting to add up, when you can say, OK, yes, this is real, it’s actually happening.

Among members of the Skidmore faculty, the answers seemed different. For novelist Allan Gurganus, there was a hotel room in Iowa City, and John Cheever was pouring scotch. For Elizabeth Benedict, there was a sublet in Washington DC, and she left the oven door open, trying the keep the place warm, and when the editor visited he was appalled. Poet Campbell McGrath and his wife moved to Miami Beach, and yet the Genius Grant people managed to find them anyway.

There’s only so much time, and it’s a big world. Wherever we are, we work at it, making decisions, and then one day — and we may not even know when it comes —  the scales begin to tip and the waiting turns into the having done it already.

Photo Credit: Flickr/geishaboy500

Innocent and Abroad: Mark Twain and the Art of Travel Writing

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Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”

I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.

But among my harshest critics was a writer friend, who in a scorching series of emails said mine was this obnoxious, privileged gaze, that in every description of Saudi lives, I mainly revealed that I wanted Saudis to grow up and be good democratic Westerners — which was an impossible goal, he said, because good democratic Westerners are monsters who started wars and were a menace to the whole world.

Years later, I lived in Beirut, where I was still writing stories. As part of an effort to do better this time, I began to read The Innocents Abroad, a record of traveling by Mark Twain.

As a traveler, I had always written earnestly about my observations. Twain, it seemed, was all too eager to write wryly about his own ignorance. There was probably a lot I could learn.

In 1867, a crew of Americans set sail for Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. For the benefit of the reader and to fulfill his duties as a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, one of the passengers, Mark Twain, set to writing a book about what happened.

In the first pages, the reader encounters Twain’s unease with the basic notion of trying to be original in a travel book. “A little after noon on that distinguished Saturday I reached the ship and went on board. All was bustle and confusion. [I have seen that remark somewhere.]”

Then the ship sees its first island, and Twain isn’t too excited about the Azores. “All the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering of tombstones or cemeteries.” Better to temper any real enthusiasm with a protective cloak of detachment and humor.

In Riyadh, I faced the same problem, but I tried to write with kindness and heart, explaining what I saw with detail and nuance. Twain? “Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them,” he writes of the Azores. It’s a sly trick — substituting his fellow shipmates for the reader. “These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts here,” he writes — but of course the paragraph isn’t dry.

Twain has protected himself and us by suggesting no normal person would know the Azores, then he protects himself further by saying any information about the strange place would be “dry.” Then he unloads: “The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy.” Twain writes simultaneously with contempt and fondness, and we’re left to puzzle out what he’s trying to do, and where in the mess we should stand.

What he’s doing, it seems, is deploying a constantly changing mix of both sincerity and irreverence, making his position on things hard to pin down. Take the way he grapples with the tired subject of a famous church. “We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame,” he writes. “We had heard of it before. It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.”

Twain was making himself hard to take seriously, protecting himself from the question of whether writing like this made the world a better understood place. The whole situation was captured in the way he recounted the story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century French lovers:

With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest information of the public and partly to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily…Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of the cathedral is, but that is what he was.

I have come to admire that paragraph very much. In it, Twain is humorous and self-deprecating about the project of historical storytelling, but he is also contemptuous of stupid readers and of disinformation and false sentimentality, but then he acknowledges again that he himself doesn’t actually know much — for instance, what on earth is a canon? There’s a kind of crazy disregard for accountability, a carnival of intention and expectation. You sense a plan, but it’s hard to divine where, if at all, Twain is willing to draw a line. In a storm of riotous laughter, who could quiet the room and suggest to Twain that what he does has serious consequences?

But there’s no need to lecture; Twain’s well aware of his power. “In Marseille, they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious matters.” Books of travel change the world, Twain is ready to acknowledge. But all you’ll probably remember is that line about the clean shirt.

In the end, travel books — or personal essays — are doomed. Try to describe the gorilla and you fail. Words are never enough, and most will ultimately be forgotten. And if that gorilla is a man? Maybe better not to have begun at all.

The other day, the American-born Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted a line on Twitter: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”

Cole was probably right. “I have camped with the Indians,” Twain writes. “I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them…I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance.”

Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.

Remembering Anthony Shadid in Beirut

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The wind was blowing as morning broke over Beirut. In the kitchen, I poured a glass of milk for our daughter. Firing up the iPhone, there it was: New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid had died on assignment in Syria. He was 43 years old.

“Kelly!” I hollered, running down the hall, into the bedroom, where my wife was entombed in warm sheets. “Anthony Shadid is dead.”

She shot out of bed, ran to her computer, and a few minutes later was filing a news spot for NPR. About the death of a man she’d sat on a panel with, a guy who’d met her parents, a neighbor of hers in Baghdad, a colleague in the Middle East, and one of the best reporters in the business. He was also a father of a kid our daughter’s age, and one of the main reasons we thought it was a good idea to move to Beirut.

In a daze, I put Loretta into fresh clothes and watched Kelly pace the room. Rain came down in sheets. We were late for school, and I loaded Loretta into the stroller.

“Daddy, I’m cold,” she said. “It’s bad out there.”

She was right: A new squall was rearing up, water slapping against the pavement, the storm drains overflowing. The kind of day you dread.

According to reports, Anthony was allergic to horses. He had asthma. He and photographer Tyler Hicks squeezed through barbed wire on the border with Syria and Turkey. They would be traveling with horses. Anthony had trouble breathing but recovered after resting. Days later, on the way back out of Syria, his lungs apparently gave out. Tyler says he tried for 30 minutes to revive him, but Anthony was dead. There would be an autopsy in Turkey.

At my daughter’s school, I held Loretta’s hand, walking in a daze. I was confused to find an administrator waiting for me with open arms. She smiled, clapping me on the back.

“Congratulations!” she said. “You should be so proud.” What? Of all the mornings, Loretta had just been accepted into the school’s exclusive kindergarten.

In a steady rain, I stood outside, holding the acceptance letter, suddenly bereft. Where did Anthony’s son go to school? The letter in my hand began to turn to mush, and my chest tightened with grief.

You could read any one of Anthony Shadid’s recent dispatches and see he was a man who told the story with heart, who did whatever it took to get it right. The Middle East isn’t an easy place to work, and everyone was in agreement: no hands were as deft as Anthony’s.

Siting there in my living room, my wife about to cry, I tried to picture his empty shoes, knowing it was just as hard to imagine them ever again being filled.

Then Kelly picked up the phone. It was a colleague. They had been in conversation the other day about crossing into Syria. Now what? I shuddered, for his family, for my family, and for everyone else, too.



Image: Luciana.Luciana/Flickr