Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: travel

Catching up, and Travel

It has been a long time–over a month–since I posted here. Life, in its usual way, has tossed shiny things and distractions at me, and though I have been writing my fiction, and writing in other blogs about restaurants, sports, and our writing workshop, I haven’t updated here. I have several books backed up to write reviews on, and some writing thoughts to share, but for the last two weeks, I’ve been traveling, and writing very little–at least, committing very little to permanence.

Driving to the midwest and back from California is a terrific experience. Because Mark’s family is in Colorado, we’ve driven to and from Colorado on a couple occasions, but the only other time I’ve crossed the highways from Minnesota to California since 1978, it was behind a moving van packed full of my stuff. That’s a story worth telling in its own right: the lake in Kansas that used to be a field, creeping over the highway; the black clouds and screaming headwinds of Oklahoma; the dry, empty flatlands of West Texas, dotted with crosses and prisons; the glow of Las Vegas visible from an hour away. But this was a leisure trip, visiting relatives in Colorado, friends and relatives in Minnesota, and various landmarks along the way.

It is always instructive to shake up your surroundings (perhaps not literally). Leaving the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, we saw some lovely little houses and wondered about the people living in them. We could never survive being a three-hour drive from the nearest place from which you could fly somewhere, but these people are clearly fine with it. They would look at our house, no doubt, and think that they could never live three hours from the beautiful empty spaces of the Central Valley and the mountains of the Sierra Range. The good people of North Dakota are like Minnesotans, only more so: their state capitol complex celebrates their “hardy pioneer stock.” They expect the worst from the world, and they get it, every December through March, and they soldier on (true story: I met a woman from North Dakota while I was living in Minneapolis who said that she liked the Twin Cities for their mild winters). These are all characters, archetypes, personalities. In a book, I might say to myself, this person comes from North Dakota, and even if it’s a fantasy world, I know what kind of person that is, what sort of world they grew up in, what their parents and peers were like. Maybe she is the kind of North Dakotan who moves away as soon as she reaches eighteen. Maybe she is the kind who was wrenched away from her home and still longs for it. Having been there, albeit briefly, I can imagine that background, and give her depth, even if none of it shows up in actual words on the page.

Book reviews soon to come. Sarah Canary, The Road, Music Through The Floor. Lovely stuff, all different.

A Milestone, A Reminder, An Experience

This is the 100th post of this blog. I think it’s traditional to yammer on about how I never expected and looking back and some other measure of blah blah blah. Truth be told, I started this blog with the intention of getting to 100, and beyond. I regret that it took me this long, but I am pretty proud of every entry.

The reminder, as I return from nearly a week with no internet (what do they talk about there in the backwoods of Pennsylvania?), is that in order to write convincingly about life, you have to go out and experience it. Not necessarily firsthand–I have never been drunk (true), but years in a fraternity watching and talking to people who were have allowed me, I’m told, to paint a rather convincing firsthand account of someone getting drunk. For me, travel is essential to experience. There is a feel to anywhere that is not here that is subtly different from here, and although you might imagine it, you can’t know it well enough to describe it to someone else unless you’ve been there.

For instance: Pittsburgh is a city in the midst of revitalization, but the surrounding areas crawl very slowly out of the past, walking backwards so they never lose sight of it. Innovations surprise them–a Home Depot? A Best Buy? Once they are safely visible in the past, they become accepted. But these towns, these hills do not seek out change in the way the Bay Area does, my home of Red Queens running as fast as they can to keep up with each other. I have the feeling that this is true in many rural areas, but agricultural rural areas have a different feel from industrial ones. The plains of Iowa and Illinois and Indiana have the slowness of the land, the sureness of the seasons and the patience of clouds. Pittsburgh’s body is coal and its bones are steel, and it has the weight of industry, the permanence of metal, but also the inevitable decay of rust. In the center of the city, where the three rivers meet, old stone sits in the shadow of new glass, the birth of an urban center in the new era. Steel and coal are still the life of the land, but their day is in the past, retreating every day.

I find it necessary to renew experiences from time to time. Memories can be tricky things, and sometimes we remember fondly things as better than they actually are. All of which is a roundabout excuse for me to talk about Dunkin’ Donuts, specifically the Boston Cream variety.

There are no Dunkin’ Donuts in California, though Krispy Kreme has made inroads. DD tried years ago but couldn’t sustain a presence here. Having grown up in the Philly area, I have many fond memories of Dunkin’ Donuts (at the age of sixteen, with a Cinderella license invalid after midnight, I drove to our Dunkin’ Donuts at three in the morning to pick up supplies for an all-night party that was going on and found no fewer than three police cars in the parking lot; I stayed in the car and escaped arrest, I was sure, by sheer luck). In my recent trip, I passed through the Dallas airport, which is blessed with a small Dunkin’ Donuts stand. Now, I eat donuts maybe twice a year. But the lure of a Dunkin’ Donuts Boston Cream was too much to pass up. We brought it home, and…well, there is a unique smell when you open a Dunkin’ Donuts bag. It’s something in the icing, a sugary aroma combined with the wax of the bag that is immediately identifiable. After inhaling that, we ate the Boston Cream, and I am here to testify that it is every bit as good as my memory. The dough is perfectly sweet and soft, the custard creamy with a rich vanilla-egg flavor that the chocolate icing blends perfectly with. I don’t even want to drink the milk I’ve poured because it would wash away the taste, and there’s something particularly delicious about eating it here in California, hundreds of miles from the nearest of its kin. But eventually you have to, because the icing also makes you thirsty. And then the taste enters into the realm of memory.

What’s your Boston Cream? What kind of details do you spice your writing with?

(There is, not surprisingly, more to read about Boston Cream/Kreme/Creme donuts…above image and one link from cake tourism blog)