Sunday, January 23, 2011
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Friday, January 29, 2010
Monday, January 25, 2010
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Standing atop the sun-drenched Colorado Rockies at 12,500 feet, I looked down forlornly at my dad who, minutes before, had navigated his way through the death-inducing moguls that now separated us. Dad and I had just emerged from
Shortly after finishing off the last of the Pecan Pie and just before beginning the annual Thanksgiving Day football game, I had prodded Dad about his commitment to skiing the
And in addition to my desire to ski the superlative-laced peaks of
In a little over three hours, the United States Senate would pass a wide-sweeping health care bill just a few blocks from where I was walking, and in a little over eight hours the warmth of my Grandmother’s embrace would lift me out of the cold
Actually, my acceptance of the cancelled train wasn’t quite this lucid. Instead, I must have looked like a newly indebted homeless man as I swiped my credit card in the ticket dispenser 23 times. When my itinerary failed to appear after the second swipe, I figured I had the wrong card. After trying all my credit cards, my dad’s credit card, my Barnes and Noble Card, my Social Security Card – remember it was – I finally realized my train wasn’t going to the airport. Fearing the looming ice-storm in
“Hey, are you going to BWI?” I asked a woman walking towards me with a suitcase designed only for stuffing into an overhead compartment.
“Yes, and I’m going to drive, and you can ride with me.” Now, as you can imagine, I was elated and immediately gave this woman a squashing bear-hug. Actually, that’s what I envisioned myself doing, but instead I answered with some erudite response, like, “Oh ok, sounds good.”
After my new friend, Alison, got us lost and asked for directions to the airport, I soon realized how fortuitous it was for her that I had generously agreed to accept her invitation to the airport. I was the Good Samaritan. Alison was older than me, mid 30s I would guess, and had dark hair and glasses. She was skinny and seemed hardened by something in her past.
After walking the two blocks to her car, Alison and I had driven back to Union Station, run through the departure lounge offering rides to the airport, but failed to acquire any additional passengers. With just the two us, Alison’s little Saab negotiated the early morning traffic and made its way to the highway.
With about 10 miles left, the conversation turned to our assorted travels abroad. Since Alison’s job was out-of-bounds, “Navy Intelligence,” we instead focused on what we both would rather do for a living.
“I spent a year after college teaching English in
“I lived in
“So, did you speak any Hungarian before you moved there?” I inquired.
“Yea, actually I won a scholarship to take Hungarian during the summer at a college in
“Yea it was,” Alison answered, again looking at me with her military-sharpened deductive skills churning in her head. I continued my line of questioning like a focused prosecutor,
“And was your teacher’s name, Maria?” I delivered my final question with a satisfying flourish - wishing a jury sat in the back-seat instead of dirty socks and K-Mart receipts.
“Oh my God, Yes it was Maria,” Alison exclaimed as the car crossed first a dashed white line, then a solid white line, and finally rumble strips that announced Alison’s impending crash and jolted her into straightening out the car.
“How do you know Maria?” she asked.
“She was my Hungarian teacher when I studied in
In due time, Alison relayed that she had visited Maria the previous summer and maintained a frequent correspondence. This bizarre coincidence that placed me in Alison’s car reminded me of a Bill Bryson story – one of
After saying good bye to Alison, I sat back in awe as the overcrowded bus approached the terminal. But before I could dwell on my Brysonian story, I found myself learning about the nuanced intricacies of various
“We’re heading to
“Have a great time in, er, the
When my plane touched-down in
My family has been going to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve since before I was born. It’s all I know, and I’m rather confused as to what I’ll do for Christmas when I’m no longer going to Grandma’s house – more importantly, what I’ll do without Grandma’s gifts. As always, Grandma reliably delivered, like a drug dealer, with a wonderful array of presents. The prescience with which she provides me bestsellers off of my Amazon wish list is stutter-inducing. Grandpa’s touch was also noticeable in one gift: he had artistically returned all the bent nails I had left in his woodshop over the years. He crafted a newspaper-sized nametag out of bent nails, and while he only spelled out D-A-N, I’m pretty sure he had enough of my used-and-replaced nails to spell my name as it appears on my birth certificate – twice.
Mother Blizzard prevented us from getting home to Mom and Dad’s house following Grandma’s rehearsed celebration, but with the morning light and warnings of more snow to come, we quickly evacuated Carroll on Christmas morning and did our best to make the 2-hour drive last as long as possible – coming in at just under 4 hours.
While the Altima and Jetta successfully navigated the iced-over country roads to Okoboji, there was no way they were getting into the drift-filled driveway without firing up the yet-to-be-christened snowblower. A little over a month before, just after I successfully manipulated my dad into agreeing to take me skiing in
I bolted out of my brother’s Jetta before it came to a stop and had the snowblower churning before Mom had undone her seatbelt. This delay turned out to be fortuitous when my relative inexperience with operating the contraption caused me to neglect the snow’s chute, and I inexplicably placed the first row of snow directly on the Altima’s passenger window. Sorry Mom. As I suffered through displacing the snow from our driveway, Mom, Dad, and my brother Matt dodged my work and unloaded the cars.
After the driveway had been charitably cleared, Mom demonstrated her inherited Christmas aptitude by surrounding me with dozens of perfect gifts. An
What followed, though, were some much needed peaceful days of rest. The three guys of the family spent the vacation torturing Mom into playing card games, and I made an appearance at the local bar – mostly to belittle the locals. Dick Cheney would have been proud.
After just two nights, and 10 inches of snow, Dad and I departed sleepy Okoboji for the mountainous city of
After a delicious dinner, a few hours of sleep, Dad (with glasses in place) and I were back on the road at . Now, it’s important to establish that I love skiing more than Henry VIII loved wives. In 5th grade Dad took me skiing at the misnamed
By the time Matt and Dad made it out of the chalet, I had precociously tackled all of
Quite easily, the highlight of Breckenridge is the mountain’s t-bar that ejects skiers above the
The “Little Boy Feeling” is something I have coined and believe is something for which I deserve praise and fortune. Everyone has had the LBF at some point in his or her lifetime. And as we get older, it diminishes in correlation with age. Essentially, the LBF is the sensation that swarms over your body and reminds you why you are human. It’s like a first date, the first time you have sex, and your first home run all rolled in to one. For me, the LBF usually occurs when I walk into a baseball stadium for the first time. I remember it most clearly the first time I saw
The first thing that hits you is the smell. As you catch a glimpse of the green corners of the stadium, you see the Citgo Sign light up, and the smell known to baseball fans everywhere, composed of hot dogs, sunflower seeds, sweat, and beer, dominates your nostrils. After presenting your tickets and entering the grandstand, you are transported back to 1920 envisioning Babe Ruth smoking a cigar and making his way to the field. And then the best part of all – you emerge form the concrete mass to catch your first site of the bright green field stitched with bright chalk lines, stretched beneath the Green Monster, and the LBF overwhelms your senses. That simple feeling of pure pleasure, childhood innocence, and blissful ignorance, is what I call the LBF. As I’ve grown older, it occurs more infrequently, but every so often it crops up, and I remember what it’s like to be 10 and content. And that is exactly how I felt when I stepped off the t-bar at Breckenridge’s highest peak. Laying in the snow, water creeping into my pants, and skis careening down the mountain, just 2 minutes after my arrival, the LBF was no longer on my mind.
About in the afternoon, the altitude, the 14-hour car ride, and the 7 hours of skiing finally got to us. We made our way to the run, creatively titled “ run” that delivers skiers to their cars at the end of their day, and eased our way off the mountain. To a kid from
Day 1 of skiing ended peacefully enough, Dad and I returned to
Day 2 of skiing brought its own surprises. Dad and I summited Keystone,
Soon after our arrival though, we immediately made for A-Basin’s highest point, which was attained easily enough as half the mountain was closed due to insufficient snow. After a day and half of skiing, and nearing complete exhaustion, I found myself staring down at my dad across the hardest moguls I had ever seen.
As I began my descent, composing my last words and remembering my Catholicism, I was quite literally, and metaphorically, departing from the zenith of my ten-day holiday vacation. While the break wasn’t about to cascade quite as precipitously or as violently as I was, leaving this peak meant beginning the trudge back to the office on Monday morning. Despite my “Danger Will Robinson” feelings, I navigated the moguls much to my dad’s amusement. The mountain had finally conquered me. While earlier on the trip, I had been daring enough to attempt any run, my tired legs and fragile constitution, prohibited any additional attempts. After making our way through those moguls, we breezed through a few blues, enjoying the scenery of A-Basin and taking our time to wind down our long-awaited skication.
Begrudgingly, Dad convinced me to return to the car, and we began our drive back to
Gordon was kind enough to deliver me to the airport next morning, and due to the crotch bomber’s sudden rise to fame, security was a nightmare. The flight got to
Courtney and I also had the chance to see Sherlock Holmes, and I’m fast becoming a fan of Robert Downey, Jr., much to the worry of the unblighted veins in my forearms. The movie, however, is expertly directed, though emphasizes Sherlock Holmes’ bizarre jujitsu acumen. Still, once one separates the Holmes created by Sir Arthur from the one created by Guy Ritchie, the film comes alive. I found myself remembering the delightfully fun Encyclopedia Brown books of my childhood.
Courtney, two of her high school friends, and I drove to
New Year’s morning brought the necessary day-after brunch, and my breakfast was coyly named the Eggstravaganza. The “Gourmet Deli” where we ate, had no more than four customers, two of which had registered complaints by the time we left. Although we prepared ourselves for a “gastrointestinal
“The Bruins Score!” screamed out the announcer as
Later that night, I met up with my friend Kevin, who almost single-handedly elicited the LBF in me – by presenting me with
Saturday brought with it my departure from
“You sick fuck,” is how the Bostonian gently put it. As I was trying to watch the game on TV, to my left, at the bar, these two men bickered about porn-watching habits while also conducting a computer tutorial. To add to this fun, I took in a biography of Hawkeye’s lengthy life.
“I’ve got a 40 year old daughter, and a 40 year old wife. How ’bout that,” he said to me with a knowing smile. Time to go.
Amtrak didn’t fail quite so annoyingly on the return trip to
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Dear Dr. MacFarlane,
I have a complicated appreciation of Paul Theroux, which is why I read with eager anticipation your review of the Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I must admit, I have not read any of your works. But you seem like someone with whom I’d get along. You have a rich appreciation, and far superior knowledge, of literature, yet an equal appreciation for the remnants of underexplored nature in developed societies. However, because of the disdain and repulsion with which you rejected Theroux’s latest bestseller, I felt compelled to write this letter.
What bothers you most about Paul Theroux is his abhorrent pomposity. Without question, Theroux is a writer imbued with supreme confidence. Yet, Theroux readily admits, he has not had a happy life – or at least he hadn’t until The Great Railway Bazaar brought him fame and fortune. And so, the egotism with which he writes can best be described as astonished pride in his own work. Yet, I feel as if you fail to appreciate the subtlety of this confidence. It’s not a boastful confidence, but more of an amazed, reflective appreciation of what he has accomplished. Establishing this subtle character trait is critical because it allows the reader to connect with and get past Theroux’s arrogance – which is continuous – and appreciate the true value of his work.
You highlight the many shortcomings of the Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. Theroux is lazy, generalizing, simplistic, stereotypical, and above all refuses to get off the train. And you are exactly correct in all of these assaults. But these shortcomings are also what make Theroux’s work so enticing and captivating – much to my own chagrin.
When Theroux arrives in a country, he records his immediate prognoses and condescending judgments of the landscape before him. And yes, these are always simplified, lacking nuance, and overly generalized. But they are exactly what every traveler does the instant he encounters a new horizon. Theroux quotes Mark Twain upon his arrival in
Theroux’s “banalities masquerading as profundities” are what the armchair traveler covets the most in a travel memoir – the ruminations that run through a newly landed traveler. Whole books could be, and have been, written about the arriver’s first thoughts and feelings. Theroux’s ability to capture these invective penetrations consumes the reader and satisfies Theroux disciples again and again.
Ghost Train also snags the reader because Theroux finally becomes an introspective traveler – which the reader desires after its absence in Theroux’s earlier works. You write sarcastically that Theroux’s discovery that he, more than the cities through which he has passed, has changed the most in the thirty years that has elapsed since he last traveled this route. And while you rebuke Theroux’s explanation, this insight into the author's psyche is yet another example of why the armchair traveler loves to follow along with Theroux – because he sees himself sitting across from the narrator as he scribbles away on the night train to Bombay.
Besides his banalities, Theroux’s “less interesting details” also help transport the armchair traveler into central
I must confess, it actually took me five tries to get through my first Paul Theroux book. Mosquito Cost was my first purchase, and I still haven’t read it. And when I do sit down to tackle a Theroux masterpiece (Ghost Train, Railway Bazaar, Dark Star Safari), I find myself turning the pages quickly, eagerly, but not devouring every word that passes through my fingers. Your review is exactly correct; while Railway Bazaar opened the world to millions including hundreds of “upstart punks,” Theroux’s later works are frustrating in their oscillations between mendacity and poetry. And these undulations are why I have enjoyed Ghost Train so much, because I listen to it as I traverse the streets of
Until I read your review earlier this week, I had no problem drifting, for hours, in and out of Ghost Train. But your review elicited in me an anger I have not felt since my sophomore English teacher leveled praise upon Catcher in the
I’m going to continue to read Ghost Train, but only on my bike where I can ruminate about my own travel ambitions, without relying on a washed-up, bitter old man to transport me across the world. And who knows, as I continue to ride my bike, I might just keep riding, and riding until I find myself across the world – a young, “opportunistic punk,” with my own nonsensical generalizations filling books and making millions. If so, I’ll have Paul Theroux to thank. Thank you for disturbing my peaceful, yet discomforting, appreciation of this complicated writer.
P.S. You know what “Poor Pico Iyer” thought of this book: “Brilliant.”