Tag Archives: literature

On the record

June 28, 2014

This week’s New Yorker has a funny little piece from David Sedaris on walking the English countryside near his home in the company of his Fitbit pedometer. Describing his obsessive tendencies and ever-increasing daily step count, he writes,

I look back at that time and laugh—fifteen thousand steps—Ha! That’s only about seven miles! Not bad if you’re on a business trip or you’re just getting used to a new prosthetic leg. In Sussex, though, it’s nothing. Our house is situated on the edge of a rolling downland, a perfect position if you like what the English call “rambling.” I’ll follow a trail every now and then, but as a rule I prefer roads, partly because it’s harder to get lost on a road, but mainly because I’m afraid of snakes.”

img20140225_112916

To facilitate such a high daily total of paces as he ultimately accumulated, having a purpose is advisable, and Sedaris embraced trash collection. This practice reminds me of the bumly litter-picker who used to rove Wayne State’s campus, obsessively tidying the grounds. I never really got to talk with this guy — he was always very intent on his task — but I miss him making his rounds, figuratively darning the environment like an old sock. Sedaris recently began carrying a trash-collecting claw on a metal pole, which sounds like a big improvement over his former habits.

With it I can walk, fear snakes a little less, and satisfy my insane need for order all at the same time. I’ve been cleaning the roads in my area of Sussex for three years now, but before the Fitbit I did it primarily on my bike, and with my bare hands. That was fairly effective, but I wound up missing a lot. On foot, nothing escapes my attention: a potato-chip bag stuffed into the hollow of a tree, an elderly mitten caught in the embrace of a blackberry bush, a mud-coated matchbook at the bottom of a ditch.

Strawberry shrubbish.

Strawberry shrubbish.

In his most recent collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, for which I walked to the public library last year only to find I actually had to rent the book, he covers much of the same territory (trash removal being an ongoing thing and all). As one blogger said glowingly, inspired to reconsider his retirement plans, “I’m not sure why, but when David Sedaris talked about how he picked up trash alongside the highways and byways of Britain it seemed really cool. Maybe this is a mark of a good writer. They can talk about picking up trash and make it sound totally awesome.” Who knows how Sedaris even has time to write, with hauling around bags of refuse nine hours a day, but evidently it’s worth it. Perhaps this is just how literary greats roll.

Since getting my Fitbit, I’ve seen all kinds of things I wouldn’t normally have come across. Once, it was a toffee-colored cow with two feet sticking out of her. I was rambling that afternoon, with my friend Maja, and as she ran to inform the farmer I marched in place, envious of the extra steps she was getting in.

What noble thing-finderly spirit! Just wait until he mentions all the dead animals he comes across.

img20140326_132159

Sedaris’ sentiment at the death of his Fitbit is similar to that of many others — freedom! Of course, since it’s David Sedaris, there must be a twist. If a touch macabre is your kind of humor, don’t miss these droll musings on the true history of peppercorn sales and the relationship between fried chicken and sex. Read “Stepping Out” in The New Yorker.

Thing-finding

April 10, 2014

A lot of the wonders of walking were most elegantly summed up in children’s book I read long ago. Pippi Longstocking, famed pirate heroine and vanquisher of boredom everywhere, knows a lot more about walking than your average grown-up. One morning, while Pippi is busy baking a modest five hundred cordiform pepparkakor, a kind of Swedish cookie, her neighbors Tommy and Annika visit. When she finishes, Tommy, like your average bored, screen-sucking kid, asks, “What are we going to do now?”

pippi2

“I don’t know what you are going to do,” said Pippi, “but I know I can’t lie around and be lazy. I am a Thing-Finder, and when you’re a Thing-Finder you don’t have a minute to spare.”
“What did you say you are?” asked Annika.
“A Thing-Finder.”
“What’s that?” asked Tommy.
“Somebody who hunts for things, naturally. What else could it be?” said Pippi as she swept all the flour left on the floor into a little pile.
“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them. And that’s just what a Thing-Finder does,” she finished.
“What kind of things?” asked Annika.
“Oh, all kinds,” said Pippi. “Lumps of gold, ostrich feathers, dead rats, candy snapcrackers, little tiny screws, and things like that.”

Tommy and Annika thought it sounded as if it would be fun and wanted very much to be Thing-Finders too, although Tommy did say he hoped he’d find a lump of gold and not a tiny little screw.

“We shall see what we shall see,” said Pippi. “One always finds something.”

The children set off on their own, like few children have the luxury of doing today. Pippi thought it would be best to keep to urban surroundings, as most things to be found are where the people are. She tells Tommy and Annika about the incredible things she’s found in the forest, and she would of course tell you too, if you read the book.

Tommy and Annika looked at Pippi to see just how a Thing-Finder acted. Pippi ran from one side of the road to the other, shaded her eyes with her hand, and hunted and hunted. Sometimes she crawled on her hands and knees, stuck her hands in between the pickets of a fence, and then said in a disappointed tone, “Oh, dear! I was sure I saw a lump of gold.”

pippi-tree

Thing-finding, like Pippi instructs her friends, can be as humble a pursuit as finding rusty tin cans and dead rats to hunting down prizes like gold. Today, I investigated a mesmerizing beacon that turned out to be a roadkill e-cig. Any takers?

img20140410_203506

It’s not the find but the perceptual game that matters, looking at your surroundings to connect seemingly disparate things together, to find new ways of making sense of the world. This can be as silly and undignified as stringing together some weird narrative to explain all those sad useless mattresses lying around, as the Walthamstow Tourist Board did this week. They’re also doing commendable work with the lost pair of shoes population. It’s all good, as long as, like Pippi, we’re wandering around and paying attention.

Excerpted from 'Celebs that Look Like Mattresses', by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Excerpted from ‘Celebs that Look Like Mattresses’, by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Suddenly Pippi gave a terrific yell. “Well, I never saw the like,” she cried, as she picked up a large, rusty old tin can from the grass. “What a find! What a find! Cans — that’s something you can never have too many of.”
Tommy looked at the can doubtfully. “What can you use it for?”
“Oh, you can use it in all sorts of ways,” said Pippi. “One way is to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a delightful Jar with Cookies. Another way is not to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a Jar without Cookies. That certainly isn’t quite so delightful, but still that’s good too.”
She examined the can, which was indeed rusty and had a hole in the bottom.
“It looks almost as if this were a Jar without Cookies,” she said thoughtfully. “But you can put it over your head and pretend that it is midnight.”

Tomorrow is Walk to Work Day, a perfect opportunity to stretch your whimsy muscles and see some strange things. According to the official website based in San Francisco, as few as fifteen minutes of commute-oriented walking count as walking to work, so there aren’t many excuses not to do it (injured feet might be a valid one). You never know what could happen. Maybe Pippi herself will appear and reward you with a pepparkakor from her Jar with Cookies for your efforts.

Walking in the news

April 5, 2014

Announcement! Very important. Unfortunately, the Sunday, April 6 ramble must be cancelled. We apologize for the inconvenience and trust that you’ll find other ways to enjoy the wonderful weather. Check back soon or join our mailing list to be advised of a rescheduled ramble.

“Why do you walk?” asked the guy helpfully navigating me through the intimidating realm of athletic shoes. I can’t even remember the last time I had shoes with laces, but, after a couple hundred miles on crappy shoes from the internet, it’s time to reconsider.
“Are you walking for exercise, or…?”
“No,” I said, hemming, “I don’t really believe much in walking as exercise. I just like it. For all sorts of reasons,” was the only lukewarm, inaccurate response I could come up with.

Every time I go out for a walk, I’m reminded of better answers to his question, but external affirmations are welcome, too. Reviewing a book about the daily routines of geniuses, Sarah Green came up with a list of the most common traits. Like every list about the attributes that make writers and artists writers and artists, a daily walk was prominent. Green wrote,

Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon — and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Tchaikovsky made do with a two-hour walk, but wouldn’t return a moment early, convinced that cheating himself of the full 120 minutes would make him ill. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Erik Satie did the same on his long strolls from Paris to the working class suburb where he lived, stopping under streetlamps to jot down notions that arose on his journey; it’s rumored that when those lamps were turned off during the war years, his productivity declined too.

She forgot to mention one of the more endearing parts of Satie’s walks — that, on this potentially dangerous twelve mile trip, he carried a hammer for protection.

Green’s summary of the great walks of the greats reminded me of a 1988 Sports Illustrated article titled “Frisky as the Dickens.” It’s a lengthy look at Charles Dickens’ lengthy walks.

Dickens’s walks served him in two ways. On one level, they were fact-finding missions during which he recorded with his keen eye the teeming urban landscapes whose descriptions were his stock-in-trade. A letter from Paris to a family friend, the Reverend Edward Tagart, begins innocently enough, “I have been seeing Paris.” But what follows is a foot tour of the city that is characteristically Dickensian: “Wandering into Hospitals, Prisons, Dead-houses, Operas, Theatres, Concert-rooms, Burial-grounds, Palaces and Wine Shops. In my unoccupied fortnight of each month, every description of gaudy and ghastly sight has been passing before me in rapid Panorama.”

But Dickens’s walks played another, more important role in his life. They were, in a sense, acts of self-preservation. “If I could not walk far and fast,” he once confessed, “I think I should just explode and perish.” Unlike his contemporary, Anthony Trollope, who claimed he reeled off 3,000 words each morning before breakfast, Dickens found composition to be hard, painful work. The hours he spent at his desk agitated him tremendously, and walking served as a kind of safety valve.

Then again, walking was, in Dickens’ time, pretty pedestrian. Everybody walked. Why did they walk? Who knows. All sorts of reasons. They didn’t have the attentive staff of a specialty shoe store asking these sorts of questions. They didn’t even have specialty shoes. The bicycle hadn’t really been invented yet. People moved to cities and wandered around. Apparently having little else to do with their leisure time, they became keenly fixated on competitive walking matches, which now, in the days of motorcycle racing, demolition derbies, and monster truck rallies, seems ineffably quaint. During these races, walkers would circle a track for six days, clocking as many as 600 miles, by some measures more tame than the outdoor treks in freezing weather that Dickens put his trainees through, on bad roads and through snowbanks. They make the perfectly admirable customers of the running store, doing 70 mile weeks in exquisite footwear and moisture-wicking tights, look like wimps.

While pulling off this incredible insomniac feat, walkers would wear festive ruffled shirts, deal with crowd control, play the coronet, and occasionally nap on little cots stationed next to the track, according to author Matthew Algeo in an NPR interview about his new book Pedestrianism. What’s more, the sports drink of these guys were guzzling in the 1870s was not Gatorade or other carefully engineered electrolyte-balancing beverage but champagne. Says Algeo,

Champagne was considered a stimulant. And a lot of trainers – these guys had trainers – advised their pedestrians to drink a lot of champagne during the race. They thought that this would give them some kind of advantage. The problem was that a lot of these guys would drink it by the bottle. That definitely was not a stimulant, to say the least.

They might have done better to go with bottomless mimosas. Here’s some very light reading (and/or listening) to go with the equally light weather this weekend.

review of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
“Frisky as the Dickens”
NPR interview and book excerpt from Matthew Algeo’s Pedestrianism

On really looking

February 5, 2014

On yet another snowy day, with a foot injured from trampling January’s crusty ice clods, sitting inside has never seemed finer — or, at least, less dismal. I’ve been spending time with Italo Calvino, one of the few writers whose immaculate insight locates precisely what’s at the center of a landscape, urban or rural, and its people’s interaction with it. His collection of stories Invisible Cities is a classic that holds up to as many instances of reading as the paper will permit. In contrast with recent works published on the subject of looking, Calvino’s wit, tenderness, and verbal majesty never fail to surprise, to transport the reader into a more imaginative frame of mind.

img20140202_151101

In “Stories of Love and Loneliness,” a collection of eight short works written in the 1950s and published in English in the volume Difficult Loves, Calvino relates the awkward adventures of some common archetypes — the poet, soldier, traveller, clerk, among others. Here is an excerpt from “The Adventure of a Nearsighted Man.”

He caught on, finally. The fact was that he was near-sighted. The oculist prescribed eyeglasses for him. After that moment his life changed, became a hundred times richer in interest than before.
Just slipping on the glasses was, every time, a thrill for him. He might be, for instance, at a tram stop, and he would be overcome by sadness because everything, people and objects around him, was so vague, banal, worn from being as it was; and him there, groping in the midst of a flabby world of nearly decayed forms and colors. He would put on his glasses to read the number of the arriving tram, and all would change: the most ordinary things, even lampposts, were etched with countless tiny details, with sharp lines, and the faces, the faces of strangers, each filled up with little marks, dots of beard, pimples, nuances of expression that there had been no hint of before; and he could understand what material clothes were made of, could guess the weave, could spot the fraying at the hem. Looking became an amusement, a spectacle; not looking at this thing or that — just looking. And so Amilcare Carruga forgot to note the tram number, missed one car after another or else climbed onto the wrong one. He saw such a quantity of things that it was as if he no longer saw anything. Little by little, he had to become accustomed, learn all over again from the beginning what was pointless to look at and what was necessary.

Yes, it’s all that lovely, and not very difficult. Read the rest of the story to find out what happens to Amilcare Carruga on his walks around town. Available at your local library.

Don’t walk this way

February 1, 2014

There’s something eternally captivating about travel narratives, even the most mundane ones that happen close to home. It’s also the time of year — especially this year — when it’s tough to do much other than envision equatorial adventures through the lines of frost on the windows. Last spring, a new book titled On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz seemed to appear everywhere, basking in positive media mentions. I sought it out, walking to the library time after time only to find it out on loan. Imagining that the book was so hotly in demand that the library couldn’t keep it on the shelf for as long as it took me to get there after verifying its presence in the catalog, my fervor increased.

After about six months, I finally had the book. I sat down to read and was confronted by something less “breathlessly wonderful” as Maria Popova gushed on the always-fascinating brainpickings.org, or as “brilliant” as the New York Society Library would have me believe. “It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages,” promised Popova, who went on to highlight perhaps every quotable passage in the entire book. Contrary to expectations, after a chapter or two, I realized that, despite the low reading level required by Horowitz’s halting prose, the reason this thing was never at the library was because nobody could actually finish reading it.

It took a truly humiliating number of renewals and late fines, but I made it through, and unlike a long walk, I’m no better for it. Sometimes I laughed so much I cried, not because the book is actually humorous, but because Horowitz’s struggles are so sad. The book is about attention, about taking time to notice, as Horowitz quotes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “the observation of trifles.”

Instead she practically jogs through the book, breathless at times, stumbling over both words and ideas. It’s one thing for elegant phrasing to elude someone who is a cognitive scientist by trade; that’s easily forgivable in an age when many of our books are written by politicians and basketball players and chefs who haven’t yet quit their day job to pursue a creative writing MFA. Popova’s review boasted that as “[f]irst, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language,” but the evidence is scant.

It’s a lovely concept — who am I to say no to eleven walks with nice people who can narrate to you a world visible only to them? It’s magic. Horowitz, inspired and mystified by walks with her former mutt, recruited an impressive range of guides for the natural and unnatural microcosms of the Manhattan blocks she calls home. She walks with her nineteen-month-old son, her dog, a geologist, an entomologist, a senior scientist in the wildlife division of the Humane Society, a doctor and medicine professor, an urban planner, a typographer, an illustrator, a sound designer, a blind person, and, of course, herself.

Her fourth walk, and one of the most depressing, is with venerable illustrator Maira Kalman, beloved advocate of the whole walking-and-noticing thing. Horowitz quotes Kalman’s maxim, “If you are ever bored or blue, stand on the street corner for half an hour.” After thirty-five minutes of this (Horowitz seems always to be counting), she cheerily reports, “Not only was any glimmer of boredom vanquished, but I’ll be darned if I didn’t grow less azure by the second,” with the trite cheesiness that’s by now her unfortunate trademark. Boredom glimmers? Who knew.

It’s hard not to cringe as she dumbly tags along with Kalman, seeming perplexed at every turn how this could be taking so long. When she describes Kalman’s walking pace as “loitering,” it just feels disrespectful. It’s hard to doubt that, as originator of this concept, she truly wants to be there; nonetheless, most of the walks in the book feel rushed, even when she is busy verbalizing reluctance to part with her walking companions. Maybe she is cold, or has to pee.

She does fulfill the objective of expanding her range of noticeable things, even if among those is the humdrum onward march of the hours. “This is not to say that everyone I walked with saw everything. Moments into my walk with one of the world’s foremost researchers on the science of paying attention, she stepped right over sixty dollars lying in her path on the street. She simply did not notice it,” she writes incredulously.

Horowitz also assembles quite a parade of interesting tidbits over the course of the book. She seems to shy away from being present during the walks, groping to accomplish this with strategies like counting down minutes, spastically cataloging things of questionable relevance, or rambling tangentially about dogs or monkeys. Delving into fact, and better yet, scientific studies, is where she is at her most lucid. Her sigh of relief whenever she digs into this comfortable territory is so palpable it nearly blows the page out of your hand. Aside from most musings quickly devolving into a debriefing on some study about animals (clearly her work teaching psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition, according to the author bio, is never far from her heart), the collage of facts is not totally unwelcome. It provides a respite from the onslaught of her poorly-wrought observations, like ducking behind a building on a windy day. Lest you believe that all of our actions come down to wiring shared with apes and canines, she writes, “Notably, not all of our crowd behavior mirrors the animal swarms,” but only in that we’re not also cannibalistic, like desert locusts. As Horowitz listens to bird calls, she suddenly conjures up a whale. Since this is not an animal usually found either in the lab or on the streets of Manhattan, she provides a lonely illustration.

horowitz-whale

Oftentimes bewildering, at her best Horowitz is giggle-inducing. “As the taxi passes, a stenciled POST NO BILLS is discernible on the scaffolding hulking over the sidewalk. Words are the ample cleavage of the urban environment: impossible not to look at.” Funny? Kind of, but Horowitz makes so many gauche blunders that one must wonder whether the joke is on her. Another highlight is when she lumpily wonders at how “in this part of the city the humanity is remarkably peaceable and hushed. I worried that we would only hear the rustle of expensive silk undergarments from this neighborhood.”

This hint of linguistic dexterity is a part-time phenomenon. When the geologist tells her about the precise type of schist making up a wall in Central Park, she says, “Yikes! Here I must pause, anticipating a collective drop in reader blood pressure. One risks, in writing about geology, numbing one’s readership with the terminology. Schist, gneiss, phyllite; metamorphic, sedimentary, siliciclastic, schistosity. It can be dizzying. I sympathize. I hear “Paleozoic” and I nearly drop right into a deep sleep.” Twelve pages later, we’re supposed to believe this is the same walker who, with her husband, owns literally “hundreds of dictionaries, whose main role in our lives are first, to wait uncomplaining until they are thumbed through by us, and second, to then offer up such masterpieces of grace and charm as omphalos, amanuensis, and picklesome.” Horowitz’s efforts to have it both ways are discordant, making her an unreliable narrator and guide.

It’s hard to be so disappointed by this book when one gets the sense that Horowitz, ever-toying with her own weird-fangled brand of whimsy, is a noble ally. In a particularly relatable moment, she confides that “[s]ome years ago I began noticing, then collecting, stray single gloves or mittens lying forlornly on the ground, displaced from the hands they had been warming. These melancholy creatures, always frozen in an awkward or pleading pose, indicated recent passage of someone busily doing something requiring a free hand, I found more right gloves than left, probably a reflection of the overwhelming right-handedness of people, and the inclination to remove a right glove to do something requiring dexterity: take out one’s wallet, punch in a phone number, retie a shoe.” While I can’t say I agree with her assessment, it’s a nice notion that someone else is monitoring these apparitions.

As Horowitz takes a loop around the block to determine what’s shifted in her awareness, she is overcome by a monstrous zeal. Everything has changed. Suddenly there are letters and rocks and triangles and noises and plants everywhere. She says, “It was a new street. My eye caught sight of something a few yards down the street. I nearly leapt toward it, rudely lunging right in front of someone happening to walk by and not anticipating nearly-leapers. The object of my lungely leaping was a gaping sidewalk crack, unfilled with mortar. I kneeled and peered in. Inside lived dozens of tiny, hopeful two-leafed plants pushing up toward the light. None bore the mark of an insect.”

Horowitz demonstrates a very interesting tactic to spice up other people’s walks, without all the bothersome invitations and consent — just jump in front of them and kneel down on the ground. They’ll be sure to notice lots of new things as they trip over you and you both end up in a woeful tangle on the sidewalk. The most important lesson for the reader is a simple one — don’t walk this way.

She concludes: “The result of these walks on my head is tangible: they refined what I can see. My mind can prepare my eyes to spontaneously find a leaf gall, to hear an air conditioner’s hum, to smell the sickly sweet smell of garbage on a city street (or the fragrance of my own soap on my face, instead).” I hope she enjoyed all those walks on her head. My mind can prepare my eyes to not read this book again.

horowitz-head

The lost glove

January 1, 2014

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit, author of the insightful and highly-quotable history of walking Wanderlust, recalls in a chapter on urban abandonment filming a movie set in a vacant, crumbling hospital. On the ribbon of a prop she was making, she embroidered an absurdist proverb from the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pale Fire that her aunt had given her a few birthdays before. It said, “The lost glove is happy.”

Around this time of year, signs of the human hand doing its work on the environment are plentiful. On these cold days when lone sodden gloves populate the streets, clustering gloomily near bus stops, the proverb is a heartwarming thing to keep in mind. As we look into the new year with optimism, making improbable wishes and resolutions, it’s an important reminder to look on some bright side of things, however strange. As Nabokov’s narrator comments in the Pale Fire foreword, “Now ‘happy’ is something extremely subjective.” Maybe the lost glove really is happy. It certainly is free.

lostglove1

img20131229_172024

lostglove2

img20131216_125805

1216lostglove2

lostglove3

It’s uncertain what this implies for the lost hats and scarves, among other things, but we can hope they’re happy too. The glasses don’t have to be rose-colored.

eyeglasses

Happy New Year!