Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My short story "The Monument to Great Lies" appears in Gargoyle #58.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011


You can read my story "Aftermath" here, in the current issue of The Evergreen Review.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Friday, July 17, 2009



Lugo is so real: it feels unreal. Not far from the medieval town of Ravenna, it is a dream, a Richard Scarry-esque “Busytown” with all the stock cast members of a BBC sitcom. People greet one another in the street and the Rotary Club wheel adorns windows. The Mayor rides his bike to the annual vintage car and plane show alongside the librarian, who is also a poet. Lugo even has its own local hero to celebrate as the main purpose for the weekend’s festivities: Count Francesco Baracca.

An Italian Rudolf von Flugel, he was a famous flying ace from World War I whose prancing horse symbol was adopted by Ferrari after he died (in service to his country, of course.)

We were invited to visit Lugo by Luca Nostri (http://www.lucanostri.com/) a photographer we met in Rome and the organizer of Lugoland (http://www.lugoland.it/web/?l=it). Lugoland is a brief arts' residency of sorts where photographers such as Olivo Barbieri, Tim Davis, David Farrell, Guido Guidi, and Graciela Iturbide have come to make their own work in and around Lugo. Photographers stay in the Ala d’Oro Hotel (http://www.aladoro.it/), which means wings of gold and is an illusion to Baracca, whose fame and presence pervade the city, including in the form of a tiny museum and an enormous statue in the town center. The hotel is owned by Luca’s family, the most gracious and amiable hosts one could imagine. Their support for the project is evident in their warm welcome and the volume of photography adorning the hallways of the hotel.

We spent much of our time in Lugo at the local airfield where Baracca was being fĂȘted. The trees of the airport cafe had been planted to match the colors of the Italian flag: purple-red leaves alternating with bright green and the hangars were set-up in the style of a high school science fair with individual displays about satellite stargazing or high tech flight simulation video games. A dignified older man sold handmade Ferrari inspired andirons, while young women sold corporate aviation logo t-shirts and baseball caps. Along the tarmac, local businesspeople and volunteer workers sat behind card tables exhibiting everything from contemporary surplus US Army gear to a 1950’s Italian Red Cross ambulance. (Not quite Ernest Hemingway’s era, but naturally I thought of him.)

The strangest arrangement by far was a large camouflage tent installed by the Italian military. A path wove its way through the structure, past displays of equipment meant to highlight different aspects of military life, mostly humanitarian ones such as medical aid. At the end of the path was a room with rows of chairs and mannequins in various eras of dress uniform. Two soldiers stood at attention next to a trio of flags and a large plasma television played an MTV produced video about the joint efforts of US and Italian troops in Afghanistan. Anti-war music (John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival) blared as both Italian and American soldiers proselytized about the life opportunities provided by a career in the service. Walking through the displays, part propaganda, part artifice, part real life, part MTV hype, it felt like the Venice Biennale meets an American Midwestern veterans’ celebration. The video, the mannequins, the staged quality of the tent felt like the curation of war as a performance piece. Outside, on a smaller tent nearby, a banner reminded us that militaries keep civil societies safe. Not far past the sign, a group of men and boys had gathered to test model planes that made more noise than the real thing.

There was something universal about the weekend (despite the unmistakably European quality of a village like Lugo), a realization that the world is very small, after all, and that we share many things in common, but not in the way of a Coca-Cola drink cart or the Disney carousel in the town square of Lugo, or the propaganda about an international “humanitarian” coalition in Afghanistan. It was the way that Luca’s grandmother offered us lunch on Sunday afternoon before we left for Rome or how families filed out of church on Sunday for coffee afterwards (granted in a cafĂ© on the square.)

I felt this sense of common human ground at the airport in the Rotary Club members who remind me of my Uncle, as I watched girls primping for their boyfriends’ cameras in front of vintage cars or automobiles (some dreams: of luxury cars, of flight, are universal), in the gathering of firefighters, teachers, lawyers, us, at picnic tables lined up inside a hangar for lunch while waiting for proscuitto and melon or ravioli with butter and sage instead of hot dogs and burgers. The human desire for celebration and remembrance that comes in the form of fireworks and grandfathers in old uniforms marching with the flags of their units reminded me of photographs I have from Civil War commemorations in Victor, NY (when my great-great grandfather marched down Main Street at the turn of the century) or a gathering of the remaining soldiers from my friend’s father’s World War II unit, who were on the beaches of Normandy and will meet in Pennsylvania next month. The whole affair recalled everything from rodeos or horse shows in California, to the Cherry Festival in Michigan, to Fourth of July celebrations in Western New York to the World War I commemoration we saw in central France last month. In the middle of a small town in the middle of Italy, far from my usual home, with new friends and their families, it somehow all felt familiar.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Down We Went

Last week, a friend at the Academy sent out an email looking for someone to travel down the Tiber River with her. Marie is one of the only people I know who has circumnavigated Manhattan in a row boat (which I did many years ago with urban Outward Bound), so I was excited to go with her, to have a correlation with my New York experience in the same way my walks and maps have connected me to my time in Paris.

Marie Lorenz's project at the Academy is called "The Inner Sea" and over the winter, she built a boat in her studio to navigate the Tiber in order to survey Rome from the water. She has carved local images into the hull and makes beautiful rubbings from them. As an artist, she uses boats she builds to ferry people (friends, acquaintances, or strangers who contact her through her website http://www.marielorenz.com) around the Hudson River. Her work centers on the idea that uncertainty creates awareness, so she searches for the sake of finding what is to be found, and also to change perspective. Riding in a boat puts one in a different relationship to the earth (or to water for that matter) than walking or biking or taking a car.

Marie began the first leg of this journey last Sunday, setting off from the Isola Tiberina in Rome with her friend Melissa, who was visiting from NYC. Matthew and another artist from the Academy, Jeff Williams, went along to see her off and to take pictures. She continued the journey midweek with Eric Bianchi, a scholar at the Academy, and at the end of their day, they stashed the boat near Ostia Antica.

On Friday morning, Marie and I went by bus then train to Ostia Antica, where we found the boat and Marie's supplies exactly where she left them. It was muddy from rainstorms the night before and the river was higher than the last time Marie was out, but the sun was shining, the river sparkled, and it was a perfect day to be out of the city and away from the Academy. Marie put in the oarlocks, explained our path, then we lowered the boat into the river to set off.

When we got in the water, I felt very happy. Marie is wonderfully laid back, but also clearly capable in the water. She wants to see what will happen just by going out and her attitude about the river seems a lot like the reasons I walk so much: to see what there is to see serendipitously.

Some parts of the river felt like they could be anywhere, anytime. The foliage was as unspecific as any other lush green overgrowth found near water and even the architecture was in places indecipherable. From a super-sized stucco bar that could be an Olive Garden in New Jersey or a restaurant in Florida, to an overpass cutting over the river with trucks and boats manufactured in the same way everywhere, there was something vague and familiar about the landscape but then a medieval tower jutted into view behind the boats, signaling something specific.

As we continued towards the ocean, a decaying pier led to a sinking ferryboat hovering on the shore of the Isola Sacra. It was a fairly recent relic on the shores of an island where antiquities routinely wash up and also typical of the sort of rotting things found anywhere human constructions fight nature and time. In other places, the wrecked hull would have been cleared away quickly and my first instinct was to think it wrong that these broken bits hung morbidly to the edge of land, but then, in the United States, the Coliseum would have been torn down long ago. This habit of letting things be makes sense in a place where hollowed out, crumbling remains are one of the prime reasons to visit. Detritus that is not removed and withstands all the elements to survive might turn out to be instructive, could end up being viewed like the Forum one day.

We floated by the ferry, close enough to look in the windows, to see the abandoned seats and tables. It felt ghostly though it probably sank while moored, and if not, everyone on board was surely okay, sinking as close to land as it did.

Despite the wreck, the river had a quiet liveliness: men fishing or earning a livelihood from the water. People out boating for the day. Planes taking off from Fiumicino Airport nearby.

We pulled up onto shore of the Isola Sacra to explore the island, where Marie said people come looking for antiquities coughed up from the Tiber. We trudged around in the shrubs then returned to shore only to get stuck in the silty mud. Marie managed to get out with greater ease than I did: the more I struggled to free myself, the deeper I sank, so I had to pull off my boots to get loose. As mucky and polluted as the Tiber may be, it still felt good to squish my feet in sand, to rinse my toes in water. We ate our picnic lunches and I thought about the age of the river, the way things come back, how a seemingly small incident can be a seed of something larger that re-emerges later in the way Roman pottery washes back up on the Isola Sacra.

I remembered that a few years ago, I went to a former professor's reading in New York. At the end of the reading, I said hello and she remembered me despite the many years since I was her student in college. We got to talking (her novel references the General Slocum tragedy, which I know about from volunteering at the Merchant's House Museum) and Carol mentioned that she was hoping to go back to North Brother Island where she volunteered many years ago. I said I would try to find a way for us to get there and my research led me to Marie's website. When Carol and I realized that North Brother Island is now a protected bird sanctuary and off-limits much of the year, we postponed the idea of contacting Marie (whom I had never met before this year) and I half forgot about her site until the Rome Prize ceremony last spring, when I saw Marie's name again. A nice coincidence and I thought that maybe one day, I would get to go in one of her boats.

So here I was, on the Tiber, in one of Marie's boats. After lunch, we continued towards the ocean, this time wearing life preservers in case the water grew less friendly, or the carabinieri came by.

As we approached the ocean, structures for leisure, fishing shacks or small abodes for weekend getaways, were interspersed with what seemed to be ramshackle residences. Some were very beat and collapse felt imminent. When we reached the ocean, the water was choppy, with the one visible sail boat tacking widely to each side. Marie talked about the possibility of taking the boat out again on open waters. A lone fisherman stood at the end of the jetty and despite the wind and surf, there was a certain quiet too. Mid-afternoon on a Friday, the few scattered people fishing (mostly men) seemed out for escape more than for leisure. We tied the boat up and decided to explore the jetty where we found a strange bunker type structure. Marie walked out into the water, climbed up the rocks to gage the surf and the possibilities for sailing the boat another day.

We headed back to the boat, then back up the Tiber. At first, we were both rowing (Marie rowed alone all morning) and it was going well. But the tide turned against us, making our progress very slow. Marie decided we should find a place to stash the boat and call it a day. We pulled up next to an empty lot, between a boat business and what seemed to be a very nice residence. There was plenty of green growth to camouflage the boat.

A man working in the garden nearby let us out and we hoped he would keep the boat a secret until Marie returned, which he did. We were right near the medieval tower I had seen earlier from the river. We walked back towards where we hoped to find a train station, past a mix of hopeful new and crumbling old architecture. There was an air of faded glory to the place, of the recent past (as compared to the ancient past) like in Coney Island or Belmar, New Jersey. Marie asked for directions from a man with a food cart selling prosciutto, marinated artichokes, fresh fruit and fava beans.

In Coney Island, he would have been offering junk food or packaged goods. The man directed us to the boardwalk, where another man gave us directions to the bus. We made our way back to Rome, the day having passed by too quickly.

Double click on any of these images to see them larger and also check out Marie's log of the day, plus all of her other trips, at: