Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Asylum [Coffee Bar]

In Pittsburgh on December 27, 2009 at 11:43 pm

See the story in City Paper.

Yes, China, There Is a Santa Claus

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2009 at 2:58 pm

As foreign exchange students go, Ping was perfect: She giggled all the time, she loved “Seinfeld,” and she could make a mean dim sum. She was also a student from Beijing pursuing a graduate degree in education. My parents had waited patiently for my brother and I to leave the house, and when Ping showed up, all the years of waiting for an exchange student proved worthwhile.

Each Christmas, I visit my parents’ house in Vermont. No holiday is more pastoral: Our stockings were hand-knit by my Mom, and my Dad always makes pancakes with homemade maple syrup. When Dad designed and built our house, he installed a wood fireplace – our single, primitive heating system – so it was easy to imagine, late into my childhood, that a literal Santa Claus visited each year.

But it was hard to explain this to Ping. “So there’s this old, bearded man who lives in the North Pole,” I’d begin.

“North Pole?” she echoed, her eyes widening.

“Exactly. He lives up there with lots of elves.”


“Yes. And they help him build toys for all the children in the world. And then he gets in a sleigh, which is pulled by reindeer. Except that this sleigh can fly.”

“Rain… deer?”

Ping looked skeptical – not because she believed that a heavyset men in a red suit could squeeze down our narrow chimney, but because her hosts might very well be insane. In her secular, urban, Communist background, we probably looked like folksy peasants duped by Capitalism’s running dogs. A factory operated by indentured workers in the Arctic Circle? Elves who toil all year and never see the fruits of their labor? Where was this Santa Claus from? Taiwan?

Years after my parents laid out gifts, ate our cookies, and composed letters on a typewriter with red ink (they pulled out all the stops), we switched places: Now I’m the one who fills the stockings while they sleep, and my brother drinks spiked cider and watches “The Late Show,” never peering into the living room where the tree is stationed. It’s a silent agreement, among us all, that Christmas morning means magically stuffed stockings and eggnog. I don’t mind playing St. Nicolas and my brother doesn’t mind passing out in the den, as long as the illusion is halfheartedly preserved.

But now we had Ping to deal with – curious, doubtful Ping, who had been eating cookies all day and would’ve needed a horse sedative to sleep. While we were all in on the joke, somehow it would ruin that trace of magic to have Ping sitting in the living room, munching on a springerle and watching me blandly stack gifts.

When Ping tried to creep down the stairs, scoping around each corner like a cartoon spy, I made a sweeping motion with my hands and said, “No, no, no!” I’d never felt more childish – shooing a girl away from my holiday fantasy because she might taint the delusion. My brother kept smirking and shaking his head as he flipped through the channels, as if to say, Come on, Dude, give it a rest.

But when we woke the next morning, the gifts fully arranged and gleaming in the sun, Ping never mentioned her attempt to foil our plans. It was her first Christmas, and as she unwrapped books and CD’s, calendars and more obscure tokens of friendship, she seemed satisfied that a man in a red suit had broken into our house the previous evening. I can’t imagine how she tells this story, years later, to friends in Beijing, but I’ve always hoped that she’s kept the secret intact. People will look at her funny. But people will do that. They just don’t understand.

Vermont Roads : 5

In Uncategorized on December 13, 2009 at 12:21 am

Once, years ago, I was biking through Cornwall and got stuck behind a slow-moving tractor. But the tractor was wide and moving about 10 mph, which was about as fast as I could pedal. Even if I could maneuver around the tractor, I might not be able to keep ahead.

This is the kind of problem you can find on Vermont roads.

Nowadays, the machinery of agriculture is a distant memory. I see tractors, manure-spreaders, hay-balers, and these once-familiar vehicles now strike me as exotic. I grew up a few hundred feet from a horse-farm, but now I marvel at mares trotting in the brown grass. Even cows and sheep, the ubiquitous livestock of rural Vermont, spotted in nearly every town, seem strange and new.

Vermont Roads : 4

In Uncategorized on December 13, 2009 at 12:15 am

For years, Swamp Road never impressed me. Even the name was ugly. Swamp Road was the short-cut to my job in East Middlebury, waiting tables for the Waybury Inn. I drove and biked this road hundreds of times, dreading a late-shift or endless brunch; then I returned home, exhausted, never noticing the bucolic landscape.

New England is famous for its covered bridges, and entire coffee-table books are jammed with pictures of wood-framed spans. Like the lighthouses of Maine, the covered bridge began as functional architecture; over time, they’ve become emblems of New England life. As we crawled down Swamp Road, we reached the bridge that crosses Otter Creek. The bridge was recently rebuilt, and fresh wood has replaced the rotted lumber of years past.

Change — even modest change, like an upgraded bridge — is hard to swallow. Life is slow in Vermont, but not stagnant.

My parents tell me a new bridge is being constructed in Middlebury. The project is controversial, and the design is indisputably ugly. Somehow the project has backed up the flow of Otter Creek, and the fields of Swamp Road are flooded. This is common; it  is a swamp. But flooding occurs in Spring, not in September. It’s eerie, watching my hometown tampered with. For all their egotism and xenophobia, Vermonters are generally careful people. This new project is the emperor’s new clothes.

Clearly, not all bridges are created equal.

Vermont Roads : 3

In Uncategorized on December 12, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Because it’s rifle season, we had to wear neon yellow vests. Even well-worn roads aren’t safe from stray bullets. As I coasted down Route 30, then turned onto a back-road, then turned again past a cemetery, I relished the crisp air and beaming sun. Tree-shadows spread, long and lazy, over the roads. The branches opened, revealing great swathes of field and sky. Houses dotted the forests and meadows, their chimneys puffing smoke into the sky.

Sometimes I forget how beautiful Vermont can be. It took 13 years to really see.

Vermont Roads : 2

In Uncategorized on December 12, 2009 at 11:34 pm

I visited my parents for Thanksgiving. These days, I see Vermont only once or twice a year. I have become a flatlander — an urbanite who tours New England for vacation.

Ky likes to run in the mornings, and I like by bike with her. Since my bike is faster, I tend to ride hundreds of yards ahead, then stop on a rise and wait for Ky to catch up with me. I used to think this would annoy her, but Ky claims that my biking ahead is a great motivator for running longer and faster.

“That’s how I trained for my marathon,” she told me recently. “Catching up with you.”

Vermont Roads : 1

In Uncategorized on December 12, 2009 at 11:20 pm

It’s been 13 years since I lived in Vermont. Thirteen years. Now it feels like a long time. My parents’ house will always be home, but my childhood in Vermont has faded from memory. I walk through Middlebury and recognize no one. Nobody waves or says hello. The stores have changed hands, signs have been replaced. An old dirt road is now paved. My parents’ friends have gone gray; when they smile, their faces furrow.

But this is the strangest part: When I venture through Cornwall, I don’t know where I’m going. It’s so easy to get lost on the country roads; one wrong turn, and I could go for miles to reach a correcting intersection.

The Reviews Are In

In Uncategorized on December 4, 2009 at 7:28 pm

This month, Pittsburgh Magazine printed a flattering review of my book, The Iron Mountain, and I couldn’t be happier. Although it’s too late to insert these kind words on the cover, here’s what critic C.J. Lyons had to say about the book:

“Unlike most young men his age, 30-year-old Robert Isenberg has an incredible desire to understand and reconnect with the roots of his family tree. The Iron Mountain showcases his skills as an expert researcher and amateur historian. What’s most intriguing about The Iron Mountain is the way Isenberg manages to simultaneously tell two parallel narratives: one that documents his trek and another that describes (in much detail) the final days of von Isenberg. In the end, this is more than a typical story of one man’s journey for self-discovery. The Iron Mountain is also part history, part travelogue and part fiction. It’s a quality read for anyone interested in historical fiction, genealogy and Germany.”

How about a holiday gift?

Leaving Boston

In Uncategorized on December 2, 2009 at 3:43 am

Read the poem in City Paper.


In Uncategorized on December 2, 2009 at 3:25 am

In December 2008, I wrote a story for City Paper about the ice rink in Downtown Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the paper never had room for it, and the story was killed. Here’s the piece in its original form.

How’s this for a December afternoon in Pittsburgh: 15 degrees F., overcast, with gusts of 18 mile-per-hour winds whipping off the rivers and blasting between Downtown skyscrapers. With humidity of 59%, the air officially “felt like” 1 degree F. Not lousy enough? It was also a Monday. And of all the things tourists could do on a workday in the Golden Triangle – eat at a food court, visit a Cultural District art gallery, shop at Macy’s (née Kaufmann’s) – some folks actually went ice-skating.

Erik Agle and Lindsay Rasmussen, brother and sister, were home from Brigham Young University for a couple of days, and after a stop at Primanti’s, they strapped on some borrowed skates and hit the ice at PPG Place, where a donut-shaped rink encircles a 60-ft. Christmas tree. The plaza is surrounded by the sheer black glass of the PPG towers; this is what a winter wonderland would look like if fortified by the Death Star.

“It’s become a tradition over the last few years,” said Agle.

“It’s our own personal Rockefeller Center,” added Rasmussen. By happenstance, the siblings had visited the actual Rockefeller Center only a couple days earlier, and they were none too pleased with the crowds. “There was just a big old line.”

“Here we pretty much have the rink to ourselves,” Agle said, beaming.

PPG Place is rather proud of its outdoor rink, an institution managed by Florida-based Magic Ice, Inc. (Leave it to the southernmost U.S. state to advise Pittsburgh on winter sports). Magic Ice is happy to brag, for instance, that the rink is actually larger than Rockefeller Center’s, by 2,000 square feet. According to the rink’s staff, busy days can bring in scores of visitors – especially high-school students looking for a romantic evening beneath a Christmas tree.

“The last few days the weather hasn’t been very nice,” said Brad Morocco, a 21-year-old staffer and former hockey defenseman for the South Hills Panthers. “But on Fridays and Saturdays we get a really good crowd, especially at night. We usually have a line that’s twenty, thirty minutes long.” He surveyed the ice, where a dozen skaters strutted in oblong ovals, some looking a little fearful. “On a Monday afternoon, this would be considered busy.”

As he said this, a young skater buckled at the knees, falling on all-fours next to Morocco.

“You okay?”

“Yeah!” the kid panted, jetting awkwardly away.

For $7, an adult guest can figure-eight all day; skates are rented for $3 a pair. Each boot is shaped out of tough blue plastic, and they’re not for everybody. “Ow!” wailed a pre-adolescent in the rink’s rental shop as she jammed her pink-socked foot into the skate. “Owee! This hearts really bad! It’s really paaaaaainful!”

Equally painful was the wind-chill – even in the wall-protected PPG Plaza, the air was biting on exposed skin. Skaters wore buffering layers of fleece and faux-fur-lined coats, jamming their gloved hands in their pants pockets. Even Morocco only circled the ice for 10-minute intervals before changing guard with other staff-members.

“I don’t know why they come out here on a day like this,” Morocco conceded, although he looked grateful for the company.

Rasmussen offered one explanation: “My husband is from Idaho, and we had to show him the tradition.” Then she exclaimed, with equal enthusiasm: “And he just had his first Primanti’s sandwich!”