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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


Counting beans (now with more numbers!)

 I'm not one for math--anything more complicated than my checkbook and I break into a sweat, and even the checkbook is a chore I'd much prefer to avoid--but I have always been fascinated by numbers.  Ask me to prove anything with them and I'll freak out and slip into a coma, but ask me to play with them?  I'm on board.  I love numerology, I love our planet-wide obsession with the number 12 and all its variables, I love counting the years I've been married (a little more than 8) and the years I've known my wife (almost 13), the number of chapters in, say, For Whom the Bell Tolls (43; the events in the Metallica song based on the novel take place in Chapter 25).  Before there were the loads of obsessive explanations and musings that exist online today, I once wrote a lengthy and absurdly complicated essay unpacking the mathematical gymnastics of the numbers in LOST (4 8 15 16 23 42), not for an assignment or even a public blog but just because I was fascinated by them.

Right now I'm knee-deep in revising a novel that has long frustrated me, including numerically.  For complicated symbolic reasons I won't go into right now, I have divided my novel into 3 "Books" and a total of 12 chapters.  But as soon as I'd got through a 1st draft of this thing, I noticed how lopsided it was--the 1st 4 chapters, making up Book 1, took up nearly 1/2 the novel, relegating Books 2 and 3 each to just over a 1/4 of the text.  Consequently, what should be the last 2/3 of the book move along far faster than the 1st 1/3 and feel rushed, sloppy, and amatuerish, while the 1st "Book" is sluggish, equally sloppy, and amatuerish in an entirely different way. 

One of my goals in revising this novel was to tighten up the 1st 1/2 and expand the 2nd (by which I mean tighten up the 1st 1/3 and expand the other 2/3--such is the confusing nature of math and/or my novel).  Today I checked my page count:  In the 1st 2 chapters I have managed to add--not delete--a full 20 pages to my novel.  Right now the total count sits at 293, yet, just a few pages into chapter 3, I am currently working on page 92.  By page count, I am 1/3 of the way through my novel, but by chapter count, I am just over 1/6 through.  I'm not saying all the chapters or all the "Books" have to be of equal length, but I'm a fan of balance if not symmetry, and I'd like each section of the book to carry similar weight.  Which means, if I'm going to pull that off in this revision, this novel is going to have to wind up a little over 500 pages by the time I'm done, with the bulk of the extra 210+ extra pages showing up in chapters 5 through 12.  Or I'm looking at yet another revision to follow this 1, in which I strip out all the fat from Book 1 and clean it up like I'd originally intended.  Which might be what I have to do.  Not just for the sake of the numbers, but for the sake of the prose as well.

UPDATE:  I've finished revising (for now) all of Book 1.  As it stands right now, Book 1--the 1st 4 chapters--total 141 pages, out of 298 (that's up from an original page total of 271).  The word count for Book 1 is around 43,000; the word count for the whole novel, so far, is 91,300.  So, by chapter count I'm exactly 1/3 through the book.  But by page count and word count, I'm almost 1/2 (47% by either page or word count). 

The good news:  if 141 pages is what roughly 1/3 of the book is supposed to look like, I'll only have to add 125 pages to round out the last 2/3, which is considerably less than I was first counting on, and 400+ pages actually doesn't sound too unreasonable for a novel of this sort, though if a final revision can squeeze that down to, say, 350, I'd be happier.


Is there anybody out there? Sensory deprivation and creative writing

I'm currently (and rapidly) revising my second novel, which also served at my dissertation and which is set in an afterlife, with a dead narrator and a whole mess of dead characters.  The harderst part, I think, is the opening, the first third of the book, because at heart the novel is a roadtrip adventure story and I've always struggled with getting my narrator out on her journey in a way that doesn't feel hackneyed or forced.  In my revisions, her impetus for setting out is still a bit hackneyed and forced but it's starting to make more sense.

One of the things I'm trying to do with this novel is adhere (very loosely) to Buddhist concepts of the dying process as laid out in the scriptural text Enlightenment on Hearing in the Intermediate States (mostly known by its shorter title Bardo Thodol and, to Western audiences, as "The Tibetan Book of the Dead").  I've already walked my narrator through the first three cycles of death described in Yangchen Gawai Lodro's The Lamp Thoroughly Illuminating the Presentation of the Three Basic Bodies--Death, Intermediate State, and Rebirth (as translated by Lati Rinpoche and Jeffery Hopkins), but in my dissertation drafts I let my narrator effectively skip the fourth cycle, in which she loses all sensory perception and effectively dissolves into her after-life existence.  This is a profoundly difficult thing for me to describe, of course, since I'm still alive and still tied to my sensory perceptions.  The closest thing I could imagine to such an experience is a float tank or sensory deprivation chamber, but I don't have access to such a device.  So, how to describe what my narrator experiences?

Winter here in the Middle East is impossibly mild, temperatures lullingly comfortable during the day, and I've been leaving the air conditioning off most days.  So I decided to take advantage of the weather and I created a kind of sensory-deprivation experience for myself.  Using the audio-editing software Audacity, I created a 20-minute track of white noise.  Then I took my laptop into our guest room (also known as my meditation room, where my Buddhist altar shares space with a fantastic little futon from IKEA), and I lay back on the futon.  I'd shut the windows to block any distracting breezes.  I donned an airline eyemask and a pair of light headphones plugged into my laptop, I covered myself in a thin blanket, and I started a recording program to document anything I might say out loud.  I put myself in the mindset of my narrator, then I started the white noise, and I simply lay flat for 20 minutes.

The result is not earth-shatteringly profound, but I did have some fairly vivid visions of things my narrator might experience, and as they occured I described them aloud.  On the recording, I sound bizarre--sometimes simply bored, sometimes stoned, and toward the end flat-out asleep, which I might have actually been--I catch myself snoring on the recording--but I remain in character throughout, and the text I dictated, though brief and strange, has resulted in some interesting and usable prose for the novel.

I've been intrigued by sensory deprivation since watching the 1980 movie Altered States, but now I'm wildly curious.  Word online is that float tanks are common features at spas these days, and though I've yet to come across one, I'm going to start asking around.  Who knows what else I might wind up writing?


And now, a word from our sponsor: Some of Jennifer's thoughts on Vienna

The list from the listmaker. I love making lists, yes, but I don’t feel the pressure Sam feels of having “the” list. Maybe that’s why I like Family Feud so much – it’s all about the list that’s true in the moment. So looking back on our Vienna trip, what are the things/events/activities that stand out in my mind right now?

  • Coming across the painter painting a copy of a painting of a painter painting in the Kunsthistoriches. We had been dutifully looking at the history of European art and winding our way to the center (in my mind at least) of the collection, the lone Vermeer. Vermeer has been my favorite artist for as long as I can remember, and I love, absolutely love, that I got to see that particular painting, Allegory on the Art of Painting, as the center of a kind of real-world, ironic tableau.
  • The pastries. Sam loves his coffee – and I did like the Viennese specialty, the mélange – but for me, it’s all about the pastries. The apfelstrudel (with real cream!), the sachertorte, the doughy, chocolate-filled dumplings covered in powdered sugar and strawberry sauce. And best of all, the total unapologetic, unabashed attitude toward pastry – why would you deny yourself something sweet?
  • Our spur-of-the-moment decision to have dinner one night by picking out some delectable goodies in the Christmas Market in the Maria-Theresia square. Spicy and seasoned potato wedges, complete with its own tiny fork; the above-mentioned chocolate-filled dumplings; a cup of glühwein. Bliss.
  • The transportation. Absolutely the best transportation system in the world. And it all has to do with the attitude of Austrians, I think. Why wouldn’t you have a reliable, cost-efficient, and on-time system of buses, trams, trains, subways, and airplanes? It just makes sense. And it does, and it works, beautifully.
  • The library at the Benedictine monastery and abbey in Melk. I try to make it to at least one library in the different places we visit – so I was really thrilled to visit one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It was odd, though, to see all these incredibly old volumes all encased in matching 18th century gold-leather bindings, and all stacked up by height on these carefully managed shelves. A part of me loves that – order reigning supreme – but another part chafes at the thought of destroying all those individual covers and bindings and mashing them into this homogenous, monochromatic front. And most librarians usually dislike being asked questions like, “Where’s that blue book?” so organizing by something so arbitrary as height – rather than by author or by subject – just doesn’t feel natural to me at all now. But then, I’m probably overthinking it. It’s a beautiful library – and it feels like a library in a monastery should, with hidden hinges (bookcases that hide windows behind, so from the outside, the library matches the grand ballroom design!) and row upon row of books and a spiral staircase leading to unseen extra rooms (12 in total).
  • Being mistaken for natives – by natives AND by tourists!
  • The gorgeous coats and boots. The first day, I didn’t see any other footwear other than flat-heeled boots. And the women – from teens to elderly ladies – are so chic. I remember on one subway ride, I couldn’t take my eyes off this older woman, with her white hair artfully arranged – she had on knit gloves that had stripes of different shades of purple; a purple knit hat, kind of like a loose beret; a dark purple wool coat; grey slacks and suede boots; and a lavender scarf. Fabulous!
  • Discovering Schiele and his version of Cubism. I’ve never really gotten into the Cubism art movement, but I love how Schiele kept on experimenting and made a kind of internal cubism – his shapes of humans and buildings and trees were recognizable as what they were, but they were made up of different shades and colors that echoes the Cubism movement. Fascinating. And he painted some memorable trees. I love trees and almost always tend to include them whenever I get hold of the camera (whenever Sam relinquishes the camera strap!).
  • Watching Sam light up with joy when he discovers something he likes – which are almost never the things that I expect or particularly like myself sometimes. This is an everyday occurrence, really, but it’s especially fun while travelling. Example: Sam taking tons of pictures of the black bears (!) while on the trail bridge at the Schönbrunn Zoo.
  • The total ease of an old European city. Go down a side street, filled with charming cobblestones, and you come across a lovely, tiny park in the middle. You spy a lovely, centuries-old building, with a modern glass bit perching on top. You visit a tiny sliver of a museum – in this case, the Römaner Roman ruins museum – that has done the best it can with a very limited space (really, about 12 feet wide, 3 stories tall) and presented artifacts in a modern, engaging way with kids’ activities and a walk-through basement of Roman ruins. Really fascinating to see how modern Viennese lifestyle fits so snugly around its history. It’s quite inspiring to see and feel the atmosphere and energy of a city that’s proud of its heritage, and proud of where it’s going. Viva Vienna!


Vienna: final thoughts (almost)

Day 7 and final thoughts:

We woke early our last day in order to enjoy a full breakfast and take our leisurely time getting out to the airport. On our way into the city, aboard Vienna’s CAT train, we’d flopped wearily into the nearest seat and leaned against the windows to watch the countryside flash by, and so we missed out on the views from the upper deck of the train. Heading out to the airport on our last day, we made sure to climb the narrow stairs to the upper floor, where we enjoyed fleeting streaks of little Viennese suburbs, the pitched roofs and yellow-painted walls flying by but somehow noticeably serene.

The flights home were trying, especially for Jennifer, who has a knack for accidentally winding up in conversations with the people next to her. It helped that both ladies Jennifer talked with on our two flights back were terrifically pleasant, and Jennifer had good conversations the whole way back, but it also meant she never got to sleep on the planes. Consequently, we both were tired—and Jennifer doubly so—when we finally waddled through our front door at 12:30 in the morning, and we didn’t bother unpacking at all. Instead, we grabbed the cats for some fur therapy and then promptly fell asleep.

Jennifer is a dedicated list-maker. It’s part of her job, of course, to be organized, but she’s so good at her job because she’s naturally organized anyway. So it’s never any surprise to me when at the end of a day on vacation she’ll ask, “What were your top five favorite things about today?” Our first full day back, as we unpacked and sorted through our souvenirs, she upped the ante: “What were your top ten favorite things about our trip?” I’ve enjoyed these sorts of lists myself ever since reading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which is chock full of Top Fives, though I admit I often hesitate to call my lists “top” anything, lest I inadvertently leave something out or shunt something into a lower order of memory where it doesn’t necessarily belong. (Unlike Jennifer, I’m a chronically disorganized person and fear lists because I’m certain to leave something out or put something in the wrong order or include something absurd, and I’m constantly second-guessing myself.) Still, it’s a fun game to play, and it frequently serves us well as a way to concretely root certain parts of our trips to memory. Favorite moment during our two trips out to Dyersville to the Field of Dreams farm: Literally disappearing within three steps of entering the corn field (that’s no movie magic—you really do just vanish). Favorite historical site in Scotland: The hill fortress atop Dunnydeer where Jennifer and I ate a secluded picnic lunch amid the brisk winds and the tumbling castle walls.

Favorite moments in Vienna?

Walking pretty much anywhere. It’s a beautiful city, and the tightly compact Innere Stadt is perfect for leisurely strolls day or night. Popping down a narrow cobblestone street and emerging into a hillside clad in stone stairs leading to a looming Renaissance church is a treat on any occasion, but it was the normal state of affairs pretty much anywhere we walked in Vienna as well as the few old towns and villages we visited along the Danube valley, which meant nearly every walk was beautiful.

The Friedhof der Namenlosen. Actually, bizarre and morbid though it sometimes was, I enjoyed the Viennese fascination with death and their elaborate efforts to celebrate it in their cemeteries and churches, but the Friedhof der Namenlosen was a deeply reverential experience for us both. Here were the graves of people no one knew, people who’d washed up anonymously on the industrial shores of the Danube Canal with no one to vouch for them or pay for their burial, yet the Viennese saw fit to cultivate a beautiful and solemn little cemetery to allow these poor lost souls some rest, and even today, some seventy years after the most recent burial there, people continue caring for the cemetery. Every year a group even comes out to hold a candlelight vigil and float a huge raft of flowers out into the Danube as a memorial to the nameless folk buried there. It’s a beautiful thing.

The coffee. To be honest, I think the coffee here in the Middle East is better—stronger and more flavorful—but what I loved about Viennese coffee was its abundance. I’ve been a fan of coffeehouse culture ever since discovering it in college—I love the intellectualism, the artistic and cultural vibrancy, and the democratic blending of social strata that have long been the hallmark of the traditional coffeehouse experience—and Vienna literally invented the coffeehouse. When we sat down in the Café Benno on our last evening in Vienna, after spending several minutes browsing the Kaffeemuseum inside, it felt almost like a homecoming or a kind of pilgrimage.

The museums—all of them. At the end of our trip Jennifer and I agreed that the Belvedere was probably the best museum we’d visited, and indeed it was the brightest, best designed, and most visitor-friendly museum (in one room they invited visitors to scream as loudly as they could just to hear the echoes off the high vaulted ceiling), and it contained some of the most impressive and unique art we’d seen. But then I remember that we’d said the same thing about the Leopold when we first emerged from it, and though the Kunsthistoriches Museum was dark and oddly arranged and I’d been disappointed in the coin collection there, it held some phenomenal pieces of art, including the most singularly thrilling art experience of the whole trip: seeing Vermeer’s “Allegory on the Art of Painting” and watching a painter practice a copy of it, as though the allegory had come to life. Every museum we entered was more impressive than the last, it seemed—and even if I only count the major museums, we still barely managed a quarter of what Vienna has to offer, and that's not even accounting for the dozens upon dozens of smaller, specialized museums in the city.

Talking with Jennifer. This doesn’t seem fair, really, to include in a list of favorite memories on vacation, since we talk to each other all the time anyway, but travelling does something for Jennifer and me. We’ve always been able to talk about anything at any time and still, after almost thirteen years together, we find ourselves amusing and intellectually stimulating. But on vacation we really get rolling, having long intellectual conversations over breakfast or cracking each other up on subway trains. Talking to my wife is one of my favorite things about being married to her, but it’s also always one of the highlights of our vacations.

And so it seems only appropriate that tomorrow, my wife will join the conversation and offer her own final thoughts (in list form, of course!).

Until then....


Vienna: Day 6

Day 6

Thursday, December 3, 2009

We have had as solid a last day as I could have hoped for, made all the better for its spontaneity—while we knew the handful of things we wanted to fit in today, we weren’t sure we’d get around to them all or in what order we’d do them, but in the end we managed everything we’d planned as well as an impromptu trip, and we picked up a few last-minute souvenirs. Then, to crown our day and our vacation, we went to a recommended vegetarian restaurant down near the Schönbrunn and not only had a good meal in a delightfully atmospheric restaurant but also got to experience Viennese long-form dining at its fullest, spending (not entirely willingly) a full three and a half hours at dinner.

Which put us back at our hotel late, meaning we started packing late, meaning I have precious little time left for this entry and will have to revisit the last few days in a final mammoth entry later. But such is the nature of vacation—sometimes this sort of leisure writing makes way for other forms of leisure, and especially in my case I usually wind up tidying up the recounting in the days following vacation, which has actually served me well over the years, because it gives me a chance to relive our adventures and solidify my memories.

But the memories would be far less worth having if they didn’t include Jennifer, so I think I’ll set this aside for now and join my wife for our last hours in Vienna, because that’s really the point in all these travels anyway—to have our adventures together.

2:40 am

Day 6 follow-up:

Jennifer and I had been wanting to drop by the Hundertwasserhaus since our friend Steve Bowman recommended everything Hundertwasser-related, but I’d been waiting for a bright sunny morning to see the multicolored building at its best. On the other hand, we’d come to Vienna for some much-needed cold fall weather, and while the first few days were cool but sunny, the latter half of our vacation was exactly what we’d hoped for: overcast, windy, and quite chilly. Which meant that when our final day in Vienna dawned gray and cold, we shrugged and decided to head out to the Hundertwasserhaus anyway, because it was now or never, and we definitely didn’t want to miss this childish delight.

From what I’d read of Hundertwasser, the guy seems rebelliously whimsical, bored as he was with the austere blocks of concrete that seemed to dominate Austrian architecture during the first half of the 20th century. His reaction is almost excessively in the other direction—he refused to draw straight lines, splashed every surface he could find with all manner of incongruous colors, and seemed to revel in mixing artistic style almost at random. He’s like a child who all his life have been using eight crayons to bubble in the little black outlines of a coloring book and suddenly, for Christmas, receives a pad of blank white paper and the big box of 128 Crayolas and a pack of glue sticks and glitter and told, “Have fun, kid!” The result is a delight, as much fun to behold as it must have been to create, and Jennifer and I had a lot of fun just walking around the building. But our favorite find—Jennifer’s discovery, actually—was not officially connected to the building at all. Across the street, as a diversion for overly curious tourists (the Hundertwasserhaus is still a private apartment complex, and the residents get a little weary of people like us poking around their homes), Hundertwasser’s admirers have set up a kitschy little souvenir boutique, and outside, on an arrow pointing into the shop, Jennifer found a sign reading “Toilet of Modern Art.” It seemed somehow simultaneously a legitimate directional sign and a comment on the effusive art-related souvenirs found within (or even on the art itself).

Our last day seemed a day for catching up on things we didn’t want to miss, because after Hundertwasserhaus, we hopped on a series of trams and worked our way over to the Upper Belvedere. We weren’t sure we’d get over to it this trip. But on our tour of the Danube valley our fellow travelers raved about the art collection there so enthusiastically that we decided we had to fit it in. Besides, as impressed as we were with the Klimts on display at the Leopold, we knew the grand prizes were at the Belvedere: Klimt’s “The Kiss” and “Judith I.” Plus, Jennifer had fallen in love with Schiele’s art, and the Belvedere boasted a healthy collection of some of Schiele’s best as well.

Klimt’s work was indeed phenomenal to behold in person. I have always loved “The Kiss,” though of course I’d only ever seen it in art books and poster shops and on postcards. Seeing it in person illuminates the true depth of the painting, the most intriguing aspect of which is the way it plays with light. I had always assumed that Klimt’s highly detailed figures wrapped in very flat, stylized cloaks and clothing was a means both of trapping the figures in two-dimensional space and of showing off the human form, alive against that flat, dead surrounding. And indeed from one angle this is precisely how it looks, and the effect in person is even more striking, because you can see the fine brushstrokes and textures in the figures. (The Belvedere also displays some of Klimt’s unfinished works, which reveal that he liked to paint his human being fully and in great detail before swathing them in flat clothes, as though in process he wanted to acknowledge the living person underneath the painted clothes.) But then you move to the other side and catch the painting in the light, and something interesting happens: The muted gray and pink fleshtones of the human form recede to the background as the gold and silver paints of the clothing catch the light and flare up in almost religious illumination. The paintings wind up looking like the negatives of themselves, the colors and their effects transverse to produce an opposite painting every bit as powerful as the original. For an artist who was so fond of playing with dimension and perspective, and who was so technically proficient, this cannot be just an accidental trick of the light, and it was wonderful to discover.

After a light (and somewhat disappointing) snack at the Belvedere’s café, we headed back into the Innere Stadt to try for the Stephansdom catacombs we’d missed a few days earlier. I was a bit disappointed that I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the catacombs, and our guide seemed almost bored with his own tour, but the catacombs were precisely what I’d hoped to see. They aren’t as extensive or, indeed, as grisly as the vast catacombs under other European cities, but they were somber and cold and rife (literally) with the history they represented, particularly in the mass plague graves where the stale odor of rot lingers like wet leaves in the shallow-roofed corridors, the blackened shreds of ancient clothing like burned paper still visible among the disheveled piles of ribs, thigh bones and skulls. When we emerged out a back stairs into the gray daylit square of the Stephansplatz, we all were a bit relieved to be among the living (and, smartly, the tour waits to charge your fee at the back door, jokingly threatening not to let you out until you pay!).

To celebrate and, as I’d wanted to do our first trip to the Stephansdom, to complement our subterranean tour with an elevated view of the city, we headed north across the Danube canal to the Prater, the giant park filled half with deep wild forest and half with a glittering old amusement park. It was once the private hunting grounds for the Imperial family, but in the 18th century the Emperor gifted it to the city as public grounds and it quickly became the most popular spot in Vienna, great for family picnics, casual hikes, and—very soon after it become public—a fun fair full of old-fashioned games and rides. It remains so today, and while it was sparsely populated on the chilly autumn afternoon when we went, it was still a fun place to be. We’d come, of course, to ride the giant Reisenrad, the Ferris wheel made famous in movies like The Third Man and our beloved Before Sunrise. We hopped aboard and road our circuit more or less quietly, observing the city as though in farewell, and when we descended from our red railroad-like boxcar, we were ready for a quiet coffee in a traditional Viennese coffeehouse to wrap up our afternoon.

Jennifer had the terrific idea to head out to the Café Benno, where there is a small but recommended Kaffeemuseum. I’d read about it in one of our tour guides but wasn’t sure we’d be able to fit it in, but now, in search of coffee and wanted to get in the best of Vienna before we left, Jennifer insisted it’d be worth the trip out of the city center to find it, and indeed she was right. The now-traditional Viennese coffeehouse is a modern but charming hybrid of traditional coffee shop and hip bohemian pub, and the Café Benno seems the perfect embodiment of that ideal. The wood-paneled walls are covered in quirky, coffee-related décor like antique signage and various coffee-making apparatus as well as loads of pop art and posters. Best of all, they serve a special version of the Viennese café mélange (a small coffee something like a mix between a cappuccino and a latte, but in a double-espresso-sized cup); the Benno mélange comes topped with cinnamon smiley face!

The big treat for me, of course, was the Kaffeemuseum, really just a broom closet stuffed with display cases, but the displays were excellent and included coffee urns and pots from all over the world (including Persia, Turkey, and Morocco), every variety of bean grinder ever invented, and several bizarre and ingenious brewers, some with multiple hoses and gears that looked something like alien torture devices or machines for milking cows. There were also displays of coffee bean varieties, coffee containers, and coffee cups, and a few very cool displays on early coffeehouse culture and the near-vitriolic outcry against the evils of coffee (and the equally vehement supporting ads and editorials promoting coffee and coffee culture!). I loved every inch of that tiny “museum”!

After coffee we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner, which we’d arranged to eat at the hip and highly recommended Hollerei Vegetarian Restaurant (where we also had a discount thanks to our Wienkart, a special promotional card for visitors to Vienna). We’d been hearing, too, about the leisurely dining in Vienna, how you can—and should—spend hours in any Viennese café or restaurant and shouldn’t expect anything approaching “fast” service from a Viennese server. So far we’d avoided that cliché, partly by asking for our bill early in the meal, but on this night we wound up in a restaurant slammed with two large parties and only two servers on staff, one who was learning the ropes her first day on the job and the other who was training her. So we spent a full three and a half leisurely hours nibbling, chatting, and waiting around, and it was very, very late by the time we got back to the hotel.

We packed, we searched the room for any sundries we might have left lying in the closet or behind the desk, we set our alarms, and we collapsed. We’d done our share of walking through Vienna and beyond, and the day ahead was all sitting—on a subway, on a train, in an airport, on a plane….. Still, reluctant though we were to leave this beautiful city, we knew we’d nearly exhausted it and ourselves, and would leave the next morning satisfied that we’d done all the Vienna a person can manage in a week. It was a stupendous little holiday and we can already add Vienna to our list of favorite cities in the world.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

10:47 p.m.

(Tomorrow: Final thoughts and things I missed!)

Vienna: Day 5

Day 5

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I’m not sure how to briefly write about today, and it will have to be brief because it’s very late and tomorrow is our last day. In some respects, today actually felt like two days, one a trip down the Danube to tiny medieval villages and a vast Baroque abbey, and the other a long evening stroll through the Christmas market and a delightful carriage ride through the city center. In one of the todays, we endured a trio of obnoxious tourists, and in the other today we endured a viciously unpleasant film; but in one of our todays we followed a goofy and pleasant tour guide through quaint little hillside villages and another mousy but delightful guide through a sprawling monastic complex, and in the other we savored an impromptu treat of hot potato wedges, fresh donut-like desserts and hot glühwien before riding through ancient narrow streets on a horse-drawn carriage piloted by the most charming and adorably stereotypical little mustachioed Austrian driver.

But sleep and who knows how many tomorrows are calling to me now, and this, my shortest entry, will have to wait till another day for the fuller details.

1:14 am

Day 5 follow-up:

As our trip has sifted through the mental filters, I’d have expected the details to intermingle, like two colors of sand sieved into the same bowl, but indeed the separate days I first described have stayed that way, and the largest part of our Wednesday—our tour of the Wachau region in the Danube valley—has far outweighed the brief evening that followed it.

We woke that morning supremely sore first from our long hike out to the Friedhof der Namenlosen then our drizzly tour through the Schönbrunn zoo, and we were glad this day to be spending most of our tour on a bus. After meeting our guide (a chipper, funny man with limp disheveled curls who, Jennifer said, looked like an Austrian Michael Palin), we settled into our bus seats and gazed out the huge windows as the city slipped past and we ascended into the foothills. As we crossed the Danube for the first time, the tour guide began humming the Blue Danube Waltz into the buzzing microphone and then explained how lucky we were to see the Danube blue, as it reportedly only appears to people in love. Jennifer and I wanted to take credit for the color of the river, but in fact there was also a delightful older Scottish couple who seemed very much in love and, just across from us for most of the bus ride, a young honeymooning couple, so Jennifer and I had some help turning the Danube blue.

Along the way we marveled at little villages tucked away in the hillsides and towering church steeples reflected in the waters, and all Jennifer and I gasped when we came into sight of the Dürnstein Castle, a ruined medieval fortress where Leopold V, Duke of Austria, briefly held captive Richard the Lionheart, King of England. In the late winter of 1192, Richard was on his way home from the Crusades, where he’d offended the Duke by denying him credit in sacking a city, and as he passed through the Austrian Empire the Duke saw an opportunity and had the King kidnapped and held for ransom. Of course, kidnapping a crusader was against Church law at the time, and it got Leopold V excommunicated. Our tour guide apologized on behalf of the Austrians and claimed they were still ashamed of the episode, but then he delightedly explained that Leopold used his share of the English ransom money to build a new city, Wiener Neustadt, which—our guide declared—was intended to benefit future tourists to Austria.

About halfway through our drive we stopped in a little town called Krems, or, more fully, Krems an der Donau. The town today is actually a melding of three medieval villages, Krems, Und, and Stein, and for some reason the old gates leading into the once-separate walled cities are named backward: when we alit from the bus for a short walking tour and shopping trip (on which I bought a fantastic tweed hat), we walked into the dolled-up downtown Krems through the Steiner Tor, while the matching gate leading into Stein is called Kremsor Tor. Whatever the reasons behind the gate names, the towns are today, as far as I could tell, indistinguishable, and the little cobblestone shopping lane through downtown Krems was window-dressed and sugarcoated but charming nonetheless, mostly because no matter what they did to try and evoke a romanticized Renaissance atmosphere, the streets were undeniably medieval in their narrowness and the winding, organic way they lay against the hillside.

The same was true of Emmersdorf an der Donau, where we had lunch at a little hotel restaurant called Zum schwarzen Bären (The Black Bear), as well as the tiny village of Melk, our final destination for the day. Melk, actually, was a kind of detour: our true destination was the Melk Stift, a huge Benedictine abbey settled inside a medieval fortress that in early 18th century had been renovated with much elaborate glitz and pomp in the Baroque style, but we’d arrived early for our scheduled tour and our guide led us down steep stone stairs into the narrow Melk.

But charming as these little towns and villages were, the crowning jewel was definitely the abbey, a huge complex that despite its Baroque extravagance retains its monastic solemnity. Sure, the ceilings were richly painted in wild and sometimes surprising frescos, and yes, the columns and friezes and altars were literally dripping in gold, and okay, the museum section of the abbey was jarringly modern. But the atmosphere was restrained, and frankly, the ceilings were beautiful, the gold-drenched the architecture and furniture were so dimly lit that they offered a kind of quiet warmth, and the museum was so intriguingly designed along a kind of metaphorical narrative that I felt pulled through it. The Stiftkirche, the huge cathedral at the rear of the complex, was especially beautiful, particularly seen from the long curving terrace across the back edge of the complex, which also overlooked Melk and the Danube valley in a stunning panorama.

But for Jennifer and me both, the highlight was the library, a tall multiroom wing of the abbey stacked with stuffed bookcases rising at least fourteen feet and displaying only a fraction of the library’s thousands and thousands of volumes. For Jennifer, the library held the same personal attraction of all libraries, since she is herself a librarian. I confess that I, too, was thrilled at the library, partly because I’ve always viewed libraries as sanctuaries of learning, and being in an ecclesiastical library that was literary in a sanctuary was a secret treat for me. But more importantly, I was surprised to learn that the abbey’s library had long been devoted to combining religion and science, first as a repository for astronomical tomes (the main reading room included a large telescope) and most recently as host to a series of conferences on religion and science. Each of the delegates attending the annual conference contributed an essay recording their musings and conclusions, which was then sealed in a metal scroll-tube and installed in a large figure-eight sculpture representing eternity; among the scrolls in the library was a contribution by former conference attendee the Dalai Lama (whose scroll is labeled simply “Tenzin Gyatso,” omitting his title).

Descending from the library, we made our way into the Stiftkirche and marveled at the huge, gilded interior and bizarre side altars. The latter held particular interest for me, especially the twin altars dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. Michael, each of which included a full—and very real—human skeleton of some anonymous martyr dressed in Baroque-era finery and reclining inside a glass display case. But the personal thrill was learning that the first side altar on the left, as you enter the church, was dedicated to St. Nicolas, a personal favorite of mine since I first saw his holy relics (a jaw bone, some fingers and a rib, as I recall) in a museum near his home city of Mira, Turkey. And, of course, we’d come to Vienna in part looking for a little Christmas spirit, as we were at the time only a few days away from St. Nicolas’s saint day of December 6, so it was a fortuitous find.

We napped in the early dark on the bus ride back to Vienna, but back in the city center, we decided we were in the Christmas spirit and headed out for a stroll through some of the Innere Stadt’s several Christmas markets, including the small affairs at Freyung and Am Hof, and then headed to the Stephansplatz to pick up a fiaker, one of the city’s traditional horse-drawn carriages. These rides exist in every major city in the world, I think—I remember seeing them running the circuit through downtown San Antonio, and we even have a few trotting around the Marina Mall here in Abu Dhabi—so we knew they might seem an absurdly touristy thing to do. But the fiakers in Vienna were in fact once the city’s official taxi service, and touristy though they might have become, they do have a legitimate history and purpose in the city, and when we met our fiaker driver, we knew we had to hop aboard. Our driver was a short, round gentleman with superbly practiced manners—when Jennifer approached him and said good evening in German (guten abend), he actually gave a small bow. We discussed prices and then he helped us both into the half-covered carriage, handed Jennifer a faux-fur blanket, and we were off. Mostly it was just a clopping trot through the same narrow old streets Jennifer and I had walked already, but it was nice to ride in style, and our driver had excellent and easy control over the horses. When we rounded our last slow corner and rolled in to the Stephansplatz again, I helped Jennifer down and then took out the camera, and before I could even ask, our driver gestured toward his horses and said in his thick accent, “Picture?” I nodded and said “Ja,” and he proudly posed with his horses—then waved Jennifer over to join him! She leaned over him (Jennifer was at least a head taller) and took his politely offered elbow, and then he stepped forward and motioned that I should join Jennifer with the horses so he could take our picture! A truly delightful man and a wonderful way to end our evening.

Friday, December 11, 2009

11:47 p.m.


Vienna: Day 4

Day 4

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tonight might be short because it’s nearly midnight already and we’ve had another exhaustive day of heavy walking and are looking forward to an early morning. Fortunately(?), full as our day was it contained relatively few individual activities—we stayed focused today.

When we woke up we found it raining, and the temperature had descended with the rain, so we scrapped plans for an early-morning jaunt up to the Hundtertwasserhaus (we might try again another day) and headed straight for the subway. Our destination: Schloss Shönbrunn, the former summer palace of the Habsburgs. Today it’s a vast museum of the Empire, but Jennifer and I had elected to forego the palace itself and focus instead on the grounds, which include a large maze and a labyrinth, several flower gardens, a wooded area, walking paths, dozens and dozens of statues and several impressive fountains, and even fake Roman ruins added by one of the emperors to give the illusion of some connection between the Habsburgs and the Roman Empire. There’s also a sprawling and highly embellished triumphal arch call the Gloriette, but it closes for the winter. But our real destination was the Tiergarten, the zoo housed on the grounds of the Schönbrunn. It’s described as the oldest zoo in the world, having evolved from the private royal menagerie kept by Franz Stephan in the mid-18th century, and because of this description I’d half expected it to be a simple affair of a few dozen wild animals—a zebra, a few moneys, maybe a big cat—but when we arrived we found a vast and extremely well-designed zoo spread across a huge area, including a wooded hillside with a treetop catwalk overlooking timberwolves and owls. Among the pleasanter discoveries were a small red panda, a pair of snoozing koalas, a European lynx, and a small but well-executed rain forest. We missed the lions because their habitat was being cleaned (we think), and the tigers were restive and barely visible, but the elephants were active, we got very close to the giraffes, and we spent several minutes petting a housecat named Sergei, who lurked in the doorway of the monkey house and invited us inside (we think he belongs to one of the employees, which is how we learned his name).

The monkey house, too, is worth mentioning, because despite the updates required of a modern zoo, the architecture remains the Baroque original and retains much of its old charm, as does the octagonal pavilion in which Franz Stephan and the royal family once ate their breakfasts among the animals—the enchanting building operates now as an excellent little café, but it has retained the ornamented wooden walls and the painted dome ceiling depicting Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all original to the pavilion.

We had a delightful time, but the zoo required a LOT of walking—again—and so after a long, cold, wet adventure, we decided to pack it in and head back into the city, where we hoped to put in a little shopping before finding dinner and heading back to the hotel. However, on the way into the city, I talked Jennifer into visiting the genuine Roman ruins in the heart of the Innere Stadt, just north of the Stephansdom on Hoher Markt. There, excavations have uncovered the foundations of the ancient Roman fort of Vindobona, an important military outpost during the wars with the Germanic tribes and a common stop for Marcus Aurelius—according to some sources, he might even have died here. As a fan of Stoicism and a reader of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, I was thrilled to learn of the connection and was anxious to find the ruins. Today, not much exists in public view, but what archaeologists have unearthed is very well presented in a small but excellent museum built over the foundations of two soldiers’ homes. The basement level is particularly fascinating, as here they have not only preserved the foundations in such a way that you can walk through them, but they also display some of the inner workings of the home, including the ingenious underfloor heating system. Upstairs are displays and videos on everything from fortress construction and religious beliefs to funeral rites and Roman toilets, and there are several great interactive exhibits for kids (which I’m unashamed to count myself among, because I played with the toys, too!).

Still, it had been a long day already and by the time we slipped south again to put in some shopping, we both were feeling more in the legs than we’d thought we would, so instead of an extensive shopping tour we decided to head back to the Spittelberg Christmas markets, where we sipped glühwien (mulled wine) as we browsed for Christmas gifts, and for our “dinner” we simply grabbed a handful of specialty cakes and pastries and ate a dinner of desert back in our hotel room.

Jennifer and I enjoyed a healthy trip to the hotel’s sauna, watched a sad but terrific movie on BBC, and then Jennifer called her mother to wish her a happy birthday, and now we both are collapsing, so that’s it for tonight. Tomorrow, more adventure awaits.

11:56 pm

Vienna: Day 3

Day 3

Monday, November 30, 2009

Today has felt longer than it has been, partly because despite all our hopping on and off trains and buses today, Jennifer and I have put in more than our share of kilometers on foot and partly because it has been a day of adventurous misdirection.

We started off with a simple errand to the main post office to mail some letters, but when we exited the U-bahn, we accidentally headed the opposite direction we meant to and wound up circumnavigating several blocks, working our way around the commanding, militaristic Kriegsministerium, a government building guarded by a pair of grim soldiers and a huge mounted counter-revolutionary, with a gigantic double-headed eagle swooping over the rooftop. We ducked down several side streets and past the prettyish Dominikanerkirche before finally discovering the backside of the post office, a block-wide building we then had to find the front of. When we finally left the post office we slipped into a covered corridor looking for an alternative route back and discovered—to our bemusement—the very subway station we’d first exited.

Our errand finished, we headed along the U3 east toward the edge of the city, where we hoped to catch a bus out to the terminus of the Danube Canal and the little industrial inlet called the Alberner Hafen. We knew from write-ups and from Before Sunrise that at the edge of the Alberner Hafen, at the end of a lane and down into a small copse of trees, we would find the melancholy but beautiful Friedhof der Namenlosen—the Cemetery of the Nameless. (I’ve come to prefer the German name for the little cemetery because it’s so much more descriptive: literally translated, it comes out as something like “Peace-yard of the Ones Who’ve Lost Their Names.”)

Along our route, we learned several things:
  1. We did not need to go to the end of the U3 line and walk up to the bus stop—the next-to-last stop was directly opposite the bus route we needed.

  2. Though the bus route we took did indeed go all the way to the Alberner Hafen, it did not go there consistently, nor did it travel its route all at once. Instead, it stopped halfway, where we alit and waited ten minutes for a change of drivers and a new destination printed on the bus’s sign, then went most of the way toward Alberner Hafen; however, we were riding the wrong bus, or on the wrong day, or in the wrong direction…. Whatever the reason, our bus only took us within “walking distance” of the Alberner Hafen. We discovered this, thankfully, with the help of an extremely kind Austrian woman riding the bus with us and who lived in the neighborhood where we got off. Which reminds me:

  3. We didn’t need to be fluent in German to understand the language—this woman rattled off extremely complex directions as though we were native speakers, yet through her generosity of spirit and a little sheer determination she miraculously helped us understand that our intended route would mean extra walking, that the neighborhood had a secret short-cut through a field and up to a road-side bicycle path which should only take ten minutes to walk, and that our destination was in the vicinity of a group of tall industrial buildings which we could use as landmarks along the way. All of this was exclusively in German, with only a bit of pantomime to help us along, but we managed to understand it all. The only thing we knew to say in reply was “Dankeshün,” but she seemed to understand that she’d helped us—and indeed she had, tremendously!

And so we hiked out, along a paved path raised up from the roadside for several minutes, across a road, and down an interminable grassy lane between a woodchip mill and what looked like some kind of refinery, wondering if our friendly Austrian woman had led us astray, when finally, peaking through the trees and well off the beaten path (literally), we spied the small chapel that accompanies the little Friedhof.

Which is how we learned #4:
  1. Before Sunrise is tricky and ingeniously misleading in its choice of camera angles, because in the film we get the impression that in just a half hour or so Jesse and Celine drift over to the cemetery from town, approaching it from the road and descending the little stairs hugging the chapel. In reality, it takes something in the area of ninety minutes to get out there (if you know where you’re going), and there is no approach from beyond the stairs—the only way there, from the direction Jesse and Celine would have traveled, was along a rutted country lane between two factories, through a gated ditch, and across the delivery drive of a working refinery. Such is the nature of film, I suppose.

Once inside, though, the cemetery does become eerily quiet. It sits in a shallow depression surrounded by trees, so it seems to block out all the racket of industry and rests in a timeless solitude, the chalk-drawn plaques of the “nameless” beneath the crucifix gravemarkers solemn but somehow inviting. We spent a good half hour in the cemetery, walking among the graves and noting the few names discovered, straightening fallen flower pots, and saying silent prayers. On one grave I found a decapitated teddy bear, the head rolled face-down nearby, and I replaced the head on its lonely body atop a grave. It was a deeply meditative moment for Jennifer and me both, and very much worth the long, confusing trek it took to find the place.

Almost two hours later we made it back into town and stopped in the heart of the Innere Stadt, at Stephansplatz. We grabbed a quick bite of cake and coffee at the Café Diglas then braced ourselves for the mammoth cathedral that is Stephansdom. I had two missions in mind for the day, the pair of them somehow symbolic: I wanted to climb the 343 steps of the south tower to view the city from above, and then descend into the cathedral’s catacombs to explore the subterranean tombs. Peak and nadir, bustling city and slumbering dead… The dichotomy appealed to me. But by the time we’d clambered nearly dizzy up the narrow spiral staircase and then down again—the whole way down dodging gangs of wild teenagers recently released from school—we were both so exhausted that the idea of the catacombs seemed overwhelming. Besides, when we’d first arrived I narrowly missed the scheduled tour (despite Jennifer’s reverently hushed calls that it was leaving without us) because I was busy setting up a photo of a floating crucified Christ, and when we finally got back down from the tower we narrowly missed the next tour. We decided we’d had our share of cemeteries for the day and opted out of waiting around for an hour to catch the next tour.

Instead, we hit the atmospheric but miniscule (there were only two and a half tables and three stools!) American Bar just off the Stephansplatz for a quick cocktail and an inside peek at a building by Adolf Loos, one of Vienna’s most important architects. The room was almost smokily dim, with ochre-painted glass blocks covering all the lights and the few small chandeliers fitted with what looked like 10-watt bulbs, but instead of feeling claustrophobic, it felt cozy, like the downstairs den of someone’s home.

After the American Bar, we drifted down the Kärtnerstrasse to the Franziskanerplatz, where in Before Sunrise Celine and Jesse enjoy a coffee from the tiny Kleines Café and get their fortunes told by a gypsy. No gypsy for us, and with the cool evening of autumn, the café was a strictly indoors affair, and it was barely larger than the American Bar and twice as crowded, so we contented ourselves with the ambiance and with studying the looming statue of Moses.

Tired as we were, we decided to ride the U-bahn across the Innere Stadt to check out the Sigmund Freud Park and the beautiful twin-spired Votivkirche, which we’d been seeing and photographing from almost everywhere in town since we got here and which Jennifer has been especially keen to see. It’s under restoration and is closed on Mondays, so we didn’t get to go in, but we enjoyed the evening in the park and the beautiful lights on the façade. Still, by now our feet were aching and we needed to grab a dinner before we headed to a concert, so we trekked back to the hotel.

Our evening was unexpectedly capped by the invitation of a costumed music student hocking tickets outside the Stephansdom. As part of a practicum for his studies and as a fund-raiser for a local repertory of classical musicians, he was selling seats at an intimate “parlor concert” by the Vienna Residence Orchestra, a tiny troupe of classical musicians, opera singers and ballet dancers that perform in the historic Palais Auersperg, where the boy Mozart gave early performances for royalty. It was a short, simple affair clearly marketed toward tourists (the bulk of the audience arrived on two huge tour buses), but we enjoyed getting dressed up for an evening out, we knew we’d need to get to some music-related event sooner or later, and the setting was rather appealing—just a small gathering to hear a small group perform some simple, classic pieces by Mozart and Strauss. For the most part the performances were quite good—nothing stellar, but solid and proficient, with a rather dedicated solo violinist and a delightful soprano. The ballet dancers seemed superfluous, though, not because they lacked talent or technical merit but because their stage was so tiny they had little room to do anything but showy vertical jumps and poses. Jennifer did enjoy watching them attempt their maneuvers on the small stage, though, since with every jump or twirl the young man nearly slapped, kicked, or toppled into the solo violinist—she was delighted by the facial expressions of the violinist as he ducked or reeled away from the ballet while trying to maintain composure and his music; she affectionately called the whole scenario “cartoonish,” which is as apt as it gets, really. Still, the fact that the ballet dancers never did hit the musician seems a great compliment to their prowess in their art! So, in all it was an excellent evening out and precisely the thing we needed to unwind after a very, very long day.

12:12 am


Vienna: Day 2

Day 2

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jennifer figured out this evening that she’s been to the cinema in six different countries. She saw a film in San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico, while I was in Turkey, and I didn’t go to any theaters in Istanbul or Ankara or Izmir, so she’s one up on me. But her sixth and my fifth was 500 Days of Summer at the Haydn Kino English Cinema here in Vienna. It was cleverly written and cleverly directed—I told Jennifer it flirted with the line into too clever, but I thought it maintained its integrity well. And it was an excellent cap to a surprisingly full day.

We started with a filling and extensive buffet breakfast (at which they offer free champagne, though we skipped that indulgence this morning), then walked across the street to the MuseumsQuartier. We weren’t sure what we planned to see, though we knew we were interested in the Leopold Museum with its impressive collection of Klimt; the Leopold is also currently showing a loaner exhibit of Munch, which was an added and unexpected thrill. We both also discovered some new interests in art: Jennifer fell in love with the Secessionist painter and Klimt protégé Egon Scheile, including his quirky self-portraits and his moody, meandering autumn trees, while I found myself utterly sucked into the unnerving world of Alfred Kubin, whose nightmarish, fantastical drawings and sketches are like the inner ravings of some brilliant but tormented child. (We each bought a book of their work.) Seeing the Klimt, too, was an education, because while we both were familiar with his more inventive and more popular works (“The Kiss” is among our favorites, though it’s housed at the Belvedere in another part of the city), we discovered he was a brilliant technical painter in any form, and we saw some impressive landscapes and portraits, including a dark, emotional portrait of a blind man that actually moved me to tears. Another prize of the day was the Munch; the collection is thin, Munch being hard to come by, but we did see an extremely rare lithograph of “The Scream” as well as both the lithograph and the painted versions of “The Vampire,” a favorite of mine for almost twenty years now. To see it in person was perhaps the highlight of the visit, though I am still reeling over the discovery of Kubin—his artwork is fascinating enough, but he was also a writer; his novel The Other Side was a major influence on Kafka!

After a light lunch in the pretty Café Milo outside the Architekturzentrum (The Architectural Center), we crossed the Ringstrasse to the Maria-Theresien-Platz. We spent a few minutes browsing the Christmas market there and gazing in awe at the huge Maria Theresia statue-complex (it is one monument, but it contains so many full-sized sculptures of ministers, musicians, and mounted equestrians, that it can really only be described as a conglomeration, with the regal Maria Theresia enthroned high above all her statuary-subjects). But our true purpose was to cross the platz there on our way to the Kunsthistoriches Museum, one of the world’s largest and finest classical art collections. So it is billed in all our guidebooks, and they don’t oversell it—the building itself is a work of art, and the collection is so vast and so exhaustive that we barely managed a third of it in our hours-long visit.

On the ground floor we browsed a small but impressive Egyptian collection, including an array of splendid sarcophagi, and upstairs we drifted past the coin cabinets (for which I’d had high hopes, being an amateur numismatist myself, but most of the “coins” were more accurately commemorative medallions and cast portraits, though the handful of true coins I saw were extremely cool). On the main stairway we saw two terrific Klimt frescoes commissioned for the museum when it was built, as well as a massive marble statue of Theseus slaying a centaur. And in the main painting gallery, we saw an amazing array of Brueghels and Rembrants, some fantastic Van Eycks and a handful of truly awesome Rubens paintings, and some fascinating Velazquez portraits of Habsburg family members, including a series of one young princess painted at various ages, showing her maturity, and a hilariously unflattering portrait of a Habsburg Spanish cousin. But the genuine highlight of the museum—and, for Jennifer especially, of the whole day—was the one Vermeer in the collection. Vermeer has long been a favorite of ours, and he holds a special place in Jennifer’s heart particularly, so she was looking forward to seeing his “Allegory on the Art of Painting,” but when we entered its room, we found a painter set up with his easel and palette, practicing technique by copying the Vermeer! It became a living allegory, and I was quick to set up and snap several photographs. We now have photos of a painter painting a copy of a painting of a painter painting; the original is a whimsical and ironic study of the art of painting, the student-painter we saw became a literal study in the art of painting, and my photograph juxtaposed the two to further irony—it was all any of us could do (for by now a small crowd had gathered to watch) to keep from laughing out loud. And the painter, consummate artist that he was, painted on the while as though he were alone in the room with Vermeer himself, learning from the master.

By the time we left (after a terrific coffee and sachertorte in the museum’s café), it was 4:40 and already deep into evening—the sun sets distressingly early here and continues to catch us off guard. We headed back to the hotel to unwind, and then out to our movie. We arrived at the theater a full forty-five minutes early, so we amused ourselves by wandering the shopping district in which the theater lies, including a pleasant jaunt down an interior lane of connected courtyards full of shops, cafes, pubs, and even a psychiatrist (the sign read “Psychoanalytische Praxis”). The streets were packed with pedestrians wrapping up their Sunday, and we enjoyed the life of a modern city, feeling very much at ease here. After the movie, though, we discovered something strange: The streets were almost entirely empty. The sidewalks were all but vacant and only a handful of cars drifted down the streets. I worried that the movie had gone on far longer than I’d thought and we’d wandered outside after midnight, but when I checked the time it was only 10:30. It was another reminder of how unique this city feels to us—we expected a large European city with bustling activity and rich arts and shopping districts, and so far we are supremely satisfied, but Vienna maintains its conservative roots and behaves very much like a small town, shutting down especially early on Sunday night. It’s an unexpected difference, but I think I’m liking it because in many ways it offers the best of everything I’d want in a city—huge civic resources for social and artistic services and a wide variety of shopping and culinary options, but without the crush and frenzy of a metropolis.

Of course, it is still Sunday (or was—it’s now after midnight here), so I’m looking forward to seeing what a weekday brings to our Vienna experience….

12:34 am


Vienna: Intro and Day 1

I like to keep a travel journal whenever I go anywhere far from home--it's a habit I was assigned on a college winter-term trip to Turkey eleven years ago, but one I've enjoyed keeping since then--and so I kept one last week while Jennifer and I jaunted around Vienna. But I've always viewed my travel journals as something of a hybrid between true, in-the-moment journaling and quieter, more reflective personal essays, so I decided not to post my entries during vacation. Besides, we were supposed to be getting away for some time together, just the two of us, and if I'd started posting daily updates then, I'd have felt beholden to a larger world, which sort of defeated the point of the vacation. So, here I am now, retroactively posting the entries I made each night.

For fun, I've decided to post one entry each day, as though I were on vacation this week instead of last. Makes for easier and slightly more authentic reading, and gives me a chance to polish the entries as I go. I do believe in the honesty of a journal, though, so I promise not to revise my entries--I'm just editing them for typos and for clarity, so what you're about to read it true to the day I wrote it.

I realize, by the way, that many of these comments have little to do with writing or teaching, so they seem out of place in a blog like this. But they're also a record of what a writer and a teacher does on vacation--I am obsessively academic about my vacations, meaning I spend most of my time before, during, and after my holiday reading, researching and writing about the place and the people and the experiences--so we'll call that my excuse to post these here. Just go with it, okay?


Day 1

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jennifer and I are getting used to travelling, yet somehow we never seem to feel used to it. This is a mixed blessing, I think—we are generally familiar with airports regulations and know our way through security screenings and long lines and foul-smelling fellow passengers, but for some reason we’re still aghast when a passenger makes an ass of himself or an airline employee chooses to assert her bullyish authority simply for the sake of doing so; we know each other’s habits and routines yet can’t help but let our travel fatigue occasionally turn us into taciturn ogres (yep, that’s me); and for all our careful planning we wind up winging half our trip, yet for all our joy at exploring a city ad hoc, we usually wish we’d planned better. We’re full of contradictions, which is part of the fun, I think.

Today we flew to Vienna, using the opportunity of a week-long holiday back home in the UAE to travel north and revisit some cool fall weather. We picked Vienna because…. Well, I’m not entirely sure why, and that’s part of what makes this trip unique. In the past we’ve always had specific reasons for visiting a place—Prince Edward Island for the LM Montgomery/Anne of Green Gables history, Scotland for my family, Chicago because it’s Chicago. We even drove from our previous home in southwest Wisconsin out to Dyersville, Iowa, just to visit the filming location of the farm in Field of Dreams—in fact, we went twice, and we loved it. But this time, we knew only that we wanted to head north, that we wanted fall and old-world European charm, and that we wanted a city for its size but not all the hassle and crowding of a major metropolis. We thought about a number of places we’ve casually mentioned over the years, including various parts of Italy as well as Amsterdam and Prague. And then there was Vienna which, I admit, we’d first added to the list primarily (and for us, not surprisingly) because we love the film Before Sunrise. But the more we looked at Vienna outside the context of the movie, the more we fell in love with its bizarre history, its compact pedestrian-friendly size, its culture and charm, and, most thrillingly, its joyous obsession with Christmas, which is manifest in the dozens of outdoor Christmas markets dotting the city. So Vienna it was, and here we are.

Before we left Abu Dhabi, we rewatched Before Sunrise and Jennifer--the consummate librarian--found online a fun though abbreviated guide to some of the film’s featured locations. We bought a few guidebooks, started practicing a bit of German, and became enchanted by the strange and sometimes hilarious history of the Viennese, who seem somehow simultaneously extraordinarily blessed and doomed with bad luck, and whose morbid fascination with death has become so intertwined with the culture that one can hardly mention a major historical figure without also describing his untimely and sometimes bizarre demise or her lavishly elaborate funeral. Still, it was the film that first drew us to Vienna, so it seemed fitting when we arrived that we should visit one of the first featured locations, the Zollamtssteg Bridge over the River Wien, a walled channel containing the former tributary to the Danube. We’d spent an hour wandering the alley-sized streets of our little Renaissance neighborhood, which includes a charming if disorganized Christmas market scattered over several streets in the Spittelberg area, before settling into a terrific lunch of veggie pizza at a pleasant little Italian restaurant with a sweet and (for a Viennese) attentive waiter. Then, once we’d checked into our hotel, we set out for the bridge. The early sunset here surprised us (it was nearly dark at only 4:30 pm), so by the time we found our way to the bridge it was already twilight, and there was some repair construction going on on one side of the bridge, but the sight was still fantastic, perhaps more so under the amethyst dusk with the first of the city’s multitudinous Christmas lights winking on to reflect in the shallow runnel of the Wien’s canal.

Afterward we rode the tram around the Ringstrasse to the Neues Rathaus, the towering Neo-Gothic city hall lit up against the night sky and overseeing a vast Christmas market that from the outside seemed magical, with its huge central Christmas tree and the platz’s many other trees bedecked in inventive light displays (including a tree full of illuminated Santa-angel-bears); we ventured into the market, however, to discover it a madhouse of swarming tourists and shoppers, people sipping hot cocoa or mulled wine literally shoulder-to-shoulder and rocking in a mass undulation, like an ocean, complete with a riptide of scurrying children tearing underfoot. We drifted out and walked back toward our hotel near the MuseumsQuartier, marveling at the looming statuary of the Parliament building and the squat façade of the Volkstheater. We were looking for a quiet café to enjoy a cup of famous Viennese coffee and a bit of torte or strudel, but strangely, we managed to wander down all the wrong streets and could find only hip, modernist bars or expensive restaurants. We finally ducked into what looked like a cozy corner spot with cakes in the window, but when we entered, the place hushed in surprise, and though we stuck it out through a cup of coffee, we quickly realized we’d wandered into a local café so quiet and so comfortable it was meant only for the neighborhood regulars, and we interlopers had just interrupted their routine evening.

We finished what was actually good coffee and then, content to leave them their café, we headed back to the hotel and here I sit. It’s only 9:30 here, but my body tells me it’s after midnight and I, like Jennifer, am tired, so I’m off to join my wife and rest up for a new adventure tomorrow.

9:39 pm Austrian time


Acknowledgments: NaNoWriMo update #4

One of the reasons I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo this year was the pressure. I don’t mean just write a bunch in November. I mean sign up at the site, with a profile and picture and everything; I mean post regular updates and excepts on the site and in Facebook and here in my blog; I mean do all this out in the open. I need that kind of transparency or else I’d never be able to pull this off.

I know a lot of people who participate--and do so gloriously--without bothering to sign up at the site, and I think that's cool. NaNoWriMo is supposed to be for fun, damn it. I also know plenty of people who do sign up but don't bother posting updated word counts, and that's cool too. Really, this isn't a contest. But when I signed up I decided to commit not only to writing each day and to posting daily updates at the NaNoWriMo site, but also to posting those regular updates on Facebook and to making these occasional comments in this blog, and all my friends out there in the cyberverse caught on pretty quickly as to why: I needed the pressure of public exposure to keep me moving. I'm not a very self-disciplined person, I'm afraid, so in my academic and writing career I've had to develop tricks and gimmicks to force myself into a disciplined situation. Nothing has worked better for me than a sense of responsibility to others. When I'm teaching, for instance, I often explain to my students that because I expect them to meet deadlines for their assignments, they should expect me to meet deadlines with their grading, and if I start falling behind I make a deal with them: They don't have to turn in their next paper until they get the previous paper back with my comments. For the first novel I wrote, which was my undergraduate thesis, I asked my director and reader for a schedule and they both shrugged and said, “Whatever works for you,” but I protested: “I need a schedule, guys! Discipline me!” So I told them I'd get them 20 pages every week until the draft was finished, and then I'd get them 20 pages of revisions every week until they said the book was good enough. Turns out they had plenty of other work to do and I was just making their lives more complicated, and it wasn’t long before I’ll piled several weeks of writing on them and they hadn’t even gotten around to the first 20 pages, but I never would have finished that book if I hadn't convinced myself that they were sitting across the campus tapping their fingers and waiting for me to hurry up and send my pages.

So this year, when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, I knew I needed to do it publicly, not because what I’m writing matters but because I needed to trick myself into thinking it mattered to someone, I needed the illusion of some impatient audience out there in the world tapping their fingers and saying, “All right, dude, show what you did today.” It’s worked so well I’ve already surpassed the official 50,000-word NaNoWriMo threshold, in only half the allotted time (I broke 50k on November 15), and it’s continuing to work so well that even though I could quit now, I have kept working on the novel and plan to finish the first draft before the end of the month, not because I need to but because I have this vision of disappointed friends and family staring at my empty updates and saying, “Damn it, Sam, you brought us this far and then you just quit, left the novel unfinished? Not cool, man.”

But here’s the genuinely amazing thing, and the reason I started this post: I actually have people out there monitoring my progress. Much as I have to pretend to get any work done, I don’t seriously delude myself that anyone is logging onto Facebook or checking my blog every day to see how many words I’ve written. And while I think most of my friends would take a look at my draft out of kindness and maybe even legitimate interest, I don’t imagine anyone is hankering to get their paws on this thing. (Though if you are anxious to read it and you know an agent or a publisher, we need to talk!) But none of that matters. What matters is that a whole slew of my friends has recognized my need for support and has been fantastically generous with it. Hardly two updates go by without at least one expression of incredulity at my rapid progress or voice of encouragement on the discipline I’m engaged in, and at least a few times each week someone has stuck up a Facebook wall post or sent me an e-mail expressing interest in the book or supporting my continued work. When I sent out a call for research help the response was swift and tremendously helpful.

I’m not going to call anyone out by name here in this blog because I don’t know who would mind and who wouldn’t, but you know who you are. If you’ve ever commented on my work here or in e-mail or in Facebook, I owe you, and I’m extremely grateful. I just wanted you to know that.

And now, for some excerpts:

from day 9:

[the women try to trade their stolen goods in the swamp store but learn the war is over and there is no more of their kind of business to be done, a discovery which endangers and infuriates them]

At the hut they fumed for some time, dragging the pail of soaked clothes still warm in the sun out to the pond to rinse and scrub them and rinse them again, their fists tight around the wrung skirts and uniform shirts, the knuckles bright against the dark blues and grays of the cloth and the remaining purple and fuscia stains. They whipped the clothes into the air over the pond so shake the water off the ends of them and they carried them back to the hut to string up between two poles and dry in the warm breeze. They sat on their stump and bucket out front and watched the clothes blowing, both the women with their jaw muscles jumping, their fingers interlocked and gripped white. Finally the old woman said To hell with it then and she disappeared into the hut. When the door opened one of the packs shot out it like it was fleeing some brawl within, and another pack followed, then the woman emerged bent under the weight of the remaining packs.

Let’s re-sort these here goods and figure what we ought to keep for ourselves. Then we can see if it’d be worth a run into Texas ourselves.

Where would we go?

Don’t seem to matter. That fight we come across the other night must of come from that direction, so I figure we head toward the Sabine we’s bound to run into one army or the other.

That still feels a long ways for just a chance of coming on something, and who knows what they’d do to us either army and us just two southern women among all them men. Maybe we just take this stuff on up into Leesburg, see if anyone wants it for they home defense like you said.

That’s a good idea and maybe we do that first, then see where we stand.

They pulled apart the assorted gear, a few cook items and some personal effects like watches and tiny photographs but most of it knives and swords and rifles and pistols. A few lever-action Spencers and one short Henry, even a Colt revolving rifle though the cylinders had fired all at once and the rifle was bloody and blown half apart. A collection of big Bowie knives many with the names of men carved into the hilts, Jesse, Sam, Pedro. They separated all the money both Confederate and Union, sorted them by denomination and issuing country and stacked the coins and cam e up with seventeen dollars and forty-three cents all together, though what was the worth of either nation’s cash they couldn’t determine. They wrapped the bills of each country around each country’s coins and tied the bundles in string, then they put the bundles together in a filched tin mess pot and tied the lid down tight. In the hut they flipped up the mattress and the woman held the pallet at a high tilt while the girl dug a hole in the earth floor with a large metal spoon and dumped the tin pot in. Back outside they bundled the rifles like kindling sticks and wrapped them in a blanket and tied it, and they did the same with the sabers and long bayonets. Among the pistols they found a pair of engraved Slocum side-loaders, barely longer than the girl’s hand from palm to middle finger, and they set them aside and sorted through the ammunition till they found a collection of bullets that would fit the cylinders, and they kept these revolvers one apiece for themselves. The rest of the pistols they collected in a knapsack with a few hats and some shoes. They found four mildewing books in the sundry personal effects, a bible and three dime novels: The Hunted Unionist; Zeke Sternum, the Lion-hearted Scout; and The Imps of the Prairie, or, The Slasher of the Cave. They set aside the bible then sat thumbing through the novels but soon gave up and tossed in the novels with the pistols and hats, and after considering it for a moment the woman tossed in the bible as well.

from day 11:

[in the worn-down shop of a free black man in Leesburg, the women tried to trade but the old woman's hatred of black men gets the better of her....]

We’ll do you a trade, nigger, but according to my own terms. I don’t let no nigger boug dictate to me.

She opened the sack and flung out a pair of worn shoes and a Kepi hat, a wooden canteen, a brass belt buckle. She grinned at the man. For the fields, cause free or not we’ll get you in em.

He looked at the small collection before him then raised his eyes.

What the hell I gonna do with a bare belt buckle out in some field.

Whatever the hell a white man tells you to, the woman said.

He laughed and crossed his legs again and waved a hand toward the door as though swatting at mosquitoes. Shoot, y’all is crazy. Y’all get on out my store afore you get me mad.

The woman screwed up her face in a fury and reached into the sack, fumbled in it with her eyes locked wide and wild on the man while the girl watched, her own features settling into a dangerous calm. The girl reached for the second sack and began to drag it toward the counter as the woman produced a pistol and aimed it at the man in his chair.

He regarded her.

I done checked that gun already, maam, so I know it ain’t loaded.

Maybe I loaded it, she snarled.

Maybe I can see the cylinders empty from where I set, he said, his voice calm. His eyes flicked toward the girl then back to hold the woman steady in his gaze. His voice a level louder he said, Missy, I’ll ax you not to put none of my wares in your sack less’n you plan to put some of yours on my counter in trade.

We’ll just take whatever we damn please, the woman said.

The man uncrossed his legs and with his hands on his knees he unfolded from the chair, stood tall before the woman with her empty pistol shaking.

Y’all ain’t gonna rob me, he said.

The girl had shoveled what she could into the bag and she turned to the woman. Let’s go now, mother, we got what we can.

The man reached and closed his big hand over the pistol the woman held in her left hand. The hammer retracted and clapped closed, then again, the woman pulling frantically on the trigger. Don’t you touch me nigger, don’t you touch me!

I’s just taking recompense, the man said. He stepped forward and twisted the pistol to break it free of the woman’s grasp but as he neared her she leered at him and he saw her right shoulder jerk, realized too late she’d been waiting for him to come to her. The pain in his side was fierce and hot, and with own right hand still holding the pistol he calmly stepped backward and put his other hand over his side, the shirt slick already with his blood.

Run, mother! the girl shouted and with the sack swinging heavy over her shoulder she lumbered behind the woman and out into the street. The woman with her knife outheld bent to pick up her sack but the man reached across himself and with one great swipe he backhanded her with his pistol fist and sent her reeling to the floor. He coughed once and swayed where he stood, his dark hand gleaming in his blood.

No maam, he said, his voice low but strong still.

The woman scrambled to her feet and with the knife raised in her fist she ran screaming at him but he twisted with his feet rooted on the floor and he hammered her another blow that sent her flying against the doorjamb, where she spun and sat down half inside and half out on his store’s front step. He faced her but stayed put.

I done told you, you ain’t gonna rob me.

She looked up at him from her place on the threshold and for a moment they regarded each other. Then he stood one deliberate step toward her and she rolled backward down the step hollering Save me, save me from the nigger! but when she’d got to her feet in the road the girl grabbed her arm and they ran together out the wrong side of the town. It took them an hour to circumvent Leesburg, another half hour hiking north along the river to find a crossing point they could wade through, the bridge too near to town for their liking, so it was humid orange dusk before they managed to aim themselves west again, and by the time they staggered into the brake and collapsed exhausted into their own small hut it was well past midnight.

from day 16:

[a violent hurricane has flooded the bayou and Buford and the girl are adrift in his shack]

Oh Lord, Buford shouted. That’s Lake Calcasieu done jumped its banks--these two currents is merging. Hold on! though with nothing to hold on to they simply continued clinging to each other. They hit the wall of rapids in a spray of foul, salty water, and they spun in long crazy ellipticals in the water until finally they’d settled into some diagonal course up the bayou toward the swamps. They rocked and rode the current and watched through their two open walls as items floated past them from Leesburg, many with their own passengers in refuge from the storm. A wooden crate of oranges and a gang of oranges loose and following like ducklings, a thin snake coiled in the crate and seemingly asleep. A wardrobe on its back and the doors flung open, with a dog inside peering overboard wide-eyed and panting with his tongue out. An uprooted sapling with a cow tied to it, the cow choking on the leash and thrashing in the water. A little while later they saw an old black woman, tiny and frail with her hair the color of brushed steel and her skin heavily wrinkled, floating on top of a hay stack somehow still intact. She waved to them and called out for help but neither person in the shack moved. They regarded each other, the pair and the old woman. Then the old woman shook her head and shouted across the water, Well, thass all right. God bless you anyways. And she floated on. Later they caught up and past the tied cow again and the cow was dead. A locked trunk floated past and Buford watched it a moment as it drifted near them, then he scuttled across the floor and slung out the ax and chopped at the trunk. His first swipe missed and the ax went in like an anchor and nearly dragged him after, and the girl screamed, but he held onto one of the wall-less stud timbers and brought the ax around and hooked the trunk and dragged it aboard. He hacked at the lock then ripped up the lid to find a collection of fine dresses wrapped in muslin. The interior layers were still mostly dry, and he hauled out all the clothes then kicked the trunk overboard again. They rode the rest of the day and into the evening draped in silk dresses like blankets. As dusk settled and the sky glowed hot amber in the wake of the storm the gable of a two-story house with the roof and walls still intact floated slowly past them, and through the broken glass of the gable window sprawled a lady limp and with her arms in the water and blood running down the siding. Her, too, they watched pass in silence.


It was a dark and stormy writer's block....

A long time ago, when I was a nerd in high school, I hung out with a bunch of other nerds in high school and we played role playing games. You know the bit Mike Myers did on his 2001 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, with one eye crossed and speaking in a lisp as he rattles on about his D&D character Lothar and magic spells and hit points and multisided dice? That was us. My parents, being parents of their generation, sometimes expressed concern over the role-playing, worried I'd get "too caught up" in it the way their scary news reports and misguided exposes told them I might, so I had to explain to them that role playing was a means of developing creative skills, that I wanted to be a writer and developing and running characters in a game wasn't much different from developing and writing characters in fiction. And indeed several of those friends were also writers.

I mention all this because one of my old friends from high school sent me an e-mail the other day to share some writing he's working on. We're still at it, we old nerds, making up characters and setting them off on adventures, and my friend--with whom I'd fallen out of touch for a while so we're now catching up online--wanted to share some recent work. But he also mentioned he was stuck, refered to the myth of writer's block, and wondered if I had any tips for hurdling it. I said I'd reply via e-mail, but here I am instead, carried away as usual and turning the response into a blog post.

They say you're supposed to set yourself a writing habit and stick to it, like brushing your teeth or going to work each day. Hemingway famously would leave off at the peak of his writing flow, often midsentence, so he had an energetic and necessary place to begin again the next day. Bill Roorbach says he likes to write the same few hours in the day, each day, every day, like a meditation regime, and he tends to keep things fresh by alternating his work: long-form fiction or memoirs on the weekdays, and short fiction or essays on the weekends. My friend Tom Franklin credits the birth of his daughter for his fiction habits--he said the only time he was ever able to get any work done was when his daughter Claire laid down for naps, and because that time was limited he had to write like mad and really make it count. Said she was the best thing that ever happened to his writing and he never would have finished his first novel without her.

Of course, some people have day jobs, but they say the routine is important anyway. Most academics I know set aside separate office hours, some for students and some for writing. most of us also disappear for a month or more during the summers, sequestering ourselves in some dark corner of the house or cloistering like monks into writers retreats to frantically pound out what we had been wanting to work on all year. A friend of mine in grad school used to work tech support for Microsoft, and for a while she'd stay up till four am writing thousands and thousands of words, then at work that same morning she'd just doze through the day waiting on calls and sometimes dozed through the calls, too. Elmore Leonard reportedly wrote his first five books longhand on legal pads he kept in his desk drawer at work--he'd write his advertising copy on his desk and, wrong-handed and blind, he'd simultaneously scribble out his fiction inside the drawer, then stay up nights transcribing it to his typewriter. You gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.

But I used to discount the writing-routine rule and still do to some extent. I think every writer is different, really, and for some the routine doesn't work. I've always been bad about discipline so having one set schedule hasn't really cut it for me; I keep needing to mix things up. It's getting different lately, as I'm realizing that most of the die-hard "writing routine" adherents are actually professional writers who A) can afford to set their own habits without life interfering with them, and/or B) need some self-imposed routine to take the place of the restrictions of job and family and life in general.

I'm realizing this because this semester I'm in the middle of a brief teaching hiatus, out of the classroom for the first time in 10 years, so I am actually a "professional" writer with few other demands on my day but the prose. Fiction is not just my avocation right now--it's my job. And indeed I have settled into a kind of routine now, especially this month as I pound out this NaNoWriMo novel. It's not set in stone, my routine, but the gist is, I get up, fix my wife lunch and see her off to work, feed the cats, then kick back for a couple of hours of music and video games and multiple, heavy doses of coffee. Once I've finally managed to wake up, I get to the writing. Used to be I'd pick up whatever took my fancy, but I've discovered that it's true, you really do need a plan when you're writing full time, so the past few months I've been focused on finishing a story collection I've had in the works for years and on beginning a major revision of my dissertation novel. Then the past two weeks this NaNoWriMo novel has taken over entirely. But whatever I'm working on, I'm not too rigid about how I go about it. A lot of writers will tell you to just freaking write--if you're in the chair you need to be scribbling or typing, period. No revising, no researching, no reading, no thinking.... Just write. There's something to be said for that, but I prefer Hemingway's story about sitting in front of the fireplace in his flat in Paris, pinching bits of orange peel into the fire and watching the sparking blue flames they made. He was thinking about writing, he claimed, and therefore he was writing. My theory is, if the work I'm doing is in service of the writing--whether it's research or revision or just reading a damn good book that will help lead me back to the writing--then I'm still writing. There will come a time when the reading or the research just becomes distraction, when the revision or the thinking become an evasion tactic, and there's no way to pick up on the switch from productivity to procrastination but bitter freaking experience, but as long as I keep my ass in the chair each day, I develop the habits and the awareness necessary to continue being productive regardless the actual activity.

But then, that doesn't usually help with writer's block, because with writer's block, anything that isn't words on paper is just procrastination. There's good news, though: there's no such thing as writer's block. Period. Doesn't exist. If writer's block is defined simply as the inability to write, and writing is itself simply the act of putting words on paper, then all you have to do is start writing. Block hurdled. What you write in the throes of an alleged block will almost certainly be crap, but it'll be written crap, and the brain, funny muscle that it is, sometimes just needs to be warmed up first. Once the words start coming, the brain realizes it's supposed to be writing, and if you stick with it, eventually the right words will start coming.

So there it is in a nutshell: Develop the discipline to make yourself sit in a chair once a day, with at least the intention to write. And then, once you've established enough muscle-memory that you find your way to the chair even when you don't want to be there, start developing enough discipline to force words out of you, regardless how shitty they are. Anne Lamott wrote a widely anthologized chapter in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, called "Shitty First Drafts." In it she explains that "very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow." (I can quote this because I love Bird by Bird so much I brought it with me overseas--I'm looking at my copy right now.) "We often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. [...] For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts." Stephen King mentions similar advice (and probably quotes Anne Lamott, too, though I don't recall) in his excellent memoir On Writing, and even goes so far as to show us his shitty first drafts. They truly are shitty. It's nice to see.

I think for me the affliction I used to call writer's block mostly stemmed from anxiety. I knew the way I wanted the prose to sound in my head--these days, mostly like Cormac McCarthy, because the English language just doesn't get much better than it sounds in his prose--but the minute I start putting what's in my head down on paper or on the computer screen, it starts looking or sounding different. It's NOT Cormac McCarthy, it's not even bad Faulkner when he was at his drunkest--hell, it's not even half decent. In my head I'll have a passage like
A warm wind on the mountain and the sky darkening, the clouds looping black underbellies until a huge ulcer folded out of the mass and a crack like the earth's core rending rattled panes from Winkle Hollow to Bay's Mountain. And the wind rising and gone colder until the trees bent as if borne forward on some violent acceleration of the earth's turning and then that too ceased and with a clatter and hiss out of the still air a plague of ice.*
But when I write it down for the first time it comes out, "It was a dark and stormy night."**

So what's the freaking point? It took me a lot of time and study and Buddhist meditation before I realized that what I expect and what I come to perceive are almost never going to be the same thing, and neither of them will be inherently true anyway; what I expect will never really happen and what I perceive is never really accurate, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. In other words, I have to let go of my expectations and not worry about my perceptions, I have to empty my mind of what I want to write and just freaking write. Of course, that sounds a lot more esoteric than it actually winds up being--what I really do is just lower my expectations, so that, expecting a shitty first draft, I am never disappointed and am occasionally even surprised.

Until I start revising. But that's a whole other conversation.

* from Cormac McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper

** from Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford and, subsequently, everything Snoopy ever wrote.