Category Archives: Writing Travels

The travels that make up the writer are the travels of the soul.

How I Almost Started Writing: Chicago

I am on the Blue Line. I just arrived but it feels like I’ve already been here for a week. I should be reading, but I’m fumbling with my phone.

I thought I’d take the train instead of a cab, that I might lose myself a bit in the morning rhythm of the city. Instead, I’m listening to old voicemail.

“It’s just Chicago. Fly in, fly out. One day. Please!”

Any crafty salesman can get a foot in the door, it’s the beggar who closes the deal.

I force myself to read. For some reason, when I am reading in public places I always suspect that people are looking at me. Maybe that’s the only reason I brought the book, to be looked at. No, it wasn’t that. The book had promise, a promise that kept me going eagerly through the first chapter, the promise of a serious book.

The more I read, the less the author seems to care.

The story devolves into one emotionless scene after another: look at this; look at that; here is something you didn’t expect; here is something obscene; here is yet another thing which is completely unnecessary. It’s like being force-fed vacation slides. The book becomes nothing more than a pulpy mass moving through space toward its inevitable and flaccid conclusion. Each sentence, every word, devoid of potency.

It’s not my favorite…

I can see the lake now, but I am busy with the dust jacket picture of the author. I take out a pen and draw a thin, curling mustache on his dour lip.

“There’s an ass,” says the man standing beside my seat.

I nod and the man turns away, which is not exactly what I wanted. I wanted him to attach some clarifying remark, such as:

“I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter.”

– or –

“I saw that ass on TV.”

The man is a Silver Fox. He is tall and well-dressed. His blue suit is of a superior cut. This suggests many things about the man, but does not necessarily recommend him as an avid reader. The identity of the ass remains murky.

I am at the hotel. Everything is dark. The bellman is dressed in black. His face is blank.

There are more black-clad stewards sulking in the lobby. They stand motionless behind the front desk, flanked by granite columns. Long streams of purple velour snake down the columns, which are covered in hieroglyphics. The dome above glows a disconcerting shade of red.

A sign for the conference calls beckons me deeper into the hotel.

Orange sconces flicker against blackened walls. The walls have the texture of steel. At the far end of the floor, a staircase leads up to the grand ballroom. A stout balustrade rings the space above.

The Cheerful Woman greets me at the registration desk. She looks up my name and hands me a badge. I take the badge off the lanyard and used the clip to affix the card to my shirt. The Cheerful Woman frowns when I drop the lanyard on the table.

“You’re supposed to wear the lanyard.”

The lanyard lies between us, coiled and still. The name of the conference repeated over and over in fat, white letters on what was really just a black shoelace. The Cheerful Woman’s face turns grim. It seems unkind to leave a shoelace before the Cheerful Woman, to reject her so completely.

I nod and gently take up the lanyard in my hands.

I am watching the Smiling Man. He is giving a speech by satellite to locations all over the globe. He talks about many things but what I can’t get over is the fact that he isn’t wearing socks. He’s dressed in a suit, a nice suit in fact. Nicer than any suit I will ever own. Nicer than the blue suit worn by the Silver Fox on the train… And yet, he isn’t wearing socks.

There’s really no reason for the camera to reveal the fact the Smiling Man isn’t wearing socks. They could zoom in on his face rather than show him at a distance, reclining in his chair.

The Smiling Man speaks of many things which mean nothing to the customers of the Smiling Man’s company. In the end, he waves good-bye and smiles. The Regional Sales Director takes the stage. He smiles less than the Smiling Man, but then he is wearing socks.

I am doodling on a pad of paper provided by the hotel. I draw little bats flapping around the logo of the hotel and a graveyard in the bottom right corner of the page. I write the names of the Smiling Man and the Regional Sales Director on a matching pair of tombstones.

The man sitting beside me laughs so I give him the paper.

I am sketching a villa. I begin with a graceful line of windows. The windows peek out above a tall hedge. Beside the villa, there is a winding garden filled with wispy perennials. Short fruit trees with knotted trunks frame the rear of the garden. As an afterthought, I add a terrace, knitting the old flagstones between a tangle of underbrush.

An invisible sun casts the dry light of late summer on the scene. The villa is a pale shade of lavender, the trim whitish-grey. Scrub-covered hills, brown and distant, rise up in the background. I add a rake to the garden.

My eyes are closed. I am listening for the sound of birds.

People move slowly toward the buffet, trying not to appear too eager for lunch. I head for the door. I’m almost free but out of nowhere my sales rep appears and cuts off my escape.

“Hey! You made it! Enjoying the conference?”

“Not bad, but I just got a call.”

“Oh yes, duty always calls! Well, why don’t you come and meet someone real quick?”

“I’d love to, but…”

“No, problem. Really! He’s right over there. It’ll only take a second.”

He points to a small cluster of people frozen in the gloom at the foot of the stairs. I cave and allow myself to be led away by the elbow.

The Formal Man watches us descend. He has black hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. He does not smile or nod, but I feel welcomed into his company by some strange shifting of his eyes. This is not the man I am supposed to meet. I am supposed to meet the Golden Boy, but he is pacing in the shadows behind the Formal Man, so it appears that meeting the Golden Boy consists of speaking to the Formal Man who is actually a consultant to the Golden Boy, though he himself preferred the title of Corporate Nanny.

The Golden Boy is short and blond. He wears fashionable clothes, accessorized by an expensive cellphone crammed into his left ear. The phone flashes blue and red, nearly in time with his continuous, rapid fire speech.

Once, in passing, the Golden Boy emerges from the darkness. He casts his face up to the ceiling. He sighs and shakes his head. Then he starts up again, tossing out jargon and channeling a series of new age business gurus one after the other.

“Is he always like that?”

The Formal Man smiled and leaned towards me.

“No one really wants to take his calls. Half the time, he just calls people at random to see if they miss him.”

I trade cards with the Formal Man. Instantly, the Golden Boy materializes. He jams a card into my hand and points to the flashing phone. He shrugs and vanishes into the shadows.

Behind the wire-rimmed spectacles, the Formal Man raises his eyes. He smiles.

“The kid’s on the bubble and he doesn’t even know it.”

It is raining. I am in a café across the street from the hotel. I have a cup of coffee. I pretend to read the wretched book.

A woman enters the café. Her black hair falls down around her shoulders. I’m going to romanticize this moment too much if I hold onto it, but I can’t help it. I pull out the picture of the villa. I see her moving across the terrace. She wears a simple yellow dress.

The light is so bright. I can barely stand to look at the devastated beauty of the rough countryside. I want my life to stop moving forward.

Miles away the sea rises and falls like molten lead. The wind picks up. The woman leaves with a tray of coffees, and the imaginary summer disappears as she steps off my flagstone terrace and into the rain of West Adams Street. I sketch her figure quickly.

I am in a room without windows. This is a private meeting. The low ceiling presses down on a corral of fold-up tables.

We speak in echoes, responding automatically to each other for almost an hour, promising things we both knew to be false. When the meeting is over, we agree to nothing except that we will share a cab to the airport.

In the taxi, the man pulls up his legs and places his feet against the window. He curls himself around a little device and checks his email. The man digs his thumbs into the keyboard. The meter starts.

We arrive at the airport. As I get out of the cab, the man calls after me. He is holding the picture of the villa.

I see now that it was a mistake to draw the figure of the woman looking away.

How I Almost Started Writing is a series of brief portraits focused on the times in my life where I found myself on the verge of focusing solely on the writing life.

How I Almost Started Writing: Russian River

I am standing on a cliff above the Russian River. The green stone is in my hand and the sun has been setting forever.

Try as I might, I cannot find a good way to explain the fact that seals and cows live just a few hundred yards away from each other. The best I can come up with is:

“Seals or not, this is cattle country.”

…which is undeniably silly and surreal.

I found the green stone waiting for me on the beach near Bodega Bay. There is absolutely no reason for me to place any significance on the finding of this rock, but I know that I will carry it across the continent and across another sea. Years later, if I work at it, I will remember how cold the wind was the day I found it and that I took my shoes off anyway and walked in the surf.

I take a light supper at the Mystic Isle Cafe. Just handful of people here. The lights are off in the bar. Chairs stacked on tables. When I come out, the sky is filled with stars. The ocean is purple. Even now the sun is still setting.

I am thinking of other sunsets of mine along the coast.

I am thinking of Santa Cruz and of Point Reyes and also about that crazy road to half Moon Bay where you come up over the mountain top and then take a long swooping curve down the other side through the smell of burning brakes wondering if you can catch a glimpse of the sea which you can’t but you can fly off the road trying.

There are so many curves you can’t help but get a little dizzy… like the time I had to ask my friend to pull over at the entrance of the Zen center so that I could throw up. How many people find enlightenment at just this particular point in the road I couldn’t say, but I’ll never forget how hard I laughed at the friendly soul who honked.

Should it be strange that I mix all of these trips together?

Weaving between the redwoods, I can’t keep my eyes off the river. The green stone is in my pocket. At last, it is good and truly dark.

How I Almost Started Writing is a series of brief portraits focused on the times in my life where I found myself on the verge of focusing solely on the writing life.

How I Almost Started Writing: Paris

We take the night train from Zürich to Paris. We arrive at dawn. It is Sunday. The city is silent.

This is the final day of the Tour de France. I had a choice between hiking in the Alps, going to Sicily to watch a Mt. Etna erupt, or coming to Paris for the day. I chose Paris.

We walk through the streets in the general direction of the Seine. A young man approaches us on the street.

“Il s’agit d’une question en français. Je n’ai aucune idée de ce que le jeune homme a demandé?”

“Non,” I reply.



He walks away a bit confused.

About half a block later my companion asks, “What did he say?”

“I have no idea. I don’t speak French.”

Behind the church of L’église Saint-Eustache is the Forum des Halles. We hear men singing there but we do not approach. It’s only seven thirty. We assume they are drunk, but there’s no basis for this other than the fact that their singing sounds a bit rough and it is seven-thirty on a Sunday morning.

We walk along the east side of the Louvre down to the Seine. I could spend a year with this view and never exhaust the possibilities.

Slowly, the world wakes up.

In the courtyard of the Louvre there are two Dutch cycling fans. They wave hello to us and disappear in the direction of the Rue de Rivoli.

People come and sit by the fountain in the Tuileries Garden. They read the newspaper. We look for food and further up find on the Champs-Élysées we find Paul’s.

Paul’s is a wonderful bakery filled with good smells. The lights cast a golden glow over everything and everyone. As I do in places where I do not know the language, I listen to others ordering, the cadence of their speech and then I do exactly the same. I end up with two croissants.

“I thought you didn’t know French?”

“I don’t. I’m just a good mimic.”

While we wait for the race to start, my companion decides to go up to the Arc de Triomphe. Now, why I am not going along is a bit of a mystery but I decide instead to go along to the other side of the street, which is now filling in with race watchers and take a seat at a cafe. I order an espresso and wait. The Moulin Rouge soundtrack is blasting from somewhere down the street.

The race is much longer than I expected. At first, it was exciting but then by the twentieth lap it’s a bit dull and it’s getting hot. We hang around until the end though.

The Metro is sweltering. I love it. I’m sad though because we’re only going a few stops down the line. I’d like to ride longer.

We are sitting in the Centre Georges Pompidou outside the museum of modern art. We are enjoying a beer. We’ve been joined by a friend of my companion and his roommate.

The two friends catch up while the roommate and I try to hold up our end of the table. While he seems terribly literate, I mention that I have just purchased Atomised by Michel Houellebecq and he pretends not to know the same. I try to explain but he retreats into French. It is only later that I find out that one does not mention M. Houellebecq in polite society.

We are in a taxi. I am afraid for my life, then I give myself over to abandon as enjoy the ride.

To quote my Swiss friends, the Montmartre is turistik. I am beyond the moment of accepting everything as it is though I can imagine others being disappointed. We sit on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica.

We fall into the sleeper berths on the night train back to Zürich. I’m sore from walking and burned to a crisp. We are due to give a presentation at 9AM.

How I Almost Started Writing is a series of brief portraits focused on the times in my life where I found myself on the verge of focusing solely on the writing life.

How I Almost Started Writing: York

I am in a hotel room in York, Pennsylvania. We are in York to pick up a tractor, but not until tomorrow. My two best friends are watching Desperate Housewives, while I am sitting at the table trying to concentrate on Montaigne.

That probably makes me sound like a snob but I hardly care. I enjoy Montaigne. He helps me to think and at the moment I am thinking about writing. Of course, I am always thinking about writing…

Earlier, we had dinner at the Greek restaurant across the highway from the hotel. We sat in the lounge.

The barmaid served us quickly while talking to a man sitting at the bar. Her conversation moved between Greek and English. The man said almost nothing. They smoked slowly from the same cigarette. Every few minutes the she looked up to see if we needed another round.

The next morning, it’s something of an adventure to get the tractor loaded. We really have no idea what we are doing. Ultimately, the kid who works in the yard takes pity on us and loads the tractor onto the trailer. In return, we agree to return to the highway using the most ridiculous route the kid could dream up. It’s long, winding detour through the country.

I wonder what it must have been like to fight on such rough terrain. My vision of the nineteenth century is invariably dulled by still landscapes and thoughts of men with flowing hair, but as with any time, it was alive with consequence. Soldiers charging up hills, bone tired, yet pressed on. A hail of bullets ripping the air about them, raining down from positions above. The agony and anguish of cannon-fire and the moments of triumph. Did that exist?

We’re having lunch at a diner. According to the radar, a heavy snow is coming. If we move quickly, we’ll stay ahead of it. I’m waiting for pecan pie and coffee.

In the mountains, it starts to snow. We’ve been together long enough that all of our conversations have worn through.

At first, the snow swirls and blows off the road. Eventually it sticks. The van has a hard time maintaining traction in the slush but soon we get beyond the reach of the snow and the road clears.

I sketch pictures of the landscape in my notebook. I think of the portraits I’ve gather on this trip, but there’s nothing coherent enough to be a story.

How I Almost Started Writing is a series of brief portraits focused on the times in my life where I found myself on the verge of focusing solely on the writing life.

How I Almost Started Writing: Schaffhausen

I am in the town of Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Schaffhausen sits on the banks of the Rhein. I am staying at a hotel in the center of town. Outside my window is a bell tower for the church. Each night, someone hits the bell on the hour. It’s a muffled sound, a kind of dead clonk.

I am here for a conference. The conference is taking place in an old hotel down the lane, but then everything here is old. Still the hotel in question is different. There is a a fireplace in the main entry hall. The fireplace has an open hearth, perhaps fifteen feet across. It’s only early spring so it’s cold enough to have a fire. The logs must be five feet long at least.

We have dinner in the hall. Spaghetti. I eat with the two Italians, who seem to have little English. They are amazed by my technique. I eat spaghetti with a fork, twirling it up without a spoon or a knife.

“You eat this way? At home?”

“Oh yes, how else?”

They gesture down the long table. The Germans and the Dutch have cut their noodles to pieces as one might a cutlet. I laugh.

“No, no. This is how we eat it.”

I demonstrate again for their approval. They invite me to come and stay with them when I am in Italy.

“We may not talk much, but we eat!”

I love them.

Night. I sleep. A priest or the monk steals into the bell tower and clocks the bell. It’s something that might have bothered me in any other place except here. At 5AM, I give up and go out for a run.

I run through the dark streets, down to the Rhein. I really have no idea where I’m going but I follow the river downstream. In places, I cross through quite neighborhoods. I skip back and forth across the river twice. Everything is dark until I come to a place where the houses give away and the trees rise up on steep hills.

Ahead, I hear the sound of the water moving faster.

On the other side of the river, the castle of Schlosslaufen clings to the rock. The castle overlooks the Rhein Falls. I cross over the falls on a rail bridge. In the center of the falls there is a massive stone, an island. The water rushes around it and roars. Mist hangs everywhere in the dawn light.

I keep wondering if a train will come along and crush me, but then I hardly care. I run back to the hotel and the town is alive with activity.

Later in the day, the conference breaks. We have a bus trip down to the Rhein Falls. I ride with my new friends, the Italians. I find I was wrong about their lack of English. One fellow was just being quiet at dinner. Now he cannot be stopped. He is intent on convincing me about his technical scheme and to demonstrate his prowess. His boss just shrugs in what seems to me the best gesture on earth and I decide immediately to steal it for myself.

Below the falls there is a cafe. You can take a boat from the cafe to the rock in the center of the falls. There is an iron staircase there and at the top the might of the Rhein comes blasting down on you. We take the boat. There’s no talking, just the pounding of the river. When we return, we relax on the deck and watch the other boats make the trip.

I explain to the Italians that I was here just this morning. I ran down here from the hotel. They are incredulous. The idea of running here seems fantastic. I have to explain it several times before they believe me.

One of the Swiss butts in, he says, “Ah but if you kept running, you would be in Germany within a few kilometers.”

“Good thing I didn’t go that way. I didn’t have my passport.”

“Oh, true. I should think that they wouldn’t have cared for that at all.”

How I Almost Started Writing is a series of brief portraits focused on the times in my life where I found myself on the verge of focusing solely on the writing life.