Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Campsite at the Edge of the Real

Camping had always been a means to an end for me, a way to get close enough to the wild to facilitate sightseeing and hiking, a way to escape the secular reality of everyday. But that all changed the day Ryan, Jenifer, and I set our tent at the northern tip of Cape Breton Island.

Our first night on the peninsula had been a disaster, a tremendous summer storm forcing us out of the woods, only to find that every single motel along the Trans-Canada Highway had been booked solid. Finally, we had spent a short and miserable night in the last available room in the province. The next morning we drove over the causeway and into a different world.

The island seemed untouched by the twentieth century. Victorian houses and pastured farms gave way to tiny fishing villages and log cabins. The three of us twisted along the Cabot Trail, over the boggy plateau and back down to the coast. We turned off on a gravel road and stopped at an isolated Buddhist monastery for a spiritual interlude, communing with the blustery offshore wind and carefully tended garden paths. And then we turned back into the highlands, stopping suddenly as a black bear cub crossed the mountain road. The mother bear hesitated by the guard rail, peering at us. We stopped a car behind us, but travelers kept whizzing by in the other direction, preventing the bear from joining her offspring. Finally, giving up, we continued on, staring into the huge animal’s eyes as we passed a few feet away. We had entered another realm, but instead of the feel of magic, of unreality, this land seemed more natural and tangible than the one we had left behind.

Near the tip of the hand-shaped island, we turned off the Cabot Trail onto a dirt road, bouncing onto a long verdant finger of rock. Bays hemmed us in from both sides as we crawled farther into the boreal hinterland. At last, we found a place to camp, parking by a pine forest on the edge of a long grassy sward that dove down towards the crashing sea. Across the bay to the west, a long forested ridge jutted out into the North Atlantic, pointing towards the unseen crag of Newfoundland. The waves rumbled and echoed far below, giving the impression that all islands give, of being on the very edge of the blue-green globe.

Jenifer carefully set up the tent and prepared our beds, while Ryan and I cooked a lavish dinner under a covey of circling hawks. The sun began to set over the western ridge as we filled our bodies with yellow squash soup, red spicy pasta, and chocolate pudding. As dusk settled over the empty land, I wandered out into the meadow, which ended in a row of stumpy pine trees at the top of a rocky cliff. The tide had gone out and long silver strands of beach nudged into the bay. I strained my vision, trying to spot seabirds far below. Instead, two pairs of gleaming eyes jolted into mine from only twenty feet away. Two large red foxes, looking as if they were half-coyote, stared at me curiously. I smiled and backed up, making my way back to the green dome of the tent, where Ryan and Jenifer were preparing for bed. "Foxes!" I grinned, pointing. And then there were more, flitting along the edges of the meadow, darting in and out of the pines. I had thought foxes to be solitary animals; these were clearly not. But all I could think of was how right this was, how much more natural their community seemed. Perhaps, like us, the solitary foxes of my New England home were driven to that state by our crowded city-world.

After we had settled in for the night, I exited the tent to eliminate some of the lime tea I had enjoyed earlier. The lush meadow was brilliantly lit and I looked up, expecting to find a full moon. But the night was moonless and instead a billion stars shouted down their joy from the sky. The Milky Way, a long, thick river of light, split the primitive heavens in two. I could see a line of blue plane-lights, leaving the east coast of the United States and heading in a long arc over Newfoundland to Europe. One, two…ten planes stretched out over the full bowl of sky. I spotted red satellites moving west across the ancient starfield slowly, sentinels of technology and civilization. I was looking into another sphere, one that I had left behind, but could only see the intense beauty of it all, as if the worlds of long ago and the future had melded on one great benevolent canvas.

I woke Ryan and dragged him out of his sleeping bag. He gasped in astonishment at the absolute clarity of the sky-world above us. "I’ve never seen the stars before," he muttered. And I knew what he meant, that this finally was the reality of the night, that we had only lived in a hazy dream before now. Finally, exhausted by a long day full of marvels, we stumbled back to our peaceful green home, drifting off into a satisfied void.

The next morning, we kayaked across the more sheltered bay to the east of our bivouac site. Ryan told us how he had woken before dawn and watched the sunrise, then with a thrill, watched the pack of foxes dancing and playing in the orange morning light. Below us, in the cold northern water, a bizarre assembly of millions of luminescent jellyfish drifted and swayed. We paddled lightly across this creepy dark soup, and I finally had a sensation of unreality, as if I was upside down, paddling across the night sky, as if each white jellyfish was a gleaming star, and that last night’s camp was the only true taste of reality I would ever find.

First published in Hackwriters: The International Writers Journal. (In fact, it won an award.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Phi Kappa Phi

I'm mentioned in the member news of the latest Phi Kappa Phi forum. Check it out here.

Lehman added that “although it is a comprehensive history of the city of Bridgeport, I took the approach of focusing on the personal history of some of the fascinating characters and weaving the rest of the city’s history into that structure.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Friends in Parts

"Friendship is almost always the union of a part of one mind with a part of another; people are friends in spots." - George Santayana, Soliloquies in England

On a vacation to Maine I stopped briefly in New Hampshire to visit two sometime friends, Kelley and Erica. I had known them for six years, since we had spent a year together in Connecticut. We had kept in touch, seeing each other three or four times a year, talking by phone or email occasionally. Then they moved north, and I saw even less of them. Now I was trying to reconnect with two friends who I cared about, but really didn¹t have very much in common with. Kelley is a sweet girl with soft brown hair, who has lived a rough, almost tragic life. Erica is a blonde, blue-eyed criminologist with a penchant for Shakespeare. Both are gorgeous and smart. But I am an eccentric: a fanatical hiker, a voluminous reader, and a dedicated teacher. In other words, a loner. I have problems connecting with anyone, let alone two people who are younger and more sociable. To boot, the pseudo-romantic idea of "true friends" had invaded my consciousness and these girls certainly did not fit the bill.

After finding Kelley¹s apartment and trying to surprise Erica with my unexpected presence, I joined the two of them for lunch at a local restaurant to talk about what we were doing with our lives and what we planned for the future. We got a little drunk on sangria, which helped smooth any awkwardness. Then, we chatted on the way to the Budweiser factory, saw the Clydesdales, and took the tour. We talked about how Erica had broken up with her long-term boyfriend; she had become an adult and he hadn¹t. And we talked about Kelley¹s lack of direction and need of a real job. There were plenty of sly glances and playful jokes. After sharing beers at the factory tavern, we went to a movie that I didn¹t enjoy, but nevertheless enjoyed my friends¹ company. On the way back to Kelley¹s place, Erica told us she had to go home. Sadly, I didn¹t feel like this was a bad thing, not wanting to draw the affair out. Kelley and I ate pizza, drank a bit of wine, and watched television. But we stopped talking after a while and fell asleep. Maybe we were just tired from all the alcohol or maybe we had run out of things to say. I gave her a hug the next morning and left.

After this visit I felt miserable, because I had realized that seeing these two girls more than three or four times a year would be a mistake. Meeting them after some time had passed might work, because enough would happen in our own lives that we could exchange stories and continue this connection without overloading it. And worse, I thought that maybe there wasn¹t more than that. Maybe all humans are lonely and willing to settle for less. Maybe the way we settle for less with jobs or entertainment, we also do with our friends, because we don¹t find perfect friends. Maybe so-called perfect friends don¹t exist and we must settle for imperfect connections or die alone. I had always liked to think this friendship with Kelley and Erica would last the rest of my life. But at that moment I thought that instead it would drift into memory and regret. I wished that the three of us had more in common, that they enjoyed hiking or I liked dancing. I began to wonder if all friendships were like this, intersecting at tangents, only able to survive the occasional beer together.

It was not until several months later, upon reading an essay by George Santayana, that I readjusted my way of thinking and understood the situation. He writes: "Friendship sometimes rests on sharing early memories, as do brothers and schoolfellows, who often but for that now affectionate familiarity with the same old days, would dislike and irritate one another extremely. Sometimes it hangs on passing pleasures and amusements, or on special pursuits; sometimes on mere convenience and comparative lack of friction in living together. One¹s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human."

I thought back to the moments that built my connection with Erica and Kelley: a late night conversation in my dismal apartment, our euphoric trip to the Mohegan Sun casino, the elaborate dinner they had made for me before they left for the north, the bottles of wine and beer sharedÅ  Then I thought of other friends, ones I had supposedly connected with on a deeper level, ones that had in some sense been called "true." And in my mind, one by one, they showed themselves to be different only in degree. And I realized my profound foolishness in not seeing what all these people who had passed through my life had in common. Kelley and Erica telephoned me the other day and chastised me for not contacting them more often. Kelley had moved to Boston and was working with Erica now, cementing their own connections. "You¹d better call us, Lehman!" They told me in tandem, and hung up. I smiled, thinking of them fondly. I could be human with these so-called imperfect friends, and that is what really mattered.

Originally published in Hackwriters: The International Writers Journal.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Beardsley Zoo

Had a great time at the zoo the other day. Wolves and tigers and otters, oh my!

The Beardsley Zoo is just a great resource for the city of Bridgeport and Connecticut. Please help support it!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Heart of the Giant

One of my non-fiction stories, and a chapter from my yet unpublished book on hiking in Connecticut, is out at the Wilderness House Literary Review. Check it out here.

One of my Quinnipiac classes at the top of the Giant's head for their final exam.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Details Details

Ever look closely at your public (or private) buildings? Details abound! Here is a piece of the frieze at the Barnum Museum.

I guess I'm excited about this sort of thing because the new Bridgeport Walking Tour that I helped work on will be coming out soon!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Travel and Adventure

My travel writing lecture video has been posted by a blog called The Craft of Creative Writing & Sci-Fi. The blogger also has an interest in travel writing, it seems. Check it out here.

For those who don't know, the lecture talks about my trips to London, the Lake District, and Peru. It's worth a watch, especially part 3...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mount Parnassus

I like to give a shout-out to great bookstores. Parnassus Book Service (named for the classic Christopher Morley book Parnassus on Wheels) in Yarmouthport, Cape Cod is one of those stores. Check them out!

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Joy of Audiobooks

I always hated the idea of audiobooks. I’m afraid that as a younger man I was a bit of a purist, loving the feel of the pages and the musty smell of the paper. But one summer, having little to do and little money, I began to explore my local library a bit, and found their enormous "audio" section, taking up a whole room.

At the time I was driving long distances by myself, to camp or to visit friends, and I picked up a few books by Yorkshire author James Herriot, read by Christopher Timothy, the actor who had played Herriot in the British television series. Little did I know that the experience would change my life.

As I drove around New England, I listened with growing appreciation to these tales of the Old England of the Yorkshire Dales veterinarian, which luckily for me were the perfect balance of character and plot, dialogue and description. They translated so well to audiobook that upon trying a second series by a different author, I was highly disappointed. But I experimented, and found that others were nearly as good, and thus my hate turned to love. Long car trips seemed to flash by when I was listening to a good book. I found that children’s books worked very well, as did anything with a slightly simpler syntax or less complicated prose style. Nevertheless, it depended greatly on the voice actor, and how they presented the material. I listened to a book by John Muir, which I had loved in print, but could not get through due to the deadpan delivery of the actor. Other books came alive in ways that even films couldn’t match, like the Harry Potter series read by Jim Dale.

I could read thirty or forty books a year in this way. Later, I expanded to old radio shows, history books, and lecture series. The lecture series became my post-graduate work, as I learned about subjects I never took the time to study in school. I began to prefer audiobooks to music when driving alone. My half-hour drives to work became something to look forward to, rather than to dread. I often found myself wishing the highways were just a little longer, so that I could finish a chapter. Sometimes I sat in my car in the parking lot, waiting for the words of a voice actor or lecturer to complete the final thought.

We all know how music can enhance an experience, or the reverse, and the same goes for audiobooks. My girlfriend and I listened to Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi reading The Odyssey as we drove along the mountainous coastline of the Gaspe Peninsula and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Every time he intoned "the wine-dark sea" we glanced to our right and saw that the sea was indeed the color of wine, with seals and whales cresting the summer waves. In this way, audiobooks allow us to be active while absorbing the words we love. One can imagine that listening to The Odyssey while sailing a boat around the Greek islands might take it to yet another level. Or an Appalachian Trail Hiker listening to Walden as he hikes through the long green tunnel, letting Thoreau’s words seep from his ears to his boots. You might walk the streets of Paris with Ernest Hemingway as the words of A Moveable Feast take you from Montparnasse to the Marais, better by far than any tour guide.

This is the subtle joy of audiobooks that I have come to know, making peace with the technology and allowing that in certain circumstances listening might be better than reading. Of course, the best of all possible audiobooks are the ones read by the authors themselves. It is a rare pleasure, but one not to be missed when the opportunity arises. The other day, driving through the broken glass and concrete of a city, listening to Henry Miller read his classic book Black Spring, I leaned my elbow on the windowsill to let my hand feel the breeze. The words shaped my perception of the abandoned houses and cracked streets. The vibrations from the speakers echoed through my arm, rattling my bones. Henry Miller’s voice and words bled into my waiting body, becoming a part of me, and I felt something that I hadn’t felt since childhood, that I was deep inside the pages of a book.

First published on Hackwriters: The International Writers Journal.