Aug 032017

All photos  by Paul Lindholdt.


His every stride equaled two of mine. His proper province was the clouds. Sage-green moss swayed from pine trees and seemed to wreath his head. Bark chips, fallen needles and twigs beneath our feet made a spongy duff.

As often as our schedules allowed, my father and I packed up gear and threw it in the pickup. We blasted across Snoqualmie Pass from our family acreage in Seattle to camp, fish and hike in the Taneum drainage, Colockum Pass, Crab Creek, Clover Springs. That same canopied pickup served us as our bed.

We needed relief from the population crush in Seattle. We found sanctuary in the arid basin and highlands of Eastern Washington. He and I shared a tacit rapture, an unspoken contract. We favored “the dry side” so far that we came to call those inland pine and fir forests home. My mother and sisters stayed behind.

The coastal interstate can become a kind of asphalt hell for those who love the Big Outdoors. Even out of earshot of the I-5 corridor – that great artery of the West – it brooded over my bent world when I was young, hatching drizzly days and nights. It was as if electromagnetic radiation had found a way to colonize my blood. Traffic racket as lymphoma. Particulates seen and heard and smelt.

Some people always need frontiers. We find them wherever we are able – on fresh continents, on high seas, in outer space. My ancestors hit the Pacific Ocean and I bounced back inland. My design: to reoccupy the intermountain West, reclaim sparsely populated places that others had abandoned for the coast.

My home lies by the Idaho border now. It is low-rainfall natural grassland, like the eastern two-thirds of Washington, mixed shrub-steppe and conifer. Some moisture, mostly snowmelt, distinguishes it from sheer desert. Shrubs struggle to grow on the Columbia Plateau. So do the many tree species in its higher reaches.

From my home, I bicycle an old railway, the Fish Lake Trail. Converted to a community path, it links the towns of Cheney and Spokane. Wild beings throng along it. Attention is a form of devotion, I believe, and so I often slow to ogle them close at hand. The magpies, hawks, eagles, deer; also the smaller sorts that can prove invisible, the praying mantises and walking sticks. On other days I blur by, I opt for speed, music churning in my earphones, leaving the wild beings be.

A freeing sport, this bicycling. It opens riders to aromas both pleasant and rank. Even at speed I can detect leaf mold, pungent forbs, alkali water, a carrion heap. The asphalt that I pedal is a petroleum product. So are the skinny snakes of my tires, my handgrips and cable casings. Such petrochemical reminders subdue any self-congratulation that might otherwise arise from my nonpolluting ride.

Occasionally I load up my bike on a city bus and tote it to the office. After work, I cleat into the pedals for the fifteen-mile ride home. Speeding stealthy as the breeze, I power past milkweed and massive ponderosa pines, past animals sunning or ambling on the path. Flocks of turkeys cause me to wonder which of us would suffer most if we smashed up. Bald eagles above Queen Lucas Lake eye me at eye level from low branches where they fish. Bull snakes, lizards and the occasional rattler soak up the heat radiated by the black asphalt.

In my neck of the woods, moose who stand at shoulders a full six feet high spook us. Several times a year we encounter bulls or cows on breathless trails or backroad scrapes. They tower blackly over our compact cars. They feed on our landscaping and linger in our yards. Approaching them can be hazardous.

Moose kill more people than the leading two or three predators do. They strike with forefeet like horses. We surrender our domestic spaces to them without being told. We lavish them with gratitude for the wildness they exemplify so close at hand. Complete attention extends my utmost devotion to them. One cow I’ve seen twice along my bike route wears a blond chest and a forehead blaze.

From a window in the Spokane home, I’ve watched a young bull nibble at the leaves of a river birch, a top-heavy sapling I planted just the year before. The animal threw its considerable weight into the tree, bent the sapling double and devoured the leaves. Farther and farther up the trunk it pushed and chewed. At last it straddled the whole bole and bent the sapling back to Earth, like Robert Frost’s swinger of birches did for sheer sport in his poem “Birches.”

After the moose finished eating, every leaf was gone. It must have been a rush when the tree sprung back up between its legs. The next year the leaves all sprouted again like revelation, and that river birch grew too sturdy to subdue.

A coyote hunting along the Cheney end of the bike path got a big surprise. Close upon it I pedaled and whistled a shrill alarm between lips and teeth. I was only aiming to keep it alert and alive. It leapt a stream and bolted up the twelve-foot berm. Railway laborers built the berm when they excavated rock to level a path for the railway a century ago. Their heaps of basalt cobbles tower now.

The leavings of the railway laborers remind me they were more than flesh-and-blood machines. A century after Italian immigrants swung sledgehammers and picks to flatten the grade, their rock ovens remain. I stumbled on the ruins of one oven while stalking redhead ducks beside some pothole ponds. Yes, I am a geek who is forever seeking new species to add to his ornithological life list.

Waterfowl forgotten, I focused down on the crumbled dome beneath my feet. Crafted by hand, plastered over by gray lichens, the mud mortar that held the stones in place long washed away, it took a fallen igloo shape. It began at last for me to resemble a human face. A jumble reminding me how people’s mouths cave in and wither with old age. How gums shrink and we grow “long of tooth.”

Using stones of local basalt, the laborers made shift to bake dense loaves of bread. Think wood-fired pizza today. A slate slab toted from site to site served as oven floor. Wood first burnt inside the oven would superheat the entire dome. Then bakers raked out the spent coals and swept clean the slate, sprinkled meal on it, inserted the dough and sealed the door. To bake those loaves from start to finish (I have it on excellent authority) would have taken a mere quarter-hour.

The barely visible aperture of the oven door in my fancy became the tooth-shaken laborer’s mumbling mouth. The structure put me in mind also of a kiva: a subterranean chamber some Indians in the southwest built, its style thought to replicate the emergence of kachinas or ancestors from former environs or lives. For the émigré laborers who made transcontinental rail beds, Europe might have resembled a stained and tainted netherworld, America the promised land.

History lies closer to the surface in this arid landscape than it does on the coastal third of the state. Soils are shallower, scrubbed bare by Ice Age floods. The potholes where I stalk ducks formed when Pleistocene-era vortexes or eddies plucked and scoured bedrock. Those vortexes are called kolks. Bodies rarely may be buried very deep due to all the stone. In the business of Indian-white relations, place names remain as blunt reminders of our ancestors’ legacy of conquest.

Col. George Wright hanged members of the Yakama and Spokane tribes. He slaughtered hundreds of their horses to weaken their ability to survive and fight. As a sort of reward his name memorializes a fort, a cemetery and an arterial drive. In turn the most well-known of his victims, Qualchan, lent his name (however ironically) to a real-estate development, a golf course and a footrace.

Onomastics, the study of proper names, has stirred my imagination since I settled here. The name Spokane looks as if it needs to be enunciated like cane at the end. But it has been given a midrange vowel, and so it sounds like can. The creek where Qualchan was hanged appears on state maps as Latah (Salish for fish), but it appears as Hangman on the national records. Federal cartographers seem unwilling to let the state forget its treacherous bit of regional history.

A tool I found along the Columbia River lay on the surface as well. With my spouse and friends, I was paddling a kayak on the river’s Hanford Reach. We pulled out on an island near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Plutonium there helped manufacture the Fat Man bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Since we took that paddle trip, “the site,” as locals call it, has been opened to the public and named the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Among other topics, it commemorates “The Dawn of the Atomic Age” and “the creation of the atomic bomb, which helped end World War II.” Visitors take busses to the site.

Before we launched our kayaks, I read online: “Radioactive ants, flies and gnats have been found at the Hanford nuclear complex, bringing to mind those Cold-War-era ‘B’ horror movies in which giant mutant insects are the awful price paid for mankind’s entry into the Atomic Age.” If paddling past a nuclear reactor on fast water seems counterintuitive today, we did not think about it at the time.

We had come to experience that last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River. By the grace of its fast-moving water, Chinook salmon still spawn there. Almost every other portion of the river has been dammed. We stopped to pee on the sandy island formed by sediment before the dams went in. Atop the sand, as if crying aloud be found, a stone tool from the First People lay in plain sight.

In my cultural naïveté, I pocketed the tool. Carried it to my office and put it on a shelf, little knowing that the legal protocol for such artifacts is to let them lie, leave them behind, make the Big Outdoors a big museum. Made of basalt, a fine-grained igneous rock, it was used for knapping, my archeologist-colleague Stan Gough said. To knap is to shape stone by striking at it with another stone to fabricate tools. Stan identified this one as a flensing or skinning implement.

The beauty of that tool resides in its simplicity. In the heft of its antiquity. And for the way it manages to prod the imagination. Its value lies in its lack of utilitarian value. We assign undue value to the useful artifacts – smartphones and microwaves, automobiles and beauty aids – that surround us. The man or woman who knapped the skinning tool focused his or her attention with a keen devotion. A devotion that would have been more Earth-centered than most other forms of reverence flourishing today. Less other-worldly and more this-worldly.

All this useless beauty lies far beneath the surface of the landscape for my kind. Inside our jaded gaze, natural splendor seems to drain away like topsoil in an Ice Age flood. While museums draw millions of observers, and paintings fetch hundreds of millions in investments, the arid landscapes of the American West reside in silence, begging for federal money to rectify decades of neglect. Maybe such landscapes as mine are acquired tastes. Maybe only certain sensibilities find their images mirrored in the stark and Spartan lands of my adoptive home.

My father never was a collector of artifacts, a Wild West reenactor, or a practitioner of creative anachronisms. He was a modern man from Seattle who needed to get away. The last time he visited me, we motored out to open range, that quaint space where grated cattle guards keep stock from roaming. An Angus trotting beside the road tickled him. He joked it was “out for a morning jog.” The cow really looked the part. Tail raised, hoofs clopping, dust puffs settling behind.

—Paul Lindholt


Paul Lindholdt is a writer and professor of English at Eastern Washington University. He has won awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Washington Center for the Book. His publications include: John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New-England (Univ. Press of New England, 1988); Cascadia Wild: Protecting an International Ecosystem; History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians; Holding Common Ground: The Individual and Public Lands in the American West; The Canoe and the Saddle: A Critical Edition; and In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau (University of Iowa, 2011), which won the 2012 Washington State Book Award in Memoir/Biography.



Jul 092017

Heather Ramsay on Elk Mountain


The view

A man with a chainsaw climbs through the branches and razes a giant cedar tree in 12-foot sections so your husband can make split rails to match the old fence. The thump from the too-large log ripples through your house in Ryder Lake, a hamlet of forest and cows in a hanging valley a few kilometres above the Bible Belt city of Chilliwack. After he’s done, piles of debris lay in the lower part of the yard. The neighbour’s dog crawls into the hollow of the stump and sniffs around. An artist friend drops by and dreams of slicing the rounds. She wants to make tables, resin the tops, sell them on Kijiji.

The View

With the tree down, the sun crackles through the large windows on the east face of your 1970s-built cabin home. You gaze through a gap still cradled by conifers, birches and big leaf maple, toward the mountains: Elk, Thornton and Cheam. You get the binoculars and look for hikers along the ridges. You might get there too, but not until after you’ve cleaned up the yard.

The View_2

Stick after stick goes into the flames. You remember the first time you drove around Ryder Lake, before the real estate agent was even involved, and discovered the lake was just a slough on somebody’s farm. You learned that the Women’s Institute, which has been around for 80 years, manages the community hall. Although you moved from an island in northern BC that only got cell coverage five years ago, you discovered that service is even worse here.

Mid Century Modern

You call your house mid-century modern and think of Frank Lloyd Wright. It has a low-sloping roof with beams that run across the uninsulated ceiling to the outside. In the winter it gets cold, in the summer cooking hot. The outside is painted conifer green and knotty red cedar covers the interior walls. Painted bricks line the back of the platform for the old wood stove. You had to pull the dead weight of it out the side sliding door when you first arrived, because the insurance company said so. You haven’t replaced it, even though the furnace is 40 years old and rumbles like an earthquake when it comes on.

A thick column of smoke rises from the burn pile and you worry about carbon, but the sapling-thin logger tells you he’d release more greenhouse gases with his truck if he’d had to drag his chipper up the hill. “Besides,” he adds, “it’s your God-given right to burn.”


Getting to know the neighbours

In the mornings, a jazz band of birds call through the fog. You turn right out the driveway and jog down Briteside to Sherlaw.


You can’t see the monster at the first corner, but he runs, growling and crashing through brush along the fence line. You say “Hi Buddy, good dog” and hope there’s no break in the chainlink. You wave at the pussy willows above the deep water ditches. You nod at the red and black cows farther up the road. Just past them, the goats bounce in their pen. You saw that one baby went missing on the community Facebook page. No one mentioned finding her. The border collies used to run out of the gate and snap, but you’ve learned to yell back and the dogs slink away. Still, they bit somebody’s housesitter. Now when you pass, you hear muffled yapping as if they’ve been locked into a shelter underground.  You keep running to Extrom and then up Forester where fresh eggs for $4 are left in a cooler at the end of a driveway along with a can for the coins. The yellow school bus goes by.

You come through the short trail that links back to Briteside and peer at the big snag in the ravine at the top of the street. You had wondered about the grey in the hollow: it looked like an old sweatshirt. With binoculars, you see that an owl is spread sideways on her nest, like a chicken. Who cooks for you, she calls. Later you see her fuzzy chicks.

The Owls

Gunshots sound from miles away — way down the forest service road that runs along the flank of the mountains. The track eventually leads down the south side of the slopes to the hurtling white water of the Chilliwack River. You drive past the clear cuts left after dozens of years of logging shows and find men wearing neon shorts and camouflage shirts. They are stocked with coolers of beer and boxes of bulk ammunition in the old landings and gravel pits. They set up targets and leave their colourful spent shells two inches deep on the ground.

Back channels into town

Within eight minutes of winding down steep road on the north side of the hills, you reach the green back-lit Save-On Foods sign. The split-tail of the mermaid at Starbucks. The Shoppers Drug Mart that stays open until midnight.


Down on these flats, towards the wide, mud-coloured Fraser River, modern houses have sprung up on what was once farmland. Long before the dykes and the corn maze, forests and lakes sustained 10,000 years of Sto:lo lives. Now, strata-run gated communities with roofs that all peaked the same way multiply. Quickly built condos pop up like peony stalks on old hop-growing ground. Shopping malls and chain restaurants choke out the hay fields. There are 46 churches and 83,000 people. It’s lovely and sunny down there, but it is prone to floods.

Gated Communities

Historic downtown Chilliwack is 15 minutes farther along another meandering road. You prefer these back channels. The ones that bypass the bustle of condos and cul-de-sacs. You learn that the winding road, where the black cherry trees snapped in the last winter’s big wind storm, was named after a section of the Chilliwack River that no longer flows. You  find a website lauding the pioneers who first came to this valley. Some farmers got sick of the spring melt that flooded their fields and one felled several large trees to block the riverbed. Later others got together and drained an entire lake.

This winding road passes through two Stó:lō villages. One is called Tzeachten, which means fish weir in Halq’eméylem, but with no river, the weirs are no longer there either. Next is Skowkale, which means “going around a turn.” You went to an event in their log cabin hall to celebrate a recording of ancient Sto:lo songs. You learn that Billy Sepass, a chief in the 1920s, thought it would be hard to pass on these epic stories since disease, residential schools and the assault on his language had come. He wanted them all written down but the recording, transcription, translation and printing of the book took more than 40 years. With this new CD you realize it took another 40 for it all to become oral again. You meet members of the Sepass family and eat the smoked salmon, bannock and other food they prepared. As you drive away the clouds darken over the broad valley and you listen to the songs of Xa:ls, the creator, who made Earth grow out of the mists.

Skow Kale Hall

Downtown Chilliwack

You continue into the town which incorporated less than 150 years ago — one of the first white settlements in this part of BC. On Wellington, the main street, you can buy used books, new shoes and shrink-wrapped vinyl in the high fidelity record shop. You had no idea that records sell for $40 now. You look at the vintage Kenwoods but do not ask if they have Chilliwack, the 1980s rock band that sang “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone).”

Wellington St ChilliwackWellington Street,  downtown Chilliwack

Hi Fidelity Shop

You find the town museum housed in the old city hall. The out-of-place Roman column look was conceived by Thomas Hooper in 1912. He also designed the Coqualeezta Indian Residential School, built upon the same land where newcomers plowed up adze blades and carved stone bowls. The best coffee is at Harvest Cafe, and the best doughnuts too. There’s a place to buy crusty Swiss bread and restaurant where you slurp Vietnamese bone broth pho. You hear that the butcher on Yale moved to the suburbs of Sardis, citing a better retail space, but most people think he was tired of the drug addicts at the door. The city is growing, but the homeless population is too.

Chilliwack Museum

You had thought of living downtown, but the real estate agent warned of crime. Really you didn’t like the highway noise and the constant stream of trains. You head back towards the suburbs and get stuck behind a tractor going 20 km/hour on Evans Road. You pull off at the roadside stall for local blueberries and then up to a drive-thru for corn. You buy 12 Golden Jubilee, not Peaches and Cream, and get 13 cobs. They hand a paper sack through the window and you hand them your frequent buyer card. After ten dozen, you get another dozen for free.

Summer heat

When it gets really hot, like 30 degrees, you join the hundreds of others at Cultus Lake. They crowd together at sand beaches and grassy picnic grounds but you find a small pebble beach in the shade. You dive into jewel-like blue water. It would be perfect if there weren’t so many water skiiers around. You try to ignore them, but you leave just the same, when the partiers pull up and idle offshore.

Cultus Lake from Ryder LakeCultus Lake, seen from Ryder Lake

Not far from the lake, you find a spot on the river where the ice water pools in a rock wall tub. It is deep and no one else has discovered it yet. You dog paddle against the current and find that that you are swimming in place. A guy in an inflatable armchair floats by and raises his frosted can to you.

When you get back to Ryder Lake, a giant black truck with oversized tires and a broken muffler roars up the road. You hear a crack and a black blob falls out of the yellow plum tree. The startled mama bear runs across the road, but her three cubs stay and scramble up a nearby fir. The neighbour’s dog barks and the cubs clamber higher. You telephone the neighbours and ask them to put their dog inside so the little ones can get away. Later you try to pick the plums, but most are too high, so your husband gets out the chainsaw and cuts the unreachable part of the tree down. You make pint after pint of ginger and vanilla plum jam.

In fall, the osiers will turn red and the rusty old tin can on the top of the fence post will pop in the low seasonal light. In winter, you take a picture of your reflection in the super-sized glass bulbs hanging in a roadside Christmas tree.

The Red Ball

The warning

You force your bike up the winding hill from the flatlands, standing up from the seat with each crank. A big white pick-up coming down the road slows. The driver sticks her elbow out the window and tells you to be careful.

You are panting as you pull your shoes out of their clips and try not to topple. “Pardon me?”

“There’s a cougar running around up here,” she says. Her truck chugs fumes into the air. “I’m just saying. You might not want to ride your bike here.”

You say thanks for the warning, but what can you do? You live up here. So you continue on up the hill, past the llamas and the trailer homes right beside the road. Past the churn of a waterfall that makes you wonder where the water comes from. There is no lake in Ryder Lake. You think about the guy down your street who told you that his dog once put a cougar up a tree. Another neighbour said he found a dead deer in the forested part of his 10-acre yard. Its belly had been torn out by a giant cat. You want to see one of these creatures, but hopefully it won’t be while you are slowly churning your bicycle up the road.

Back at home, a boom echoes through your walls and you picture airplanes coming down. You’ve heard people jokingly call the back road Little Beirut. You think of the jail out there by the Chilliwack River. There’s an army artillery training centre too and some kind of drug rehab place. After a deep blast and then a rumble, you check the Facebook page. “What the hell was that?” said a woman you don’t know.  Her house might be far across the rolling hills or it might be two doors down. “It shook the magnets off my fridge,” said another. “Bruce dynamiting his stumps again?”

You look out the window and see the stump on the lower part of your property, the one that allowed you the view. The only way for developers to go is up the sides of the mountains. You heard a Sto:lo elder shake his head about that the other day. He pointed towards the hills that you occupy. “If it continues in this way, where will the animals live?” he said.

—Heather Ramsay

Heather Ramsay

Heather Ramsay has lived in many places. Born in Edmonton, raised in Calgary. One idyllic year in the south of France, Vancouver at 18 for university. Whitehorse, Australia (on the prowl). But it wasn’t until she moved to Smithers, BC that she really let a location take hold of her. She wrote for the newspaper there and told a lot of stories. Then on to Haida Gwaii (more newspapers, magazines, books) and now Ryder Lake. She is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing at UBC and is attempting to write a novel for her thesis. Her non-fiction has appeared in Maisonneuve, Room, subterrain, Raspberry Magazine, Canadian Geographic, Canada’s History, The Tyee, Northword and more.


May 082016

Shawn Selway


Pier 8 Hamilton ON looking east


Pier 8

Chilly here today, but beautiful as always, always in a new way. Looking east from Pier 8, where the tugs are snugged at night, those domes you see are grain storage bins. Beyond, behind the laker, are the mills, half-idled now as U.S. Steel gets on with killing Stelco, the homegrown competitor it bought a few years back. Their latest stunt is to persuade a judge to relieve them of paying certain medical benefits to their pensioners. We inhabit a lampoon of capitalism. Marx would certainly get a laugh out of the view: the mountain of capital left to rust unused, and just beyond, a second mountain, still alive with fire and action and thriving alongside the corpse of its former rival. I sometimes think of writing him, you know, the way Auden wrote to Byron, to give him an update. But I kind of think that he would be impatient with whiny epistles, and just want us to get the hell on with the job of removing “creative destruction” from our horizon once and for all.

They plan to build condos on this pier. (They have a lot of plans these days.) They better build ’em good, because the westerlies that come across here in winter are enough to freeze your face off in about ten seconds. In summer the thunderstorms come straight down the Dundas Valley and advance in majesty across the end of the bay to fire terrifying sizzlers right at your house! You wake up thinking, Holy shit, that was close. You roll over and there’s your wife sitting on the edge of the bed with the shutters open, watching the maple trying to climb into the room with you.

Studies indicate that if you are visiting, there is a fifty-eight percent likelihood that you came to see friends or family. Planning and Economic Development staff would prefer that you had no previous ties, and believes that our appeal is strongest for Connected Explorers, Knowledge Seekers, and Youthful Socializers. Personally, I care not what market segment your affiliation; even mixed affiliation is okay by me. Whoever you are, if you want to look around, I will likely bring you here first, for the contrast: to the east, the freighters and tugs, blast furnaces, coking ovens and coal piles; to the west, a broad back-bay full of white sails, and trees down to the water. This range accounts in part for the rueful sense of waste that will overtake you from time to time, if you live here. The splendour of the setting and the magnitude of past accomplishments accentuate the banality of current politics. Now that the gentrification machine has begun to reprocess the older city and different people are coming in, you see bright young things advertising their ambition with tote bags that read : You can do anything in Hamilton. The scope of the ambition remains to be seen, but the Old Boys and Girls are increasingly irritated by the new pushiness. Which is fun to watch for the rest of us.

Alright, let’s wander, and we will come back here for the other view, the western. I call it the not-the-brochure tour — you know, the one where the tourist is regarded not as a mark to be fleeced, but a friend in the making.


James North

You have to understand that for the longest time there was no money. Now there is almost too much. Here, Mission Services, feeding the hapless with whatever the rest of us can be persuaded to give; three blocks away, a chocolaterie: a piece of caramel the size of your thumb, six bucks.

When the money did return, after thirty years of contraction, it came like a cloudburst to long dry channels: quickening first Locke Street, then James, then Ottawa. Novelty broke out all over. Buildings changed hands, storefront galleries appeared on James, and the army surplus became a print-making studio. (Farewell to cheap work boots and quilted plaid shirts with gold dragons on the label.) Real estate refugees fleeing the impossible Toronto prices bought houses on the side streets. Suddenly James became fantastically mutable. The sheets of paper taped to the inside of display windows were building permits. The merchants organized a monthly Friday night “art crawl.” The Young Socializers came, then their parents, then the Connected Explorers. The Portuguese men watched from their usual spots in front of Ola bakery and the Vasco da Gama soccer club.

A mood of expectancy, exciting but also slightly sinful, arose: the legendary Bubble trembled and hopped along the street. Notices of complete applications for planning approvals popped up here and there on vacant lots. Rents rose, complaints began. By and by there was a meeting about gentrification at the activists’ cafe. It ended in screaming.

Consultants overran the joint. Their maps reconfigure the territory and their perspectives are disturbing in a surprisingly intimate way. Attending public meetings at the rail station turned banquet hall, or at the neighbourhood recreation centre, you are made uneasy by the scale of what is proposed. Your understanding of “market forces” deepens when the invisible hand is pressed to your own back, steering you firmly toward the door.

Five Star Hamilton ONFive Star Cafe

Ah, the Five Star, last oasis of the afternoon drinkers. They step out front to smoke and shout at each other, then it’s back inside to huddle elbow to elbow, getting that glow on. The black-clad proprietor of B Contemporary across the street lounges in the doorway of his gallery, skinny as a consumptive poet, himself a part of the show he is watching. Next door the Lighthouse carries all things Portuguese grocery and more: blotchy papayas with coin-sized craters of decay, fresh green olives so bitter that you never do that again, burlap sacks of beans with silver scoop on top, and crates of cod, both salt and dried, the dry so woody that they keep a bandsaw to cut it for you. At closing time an ancient yellow towmotor comes clanking out of an alley to move everything inside for the night, and the stench of propane exhaust hangs over the street. Next to the Lighthouse is Morgenstern’s, where they provide communion and confirmation togs, all black and white, and voluminous mother-of-the-bride dresses, showy but not too showy.

All along here now the parking meters are hedged with ultra-trim bikes. There is a vogue for rescuing some instance of an obscure marque from cobwebbed oblivion and having it modified to run as a one-speed fixie, maybe with coloured tires, blue or red. A little precious but pretty slick, you have to admit.

What else do you want? Kitchen and restaurant supplies? Chris’s. Vintage clothing? Hawk and Sparrow and a couple of others. Florist? Yup. Rare relict of long-lost punk bands? Yup. Get your toenails done? No problem. Pastries. Pho. A tour of duty in Afghanistan, if you want to sign on to the reserves at the armoury. This is a massive block of brick the size of a crusaders’ castle with an interior parade square, from which trucks edge onto the street honking to warn pedestrians as they come. Don’t think they’ll send you to Kurdistan just yet, but you could ask. Hardware. Soap. Coffee, coffee, coffee. And conviviality, if you want it.

If you were to involve yourself in any of the several schemes for the advancement of something or other which are ongoing at any given moment, you would inevitably attend a meeting at the Mulberry or else down the street at Homegrown. The place is snug and humid, the floors of cracked and patched once-white tesserae, the ceilings of pressed tin. There is a corkboard at the entrance, every inch covered with close-fitted posters and notices and the spillover taped to the bare brick wall, breathing lightly with the door. Couples natter and solitaries sit at open laptops, some working and others twiddling, waiting for somebody to happen to them. During an hour here, you will be greeted by two or three people you know, and those greetings and your meeting will warm and encourage you for the time, but in the morning when you read the paper you will feel less hopeful — fatigued, rather, and baffled by the obduracy of the opposition to “evidence-based” policy, as those pushy newcomers style their own views.

Blackbird Studios Hamilton ONBlackbird Studios

Want more? Let’s step in here. Check out the cooler. I like how they park the plastic tubs of tofu (pallid cubes in a cloudy fluid) right beside the same containers full of pudding-like blobs of curdled pig blood. Yum. No concessions made here for the tender feelings of Euro-Canadians long off the farm, who would likely gag at the rural matter-of-factness of what goes on behind the meat counter. Not us though, we’re too hip. Next? How about here, Blackbird Studios. Don’t be misled by the opulence of the garment in the show-window. Most of their dresses are quite simple. The smell of fresh ironing dissolves your resistance the moment you enter and find yourself in a deep closet between a double file of close-packed garments. Women fall silent and become intensely concentrated. Flick, flick, pause, flick, flick . . . They unhook something gorgeous, loft it, appraise it at arm’s length, smile a little twisted smile, frown, return it to the rack. People leave exhilarated.

What else? Send money to Latin America? You can do that. Borrow against your paycheque? That also. Dinner? Of course, many ways. We could stop by the art supply store, where everyone goes to gossip; or the place specializing in Danish Modern furniture, books of post-modernist theory, and hard-to-find movies. But you get the picture. There is a street or two like this in every town on both sides of the line, where money is on the march and the pace continues to accelerate. Lately the tale has taken some wicked twists. The Province has endowed us with an interurban commuter rail station, now under construction; and Council approved a proposal for a twenty-storey building on James, up from six, over the strong protests of their own staff.



People complain about how everything is disappearing, but we still have a lot left. Look at this joint, all sideways, all additions. There used to be train tracks, is why. A spur line ran down the street.

Ferguson House Hamilton ON

This place is ours, so I’m here quite a bit. The previous tenant did yardwork, but the incumbent is a musician and a doctoral candidate, so she has too much else on her mind to be wielding a rake. I like it here. You are right downtown, but apart. There is a bench in the park across the street where people stop to neck or smoke up or just to rest with the dog’s paws on their knees and its eager head between their hands, getting its ears fondled for the tenth time today, the insatiable thing.

The CP main line passes close enough that you could reach out and touch the train. Well, not really, but it is very near, and the enormous commotion of its passage is deeply exciting. The sky abruptly unzips and a huge waterfall bursts forth; then, on the count of ten, zip, the rent closes and the minor traffic noises resume.

Initials on Ferguson House Hamilton ON

After we bought the jumble of buildings, and I inspected more closely, it turned out that, not content with carving their names on the stable doors, the little bastards had gone down the alley and applied their jackknifes to the clapboard on the house itself. Not much to be done, except paint out the contrast. A hundred years passed. Kids still lead double lives, now with handy spray cans and markers, but authority has learned ju-jitsu. Walls are made available, community art projects become fundable. Still, the rail yard keeps blooming and taggers scribble away everywhere. Some high-minded incorrigible, exasperated with all the posers, went around for a while overwriting artless tags with the admonition LEARN TO PAINT. Some do.

Graffiti Hamilton ON 2015


Robert Village

Built a thousand years ago in 1970, this complex was to have rooftop gardens — there, on the lower building, which has two-storey three-bedroom apartments. Two-storey three-bedroom apartments are unheard of nowadays. They just don’t make ’em for non-millionaires. The heritage crowd has not gotten this far yet, but the owners of a large Toronto development firm have understood.

Robert Village Hamilton ON

There are about two thousand of these buildings in the Toronto-Hamilton area. They form a great archipelago of towers and slabs stretching in a wide arc around the western end of Lake Ontario, and most of them are in need of repairs.

These particular units are two blocks off James, that is, two blocks and worlds away from the dressmaker and the chocolatier. Somali refugees have a vertical village in the eastern tower. You see them sitting on the curb at the entrance, chatting, the women and their daughters wearing headscarves, the men sometimes dressed in our clothing, sometimes in theirs — longer, looser garments. An older man with an injury uses a carved cane which you would like to examine. Before the flood, the rest of the tenants were mainly locals, a few disabled and some on City rent subsidy. The balconies were loaded with chairs and bicycles and the odd black-shrouded barbecue, and here and there lumpish green garbage bags of extra stuff, probably the belongings of some relative or friend intending to fetch them when they have more order in their life. Passing by, you would see three cop cars standing flashing. Next day there might be something in the paper but usually not.

We have rent controls in Ontario. An above-guideline increase requires application to a Board. Alternatively, the landlord can empty the rental unit and charge the next tenant whatever they will pay.

The new management of Robert Village started by requesting that tenants report to their rep downstairs, one by one, to “discuss your lease.” They were offered a payment to end their tenure. They were told of the tumult which was about to overtake the property and warned that the buyout offer was for a limited time only. Pick-up trucks and white vans bearing phone numbers with a foreign area code crowded the semi-circular drive in front of the building, trees were cut. Meanwhile maintenance requests from continuing tenants were ignored by the new regime just as by the old.

At the meeting organized by the tenants, the local imam rose to ask why the delegates of the various agencies ranged across the front of the room were calling upon people to bring their problems to them one by one, when what was needed was a “class action” of some sort. The ward councillor was in attendance. Subsequently, he arranged for property standards bylaw officers to go through the buildings. By the time they did so, two months later, half the apartments were empty. The officers issued a raft of orders.

Now Renting Robert Village Hamilton ON

The anarchists came into some money, bought a used commercial press, and began posting broadsheets, 18th-century style, on the utility poles. These sheets denounced the gentrifiers and directed passersby to a 5000-word essay online. Someone responded on the local civic affairs website, and the response grew a long tail of comment and counter comment. After a couple of days the argument went off the boil and the young urbanists got back to hounding the City to provide traffic calming, cycling infrastructure, and transit improvements. The front moved eastward over the horizon to Riverdale, a highrise neighbourhood so remote from downtown that it may as well be on the moon.



No one owns anything down here. A phone, that’s about it. A bike, if you’re a guy. Flashy shoes maybe. Maybe an electric scooter or a power wheelchair.

Nobody seems to be thinking about what will happen when the new money finally makes the last mile and sloshes onto Barton. The police perhaps. Maybe Children’s Aid. There is no next move.

Storefront Hamilton ON

Somebody called the cops that there was a guy lying in the middle of the road not moving at Barton and Mary, and when they got there sure enough buddy was face down and pretty much “exsanguinated,” as the emergency room doctor told the newspaper. Made it easy for the cops, though, who just followed the trail of blood to the ex-girlfriend’s door, which had a security camera over it. (Wonder what they do there.) When she opens up they look in and the hall floor is clean as a whistle. Gleaming. At the trial the new boyfriend explains that after he stabbed the old boyfriend — who had dropped by to see his kid — the girlfriend freaked and ordered him to mop up the mess, like now!, which is how the old boyfriend was left to walk two blocks alone before collapsing in the intersection. The doctors saved him but he told the court that he has trouble trusting people any more.

The shabbiness, the temporary repairs never redone, the jumbles of stuff piled into every third storefront, it goes on forever, block after block of it, chipboard and tape and second-hand everything: fridges and stoves, baby clothes, furniture, garden implements, and mechanic’s tools. (Shopping to replace stolen hammers and wrenches, I found some of them on offer here and bought them back.) When you think it can only improve, it gets a little worse. Businesses that held on for decades into decline finally die with their owners. Lifetimes in menswear, Italian cheeses, shoes vanished; rendered futile for lack of succession. Recently there are new commitments, but when you go in to chat, you hear tales of a different kind of futility, that administered by City property standards administrators parsing the zoning bylaws. “Change of use” brings a world of grief, no matter how minor the impact, how major the potential benefit for the street. Eight months of complications including $2,500 dollars in architect’s fees triggered by a request for permission to put up a sign. That kind of thing.

Hamilton ON facade

Crazy-reckless lead singer for an all-girl punk band gets addicted to pain pills. She buys them from a guy in a wheelchair who has a boatload of prescriptions because of so many health problems. The singer mentions to a couple of friends all the meds that her dealer has at his apartment, and the collectibles. Expensive watches and what all. They persuade her to set him up. They go there and tape the guy’s hands and start robbing the place and looking for drugs but the stuff is mostly junk. They leave him lying there, face down. Nobody comes by for a couple of days so what with all his conditions he dies there on the floor. The singer gets three years for her part in this horror movie insanity — the part of the total fool.

And so on.

Meanwhile the president of the Chamber of Commerce, a progressive guy as they say (meaning, good on questions of traffic and transit), sharp suits and stylish coloured socks to the knee, eager to position the Chamber as a “thought leader” in the current era of “city-building,” brings his counterpart from Brooklyn to address the troops. (Our two cities have, of course, nothing whatever in common.) The newspaper relays his message to the rest of us. “Be who you are,” he tells us, “Be gritty. Be cool.”

Punching bag in Hamilton ON backyard


Pier 8

Never mind. When you just can’t stand it anymore you can always come down here again. Like the poet said:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
xxThere lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

Looking west from Pier 8, you see earth, air and water. For fire, you will have to go back to the other end of the pier, where we started, to see the stacks whence they flare the coke oven gas.

Hamilton ON Pier 8 looking west

When the City turned entrepreneurial, twenty years back, they built a trail alongside the CN main line all the way from here to those bridges, and beyond, on into Westdale. The first rail bridge, of wood, collapsed in 1857, killing 60 people including its engineer. Not his fault though. The road bridge with the fancy columns was part of a larger project involving the expulsion of shanty dwellers who were squatting on what had become prime land for advocates of a City Beautiful program.

Many come down here for recreation and respite. Nature is so consoling. But running can be boring, so it helps to bring a song or poem to memorize. This is how you get to Hopkins, who is tricky but very apt in the context.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
xxThere lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
xxOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bentbent
xxWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Well, perhaps not. But clearly the Paraclete was often with Gerard, and it is indeed fresh and fine down along here, in any season. Plus, knowing about poetry adds to your stock of social capital, right?, so you’re not just a common grunt all your life. Of course, that’s what they want anymore. Abjection is authentic. Evidently we are become saleable, in all our rugged beauty — our curses and sneers, our resentment, our suspicion, our primitive loyalties, never mind…No, no, go on, we love it when you people get like this, so gritty, so down to earth, so Hamilton,…Damn. Where was I? Oh yeah. Fresh and fine.

Berries on nature trail outside Hamilton ON

Believe it or not, beaver have come back here. The Conservation Authority and the Botanical Gardens are working hard to restore and “naturalize” this end of the Bay. So are the beavers, who are astoundingly destructive, harvesting tender saplings and six-inch trees alike, leaving only pointed stakes behind. So are the coyotes, who come trotting along the rail corridor right into the main switching yard that parallels the trail for a kilometer or so. Coyote would like to reintroduce nature’s rules all the way into our back yards, if we are stupid enough to allow it. Add the little rock islands installed in the water to provide nesting spots for the swans, and a carp exclusion barrier meant to keep that bottom-feeding fish from tearing up all the marsh plants in the inner lagoon — and you have yourself one bustling farmstead, complete with roving gangs of geese who part reluctantly to let you pass. Overhead, the vultures who reappeared several years ago are now a constant, they must live their whole lives in the air. Below on the rocks black cormorants — lousy fliers but brilliant swimmers — rest with their dragon wings outspread. Once endangered, now they have overwhelmed their nesting islands, reducing them to white humps from which a few black sticks protrude, the remains of trees. However, the older, rarer world is here too. There are precious turtles, much fretted over though never seen by laymen. Once or twice a year coveys of ducks descend from the great sky beyond the curve of the world, bringing their wild fear with them. High-strung mergansers, slender tufted things far from their dark northern lakes, rocket away for nothing. Others tolerate more proximity, but not much. They are so exquisite that you have to laugh sometimes at the absurdity of their presence here. And with all that, there is still and always the lively changeability of the water itself: the glossy swells; the all-hushing fog; the flickering worry of the chop; the necklace of sheet ice that goes chink-chink as you cycle by; the luminous elasticity of the membrane that wavers and tightens on a still day when a boat passes far off in the outer harbour…only, even the water is not quite what it seems.

Trash in Hamilton ONGarbage along the shore

Just the other week, two women who have been going around piling stones into small cairns in memory of their murdered sisters all over the country had to interrupt their project to spend a couple of days camping on the shore, to publicize the mess they had found there: scraps of plastic, syringes, et cetera. City workers were detailed to return the place to the condo-worthy condition implied in the brochures, while the higher-ups explained, once again, that the sewage treatment plant is not quite large enough and so during a heavy storm operators must let a few batches go by or risk backing up the whole system.

Camping in memory of murdered women Hamilton ONCamp-out sparks City clean-up

And that is what it’s like to live here: always behind, never ahead; forever hopeful, often deceived. Love in vain. But I just can’t help myself. And you would wind up just the same, my friend, if you lived here.

—Shawn Selway

Shawn Selway is a Stelco-trained millwright who currently operates Pragmata Historic Machinery Conservation Services. His book Nobody Here Will Harm You, about mass medical evacuations from the Eastern Arctic during the fifties, is forthcoming from Hamilton literary press Wolsak & Wynn.


Mar 112016



The Portuguese island of Madeira, a ‘pearl of the Atlantic’ situated 850 kilometres west of Marrakech, is known as a place for people who like to walk. Retired hiker types from northern Europe flock here year-round to trek the levadas – an ancient and seemingly endless network of irrigation channels that criss-cross the island. The levadas flow between high mountain peaks, through banana and eucalyptus groves, and up on the wild north of the island through the primeval, UNESCO-protected laurel forest that at one time covered much of southern Europe. The trails are mostly flat, making them surprisingly easy to walk: they transport water, and water doesn’t like to travel uphill. It’s all so beautiful, beautiful, the visitors say. ‘Come to walk!’ the tourist brochures say. Walk walk walk, levada levada levada. And flowers.

That’s all fine, but it’s not my Madeira. I’m a dedicated pedestrian and academic (possibly in that order), and I’ve lived on this island for the past three years. I don’t do a lot of levada walks unless friends are visiting, but I get my share of exercise. I move around almost exclusively on foot, except when I buy groceries and take a taxi home. What I mostly see of Madeira are the streets of the capital, Funchal. To walk in Funchal is to walk almost constantly at a slant, on a near-vertical slope. Since settlement in the fifteenth century, the city has gradually climbed up the side of the steep volcano whence Madeira was born. Nearly every house, including mine, enjoys stunning views across the Bay of Funchal. This distinct and dramatic urban landscape, seen from street level at walking pace, is the Madeira I inhabit.

Madeira streets

Taxis have trouble reaching my house. When I tell them the name of my street, they mutter under their breath and slap the dashboard of their ancient canary-yellow Mercedes-Benzes. Most drivers already know me: I’m the tall estrangeiro, the One Who Walks, the non-tourist who cabs it. Funchal is a small city; I think a lot of people know me this way. My boss told me that his father once pulled him aside and asked, ‘Nuno, are you paying the new estrangeiros enough? I often see the tall one in glasses walking by the side of the road – like a stray dog!’ My boss explained that the foreigner liked to walk, though I’m not sure he understands it either. When I walk home from work, the last stretch up to my street has me bent so far forward that I can reach out and touch the ground in front of me. People driving past eye me with a blend of suspicion and pity; a couple of the friendlier ones have stopped to offer me a lift.

It’s a typical weekday morning and I’m standing in a ditch by the roadside. I’m thinking of Samuel Beckett, whose characters I remember were always hanging out in ditches – just hanging out, their lot being simply to represent our debased state as human beings. I can relate to this. I lean back and press myself against the dirty wall, my feet deep in cast-off drink containers, as a bus passes inches from my face. There is a blast of exhaust-filled wind and a deafening noise as the bus shifts up to the next gear, then silence. The sky is a high, hazy blue and I’m on my way to work. I step out of the ditch and continue along the single-lane bidirectional road with houses like walls, no sidewalks or trees or grassy boulevards. If I reach out with my broad wingspan I can almost reach both sides.


Parked cars are a huge pain in the arse. I’m tempted to key the car blocking my path, a BMW that’s far too big for such a small island. I even fantasize about walking right over the top of it – I could do it! But instead I wait for a break in the morning rush hour traffic, the cars taking turns to go around it. Even on roads with sidewalks it is difficult and dangerous to be a pedestrian. Cars use the sidewalks as parking spots; somehow they’re immune to ticketing, it’s a populist government and everyone drives. So pedestrians – me, the One Who Walks – are forced to walk on the road. Sometimes I squeeze my passive-aggressive body between the parked car and the wall, snapping in the wing mirror as I pass. Often there are people sitting in these parked cars, why I’ll never know. They’re always playing Candy Crush. My defiant mirror-folding gesture is lost on them. They either ignore completely my body squeezing past their window, refusing to look up, or they act like I’m crazy, like I’m in their space. Hey pal, careful with that wing mirror!

I’ve had some minor altercations. Once I broke the wing mirror off a parked car – it was already taped up, I hardly touched it – and the woman yelled at me as she opened her door a crack to snatch the mirror back from the ground where it lay. Another time it was more serious. I was waiting to cross a busy road, and people kept driving through the zebra crossing. One, two, three cars. When the fourth car approached I started to step out, to signal that it was, in all fairness, my turn to cross. The guy kept driving through at high speed, nearly hitting me. As he drove past me I lifted my leather satchel in a way that was half defensive, half threatening. He was so close that it made contact and clipped the wing mirror – oh those wing mirrors! The mirror came right off. (The satchel was full of books.) There was a loud crack and it went sailing through the air and landed with a tumble, skidding briefly along the road. The Fiat Panda screeched to a halt. The guy was nineteen or twenty, wearing cut-offs and a Cristiano Ronaldo haircut, and he jumped out and started cursing me in Portuguese, calling me the son of a whore. If we had been in North America I might have been worried, like afraid he’d pull out a gun or a bat. But I was twice as big as the guy, if rather willowy and professorial looking, and when I swore back at him in English and shook my satchel full of books he jumped in the Panda and drove off, waving his fist in retreat. I crossed the road.


Every morning I start my commute walking straight downhill. I often break into a run because the incline is so steep. Suddenly I’ll hear a car and flatten my body against the wall as the driver passes with a blank stare or an absentminded wave. After fifteen minutes downhill it levels out for a bit and then I usually put in my earbuds and start back up another hill to get to the university. It’s great exercise – so much that I crave it restlessly when I work from home. But I also go through a lot of shoes, stripping the soles right down to my socks every few months.

Being a pedestrian in Madeira is all about humiliation. It’s impossible to ignore, a nagging voice you can’t drown out with the loudest music or the most engrossing podcast. I remember spotting a fellow academic once when I was walking home from the university, a visiting lecturer from MIT. He wore a thick red beard and spectacles and earbuds like me, and he was walking in the opposite direction. I gave him a hail-fellow-well-met but he didn’t notice. He was evidently deep in thought, taking long strides, and he paused to step into the ditch when a bus drove past. Here was my doppelganger; my own humiliation externalized.

So why do I walk? I’m a grown man, with a decent job, and yet just the other day some moron in a Peugeot sprayed me with wiper fluid. Why do I spend my mornings and evenings walking along the gutter – breathing diesel exhaust, dodging dog shit, stepping over abandoned pairs of underpants – instead of cruising the winding roads in a climate-controlled Audi A3 like my colleagues? I’m not cheap; I’m not particularly sporty either. I don’t climb mountains and I’ve never kayaked. What’s wrong with me? Am I afraid to drive? Am I a masochist with psychogeographic tendencies?


For a while, until I thought better of it, I had considered calling this essay ‘Foreigners, Deficients, Dogs’ – in the end I worried it might be taken the wrong way. I was riffing on the infamous ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ sign that used to hang in lodging house windows in Britain. (I happen to be Irish as well as Canadian.) The use of the offensive-sounding term ‘deficient’ was meant to be an ironic commentary on the Portuguese word deficient that is still used to label people with various mental or physical challenges. Although I see almost no other pedestrians on my morning commute, every morning I walk past two guys with Down’s Syndrome at different points in the journey. They both look about my age, and they possess the same determined, slightly harried look of the pedestrian in a hostile landscape that I must also wear as I walk along the ditch. This being southern Europe, one guy is always smoking; the other guy shouts a loud ‘Bom dia!’ just at the moment he passes me, and I shout back to him over my shoulder. The ‘dogs’ in the hypothetical title were a reference to the packs of stray dogs that I pass every day: usually six or eight in a gang, oddly laid-back and unintimidating despite their size and number, some of them limping after run-ins with cars. The foreigner, of course, is me – and the visiting lecturers who don’t know that nobody walks in Madeira. On this island, we are on the margins – quite literally – while drivers occupy the central space.

There are really two questions I ask myself most days: ‘Why do I walk?’ and ‘Why do I live in Madeira?’. Sure it’s sunny here, but so is San Francisco. After years of living in Madeira my Portuguese is still pretty terrible. Am I afraid to compete in the great northern cities of industry? Perhaps, although I’m fairly certain I could get a job elsewhere. There must be more to it.

If I dig deep, I think it’s that I love the contrast – between the breathtaking beauty, the tropical flowers and sun and sea on one hand; and the plague of traffic and stupidity and all kinds of human failings, which are universal failings, on the other. Anyone who has travelled in southern European cities like Athens or Barcelona or Naples, not to mention the cities of the global south, knows this contrast and its peculiar frisson. Something about the ugliness and beauty of human life, the union of pain and pleasure, is ultimately why I live here and why I walk. I like things to be difficult. I don’t want to be insulated from the pain any more than I already am; I don’t want a life of easy pleasures. Before I moved here I lived in Vancouver and found it depressingly dull, so polished and sensible and fit. I don’t want to give up the hard pleasures that you earn by seeing the world at street level: I want to see what people in cars never see, and breathe the air they don’t have to breathe – even if it kills me.

— by Julian Hanna

(Photos by Simone Ashby. To see more, visit Instagram @tar_island.)


Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.


Jun 052015

New Mexico landscape



THE CAR IS SILENT until we’ve left Saranac Lake and are headed towards Tupper, and then the road begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and we’re thrust into deep, swampy Adirondack forest. It’s a freezing day in January, and Pants, the cat, begins to fidget. She growls, a low, guttural sound that matches the car’s grumbling engine. I sing to her, and her tail swats at the mesh walls of her carrier. Finally, she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Through the mesh, I can see that her ears are pricked.

Pants, I say, and she yowls.

My father recommended this curving route through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water, white buildings with red roofs, Adirondack mountains in backyards. Those are the last of the High Peaks, my father had said, and then there’s nothing til you hit the Rockies.

I am bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there and a teaching job. My father thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother at Taos, on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting him.

Soon, I say to Pants, we won’t recognize this country at all.


We spend our first night in Rochester, which is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home. In the morning it feels so strange to get in the car for a second day and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes until now; we drive alongside water for miles and miles, wind whipping across the road and smacking the car.

Through Pennsylvania we drive; we sleep in Illinois. We sleep in Missouri. By Oklahoma, I’m starting to worry, for how blank and brown the landscape is, and how windswept Tulsa. Is this how New Mexico will be?

When I cross the border, though, I know I needn’t have worried. Everything instantly changes color. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant ranges. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. The shift from northern Texas into New Mexico is miraculous.

Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep.

The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but somehow, it feels familiar.

road to nm


Desert Nights

In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns.

You aren’t from here, are you? he says, when I ask him a second time what the prickers are called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

Meanwhile, the rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. I hike in the woods; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside.


Just before darkness falls here, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see.

Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’ve traded water for sky and tall trees for grass.


Dark Rooms

It’s hot in the classroom on the first day of my teaching job. Every seat is taken. I unpack my things, write my name on the board, announce that this is English 109, and I am the adjunct instructor. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means.

Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast. Start with green.

For their first essay, my students must write about a challenge they’ve overcome. From that very first set of papers, I learn that some of my students go home after class to hoards of children, who clamor over them. One has a mother who is silent all the time, and one has a father who hates fat people. One has an uncle who takes her into a dark room from time to time and closes the door. One has a father who burns her writing; one has a memory of a bad-smelling room, a winter afternoon, the first time he said good-bye.

sf nm

One woman writes that she can still remember being locked in a closet as a child with a bucket and a dish of water on the floor. One man, who can’t be more than 22, has been to jail already twice. He has two daughters and a wife, and he teaches me what the word recidivism means.

When they read their stories aloud, their voices sometimes tremble. Sometimes people weep. We close the classroom door but take inside with us our families, our lovers, our road trips, our childhoods crumpled by domineering mothers, by a life without a father, by a sideways glance that almost killed us and by the gleam of a bottle, half-full. We remember hard times, but there is much beauty as well. Sometimes, words pour over us and bring us somewhere else, far from this room, this desert college, this date and time.



In New Mexico, Pants discovers the outdoors. A Boston cat before, she now routinely squirts out the screen door before I have time to stop her. She darts to the smooth cement patio and rolls there with urgency; her tail thickens and the strip of fur along her back raises to a ridge. I can hear her purring throatily as she jumps the stone fence, skitters up the cedar tree, races down the stairs to the cellar door. She sniffs everything: the air, the trees, the stones, and I chase her out of the yard and into the desert, up and down the rolling hills and along the sandy arroyo.


While I’m out, I sometimes imagine Pants lying pressed against the window, a screen the only barrier between her and a world she is dying to learn. I imagine her slipping out and my chasing her, farther and farther each time until eventually I chase her right out of sight. Is letting her leave a sign of love? Must I trust that she’ll return, and that between the trees and on the dirt is where she most wants to go?
I go over to pet her. We’ll have to find out a better system, I tell her, and she gazes out at the birds on the stone fence, then up at me.

It’s only a matter of time, her green eyes say, and I wonder where she sends herself when her eyes are closed. Are her dreams a river of scents and gusts of wind?


American Roads

I learned to drive in Boston, sharp turns and quick blinkers and the pedal constantly pressed against the metal. In New Mexico, I learn that yes, some people actually are out on leisurely Sunday drives, despite it not necessarily being Sunday. People drive slowly, and they don’t use their signals. It’s not unusual to share the road with a trucker, an immigrant boy in his grandfather’s ancient Ford, a tractor going thirty miles under the speed limit, a couple of horses galloping alongside the road. A pickup pulling a trailer, a horse’s head sticking out the window, its main fluttering in the breeze.

another road

The oldest cars you’ll see in America can be found here in New Mexico, because our environment is just right for them—no salt, hardly any rain, and no moisture. Dry. High. Only the sun can hurt your car, peeling the paint over the course of months and years, bleaching your roof and hood bright white. Gas is the cheapest in the nation, I am told.



Winter rolls into spring, and the sky is a seamless blue. The air grows warm but never muggy, and even in the nighttime everything smells of baked pine. Stars fill up the sky. I walk down empty roads. At nighttime, coyotes come eerily close, their cries like human wails, frightening and familiar both. Pants watches them in the darkness; out my apartment windows, there’s always someone to watch. Birds live in a nest in the rafters, and beetles creep over the brick floor.


The seasons pass, and I feel my world broaden a little more each day—a new friend, a new trail to ski, a new view of distant Albuquerque. A new town, nestled in the hills, where the residents paint their houses teal and salmon and sell expensive turquoise and painted bones.

At the community college, I learn to start my lessons late. Only half the class is ever there when I arrive, and missing ten or a dozen students, I discover, is normal. This is the New Mexico way, I quickly realize. You ease into things here.

And so I start my lessons at ten minutes to nine. Students trickle in, people arriving as late as ten o’clock, and not even sheepish. They are a laid back group—sometimes too laid back when it comes to staying awake in class, turning in essays on time, avoiding words like u and thru and nowofdays. Trying not to write dessert when what they’re really describing is the desert in which they live. People look out the windows a lot; I learn not to scold but to ignore.



The semester ends, and the campus empties. The smell of fires from the Jemez Mountains thickens the air. Fire season, people say to each other in the grocery store, shrugging their shoulders, peering out the windows. The smoke smells sweet and strange.


Open Doors

On the fourth of July, I wake up and the door is open and Pants is gone. She never goes out at night; the coyotes are rampant, now that we’re in a drought. There’s no food, no water, and so they come scavenging in our yards.

I run out into the darkness, barefoot, not even feeling the goat-heads. I am shivering; my heart is pounding. She doesn’t come, and she doesn’t come. For an hour I stumble, calling her name. In the morning, she still doesn’t come. I walk weeping through the neighborhood, pasting up signs and knocking on the doors of complete strangers, who are kind and take my number and give me a drink of water. They tell me they’ll call if they see anything, and no one is cruel enough to mention the brazen coyotes that sing every night.

Months pass, and still I don’t give up hope. I wait for someone to find her in a garage. I walk the neighborhood, softly calling her name. Only when winter comes do I finally stop looking; when the first snow of the season falls, I go outside and kneel in the brown grass and close my eyes. There is no stone for her, nothing to bury that she left behind. I pray that she’s found her place between the trees and coyotes, the hawks, the velvet nights, the sun and moon. I listen hard, but only the wind comes.

A hundred times I will think of the open door, the wind and the darkness beyond, the chattering night and the sliver of moon. I’ll imagine cooling jewels of fireworks. I will think again and again of that night, when something wild came and took her away.


American Roads

Where I live, the days are long and clay-colored. By March, waves of heat blow in through the windows. Spring Break comes and goes, and my students start to fidget. People wear flip flops to school. Young women bare their bellies and guys their muscled arms, wound in tattoos. Trees begin to bud. We taste summer early here.

Now, I live on the plains with a long-haired man; we find pot shards in the garden every year. The mesa in the distance is long and red. There are trailers out here and old burial mounds, tiny adobe churches with bells mounted to the roofs. A peacock screams in the morning, and at dusk, coyotes come.


I have another cat, calico like Pants was, but this one came with a nipped ear and a strong desire never to go outside. She skitters away from open doors, content to purr and blink and flick her tail at the window. She also came with a name: Mora, after a northern New Mexico town. Pants is dust and sage now, dust and sage and piñon and wind.

The desert has taught me to pray for rain. I search the sky for clouds, and when the drops finally fall, I can smell water before it hits the ground. The scent creeps in through adobe walls. I can hear it on the roof. I stop what I am doing and listen and breathe, because I have learned what it means to wait for water.

This desert is at turns bitter and wild, sweet and enchanted. Tonight, the sky is the color of a cactus bloom. My father doesn’t blame me for never wanting to leave: he comes to visit; we ski at Taos; we hike in the canyons. He sees what this place has done to me: I am a teacher now, and in the summers I am a writer and a farmer. Money matters to me less than it did before. Pot shards line the windowsill, and the cat eats cobwebs on the stairs.


Kate McCahill



Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at

Aug 032014


The purpose of travel must be to abandon expectations.
—Deborah Willis

Volcan Santiguito croppedVolcan Santiguito


Chichi fire


The roads are grey; the buildings are grey; the pigeons that congregate in the central square are grey. This city is surrounded by volcanoes, including the still-active Santiguito, and I imagine that the people of Quetzaltenango once swept up volcanic ash and used it to construct their city.

Of course, that’s not true. What’s true is that most houses and buildings were built of concrete blocks—more accurately, rebuilt with concrete blocks after a 1902 earthquake and the volcanic eruption of Santa María. This city seems meant to be solid, not beautiful.

Each evening, after studying Spanish in a café, I walk home with my friend Mary along Calle 5A, where there is a McDonald’s, a gas station, and tiendas that sell chips and corn nuts and tamarind liquor that swirls in the bottle like clouds of diesel from the cars.

“Watch out,” says Mary as we stroll along the sidewalk. “There’s always vomit or poop on this street.”

Xela street sceneXela Street Scene



The high elevation means cold, dry air and no beaches—this is not the Central America of my imagination.

I might as well have stayed in Calgary, I think petulantly as I unpack. I’ve brought skirts and t-shirts, so the first place I go is an outlet store called MegaPaca. It too reminds me of growing up in Calgary, when my friends and I took the C-Train to Value Village and bought plaid pants and cardigans and old costume jewelry. At the door to MegaPaca, a security guard with a rifle checks my purse, then I look through racks and racks of used clothing as Christmas carols play over the sound system. To the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock,” I hear:

won’t you please touch my
won’t you please lick my
won’t you please suck my cock

I must be the only English speaker in the store; everyone else continues to shop, oblivious to the lyrics.

I buy two sweaters, one grey and one black, and they set me back the equivalent of two Canadian dollars. I wear them, one on top of the other, every single day.

Xela marketXela market



According to legend, Guatamala’s second-biggest city got its name when the K’iche prince, Tecún Uman, was killed by conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. The battle turned the nearby river red, and when it was over, the Quetzal—a small, red-breasted bird—flew out of the prince’s bloodied chest.

Now, four hundred years after the Quetzal rose like a phoenix from ash, four hundred years after the city was brought under Spanish rule, everyone still refers to the city as Xela, the shortened version of its pre-conquest Mayan name, Xelajú.

I’m here to study Spanish, and for five hours a day, five days a week, I sit with my teacher, Aracely. She is five years younger than me and five months pregnant, with a pleasant double chin and a slash of blue eyeliner over each lid. She is a feminist; she is stylish; she has been working since she was ten years old. She carries Kleenex tucked into her sleeves because the cold morning air makes her nose run. “Mi nariz,” she says, shaking her head. “Oh, mi nariz.”

I love her the way I loved Madame Potvin in grade two, when our class had a ginea-pig and I got to keep him at the end of the year. Aracely writes grammatical notes for me on thin sheets of grey paper. We sit at a wooden table, on hard wooden chairs, next to a row of old desktop computers. We tell ourselves that the computers humming beside us are generating heat, even though that’s not really true. What’s true is that as Aracely quizzes me on verbs, we can see our own breath.

Making tortillasMaking tortillas

Home isn’t any warmer. I’m living in a homestay with Doña Maria Teresa, a woman who moves heavily through the house, sings to herself, talks to her dog, and makes the best food I’ll taste in Guatemala. Lime and tomato soup, whole-grain pancakes, fruit salads of papaya and pineapple. Maria Teresa’s long black hair is veined with ash-coloured streaks, but her face doesn’t seem old so much as soft and malleable like the dough used to make tortillas. She wears the traditional traje of indigenous women in Guatemala: yards of cotton wrapped around her waist and a blouse hand-embroidered with bright flowers.

She runs a store that sells mostly liquor to men who stop by at lunch or on their way home from work. The store is attached to her house, but Maria Teresa keeps herself separated from the men by a metal grill, passing them bottles or bowls of soup through the bars. She keeps track of her expenses and sales in a small notebook, and washes dishes and clothes by hand in a pila—a cement sink with a built-in washboard.



One weekend, to escape the diesel-fumes of Xela, my friends and I decide get out of town. We travel on a “chicken bus,” Guatemala’s cheapest form of transportation, a former school bus familiar to me from my childhood in Calgary. I sat at the front with Leanne Snowden, and the grade sixers at the back threw staples and dirt and bits of chalk at our heads. I don’t have to worry about bullies now, but my guidebook advises me to be careful of theft—lock the zippers of your bag, keep nothing in your pockets.

Chicken busChicken bus

Mostly I’m distracted and thrilled by the pimped-out glory of the chicken bus. Instead of the typical mustard-yellow exterior, the bus has been painted glittery blue and green and gold. Prayers are stenciled on the inside and outside: Jesu Cristo vive. Que dios nos acomparnos.

Passengers crowd three-to-a-seat or stand in the aisles, tilting into each other as the bus takes the turns too fast. There are women with babies tied to their backs, children with blackened teeth, men playing games on their cellphones, tourists who are exhilarated and exhausted. We are a moving congregation, addressed by traveling salesmen instead of a preacher. “Are you tired?” asks one of these men. “Is your energy low?”

The sermons sell us vitamins, small packets of shampoo, creams to cure rashes and acne and dry skin.



We arrive in Chichicastenango—or Chichi, as it’s known—the site of one of the biggest markets in Central America. Everything is here: blankets, sandals, fruit, vegetables, notebooks, chickens, tortillas. I buy a shoulder bag, a drum for my nephew, earrings, and—for an almost unimaginably kind man who lives in Calgary—a piece of cloth embroidered with the image of that rare bird, the Quetzal.

Chichi street sceneChichi street scene

After the market we visit the cathedral, a white building that houses many gods. A woman named Tomasa offers to give us a tour. When she smiles, which is often, she shows a beautiful plate of false teeth: there’s a gold, five-pointed star at the centre of each tooth. She tells us that Jesus is worshiped at the front of the cathedral, and at the back there are twelve Mayan altars. Here candles are burned—white for prosperity, pink for love, yellow to bless the dead—and they make a soft crackling sound.

Mayan priest -001Mayan priest

Outside, on the church steps, Mayan shamans burn pine resin or swing metal cans that release white, aromatic smoke. In jeans and sneakers, they are nothing like the shamans of my imagination. Tomasa says they are hired by families to pray for luck, or happy marriages, or better job opportunities. Across town there is a smaller, darker church that represents death, says Tomasa, but this one is used to celebrate life.

Chichi church stepsChichi church steps



Back in Xela, to celebrate life, we drink overly sweet mojitos then decide to go dancing. We head to a place called Pool and Beer, which provides exactly what the name advertises, then to another place that must have a name but I can’t remember it.

People are smoking and it reminds me of when you could still smoke in bars in Canada, when I was eighteen and went to Cowboys and drank 25-cent draft. Except now, instead of two-stepping with men who are too old for me, I salsa dance with a Guatemalan who is too young for me. He looks like a Latino Justin Bieber: slim, with a popped collar and a tongue-piercing that glows in the dark. It flashes like an ignited flame every time he smiles.

Xela eveningXela, evening

The next evening is one of my last in Xela, and I walk through the streets wistfully wishing I could stay. This city consistently failed to live up to my romantic imaginings, and yet, during my days here, I have felt calm and engaged in my life. The purpose of travel must be to abandon expectations. I lived here like a child. Made new friends, relied upon Maria Teresa’s kindness as though she were a mother, found my way around without GPS, learned the language one word at a time.

I find myself in the central square during the procession of Guadalupe. A plastic, lace-draped, neon-lit effigy of the saint is carried through the streets. After she passes, strips of firecrackers are set off. I’ve read that during Guatemala’s civil war, rebels sometimes set off firecrackers to mask the sound of their gunfire. I’m sure that I could stay in Guatemala for years and never get used to the sound. I cover my ears as a string of firecrackers explodes. When it’s over, the casings smolder and it looks like the street itself is burning, or like the pavement is volcanic.

Mayan candlesMayan candles

—Deborah Willis

Deborah Willis was raised in Calgary, where she currently makes her home. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was named one of the Globe and Mail’s best books of the year and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for fiction. She has been the writer-in-residence at the Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver and at the University of Calgary. Her fiction has appeared in PRISM InternationalGrainThe Walrus, and Zoetrope.


Sep 102013

Here’s the second in a series of short essays about writing sentences that I am putting together for the National Post in Toronto this week as part of the promotional fanfare leading to the publication of Savage Love. Yesterday I did but-constructions; today we have the rhetoric of lists. Here’s a teaser; it was just published earlier this evening.


    The first technique I learned and applied consciously was the list. This was in an early story “Pender’s Visions” that begins with a line – “Pender is a bottle, a glass, a table, a gun, a house.” The line becomes a refrain through the text, only to modulate in the last section of the story into “Pender, a bottle, a glass, a table, a gun, a house, a world…”

    This was, as I say, a first attempt (no apologies for being young), but you can see the rhythmic effect of a long series that becomes a structural effect by the repetition of the line throughout the text, and then becomes a thematic effect by the modulation of the series at the end. The modulation is especially significant because a series (of vaguely like entities) creates reader expectation, and the reader always enjoys having his expectations tweaked.

    Rabelais was a gargantuan list-writer. In an early chapter of Gargantua and Pantagruel, he gives a paragraph long list of plant matter the boy Gargantua uses to wipe his butt. “Then I wiped myself with sage, with fennel, with dill and anise, with sweet marjoram, with roses, pumpkins, with squash leaves, and cabbage, and beets, with vine leaves, and mallow, and Verbascum thapsus (that’s mullein, and it’s as red as my _____)–and mercury weed, and purslane, and nettle leaves, and larkspur and comfrey. But then I got Lombardy dysentery, which I cured by wiping myself with my codpiece.”

    This is complex and hilarious, hilarious because it is a long silly list that contains some very odd choices. Pumpkins? Note also that list makers pass on conventional punctuation and grammar. Instead of a series of items separated by commas right to the end, Rabelais modulates to comma-and breaks, then reverts to the earlier convention, then goes to comma-and to the close of the sentence. A lot of “ands.” Rhythm is everything in a list, but you don’t want the rhythm to send the reader off to sleep.

    Rabelais also disrupts the list with the Latin name for mullein and inserts a comical parenthetical (breaks voice, as it were) and comments directly to the reader, creating a syntactic drama that breaks the rhythm temporarily. Then he adds a but-construction (see my previous column) that gives the list a plot. Instead of an endless repetition of the same wiping act, the boy gets dysentery (with an ethnic slap at Lombards). Then we come back to wiping.

    This is brilliant list writing because it’s outrageously funny, rhythmic, and has plot. The basic principles are all there: list, rhythm, disruption (by changing up series members, by grammatical disruption, by authorial interruption, by but-construction), and plot.

Read the rest at the National Post.


Sep 032013

Green Apple

Stephen Sparks writes and sells books, and sometimes he writes about old books, forgotten books and unread books, always with a reflective, cadenced, ever-so-slightly diffident style that charmingly frames his passion and intelligence and his amazing ability to reveal the great art in what has been passed over as merely unique and eccentric. Would that we all had readers like this. Herewith he offers an addition to our mighty list of What It’s Like Living Here essays (we have well over forty now), a psychogeographic map, as he calls it, of his San Francisco, a “cryptic alphabet” of the heart. It ends, gorgeously, with a reference to nearby Colma, where the dead outnumber the living, and the fog obscuring “what it will obscure.”



We call it a city because it is simpler, but it is really a cities. There are as many San Franciscos as there are experiences, opinions, fantasies, dreams, glimpses, memories, understandings and misunderstandings of it. It is never just a place, always more than a geography: it is a collection of photographs, mementos, hills and wind and fog, afternoon drinks on crowded patios, and of course, bookstores.

I imagine a psychogeographic map, one that reveals in bright colors the places I frequent while the rest of the city—its eastern edge, its tangled, thickly greened heart—atrophies or diminishes into darkness. What shapes do my peregrinations take? I draw it and create a cryptic alphabet, untranslatable.

I live below the southern border of Golden Gate Park. Seated at my desk, where I spend many unproductive hours, I look into the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. The Garden’s collection includes plants from across the world—from Chile to the Mediterranean; across the street from my apartment are native Californian plants, less exotic, but, like all Californian flora to me, an eastern transplant, no less astonishing in their resilience and adaptation. There are redwoods growing here, planted a hundred years ago. From a placard placed at the entrance to the grove, I learn that redwoods can only survive within forty-five miles of the coast, where the incoming Pacific fog condenses on the needle-like leaves before falling in fat drops to the soil below. In effect, a redwood waters itself and, with its shared root system, it waters its neighbors as well.



Before moving here—and even now, six years later—I hadn’t thought myself much of a city person. I came here, for reasons I’ve never entirely understood, from a flat eastern seaside town popular with tourists for three months of the year and for the remainder desolate, boarded up, abandoned. In that place it was easier to self-mythologize: I lived the life of an exile, from what or where I couldn’t say, but on winter nights, when half of the streetlights were shut off and the salt-tinged wind creaked rickety signs on the boardwalk, the illusion of banishment was comforting.

In San Francisco, a city of exiles and passersby, of transients and tourists, it’s more difficult—to the point of impossibility—to conceive of myself as banished. If everyone is an exile, no one is. Even so, it’s true that I don’t entirely feel comfortable here; I’d list the usual complaints about encroaching gentrification, the Google buses, the fungal proliferation of boutiques and niche restaurants, the staggering rents, but to what end? San Francisco, a seven by seven mile squarish shape surrounded on three sides by water, can only contain so many people. For a time I’m one of them.

Maybe it’s the hesitancy of the earth here—does it want to be solid? does it want to crumble into the sea? Whatever the reason, I’ve never quite felt as rooted as those redwoods, which, I’ve learned, hold tight not by going deeper, but by being more expansive. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from them.



My daily commute, by bicycle, leads me through the museum concourse in Golden Gate Park. I pass the Academy of Science, with its living roof, the DeYoung Museum, with its twisted tower (the panoramic view from which never fails to impress visitors), the statue of Cervantes and his immortal duo, another statue of stately Goethe and Schiller, and come out on the north side of the park, where seven long blocks ahead I see a wall of verdant growth, the Presidio.  San Francisco’s northwestern quarter is green and despite the drawbacks of living on this corner of the city (the fog, the wind, the seeming remoteness from the cultural life of the city) I feel lucky to have landed here. It feels only half-city, a compromise.

If I continue north on my bicycle after exiting the park, ignoring for a moment my obligation to turn east on Clement St., the heart of “new new Chinatown” or “new new new Chinatown,” depending on who’s labeling, to get to the labyrinthine bookstore where I earn enough of a living to scrape by, I enter the Presidio, once a landscape of windswept dunes and coastal scrub occupied seasonally by Ohlone Indians and later a military outpost for Spanish, Mexican, and finally U.S. soldiers. After a short, steep ascent—bike maps of San Francisco are color-coded to indicate the grade of the city’s multitude of hills and every cyclist quickly learns to navigate accordingly—I follow one of several winding roads further north. Just at the top of the initial climb into the Presidio is a breathtaking view, of which San Francisco has almost too many, of the Bay and Alcatraz; on my left the Goldsworthy spire points toward the heavens.

Golden Gate

Today I want to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and so stick to the westernmost road, hugging the edge of the city, the country, the continent, coming out just below the toll plaza. Is there a psychic corollary to living on the edge like I do here, especially one as fragile as San Francisco? I remember my first experience of earthquake: things swayed, as if someone plucked a cube of Jell-O. I expected it to have been… staccato, abrupt.

So much of what I love about San Francisco is getting out of San Francisco. There is no more apt symbol of this than the Golden Gate Bridge, a ubiquitous symbol for a reason: it is a marvel. Crossing it, I inevitably think of early explorers’ inability to locate the entrance to the Bay. Its mouth seems vast as I’m buffeted by winds and chilled by swift incoming fog, but for two centuries of European exploration, it lay undiscovered, a small passageway leading to an enormous, fertile body of water that even now, plowed by container ships so large they are measured in by twenty-foot increments on their way to and from the Port of Oakland, is capable of wildness. A friend who swims in the bay—too cold for me—once collided with a seal; both man and beast came up, wide-eyed, and quickly churned wakes in opposite directions. The same friend tells stories of swimmers who get caught in strong currents and are funneled out of the bay into the vast, bone-chilling Pacific.



And now I too feel myself getting swept out to sea, away from San Francisco, out toward the rugged Farralon Islands and unfathomable Pacific beyond, a sea that Melville rightly describes:

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.

Green Apple

Resisting the pull—but Point Reyes! Mount Tamalpais! Big Sur!—I make my way back to Green Apple, where I’m surrounded five days a week by a quarter of a million books and untold volumes of dust. My San Francisco is intimately bound up with this place: it’s the hub from which my experience of the city radiates. Green Apple has only a few slits of natural light: it is designed, like the objects it contains, to focus attention inward; also like books, it is as much a passageway, leading me back out into the dazzling sunlight, wonderstruck and receptive.




Out again, I watch the fog rolling in—evening is coming on. I’ve never been satisfied with the verb rolling. The fog doesn’t move that way, it streaks, it seeps, it may come on little cat feet, but it stays; its tail may dreamily twitch, but its ears never prick up at the sound of movement. It settles in.

I look up when I step outside. Here, where the temperature rarely deviates to extremes and the sky, when it is blue, is a cold blue unique to this place, I always look up. The view from my window reveals the western side of Sutro Hill and the massive Sutro Tower, for many a more ubiquitous landmark than the Bridge.

Like the Bridge, Sutro Tower is a conduit, a portal: it’s a telecommunications tower, bringing the rest of the world—or that sliver of it that makes it onto television and the radio—to the city. When I wake up, I draw the curtain and look for it. Some mornings it’s there, others it’s not; sometimes it’s parts, sometimes it’s whole. Its appearance or absence guides my decisions about the day. When I crave the shelter of the fog, I stay in my neighborhood, The Sunset, feeling very much perched on a lonely edge of the world. Should I crave sunshine, I know that a fifteen-minute commute east, on the other side of that hill, will bring me to sunshine. This ability to choose one’s weather is tempting to narcissists—it can start to feel that the world was made for our moods.



San Francisco breeds and eludes the desire to tell. An old friend who I haven’t corresponded with much over the past few years recently implored, “Tell me about living in San Francisco.” I started to reply, describing the city and my life here, but soon found myself unable to continue. Was I overwhelmed by the task? Was it the city that stopped me or myself? How well must one live a place to become part of it?


For instance, I left unmentioned the secret stairways I go in search of—yes, there’s a guidebook, but it’s necessary to make some discoveries on my own—and, as an inveterate walker, ascend into the silence above the city. At twilight the hills are especially alluring, twinkling car lights and fiery, visually confusing sunsets competing for attention. Looking east from the top of 17th St., near Twin Peaks, I take in a vast swath of the Bay Area: from downtown San Francisco to the Bay Bridge—now strung with lights—across the Bay to Oakland, the Berkeley hills, and beyond, Mt. Diablo. (From the peak of Diablo, I once read, you can see more of the earth’s surface than from any other point except Kilimanjaro. Although I later learned this was factually untrue, I still like to believe it, and recall with wonder an afternoon I spent near its peak with M., sheltered from the wind behind an outcropping of stone. From up there we could see the across the windmill-studded Central Valley to the snow-capped Sierras, which cast a rain shadow so enormous Nevada and Utah are rendered desert, in the east; to the west, rare clear skies and the curved horizon beyond the Farallons, where the Great Whites breed.)

Bay Bridge

Even here, I’ve offered only one city, not a cities. I haven’t touched upon afternoon ferry rides to Sausalito, where, if you’re hardy enough, you can tramp up (up, up) into the Marin Headlands, never once having sat in a car; I left unmentioned the poetry room at City Lights or the shape of late afternoon shadows at Vesuvio’s, the iconic bar next door; I’ve neglected the Conservatory of Flowers; failed to elaborate on the lack of cemeteries in the city—there are only two, the rest are in Colma, where the dead outnumber the living… But then, every account is patchy. Perhaps there’s no better homage to San Francisco than to let the fog obscure what it will obscure.


— Stephen Sparks



Stephen Sparks (@rs_sparks) lives in San Francisco and blogs at Invisible Stories. He somewhat regularly contributes to Tin House and 3:AM Magazine.


Aug 092013


Here’s a What It’s Like Living Here essay from a village in Indonesia (a land of islands) by a very new writer, Yeniffer Pang-Chung, whom I met when I was in Halifax last November. She was leaving just after Christmas for an exchange trip to Indonesia and I took the opportunity to ask her to write something for NC. Yeniffer was born in Panama but grew up just outside Toronto. Depok seems like a place of perpetual summer. I love the idea of a community swimming hole at a bend in the river. I am mystified by some of the food they sell in the market. I am entranced by the five daily prayer calls coming from the mosque next door and the TV on for for prayers from Jakarta. (I had a friend once who went to Mass every Sunday in front of the TV so he could make his morning tennis match. Who says TV cannot be a conduit for God’s grace? Does God worry about such things?)




It is the call of Azan at dawn, it is the first prayer call for the village. The far-reaching call is even louder with the mosque located within steps from my bedroom window.  This call is the signal to begin yet another day in Depok Desa, a village with a population of 5000 in West Java Island, Indonesia. It is one of five prayer calls that will sound throughout the day. There are slight sounds of movement in my host family’s home, the first stirring from a night’s sleep, and soon enough, the television is turned on and tuned in to the televised prayer from Jakarta.

My own wakeup call is the burst of sunshine through my window and the loud cries of the children hurrying to school. Occasionally, there will be a curious tap on my street-facing bedroom window, or better yet, the children will boldly stick their heads through my open window and sounds of their mischievous giggles will rouse me from a night’s sleep. I wake up, wash up and eat my breakfast of rice and fried vegetables. Time permitting, I make my way to the front porch of my sunny yellow house with my instant coffee to take in the sights and sounds of the village.


My eyes travel down the recently paved main road and take in the colourfully painted homes and mosques. Clothing dries on the wrought iron fences, clothes lines, and store-bought drying racks in the front of the homes. It is loud and challenges one’s notion of a village as a place for quiet. There is noise everywhere. I can hear the steady pounding of nails into wood just a few feet away from where I sit, the sound of workers upholstering the furniture that my host family sells in the market. There are motorcycles, mopeds, and trucks rumbling up and down the road. Traffic lights do not exist in the village. Horns sound periodically as the drivers alert other drivers and pedestrians of their imminent passing. It can be shock initially, the screech of a horn in a place where it does not quite seem to belong.


My sense of time is altered in the village. Everything moves at a slower pace. An easy five-minute walk can seem endless with the sun beating down relentlessly. However, I do walk; I walk constantly, either with a purpose or just to be outside.  The village is green. It is green with lush vegetation in the form of palm trees, exotic fruit trees, wild tropical plants, and expanses of grass-like sprouts in the rice fields.


It is surrounded by mountains and rice paddies. Sometimes I feel as if there is almost too much to look at. I venture to the warung (convenience store) daily to satisfy a sweet tooth or to refresh myself with a cold drink. The warungs add even more colour to the landscape with their variety of bright-printed single serve packages of cookies, chips, laundry detergent, and flip flops hanging down in columns in the front of the stores.


Walking along the main road, I see tarps laid out along the side of the road bearing unhulled rice, shelled peanuts, and corn kernels roasting under the blazing sun. The season is dry, hot and humid with temperatures averaging the mid-30s daily. The produce will stay out until the first rainfall hits, and then it is quickly collected and saved for the next day’s promise of sunshine.

Grains drying

A steep climb awaits me if I take one of the many side roads branching off the single main street. A rocky path leads up the mountain to smaller and less visible sub-villages, clusters of homes and explosions of natural beauty. Towering trees bring temporary relief from the sunshine. The mountain homes differ from those along the main village road. The contrast juxtaposes traditional Indonesian craft with the ever growing shift to modernity. The village Anyaman homes are raised on wooden stilts and constructed out of intricate bamboo weaves. Nestled between these homes are brightly painted stucco houses that rest solidly on ground.




I return to the main road where all my new family and friends reside. Alone here one is never quite alone. Coming down back to the main village, the noise engulfs me, beginning with the familiar honks of vehicles passing by. The cries and laughter of children can be heard everywhere. Walking down the road of Depok is an invitation to be spoken to. Children and adults call out “mau kemana” and “dari mana” — common greetings that inquire about where you plan on going and where you have come from. House visits are common. My friends and I congregate and plan the day’s adventure. Food is usually involved; there is food everywhere in Depok. One of the first phrases one learns living in the village is ‘makan dulu’ which translates into “eat first.” The homes I visit offer a plethora of snacks from coconut biscuits to deep fried bananas (salty or sweet), fish chips, coated peanuts, and an abundance of exotic fruits.



A trip down to the river is particularly appealing during the sweltering hot days. There is no carved out road to the river but dirt paths molded and reshaped by frequent rains. The descent is slow and rocky. This section of river is located across from two elementary schools, so children frequent the place, scampering down the hills with ease. They are quick to shed their clothes and dive off of the rock studded banks. The rocks allow you to sit securely and let the rapids fall fast and hard against your body. The river is a haven. The view is magnificent with towering green vegetation, rice fields, and clear skies all around. I feel as if I am sequestered in a tiny piece of paradise. But the short hike up to the main road feels longer in damp, heavy clothes.



I am ravenous after time in the water. A craving for Mie Baso brings me to the Pameungpeuk market. It is a 20 minute angkot ride. Angkots are pickup trucks modified with wooden benches and a metal framed tarp; they are the most accessible transportation to the market for non-drivers. Pameungpeuk is the place to go for fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, clothing, and school books. The market is a dimly lit maze of stalls with loosely defined sections dedicated to selling food, housewares, and clothing. Families of goats, lone chickens, and dogs scurry about the market amongst the busy shoppers. It is easy to get lost in the maze. Outside of the market are free standing stores, food carts, and restaurants. Mie Baso and Mie Ayam are the most popular food choices for visitors to the market. Both are broth-based noodle dishes served with either chicken meatballs or stir-fried chicken. They are comfort food, eaten with sambal, fresh chili sauce, and preferably washed down with a cold drink.





At the end of the day, the best place to relax is home on the porch where I can settle in for the warm night and watch the comings and goings of the rest of the village. The noise that marks the day time disperses.  Greetings trail off into the night as the village becomes pitch black; there are no streetlights to help one navigate. However, the quiet never quite closes in. People fill the mosques after sunset during Magrib, the most essential prayer time of the day, and their prayer chants buzz through the village. The engines of passing motor vehicles merge with the sounds of insects in the night, the cries of stray cats in heat, and the hoarse croak of the Tokeh, a red spotted lizard that punctuates the night. Then night breaks again when the call of Azan filters through my sleepy haze. Roosters crow, people wake up, and before you realize it, a new day has begun.


 —Yeniffer Pang-Chung


Yeniffer Pang-Chung is a Psychology and Health and Society Graduate from York University. She was born in Panama City, migrated to Toronto, Ontario and now resides in Mississauga. Her passion for volunteering took her to the far reaches of Indonesia on an unforgettable experience of living and breathing in a new culture, while participating in various community development initiatives abroad – something she hopes to continue in.



May 032013


Donald  Quist just moved to Bangkok, oh, a few months ago after graduating with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, making a new home and giving NC a chance to add a fascinating new city/country our growing list of What It’s Like Living Here essays. These essays have been part of the NC package from the beginning, adding a wonderfully human and personal aspect to what the magazine offers (which is, well, human and personal anyway). Take time to look through the whole list and then think about where you live, how beautiful it can be just stepping out your door.



Start at Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)

Climb the large stone steps to the center tower. Careful. The stairs from the second landing are steep. The rock is smooth and it’s easy to slip with sweating hands. There is a single metal rail, rusted red, wrapped in rope. It offers some grip. Pull yourself onto the next level. There are more steps but the incline is too dangerous for visitors. Large strips of pink tarp hug the base of the tower like a castle moat. It prevents you from trying to go any higher.



Look up. The temple prang is a cone tapering to the sky, a tower covered in thousands of seashells and pieces of colored porcelain. There is a row of clay warriors, their shinning eyes and armor made from tiny tiles. The spire seems to rest on their backs and arms. Circle around the base, clockwise, stopping four times to trace the designs on ceramic flowers with your thumb. They feel like warm dinner plates. Imagine the hands that built these flowers turning into dust. 

Look over the monastery from 150 feet. Watch the monks stroll the temple grounds. Their orange robes are bright against the grey footpaths and green shrubs. Listen. Somewhere monks are chanting. Their voices pour from horn loudspeakers posted throughout the complex. It’s clearer at this height. Listen. It’s a steady tone and rhythm, a stream of soft vowels. It’s gapless. Their words are a river. You’re swimming without water. Had you noticed it before? 


 Take the Ferry

The east side of Wat Arun runs along the Chao Phraya. There is a dock where you can catch a long-tail boat into the city. The boat rocks against the gentle current. The breeze off the water smells like salt and iron and dirt. Breathe it in. The river is dense and strong. It is a pillar. On the approaching shore, in the shadow of high-rises, are mossy forts and remnants of river trading posts. There is the Grand Palace spackled with flakes of gold, glittering. 

Imagine the Palace last night, covered in lights to commemorate Loi Krathong. All over the city there is singing and music, and fireworks bursting like cannon fire. Sky lanterns rise into the night like blooms of flying jellyfish. Thousands walk down to the river. Imagine you follow them, caught in the wave of a new kind of intimacy. Imagine. You feel their sweat on your naked arms. Together, under the Rama VIII Bridge, you light candles and make wishes and sail them down stream on flowery crowns of banana leaves and coconut husks. You notice a group of boys a few meters south, wading through the muddy water. They are fishing krathongs from the river, blowing-out the candles and selling them to others waiting on the shore. Pray to the river goddess that your real hopes will float. 


 Head East

Follow the floodwater lines running along the bottom of buildings. Sidestep garbage bags and puddles from dripping A/C window units above the street. The air is heavy, like a dank basement. It carries an angry rot. Get lost in the buzzing of motorbikes and auto-rickshaws. 

Take a right, now, onto an unnamed soi. It is too narrow for a car. The small road is lined with morning street-food vendors tucked under rows of evergreen patio umbrellas. They sell porridge and pastries, soup and dim sum. 

Nod to people as you pass. Smile. They smile back. 


Make a left on the next street. Follow the webs of telephone wire past a dozen convenience stores. The buildings share a similar architecture. Squat balconies with fat columns, decorative moldings and cornices like a Roman basilica. Patches of black mold stain the paint and facades. 


Cross a short bridge arching over a canal. Hua Lamphong Railway Station is on the horizon.

Take the Subway at Hua Lamphong

Walk around the front entrance to find an escalator leading down to a long tunnel, trapping the humidity from the city above. The walls are sweating. The high ceiling echoes a hundred sandals slapping the floor. The tunnel ends at a ticket counter. Purchase a fare to Thanon Sukhumvit and then take two more sets of escalators, down, down, to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit platform. 


The train is arriving. It rolls to a stop, lining-up with the yellow directional arrows painted on the lip of the platform. There is a loud hiss as the doors spring open. A blast of cold air slaps your forehead as you push your way on. It fills quickly. Pinned by a mass of people against the back wall of the passenger car, you can barely lift your arms. 


Exit at Sukhumvit (Terminal 21 Mall)

The stairs lead up from the subway to the ground-level entrance of a shopping complex designed like an airport terminal. The women at the info desk are dressed like flight attendants. The escalators are decorated like departure gates. Each floor is themed with a global city: Paris, Tokyo, London, Istanbul, San Francisco and Hollywood. You are in Rome. There are pillars, arches, faux frescoes and marble angels looking down on shoppers. 


English is everywhere, and whether it is a spa promotion or a sale on high-heels, for a moment you are literate again. You understand more than bits and pieces of passing conversations. Two young men walk by wearing tank tops and folded bandana headbands. One of the boys has camouflage cargo pants, while the other has neon pink short-shorts. They are having an argument over which street market is bigger, JJ or Chatuchak. Don’t point out that JJ Market and Chatuchak Market are the same. Do not interject that many places in the city have more than one name in English, and the J sound and the Ch often get confused. Keep it to yourself. Knowing makes you feel like less of a tourist.  

Head West 

At the bottom of the stairs exiting Terminal 21 there is a man with one arm and no legs lying on his belly. He shakes the change in his paper cup. The back of his t-shirt reads, “I LOVE THE KING.” Give him 20 baht, and then turn right. 

The hotels and office buildings block the sun. The tracks of the BTS Skytrain cast a shadow over the six lanes of traffic. It gives the impression of a stormy overcast. The Skytrain rumbles like thunder as it passes above. 

Ignore the thumping club music from the already open go-go bars.  Ignore the peddlers calling out to you. You may not know where you’re headed, or what you’re looking for, but you know it is something larger than a trinket or souvenir. It is something deeper than a watch, bong or bootleg DVD. 

Thanon Sukhumvit turns into Thanon Phloen Chit. There is construction everywhere. Crews of laborers in hardhats and flip-flops are raising new luxury condominiums from the rubble of old luxury condominiums. Above the chorus of jackhammers and drills are the staccato blasts of car horns. The traffic crawls forward as motorists honk in frustration. The exhaust fumes mix with the smell of street vendors grilling pork. Layers of black dust hug the street. It’s harder to breathe. You taste smoke in the air. Somewhere people are chanting. It’s coming from a gated square, ahead on the right.


Erawan Shrine

Watch the believers light incense. They circle the shrine clockwise laying wreaths of yellow flowers, bowing to the four faces of the Hindu god, Brahma. Some are on their knees, their eyes squeezed tight in prayer. A few feet away, shielded from the sun by an open gazebo, a female dance troupe sways to a chorus of Thai folk songs. They wear towering headpieces and traditional dresses with shimmering layers that wrap around them and drape over their shoulders. Their faith makes them impervious to the heat. 

Scan the crowded square for another statue. Look for a depiction similar to the one at Wat Arun, protruding from the temple prang—Indra, the lord of heaven, riding Erawan, an elephant with three heads. 


But there is no giant white elephant of the clouds, or his master. There is no Erawan at Erawan Shrine. Only Brahma. 

You may never know why. There may always be some facet of this city that eludes your understanding, even its name. Is it Bangkok or Thonburi Si Mahasamut or Rattanakosin or Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit or just Krung Thep Maha Nakhon for short? Was the city named for its flowers or for its treasures gracing the ocean? The City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.

Move closer. Look. Listen. Follow the current circling the Shrine. Press your palms together and bow to something beyond your comprehension. Bow, in respect for what you don’t know. 


—Donald Quist
 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Donald Quist earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His creative work has appeared in several print and online journals, including Hunger Mountain and The Adroit Journal. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand.  
Jan 312013

Joe Milan
Herewith Joe Milan’s lovely, ever so slightly melancholy portrait of the Seoul he has come to know teaching at the Catholic University of Korea. This is contemporary Seoul, dominated by a priapic, neon-lit tower, the traditional architecture destroyed by war and rebuilt to resemble someone else’s urban dream. What should be his own world is strange to Joe Milan; his life in the city is punctuated by memories of home in America and rumours of war. His Seoul is a complicated place, riven with memory, tradition, absence and paradox. But sweepers shape the piles of raked leaves to look like hearts and the rice cakes his grandmother serves have the scent of pine.

This is the latest in our growing collection of What It’s Like Living Here essays, the 41st in fact. Think of that.


Seoul Tower


Seoul Tower, a tourist magnet in the heart of the city and the best quick way to see the place, reaches into the sky, perched alone on a forested hill apart from the packed clothing shops, red sauce stained food carts and sterile department stores of Myung-dong. In the shade of trees, you huff your way up the winding road. There are heart shaped piles of leaves raked onto the walkway and every few meters piles of rocks stacked beside the path. A young child, biting his lip, totters toward one of the piles with a rock. His mother cheers him on, “Put it on the top and make a wish.”  Years ago you did the same. But unlike this child, you tumbled and fell short before the stack.

The tower stabs the sky, a rocket ready to leave the trees and the ancient rock walls behind. For centuries this hill was a lookout. You imagine bored men with long beards and spears in hand staring out to the ridgelines, waiting for the signal fires of incoming invaders. Today’s soldiers stand watch on hills fifty kilometers north of Seoul. They are mostly eighteen and nineteen-year-old boys doing their military service, cursing their fate, waiting for a different sort of fire that would pop and boom and flash and screech and burn.

Heart-shaped leaves

When you reach the elevator doors it is dark until the walls burst into blue light from hidden projectors in the ceiling. An image of the tower at night appears on the elevator door, back-dropped by stars that you had never seen in the sky in Korea. Lasers write in English “love n tower.” You wonder if they are going for “lovin tower” or “love in tower.”

At the observation deck you’re greeted by an attendant dressed in white and black like a maître d’. She bows slightly–a nod really–and motions you around the half-wall to the windows that surround you. From up here the city is field of concrete buildings and glass towers rising and falling toward the river: the Han River. You are not sure, but it could mean the “One River,” or the “Korean River,” or even the “Suffering River,” but your Korean isn’t as good as it should be. The river is a bluish crack between the two halves of gray city. Crisscrossing veins of tight alleyways wrinkle the city, hold the city together with backstreets wide enough only for scooters loaded down with TVs and tin boxes of cheap Chinese food. Alleyways walled with brick and concrete branded with random acts of paint that always seem to morph into the same dull gray. This gray, like fog smothering and hiding a hillside, is the Seoul you remember from your childhood visits.

But this isn’t the same city. Speckled in the gray are wide highways and glass towers and miniature red brick boxes that litter the gray field to the base of white stone mountains wrapping the city. Your eyes trace the spine of the mountains where, long ago, tigers cloaked by the black of night, crept down and preyed upon the villages clustered just outside of the city walls. Now on those same peaks blasé hikers dressed in florescent pink and blue Gortex drink rice beer and eat savory pancakes.


You think of the mountains of your life in America, the jagged knife edges of the Cascades and the Olympics: young and bold mountains skirted in a shag of green. These mountains in front of you have spots too ragged for the trees where the naked rock shows white. The new concrete poured over cracks in the alley by your apartment, yet to turn gray from the rains, is white, too. The rains leave trails of gray streaks clinging to the cracked corners of windows and the bars that guard them. You think about the concrete your father taught you to pour. When you rushed, didn’t let it settle right, tiny fissures and wrinkles broke to the surface. He would shake his head as his finger traced the cracks and say, “Haste makes waste, boy.”

Here, in Korea, elderly faces speak of decades of haste.


Have you eaten?

You finger the stenciling on the window in front of you. It reads 9,596.52 Km to Los Angeles. Seattle is in the same direction, though not as distant. You remember the cold damp air coated in the smell of pine and cedar. Below the tower, to your surprise, are green blotches dropped in the gray field: parks. They’re newer, brighter, than the growth on the mountains. This is where old men in Member’s Only jackets, hunched over lacquered wood boards tattooed with black grids, play Go. They argue over where the next white or black game piece should go. Old women gather in the parks, too, chatting while they unpack their foiled rolls of seaweed and rice: Kim Bap.

The other green blotches are the palaces with tree lined parade grounds rebuilt for the umpteenth time after the invasions that came every century or so. Out of the rubble of the last invasion, people rebuilt Seoul anew with brick, glass and concrete. They rebuilt Seoul replicating the buildings of the world outside of Korea. The replicas of itself are the only buildings built with wood.

You try to find your apartment, Block 20. One gray lego block among thirty other blocks flanking the glistening steel bowl of World Cup Stadium. Twenty-five years old and already your apartment looks dilapidated. You’ve considered calling a location scout. You would tell them, “Hey man, I got the perfect place for you to film 1984 and you know remakes are all the rage.”

When you open the creaking cold metal door, walk down the half-wall corridor, step into the dark stairway where the lights flicker to life after a few steps, emerge out of the building into the hazy sunlight, and find your way through the maze of double parked cars jamming the parking lot, you see them. The retirees. Beside the first floor windows they crouch over trashcans and styrofoam packing boxes tending their gardens of verdant life. The old men and women are guerrilla gardeners suited up in dirty white gloves and teal visors. They start early in the morning, planting, weeding, battling the gray one clump of vegetables at a time. No one tells them, “You can’t do that” since, they are old. And here, at least for people, age gets respect.


A vine has snaked up three floors of your building, clinging to your window, offering what could be cucumbers, or some knobby vegetable more bent and rugged than anything you’ve seen at the supermarket. Can you take one for a salad, or will a battle-weary old woman come knocking on the door to ask for her harvest?

From the trashcans and styrofoam boxes along the sidewalks, the gardens grow. On rooftops and huddled in demolished housing lots, these gardens grow. But you know this is no green fad. This is memory that is spoken even now in the elderly’s greetings, “Have you eaten?”



Yesterday you pushed and swayed and weaved through the currents of people in the subway station and jammed yourself into the subway car. You let go of your briefcase and it didn’t fall to the ground. It floated, defying gravity, hanging with the friction of bodies dressed in suits.

Youthful figures in black, their headphones jammed in their ears, all silently ignoring the chug of train tracks as if this is part of a pact where everyone pretends not to be clutched by the crowd swaying with the train. The flat-screen monitor above the exit doors loops a video about how to use a smoke hood hidden in padlocked glass boxes at the station. There are at least ten steps and you felt like you should take notes. There had been fires on the trains before.


At lunch you heard the sirens. Wailing loudspeakers erupted from their hiding spots on poles painted like trees. Fake branches and leaves shrouded the speaker horns and square boxes. Radio transmitters? Looking out your office window, you saw the cars stop and the sidewalks cleared. You waited for the flashes from a far off ridgeline, artillery fire booming and shells smashing and battering the buildings, dogs howling, fires exploding and engulfing the city then raging and rioting all the way up to the peaks. The office corridor hummed without pause, and you heard someone laughing. You alone, it seemed, wondered of the possibilities.



Everything in Seoul Tower is in English. Everything new is tattooed with it. On neon signs jutting off buildings, on the menus in the Korean dive bars serving “pork intestine,” in catchy commercial slogans, and on K-pop tracks that old expats describe–with derision–as nothing more than “nursery rhymes slapped over euro-techno beats.” English isn’t hidden away in the enclaves of black walled of foreign bars of Itaewon anymore. It was in those kind of places you hid after work, always looking for a blank space of wall to add your name in chalk. You hid there with the other English teachers and American soldiers. Those places are gone like most of the people who wrote their names on walls.

In Itaewon, vendors shout in English “we have clothes in your size.” But outside this little corner of Seoul, you force yourself to speak Korean, hesitantly, trying to spit out phrases while gagged by the rocks of verbs and conjugations. In the beginning you motioned and pointed and people would look at you with confusion and ask, “Mwol?” But now, they understand you and applaud you. You can order yourself a coffee. It is something, although your pronunciation is butchered to the point of another language altogether. Being half-Korean doesn’t help. Nor does that feeling of shame whenever you utter that fact and they search your face for something left behind.

You worry that your English is getting worse. With lightning speed, chopped and spliced with slang, you feel lost with your friends in America on the phone. English is continuing without you as each year passes. You are losing your ear for the only language you have while surrounded by a language you should have had.


The concrete house

As you make your way back to the elevator in Seoul tower, you see through an opposite window a fog of buildings climbing a hill in the distance. That’s where your grandmother lives. You know it; its shade of gray is darker and older than the rest.

Next week is Chuseok, an ancient holiday celebrating the harvest and the dead. Your apartment, like the subways, the streets, all the gray city should be empty and cold except for a few stragglers without a hometown or a family to go to. Almost no one is from Seoul. You’ll buy a box of fruits to give your grandmother and you’ll carry it with you on the abandoned subway on one of the few days you can get a seat.


But the night before Chuseok, you’ll gather with your friends and have a few drinks. Someone’s girlfriend will feel bad for all of you. And before she leaves for her own hometown, deep in a dark corner of a friend’s concrete walled apartment, you and your foreign friends–who each have lost a parent to one disease or another–will solemnly stand as she lays out a table with food and empty plates. She will tell you this is a Jaesa: a way to honor the departed family spirits, something many Koreans don’t do anymore.

There will an empty plate set out for your father. You’ll pour liquor into a shot glass and circle it around the incense smoke three times and pour it out into a bowl. Taking a fork, instead of chopsticks, you’ll clang it down three times against your father’s empty plate and rest it on the fried fish dish. You’ll imagine him tearing apart southern fried catfish, the crumbs littering the plate. He had always missed “real catfish from way back down home.” He would say the same here, but maybe the thought will be good enough. Three times all the way to the floor, resting your forehead against your hands, you’ll kneel and bow and breathe deep. Then you’ll walk out of the room so your father’s spirit can eat. You’ll miss your father as you stare at the web of cracks scarring the wood print linoleum floor.

On Chuseok you’ll go to your grandmother’s apartment. The two of you will eat: glassy japjae noodles, chilly red pork, and damp white and green rice cakes filled with sugar and the smell of pine. Afterward, as the sun sets behind the haze, you’ll walk with her through the grayed alleys on cracked pavement. Soon her neighborhood, built forty years ago, will be torn down and buried in memory for newer apartments that too, will crack and gray with the rains. She will say in Korean to her friends that pass by, “This is my grandson. This is my grandson. He came home for Chuseok.”

When you reach the old house that she lived in years ago, built when the concrete buildings were new and clean, she’ll say, “This is where I lived.”

“I remember,” you’ll say.

—Joe Milan


Joe Milan has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA, and his most recent landing is in Seoul where he writes and teaches at the Catholic University of Korea. Joe is a recent graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts .

Aug 092012

Herewith a lovely, sombre essay on living in New York City, almost a threnody in its preoccupation with the dead, the wintry weather, the rain, the weight of living, yet rich in observation, lived detail — the description of the Hudson is a word-painting. This is New York like no other.

I met Tiara Winter-Schorr when she took an undergraduate writing class with me at the University at Albany a dozen years ago. She was the class star, stylish, courteous, curious and smart.  She had the spark every teacher is looking for. We’ve been friends ever since, hardly ever seeing each other, sometimes silent for months and months, but always ready to catch up, find out how the story is going. Shortly after we met, Tiara dropped out of school to help care for her dying father. Just last year, she graduated from Columbia University with a degree in creative writing.


Hudson, Part 1

I live nine stories above the water, above a river. I arrived to stay seven years ago just after my father’s death, during the kind of deluge that occurs in Manhattan only at the water’s edge. The streets around here are always desolate, yet densely populated with trees and cars. But as sheets of solid rain splattered onto my windshield that night, I sat waiting for a parking spot and looking into the brightly lit windows of apartment after apartment. I imagined that the circle of buildings around me held a teeming mass of people. I watched the sky change from shades of deep red to grey and then to shades of off-black. The river has no self. It is never blue or green. That night and every night, the water canvasses the moods of the sky for deep or pastel shades, the George Washington Bridge for green light, the artificial street lamps for putrid yellow, and then lays out a palette in globs of motion and color. Several hours later, I parked three inches too close to the only fire hydrant in a two block area and received my first parking ticket.

The river has almost convinced me that my apartment exists at the edge of a flat world. My living room is dominated by a large expanse of glass, a window too large to be called a window. But the view is cut short, endless until it abruptly stops beyond the George Washington Bridge and a cluster of low-income housing projects. Here is where the world seems to stop. Boats fall off the edge and disappear into another world that is not-city. Boats come into the city this way too, of course, and I know they are most likely heading to a waste-processing plant about a half mile from my building.

Stretches of the West Side highway race above and alongside the river, which is the most stunning place to drive in northern Manhattan. The Hudson catches the glare from the sky and coats itself in whatever shimmers it can trap from the sun. But you will be constantly reminded of the gross show of engines against the flow of the water. Drive fast enough and you are convinced that the narrow strip of water is motionless, as if boats drag slowly along an inferior liquid ground.

This narrow strip of the Hudson has harbored me, defending against the twin illusions of the city that you are both landlocked and free. The traffic at rush hour teaches me differently. There is no room between bumpers; there is music from other cars, pure cacophony pouring into your car windows even in cold weather; there are children and teenagers who stare with unimpressed faces into mine. Here next to the river, I find that I am not landlocked, yet not free.

My first winter living above the Hudson was one that offered no refuge, not even the double panes of glass that barred me from the elements. The wind was the river’s first omen that cold was coming into the city. The lights in the sky turned to different shades of grey each day and the river pushed forth choppy whitecaps. Living here will send you searching for refuge and you will find it when you realize there is none in a city like Manhattan – save for what the river offers you in smells of salt or the illusion that the humidity coating your skin is a kind of armor.


The Dead

My neighbor directly to the south is Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, a shelter for the dead that expands over 24 acres up rolling hills. The decrepit entrances are not trustworthy except for the most modern, which is a glass door leading to cramped office where you can inquire about obtaining a small plot in this place, Manhattan’s only active cemetery. I did this once, spoke to stout woman with grayish skin about a place to put my father’s urn that now sits in my living room. I am gently informed that only mausoleum spaces are still available at the cost $9,000. The high stacks of marble niches look too much like the low-income housing projects which blacks out the view from my living room window.

But the grass is greener and softer here than in most parks, and the concrete pathways are cleaner too. Never mind that the dead only share this space with bats, coyotes, and desperate or crazily brave homeless people. The coyotes arrived sometime last summer, most likely making a long trek down train tracks from more forsaken neighborhoods in the northern Bronx where packs of feral dogs and coyotes still roam free. One small female was found shot dead, not far from the grave of Jacob Astor IV, who died in 1912 when the Titanic sunk. Looking around at the building-size statues of angels and Virgin Marys, you may have the odd feeling that a gated community for the dead has been invaded by wildlife, both human and animal. The ground plots have been taken up entirely, and the bones of the former people are a reminder of old New York opulence and the artists who eked out a living nearby. There are a series of Astors, including the Titanic victim; there is Greta Garbo’s lesbian lover, and the son of Charles Dickens. Ralph Ellison also came to rest here, most famous for his novel The Invisible Man. Most of us in upper Manhattan – Harlem and Washington Heights – are still the invisible to likes of the wealthier classes living further south on the island. But here at Trinity, they are all invisible, save for the luxurious statues and monuments erected in their honor. The further uphill you trudge through the winding acres of lush green life, the older the graves become. At the peak of the hill, you will find the oldest carved grave in New York, that of Richard Churcher who lived a mere five years before coming here for a final place of protection. I often wonder how he died, perhaps because my own brother lived only ten years himself. But I cannot imagine leaving my father in one of these claustrophobic mausoleum spaces surrounded by ghosts of opulence and live coyotes. At night I watch the bats fly between the trees like night birds who look down at our dead.

New Yorkers die at a faster rate than most people in the United States: our hearts are ensnared by disease, or our organs by cancer, or we kill ourselves with drugs. Influenza is still a leading killer and probably was the cause of death of many people at rest in Trinity. Although there are nearly 20,000 grave sites buried under the island, they are invisible and long forgotten. You easily forget that the cracks in the concrete are held up and held together not only by earth but by the dead who still vibrate beneath the rhythm of relentless footsteps and tires.

September 11, 2001 was the day of New York City’s largest mass death. Almost 3,000 people vanished, turned from flesh to ash that spread out into the air, the Hudson River, the East River leading to the ocean, and the concrete sidewalks. Manhattan had never experienced such a mass of invisibility and the dead of 9/11 found their final shelter in the same place they lived their lives – the streets, the air, the water. You cannot feel the death at the new Freedom tower, not in the way that it is palpable at Trinity Cemetery. The dead of 9/11 are part of our atmosphere as New Yorkers. During the impossibly slow construction of the Freedom towers, 2000 graves belonging to African slaves were found. The city gave a gentle nod to centuries of invisibility by finding and preserving 419 bodies. But unlike Ralph Ellison and the inhabitants of Trinity, they will never have names.

On sleepless nights I wander Manhattan, often passing Trinity and ending up on deserted streets further down the island, streets marked by sleeping homeless. There are shelters but you more likely to die in one than on the street. I do not know where the homeless go if they die in Manhattan. The ones who wander up to Trinity to sleep will not be allowed to stay when they are dead. The doors to the Church of the Intercession are locked six days a week, as most churches are. You are landlocked. You are not free.


The Border

Walk one block east from Riverside Drive and you will find yourself on the border between Washington Heights and Harlem. The boundaries between the two neighborhoods are questionable divisions held in place more by ethnic and racial differences than the lines of a city map. These maps are untrustworthy anyway, victim to the whims of realtors and an ever-growing push towards gentrification. Let’s assume that Trinity Cemetery at 155th street acts as an unofficial divider between a neighborhood that is predominately African-American and a neighborhood dominated by Dominicans and other immigrant Hispanic groups. Most maps insist that Harlem ends somewhere around 153rd st and gives way to Washington Heights, which has been dubbed “Little Dominica” in tones of affection by residents and in tones of trepidation by non-residents. No matter which direction I turn, south toward Harlem or north toward Little Dominica, I find that I am foreigner here with bits of Puerto Rican and Native American and Filipino and German blood filling my veins.  Maybe living life in liminal zones is my way of finding shelter.


The Heights

Little Dominica is known for its history – the fiercest fighting of the Revolutionary War, which has given way to some of the fiercest gang fights in upper Manhattan; the assassination of Malcolm X, the site of which is now a BBQ Rib & Bar dive; The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park which is medieval structure hauled here from Europe and rebuilt and now boasts Christian art from the same time period; and of course the endless expanse of the Columbia University medical center, begun in the 1960s and still extending its reach through the area.

The Heights is called so because we are 265 feet above sea level, the highest in Manhattan. My ears fill and pop as a constant reminder that as I walk the streets, I am growing closer to or farther away from the sea. The abrupt hills are actually miniature mountains. Street steps have been constructed to try to ease the pedestrian exertion, but climbing 130 steps to reach a given street does nothing to offer rest. What it does is strength your legs and maybe your heart, if you are lucky. The alternative is that you avoid walking into the upper reaches of the Heights.

The summer street culture is what holds the residents in a tight grip. Old men sit at tables in front of apartment buildings playing dominoes, but are quick to shield their faces from photographs. So are the boys who collect on street corners selling whatever wares are tucked into their bulging pockets. The hottest days squeeze the oxygen from the air by the smells of illegal street barbecues and marijuana and sweat. We are overrun by children who roam freely as if it is a small town and not an area burning with crime and gang life. Music is ever-present, usually salsa or some rhythm that reminds me of my foreignness in this land. The streets are always crowded, always festive, always dirty, and dotted with reminders of plenty amidst poverty. Roughly 97% of Little Dominica lives below the poverty line. Many are undocumented and receive no help from the government. They avoid photographs for this reason – there is no refuge for them either, no place where “La Migra” is not allowed to hunt and deport. But the stores are not folding to gentrification, and if one closes then another opens and bursts forth with toys for $1 and women’s dresses for $3. You can live here below the poverty line and make your way through crowds of families in bargain stores and emerge with an armful of whatever you were lacking when you entered. There is plenty here even among the poorest.



My Harlem is a 30-block stretch that I use to get from home to a specific destination and back again. This Harlem is not the historic central area that boasts the Apollo Theatre, not the area where African incense chokes the car fumes, and not the gentrified part that swarms with Caucasian shoppers at newly-opened designer boutiques. My mile and a half of Harlem is almost a forgotten area, mostly residential and peppered with mom & pop businesses. Yet look closely and you can see the decay from the pressure of gentrification pressing forward. I see it daily as each store closes, a “mom” dragging sales tables of vintage soul records and African masks on to the street for 80% clearance sales. I see it again days later when the same store is boarded up and a street kid on the corner informs me that the rent around here for businesses has been hiked to $10,000 a month. He also offers me a dime bag of marijuana. His business may be the only one to survive around here. The African-American families who settled here years ago during the height of the Harlem Renaissance are being dispossessed and moved. Where will they go? There is no asylum or place of protection from the stress of developers who see only land, never bothering to acknowledge the people living on that land or those buried beneath it.


Columbus Circle

The Upper West Side of Manhattan commences here in a speeding circle of cars that centers around a monument of Christopher Columbus, erected some centuries ago to honor his discovery of the New World. The location is appropriately troubling to me, a place where the Columbus legacy has been mercilessly fulfilled. For a moment, emerging from the subway, you can absorp the immediate beauty of the statues, the fountains, the shopping, the park, bustling streets of New York City that each of us has seen in the movies. But the reality of the space, the buildings that inhabit the circle are a futuristic reflection of what Columbus intended for the New World. The monument and fountains and racing vehicles are eclipsed on the west side of the circle by the world headquarters of the Time Warner Corporation, the NYC studio headquarters of CNN, and Lincoln Center’s Jazz Center. Looming to the north is the Trump International Hotel and Tower (boasting a solid gold escalator inside that terrifies me for its height and its glaring shine) and the headquarters of Gulf and Western Oil. The rank display of corporatism is easy for me to gawk at, such a shockingly conspicuous show of empire even for a native New Yorker. Glamour may be NYC’s most ruthlessly apparent illusion and it is here that you feel it the most. You are landlocked among blinding skyscrapers and the sudden luxuriousness of Central Park that seems to reach endlessly in every direction. Beyond the lush display of opulence around the circle, there is a jarring reminder of nature among concrete repression. You may even abruptly feel free, giddy at the sight of paradox rushing around you in one sweeping move. The glamour and illusions are what holds so many us on this island, one that is barely large enough to contain so many bodies. I suspect that the tourists who arrive daily in packs do not see much beyond the allure of shopping and the sweet green grass across the way.

The circle is also one of the major transportation hubs for the city. The circle and the park crash awkwardly only at this moment, are bound in a tight juxtaposition of old tradition and modern movement. Your first impression might be one of strict boundaries: the circle, the park beyond, each bus stop and underground subway station a discrete unit with organized movements. But look at the streets just outside the park and you will find about 68 carriages drawn by horses, not the kind of fierce beast you might see in Victorian Era photos of the city, but rather the kind animal whose ribs rise in an arc from under sallow coats. The kind of horses that NYC allows to work the streets are lame, limping from the weight of their load and uncomforted by the blinders meant to shield them from the terrors of the engines rushing by them. The rank display of cruelty could almost be lost against the gentility of the park and the profusion of wealth. I was not there the day a horse collapsed and died under a heat shroud of 91 degrees, in turn causing a pile-up of cars and busses. But the tourists who rode in that carriage may know more about the savagery beneath the affluence and the persistent repression that is part of living here.


Times Square

Otherwise known as the crossroads, this roughly seven-block area is paced by 39 million tourists a year. Every light in Times Square went out once, during the northeast blackout of 2003. The darkness must have been majestic. I pace here a lot, either to ward off restless legs and insomnia during winter nights or to find relief from the humidity in the pre-dawn hours of summer mornings. The late nights hours leading to dawn are the dimmest and emptiest here, mostly because the corporate offices like Ernst & Young and Morgan Stanly have closed up. Firms like this hold more space in Times Square than the more appealing corporations like MTV and Toys R US but this is harder to see when all the lights shine equally bright. Keep pacing the tiny area until you notice the most infinitesimal changes, until you become accustomed to the gaze of late night workers leaving through the backdoors of nightclubs and the same faces waiting blocks away to catch the last bus uptown. If you do not cultivate a personal way of seeing Times Square, you risk the vision of a tourist and then there is nothing, no relief for the restlessness and nothing left to notice.

Two a.m. is kind of cut-off point, when the streets become less of a wasteland of overdressed theatre-goers and bright-eyed tourists. The streets become emptier and lights seem dimmer, but empty here does not mean deserted. This is my Times Square, a place where you become aware of every detail around you, the different shades of blinding lights, the rats that chameleon with shadows underfoot, the stretches of concrete that double as cardboard homeless shelters, and the changing faces of child-like prostitutes that lean against subway stops and eat from plastic containers. From about 2am to 5am, the Disney-led gentrification weakens enough for the lights to shine on the reality below it.

Times Square sits near to the center of the city and you cannot smell the river from here, you can only see lights and faces but you can walk until there is nothing left in your limbs except exhaustion that feels like freedom.


Hudson, part 2

The river, after holding me for these seven years, seem to be pushing me along like one of the ice chunks that break up after the end of a winter that brings only ice storms. Last winter was like this, cold but no snow, no blankets of white, just icicles along the windows and the stillness of the river as it froze inches deep. I only went outside a handful of times, I think, kept in by the icy wind that makes my heart feel weak.

 But I have found my sanctuary here for so long because of the river and the bridge. Nothing that moves as fast as the water and the traffic above it can make you believe you are trapped on this island. You may be free but you are as pushed in one direction or the other as a floating chunk of ice coming down the river. I have considered moving but cannot think of where to go. The expanse of sky pushes against the edges of the New Jersey and New York skylines and beyond into a world that is not flat.

— Photos & Text by Tiara Winter-Schorr


Jun 152012

Herewith a delightful What It’s Like Living Here piece from Lisa Roney in Orlando. This is our second contribution from Florida in recent weeks, a sign that all the writers are moving there (well, maybe not). Lisa Roney teaches writing at the University of Central Florida. She is the author of a memoir, Sweet Invisible Body: Reflections on a Life with Diabetes (Henry Holt, 1999), as well as poems, essays and stories. She had the eminent good sense to marry a Canadian.



Pelicans against Sunset



I live in the sky. Though it is crisscrossed with wires and impeded by billboards that sell big-breasted waitresses at the Wing House, it still dips its bruises in gold, not brass, then blushes at its own riches before waving good night. As I drive from yet another late neurology appointment along one of many six-lane roads that traverse the city, I search above it all, let the fading light guide me home.

Beyond the billboards, the barbequed chicken wings give way to the wings of hawks, eagles, herons, egrets. This evening eight ibis circle stunningly white against the blue, blue sky over the roadway, catching the last light of the day. Last week two bald eagles swooped ten feet above my head as I strolled my neighborhood. Cardinals and titmice flutter around the feeder in front of the kitchen window at morning and dusk, while the barred owls show themselves after midnight in their hilarious song. My husband and I lie in bed sometimes and mimic their “whoo, whoo, hah, whoo-who-oo-ahhh.” It helps my insomnia when my heart is lightened this way at bedtime.

The anhingas even bring sky to the ground, as they sit lakeside with their wings outspread to dry, as if flying on earth. The birds are my favorite thing about Florida..

Bromeliads with Red Blossoms


Winter Park

The first summer it rained and rained. In between the thunderstorms, I waited for my new job to begin and went on rambling, hours-long, solitary walks in the chic neighborhood near my homely concrete-block rental. One morning as I typed at my computer, I glanced to the right out the front window and faced a four-foot-long snake wending its way through the bromeliads under the orange tree.

At the time I didn’t know the name of bromeliads. I said to myself, “It’s only a black snake. Cool.” But it might have been an omen of the unpredictable. I find later on that it is indeed adaptive here to enjoy the same creatures that you fear since you can’t get away from them.

Hospital Heart Monitor



Orlando is home to two of the ten largest hospitals in the country, and one of the three Mayo Clinic sites sits on the coast an hour north in Jacksonville. This does not assure anyone’s good health—probably CEOs chose our locale for the aging (and dying) population of retirees that Florida is famous for. I myself came here young and immediately hit the wall of numerous health problems, as though crossing the border into the land of retirement infected me with oldness.

I came here with thirty years of Type 1 diabetes under my belt already, but my list of ailments has blossomed like a bougainvillea, taken flight like an enormous eagle: carpal tunnel syndrome, adhesive capsulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, rosacea, arthritis of the right foot, lumbago (only one letter different from the purple-blooming plumbago that I had never seen before coming here). The human body is part of nature, though certainly denatured by all the machines now engaged in being sick. In the past two years, I have endured a benign perimescenphalic sub-arachnoid brain hemorrhage and, supposedly in a completely unrelated set of incidents, inflammation of my brain pathways that may indicate M.S. After six months of testing, they don’t really know.

Even though I don’t really want to talk about them, I cannot separate these things from what it is like to live here. The uncertainty seeps out of my skin like the constant sweat of summer.

Everywhere you go in Florida, there is a stark contrast between young and old—the stooped and graying alongside the tanned and buff, the slowest drivers in the world alongside the Daytona 500, the shops for orthopedic shoes alongside the surfin’ bikini boutiques.

For most of us, living in Orlando is like living somewhere in between.

Green Anole



Our summer is our winter. Not that summer’s cold, as in the northern-southern hemisphere switch, but in that we, too, have a season where we stay indoors, protected from brutal weather by our air conditioning. According to the National Weather Service, more people die from heat than from any other weather-related phenomenon, including floods, lightning, tornadoes, and hurricanes. More than three times as many die of heat than cold.

One of the big differences between people who visit here and people who live here is that we are aware of the nastiness of the heat. Everyone stays outside a lot in December, January, and February. But we hide in June, July, and August, and we sweat profusely nine months out of the year.

Earlier this afternoon, as I walked into the doctor’s office, a woman made a face and said, “I fear the spring is over.” We bask in spring, but dread the oppression of summer and fall, the threat of hurricane season.

Everyone in Florida carries a bottle of water. I first came to realize the Floridian devotion to hydration when I noticed that my students would sometimes get up during classes to go out and use the restroom. That is as accepted here as students blowing their noses in class in the north.

In fact, most of the people who die of heat exposure do so in milder climates where so many of the elderly still believe they can live without air conditioning. Down here, we know we can’t. If this makes me wonder why it is that people insist on living in such inhospitable places, I put it out of my mind. If I wonder, as I idle in traffic on my way home from the doctor’s office, why humans have designed their world to be such an ugly and hostile place, I remind myself that the black lady standing at the bus stop on Route 434 with her umbrella up against the sun probably doesn’t have the luxury to worry about it and neither do I, really, not these days.

Sunlight on Wall with Euphorbia


Winter Springs

Six years after coming here, I got married and moved to the suburbs, not necessarily in that order. Both of these facts surprise me, and I feel guilty for liking everything about the suburbs but the political tenor and the car-time. Besides, everyone in Orlando drives a lot, no matter where they live. When Men’s Health magazine reported that Orlando is one of the angriest cities in the country because of the traffic, I just nodded.

My new husband cackled. A Canadian, he declares America barbaric. “In Canada,” he often reminds me when we’re together in traffic, “we understand the concept of merging for mutual benefit. Here everyone races to the front and tries to jam their way in.” I assure him that the entire country is not like this, but I feel the shame of American greed.

My own backyard reeks of stereotyped paradise, yet I love it almost as though it were my very own forever home. I was broke for a long time. Now the fountain bubbles, the cats roll on a bricked lanai, tall palms and pines line the fence, and two Adirondack chairs sit by the pool. I swim almost daily, though I did not want a pool and I am a terrible swimmer.

“Why else would anyone live in Florida?” my husband asked when I protested. I am not sorry I acquiesced.

I like being married after 49 single years and hope I still have plenty of years to enjoy it. I find it freeing to be tied. Once I thought I came here for the job at the big school over the previous small one, the moderate-sized city over the small town. Once I thought I would seek perfection until I found it and that excitement would always be mine. What a delight that I was so wrong.

Agave Stalk and Telephone Pole



Because flowers bloom year round here, and because there are few cemeteries, it can be easy to forget that the life cycle ends in death. When I get home, I pull my car into the garage and stand in the driveway, breathing in the aroma of the confederate jasmine I planted along the fence last year. I check on the new herb garden that is spreading exponentially, the way things do here. Finally, I am growing things.

It took nearly three years for me to plant the gardenia that a friend brought to our wedding, and it now has buds nearing bloom. All the other gardenias on the street parade massive, fragrant flowers, but I am thrilled simply that ours is still alive, gardenia and marriage both surviving overwork and hospital stays. The staghorn fern that another friend brought as a wedding gift hangs from a tree in the front yard. On cold nights, the neighbors down the street wrap their huge staghorn in blankets, whereas ours is still small enough to drag in the front door. I wonder if the enormous one down the street testifies to a long marriage and whether ours will get that big.

I have also put into the ground three offsets from an agave that grew in my Winter Park yard. These are an exception to the ever-blooming of most tropical plants. They bloom only once—on a stalk that appears overnight as tall as a telephone pole—and then wither into a heavy stump.

Finally, after the agave amazed me with its theatrics, I started to learn the names of more common plants: saw palmetto, sago palm, bougainvillea, bromeliad, bald cypress, mangrove, ligustrum. We have plumbago, shrimp plants, lorapetalum, and camellias growing in our yard. Knowing the names is almost as important to me as growing them, but I am glad to have reduced the amount of evil St. Augustine grass by half. St. Augustine grass is another one of those peculiar Florida phenomena—a non-native plant ubiquitous for lawns, it tolerates the heat but soaks up ridiculous amounts of water.

The hummingbirds will come to our new fire bushes and spicy jatropha. My newlywed husband will be here tomorrow in spite of my surprise brain hemorrhage and the lesions that could render me crippled or dopey. I will still be able to walk around and deadhead the flowers for some time. That is enough, along with the jasmine, for today.

Why I Live in the Sky



The corporate tagline for Orlando is “the city beautiful,” but we have coined the moniker Whorelando, or, in a more Spanish spelling, Jorlandó.

Though it still asserts itself over and over, the beauty of Whorelando is for sale and disappearing fast. I have never seen more strip malls anywhere. When I originally looked for a house to rent, I clicked excitedly on an online ad for an “historic” home, only to find that it was built in 1950. Whorelando is full of concrete block and bulldozers.

I moved here nine years ago and have lived here longer than nearly anywhere in my adult life, yet it still feels alien. Like the narrator of William Gass’s short story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” I am not of the people, not of the place. Like that narrator, I’ve had my disappointments.

On one of my first drives to work here I watched a man, a bag of McDonald’s on his handlebars, a case of Coke strapped behind his seat, cycling alongside the traffic, his long, grey hippie’s beard and locks flowing in the warm breeze, his pale face grizzled with dirt. Weird is everywhere I look. Sometimes it is the weird that is ultranormal—the made-up housewives with pink sweat suits and boob jobs, the nurse that says my survival is a gift from God, the sleepy kids lining up for the school bus.

I am in the heart of the heart of the heart of the peninsula, land-locked in a state full of beaches. We should get out to the coast more often.




Friends and family fly in and stay with us while they visit the “attractions.” Everyone thinks that if you live in Orlando, you live close to Disney, so they are always surprised that we live an hour’s drive away.

I have not been to Disney World since 1972, although I have had Pluto in class, and my husband, Cinderella.

Gator in Pond



A few weeks ago, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on a street in the town just across Lake Jesup from where we live. Orlando boasts tourists from all over the world, but just over the lake, whichever lake, there is a dense scrub of raw lawlessness and backwoods sensibility. Trayvon Martin’s death by vigilante is the tragic other side of Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mr. Watson, in which an Everglades community bands together to murder a greedy bully. Something constantly threatens to be out of control here—the crime, the law, the lawless order, the construction development, the real estate boom and the real estate crash, the bougainvillea vines, the wind, the rain, the heat, the humidity, the drought, the Cuban tree frogs, the alligators.

Lake Jesup is full of alligators, and sometimes during mating season they come down through the creeks and end up in the retention pond across the street from our house. An eight-foot one took up residence the week before we got married in the backyard. “That just makes it a Florida wedding,” my vet’s receptionist told me.

My friends warned me before I took this job—about the fundamentalist Christians who objected to any mention of Halloween, about the hurricanes, about the gators and the palmetto bugs, even about rampant entrepreneurialism, capitalism gone jungle-feral. Some of them have cut me off because I came here. Some others have kept in touch for the vacations. I understand both impulses.



Rain Storms

After I come in from breathing jasmine air, I find an email informing me that my teaching schedule for next year is in disarray. I spend a moment furious, but it’s the usual way of things in a state with a legislature intent on destroying educational institutions that have only ever had a toehold anyway. The governor just approved creation of a brand new state technical university, with the budget coming out of those of existing schools. Rumor has it that the legislator who sponsored this new school stands to make a killing on nearby real estate. All that valueless swampland once sold to unwitting northerners is now valuable after all.

The next morning, clouds finally move in after more than a month with no rain. We’ve reveled in the sunshine, but the splatting drops on my morning walk break the tension. By afternoon, it will be pouring off and on, and the smell of ozone will waft in through the open sliding glass door as I sit at the computer. I will stay home cozy with my husband in the evening because going out during rain here means getting soaked. We will watch for the neighborhood red-shouldered hawk, who often comes down to the low branches in the rain.

A friend down in Tampa says that she hopes the rain will come their way, though she hopes she doesn’t regret wishing for it once the rainy season socks itself in for the duration.

“Sunshine State” is another misnomer around here. It rains constantly most of the summer.

My first year, I ruined six pairs of shoes by getting caught in unexpected storms. Now I just take my shoes off and smile when I walk barefoot into class or a meeting. Bare-assed, barefoot—I’ve learned to live with both conditions in my professional life.

The second year I was here, three hurricanes marched through Orlando. “They never come this far inland,” a Florida native friend had said. I lay in the hallway of my rental and listened all night as the huge live oaks thundered to the ground in pieces. I thought, this is what the apocalypse will feel like.

Raccoon in Humane Trap


Winter Springs Redux

A neighbor told me that her family had installed a new security system for fear of home invasion. Later, after Trayvon, she mentioned that her mother warned her son not to wear a hoodie. I don’t know how to feel about that. Orlando has one of the highest murder rates in the country, but violent crime is concentrated far from where we live, and I find suburban fear rather silly, a little racist. As a white teenager, our neighbor’s son is in little danger. But I am glad that the grandmother sees the absurdity of Trayvon’s death enough to feel the fear herself.

For me, the more salient neighborhood concern is the possibility that I might run over an animal. Though the plants seem to bloom forever, the area is strewn with road-kill. Squirrels feed in the right-of-way, jerking their tails and dashing, often right into the street, when I pass. When one is killed in the street in front of our house, I am glad that the bald eagle that flies in to rip it apart first pulls it into the yard across the street, where it will be safer from cars.

The residential hawk, grabbing an anole, swoops down and pulls out the neighbors’ window screen. My husband tells them so they won’t think it’s a robbery attempt. Anoles dash across the sidewalks, but their squashed bodies are nearly as common as their flickering live ones.

The raccoons take to tearing the screen out of the lanai, pooping in the pool, letting the cats out. We catch a raccoon swinging from the squirrel-proof birdfeeder, back and forth, unhooking it and dumping the contents. We humanely trap and relocate two and an opossum in three days, but more come back. We install a raccoon baffle on the bird-feeder. We install super-strong screens. Then we glue them in.

The armadillos dig up the front grass looking for worms and grubs. When I drive home after dark, four or five cross the street in front of my car. I know they are ready to leap straight up into my bumper.

Maybe living in more urban areas allows other people to forget that they are supplanting so many other forms of life. Here in the suburbs, we can never forget. An uneasy cohabitation prevails. I love the critters, and perform the sign of the cross as I drive by their corpses, but we also battle them.

Over dinner after the clarifying rain, I admit to my husband that maybe Orlando is indeed the quintessential American place—teeming, insane, unstoppable. For better and for worse, I tell him and wink. Probably the future doesn’t look too good, but I have seen amazing turn-arounds happen in my own departure from spinsterhood and my survival of my brain ailments. I have some hope that, after all the people are gone, Florida, if it dies by flame and not by drowning, will rise from the ashes. It seems at least the most likely place for resurrection.

—Lisa Roney

Magnolia Blossom

May 272012


You try to tell people what it’s like living here, but you’re not sure you know. You’ve lived here nearly your whole life, and you’re numb to this place. You have to push yourself to see it. — Jennifer McGuiggan

 Town & Country: Part 1

You tell people that this small town, situated thirty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is the last bastion of suburbia before the routes go rural. You live in a thirty-year-old subdivision of single family homes and townhouses. One way in, same way out. No one drives by your house unless he’s headed to or from one of your neighbors’ houses. The well-tended lawns reach right up to the curb, no sidewalks needed in this quiet maze of streets. Yet even in all of this deliberate, manicured space you notice bits of the wild popping up close to the ground: purple crocus and green onion peeking out from the undergrowth in spring; yellow dandelions gone downy white polka-dotting the yards by mid-summer; crackly piles of jeweled leaves lining the curbs in autumn; and bleached twigs littering the mulched beds in winter.

Two minutes from your front door stand a dozen cows, and sometimes one lone goat, in the field next to St. Emma Monastery, where a handful of Benedictine nuns live out their days. People use the parking lot between the monastery and the cow field as a sort of informal, unmanned swap meet. They leave all kinds of junk there, sometimes with a sign that says “Free,” but more often with the simple assumption of freedom. Recently there was a small cardboard box of old Christmas cookie tins and a large, upholstered chair with carved wooden legs and arms, castoff seating for one. Every day for nearly two weeks you spotted the chair’s orange, mustard, and cream flowers as you drove past. Now you look for new treasures to pop up—and for the cop who sometimes sits in the parking lot waiting for anyone to break the 45-mph speed limit.

If you drive five minutes more down the road, you’ll be bobbing along in farm country: rolling hills, corn fields, metal silos, the occasional sheep. On Sundays you drive along the sweetly winding backroads to Bardine’s Country Smokehouse, where you can buy fresh chicken breasts, all manner of beef and pork, and more varieties of sausage than you knew there were names for. The folks at Bardine’s wear shirts that read “Nice to meat you” across the back, and they’re always happy to answer your questions and cut your meat to order. Blue ribbons, award plaques, and glossy photos of prize-winning pigs line the walls. There are cows and a barn out back of the store. When you ask if the chickens are their own too, the woman behind the counter says they come from Michigan. You wonder why there aren’t more locally available birds.

Along the way to Bardine’s you pass more fields of cows and try not to think about their sisters, whom you’re about to see splayed out, red and naked, in the display cases. It’s hard to be a vegetarian in this part of southwestern Pennsylvania, but you give it a try every few months. Going out to eat is your undoing, since most non-meat options here are limited to pasta with soggy vegetables. You have to drive thirty minutes for the nearest Indian restaurant, and thirty more past that to find Thai food, both good options for meat-free meals. But your real downfall is bacon, which you sometimes pick up at Bardine’s with a twinge of guilt, placing it on the counter alongside one of those Michigan chicken breasts. Most weeks you can’t bring yourself to buy the beef.

If you time the Sunday trip just right you can catch part of “A Prairie Home Companion” on NPR. Garrison Keillor’s molasses voice makes the country way of life sound so lovely, so vivid, so very nice. You listen because it fits the landscape, and because for those fifteen minutes each way, Garrison and his guests charm you into thinking that you’re cozy at home in these green, green hills, even though you know in your heart you’re not really a country girl.

Town & Country: Part 2

If you come out your front door, drive past the cows and the nuns, and keep going for ten minutes in the opposite direction of Bardine’s, you’ll run into the sad asphalt of highways, big box stores, and strip malls saturated with fast food. But if you want to avoid all that (and you do, unless you need groceries), you can be smack-dab downtown in five minutes. Here in the county seat, “smack-dab downtown” amounts to just a few streets’ worth of small-town city. The big draws, for you, are the library and the post office, which face each other across Pennsylvania Avenue. You occasionally treat yourself to a red velvet with cream cheese icing at the cupcake shop that recently opened around the corner, evidence that all good trends come to those who wait, even in small town America. More often, you stop by the coffee shop just down the street. They make a decent latte, and the vibe is funky, with angry, edgy art that you don’t really like, but that you appreciate just for existing in this little town. You hear that they’re planning to stay open until 9:00 on Friday and Saturday nights. This is good news, since the one or two other cafés that manage to stay in business here close by 6:00 p.m. during the week and 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays. There aren’t many places to go in this town after business hours unless you fancy one of the many bars: sports, dive, biker, or—the newest addition—the county’s first hookah bar, which opened last year in the strip behind the mall, sandwiched somewhere between Buffalo Wild Wings and Hallmark. But let’s face it, you’re not much of a bar girl.


This should be a college town, but it’s not quite that. Within a ten-mile radius sit four colleges and universities, albeit small ones. You’re well past college age, but you wonder where all the students are, where they go and what they do. Where are the late night caffeine-and-study haunts? The street musicians? Where’s the diversity? More to the point, where are all the young people? And by young people you don’t mean the 2.5 kids for every family on your street. There’s a sizable under-18 demographic in this town, rivaled only by the over-65 population. In 2007 U.S. News & World Report named Greensburg one of the best places to retire. From hookah bars to bingo nights, what’s a girl like you to do?

To be fair, there does seem to be a mini-Renaissance subtly taking shape here: cupcakes, evening coffee shop hours, flavored tobacco, even a few locally-owned, independent restaurants to combat the fluorescent chains along the highway. One of them features a menu of local and sometimes organic offerings, including meat from Bardine’s. (You think again about that Michigan chicken. Does five-hundred miles count as local in the world of food?) You’re really trying to be a small-town girl.

The In-between

As a teenager you had a boyfriend who loved living here, touting its ideal location halfway between the mountains and the city, forty-five minutes either way, he said. He was technically correct, but fifteen years later you’re still not buying it. It’s not the math or the mileage that’s wrong, just everything else. The problem is that neither the mountains nor the city on either side of this small town satisfy you. The Laurel Highlands to the east aren’t much when it comes to mountains, just Appalachia’s afterthought foothills. Pretty enough, sure, but nothing that catches your breath.

To the west, Pittsburgh keeps trying to shrug off its old blue collar, Steel Town image with new biotech firms and glossy marketing initiatives. But beneath the progress and the gloss, it’s the same old gritty city, the same squashed-voweled accents of the local “Yinzer” dialect, the longstanding adoration of Primanti Brothers sandwiches with their french fries and coleslaw piled high atop the meat and cheese, as though the sandwich itself were in a hurry for you to eat it. You’re just far enough outside of the city to be disconnected from the art scene that you hear is buzzing. People who live closer in think you live out in the sticks, and maybe you do (think of all those cows). You once went to an evening event in the city and someone asked if you were driving “all the way” back home that same night. One hour by car is a world away.

The city offers plenty to do. There’s the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Opera, and the Pittsburgh Public Theater, but looming above all of these are the Pittsburgh Steelers. Football reigns supreme here in the capital city of “Steeler Nation,” a geographically amorphous land populated with just as many women as men. You don’t really care about football, which is considered unnatural and blasphemous in these parts. This somewhat frivolous outcast status serves as the symbol for all the ways you don’t feel at home here. You daydream about cities like Portland, Oregon, cities with good public transportation, public recycling bins, and bicycle culture. Places where you—wearing a dress over your jeans and with small swatch of pink hair—aren’t the most outrageous hipster on the scene. You wonder if this makes you a snob in some way. (You fear that it does.)

Land and Sky

Pittsburgh’s three rivers notwithstanding, this is a landlocked pocket of earth. Lake Erie grazes the top of the state three hours to your north, but that’s not local, even if it is closer than those Michigan chickens. And this is the crux of your discontent: You are an ocean girl. You daydream about it the way you used to daydream about your old love who lived across the continent and then across the Atlantic. All of this land maroons you from your true self.

But all of this land is why you love the sky so much: It’s the closest thing you have to the sea and the only thing that seems to change much around here. On good days you watch the currents of the sky, the tide of blue and white and grey ebbing and flowing. But even the sky stays the same for too many days on end here, with more cloudy days than the Pacific Northwest, which, incidentally, is where you’d like to live—between the evergreen mountains and wild seashore. On winter days, when slate grey skies fit over these pale winter lawns like a too-tight skullcap, you feel claustrophobic inside and out, cabin fever that has nothing to do with walls.

Still, the sky is your saving grace. Late in the afternoon, when tentative patches of blue sometimes peek through the cloud lid, you go out for a walk. Every day around this time a fat hound dog cries with an alarming and mournful insistence. On one of your walks you see the dog and its owner. The hound snuffles in circles for all it’s worth, hot on the trail of something along the cold asphalt, braying every few seconds in a plea or an announcement or some triumph, you can’t be sure which.

These feeble splotches of color in the anemic sky remind you that above the colorless canvas that you can see is a wide space of blue that you cannot. Of course, above that lurks the cold dark of space, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is this: The sky is out there. This is how you feel in general: Things are out there, somewhere. Beyond the grey sky; beyond this solidly middle class, suburban development; beyond this small town creviced between the city and the foothills; beyond the farmland and rolling hills; thirty-five miles from urban culture, three-hundred miles from the nearest shoreline, and two-thousand-six-hundred-seventy-four from that beach you love the most on the Oregon coast.

When you force yourself to look at this place where you’ve lived for 35 of your 36 years, you can’t help but wonder what “home” really means. Is it where you hang your hat? Where you lay your head? Or is it, to mix the metaphors, where you hang your head? Even as you think about moving across the country, you push yourself to see this place you call home. You notice the pleasing contrast of brown branches against the whiteout sky, the melancholy music of the hound dog, the sinewy energy of angry art on coffee shop walls. As winter ends, warmer weather creeps back in, the sky blooms into a soft blue, and each spring you notice more purple crocus pushing their way up through the dry sticks of last year’s growth.


   — Jennifer McGuiggan


Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan lives in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and longs for the sea. To soothe her wanderlust she is working on a collection of essays set at seashores around the world. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2009 she curated and published Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories, a collaborative collection of prose, poetry, and photography celebrating women in creative community. Visit her in The Word Cellar, where she writes about everything from navigating the writing life to venturing into the world of roller derby.

This is the 38th “What It’s Like Living Here” on NC. See the complete collection here.


May 182012

Vanessa Blakeslee

The Terrace

You live off the six-lane U.S. State Road 17-92 which cuts through Orlando and one of the city’s major arteries. Even though your building is close to the road, you are not bothered by the traffic; you can barely detect the whoosh of passing cars. This may be because these buildings—the oldest condominium complex in Orange County, erected in  the 1950s—are two stories of concrete block, hurricane-proof. You know because you’ve ridden out at least a Category Two here, and plenty of tropical storms.

The buildings retain retro detailing in the porch latticework and New England-inspired names—Gladstone, Kingston, Exeter—which hardly fit the shrubs flowering fire-orange petals, geckos flitting up your porch screens, the lemon tree outside your bedroom which bears fruit in the winter. The complex is notoriously well-kept by the landscapers who descend on Wednesdays, clipping hedges and parading down the sidewalks wielding leaf-blowers like jet-packs, calling to each other in Spanish and Creole, or another Caribbean patois, you’re not sure which. Most of your neighbors have lived here for years. Many are elderly, and a good number are snowbirds—Canadians and Northern retirees who arrive in October and leave around April, with the heat’s descent. But a good number of young couples and singles have moved in recently. You have lived here a decade, and with each passing year, find it more difficult to imagine ever leaving.

 The Birds


Sometimes when you are climbing in or out of your jeep, the water birds catch your eye. Herons, pelicans, ibis, and others hunt in the stream behind your building, some so tall they would likely reach your shoulder. You try and sneak up on them, but can get no closer than a dozen feet before they scamper away awkwardly on legs like bent chopsticks, or take flight. Even though the birds are a fixture, they fascinate you. Perhaps it’s the elegant, precise way they hunt in the rushing water as their long beaks hover, then strike, in the weeds. Or perhaps it’s the sheer size of some of them, the uncanny way they can sense one’s approach even as they stare in the opposite direction. They are simultaneously graceful yet goofy, like jabberwockies. Sometimes you find giant white splatters on the jeep’s hood and windshield, dotted with seeds, which ignite a string of under-the-breath curses from your lips because of course you have somewhere to go and cannot stop to get the car washed. But you find it difficult to stay mad at them.

The Room of Your Own 

Your office is in the back room which doubles for storage and laundry. While the washer spins and groans in the closet behind you, you peck away on your laptop. So far you have written only nonfiction here, but you are between novels anyway. The vestiges of your most recent project, research for your first novel, are still fixed on your desk—Blood and Capital, America’s Other War, Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia—ominous-sounding titles you would never have predicted yourself reading a few years ago, but that your creative pursuits led you to discover. Literary journals have found their way here, including the final issue of The Southern Review published under the editorship of your friend and mentor, Jeanne Leiby, who died swiftly, shockingly, in a car accident last April. The issues don’t belong on your desk, but you don’t know where else to put them; sometimes you find yourself picking up those with forwards by Jeannie and reading them, some comfort to feel that she is there, yet, within those pages. So every time you replace the issues in their spot, knowing one day soon you will have to clear the desk, make room for new projects, but not wanting to yet. For now, they stay.

Lake Lily Park

You meet someone, a music teacher, at the bar next door. He tells you he’s playing the violin the following night in the park across the street. You decide to check it out.

It’s a balmy February evening, enough for a light jacket or sweater, but as you enter the park’s south side, you pass dog walkers in flip flops and t-shirts, a lone jogger in shorts. Above the lamp-lit brick walk, the Spanish moss dangles from the oaks like lace. This side of the park is vacant, but gradually you round the horseshoe path past the playground alive with children, and the din of music and chatter grows louder. In the daytime you can gaze down among the lily pads in the shallows and spot turtles and fish, but tonight Lake Lily looms dark except for the illuminated fountain in the middle, and the full moon rising in the misty clouds above. A young man steps to the lake’s shore, snaps a photo with his Smartphone. You think of doing the same but don’t. You have never been a fan of stepping out of a magical moment to try and capture it.

Rounding the bend to the far end of the lake is the “food truck round-up,” a modern-day caravan minus gypsies and fortune tellers. Uneven lines form at the truck windows; couples, families, and teenagers stream to the crowded picnic tables with fish tacos and cupcakes. In the center, under a white tent, a new age band strums ambient music—guitar, tambourine, violin, no vocals to disrupt the conversation or mood.

You run into a neighbor and his foreign exchange student, Vika, from the Ukraine, a high school sophomore in glasses who smiles a lot over her burger and fries. She displays a firm grasp of conversational English, and even though you are sitting right beside the band she laughs at the jokes between you and your neighbor, strains to hear your questions but answers them without hesitation. She says it’s thirty below zero back home, that Eastern Europe is experiencing the coldest temperatures on record. She likes American high school because it’s easier. In Ukraine, she studied sixteen subjects a week.

As you rise and say goodbye, you glance at the music teacher—he’s on violin, nods in return, but a restlessness stirs within you. Perhaps it is the ambient music, which alternates between uplifting and melancholy, as now, matching the cozy din of the residents milling about the brightly lit trucks, young and old, married and divorced. You leave and walk around the lake, but there is no escaping this feeling of having one foot in an old chapter that is closing, and another in the new, opening up; you have been in this love-limbo before, this splitting of self. You are almost, once again, single.

The Dance Studio

You bustle into the studio at nine-thirty, water bottle in hand and dance bag bulging with your tambourine and gypsy skirt. Lively Indian music stops and starts from the class in medias res, and when they file out at ten, skin glistening and faces flushed, they talk of costumes for the upcoming show—wrong sizes ordered, jewelry to be borrowed, sewing to be done. They are the professional Belly dance class; many of them have been dancing for years, grew up taking ballet and jazz. Some dance at various themed restaurants in Orlando, for Disney and Universal Studios. You had one semester of ballet, but somehow you are here. At twenty-seven, you discovered your gift for dance, and now, like writing, can’t imagine giving it up.

Tonight, your troupe practices tambourine first—a rollicking number with spins and changing line formations. You split: one half of the group performs for the other half, who sits along the mirror and scribbles critique on scraps of paper. Then one by one, you fire off feedback (“The push backs are getting lost, make them bigger” and “Keep energy in the arms! No chicken wings”). When your turn comes to the galloping music, your coin earrings flick against your neck. Your timing is good. All you need is to slip fully into the dream on stage, and you will be great. The same rules for fiction apply to dance: forget the self, and the art shines through.          

Then you run through the Persian routine. The green velvet and gold-trimmed costumes have arrived, Renaissance style with bell sleeves, complete with gold tiaras and veils. You look like queens, or at least ladies-in-waiting. This dance is sweet, graceful, totally unlike the other. Just after eleven, you finish. Before exiting, you remove your checkbook to pay for the costume. Your stomach squeezes as you write the amount. What is the cost of fantasy? Are you living the life of a Winter Park housewife as someone close to you recently claimed, the bourgeoisie woman in her prime, claiming she’s an artist? Should you stop all of this, and focus on paying the rent?

You should, argues the logos mind. But how can you? The stronger half of your brain, the half that is toned and strong from crafting critical essays, thirty stories, and a novel these past five years, is as sculpted and agile as your limbs as they carry you to your dented, shit-splattered jeep in the night. That brain and body, blood pulsing with adrenaline and spirit as you sweep through the barren streets, wails no, you cannot stop. To stop is death.

You pull into the complex, park in front of the lemon tree. Climbing from the jeep, you are grateful for the spotlight illuminating the lot vacant of persons, or birds—where do they go at night, the spindly-legged hunters of the stream? Through the trees, laughter and loud voices escape from the bar next door. The scent of night-blooming jasmine trails after you, up the sidewalk; the Canadian couple, down for vacation, sit outside the unit beside yours, smoking, cradling glasses of red wine. You are back at the condo, alone.

—Vanessa Blakeslee


Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction has been published in The Southern Review, The Good Men Project, Ascent, and The Drum, among many others, and her short story “Shadow Boxes” won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and recently was one of twelve writers selected by Margaret Atwood for her 2012 Key West Literary Seminar workshop, “The Time Machine Doorway.” Vanessa’s nonfiction and reviews have been featured or are forthcoming at Numéro CinqThe Paris Review Daily, The New Republic, KR Online, and The Millions, to name a few. In addition to writing, she’s a professional dancer with the Orlando Bellydance Performance Company in the troupe Gypsy Sa’har. Find her online at and at the Burrow Press Review blog, where’s she’s the resident “Shimmying Writer.”

May 012012

Mateo 5


I live halfway between the Road of the Kings and the Avenue of the Fleas in San Mateo, California.  Situated on a peninsula seventeen miles south of San Francisco, San Mateo isn’t a young town at all—it was settled by the Spanish long before many other places in America.  In 1776 Captain Juan Bautista de Anza came from Spain searching for the inlet to the San Francisco Bay; for nearly 200 years it had remained hidden to European explorers sailing up and down the Pacific coast in summer fog.  Anza and his scouting party camped here along a river, naming it San Mateo (after Saint Matthew, the Jewish tax collector-turned-apostle who later spread the word of God in far-flung nations). Anza befriended the native Ohlone Indians living here.

“I found in our camp nearly all the men of the village, very friendly, content, and joyful, putting themselves out to serve us in every way, a circumstance which I have noted in all the natives seen [in California] up to now.” —Captain Juan Bautista de Anza’s Journal, March 29, 1776.

San Mateo1California State Registered Historical Landmark No. 47, DeAnza Camp. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

My neighborhood, just two blocks from that original Anza camp, would no longer be recognizable to those early Spanish settlers or Ohlone Indians.  What was once a hilly serpentine grassland dappled with stately oak and bay laurel trees, is now organized into wide streets named after Spanish locales (Castillian, Sevilla, Avila, Aragon) and prestigious eastern colleges (Harvard, Cornell, Fordham).  The grizzly bear, elk, and pronghorn antelope no longer roam, the wide-open space covered with rows of Spanish and Mexican revival houses.  The oaks and their meaty acorns, once prized by the Ohlone, now feed only the black squirrels skittering between the yards.  The San Mateo Creek where Anza made camp is no longer wide and flowing with salmon and trout, but slowed and stunted by a large dam three miles upstream.  The dam holds back the water from the Crystal Springs Reservoir filled with Yosemite snowmelt delivered via a sophisticated system of pipes originating 176 miles to the east.

Crystal SpringsCrystal Springs Reservoir at low level. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

The front yards in my neighborhood aren’t fussy or fancy but welcoming. Small green lawns are edged symmetrically and blown neat.  Plenty of perfectly placed native grasses sit alongside drought-tolerant plants such as yucca palm, flowering sage, rosemary, and fruit trees (lemon, orange, fig) designed to look as casual and natural as California itself.

casa1Spanish and Mexican influences in San Mateo. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

I find the people here in San Mateo friendly and open, much like Anza found the Ohlone back in 1776.  Perhaps it’s because of the mild climate, warm sunshine and blue sky.  Or maybe it’s the boundless ocean nearby, 12 miles west over the ridge.  Or the delicious evening fog that rolls in at night; nobody has air conditioning—we just open our windows.  Whatever the reason, the town exudes a convivial energy.  Neighbors smile and wave and take in my trashcan without asking.  They put my paper on our porch and ask about my day.  I often find myself on the sidewalk long after the sun goes down chatting with neighbors while the kids kick balls in the middle of the street.  San Mateo has a trusting sort of warmth that doesn’t require years to earn.

I like to think the Ohlone spirits inhabit us, teach us how to live, appreciate our land and each other.  I imagine their bones scattered deep beneath my home. I imagine them wandering the hills in the midnight fog wraithlike, their pacific whisperings coming through my window as a sea breeze as I sleep.  But then I also imagine the ghosts of the Spanish buried alongside the Ohlone and figure they have something to say, too.  And I wonder how much of our culture is simply a lingering imprint of those who came before.

“Indian Maidens” at the San Mateo post office. Relief sculpture carved in wood by Zygmund Sazevitch, 1935 Treasury Relief Art Project. Photo credit: Wendy Voorsanger

To outsiders, San Mateo might seem like an irritatingly superficial, “laid back” place.  I’ll admit, I enjoy my superficial pleasantries, not always taking the time to dig beyond surface connections with people.  And I do often hang out in nature; our Bay Ridge and Peninsula open space district encompasses over 60,000 acres in 26 wilderness preserves.  But most people in San Mateo don’t really fit into that familiar “laid back” Californian caricature.  Being relaxed is just an image we carefully cultivated, consciously or subconsciously.  In fact, on the contrary, San Mateo is a diverse mix of locals and transplants from around the country (and the world), mixed together into an insanely intense stew of over-achievers and perfectionists.


 A Reconstitution

I grew up in Sacramento and came to the Bay Area twenty-five years ago looking for opportunity among the numerous Silicon Valley start-ups.  I clung to the culture of achievement here because of my deep-seated need to repair the fabric fraying around me growing up amidst the crazy 1970’s California counter-culture of dissolving structures (family and society), mind-altering substances, and latch-key responsibilities.  My plan was to do better than my parents, harness all that freedom and possibility, not squander it.  Perhaps others came here to escape the confining strictures and suffocating class-based impediments in the places they left. In San Mateo we all seem to be trying to build and rebuild our lives into something more meaningful through intense work, innovation, over-achievement.

Here in San Mateo, it doesn’t matter where you come from.  What matters here are your ideas.  Your intelligence.  Your work ethic. What do you bring to the table?  What is your value add?  Did you start a company?  Launch an IPO? Get your PHD?  Fund a mind-blowing technology? Volunteer with an indigenous tribe in a remote location?  Invent a life-saving drug?  Run a marathon?  Start a non-profit?  Living in San Mateo offers an extraordinary geographical opportunity for innovation—it’s equidistant between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.  We’re ideally situated to work in any one of the high-tech companies nearby (Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, Yelp, Pixar, Yahoo, Genentech, Apple, etc.) or in other industries that serve the technology industry like venture capital and merger and acquisition law.


Our Statistics

According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the area has:

    • The highest economic productivity in the nation—almost twice the U.S. average
    • The most highly educated workforce in the nation, with the highest percentage of residents with graduate and professional degrees
    • The nation’s largest concentration of national laboratories, corporate and independent research laboratories, and leading research universities
    • The largest number of top-ten ranked graduate programs in business, law, medicine and engineering in the nation
    • The highest density of venture capital firms in the world
    • The most technology Fortune 500 companies
    • The highest internet penetration of any U.S. region
    • The highest level of patent generation in the nation, with more patents generated per employee than any other major metropolitan area.


 Living In a Culture on Steroids

To me, living in San Mateo feels like living in an achievement culture on steroids.  There’s a drive for perfection, or a drive to get as close to it as possible.  It’s the common denominator among us—this drive for perfection—whether or not we admit it to ourselves.  Or to each other.

Our local schools offer parent education lectures entitled: “Inspiring Innovating Thinkers,” “Sports Parenting: Inspiring a Win-Win Attitude,” “Resilience and Optimism in Your Child,” and “The Art of Imperfect Parenting.”  Moms and Dads attend these lectures equally.  We read books like Making Marriage Meaningful and The Secrets to a Dynamic and Fulfilling Marriage to ensure that we don’t fall short like our parents.  We’re trying to become our better selves.  We’re striving for perfection, while juggling parenting, marriages, and careers.  When we blunder, we call it “a learning opportunity.”

San Mateo is a town catering to people who live healthy; there are six gyms and four yoga studios within a four-block radius from my house offering yoga, the Bar Method, Pilates, Zumba, Interval Cycling and Skinny Jeans classes.  There’s also Junior Gym to get the little ones started early.  Here in San Mateo, we hike, run, swim, road bike, mountain bike, kite board, paddleboard, and surf.  We complete marathons and 48-hour team relays for charity.  We drink SuperFood, do seasonal cleanses, cut out carbs, and eat organic goji berries, flax seed, and dried seaweed.  Most people I know don’t spend hours on the golf course each weekend talking business over scotch (too old-school exclusive and slow).  Instead, after hours networking is done while biking up Crystal Springs Road in tight pelotons on custom bikes wearing coordinated bibs and jerseys; cyclists then track and compare achievements (route, distance, speed, elevation, power, time) using a Strava iPhone APP and celebrating their King of the Mountain (KOM) wins with Racer 5 microbrews.

ConradCraig Chinn and Conrad Voorsanger chat in the neighborhood before a ride. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

Our children are swept up into the achievement culture around them. They play soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and volleyball.  They fence, rock climb, dance, swim and dive.  They play the trumpet, harp, guitar, and drums. They sing and attend chess club, art class, and robotics clubs.  They learn Mandarin, Spanish, and French. They take extra classes outside of school in math and writing at places like Kumon, Sylvan, The Reading Clinic, Academic Springboard and The Tutoring Center.  They enter in math competitions, spelling bees, geography bees, and science fairs.  They’ve mastered all things computer science and gadget-related, and have moved on to App programming and hacking.  We keep them on task with family-coordinated online calendars updated from our Smartphones.

We’re obsessively concerned about the environment, driving hybrid cars and using canvas bags at the grocery store.  We walk, ride bikes, and use the carpool lane or public transit (CalTrain or Bart).  We conserve water, use compact fluorescent light bulbs; incandescents will be illegal in California by 2013.  We recycle and compost nearly everything with a sophisticated stream recycling system.  Everyone has three garbage cans: green for compost, blue for all recyclables, black for trash.  The black can is seldom full.


A Haunting Echo

It feels as if we’re all striving to create a New World utopia in San Mateo, much like the Spanish missionaries did two hundred years ago.  Perhaps that’s the long-dead Spanish influencing us from beyond; their zealous drive a haunting echo from the past.

Father Junipero Serra followed Anza, with the hopes of building a perfect utopian society.  He and his padres worked fervently (using Ohlone slave labor) to create a network of 21 missions exactly one-day walk apart along El Camino Real (the Road of the Kings).  Serra was an exacting and determined perfectionist, much like the people in San Mateo today. But, most people here aren’t looking for Serra’s pietistic existence. We’re on a fast-paced, never-ending quest for a particular type of utopia that takes our constitutional “pursuit of happiness” literally.  We’re pursuing that right with intense fervor, all the while portraying the cool substance of a calm demeanor.


Defining Diversity

San Mateo is a multi-cultural and socio-economically diverse town that’s walkable and welcoming.  People talk to each other the street.  Many languages are heard: Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi.  Flower boxes with impatiens dangle from light posts.  Public benches with matching iron trashcans are evenly spaced along the sidewalks. Littering is a misdemeanor in San Mateo, punishable by a $1000 fine.

There’s an impressive collection of restaurants: Mexican cantinas, Korean noodle houses, Irish pubs, Italian eateries, and Brazilian Steakhouses.  There are countless Sushi and Chinese restaurants, Indian buffets, all-American diners, healthy cafes, coffee stores, and juice bars.  Draegers Grocery has organic fruits and vegetables, free-range meat, and sustainable fish.  There’s also a Japanese Grocery (Suruki Supermarket) and several Mexican Markets (Market Fiesta Latina, El Azteca Market, and El Faro’s Mexican).

There are more Mexican restaurants in San Mateo than any other; Spanish tapas or native Ohlone fare (acorn bread, deer, mussels, fish) aren’t found anywhere.  Perhaps this reflects the Mexican victory of independence from Spain in 1822, when Mexican Generals set about secularizing the California missions and distributing large land grants throughout California.

So what of the Mexican influence in San Mateo?  It extends beyond margaritas and enchiladas to the rich Mexican heritage of industrious land labor (cattle ranching, tanning, logging). In addition, historian Robert Glass Cleland said of the Mexican Californians (Californios) in 1833: “They are free from the pressure of economic competition, ignorant of the wretchedness and poverty indigenous to other lands, amply supplied with the means of satisfying their simple wants, devoted to the grand and primary business of the enjoyment of life, they enjoyed a pastoral, almost Arcadian existence.”

MuralUntitled glass tesserae mosaic on exterior Bank of America building in San Mateo; Louis Macouillard, designer and Alfonso Pardiñas mosaicist (Five mosaic panels 25 ft. high, approx. 90’ across).

The Mexican culture also introduced liberalized divorce, custody, and property laws for women in California long before the rest of America recognized gender equality.  In fact, in 1844 one of the largest ranchos on the Peninsula (4400 acres) was run by a Mexican woman named Juana Briones.  Juana fled her drunken husband in San Francisco with her eight children to buy her own ranch on the Peninsula, where she began raising cattle and farming. Historical accounts say she prospered, acquiring five other ranches over her lifetime and living a fulfilled existence with her large family around her.

As a native Californian, I can’t help but see Juana as some sort of standard-bearer I should emulate.  After all, she seemed to find opportunity and achieve happiness, all while juggling the pressures of a demanding career and raising children.  Living in San Mateo, I feel as if Juana’s endowment fills me like a deep, resonant well of possibility.  Perhaps her lasting legacy is stored inside me, simply because I live here.


At the Center

America took control of California upon winning the Mexican-American war in 1847 and broke up (“redistributing”) the large Mexican ranches.  This slice of history is seen in Central Park, 16-acres bordering the north part of San Mateo.  The oaks and bay trees have stood here since the Ohlone, but the pine, cedar, redwood, and fig trees were planted for the estate of Charles. B. Polhemus, director of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad.  Polhemus grabbed the land from the Mexicans, and built a grand estate where Central Park now sits, with a 13-room Victorian mansion and lush landscaping.  He later sold the estate to a sea captain named William Kohl, who then passed the property on to the city of San Mateo in 1922.  The mansion was torn down long ago, replaced by a large circular grassy area in the center of the park.  It’s a vibrant public space where the whole town congregates: parents bring small children to romp in the playground and ride the miniature train for a dollar, older kids around on bicycles and skateboards, seniors practice Tai Chi under the shade of a pine tree. A drummer sits on a bench thumping out a mesmerizing, visceral beat.  There are also a baseball field, tennis courts, a community center, rose garden, and formal Japanese tea garden with a granite pagoda, koi pond and bamboo grove.

Mateo4“Library Lane” mural depicting American expansion in San Mateo, by muralist, Norine Nicolson, 1989.

The black squirrels live here in Central Park too, fed by older folks who come for daily walks with nuts stuffed in their pockets. There are no more quail or great horned owls as in the days of the Ohlone.  They’ve diminished in numbers and headed up to the ridge with the falcons and condors, but there are still plenty of finches, doves, warblers, and jays to liven up the park with song.  Lining the park are several senior apartments, upscale and subsidized side by side.

Two blocks east of the park—across the train tracks—men eager for work gather on street corners hoping for day labor.  No one asks for documentation.  Sometimes the men congregate in the parking lot of the Worker’s Resource Center where a County Mobile Health Van offers free health assistance.


The Strong Current of History

Sometimes living amidst all this sunshine and happiness can be difficult, the pressure and pace crushing, the competition daunting.  Opportunity isn’t ubiquitous, and luck is often elusive.  Amongst the intense rush, the quiet contemplation and reflection that our forebears enjoyed is often fleeting.  When I catch a slow moment, not originating from evaluation and measurement or leading toward any admirable achievement and success, I think of those who came before and how deeply they influence what it’s like living here.  Walking along San Mateo Creek, I think of the Ohlone catching fish.  Sitting on the patio listening to my son playing a malaguena on his guitar, I think of the Spaniards.  Watching a hummingbird from my window suck on lemon blossoms, I think of the Mexicans who brought those trees here. I delight in these simple moments, circling around like an eddy in a river, slowing me into a reflection of swirls and ripples and the glassy texture of the water itself.  Then the strong history of my town grabs hold and pulls me along once again, throwing me like a pebble into the single fast moving cultural current that is San Mateo.

— Wendy Voorsanger


Wendy Voorsanger is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a shadow contributor to NC, writing on the arts and creating art (see her gorgeous Burning Man novel skin) without actually appearing on the masthead. She lives in San Mateo with her husband and children and is at work on a historical novel about California.

See also our growing list of What It’s Like Living Here essays, a staple of the NC economy.


Mar 062012


erin stagg

Erin Stagg seems to have an aversion for the level places. She grew up in the mountains in Taos, New Mexico, and now lives between the mountains and the ocean in Dunedin, New Zealand, where she works as a ski instructor and writes. Erin just graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts in January. She was my student that last semester, which was a great pleasure for me, and wrote a stunning craft lecture on character thought in fiction which has already appeared on these pages.



The cold is a permanent resident here. Even in mid-summer when the temperature creeps above 70 and the beach is suddenly overcome with girls in bikinis you know that tomorrow the southerly wind will be back, bringing with it the sting of the Southern Ocean. Sea lions sleep on the sand. Ice forms on the inside of your windows. You have to wear a 4/3 wetsuit to go surfing in the summer. The locals have adapted. They wear shorts, flip-flops and down coats. They fly helicopters out to passing icebergs to take wedding photos. They say that the cold keeps the crowds away.

When you paddle out back you see penguins. You sit upright on your surfboard looking out to sea and watch the waves billow towards you. But you do not try to catch them. Instead you drift. You watch the color of the kelp shift beneath you. You listen to the yelping of the gulls. On shore a knot of people stand at the edge of the esplanade waiting for the waves to smash up against the concrete retaining wall and spray them.


The waves swell beneath you. You grew up in a desert on the other side of the world and so the sheer volume of water is daunting. It is enough just to be out, feeling the ocean and listening to it crash onto land. The first time you caught a wave it closed in over you and drove you down into the tangle of kelp. You don’t like salt water forcing its way into your sinuses.

To the south sprawls the open ocean. You wonder if there are sharks out there, swimming beneath you. Your feet are starting to feel cold.


Dunedin, the Gaelic word for Edinburgh. Aotearoa, the Maori name for the country, Land of the Long White Cloud. In February the students come back from summers spent on the temperate north Island. While they were gone the city had felt abandoned and forgotten. But now the streets pulse with youth. There it still plenty of light left in the evenings this time of year. You discover them reuniting downtown over a curry at the Meridian.

Suntanned and certain of their futures elsewhere they complain about the weather. Afterwards they go to a movie or a flat warming party somewhere up near Roselyn while you walk down George Street towards the black stone buildings of the University. Dub music swelters from the Cook. You can see the lights of a cricket game being endured in the new stadium by the water. But you keep going. You pass through the University. You stop at the Leith River to watch a pair of paradise ducks swim upstream. Then you continue onwards until you reach the botanic gardens where you sit on a bench in the antipodes garden.


From here you can see Mt. Cargil with its cell phone tower crown and, further west, the crease of the Taieri Gorge. A tui whistles from the manuka tree behind you as you watch the sunlight leach slowly out of the sky.


Three hours west, on the other side of the sun bleached sheep stations of central Otago, are the mountains, jagged, treeless and lacerated by glaciers. You go there for the weekend with your bike and your boyfriend’s bike wedged in the back of your station wagon. You stop for a mince and cheese pie in Ranfurly. You meet your boyfriend’s uncle for a pint of Speight’s Beer at the Clyde pub.


By the time you make it to Queenstown it is dark and the Southern Cross is high in the sky refracting off Lake Wakitipu. Your boyfriend decides to go for a swim anyhow, shedding his cloths on the stones at the lake’s edge. You tarry reluctantly. You know the water is glacial. You take off your shoes and slip your toes in. The cold is instant, rushing up your legs. You go no further.

In the morning you will ride your bike along the Arrow River to a ghost town. You will wonder about the gold miners who lived up there in the mountains cut off from everything but the cold.

You notice when the wind changes directions, when it softens and begins to wrap around from the south. You can feel when the weather’s about to change. You can see the southern storms coming, boiling across the water.

Last night it snowed on the hills. The tourists are cold. They come here from everywhere – France, Hong Kong, Perth. They say, “It’s so cold here. We thought it was summer.” You say, “This is summer.” They buy rain jackets and wool socks. They want to know where the steepest street is. They want to see penguins. They think you are from this place. Only the Kiwis can hear the open vowels in your voice, but they are used to immigrants. You are not the first to have been brought here by a kiwi man. This is a country of citizens with multiple passports.


After work you walk down to the beach. The tide is out and so you walk along the sand. You can see clear blue skies forming over the water, pressing the storm clouds away.

—Erin Stagg

Jan 232012


Here’s a brand new “What it’s like living here” essay from Liam Volke in Victoria, British Columbia. (He’s Gabrielle Volke’s brother—staunch readers will remember her lovely interview with dg, published in October, 2010, at NC.) Liam is freshly graduated from the University of Victoria’s Theatre program with a BFA in Acting. He lives and acts and writes poetry in Victoria. His poetry has been published in the CBC Poetry Anthology, 2007. He blogs at The Tower of Babble.



What It’s Like Living Here

from Liam Volke in Victoria, British Columbia


University of Victoria


In Victoria, among the aged flower children and retired English folk, a river of young blood surges through its heart and pools around a green ring.

In your first year as a student, life was wrapped within and around the Ring Road of the university campus. You saw maple leaves for the first time. You tasted independence: in Rez, with other under-aged drinkers. You lost your first love. Here is where you thought you’d reinvent yourself.

The classes for your Acting major are all in the Fine Arts section of the campus, a modest trio of white, brown and grey brick buildings facing a paved circular courtyard with a single evergreen in the centre. This section seems quarantined from the rest, placed outside the Ring (inside is the stronghold of Sciences and Humanities). “Theatre? We have a theatre?!” they say. We’re a big deal abroad, you tell yourself.

Most of the trees here keep their leaves, so at first you suspected you were in paradise. The rain was a welcome change from the snow that browns and greys with the dust and gravel of hometown Calgary. You told yourself you would always love the rain. You told yourself a lot of things.

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Jan 052012

EDITOR’S NOTE: Utne Reader, The Best of the Alternative Press, reprinted Sion Dayson’s excellent essay “Life Lessons in Père Lachaise Cemetery” in its July/August, 2012, issue. This is terrific recognition for Sion’s work and for the magazine. Congratulations all around. Raise a glass of Talisker, everyone.

See all of Sion’s work on NC here.



Life Lessons in Père Lachaise

By Sion Dayson

Stunned to stillness
by beauty
we remember who we
are and why we are here…

In the immense
everything spins with

 —From “Winter Solstice” by Rebecca Parker

For the past three and a half years, I’ve lived a ten-minute walk from Père Lachaise, the famed Parisian cemetery that’s home to many historic luminaries – everyone from Abelard to Chopin, Edith Piaf to Marcel Proust.

In recent weeks, talk has centered on writer Oscar Wilde; his tomb now stands encircled by thick glass, a barrier aimed to protect the stone from endless admirers’ kisses. (Of course people have already started leaving their lipstick prints on the Plexiglas instead).

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Nov 072011

Danila Botha is a South African-born short story writer who lives in Toronto. She’s the author of Got No Secrets, a collection of stories in the Bukowski-Burroughs-Easton-Ellis tradition of black romanticism/alienation but with young, feisty female protagonists. “Jesus Was a Punk Rocker” was part of that collection and earlier appeared on these pages, as did two new stories “The Other Other” and “Valentine’s Day.”


What It’s Like Living Here

From Danila Botha in Toronto


Forest Hill

I am back in Toronto, back at my parent’s house (at 28, after moving out at 18, it feels surreal, to put it mildly). My parents live on a beautiful, tree-lined street in Forest Hill surrounded by large, striking houses: cold, cube-shaped modern structures or light and dark brown brick homes with cottage-style thatched roofs and salt water swimming pools. Their palatial home is full of silk curtains, French antiques, grey and white swirling marble floors, expensive fabrics in shades of cream and gold and dusty pinks. My bedroom has needle point carpets adorned with roses. I stare down at my chipping nails, my wrinkled Black Flag tank top, the new tattoo on my arm. I twirl a strand of greasy hair around my index finger. I am reminded of a Chantal Kreviazuk lyric: “…it’s crowded and I feel lost in here, I’m trying to find a familiar fear/I look everywhere but I just can’t see/there’s not anything that reminds me of me.”

My favourite piece is my bookshelf. It’s beige wood, with light green leaves painted on it, an antique I’ve had since I was five, stuffed with my favourite books: Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies For Little Criminals, Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, the Zoe Whittall edited collection of stories called Geeks, Misfits and Other Outlaws, Lynn Crosbie’s Liar, Aryn Kyle’s Boys and Girl’s Like You and Me, and Jami Attenberg’s Instant Love. My collection of first editions is on the top shelf—Catcher in the Rye, Frankenstein, and Naked Lunch. I think they’re the first things I’d save in a house fire. On my mint green and silver leaf antique chair, there’s a pile of my old stuffed animals, including a white owl, a lime green Care Bear, and a two-dollar toy machine creature that resembles a cucumber with eyes.

I go for a walk with my little brother to the plaza near the house. The air is heavy and humid. The plaza feels both comfortably familiar—it has a Second Cup, a Winners and a Shoppers Drug Mart—and horrifyingly foreign, like the nightmares I have when I’m jet lagged. My brother points out the sunset. I know the violets, periwinkles and magentas are the result of pollution, but still–


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Oct 282011

At the Confluence


Hurricane Irene did surprising and catastrophic things to Vermont, surprising because, well, Vermont is inland, far from the storm-whipped coasts, far from, say, New Orleans. You don’t get a storm surge in Vermont. But when a storm like Irene hits, all the topographic beauties of the place turn to its detriment. The rain washes straight down the mountainsides into the narrow, deep valleys. Creeks and rivers that were nothing but shallow meanders through deep cobble beds, mostly dry at that time of year, fill up with alarming suddenness. The rivers rage down the valleys, demolishing roads, buildings, towns. Hilary Mullins is an old friend from her days as a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts when she used to hang out in Francois Camoin’s room on the third floor of Noble Hall just down the corridor from dg who also tended to hang out in Francois’ room a lot (it was a hospitable place, a cross between a Paris salon and a homeless shelter). Hilary lives in Bethel, Vermont, where she reads, writes, teaches, sermonizes and runs a window-cleaning business. She was, yes, at home when Hurricane Irene hit, and this is her story—a What It’s Like Living Here essay with a twist. (The photos are a group effort; credits to Janet Hayward Burnham, Dan Thorington, Bill Gibson.)



Hurricane Irene—What It Was Like

From Hilary Mullins in Bethel, Vermont


Everyone in Bethel knew the hurricane was coming–we knew all about it. We knew the forecasters were saying it could be significant, and we knew why: August had been rainy, and we already had plenty of water in the ground. So we knew we didn’t need any more, particularly not in the quantity that a hurricane might bring. We also knew there was supposed to be high wind. So we stacked our yard chairs, tossed more rounds of wood on the tarps covering our woodpiles, and brought our animals in.

But at first when Irene arrived–not as a hurricane but as a tropical storm–she didn’t seem so significant after all. The rain started Saturday night, and yes, it came steady, but around here, we’ve all seen rain like that before. And we know rain. There’d be some wash-outs, we knew that: roads where the gravel would be eaten and maybe some pavement too. And maybe some people’s houses would be threatened. Because that does happen more often now: a thunder storm hits, leaving a flash flood in one area.

But even though we knew all this, even though we knew the land here is all ridges and river valley, brooks and streams pouring down from everywhere to merge, uniting in the White River that runs through our village, we didn’t know. We didn’t know the power of what was running at the level of our feet–or what could happen if all those little waters—not just some here or there–began to rise. Which on the 28th of August they did.


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Aug 122011



What It’s Like Living Here,

by Allison Kaufman in Connecticut

Living by the Numbers 

Seven days.  You check your watch constantly.  You live and die by the ping of the calendar on your phone.  Realize that there is slight irony in the fact that you are writing of this place with only seven days left before there are seven states between you and this desk.  Seven being the magic number, not in the lucky sort of way.  Seven being the number of days that you work twenty-four hours.  Seven being the number of blocks there are in the daily schedule.
It’s only been three years.  You’ve done everything you can.  You repeat this mantra.

You’ve been a parent now for three years.  Not biologically, but in dorms.  You sleep in an apartment that is likely larger than any you will ever own.  There are 10-foot ceilings, a handrail that snakes around the living room, and a kitchen whose appliances and cabinetry are older than you are.  You install pendant lighting.  You paint (Nantucket Grey).



Your charges in your first year were 16 junior and senior girls.  Your toughest disciplinary issue was dealing with a girl who left a douchebag (literally) with a bow on it in front of a neighbor’s room.  You fought laughter while scolding the seventeen-year-olds.  You noted that there were only 4 years separating you from them.  You wished you had thought of the douchebag gift your senior year of college; a roommate of yours, the one you and your friends called Sandy Vagina, could have used a wakeup call.
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May 182011

Stanley Fogel’s ¿Que Coño Pasa? Snapshots of my Wonderful Cuban Life is the first book-length text ever published on Numéro Cinq, another first, another huge milestone in our adventure in digital publishing. I am calling it a “What it’s like living here” because, in fact, it tells us what it’s like living in Cuba today. But, of course, it doesn’t fit the pattern: it’s a book. The first chapter, the introduction, takes the lesson of Edward Said’s Orientalism and applies it to the West’s construction of the so-called Cuban historical fact. The next three chapters are very much a memoir of the years Stanley Fogel has spent living and teaching in Cuba, the personal facts behind the wall of words. Snapshots is thus a blend of the critical and the personal (with a dash of Fidel Castro’s own rhetoric added for flavour). Stanley Fogel is in a good position to see what he sees. A Canadian scholar with a yen to be “displaced,” he has spent about four months a year since the early 1990s in Cuba. He is a quirky, perceptive, thoughtful (critical in the best sense) guide to that other world. He tells a story different from the received wisdom, he fills his story with people and anecdote—our Virgil.


Me: I spent 36 years at the University of Waterloo/St. Jerome’s University where I was overcome by deconstruction and taught critical theory. A travel book, Gringo Star, ECW Press, only partly captures my desire to be displaced in the world. In 1999 I was awarded an honorary degree from Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. Re. the opus at hand: I have spent c. 4 months per year since 1991 living in Havana, discovering the richness and distinctiveness of Cuban life–culture and politics transformed by the Cuban Revolution. I am retiring there shortly. (Do come visit if you’d like an ‘insider’s’ sense of Havana.) —Stanley Fogel




By Stanley Fogel




A mi hermano, Mario Masvidal, y la revolución cubana


Thanks to Elizabeth Effinger and Trieneke Gastmeier
for typing and grooming the manuscript.
Thanks, also, to St. Jerome’s University for grants
towards the preparation of the manuscript.
The photos, man with libreta and man with eggs,
were taken by Giorgio Viera.


Chapter 1: ¿COÑO, QUE PASA? An Introduction


A loose translation of “¿Coño, Que Pasa?” is “Jeez, whazzup?” “¿Que Coño Pasa?” is a grammatically skewed version of the first phrase. Its speaker is betraying more bewilderment and/or astonishment at what s/he has witnessed or heard than in that initial formulation. Both, though, transmit the effusive, gestural nature of Cubans’ speech and flamboyant responses to what is happening locally or beyond. Indeed, to absorb the import of the remark most fully, it is best to hear it uttered by someone, steeped in Cubans’ idiomatic lexicon and delivery, who shortens the noun to “’ño,” confident its meaning will survive. If you’re planning on spending time in Cuba and want to sound authentic, work on your “’ño”; remember, the shorter the syllable the better: taking the first, small bite out of the word “gnocchi” will suffice. Despite the possibly sexist dimensions (coño=cunt) of the formulations, no offense, feminist or otherwise, should necessarily be taken by the addressee of either remark, given that both men and women have been heard to repeat them, most often in gender-free contexts.

Too often, however, the voices of individual Cubans have been muffled or overwhelmed, most noxiously, of course, by pervasive U.S. media disseminating their political leaders’ rabid and hawkish views regarding the island. “A Caribbean gulag” is the mantra incessantly uttered, one which erases any sense of the lively, polyphonic voices existing there. Much more persuasive and compelling than dogmatic right-wing comments, to my ear at any rate, are Fidel Castro’s speeches which offer the vision of utopian and egalitarian possibilities for Cuba’s inhabitants and, indeed, for the world. That impressive voice, however, has come to represent, metonymically and univocally, the diverse people who live in Cuba. In addition, it often offers idealized visions that can by no means always or easily be translated into quotidian life. Nonetheless, not least because Fidel’s speeches have been so influential in shaping Cuban government policy and because they have not had the widespread reach of American anti-Cuban material, excerpts from some of those speeches are presented here, interspersed with my own commentary. They are meant to act more as a parallel discourse than as a countervailing commentary. While it is true, that they can draw attention to a discrepancy between the ideal and the real, they also point to genuine achievements as well as noble aspirations.

These pages, it is hoped, give some hint of the richness of Cuban life, a fecundity jammed, again, to a significant extent by American efforts to isolate the country and to caricature its unique political, cultural and social dimensions. While the U.S. bombards Cuba with messages, threatening, hectoring and proselytizing, Cuban versions of itself and its interpretations of world events and tendencies don’t get a hearing of any kind in North America, unless one subscribes to Granma International or accesses on the web. With globalization of an American-capitalist kind that has produced homogenization in much of the rest of the world, the idiosyncratic qualities of Cuba since the Revolution are even more worthy of examination, respect and transmission. In Orientalism, his groundbreaking work that in many ways launched postcolonial studies and strove to articulate a postcolonial sensibility, Edward Said pronounced on the dangers and distortions inherent in a Western imposition of meaning on the East. Surely, U.S. constructions of Cuba are no less pernicious; they may, in fact, be more deleterious given Cuba’s size, its proximity to the belligerent presence immediately to the north and its pre-revolutionary interconnectedness with the U.S.A. To that list, one could add the current constellation of political forces in Florida which dictates, in large measure, the direction of Washington’s policies towards Cuba.

I have lived in Havana for approximately three months a year since 1992, the epicentre of the “periodo especial” [special period], when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, then Cuba’s sponsor and ally, food, gasoline and electricity all but disappeared for a time from the lives of ordinary Cubans. I witnessed the seismic shift firsthand when, early in my time spent in Havana, I happened to be passing by the University of Havana Library. Just outside the doors was a large, unsightly pile of Russian language books dumped there unceremoniously by the staff. The special period’s duress may have begun; at least, though, there was the satisfaction of jettisoning a Soviet presence that many felt was joyless, arrogant, oppressive and, possibly even, racist. Traces of that occupation do remain, principally in the numerous Ivans, Liubas and Vladimirs registered in Cuba’s census. Freed from naming their children from such imperialist sources, many parents opt for such freewheeling monikers as Misleidys (my lady) or Roelvis (you’re Elvis) that augment the sense, readily apparent, of Cuban expressiveness and buoyancy. Not that politically-based nomenclatures are passé; there is always the chance of encountering a Usnavi (U.S. Navy) or, more in line with official Cuban sympathies, a Hanoi. Famously, a kid with that latter name in the early 1970s was a “one hit wonder,” singing a song demanding the release of American dissident, Angela Davis, then in a U.S. jail. When she was freed, one of her first stops was Havana where she appeared at a huge rally in her honour.

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May 112011

photograph by Jessica Pezalla

When he was young (in the last century), dg had a thing for that 1936 (definitely before dg was born) Clark Gable movie San Francisco (with Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald). DG actually used to want to be Clark Gable when he grew up. Unfortunately, things turned out otherwise. But he did go around for a number of years humming that song to himself even though he lived in Ontario and did not see San Francisco until, um, 1969. But enough about dg. Here’s a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece from Danielle Frandina who actually lives in San Francisco and perhaps never even saw that ancient movie (forever twined in dg’s mind with SF)—a pleasant and striking contrast to the economic doom-sayers and the plate geologists who all see the state sliding into the Pacific figuratively or actually pretty soon. After reading Danielle’s words, I think we should all join Jeanette MacDonald for a rousing chorus or two of “San Francisco!”



What it’s like living here

From Danielle Frandina in San Francisco


I grew up in Colorado, and if you’re from the West, but not the West Coast, you’re born with an innate suspicion and resentment of Californians.  Back in high school, my boyfriend wanted us to move there after graduation, but I refused, choosing the deserts of New Mexico instead.  During the mudslides and fires that plagued the Golden State in the mid-Nineties, I remember thinking some very insensitive thoughts about Californians, something along the lines of, “They’re getting what they deserve.”  In my mind, California was Los Angeles, and Los Angeles represented all that was despicable and embarrassingly indulgent about Americans.  But eight years ago, I loaded up a borrowed car with little more than my clothes, books and music and headed to the Bay Area for the sweet shelter of my two best friends, the debris of my former life smoldering in the rear view mirror.


The Apartment

photograph by Joe Frandina

I live in a lemon-yellow building on Dearborn Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District.  It was built in 1910.  This date matters.  It means it was constructed after the 1906 earthquake, so I can’t gauge how the structure will hold up when another one of that magnitude hits. The Bay windows of my studio apartment face street-side onto three palm trees that guard a locally famous community garden, the oldest in the city.  During a storm, the palms sway and shake so violently that it’s easy to imagine I’m witnessing a tropical storm.  This sight always sends me back to the beach town of Mui Ne in Vietnam, where, as a lone backpacker, I was once bedridden for three days.  In my fevered state, all I had the energy to do was watch the palm trees dance through the glassless windows of my bungalow as monsoon season really took root.  Strangely, this is a soothing memory.  I recall feeling no fear, no resistance, just letting the illness course through my body, being completely at ease with my surroundings and circumstances.  I rarely feel that way.  At ease.

My apartment is around the corner from what is now called the Gourmet Ghetto.  Slow Foods Movement and Farm to Table restaurants line 18th Street.  To explain to San Franciscans where I live, I just tell them my street is catty corner to Tartine, arguably the best artisan bakery in the city.  On any given day, at any given time, there is a line around the block to get in and order a Morning Bun or Croque Monsieur.  And it’s worth the wait.

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May 072011

Herewith Diane Lefer’s startling look at Los Angeles, the city where she lives. But this isn’t the Los Angeles of glitz and glamour, of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Diane’s Los Angeles has more in common with the LA of the movie Chinatown, a city of murky secrets and vast, ancient corruption. Finding her inspiration (she tells me to thank him) in Keith Maillard’s essay “Richland” recently published on NC, she takes an apocalyptic look at what is known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, now a toxic nuclear Superfund site. Diane’s view of LA is trenchant, bracing, and passionate. It will surprise you and sadden you, much the way we were surprised and saddened reading Keith’s memoir.

Diane is a dear old friend, also a constant reader of NC. You should also check out Diane’s story “The Tangerine Quandary” published here last year. In the intro to that story, I mentioned Diane’s work with a California prison inmate, Duc Ta. For readers interested in following the Duc Ta story, here is a link to Diane’s essay “Facing Life,” from Connotation Press.


What It’s Like Living Here

from Diane Lefer on Los Angeles, California



As a New York City transplant to LA some years back, I dreaded having to drive. I found an apartment a block from a major intersection where I can walk to most of what I need and have pretty good—at least for LA—access to public transportation. But once I got used to being behind the wheel, having a car liberated me. The New York subway system is such a gift to humanity, it ought to be recognized as such by UNESCO, but without a car, New Yorkers are confined to urban life. In Los Angeles, a short drive takes me to canyons, mountains, desert where I can cross paths with coyotes or turn back on sighting mountain lion tracks. (I also once cut a hike short when I encountered a Charles Manson lookalike not far from where The Family once lived.)

Some of my favorite trails are up through the sandstone and shale rock formations and cliffs in the northwest corner of LA at the Ventura County line. I long thought if I could ever bring myself to leave the center of town, this is where I’d want to be, in one of the residential communities tucked among the cliffs or at the base of all this fabulous sedimentary rock that was deposited 65-85 million years ago. I did wonder if I’d be able to find congenial company in an area where it seemed the main employers were the adult entertainment industry and various defense contractors. I haven’t met any porn stars, but whenever I headed up Woolsey Canyon Road to Sage Ranch Park, it was impossible to miss the Boeing checkpoint and guardhouse.

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May 062011


Here’s a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” piece from a former student and old friend, Laura Catherine Brown, who lives, yes, in Manhattan. I can’t even date our first meeting. I was teaching novel-writing at the New York State Writers Institute Summer Workshop; Laura had lovely growing-up in upstate New York novel-in-progress about a young woman from a place called Ransomeville, about the death of a parent, unexpected pregnancy, and the struggle to find some moment of control in a world of poverty, limited chances and no support systems (since the Great Recession more and more of America has fallen to this estate; this is a must-read book against despair).  That novel became her debut book, a fine first novel called Quickening, which Random House published 2000. Her shorter pieces have appeared in two anthologies, Before: The Big Book on Parenting, from Overlook Press and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater with Seal Press. She has been a resident at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Djerassi Program, Millay Colony, Vermont Studio Center, Ucross Foundation, Ragdale Foundation and The Hambidge Center.



What It’s Like Living Here

by Laura Catherine Brown in Manhattan

Any time of day except, perhaps, early Sunday morning, I cross the threshold of my building and step out onto an obstacle course generated by people. In the swarming thick of it, there is no clear line where they end and I begin. We’re parts of an incomprehensible whole. The clamor and din, the grit and anxiety, the need for haste, all swirl inside me. Any time of day. Breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s enough to make me dizzy.

Approximately eight million people dwell in New York City, a million or so in Manhattan. Two hundred fifteen thousand of them pass through Union Square, my neighborhood, on a typical busy day. Considering the volume, considering how each person rules their individual space, a remarkable accord prevails, and somehow everyone negotiates, barely touching anyone else. Amazing how we manage that.

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Apr 302011

Herewith a “What it’s like living here” essay & photos from Liz Blood who has taken an adventurous turn and fled her native Oklahoma City for the exotic wonders and mysteries of South Korea where she is now teaching (Liz and students pictured above). What is unique about this piece is that it’s about discovery and newness, not about a place Liz knows well or loves from habit, but a place in which she cannot even make out the words on the store signs. Everything is new, she feels awkward, nothing is easy. Going out to buy instant noodles at a convenience store is an expedition into the unknown. Liz’s words are fresh and revealing in their honesty and detail.


What It’s Like Living Here,

from Liz Blood in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea



There are marks everywhere that you don’t understand—on cars, buildings, flyers in your mailbox. Squares, circles, upside down Y’s—sometimes it looks more like a game of Tetris to you than a language.  This makes almost everything a real chore, but none so much as getting a meal. What will you order? How will you order? Are you even sure that’s a restaurant? When you first arrive in South Korea you don’t go out to dinner alone. Instead, you walk down the cold, granite steps of your apartment building, through the air-compressed sliding glass door (which you’re sure came from the set of Star Trek), and head out onto the street for the nearest convenience store.

As you leave your building—which is called Dreamplus, a fact you find funny since you’ve had so few dreams since coming to this country—you consider the sliding glass door and the ease with which it moves. Whooosh. It took you six or seven trips out that door to realize the sensor was above it and that, when the door wouldn’t open, a simple wave of the hand would suffice. All that jumping around and on and off the steps was unnecessary. Perhaps, one of these days, you will move with such ease, act right on cue. Like the door or even the children in your English classes, you will know the proper response.  I’ll have a beer, the pork dumplings, and kim chi soup, please.

But, until then, you simply round your corner in Jigok-dong—the name of your neighborhood, which you say proudly because it is one of the only things you can say properly—and walk into the 7-11 to find a pack of instant noodles. You choose any one of the packages without drawings of shrimp or fish and place the noodles on the counter, not even bothering to listen to the cashier tell you the amount—the register’s screen points outward, the numbers glow neon green. You breathe easy and relish the convenience.

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Apr 022011

Kate Reuther is a former student of mine, a lovely writer. Between packets we used to exchange childcare horror stories, taking comfort in being wry and witty about stress and everyday domestic catastrophe. All our children seemed to have survived, so it can’t have been that bad. Now I just remember the camaraderie of those emails. This is an atypical “What it’s like living here” piece. It’s what Kate calls (apparently this is a new word, perhaps not an entirely new form) a charticle. Apparently, she tells me, there are also listicles, although I haven’t seen one yet. Kate is one of those rare creatures who enjoys teaching middle school.  She is a graduate of Yale and the Vermont College MFA in Fiction program.  Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review, Brain Child, Salamander, and The Ledge.  A life-long New Yorker, she lives in Washington Heights with her husband and two boys.



To live here is to constantly question my own sanity and I have lived here my entire life. It’s not possible to leave anymore.  I am permanently warped.  I am ruined for anywhere else.
The subway — the pee-soaked man sharing my bench, the garbage heat, the windy grit in my eyes, the milky plaster leaks, the rat tunnels, the crush of sticky skin,  the “Fuck you looking at?” The subway — ancient engine of democracy and speed, dog-eared paperbacks, roving Mariachis, warm stranger’s shoulder, rocking me home after three gin and tonics.
I worry about the children, what this soot and hurry and perpetual tightness are doing to their brains.  When they want to run, they run in a circle through the kitchen, past the table, past the television, and back into the kitchen.  “Light feet!” I yell.  They do not know what it’s like to run under an emerald canopy, or through a field, wheat without end, opening and opening and opening…. There are no children running through fields in the countryside.  There are children playing Halo in finished basements.  There are children drinking Malibu rum in the backseats of Dodge Durangos.   There are children smoking Marlboro Lights in Chick-fil-A parking lots.  There are children texting each other: MEET U @ MANIC PANIC.  My boys are better off.
Green — When I unexpectedly find myself before a windowpane of trees or an undulating mountain range or even just a square of lawn, the clamp inside my chest eases open.  Right now the only green I see are desiccated Christmas trees planted in dirty snow banks. I get my green in concentrated doses, Central Park doses, friend’s sister’s East Hampton’s house for the weekend doses.  And I appreciate green more this way, sighing like a character from a musical when the wind plays with with the winking leaves in the afternoon sun.  If I lived with trees all the time, they would look like work, like a mess to dig out of gutters, all wet and black and rotten.
The possibility, no probability, of a washer and dryer inside my own home. My parents failed to get out. When my mom got pregnant, they bought a house at the end of a dirt road inside a primordial pine forest in Warren, N.J.  Every morning, my mother would waddle along my father’s crunchy tire tracks, sighing tearily in the shards of sunlight.  No neighbors.  She would have liked to make her excursion into a loop-walk rather than an out-and-back but the intersecting pavement was miles away and the woods were featureless, like black crosshatches.  No elves.  My mother walked until she reached the splintery remains of an orange plastic cone, abandoned in the run-off ditch, then she turned around, walked back to the house, and got back into bed.
The endless schlep – sweating inside of a matted, down coat, lugging a stroller up a metal staircase, bags banging my shins, bags bruising my hips, bags inside of bags in case I buy something and I need another bag.  Sometimes I turn the bags upside down in the front hall of our apartment and litter the carpet with my burden: one mitten, a travel size bottle of Purell, a Ziploc bag of baby-wipes, a half-knitted scarf, an uncapped Cherry Chapstick, an aluminum water bottle (the earth!), a Ziploc bag of Pirate Booty, a Lawrence Block mystery, two chewed pieces of gum, a Lego alligator, a Ziploc bag of apple slices (brown), a plastic water bottle (the earth!), a wooden J train.  If I lived elsewhere, I would leave it all in my car. Where is “elsewhere” anyway?  Not Westchester or Long Island or Connecticut – I’d be bored out of my mind.  Not DC – bunch of wonks.  Not LA – traffic.  Yes, there is a middle, a big ocean-less middle, I’d get lost driving from the placeless place to placeless place to my women’s book club at Panera Bread.  I need my feet on a grid, landmarks in the sky.  And fuck Boston.
Scott – He is always so bruised, hunched, angry, disappointed, TIRED.  If he can’t make it here, there is something wrong with this place. Scott – He likes his supergeek job, his Muay Thai muscles, his Banh Mi bread, his collaborators from the land of jazz and gin.  Scott is digging into the city wearing purple Air Force Ones.
People are jealous because I pay only $317 a month to park my car in a garage. “New York City. Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything.”
Adventure!! A new color to the sky, new minerals in the tap water, new slang for soda pop and sandwiches, new tax codes, new friendly debates about the best route home. I’d still be the same anxious, angry person, only disoriented, lonely, and hungry.
It will happen again. It happens everywhere.
My sons running naked on a beach. When I find a local like me, I want to run my tongue up under his jaw line, taste the brack of blacktop and cloudy hot dog water.  “Do you remember ‘The G-Spot Deli’ on 86th and Amsterdam?”  “Yeah, what were they thinking?”
My mother said, “Never hang your purse from the hook on the back of the toilet stall door; robbers will reach over and snatch it while you have your pants down.” My mother said, “If you feel scared, go where there are people.”
There’s no nobility in pointless suffering.  Arrogance is a lousy reward. When I look at the sun through my closed eyelids, I see a ridge of red skyline.  I think it’s the West Side, as viewed from the reservoir, my fingers gripping the old chain link, my thighs pink and goose-bumped in the February cold.
Bruce Ratner Mariano Rivera
A porch, preferably a wraparound porch, with a pink jasmine bush, a string hammock and a weathered red stool we use as a table for iced tea.  Glass pitcher.  Plenty of ice. How much space do human animals really need?  Isn’t this better?  Isn’t this enough?
I could spend my whole life debating this and never leave. I could never leave.


—Kate Reuther


Mar 242011

Mary Donovan

Here’s another delightful addition to the Numéro Cinq What It’s Like Living Here series, this time from VCFA graduate Mary Donovan in Wheaton, Maryland, which, yes, goes by many names, and is thus ambiguous, until you get to the charming details.



What it is and is not

Wheaton is many things, but it is not Silver Spring.  Much less Kensington.  Nor (god forbid) Washington, DC.  If you live in Wheaton, though, you must reckon with these.

The US Postal Service makes you say “Silver Spring” as your City.  The US Census hyphenates “Wheaton-Glenmont,” though Glenmont is a crossroads of strip malls and the end of a subway line.  Just across Veirs Mill Road is Kensington, where the high school blasts its Friday-night-football and half-time tubas clear through your cottage. You’re not far from the border of Washington, DC, where you likely commute to work. Although when you travel you say “from DC,” every evening you’re relieved to flee its workaholic bosses and center-of-the-known-and-unknown-universe stance. Wheaton is also not Rockville, whose shared border remains mysterious and may involve the creek; you once mailed a card to friends you knew from woods walks and guessed their address as Rockville, but it was Silver Spring, which meant Wheaton.

Although Wheaton has no formal borders, everyone knows where you mean when you live there.  Ah, near Wheaton Plaza, the first “shopping mall” in the 1960s.  Near vast Wheaton Regional Park — you can hike miles of trails or ice-skate year-round or ride a horse or play (or watch) baseball as the sun sets.  All those tiny places to eat – Salvadoran, Peruvian, Vietnamese — and you can walk to HMart? You’ve got Wheaton Regional Library, with robust programming for children and speakers of languages other than English, who are now the majority. You signed a petition called “Don’t Move the Wheaton Library!” when council members decided to “revitalize” by razing an historic area and building a brand-new library and chain stores. (They ran out of money when the Recession hit – you win – for now.)

No one knows quite where you mean when you (must) say “Silver Spring” with its 16 zip codes. Your next-door neighbor Bernice, a stalwart, 80-something daughter of “original” residents, mails you a Christmas card with “WHEATON, MD 20902” pressed by a forceful hand. (They deliver it.)

Wheaton, MD, has a strong feeling of the late 1940s-early-‘50s, when most houses – including yours and Bernice’s — were built: small, brick homes rising and falling through rabbit-warren neighborhoods for middle-class folk with, at most, one car per.  Now these streets are choked with parked vehicles and you can only drive one way at a time.  You may not have a dining room, or an upstairs, but you will have hardwood floors, thick plaster walls and solid brick construction. Store signs still feature the fonts – Art-Deco-meets-Space-Age — of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  People your age – and you are not THAT old – reminisce about childhood trips to Hot Shoppes at Wheaton Plaza, home of the Mighty Mo and its Special Sauce, delivered to your car by a waitress on roller skates.

Claims to fame

Wheaton has the highest elevation in the Washington, DC area, and sprouted its first radio towers. WTOP has been broadcasting since 1939; you rely heavily on its traffic reports each morning.  Wheaton also transmitted the very first television in 1923. A resident named Charles Jenkins built that first transmitter and got the first TV broadcast license – and invented the television set.  People in the 1920s and ‘30s watched his “radiovision” and assumed everyone in the U.S. would remember his name.

The Wheaton Metro (subway) Station has the deepest escalator in the Western Hemisphere; only Hong Kong has a longer escalator.  Kensington, with its antique shops and Victorian wrap-arounds, can only dream of having such an escalator.

Chuck Levin’s Music Center in the heart of Wheaton is a legendary destination for musicians in the Mid-Atlantic region. When your band needed its sound and light equipment in the mid-80s, you drove all the way from Virginia to Chuck Levin’s. When your Dad (in Florida) threw himself an 80th birthday party a couple years ago, Chuck Levin’s kazoos, shakers and harmonicas filled your suitcase.

HMart is not unique to Wheaton. Both Gaithersburg and Catonsville (near Baltimore) have them in Maryland. But people know where you live by “that awesome Korean grocery.” You can buy 21 different (frozen) types of dried fish cake, or a set of shot glasses whose box reads “Perfect for Today’s Modern Life” or the absolute-best deals on fresh and strange produce.

Roads named “Mill”

Wherever you live in Wheaton you live on or near a road named “(Someone’s) Mill” – remnants of grain mills in operation from pre-Civil-War throughout Rock Creek, the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River, and Sligo Creek.

Just say “I’m near” Veirs Mill, Kemp Mill, Plyers Mill, Newport Mill. People nod their heads, sure.

Flora and fauna

Your house and porch appreciate the shade of mature oaks (red, white and black). Yards feature azaleas, hydrangeas, lilacs, rhododendrons, crape myrtles, boxwoods, magnolias. These somehow survive icy winters and bloom in turn, just when you most need them.  Your own vegetable yield can be iffy, but you can go to any of a dozen farmers markets on weekends.  Plus HMart!

In your yard you spot raccoons, possums, squirrels, rabbits, and more rabbits. Deer venture away from the creek to eat only the heads off your tulips. Birds make the rounds of neighborhood feeders; gangs of starlings bully away sparrows, cardinals and mourning doves. Even starlings fear the iron beak of a red-headed woodpecker with black-and-white houndstooth markings, who travels solo.  (You’ll hear him and his family pounding bark – like rapid-fire gunshot – while you climb the trails of Wheaton Regional.) You see goldfinches, but to date, not one oriole without cleats and a uniform.

In the Brookside Gardens of Wheaton Regional Park, you can visit the Butterfly Garden May-to-September and the “Garden of Lights” Thanksgiving-to-mid-January.  Last year they began an “edible landscaping” project, foregoing flowers for vegetables and crops. Eggplants drew flea beetles but the okras were insanely happy and the sweet potatoes grew out onto the sidewalks.

Along the Park’s trails, it behooves you to look down and jump over piles of horse droppings (they have the right of way). You find it curious that you see chipmunks only in this Park, never in anyone’s yard, and you marvel how they achieve jet propulsion across your path, leaving only the after-image of black stripe on brown.

Maybe twice a month you see a fox there, and notice its vibrant red fur with ring of black on its chest — not the same brownish fox you see other times. You aren’t sure if these are differences in gender or ethnicity or family resemblance, or all three. The fox usually trots parallel to you for a while from fifteen yards away, so you can exchange glances.  Once you saw a coyote, whom you didn’t register as “coyote” but “strange dog – odd-colored fox? – hey!” as you remembered reading of their increasing numbers along the East Coast.  You miss your dog every day, your longtime eager companion for woodsy adventures; she would dive shoulder-first to roll around any ground cover trotted upon by fox or coyote. (Thus both of you once suffered from sarcoptic mange.) She is buried in Rockville, your ex’s choice and his to make; she was his mother’s dog first.

Speaking of dogs

Since you miss your dog every day but adopting one would be unfair with your DC commute (11-12-hour days R/T) you may arrange your activities around chances to encounter them.  Your own corner lot has much more lawn than house and seems a message board for Wheaton dogs. (You may not be fully aware of this paw traffic until it snows.)

Loiter outside. Sophie and Billy, Springer Spaniels, live just across the chain-link fence. There has never been a creature – not a lover, nor niece or nephew, nor your own Cocker – ever happier to see you than goofy Sophie. Billy is geriatric with a fraction of her energy, but his tail whirrs just as fast. Catty-corner lives Bentley, a white dreadlocked Komondor, and further down Allison the elderly Basset and Christopher the Terrier mix.  Out on the trails you’ll likely be rebuffed by Nellie (unless you’re wearing strawberry lip gloss) but met with enthusiasm by the King Charles pack (Kallie, Ottie and Netta) and their Golden Lab companion, Cozy, with a sinus tumor. You hope their humans don’t expect you to know their names.

Now and then you hear cats wailing at night below one of your windows. Neighbors have guessed they’re feral. One gray cat has tried to get through your front door twice (you are allergic). S/he is breathtakingly beautiful and wears a collar.

Water features

Along with the creeks and branches that promoted so many Mills, streams run under or along roads and provide a soothing sound when you pass by.

In the summertime, sudden violent storms can move in from the west. They are strong enough to down trees and knock out power and even issue “microbursts” of rain (2-3 inches in 30 minutes). These can overwhelm your back stairwell drain and soak your basement. After the sun comes out, your neighborhood fills with vans of ServPro folk hauling industrial de-humidifiers and fans inside, while other folk haul carpeting and laminate out to the curb.

If you sold your Rockville condo and bought your Wheaton house in August of 2008, you would’ve treaded water through the crash of the housing/financial markets in September/October.  With enough homes in foreclosure or bought vastly undervalued, your own cottage is now “underwater.”

The Corner of Collins and Ivydale

In Wheaton, just for showing up you benefit from the spectacular hearts of your neighbors. You know the names of the humans across your road, next door and behind, at least. Only a few remain of “the originals” – first occupants like Bernice’s parents. (You will hear the term enough that it insinuates your dream, reminiscent of TV’s “Lost” – murky group called “Originals” — but it was only a dream.)

Don’t worry about going out of town for a few days. Without your asking, your neighbors will look out for pamphlets stuck in your storm door or newspapers delivered contrary to your stop request. They will take in a box from Amazon on backorder. You will do the same during their upcoming trips to Italy and Ocean City.

You catch up with news of life on any day warm enough for yard work, and you talk again about getting a list-serve going for yourselves. You should really have a block party or something.  And you stop raking to visit with Allison or Christopher or Buddy or Moose from blocks away, but you forget again to ask the humans their names.

And they won’t know your name.  But it won’t matter. You all know where you live.

—Mary Donovan

Mar 062011

Kim Aubrey has already contributed a “What it’s like living here” from Toronto just as she was about to move to Saskatoon. This new piece actually seems better than the first, denser, more pressured, more engaged, even as it struggles with engagement, with the new, alien place. It’s fascinating to read the two together. But, of course, I also like this piece for the use it makes of my short story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon,” which is, yes, based on a true story. I did run out onto the ice to help rescue a blind man and his companion dog. But in real life we actually managed to save the dog (in the story, it dies); I brought the dog to my girlfriend’s apartment to dry it off and warm it up; it knocked over the Christmas tree and ate two of the presents and then attacked the policeman when he came to take it into custody. No doubt this will distract you from Kim’s essay. Ignore me. I had a very interesting time living in Saskatoon—but this is Kim’s story.


What It’s Like Living Here

By Kim Aubrey

You ask what it’s like living here and whether I have read your story, “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon.” I read it last week, swearing out loud, “Shit, that’s a good story.” I’ve taken to talking to myself because I don’t know anyone here, except for my husband, Joseph, who’s at work all day. My experience of the place is limited, tentative, and your story has already begun to color how I view it. I’ve been planning to visit the Mendel Art Gallery, and now when I go, your narrator’s account of Mendel keeping his art collection in his slaughterhouse may conjure the sight and smell of blood.

“There seem to be so few people”*

You feel strange here. If the place you live shapes you, molds you in ways you don’t realize, subtly and slowly, Saskatoon has yet to work its magic. You’ve only been here for seven weeks in total, interrupted by a return to Toronto for the holidays and to New Hampshire to stay with your mother while she had a hysterectomy. You make yourself go out some afternoons, no matter how cold it is. Other days you stay at your desk, working on projects, answering e-mails. Or you ring your daughters in Toronto, consoling yourself that they are only a phone call away.

On those days that you make it outside, you walk the two blocks across three snow-packed streets to the South Saskatchewan river, where you can either follow the sidewalk and view the open and closed waters from above, or climb down the slippery hill to the Meewasin walking trail which stretches along both sides of the river. You could cross over to the west side on one of the bridges, but you are waiting for milder weather before venturing across on foot. Here on the east side, the surface of the river is frozen and seems like an extension of the trail, but beyond and under the ice, the river flows swiftly north to Lake Winnipeg.

“Beneath me the unfrozen parts of the river smoke and boil”

Corner Grocer

Outside, it’s minus thirty, but you kick off the covers three or four times a night, pull them back on. Your body’s thermostat is wonky. Heat blazes through you, a trial by fire, something being forged. Your period is late again. Maybe it won’t come. That doesn’t mean what it meant twenty or thirty years ago. It means the opposite now, your power to make a baby dwindling, some other power replacing it. The force of this heat kindles you even in the frozen depth of a Saskatchewan winter.

You hurry inside from a walk. Your knees and the tops of your thighs sting as the warmth floods back into them. You neglected to wear snow pants or long johns, or to wrap your scarf around your face, because you relish the bite of cold, the uncompromising crispness, hoping it will eat a clear path through your befuddled mind. You wonder how you’ll manage to make this prairie snowscape feel like home. When you first moved to Canada, your daughters helped to ground you, to root you in Toronto where you’d landed. What can root you now? You’re hoping the cold can tell you, or the tension between cold and warmth, desire and paralysis.

You gaze at the painting on your bedroom wall—an enormous hyper-real hibiscus. The yellow stalk of its sex casts a cool blue shadow against the lush red petals. When you were a kid in Bermuda, you used to strip the petals from the stalk to find the sticky heart of the flower, its hidden juiciness. You and your brothers would fix the small white cone to the tips of your noses to see how long it would take before the flower’s heart fell off.

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