Saturday, December 1, 2012

On Writing and the Road

 The other day I was having coffee with some of my cousins from out of town.  And my cousin Jim asked me what my days were like.  He's a cardiologist so I'm assuming our days are quite different.  He's doing his rounds, saving people's lives.  I'm dragging myself out of bed and trying to figure out what I'm going to do next.  Should I work on that pesky novel that's been giving me trouble or pull out a short story I never quite finished.  Is there something in the drawer that is just burning to be done? 

The best days are the ones when I get out of bed and say to myself - I know what scene I want to work on.  I know where I want this piece to go.  I must admit those days don't happen often enough for me.  But it's great when they do. 

However the equation completely changes when I'm on the road.  For me being on the road is inextricably linked to writing.  In movement I find ideas.  At home I render them, work on them, beat them into submission.  But on a train, in a quiet house near a river, a friend's apartment she's lent us for a week in Rome, anywhere but the place where I pay my bills, that is where I'll get most of my best work done.  This is where and when the mind is perking.

I felt a little guilty about this until I read that every winter Graham Greene traveled to the isle of Capri where he spent three months just writing.  Then he went back to England, smoke cigars, lunched at his club, and typed up the work he'd done while away.  That is the key for me.  If I'm going to get good work done, it's got to be from away.

I can't explain it and I'm not even sure that I want to, but once I'm on the road my head is clear.  Depression that I struggle with lifts.  I'm good.  I am really like a child where everything is like ice cream.  I don't care if there are delays.  In fact I love delays because then I can sit on the train or in the airport and just write and read or paint and draw or think or whever I want.  On this page are some images from on the road and also some watercolors of places where I've written and drawn.

I think again of my cousin Jim.  I could tell he envied me what he believed to be my sense of freedom.  There is a little 007 in me.  I'm closer to an operative in the field than I am to a cardiologist at a heart hospital.  Though I like to believe I'm trying to save hearts to.  And minds.  But really perhaps the best we writers can hope for is to save our own and, in doing so, toss a lifeline to a few others caught in these rough seas we all journey through.

As a writer the most I can really hope for is to feel better at the end of the day than I did at the beginning.  And if I got something done, if I wrote a few lines I thought worth keep, then I'd probably make good company for my family and friends.  I'd make a nice meal, watch a show, read, and go to bed. 

This is a writer's day.  At home or on the road.  I need them both, I suppose, in the end. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Genova Noir

It's getting late.  I've just left my friends at the Piazza de Ferrari.  I'm walking slowly back to my hotel.  I've taken my time and now it's dark.  I'm following Via Garibaldi, one of the more elegant and well-traveled streets of this city.  It is a pedestrian mall of old palaces, perfectly restored, ancient splendor, now turned into private residencies and corporate headquarters. 

But I long for the gritty.  The streets that in daylight were filled with immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, India and No. Africa, women in colorful garb selling incense, the hallal butchers, services offering legal advice, health insurance, money orders, merchants selling eggs, beads, incense, people smoking, merchants whose signs are only written in Arabic, very clean butcher shops, American rock music.

I cut away from Garibaldi and down these narrow side streets.  Streets that seem oddly more narrow by night.  I find myself in a tiny alley, the vico della Magdelena, and it is lined with young women - lovely with their long dark hair, or shiny blond - and were it not for the extraordinary heels they walk on and the torn stockings and hiked up skirts, the tightly cinched belts with silver studs, I'd think these were just girls.  But they linger in doorways where men also linger, men who look more like their pimps than their johns, and now I am no longer at ease.  I clutch my bag tightly against my chest.

I take a turn, hoping to get back to the more well-traveled streets, but now I am in a labyrinth of alleyways and it is as if a different city has descended upon the one I walked on by day.  As if a whole other nocturnal world exists, subterranean, that springs to life and out of the ground as darkness descends.  It is not for nothing that vampires and werewolves, the monsters of our dreams, only emerge at night.

It is as if I am somehow trapped here in these streets that turn upon themselves until up ahead I can see the via Garibaldi that I left behind.  There are only one or two more brothels and I scurry past, but then I come to a corner.  A long, stockinged leg appears.  A dark-haired girl who would be pretty if you removed some of the lipstick, the choke collar, the four inch heels, the black corset.

She is on the phone, making a connection, I assume, with one of her johns.  I scurry past, the promise of bright lights and pedestrians just ahead, as I hear this girl say, "I'll call you tomorrow.  I love you.  Ciao, Mama."  Then her phone clicks shut and she goes to work.  And I go back to my hotel and in the morning I fly home.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Comfort Food

My dad used to say, "Now I've heard everything."  But of course he hadn't.  None of us have though sometimes you might think you've heard all the stories.  That nothing new will ever surprise you again.  Unless someone discovers a little dinosaur in the rainforest, or we've been living among Martians all along. 

You think there's nothing new. Then on a stormy night, or in an early morning airport, as Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities, you meet a stranger...

Two weeks ago I was on a layover in Paris on route to Genova. and I met a man on the bus that carried travelers between terminals.  I was reading the Life of Pi and he loved the book and we began chatting.  It turns out that he was a salvage diver on his way to the Tuscan coast to work on the Corsa Concordia, the ill-fated cruise ship.  We both had about four hours on our hands.  He was anxious to get a smoke and I wanted to have some coffee and relax.  If he felt like some company, I told him he'd find me in a cafe.

A little while later he found me.  He got himself a double espresso (he looked like he needed it) and we started talking.  I asked him about his salvage business. He told me that he spent all of his working hours under water.  And I asked why he did this as a profession.  "Fear."  He told me.  "Fear?  You mean like you're conquering your fears?"  No, he explained.  He was afraid of his father.  His father was a very gruff, stern man, and Paul, I believe that was his name, was too afraid to do anything else in his life except join the family business..

We laughed over this for a bit.  At least he laughed over it.   He went on, telling me what it was like to work underwater.  How everything was dark and you couldn't see anything.  When he was doing underwater construction or salvage work, it was all by touch.  "You have to feel everything as you go." 

I found him rather fascinating and, though he asked nothing about me, he seemed content to be interviewed.  I found myself plying him with more and more questions.  Then he told me that though he lived in Australia he had grown up in the Solomon Islands - one of no more than twenty white people there when he was a child.  "They were headhunters, you know." 

I didn't know.  I actually knew little or nothing about the Solomon Islands.  He told me that cannibalism came from a deep belief about the need to literally incorporate the other.  You take on his power when you devour him.  "I've never done this myself, of course, but I understand why they do it.  Or did it."  He seemed a little unsure if this was really entirely in the past.

That was when he told me that he knew a recipe for cooking humans.  You know they call them "long pig." 

I was munching on croissant, sipping cafe au lait, as he mentioned this. "So," I asked, unable to let it pass, "how do you cook a human?"

Paul smiled.  He had bright shiny blue eyes, the color of the sea, and now they were sparkling.  "First you throw the head away.  You don't eat the head."  (The rest that follows isn't for the fainthearted).   "Then you dig a pit, line it in a hot stones and banana leaves.  You take the limbs of the person you are cooking and wrap them in banana leaves.  I'm not sure about the torso but you definitely cook the butt.  Pile more leaves on, more hot stones.  Bury the whole thing for about twelve hours.  Then uncover it."  He waited for my reaction. Essentially slow cooking," he said.

I nodded.  Slow cooking made sense. 

I know as I'm sitting there that this is one of those things that comes from traveling alone.  I'm sure I'd never be having this conversation if I had a traveling companion.  If I didn't, then I wouldn't need Paul's company and I wouldn't now have this new recipe for my files. 

As we were finishing our breakfast, his flight was called.  He was heading to Pisa to do his salvaging.  I was going a few moments later to Genova.  Paul shook my hand and bid me good-bye.  I watched as he disappeared into the boarding area.  I went on to Genova. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Coney Island of the Mind

Yesterday Kate and I went to Coney Island.  It's been an important place to her for a long time and we both wanted to see how it had fared.  The subway wasn't going to the end so we got off at Avenue X (what a name) and walked to Avenue Z, then down Ocean Parkway.  There is much we saw during out walk and I will add more in different posts later this week, but just wanted to share these images of Coney.  Not so changed in some ways, but very changed in others.

The main way it has changed is that there was no beach.  The beach was all on Ocean Parkway, on the board walk, on the side streets.  It sat in enormous dunes (see picture of kate before one below), where it had been bulldozed, looking more as if a blizzard had occurred.  One that doesn't melt.  On the beach itself there was little sand.  Below this lone man was feeding the gulls.  He kept shouting at me to go away because my camera was frightening the birds.  I think his voice must have frightened them more, but I got this shot.  Below are other pics of Coney, including a toy truck washed up on the shore along with a doll's house.  The final picture Kate took of me.  I'll post most, as I said, later this week. 

But destruction was everywhere.  Chaos reigned on the buses and trains.  The arcades were covered in mud.  But for now this is where I'll begin.  The Coney Island of the mind, as it remains in my mind.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Bride on Brooklyn Bridge - Yesterday

 Behind her the city was dark, but this bride was posing for her pictures.  She was freezing.  Her hands were red.  But she provided a quiet elegance to everything around her.  Half an hour later the lights were back on.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hello, Manhattan. Let There Be...

Light!  Here are some pictures taken this afternoon while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Kate had just returned from Los Angeles and we wanted to see what the city was like.  We were in Manhattan just as the lights of the city began to return.  This image which is my favorite shows a Con Edison worker as he is illuminating a subway lantern.  But below catalogues our walk.

Below in Brooklyn.  Long lines of people (this doesn't do the line justice) wait to fill small plastic tanks of gas.  As we walked into the city, Lower Manhattan was dark.  And weirdly there were no traffic lights.  Huge residential towers were black.  But suddenly we heard at about six o'clock that the lights were starting to return and by seven as we were walking back we saw the city, starting to come back to life.  It was beautiful to behold. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Aftermath - Octber 31, 2012

Now that the winds have died down, we have had a chance to survey the damage.  And it is horrific.  Hard to even begin to describe what it looks like around here.  And we did not get hit with any surge.  The images of the shores, of downtown Manhattan are shocking.  Taxis underwater, subway tunnels flooded and filled with sludge.  Streetlights not working.  And death, tragic deaths. 

I realize this isn't a journey, per se, but it is what has happened in the world beyond the four walls in which I'd spent much of the past three days - cozy and warm, watching the news, annoyed by the storm, and not really understanding all that was happening.  I was lucky.  We were lucky.  I don't know what else to say.  We walked outside the morning to see much of the landscape around us altered, forever changed.

These images show what has happened to the trees near our house and in Prospect Park where we were this morning, despite police patrolling, telling us to leave.

The image above is the street next to ours, Garfield.  Below this huge tree was one of our favorite as we entered Prospect Park.  Others are in the park and one on the street - an enormous tree that fell between two cars, crushing them.
Two years ago we lost a thousand trees (I believe that's the number) to a tornado.  And now this.  We have more light, less shade, and less beauty around us than we did four days ago.

The Writer and the Wanderer - in Italia!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Thought for Today - After the Storm

"I don't understand anything.  Life is so strange.  I feel like someone who's lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea.  It makes me a little breathless, yet it fills me with elation.  I don't want to die.  I want to live.  I'm beginning to feel a new courage.  I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown."  - from The Painted Veil, Somerset Maugham.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Donkey's Mouth

 At the end of the perfect day Anna, Paola, Nicola and I, plus dog whose name I can't spell, went to Boccadasse - a former fishing village which is now a part of Genova.  The name means the donkey's mouth, and a local told us that's because the beach is shaped like a donkey's mouth, though I didn't see it.  Paola had her own theory that dated back to the 14th century and involved beasts of burden but we couldn't quite follow it and anyway she was making it up - brilliantly I might add.  Anyway Boccadasse.  Very gentrified, very beautiful.  This little haven right in the middle of the city.  This was after our pesto lunch.  And finished with the best gelato I've ever had.  Perfection doesn't happen that often.  So glad I got to enjoy it, however briefly, with such wonderful new friends.