Listening and Hearing

•May 22, 2017 • 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about listening–really paying attention to what people are saying to you, or to music you choose to play or audio programming you go out of your way for, either on the radio or through the Internet. And I thought that was going to be the subject of this post, the first in way too long. But work and travel and life in general have kept me either too busy or semi-depressed to find the time, so I’m cheating for now, just to keep C?WC? somewhat active.

Capehart radio

I have this radio!

Instead, I’m posting a short story I wrote in a class I took at the local community college this spring (a topic perhaps worthy  of its own post, given the slightly crazy nature of the experience…). I am the first to admit that I’m not a fiction writer, aside from my plays. And I doubt I’ll pursue fiction in a serious way in the near future (though there is that nebulous novel in my head I keep yakking about).  But I thought this story was a decent effort, for something that was mostly written in a 20-minute burst in class, with some revisions. And while it’s not about listening per se, it is about hearing–hearing stray music, and the thoughts and associations that can go with it. And it certainly ties in to the theme of this blog, since it directly relates to so many posts I wrote during the peak Crisis time–the dissolution of my marriage and the aftermath. Take a gander if you’re interested. Or don’t if you’re not.


italy squareHe heard the sax first, an alto solo bouncing off the stone walls of the centuries-old buildings that crowded the narrow street. He followed the music as the solo returned to the melody—something by Charlie Parker? He couldn’t place it, but it was familiar. Maybe from a record Andy had played for him so many years ago.

Andy—thoughts of him always lessened Paul’s bouts of self-pity, like the one that had hit him just before the music had drifted his way. And the ones that had seized Paul throughout this trip. This adventure.

Well, this is what you said you craved, he thought to himself. A trip to Europe, alone. A trip to revive your soul and begin chipping away at the memories of her.

Andy would have wanted to come, if Paul had asked, but he knew it was pointless. Before, Andy had always been up for any adventure, a new path to knowledge, a chance to grow. But now, the vagabond days they once shared were over, as Andy’s broken brain chemistry left him stiff and walking like a stumbling drunk. Play a trumpet solo? Not likely, not now, not like the one Andy blew outside St. Paul’s Cathedral on their backpacking trip across Europe decades before.

Walking down the street, Paul could hear another musician now—a guitarist strumming chords under the sax’s melody. Then a voice rose above the two instruments, a soulful contralto. A woman’s voice, pure and clear. Nothing like hers.

Entering the square, he saw the three musicians playing for too small a crowd, given how many people were nearby enjoying the sunny Sunday afternoon. For Chrissakes, Paul wanted to scream, they’re pouring out their hearts for you. Pay attention! Listen! And maybe throw a few Euros their way.

The song ended. Paul joined in the meager applause, trying to draw out more by clapping harder. It didn’t work. After a moment’s huddled consultation, the trio began its next number. A ballad. The sax played softly beneath the singer as she crooned a Gershwin tune: “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

He loved that tune—usually. But now the melancholy returned. Sarah should have been there next to him, holding his hand, leaning in close, as the two of them shared this simple serene moment. A travel moment, the chance encounter on the street when beautifully played music scaled the old stone walls, reverberated through the square, and settled back down on them like a comforting cloud. A memory they would always have together. Perhaps when the song ended, he would motion her over to the band so he could take her picture with them, the tall, skinny saxophonist dangling his alto, the guitarist smiling behind his hollow-body, the singer striking a flirty pose. Perhaps he would have done that. But Sarah wasn’t beside him, and she wouldn’t be when he returned from this solitary sojourn. Or ever again.

She had been clear: No, there wasn’t anyone else. She just needed to be alone. She felt, perhaps not in an instant, Paul assumed, but in a slowly accumulating realization, that for 11 years she had never been comfortable living with him. Had never truly been herself. That tidbit stunned him, and he tried to imagine the weight of that emotional burden on her. And of course he hadn’t helped. He knew at times he had been insensitive to her needs, but she knew he could say the same thing. And he did, for what it was worth then. Because as soon as she said she wanted out, he knew it was over. No amount of pleading or bargaining or especially arguing was going to change that.

So, she moved out. After smoking one last cigarette on the porch steps, as the mosquitoes began to emerge and the moths darted around the floodlight and he watched her, as he usually did—their after-dinner ritual. She savored her one smoke of the day, he sat with her, and they talked. Except for that last time. When there was nothing to say.

From Gershwin, the trio moved to something more upbeat, almost poppy. He couldn’t place it. And despite the sadness swirling in him, he couldn’t shut off his automatic response to something with a happy bounce. His right foot began to tap, his head rocked in time to the music.

The moment brought him back to the canals of Venice many years before. He and Andy were drinking grappa with some girls they had met at the youth hostel. As they talked and laughed, Paul was in the scene but not part of it. He felt isolated and unloved. It was Andy the girls were drawn to, not him. Andy and his fucking trumpet. As Paul sat there, only the strains of an accordion coming from a nearby café kept him grounded, kept him from hurling himself into the fetid, dense waters of the canal. Well, all right, and a massive fear of death. He was not then and would never be suicidal. He would just wallow in his insecurity, his growing sense that he would never find true love. Three decades later, that sorry sentiment still clung to his heart.

Andy, he thought now, remember Andy. Who was Paul to moan about anything when Andy approached his diminishing physical capabilities with such grace, such wisdom. He said that to Andy, right after Sarah left and his grief spilled out in beer-fueled tears. Even in that moment of despair, he knew he had so much to be thankful for. And look at how well Andy bore his burden.

“Ah,” Andy had said. “You only see what I want you to see.” Paul recalled how Andy had struggled to get out the words, as he waited for the latest round of Parkinson meds to kick in. “I am no saint. And I have plenty of fears. Plenty of anger. We all deal with some shit in our lives, you know?”

The singer put down her mic and watched the guitarist stretch out with a solo. There was nothing flashy about it, which Paul liked. No speed for the sake of speed, no painful grimaces accompanying a bent note held too long. No, he went for honest emotion over histrionics, and Paul appreciated that. There was no effort to impress. It was just clean and simple.

Paul closed his eyes and listened to the notes roll out. Then, with just the slightest flourish at the end, the solo ended. The three musicians went back to the head, repeated it,  and then out. After a slightly more appreciative round of applause, the musicians signaled that they were done. The crowd began to wander off in different directions. Paul watched the band members pack up their instruments and the small sound system they used. He stared at the singer. She looked up and caught his gaze.

“You like it, yes?” she asked him as she wrapped the cord of her mic around her hand.

“Yes, very much,” he said, and he dug into his pocket to fetch some Euros, which he threw into the hat that still sat on the ground.

“Grazie,” she said. He knew he was still staring at her, though all he really saw was Sarah, an image of her from so many years before.

“You’re ok?” she asked.

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. You look like someone I used to know,” he lied.

“You miss her,” she said.

“Yes. And all our travel moments. Shared memories”

“Ah, yes, very important. Making memories together.”

Paul smiled again and turned from her and her bandmates. Shadows were starting to streak the square. Almost dinner time, he thought, and he walked back the way he had come, hoping he could find a good restaurant.


What? No Angst?

•March 1, 2017 • Leave a Comment

While Crisis? What Crisis? started out nine years ago (jeez, I can’t believe that…) as a place to bitch about—ah, make that reflect on my personal experiences as I confronted the challenges of aging, I tried to return to my journalistic roots from time to time and report on various events I attended in Chicago, the city of this blog’s birth. (Yes, although not a working journalist now, I did enter college planning to be one and have practiced the craft from time to time over the years. So, I guess that makes me one of the enemies of the American people. The ridiculousness of our current leader’s attack on the media deserves much closer scrutiny, but I’ll save that for another day).

These days, though, C?WC? seems to be reserved more than ever before for personal whining of an often-unseemly sort than for any reportage. I’ll try to rectify that a bit with two brief write-ups on some recent experiences. Not hard news, to be sure, just a look back at a talk I attended and a recent excursion into southern Colorado.

The talk was by Chad Alligood, the curator of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and recently a fellow at the Women’s International Study Center here in Santa Fe. Alligood came to work on a monograph about artist Judy Chicago, and she was the subject of the talk I attended—and was also in attendance for a brief Q&A (she is a New Mexico resident).

I went knowing only that Chicago was and is a key figure in feminist art, best known for her installation The Dinner Party. Alligood focused on her earlier stint as a minimalist artist, describing the sexism and misogyny she faced as she tried to make her mark in that male-dominated field during the 1960s. Although often dismissed by critics, Chicago set herself apart from her male contemporaries by exploring many different media and learning the skills needed to make her pieces. While the men sculptors turned to foundries and others to fabricate their art, Chicago studied with boat builders and learned how to air brush cars so she could turn her artistic ideas into reality. And unlike some of the massive and geometric examples of the minimalist aesthetic created by men, Chicago turned toward more ephemeral projects, such as one that used the colored smoke of fireworks to create images that shaped both time and space (she apprenticed with a fireworks expert for that one).

img_7843-2By the end of the decade, Alligood said, Chicago had reached her breaking point with minimalism and its dismissal of work that evoked feminine and feminist themes. 3 Star Cunts (1969) he said, marked the “moment where she has had it.” The piece shows three objects that look like donuts, with the large holes in the middle taking the shape of 8-sided stars. After that, Chicago committed herself to depicting women’s experiences and historical impact in her art using a variety of media.

In the Q&A that followed, Chicago lamented the commercialization of the art world and noted how the economics have changed since the 1960s. Back then, she said, she could get a 5,000 square-foot loft for $75 a month. She counseled young artists today to “stay out of the market until you find your own voice.” She also described her childhood, how she started to draw when she was three and then began taking art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago just two years later.  (Chicago took the name of her hometown as her own in 1970.) Her interest in challenging social and political norms, she said, stems in part from her upbringing; her father was a Marxist and victim of the McCarthyist Red Scare. During that period, Chicago said, she came to see that what most people accept as fact is not necessarily true.

Moving from woman-made art, I also had the chance recently to explore natural beauty on a drive though part of southern Colorado (which I documented in photos as I stopped every 25 miles and took a picture of what was around me; you can see some of the results here). It was a cold, clear January day, and I put on some 300 miles before reaching my destination for the night, Taos (a weekend trip there for a writers’ conference is coming up soon; hope to have something to say about that here at C?WC?)

What started out as a more-or-less random drive turned into a trek to see something I didn’t even knew existed: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Imagine my surprise to learn that the tallest sand dunes in North America are just three hours away from Santa Fe.

The dunes were formed when sand from the nearby mountains washed and blew into an ancient lake, now long gone. The wind then blew the lake sand against the mountains, and winds still shape the dunes. The park has seven life zones, reflecting changes in elevation and climate, among other factors. Seeing the dunes when the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains were covered with snow was beautiful, and I enjoyed watching intrepid sledders  raced down the snow on the dunes. I think, though, I’d like to go back in the spring and explore the area some more.

I realized while writing this that these two experiences highlight some of the things I love about Santa Fe. World-class artists of all stripes make the region their home and you can find more culture than you could rightly expect in most small cities that lack a major university. Then, head out in every direction and there is amazing natural diversity. The Land of Enchantment, indeed. I hope in the months to come to spend more time documenting both the culture and the nature around me—a welcome break from the usual recounting of emotional travails, I’m sure.

All You Need Is…

•February 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

WARNING: This will be about as self-pitying as anything you’ve ever read in the almost nine years of C?WC?’s existence (assuming you been a faithful reader that whole time—all six of you). So, here’s your chance to bail now.

Ah, Valentine’s Day, when we send our loved one a card or sweets, or treat him or her to dinner, or perhaps a bedroom layered with red paper hearts (one of my more romantic partners did that once and as you can see, I still remember it fondly).


Get that arrow outta my face,  you little…

Of course, we only do those things if we have a loved one, a spouse or partner who makes our lives brighter each day (when she’s not driving us crazy. And vice versa.) For those of us who are single—and especially ones who are unhappily so—Valentine’s Day can suck. It’s not that I have an urge to take part in the commercial aspects of the holiday—though buying a love one vegan chocolates that I can then dip into ain’t so bad. No, it’s because the day is another reminder of my current loveless state, and it brings up memories of the past loves who are no longer part of my life. Not that I would want all of them to be here visiting or anything, and having them all together at once could get dicey.

The memories, though, remind me of the women I have hurt, who have hurt me, the loves that have gone unrequited, the pain of the divorces. Six years on, I can’t pretend the last one still does not leave a mark (and that’s all that needs to be said here). And while good has come of it—setting off to Santa Fe, meeting great new people, discovering a greater sense of self-reliance—I spend too much time alone and longing for another special someone to share my life, assuming she can tolerate my neuroses and having aspects of our relationship blasted across the Internet from time to time.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to find that next partner (perhaps not another wife at this stage, and I’m reluctant to say soul mate, as if there is only one person that might be right). I mean, I could tell stories about my almost-incessant online dating experiences over the last six years (and don’t let anyone convince you that this process and the attendant feelings of being a lovelorn teenager flailing about isn’t loads of fun when you’re pushing 57). Of course, they’re mostly stories of being ignored and rejected, but stories nonetheless.

Online dating has not been a total bust. I’ve had two relationships going that route, though obviously the women had drawbacks, or I had issues from the past, or there was a combination of the two. In any event, I’ve been single for almost a year, and during that time I’ve tried out just about every dating site imaginable. Some general observations (in case you are also middle-aged, single, male, and thinking of giving Match or OK Cupid a spin. And I write knowing that women can have totally different experiences online, with nightmare scenarios more hellish than any I have endured).

So, first, there’s this: I can’t tell you how many women do not even acknowledge an introductory email. I understand, some are probably inundated with notes from eager men, but I know that mine are not inappropriate in any way. And I’m not expecting back a tome, especially if you’re not interested. Now, granted, I don’t get many introductory messages from women, but I answer everything I get. It just seems polite, you know?

Next: a lot of women, in their profiles, are quite detailed about what they want and don’t want. Very detailed. In at least one case, psychotically so. Now, I understand that being specific can help, but reading a list of “don’ts” and “nos” right off the bat sort of get things off on a down note. It’s more the negatives that jump out at me, since I think everyone lists what he or she does want. And I admit, I have some things I don’t want to see in someone’s profile—like that picture of the fish you just caught or deer you just killed. Not gonna work with this vegan.

Speaking of pictures (and I know that women have some of the same gripes about men): Really think about that profile pic. If you are a dot on a distant rocky horizon, it doesn’t help me much. Wearing sunglasses—also not helpful. Having other women in the pic so that I can’t tell which is you—maybe reconsider that. Really blurry or dark—try another selfie. I don’t expect a professional head shot, but you can do some amazing things with cell phones these days.

More on pics—and I know these reflect my own biases. You love your kids, I’m sure, but maybe I don’t need to see them right away. And same goes for multiple shots of your dog (this I know is my hang up, because Santa Fe dog owners have made me even more of a cat person than I was before).

OK, enough about what goes into a profile, you’re probably thinking. What about the first dates?! The horror stories that find their way into books, TV shows, and movies. Actually, I haven’t had any. You meet, you chat, you go your separate ways. (Well, sometimes you meet; I’ve had several women express an interest, sometimes after contacting me first, and then they just disappear into the ether.) On those first-and-only dates, there usually seems to be an unstated mutual understanding that you’re not clicking, and that’s that. There have been a few cases where I was interested in a number two, and the woman said the same, but then for some reason she never acted on it. I keep reminding myself, thank god I’m a playwright and so have all sorts of experience with rejection.

While I don’t have any first-date fiascos, one of the few second dates led to an incident that makes me smile, because I have a warped sense of humor and that writer’s knack for handling rejection. Our correspondence began while she was back east visiting a sick relative. We emailed pretty regularly, and I was certainly interested and assumed she was too, or she wouldn’t have kept writing, no? So, she finally comes back to NM, we go to dinner, things seem to go well. She contacts me about getting together again for a hike in a nearby national forest. Sure!


Just a nice hike in the woods, she says…

We set out, and dark clouds in the distance become more threatening, with thunder getting closer, but we plunge on. So, maybe 45 minutes into the forest, we stop to rest, and she informs me (paraphrasing here), “Yeah, this isn’t gonna work. I thought maybe I just needed to see you in a different setting, outdoors, and maybe I’d feel something, but nah, I’m just not attracted to you. And I think I’d rather go for a woman anyway (I knew she was bi).” So, how does one respond to that and the other nuanced reasons why I was not for her? Well, out there in the woods, knowing we were going to hike back together, I simply said: OK. I get it. Thanks for being honest.

The rest of the story—we get lost on the walk back and only the miraculous appearance on the forest road of someone she sort of knows saves us. This guy and his wife drive us all over until we finally find her car. And we go back to her house and I go home, and I only see her again when she returns the cordless drill I let her borrow before the hike.

And that’s why I love online dating.

And why I wish I had not screwed up so many previous relationships.

But I persist, because, as the saying goes, I need the eggs.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all the lovers out there. Some day I will once again be in your ranks. If I can avoid getting lost in the forest.


•November 29, 2016 • 4 Comments

I don’t know what to call her, this grandmother I never knew. If she had lived, would my sisters and I have used some of the more common names—Grandma, Nana, Gram—or would there have been something more idiosyncratic, something based on her name or her family’s Alsatian roots? Of course, far more important is the answer to the question, who was she? What were her hopes for her only son, my father, for her own life, ended when she was 35 years (and six months and seven days) old. What was it like marrying one man who left her and her son, and then marrying another, the man who became my father’s stepfather, the man I never heard Dad talk about. Ever. Did that silence speak to this second husband’s character, and perhaps explain what happened on April 24, 1932?

And if I had thought to ask my father more about his mother, my grandmother, would he have been able to tell me much? What does a nine-year-old—all right, almost 10—really know about his mother’s wants and fears and character? What does he take away from the fact that she left him, left the world, when he was so young? What did he think and feel in the days and months and years after someone—the never-mentioned stepfather? His grandparents?—told him that his mother was found dead at Indianapolis’s Occidental Hotel, a bottle of carbolic acid by her side?

For some reason, I had always thought she had drowned, Charlotte Waller Burgan Niswanger. I thought my sister, who uncovered much of the little we know about the Wallers and Burgans doing genealogical research, had told me that. Or maybe I imagined it, along with the embellishment that she had thrown herself in a well. I know I searched online for newspaper articles that might spell out the sordid details; I mean, doesn’t drowning in that very deliberate way merit some press? But there was nothing about a young woman killing herself that way. Or poisoning herself in some hotel room. But after all, Indianapolis is a big city, and suicides during the Depression must have been pretty common. What’s another dead mother leaving behind a confused and fatherless, for all intents and purposes, son?

I was 18 when I learned that my grandmother had committed suicide. And it’s not like my father ached to share the information. I was filling out a health form for college, and when it came to the part about family history and mental illness and suicide—well, Dad had to fess up. But there were no details, and not a lot of emotion. Now, my father was not one to shy away from showing emotions of all kinds. But maybe by that time, some 45 years after the fact, he had simply shut off the feelings around her death that were once there.

Carbolic acid, I’ve learned in the short time since my sister shared with me the death certificate she found online, is a potent substance. The sweet-smelling liquid, also called phenol, turns up in many products, from perfumes to dyes, from disinfectants to lubricating oils. It is, as one government web site states, “highly toxic; corrosive to the skin.” You can see that corrosive quality in any number of pictures online that show the aftereffects of people who’ve ingested it (I’ll spare you those images here). In the body, it can create a wealth of problems, including severe stomach pain, bloody stools and vomit, convulsions, and a coma.

charlotteWhen she went into the Occidental Hotel, Charlotte was in good company, as far as committing suicide by carbolic acid goes. Many sites online discuss how it was a preferred poison, especially for women, during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The headline from a 1904 article from the St. Paul Globe put it succinctly: “Carbolic Acid the Favorite Poison of the Despondent Ones.” The article said that part of its appeal was the ease of getting it. But that ease did not mean it led to an easy death. On the contrary. Dr. Arthur Miller, a local coroner, said, “Certainly there is nothing pleasant about the manner in which it sips the vital spark from the human body, for the agonies it inflicts are probably the most acute that can be endured by a human being.” In low doses, in the accidental swallowings that I suppose led to many of the pictures online, it burns the mouth and the throat. In larger doses, taken deliberately by the despondent ones, it shuts down the heart.

I try not to picture Gram Charlotte enduring those agonies in the last minutes of her life. I do wonder, even more than before, what led her to her despondent state.

I’ve speculated about the second husband. More pointedly, since it could have some bearing on me, I wonder if she battled depression or another mental illness. Because while my father never showed any signs of that kind of anguish, I have struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety and fears for my own sanity that may or may not go beyond what most people feel. If Charlotte had an illness, could that tendency have been passed on?


After Charlotte, after the Waddells.

In the years since my father reluctantly told me about the family skeleton, I’ve wondered a lot about Charlotte. About how the almost-ten-year-old Bernie took the news when he heard it that Sunday in April. Or did he get the news the next day, after she died, when he came home from school? I’ve written several plays about this, taking the few facts I knew and extrapolating, trying to understand what he might have felt, as his mother’s death left him with a stepfather who didn’t want him, with grandparents who couldn’t or wouldn’t take him in, sending him into foster homes before he finally found a family that gave him the stability and love he craved.

After my father died, I found a carefully folded piece of paper that he had kept for some 70 years. I don’t know if it was a school assignment or something he had written for himself, typed out in four short paragraphs. The title was, “I Adopt A Family.” The self-described orphan wrote that he could only “sit on the side lines and listen” when other kids talked about their families. Then, he had a realization: If adults could adopt children, why couldn’t he adopt a family? And so he did, spending time with the family of his friend Bill Waddell, whom he had met at camp. At the time, he was staying with some women he didn’t name, but it was clear he preferred his time with the Waddells, and eventually they took him in. All in all, he wrote, the Waddells were a “swell” family. He closed with this line: “I think if more people took more interest in orphans there would be more happy families.” Then, with a closing that makes me laugh through the tears that always come as I reread this, he typed his name as Bernard Bugan (further proof that everyone needs an editor).

I want to write more about Charlotte, even if it’s all from my imagination. I want to understand, in whatever limited way I can, how her death and what followed shaped my father, which in turn shaped me. I already know, or assume, that what he endured led to the love and caring he showed with everyone in our family. I have an idea for a novel that touches on all this. But even if it is never written, the story will always be in my head.

RIP Dad. And Charlotte. Dad’s mother. Grandmother.


•September 4, 2016 • 1 Comment

I love traveling by train.

I do not love Amtrak.

Granted, this grand, long-planned trip from ABQ to LA and then down to San Diego started with some foul ups that were not Amtrak’s fault. I forgot my Red Sox cap (a major reason for taking this trip is to see them play the Padres); my Uber app did not work so I had to pay for an exorbitant taxi ride from the ABQ airport to the train station; I packed all my food in my checked bag and so was reduced to eating overly salted peanuts for dinner. But the three-hour delay leaving ABQ, that was all on Amtrak,

IMG_7220 (2)_1And of course there was no explanation for the delay (though a passenger near me who had boarded the Southwest Chief at its start, in Chicago, told me one unplanned stop came when they had to put an unruly couple off the train after a “domestic dispute”), and the conductor did not assure me that we would make up some of the time along the way. So, the plan of taking photos as the sun set by NM’s red rocks in the northwest corner of the state—poof, gone. Well, maybe there will be some sunrise photos as we pass through Nevada. (No, California, actually, as you can see here.)

IMG_7259 (2)_1Once on board, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of room in my coach seat, while less impressed with the beer selection; all the good craft brews were gone, leaving Bud, Bud Light, and Corona. Uh, I’ll take the overprice wine, please. And the sightseeing lounge car seems like it would offer some nice views of the desert southwest—if it weren’t 8:30 and the frickin’ sun hadn’t set an hour ago! But even with the inconveniences, there is something about the sway of the train and the freedom to roam from car to car that would make this a preferred mode of transportation for me, if it were feasible.

IMG_7212 (2)_1And here, in the expanse of the West, it is not. It’s more so in the Northeast, where I rode my first Amtrak train in 1972, going from Hartford to NYC on my way to visit friends on Staten Island. That fueled my love of train travel, I think, along with the ride I took when I was about 4 in upstate NY on a staged “train robbery” at some faux Wild West town (in upstate NY?). Then came the weeks of train travel in Europe on my two trips there. That impressed on me how efficient trains can be, if there is a commitment to them. And even my last European train adventure, documented here, did not dissuade me from thinking that all in all, the rest of the major industrialized nations have it right when it comes to rail travel, and we are barely better than some third world countries.

Of course, we were once the world’s railroad king, with hundreds of thousands of miles of track and opulent private cars for the wealthy. We even had some of the fastest locomotives, though today’s high-speed marvels of Europe, Japan, and China have long shamed us there. By the time Amtrak was founded (which I wrote about here), the nation’s commitment to the car meant our trains had seen their heyday, and Amtrak has to fight repeated Republican attempts to put it out of business.

I understand the ideology that underpins those efforts, while chuckling at the hypocrisy of the train foes. Because the government doesn’t subsidize air and road travel in any way, does it? And I would think the conservatives—hell, anyone—would appreciate the social benefits of train travel. People from all regions and all walks of life meet each other and interact, putting aside political and geographic differences and getting to know each other, even if only in the time it takes to go from one stop to another. In this country especially, where train travel is not exactly convenient, the passengers are also drawn together because they have chosen this more leisurely and at times perhaps more mercurial  mode of travel. I have fond memories of the chats with fellow passengers on the train from New Haven to Montreal, which I took several times. And on European trains, conversations struck up on board could lead to companionship off the train as well (there was this Norwegian chick in Spain traveling with her buddy Jack Daniels… and no, not that kind of companionship).

So, as I sit here in the dark lounge car (a conductor told someone else they couldn’t tell why the lights were off…), I fantasize about what could be if this country ever really committed itself to modern train travel. Ah, haha, how funny you are, Burgan! And while I do love this mode of transportation, indulging in the romance of the past and admiring the technological advancements of the present—everywhere but here, that is—I’m kinda glad I’m flying home.


Humdrum on the High Seas

•August 22, 2016 • 3 Comments


I’ve been thinking about that word a lot this week, on this cruise vacation that I anticipated so much, for the chance to get away if not for the excitement of cruising itself. While I don’t do it enough to say taking a cruise is routine—not like for some of the passengers you usually meet, retired, wealthy, who take several cruises a year—I have taken my share. Here at C?WC?, I’ve documented memories of some of the ones I took as a kid, the ones that offered freedom on the high seas away from my parents, as I explored the ship and had the opportunity to meet people from other places, people older than me, more experienced, different in good ways from the friends I had in school or the neighborhood kids I played with.

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Leaving New Jersey

I’ve also blogged about the more recent cruises in real time: the last cruise, a short solo trip in 2015 after a breakup, and the one five years ago with my sister and niece, which we’re duplicating this trip (hey, we shared a tiny cabin and didn’t kill each other, so why not do it again?) This time, though, my niece has five years of college under her belt, so she’s a drinking bud and a person to happily converse with, when we happen to run into each other. And the three of us have shared some rousing games of Bingo and strolls through the local towns.

Then, of course, there was the Cruise from Hell, the one I documented in minute, painstaking, and painful detail. Not a lot to say about that one now, except that the feeling I had then remains: I might not cruise much again after this one—more on that later—but I would like to cruise to Alaska again, this time with someone who actually wants to be with me.

As on that cruise, and the solo one, I feel an acute longing to share the cruising experiences, the routines good and bad, with a significant other. Not that we would have to be together every moment; I like my alone time to read, write, take pictures, or just merely sit and stare at the sea. Even more so now as a desert dweller, I find great comfort and contentment just gazing out at the horizon, watching that line where the ocean and sky meet, with clouds at times hovering above, or the setting sun illuminating both.

But this cruise, with too much time alone even while traveling with two other people, I think about the meaning of routine. There’s the sense of doing the same thing in the same way at the same time. At home, the routines are obvious: the morning email check, exercise, meditation, work, cooking dinner, going to bed, repeat. Almost daily. And in the first few days of the cruise, leaving behind those routines felt relaxing, and freeing. Not the kind of freedom I found on ships as a kid—that was too great a departure from the norm to be recreated now. And maybe the self-imposed routines of an adult take deeper root than any imposed on us as children. But there was freedom this time in stepping out of the Santa Fe routines, at least in the beginning.

IMG_7098 (2)_1But soon I found myself getting into routines here, too. The food I ate and when I ate it, when I exercised (though not as diligently as at home), going to this bar at this time for that drink. And while the cruise is supposed to be FUN!, the vacation routines took on some of the same monotony as the home ones—but without the sense of comforting regularity those latter routines can bring.

Comforting regularity. Is that just a nice way of saying “fucking boring life?” And as I contemplated that possibility this week, I thought about other meanings of routine. Average. Dull. Nondescript. And as I felt moments of acute loneliness even as I sat amidst 2,500 vacationing revelers—or more likely because I sat amidst them—I thought about living a routine life. Existential angst cut through the Bermudian sun, the onboard frivolity, the momentary relief of fleeing the usual at-home routines.

IMG_7192 (2)_1IMG_7199 (2)_1I look at all this and laugh. Yeah, I’m sure most of my fellow passengers have been spending the week ruminating on existential angst. Or worrying about the emails and work building up during this time away, which must soon be dealt with again. A huge part of the usual routine. Or thinking about cruising or taking another extravagant vacation without the buoy of an emotional attachment and asserting, never again. Because while some of the routines of cruising can still be satisfying, overall the experience feels empty without that special someone by my side. I go sit in a lounge just to be around others, hoping being near strangers, overhearing their conversations, can make me feel connected. And then, on the rare occasions when I share a few words with these couples and families luxuriating in each other’s company, when they let me into their worlds for even just a few minutes, I come alive as I realize I have a voice besides the one in my head. That vitality soon passes.

IMG_7201 (2)_1On this, the last day, I have a feeling I didn’t have as a cruising kid, or even on the Cruise from Hell. I’m ready to go home. Get back to the old routines. Deal with my existential angst with my cat by my side, waiting for her next puking session, with the mountains outside the window that bring a soothing inner calm, just like the meeting of the sea and sky. Until, of course, I feel that need again to break away and anticipate that next vacation and its routines

I leave for San Diego in less than two weeks. We’ll see what that brings…

Ruidoso Ramblings

•July 25, 2016 • Leave a Comment
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I felt very welcomed.

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Plenty o’ nothing on the way to Carrizozo.

I was somewhere near Carrizozo on the edge of the high plains when the misgivings began to kick in. The nagging feeling that I had forgotten something on this, my first-ever solo camping trip. What was it, what was—wait: could it be the pump for the queen-sized air mattress I planned to sleep on the next two nights? (Hey, I said a camping trip, not an exercise in material deprivation.) Or was it…the air mattress itself? And what about the sleeping bag I thought I would use in lieu of a blanket to keep me warm? As I sped along Rt. 380 on the way to Ruidoso, the sinking feeling grew deeper. I could picture myself loading the car with many essentials—except for the bag, the pump, and the mattress.

Well, every adventure, even one as tame as this, needs a few challenges, I reckoned. And reaching Ruidoso, I found a sporting goods store, bought the cheapest sleeping bag and pad I could find, and figured if that was the only calamity on this trip, I’d be doing good. I’m happy to report that it was, and the rest of my short getaway was filled with natural beauty, good weather, and mostly peaceful and welcome solitude.

And Texans, Lots of Texans.

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Mostly green, except for the thousands of acres of forest burned four years ago…

Ruidoso, surrounded by mountains, is an oasis of green in the mostly brown and empty southeast corner of New Mexico. At least empty by my standards. There are a few other towns between there and the Texas border, but none I’d be eager to spend much time in. But Ruidoso, with its Santa Fe-like elevation, moderate temperatures, and proximity to the country’s most southerly ski resort of any size, attracts visitors year-round for its myriad outdoor activities.

Texans, it seems, have turned the Ruidoso area into an extension of the Lone Star State. Their license plates seemed to outnumber New Mexico ones at my campground by a long shot, and their behemoth trucks and SUVs filled the streets. I felt like everywhere I went, I was surrounded by gun-toting, Bible-thumping, Trump-voting Texans. It was a queasy sensation. But the three Texas ladies next to me at the campground were nice enough, and for the duration, there was no reviving of the Civil War or even anything like a skirmish. And after all, we New Mexicans have come to appreciate the money Texans leave here, whether as tourists or owners of second homes. If only they could drive a little better…

IMG_6919 (2)_1Anyway, with my just-purchased supplies in hand, I set up my new tent, my own behemoth that would ensure plenty of space for that huge air mattress I forgot to bring and almost allow me to stand up. (I think I’ve developed a touch of claustrophobia to go along with arthritis as I rocket my way through middle age.) Before I left, I did a test run, setting the tent up at a local park so I would know what I was doing. Not that I hadn’t set up tents before, mind you, but in the past there was always someone more experienced taking the lead. And considering I had only camped twice in the last 30-plus years, I wanted to know what the hell I was doing, as much as possible, before I entered the wild.

IMG_6924 (2)_1Of course, “wild” is relative. The privately owned campground I had chosen caters mostly to RVs and has showers—very nice showers, as it turned out, and probably the cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever encountered at a campground. My tent site was near Rio Bonito, which cuts through the grounds. More a stream than a rio, but natural running water nonetheless.

After I set up the tent, I relaxed with a beer, chatted briefly with my neighbors, then pulled out my little propane grill to cook dinner. I planned on a mellow evening—the food, some tunes on the radio, a bit of reading by my new lantern. Dinner went as planned, but the radio didn’t work and the lantern was not really bright enough to read by, so I sat outside, drank more beer, and waited for the sky to darken. I wanted to see the stars, I had told myself before I left, and peering up through the canopy of trees over my site as the night deepened, I saw them. There was little if any light pollution, much less than in Santa Fe, and the stars filled my view while the setting filled me with the peace I had sought before heading out. So this is why people like to camp, I thought. I can dig this.

Up early the next morning for a drive to Ski Apache, the ski slope on Sierra Blanca, a peak that tops out at just under 12,000 feet. The name of the slope is fitting, as the Mescalero Apaches—one of two Apache tribes in the state—have owned and operated it since the 1960s.

I got out at the base, which is above 9,500 feet, and hiked through some Alpine meadows and forest that seemed more fitting for The Sound of Music than the Land of Enchantment. On the trail I saw some fresh scat and thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to photograph a bear or a big cat in the wild!” Which was immediately followed by, “Wow, wouldn’t it suck to be mauled by a bear or big cat in the wild?” But no animal encounters out there in the wilderness. The animal tally for the whole weekend was scant: two deer, one coyote, and a chipmunk at the campground. Lots of birds of course, which I couldn’t identify except for the ravens; you get familiar with the ravens pretty quick here. And one hawk, which sat on a fence post on my drive down, through some of the emptiest landscape I’ve ever seen since I came here.

Saturday night, I left the campground for civilization: dinner and a play at a funky coffee shop/restaurant/performance space in the center of Ruidoso. I talked beer with the owner and theater with the woman selling tickets. My kind of conversations.

IMG_6988 (2)_1IMG_6999 (2)_1I got up early Sunday for the drive back home, taking a longer route through Capitan—famous as the site where the real Smokey Bear (no “the”) was discovered before serving as the inspiration for the fictional bear we knew so well as children—and through a lava field called Valley of the Fires. Instead of coming from an erupting volcano, this lava bubbled up through vents in Earth’s surface several thousand years ago, creating a field of black rock in an otherwise mostly bleak landscape (except for the mountains in the distance. Almost always it seems, there are mountains in the distance).

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Sierra Blanca, the second time around.

Before I started out on this little excursion, I wasn’t so sure how I felt about going alone. I’ve traveled plenty of times solo, but this was different, this back-to-nature thing. Still, even before heading north, I was planning my next solo camping trip. Alone, I could stop wherever and whenever I wanted to take pictures, and go back to some remote spot to see how Sierra Blanca looked when the light was different (better). I could keep NPR on the radio, playing obscure shows almost the whole trip. I could go see a play by a community group, not caring too much about the quality, just wanting to support the folks who try to keep theater alive in a tourist town that doesn’t have “cultural hot spot” written all over it. I don’t mind the compromise and joint decisions that come with traveling with someone else, especially a significant other. But sometimes it’s good to be alone. And this weekend was one of them.