October 31, 2011 5 Comments
Essays on travel, identity, literature, and philosophy.
October 29, 2011 16 Comments
The Hosteling International Hostel in Austin sits on a hill that tapers down to the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, one of a series of narrow lakes that owe their existence to dams built up and down the Colorado River as it flows through Central Texas. Unlike most hostels, which tend to be in the middle of a large downtown where the sounds of the city never quite fade, even at night, the hostel in Austin neighbors no buildings. The whoosh of cars, the laughter of late night partiers, and the low hum common to all big cities at night do not disturb it. Instead, live oak trees wind their limbs around it, waters lap up on the tree-lined shore beneath it, and, at night, crickets and other nocturnal creatures serenade it. Downtown Austin, about a mile away, rises just a sliver above the tree line across the lake. A narrow dock extends into the water and affords a solitary place to sit and think, and to squint at the smattering of stars that manage to overcome the glow of the city. Inside, the hostel is more inviting than most I’ve slept in. Large round tables fill the dining area. An upright piano rests in the corner. I imagine that on busy nights traveling musicians gladden the room with their songs.
Hostels fascinate me. They come in all varieties and are run by some of the most eccentric characters. The proprietor of an Anchorage hostel I stayed at in 2006 interrogated me about Austin. He wanted to know where a man goes to cool off on a hot summer’s day. Answer: Barton Springs. “Yes, that’s correct,” he said. “And where does one go for live music?” Answer: Sixth Street. Correct again. He quizzed me on politics, asked who I voted for in the 2004 presidential election, inveighed against war and big oil. He ran his hostel out of his own house in the suburbs.
In Minneapolis I stayed in a hostel that felt like an abandoned mansion. I slept alone on one bed among thirty in a large, open room with a vaulted ceiling that rose twenty feet above me. Walls were missing, doors had holes in them, and the November wind whistled through cracks and little gaps in the exterior. In most hostels strangers from all over the world talk in various heavy accents about where they’ve come from and where they’re going. These rank among the dreamiest conversations I’ve heard.
Some hostels are musty and cramped. Their whole structure lists slightly and makes you wonder whether they might fall down. They smell of damp towels and bodies salted by the ocean. One in Mexico had a restroom so small that you couldn’t close the door to do your business. Some offer nice, simple breakfasts. In Argentina almost all hostels provide at no charge biscuits and mermelada, orange juice, milk and coffee.
The people who frequent hostels are sometimes weird, sometimes perfectly ordinary, occasionally crazy. A lot of them are lost. A lot of them are staying in a hostel because they don’t know where else to go, and they believe that maybe the simple act of moving will change their lives for the better. A man at a hostel in Fairbanks told me that he had moved from New York to Alaska on a whim, with no promise of a job and no friends in his new home to help him if he needed it. He said that he wanted to work for the oil industry, though he had lived in New York his entire life and had never seen a drilling rig.
Maybe I feel at home in hostels because I don’t know who I am and I’ve deluded myself into thinking that I can find what’s missing in me in the outside world, among people who are lost themselves and who, like me, have landed in the liminal reality hostels afford. In a hostel, everyone is no one and, for a moment, the pressures of being someone lift.
October 28, 2011 14 Comments
I’m tired. I’ve moved around a lot over the last five years, from Austin to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Madison back to Dallas to Lexington back to Boston and soon to Michigan. In those five years I traveled to most of the fifty states; backpacked in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and spent Easter of 2011 on a hostel bunk in the place I grew up, Austin, TX. All of this change and uncertainty, this not knowing what I’ll be doing a year from now, this mentality I can’t seem to shake that whatever I’m doing now will not last, has depleted me. I would really like to just stay put for a while and learn to live without the distraction of moving and traveling. Why have I so effectively avoided permanence in my life? How did I become so addicted to traveling and constant movement?
I travel because it keeps me busy and occupies my mind. When I’m traveling I have less time to think about the future, to worry about what career to pursue or what school to attend, how I’ll pay off education loans or whether one day I’ll start a family. All that matters is where I’ll walk today and what bus I’ll catch tomorrow morning, what cheap snack I’ll munch on, whether I’ve charged my camera batteries, packed my clothes, scribbled in my little journal, and secured my passport. Nothing matters except these trivialities.
When I travel I get to meet strangers and for brief spells pretend to be the gregarious guy that I’m not. It’s easy to find a stranger who will talk my ear off. More often than not, all I have to do is ask someone a few simple questions and listen. I think the strangers I meet believe that I’m more talkative than I actually am, maybe because they judge our encounter based on how long I spent listening to their story rather than on how much I actually said. Which makes sense. If the typical random encounter entails at best a smile and a nod, then one in which two people sit down and exchange even a few words lasts an eternity by comparison. And since most people probably don’t feel like anyone really listens to them, a few minutes of conversation that they dominate could easily feel like hours of balanced give-and-take.
But I think there’s something more going on. When a person I don’t even know puts his whole life on pause to sit down and talk with ME, of all the people in the world, I feel like he has approved of my existence. He has seen me. And in a world where I feel pretty invisible most of the time (to the extent that when I’m around a lot of people, stuck in traffic, shopping for groceries, odds are that none of them will know who I am or remember that they brushed shoulders with me in the cereal aisle or rocketed past me on the freeway), it feels good to be seen.
The most contented I’ve felt over the last few years was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, maybe because the train combined permanence with movement. I was stuck on one train for fifty hours, slept in the same coach seat two nights in a row, and talked to the same strangers off and on for three straight days. Yet I was also moving. I was going somewhere. The scenery outside the window was changing. The urban density of Chicago gave way to the green farmland of Wisconsin, which gave way to the blackness of Minnesota at night and the void of sleep, until I woke up the following morning to sunrise over North Dakota’s golden wheat fields that undulate like a vast inland sea. I saw the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies of Montana and rise again two hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, where the Columbia River quivered and sparkled in the new dawn light. I was stationary yet I was also in motion. The train left me with only two choices: to stay on until it delivered me to the end of the long route or to get off somewhere in the middle of my journey. That was it. Life was simple. Stay on or get off.
Old posts about the train trip I took from Boston to Seattle in 2009:
October 27, 2011 9 Comments
I get a sense that as I move through life certain character traits adhere to me and accrue over time while others flake away and lie strewn about the path I’ve left behind. Where do new traits or pieces of identity come from and what happens to the old ones when they’ve fallen away? I ask because when I’m at my most self-aware, I feel like certain personality tics and affectations–the way I raise my eyebrows when I’m happy, roll my eyes when I’m annoyed, sigh when I lose patience–don’t belong to me, but to someone else; and that if I set myself to it, I could trace them back to someone I once knew. In whom do those raised eyebrows or that particular sigh originate? Does anyone own a gesture?
My grandfather used to raise his eyebrows in moments of delight. He would cock his head back so that he was looking at the ceiling, open his mouth wide, and explode with uproarious laughter. He would spread his hands wide and then clap them together in slow motion while the joke he had heard coursed through his body like sound through a tuning fork. Did these mannerisms belong to my grandfather? Did I acquire any of my own mannerisms from him or my mother, who laughs in much the same way? In a sense, do certain gestures exist apart from the people in whom they live, so that they’re like silent memes that spread through a civilization horizontally in the present and vertically from one generation to the next? And if they don’t belong to anyone, but in a sense have a life all their own, why do we use them as markers of individuality. Why do we say, “I love so-and-so’s laugh,” or, “she has the most beautiful smile,” when one person’s laugh and another person’s smile may have been repeated a thousand times throughout history?
Although none of these mannerisms may belong to any one person, maybe they are arranged differently in each of us. My grandfather combined a multitude of common gestures in a way that was his own and marked him as an individual. I can imagine a man living two thousand years ago in ancient Rome cocking his head back the way my grandfather used to do when he would laugh. I can picture some 19th century Russian peasant raising his eyebrows in delight just like my grandfather would do after hearing a good joke. I can imagine a hundred other people throughout history adopting my grandfather’s mannerisms, but I can’t imagine all of their gestures coming together except in my grandfather. It’s the symphony, not the instruments or individual notes, that gives rise to our individuality.
October 20, 2011 34 Comments
I’m in Boston now and the trees are changing colors. I love fall colors, especially as someone who grew up in a place where the use of the words “colors” and “fall” in the same sentence usually referred to a spectrum of ephemeral yellow hues sprinkled among forests of green cedar trees and darker green live oaks. When I was in New England this time two years ago I was dazzled by the reds and yellows and oranges, the hills aflame, and the leaves that danced in the air on cold winds from the north as I rode the commuter train into Boston. But this time, I’ve hardly taken note. Why? Because I lost the habit. It happens that quickly. I wrote hardly a word for two months and I forgot how to see. Writing puts me in the habit of looking for what stands out in this world, or striving to see what’s beautiful and unusual in the ordinary things that surround me. When I don’t write, I forget to notice the details.
Since I stopped blogging a couple of months ago, I’ve come to realize the ways in which blogging changes how I think, what I attend to, and how I decide what to write about. Take my post on Monday, about pain. I don’t think I would have written that after having blogged for a month, because by then I would have returned to my old habit of trying to lace my writing with optimism and hope. I would be thinking about how others would receive my words and not just about how I felt, and it would occur to me that maybe nobody wants to hear about pain and other such matters that have no simple resolution. Maybe I would be wrong to make such assumptions, but I fall easily into the habit of obsessing over what I think other people would want to read.
Is it OK to think about “audience”? I think so. It’s import to think about what other people would want to read, how they’ll react, whether my writing will brighten their day or trouble them—because if I think that the people who read my writing want to be happy, then I’ll try to make them happy, and in the process I’ll lift my own spirits. If I think that they want inspiration, I’ll try to inspire them and so inspire myself. If I think that they want to contemplate, then I’ll have to contemplate, too. So yes, audience matters. Thinking about audience helps me focus my thoughts and senses, to winnow the chaos that sometimes besieges me.
Writing begins with the meticulous gathering and cataloging of the world’s oddities. In this sense, all writers are collectors—of thoughts, feelings, experiences, memories. Their function, more than to write, is to see what most of us don’t have time to see and to tell us about it. Nothing helps me to see better than to think about the people with whom I want to share my tiny collection of oddities.
*All pictures are from Fall 2009.
October 18, 2011 12 Comments
I’m going to resume blogging, meaning that I’ll start posting again and I’ll go back to commenting on other people’s blogs. Michelle at Steadily Skipping Stones pointed out that blogging makes us better people. I’m sorry I turned my back on it. I’ve missed it. I don’t know what to post after that upbeat doozie I published yesterday about pain, but I’ll think of something. I’d like to write something about hostels and the backpacking lifestyle, but that will have to wait until later in the week. For now, here’s something I wrote months ago and never posted:
Late one night, when I was three or four, my family and I were driving in our Ford Escort. I was sitting in the rear passenger seat behind my mom, to the right of my sister. My dad was driving. I sat staring through the window at the full moon and wondered why it followed us, why wherever we drove, however fast we went, the bright white disc stayed with us. I paid close attention when my dad accelerated. If we went fast enough, if we caught the moon off guard, might we edge ahead of it?
I asked my dad how it matched our movement so perfectly, and he gave me a practical, scientific explanation about relative distances that made perfect sense. Rational understanding of the moon filled me with wonder, but I couldn’t quite rid myself of the urge to attribute motive and agency to the moon’s behavior. I always wanted to pretend that it was watching over us, or that it followed us out of curiosity and wondered why we stared at it so, or that maybe it was lonely and was begging for our attention. And there you have the duality that exists at my core: the desire to rationalize everything paired with the urge to project fanciful romance everywhere.