For all of you out there getting ready to start the new school year, here’s a little bit of poetic courage for you, inspired by our most recent trip to NYC for the Montessori Model United Nations conference. Of course, E. B. White said it better, as he always did: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Which should I use?  

Which should I use: the part of me that 

rails against the consumers-in-training program

of American capitalism that is FAO Schwarz

or the part that just wants to dance chopsticks 

on the keys of the Big piano like Tom Hanks?

Which should I use: the part of me that 

despises the watered-down faux French 

chain restaurant bakery food of Au Bon Pain

or the part that is grateful for a convenient 

lunch stop for 15 dietary-restricted travelers 

in a hurry to get to their next destination? 

Which should I use: the part of me that 

would like to make sure my students take pictures

not of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street

but of the unfortunate emptiness of Zuccotti Park, 

the part of me that wants to believe

the terrorists won

every time I have to undress at security

checkpoints before boarding a plane or visiting the 

symbol of our so-called Liberty or, for God’s sake, 

gazing into two giant holes in the ground where 

the twin towers used to rise triumphant into the sky…

or the part that has trouble holding back a tear 

while fingering the engraved names of the victims 

and looking into the void of immeasurable depth 

that remains at the center of those cavities? 

Educated travel – especially in New York City – 

poses problems of unique tension. It’s best just not 

to think about things too hard, I suppose. Or is it? 

Enjoy the prosperity dumplings, but don’t worry about

where the meat inside came from. Take a pretty picture 

with your iProduct, but don’t consider the many who 

suffered so that you could have that camera phone. 

Hope that your students learn the cruel truths of our 

past that inform the injustices of our present, so that 

maybe – maybe – they can not repeat them in the future. 

But trust that these things will arise in consciousness

in their own time.

In the meantime, be like the seagull 

surfing on the air above the ferry for the fun of it. 

Do pull-ups on the subway’s handrails. 

Throw frisbees in every open park.

Play ping-pong with oversized paddles,

eat oddly-flavored jelly beans, 

and laugh. Laugh a lot. And know that this, too, 

someday shall pass. All of it, every last part, 

and you, too. 

So enjoy it while it lasts, and when the question comes 

– Which should I use? – 

most of all be grateful that you get to choose. 

Advertisements

The Chalk Line

At the end of a long day at school today, I went for a run. I chose the paved trail along the creek in Tucker Gulch, near my house. The darkness in the sky is coming on fast and heavy now that we are no longer saving daylight, and the air tonight has a sharp, cold edge in it. Most of the leaves have fallen to the ground and softened, preparing, in their way, for a slow winter decay.

I tried to be present on my run, to concentrate on my breath, to feel my foot strike the sidewalk on each step. Had I been so present, I would not have missed it. This did not happen, though. Not tonight. I ran uphill, laboring, legs like sunken driftwood. My mind was somewhere in the space between those newly naked branches and the leaf-blanketed ground below. I considered turning around before I reached the end of the trail. Doubt became my running partner:

Can I really endure the long-distance relationship I find myself in? The love that was so full in summer, so vibrant in the fall, will it survive the long and bitter winter that’s been predicted? Or will it fall away like leaves from a branch? Catch the stream and drift away?

Can I actually write the story that’s begun to form in my head? Do I have the talent to write a novel? The endurance? The grit? Do I even have anything worthy to say?

Can I endure the rest of this school year? Do I have the will to be all I am everyday called on to be: the teacher, the family counselor, the expert, the motivator, the shoulder to cry on, the wielder of both carrot and stick, the entertainer, the advisor, the guide? When half of my students are dealing with issues at home (if they are fortunate enough to even have a home, which some are not) that seem implausibly difficult, even for fiction – can I even pretend to offer them anything like hope, much less wisdom, or better yet, a solution?

My mind drifted from doubt to doubt like this until I made the turn at the halfway point of the paved trail, grateful for the downhill second half ahead. And then I saw it. Beneath my feet began a simple line of pink sidewalk chalk, the work of a child, maybe 5 years old I guessed. I followed the line because I could do no otherwise: it zigged and zagged the way kindergartners’ attempts at straight lines always do, weaving in and out of my steps as my pace quickened on the downhill slope. Five strides, ten strides, then twenty…the pink line continued, as did I.

The right side of the trail opened into a park with a an empty play structure and a few neglected swings, surrounded by an expanse of thick green grass. I pictured a young boy, old enough to wander alone just out of the sight of his parents, who were busy watching his younger sibling, a toddler, play in the sand box. A stick of pink chalk in hand, I pictured in his eyes a flash of a idea: a line. Yes, this chalk was meant to draw a line. I could see the boy stoop, then crouch, then scratch the first rough streak of pink into the sidewalk. He scoots back and faces a decision: What is this line? Is this the first line of a square? Does it need a parallel line beside it, or maybe two? Or is this just the beginning of a longer line? Do I keep going? And if so, in which direction do I go?

This boy chose to keep going. I ran along, considering now only the persistence required by such a line. Thirty paces, then forty…what had minutes before been doubt and fear dissolved in my mind, replaced by a sense of pure wonder and admiration. Then, some hundred and twenty yards after it began, the pink line faded and narrowed. The stick of chalk became small enough to be pressed against the sidewalk under the pad of a single fingertip. The line ended…and then was continued by a wider streak of purple chalk – a brand new stick! Sixty paces, then seventy…at eighty paces, the purple faded and became a new, strong blue, reaching ahead along the sidewalk to a distance beyond my range of vision.

A bit later, the blue ran out, and the line expired. All together – pink, purple, and blue – the line ran three hundred yards if it ran a single one. As I reached the end, with much of my run still ahead of me, I considering stopping. I wanted to catch my breath, yes, but also to pause and appreciate the work of this one young kid with a big idea, motivated by nothing and no one but himself, driven by some internal urge not yet classified by experts as desire, or purpose, or even love, and with a few hundred yards of will to see his great project through, all the way to the end.

But I didn’t stop to admire his work of art. I imagine that the little boy would not have wanted me to. Had he been there at the end of his glorious chalk line, I bet he would have looked up at me as I plodded down through the middle of his sprawling canvas, and he would have smiled. “Don’t stop now!” he’d have yelled. “Just keep going!”

Dispatches from Europe, via Golden, Colorado: Closure

I caught my flight from Prague to Paris without a hitch. My plane landed at Charles de Gaulle on the north side of the city on time, just after 10 p.m. I had decided at the last minute, just before leaving Prague, to reserve a bed in a hostel in the city center, so I could at least get a few hours of sleep before heading to the Orly airport on the south side of town the next morning. This, I thought, was a sensible decision. Smart even.

Just before 11 p.m., I was confronted with a large sign blocking the escalator that went down to the train station. The sign, in French, explained simply by its location that the train to the city was not running. The city was doing work on the track. The sign, still in French, also explained a very complicated alternate route to take into the city to avoid a 100 euro taxi ride. I believe I covered this point already: I do not speak or read French. An hour later, after much wandering through the airport, passing the same curious security guards at least 5 times, I was on a bus with about a hundred other lost souls, just happy to be moving.

At 12:30 a.m., we arrived at a metro station in Paris proper, a mere one stop from my destination, Gare du Nord. I got stuck behind a group of travelers who couldn’t figure out how to purchase a ticket. by the time I got my ticket, I had missed one train and had to wait another half hour for the next one. At 1:30 a.m., with no food in my belly (planned to eat late as part of the 2013 Jet Lag Prevention Program), I arrived at Gare du Nord, familiar territory, and walked to my hostel.

I had chosen this hostel for two reasons. First, it was new (opened only 2 weeks earlier), and therefore, I deduced, would be clean. Second, the selection was limited, having reserved it only the night before. I arrived at the hostel to find what looked like a nightclub, flanked by a desk of people I took to be employees. Everyone was speaking English, yet the expressions on their faces suggested that no one really knew what to do or how to do it. They found my reservation online, I paid the 2 euro key deposit, and they sent me up an elevator to the 4th floor to my room. The key didn’t work.This happened 3 times – key given, elevator up, no dice, elevator down, repeat – until finally they just gave me the master key to all of the rooms on the 4th floor. (You should be raising an eyebrow at this point in the story.) I got into my room, dropped my stuff on the last available bed, and headed out to a cafe to get some dinner.

I returned at 3:30 a.m., feeling fatigued from the travel hiccups and the jet lag sleep schedule, and opened the door to my room to find my bags on the floor and someone in my bed. I chose the least controversial plan of attack and returned to the front desk. "Oh," said the not-surprised-enough concierge, "we must have double-booked that bed. These things happen. We’re sorry." He handed me a key to a room on the 5th floor, which with all the construction still happening in the 5th floor hallway, had a distinct frontier flavor to it. Elevator up…no dice. Fortunately, another guy staying in the room was teetering in the hallway. He opened the door for me, and I went in, crawled into a bed, and crashed.

I woke up 4 hours later, climbed down from the top bunk, gathered my bags, and headed for the shared bathroom in the hall. I was stopped before I even got out of my room. Why? Because I couldn’t get out of my room. It had been locked from the outside, and there was no way to unlock it from the inside. (Another eyebrow should be raised now, and you should be considering fire code violations, etc.) I was trapped in my room, a couple of hours from the airport, with a plane to catch, and no phone or internet access with which to contact anyone at the front desk to come and let me out of the room. I laughed out loud at my situation, because it was funny to me. Perhaps I was delirious.

Regardless, I really needed to pee, and I really needed to catch that plane. So I wandered to the window, which was open and letting in a really nice breeze. Looking out, I could see down over miles of Paris rooftops, the tiny cars and bicycles buzzing around like insects below, people going to work, just another normal day in Paris. To my right, I saw the next room over, with their window open, as well. I climbed up and out onto the ledge, which was maybe three feet wide and sloping down to a gutter at about a 30-degree angle. I scaled the ten or so feet over to the next room, climbed in their window, and walked through their room and out their door. It was a mixed gender dorm, with a few people still sleeping, a few awake. No one said a word. Once in the hall, I realized that the chances of getting from the front desk a functional key to get back into my room were rather slim. So, I walked back through the other room, climbed out their window, scaled the ledge, and climbed back in my room. I hoisted my big backpack on my back, draped my small pack over my chest, climbed out of my room, across the ledge, back into the other room, and walked through it, fully loaded with all my luggage, out into the hall. Again, not a word. Just a normal day in Paris, folks.

I was greeted at the front desk by a teenage girl who perkily asked, "How was your stay?!"

"Well," I said, "I can say that this is the first time I have ever had to climb out a 5th floor window to escape my room."

"Wait, what?" came the reply.

"Yep. I was locked in."

"Oh my," she offered. "Well, I suppose these things happen."

"I suppose they do," I said. "But there’s a guy still in the room right now, asleep. You might want to write down my room number and send someone up there to unlock the door so he can also get out."

"Good idea."

These things happen. A Zen koan if ever there was one, and one that would replay itself in my brain about 24 hours later, when the lightning began flashing outside the windows of Chicago’s O’hare airport at about 10 p.m. At 1:30 a.m., after 3 delays, American Airlines decided to cancel the flight to Kansas City, where my mother was waiting to pick me up. I opted out of the refugee camp of cots and blankets they set up for stranded passengers in terminal K, opting instead for three shivering, air-conditioned hours of sleep on the carpeted floor of terminal G10. It was a good choice, as the folks in tent city were woken up by a security guard at 4 a.m. (2 hours of sleep) so that the janitorial crew could vacuum in preparation for the first flight of the day.

I did make it to Kansas City, and then back to Arkansas, without further interruption. And so concluded 40 days and 40 nights in paradise, or something like that.

Dispatches from Europe, Days 38-40: Awards Ceremony

I check out of the hostel in the morning at 10 a.m., about 4 hours after I am planning to go to sleep. (The jet-lag prevention program is on schedule so far, but I don’t know if I’ll make it to 6 a.m. tonight.) After that, I may be without internet access, as I fly to Paris tomorrow evening, where I’ll spend a final night in the cafes before flying home on Friday morning. I’m working on a post about why Paris is so great, which will be more full of romantic ideas and naiveté than original observations, I’m sure, especially to anyone who has been there. And more reflections about this trip will be written later, as I sort through everything, everywhere, and everyone that constituted this inaugural European trip. But for now, before the hostel employees shut down access to the computers in a few minutes, how about a rapid-fire awards ceremony.

Rick’s Best/Worst of Europe, Summer 2013:

* Grand literary cafe
Best: Kavarnia Slavia, Prague; El QuatreGats, Barcelona; various cafes, Paris
Worst: n/a

* Non-literary cafe
Best: various cafes, Paris; little cafe I forgot the name of, Madrid
Worst: Starbucks, everywhere; McCafe, everywhere

* Value meal
Best: Birthday seafood feast, Barcelona; Volcano-boiled egg and potato, Ischia
Worst: meal at any restaurant in main tourist squares and plazas, Everywhere

* Food and drink, generally
Best: Fresh-squeezed Valencia orange juice, Spain; Gelato (various flavors), Italy; espresso macchiato/cortado/noisette, Everywhere
Worst: meal at any restaurant in main tourist squares and plazas, Everywhere

* Place to live someday
Best: Valencia, Spain; Paris, France; Florence/Tuscany, Italy
Worst: Venice, Italy

* Place to visit again and again
Best: Paris, France; Florence, Italy
Worst: Vienna, Austria

*Eurail experience
Best: Sleeper car on high-speed train from Paris to Barcelona; not paying for reservations between Vienna, Budapest, and Prague
Worst: Being yelled at by disgruntled Italian train station employee; sleepless overnight ride from Venice to Vienna

* Hostel
Best: Hostel Lisb’on, Lisbon; Hostel Ruthensteiner, Vienna
Worst: Alessandro Downtown Hostel, Rome; Academy Hostel, Venice

* Touristy thing seen/done
Best: Communism Walking Tour, Budapest; various cathedrals and museums
Worst: Waiting in line for 2 hours to get into Vatican Museum; various cathedrals and museums

* Art museum experience
Best: Sorolla Museum, Madrid; Picasso Museum, Barcelona
Worst: Louvre, Paris; Vatican Museum, Vatican City

* Live music seen
Best: Jazz quartet at Populart, Madrid; Jazz standards at Cafe Universel, Paris
Worst: Gypsy jazz in lame Montmartre restaurant, Paris

* People met
Best: Leonardo, Ischia; Eva, train fro Budapest to Vienn; "Family from Minnesota", train from Rome to Ischia; Family in Lisbon restaurant
Worst: n/a

* People not met
Best: The old, bearded man sitting next to me right now wearing headphones, watching funny cat videos on YouTube, and laughing through his nose, Prague
Worst: Scam taxi drivers and pickpockets, everywhere

* City for "he who goes afoot"
Best: Florence, Italy; Paris, France
Worst: Vienna, Austria

* City for dogs
Best: Valencia, Spain
Worst: Venice, Italy

* City to build up stair-climbing quad muscles
Best: Lisbon, Portugal
Worst: Valencia, Spain

* Public transportation
Best: Subways, Paris and Budapest; Cable cars, Lisbon and Budapest and Prague; Trains, Everywhere
Worst: Subway, Vienna; Buses, Ischia (but very funny)

* Private transportation
Best: Old Fiat cars; Tuk-tuks; Mo-peds; two feet
Worst: Segways; Scooters

* Non-clothing/toiletry item packed in backpack
Best: quick-dry travel towel; REI Flash 18 daypack; microfiber sleeping bag liner
Worst: harmonicas (why don’t I ever play my harmonicas?!)

* Form of personal entertainment while traveling
Best: walking around and looking at things; reading; writing, especially letters and postcards
Worst: small talk in hostels

* Advice for European governments
Best: Figure out what to do about your public toilet situation, as all your sidewalks on all your streets in all your cities in all your countries are stained with urine.
Worst: Consider taking on some more of those dandy IMF loans, and don’t worry about your unemployment rate.

* Advice for fellow travelers
Best: If a staircase sparks your curiosity, climb it, and if the street you’re walking on is crowded with tourists, duck off it into a side street or alley; Don’t carry more luggage than you are able to easily lift above your head into an overhead storage compartment; Stay aware and alert, but don’t write off every switchblade you see a sign of danger, because there might son be a potato on the end of it for you.
Worst: Bring a lot of books with you from home and then buy a lot more when you are here; Yeah, you should probably just stay at home.

Dispatches from Europe, Day 37: Old Man and the Books

“When someone reaches his thirtieth year, there will be no end to his being called young. But he himself, even though he cannot detect any changes on his person, becomes uncertain; it seems to him as if he were no longer entitled to pass himself off as young.” -Ingeborg Bachmann

And so it was that yesterday, a fresh-faced fellow hostel rat from New Jersey struck up a conversation with me. The usual travel pleasantries were exchanged: Where are you from? How long have you been traveling? Where have you been so far? Where are you going next? At this point in the conversation, both parties have done their duty. You are free to move about the cabin, to go on about your business, which is what I usually do, because of an aversion to small-talk. But he persisted.

“So what do you do back in the States?” (We all call it “the States” while we’re over here.)

“I’m a teacher.”

“A teacher? Really? What do you teach?”

I replied with the stump speech about my Montessori school. I take particular pride in answering that I teach adolescents, when I know my interrogators are asking which subject I teach. After I was finished, I returned the courtesy by asking about what he does, and he confirmed my fear: just finished high school, off to college in San Diego in a month. In 2001, I ran back to my freshman dorm room from my 8 a.m. Calculus class across campus and watched, on my tiny little analog television, the plane crash into the second twin tower. At that time, this kid was 6.

“Wait,” he said. “How old are you?”

“I just turned 30.”

“Wow,” he said, unable to conceal his surprise at this geriatric number. “You could pass for a college kid.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that’s what my students tell me, and I think they mean it as a compliment.”

*****

I had to come all the way to Prague to find it: the ultimate bookstore/cafe. It’s called Globe, and it’s a tiny little bookshop with maybe a couple thousand books in one room. The room has a small loft that takes up part of two walls, and you have to climb a set of narrow stairs – more like a ladder – to get up to its sections of used fiction and non-fiction. That’s where I found a used John McPhee book for 80 CZK (about $4). Below, on a display table near the cash register, I also found a copy of George Orwell’s essays titled Why I Write. Past the register and down a short hallway is a room with a 20-table cafe/bar, also with a loft above. Great little place.

I spent far too long yesterday in the Globe, at which point I wandered over to Shakespeare A Synove (Shakespeare and Sons) Bookstore near the Charles Bridge. Here, I spent even longer. Used bookstores will one day be the end of me. If they don’t kill me, I will surely have a permanent right tilt to my neck from craning over to read titles for so many hours of my life. Good news: I found two other fantastic books for extremely cheap, plus 5 back issues of the New Yorker! Bad news: I’m not sure that the books will fit into the carry-on size backpack I’m carrying, which means I might have to pay a bunch of money to check my bag on my flight to Prague to Paris. The books might not be so cheap after all.

After I bought all of this new reading material, I walked around in the hot Prague sun for a while, shouldering through the slow-walking packs of tourists, only halfway taking in what I was seeing. I was still reeling from having read Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers (consider this a reading recommendation), and I was eager to read all my new stuff, which included a few New Yorker articles of hers. So, that’s basically what I did for the next oh, 12 hours or so, drifting from cafe to cafe, drinking espresso and reading. Around 11 p.m. I made my way into the Cafe Slavia, which is only two blocks from my house, and which has huge windows looking out over both the river and an intersection frequented by cable cars and pedestrians. Across the street is the National Theater, a stately white building that is ornately decorated at the top with black and gold statues. At night, floodlights illuminate the building from the bottom, exposing also the bellies and underwings of hundreds of bats circling above.