Category Archives: Making Sense

Writing while half asleep: An experiment

Trees in meadow

Try this: The next time you extract yourself from a dream, write it down. I don’t mean the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, but rather the next time you lucidly decide to leave a dream.

The next day, observe how your half-asleep brain uses words. You might find what I did: There’s an effortless economy that’s enviable, but there are also some weird wordings and mistakes. Fun!

The unedited exhibit:

Scary protest dream, set in Emmaus. There with Mel outside a building when cops pepper sprayed from the roof. We ran, putting bandanas around our mouth/nose. Ran through streets chased by fire ladder truck spraying pepper from hose at top of extended letter. Chased into a park. The mob found an abandoned youth hostel and crowded in out of the rain for bathroom and shower. I said, someone should keep watch. I went to a nook by the door and saw cops near. Yelled officers approaching! and ran back across the meadow. A cop caught me by the back of my rain jacket. I’d lost Mel. While the cop was cuffing three people up against the back of his car, I sprinted off toward a stand of pine trees. Got away for now.


1. “Our mouth/nose” — it works.
2. Fire ladder truck, an interesting compound noun.
3. Letter instead of ladder.
4. Lack of quotation marks.
5. After “scary,” only essential adjectives. Extended, abandoned and three. Counting “rain jacket” and “pine trees” as nouns.
6. “Got away for now.” Still participating in the episode, even though I’m arguably awake.

Photo by K_Gradinger via Flickr.

Allentown in One Sentence

Photo of Allentown Flower Man

The city of Allentown began with a decision to spin silk, followed by a swing to the opposite pursuit of making steel, and the lumbering steel industry forged transcontinental rail tracks and train wheels and who knows how many hobo shovels and skyscraper guts and World War II cannons before eventually collapsing under its own benefit-heavy, slow-to-adapt-to-world-competition density, leaving the Lehigh Valley teetering on the brink of destruction for a number of years — 10? 15? — long enough for Billy Joel to write a song about it , which often serves as the primary point of reference when the subject of hometowns comes up while an Allentown resident is on the road, and which proved apt but only for a while, because somehow the underlying German work ethic — as people round here like to believe — prevailed against the burnt-out industrial past, and turkey farmers sold their holdings to big businesses seeking the perfect point for efficient distribution, close to New York and Philadelphia and D.C., outside of the tax shackles of New York and New Jersey, on the interstate, with a large and ready and well-trained workforce, and medical device manufacturing crept west, out of Jersey and the Philly suburbs, and the universities grew and pulled in students and professors and janitors and librarians and lab techs and the retiring parents of the students, who could spot a good lifestyle and saw the sea of bluehairs as an advantage rather than an annoyance or burden, and charitable interests sought to preserve the health of the population, transmuting chemical fortunes into medical megaplexes, healing all who knocked and presented a valid, too-rare health insurance card, especially the aforementioned elderly (many beyond the point of healing), sputtering to their exits while their grandchildren stuck around and pieced together artistic ventures centered around rockabilly hair, skateboards, hula hoops, Twitter and used books, accepting that they had enough parks and alcohol and willing romantic partners in the Lehigh Valley and didn’t need to move to Philly or New York after all, but could live a slow, content life with a solid soundtrack right here in little old traffic-choked Allentown, PA.

Dark news from the Lehigh Valley

Forget steel. American Weirdness is booming in the Lehigh Valley.

Today’s headline: Teacher dead from heroin overdose on a school night. A beautiful 24 year-old biology teacher, blond. At a high school 28 miles south on the previous day, the same drug lulled a girl to sleep in class.

Bowhunters recently found a decomposed body in the woods near our new casino.

Last Saturday night, someone leapt out of an Infiniti and stabbed a pizza guy in the butt with a pen knife. Thieves are raiding boarding houses, slipping through unlocked front doors and systematically robbing residents at gunpoint.

All the while, Bethlehem is up in arms over an unprecedented hot dog cart, and is four City Council votes away from gifting the town’s historic societies the right to deny any and all vendor applications (and in the process, banning book vendors–sorry, only food, drinks or flowers permitted).

A 65 year-old man in Allentown who bragged about the size of his bank withdrawal ended up smashed to death with a brick. (His former roommate is suspected.) This is what comes to mind as I awake from a nap, without having done any particular research.

We’re America. Recently Obama even dropped by to pick up some anecdotes for a pep talk to the nation.

Photo by

Amanda Knox: Now what?

As college students around the world prepare for a big Friday night, Amanda Knox is preparing for a 26-year prison sentence. Minutes ago, an Italian jury convicted her of murder.

From an American perspective, the trial appeared to be a tragic, perversion-laced misunderstanding. A misunderstanding that would have been obvious if not for the clouds of sex, shame, honor, drugs, pressure, inconsistencies, dramatic license and religion. Especially religion–they called her a ‘Luciferina’ for God’s sake.

Tonight the Italian legal system appears conducive only to guilt, any guilt. So Amanda Knox is branded a witch and marched off, and nobody really knows what happened to Meredith Kercher.

Most of me believes that Amanda isn’t a murderer. However, it’s saddening to acknowledge that the caliber of bungling forces me to preserve a shred of suspicion.

Why? Because I’ve seen the changes that a place can catalyze. Because I know that mere travel can dredge up new deposits of character, let alone alcohol and romance-soaked student travel.

We’re quick to celebrate the positive effects of travel–self-reliance, altruism, compassion, etc. But travel can just as easily lead a person into their own darkness.

Drug trafficking, buying sex, fighting (my chin scar is a souvenir from Spain), and adultery are well-known hazards of the road. A handful of travelers must also discover their capacity for murder.

I just really want to believe that Amanda Knox wasn’t one of them.

Vagablogging + Books on Boats

Something new: I’ve just started a weekly gig over at Vagablogging. Here’s a link to my post from last week about the magic of fort cities. This week it’s about the intersection of art and place.

Tonight during a World Series commercial break, I ran into the following passage which gives an interesting take on the whole art/place thing. It’s from the article At Sea by Jonathan Raban, published in Outside back in 1996. Continue reading Vagablogging + Books on Boats

What if you don’t get the inner journey?

It was the perfect recipe for transformation: A month-long trek around a clump of stupendous mountains. An ancient pilgrim path. A motorcycle through the jungle. A summer of scraping by with a baritone sax.

So what happens when you finally reread your journals and realize the pages are filled with mental dandruff? Quick shots of confusion, desire, doubt, anxiety, concern, what ifs, hilarity, hot temper, the list goes on. You might ask, “What was I thinking?” or, “How could I have been concerned with this crap?”

But really–does this mean you didn’t get the inner journey? Does the absence of fully-formed ah-ha’s devalue the experience?

I’d urge you to take heart. The writing doesn’t make sense because you were working overtime to make sense. What were obvious associations at the time now require lucky reverse engineering to comprehend, if they can be pieced together at all. Or maybe the snippets point elsewhere–clues are often hard to find, frustrating, and ambiguous.

You had the time and freedom to drop down the rabbit holes, far down. It’s no wonder that, in the flat light of the familiar, what you brought back seems cracked. But these aren’t the words of an incoherent stranger–they’re yours. Although the surface might look like so much debris, a veritable landslide at times, there’s no mistaking that it’s the work of seismic shifts.

To put it another way, you brought home an entire river–now comes the challenge of panning for gold.

Photo by Tapse via Flickr.

Where Will a Walk Take You?

george washington bridge photo walk walking travel

Have you walked across your city? Have you witnessed the bell curve of its development? Would you take the same route you’d use to drive? Or would you seek out some sort of alternate, foot-friendly route?

Yesterday I read about a back-up plan that many Bihari peasants keep in mind: Make the month-long walk to Calcutta and look for work or beg. After walking the Camino de Santiago, if Burgos and Leon come up together, the immediate thought is twelve days across the meseta… Some of the most fascinating imagery in Stephen King’s The Stand is of walks across a demolished America, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road only intensifies the scenario.

Think of where you drive most often in the 5, 10, 15, and 30 minute ranges. Consider your nearest big city (especially if you’re in one right now). How long it would take to walk to these places?

Bethlehem, PA, is an hour and a half of crumbling interstate west of New York City. But to walk along back roads and sidewalks until the eventual crossing of the George Washington Bridge and coda stroll down to Central Park–sounds like an adventure. 83.2 miles, according to Google Maps. Four good days.

Four good days is a guess. I have no idea what that walk demands. Don’t know what I’m a day’s or a week’s walk from. To know this place, I think I should.

Sure, the scenery in the Lehigh Valley is a notch or two below the Annapurnas, but it’s strange to have a better conception of the various routes from Pokhara to Muktinath than of the footpaths between my town and its immediate neighbors, not to mention the neighbors I’d have to ask for water along the way.

What about you? Had any good walks lately?

Photo claiming to have three mistakes by Sidereal.

The Hazards of Prolonged International Exposure

The right mix of cigarette smoke and cologne puts me on a sidewalk in Granada. A grey-blue overcast sunrise through a crack in the blinds is another Utica snowstorm. The smell of rare wood burning (a piano, let’s say) is the rush of India.

The more places we visit, the more elsewheres we can be transported to by a strange cloud, a scent, or a song heard through the window of a passing car. Not surprisingly, it’s always the same few places that hit me the hardest. It’s places I’ve stayed in long enough to be able to guess at what’s going to be last to change.

Call it the Stray Dog Theory of Place–if you talk to it and pet it behind the ears, it’ll keep coming back. It can happen in as little as a week (less, anybody?), though a month or more is better. What also helps: Multiple trips to the same grocery store. Witnessing sunrise and sunset. An unexpected soaking or bout of shivers. Conversation with kids and old folks. Getting lost, helping someone find their way, finding a secret spot, sharing it. A routine, no matter how rickety.

I’m still a sucker for towering experiences, the big bangs that can define a town, city or country (whether the reason for the visit or randomly encountered). Along with the in-the-moment adrenaline, an afternoon of Porsche in the Swiss Alps delivers an admirable stuffed Done That to hang over the mantle. But it is what it is. (Yes, been there.)

What I’m more curious about are the slow-to-emerge, long-term effects of prolonged exposure. The rippling impact of investing the time to know a place on the secret-handshake level. So far, I’ve found that the places you’ve given the most to will visit you when you least expect them, triggered by next to nothing, wherever you might be.

Travel deja vu, the return of a place’s State of Place. Elsewhere merging with and warping the present to create a new, unexpected moment of travel.

Looking forward to continuing the experiment.

PS — Thanks for reading. There’s no way one post could have answered the whole question…

Photo by Hani Amir aka Dude Crush

Why I Turned Down a Year in Asia for Bethlehem, PA

Photo by

A couple months ago, I told some friends and family that the time had come. That I’d been home almost a year, and would soon hit the road to teach English in Asia. Boom–gotta get out of here. Next stop: Daegu, Korea, or Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

We’re trained to follow through on what we say, to walk the walk. I certainly talked the talk this past spring–including to a handful of recruiters who could have had me in a colorful classroom by the end of July. It’s now the first day of September, and these places are on indefinite hold.

“That doesn’t make sense. Why would you want to hang around Pennsylvania?”

Continue reading Why I Turned Down a Year in Asia for Bethlehem, PA

What Do Travel And Storms Have In Common?

shelf cloud wall cloud Nebraska storm chaser

Travel and storms are both the changing of a place. You sense a distant rumbling that something’s brewing. An oncoming pressure drop. When the wind gets in your hair, you know it’s on.

It hits and jars your senses. There’s adrenaline, fear, and giddyness in some proportion, cut with the awe of something immediate and massive. You’ll have to act spontaneously, improvise, or deal.

The situation could be a catalyst for memorable sex. On the other hand, you might be thrown into an emergency, a tragedy, or both.

Provided you make it out alive, you’ll have been through something impossible to replicate.

From ski trips, to the beach, to (of course) storm chasing, so much travel is in search of weather. But, after last week’s crazy storms, I’m thinking it’s just as easy for adventure to appear when the weather comes to us.

The photo above is by Dale Kaminski, aka NebraskaSC via Flickr, taken on June 4, 2008 on Highway 40 near Riverdale, Nebraska. His description below is a travel story as much as a weather story, complete with chase and map enthusiasm…

Continue reading What Do Travel And Storms Have In Common?