I took a picture of this deteriorated sticker at the airport yesterday and thought of Bertha Truitt, the mysterious main character in Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway, who, whenever she’s asked where she’s come from, answers, “I’m here now.”
It’s pretty damned inspiring to wake up in the morning and there’s your six-year-old already at the hotel room desk hard at work.
This photo of ruins in Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite images from the past few years of traveling. (Not shown: the picnicking teenage sweethearts. “Love among the ruins…”)
I’m back in Austin, Texas after several months away in The North, living not far from a city with actual ruins. What hits my eye and sticks in my brain are the cranes and the half-finished buildings. Maybe it’s just the dark mood in me, but the unfinished buildings all look like ruins-in-the-making. And some of the finished buildings, like the parking garage I walked past last night, already look like ruins.
The most recent issue of the Austin Chronicle has a rendered image of a post-apocalyptic Austin on the front cover. (On Twitter I saw somebody joke that it was a well-played “don’t move here” measure.) There’s a creeping feeling that this won’t last. There’s a “correction” coming. But how bad will it be?
Everywhere you go there are abandoned scooters littering the sidewalks, like scooter cemeteries. (Undead? Waiting to be reanimated?)
I still hold love for the place. There’s still some magic lingering here, just as there is everywhere in America. A sunset helps. I walked past that same parking garage a half-hour later and the ruins were glowing, with the moon overhead…
This is one of those rare New Yorker cartoons (by Will McPhail) you clip out and stick on the fridge. I thought about it the other day when I read the obituary for Dean Ford, lead singer of the Marmalade:
I wanted to start over. I wanted a new life. The trouble was, I brought myself with me.
That’s the beginning of a country song, right there. Here’s an old poem of mine to go with it:
It’s like Thoreau wrote in his journal (he could’ve written some country songs):
It matters not where or how far you travel—the farther commonly the worse—but how much alive you are.
I saw these images walking around Pasadena this morning, the day after the Day of the Dead. Later, back in my hotel room, I found out that Nick Cave has started The Red Hand Files, a site where he answers questions from fans. He’s written about boredom and Grinderman (two of my favorite things), and, in a truly lovely letter, his thoughts on grief after losing his son:
I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.
Read the whole letter here.
“I still think of New York City as a powerhouse of a place in which human energy, imagination, and spirit are nourished.”
—Philip Glass, Words Without Music
Since I was 19-years-old and visited for the first time — a whole week! paid for! — NYC has been one of my favorite places in the world. (How could it not be?) One day I hope to have a whole week there again, but recently I’ve made quick, two-day trips: fly in one the morning, stay over, fly out the next night.
Never a resident, always a vampire. Flying in, sucking up the energy, then flying back out. But these quick trips kick up the bloodsucking a notch. (Last time was a visit to my publisher and photo shoot, this time a last-minute corporate offsite gig.)
“There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.”
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
On these quick trips, I like to let wherever I’m staying dictate where I go. This time I was staying near Wall Street, so I walked six miles, down to Battery Park for the sunset, then up the esplanade, then east to McNally Jackson to book shop, and finally back down through Chinatown while eating a heavenly strawberry ice cream cone that cost me $6 but tasted like $60.
My gig was on the lower east side, so I got to walk over to Katz’s and Russ & Daughters for the first time and load up on bagels and deli for the plane home. (My bags are stuffed and they smell heavenly.)
There’s still a little bit of funk around there, so I got to take a stroll before and after. Vampiring it up until next time. Now it’s time to board the plane for home.
“Have you noticed how riddled with fear our country is lately? We’ve never been more afraid. I’m concerned about that. Because when a society is afraid, people with a wrong motive can take advantage of that society and make them become something that they’re not. There’s a lot of fear right now in the United States of America and the most fearful Americans are the Americans that are buried deep in the middle of this country with no passports. This is a concern. Fear is for people who don’t get out much. The flipside of fear is understanding, and we gain understanding when we travel. I think it’s important for our very democracy… that we get out there, we travel, and we gain an empathy for the other 96% of humanity.”
I caught this talk last night on PBS, and it was so well done that I felt compelled to keep watching past my bedtime. (He’s been giving some version of the talk since 9/11.) It’s pretty brilliant in that it’s both a genuine plea for a saner, more thoughtful politics in this country, but also basically an infomercial for his travel services, his book of the same name, and his classics, Europe 101 and Europe Through The Back Door. (It feels very American to me in that way — both heartfelt and capitalist.) Worth a watch.
Back home after two weeks on the road with the kids. No new epiphanies, only fortified beliefs:
1. Traveling with young children is not a “vacation” it is a “trip.”
The sooner you understand and accept this the sooner you can lower your expectations accordingly. My kids are, I think, wonderful travelers, and even so, traveling with them is beyond exhausting.
2. Photos can say whatever we want them to say.
Instagram lies. If you follow me on Instagram, it probably looked like I was having the time of my life. Nope! There was a lot of eye candy to be had, but a large majority of the trip was pretty miserable.
I found myself thinking a lot about Errol Morris’s book, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, and how he summarized it in these handy 8 points:
- All photographs are posed.
- The intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image. (You can imagine what they are, but it’s pure speculation.)
- Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.)
- False beliefs adhere to photographs like flies to flypaper.
- There is a causal connection between a photograph and what it is a photograph of. (Even photoshopped images.)
- Uncovering the relationship between a photograph and reality is no easy matter.
- Most people don’t care about this and prefer to speculate about what they beleive about a photograph.
- The more famous a photograph is, the more likely it is that people will claim it has been posed or faked.
If you’re sitting around this summer scrolling Instagram seething with jealousy over vacation photos, remember what Mary Karr says: “Don’t make the mistake of comparing your twisted-up insides to people’s blow-dried outsides.” You have no idea what kind of time anybody’s having. Images are nothing without context.
If you love summer and summer vacation, I’m happy for you. For me, it’s the season of lies. Best to pour some iced tea, crack a book, and wait for it to pass.
(Happy to be back, BTW. Will write a more upbeat post tomorrow!)
From our home base of Melbourne, Australia, we would build the trip around highlights. In Switzerland: Zurich’s Bibliothek and the wonderful 18th-century Abbey Library of St. Gall. In London: the British Library and Lambeth Palace. At Oxford, the Bodleian. In the U.S., the Morgan, the Folger, the Houghton, the Smithsonian, plus the great public libraries of New York and Boston, and the “head office” of them all: the Library of Congress.
A lovely idea: library tourism!
Even if you don’t plan a whole trip around them, libraries are excellent spots for weary travelers: free, quiet, cool, full of locals, and staffed by people whose job is to help any visitors who walk in the door.
Wherever I travel, I research the nearby libraries and try to pop into any I happen to come across while walking around. In Milan, I stumbled onto the Braidense National Library and saw an excellent exhibit of book art. Driving the California coast, I discovered that the public library in Encinitas has a view of the Pacific. This summer we’re planning a visit to the brand-new Eastham Public Library during a week on Cape Cod.
Of course, I’m also a big proponent of being a tourist in your own town. Here in Austin, we have a glorious new central library, and yet, I still meet people in town who haven’t seen it!
When friends visit, I say, “Let me take you to the library!” They think I’m nuts, but it’s really the best this city has to offer right now. (Especially in the sweltering summer.)
Above: inside the APL, below: outside the library, on the pedestrian path under the bridge
Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve never been to Ireland, but the past two times I’ve visited northern California in the early spring I’ve been amazed by how much it looked like (my completely uninformed) vision of what the coast of Ireland must look like, with rocky cliffs and magnificent greens. Then, when I posted this picture on Instagram, an Irish follower thought I might even be in Ireland! (Now I really want to visit!) Here’s a rainbow from last year’s drive up the Pacific Coast Highway: