Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Documentary: Country Road

In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on May 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Country Road from Robert Isenberg on Vimeo.

I’m pleased to present The Ark’s first documentary, Country Road.

The Panhandle Trail extends from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the hills of West Virginia. Last week, I decided to test this route by biking from Coraopolis to Wheeling, WV, a distance of 64 miles each way.

Combining elements of both Les Stroud and Rick Sebak documentaries, “Country Road” is my attempt at a pensive, good-humored film about long-distance trail riding.



In Pittsburgh on May 27, 2011 at 12:00 am

An excerpt from my Nature & Environmental Writing class. We were asked to maintain journals about environmental concerns. Photograph of jellyfish tank, Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium.

Some facts about jellyfish.

  • They inhabit every ocean.
  • They are often called “medusas,” after the Greek villainess who grew snakes instead of hair.
  • I saw my first jellyfish on the beaches of Maine. It lay, purple and round, like a land mine. I was astonished, when warned away from it, that a gelatinous blob could sting me. How could something so passive (unmoving!) be so dangerous, merely by existing?
  • Jellyfish congregate in “blooms” — great clouds of jellyfish, incorporating thousands, that float together.
  • They can cause major problems. Such blooms can cause damage to fishing nets and may poison fish populations. They have been known to shut down power-plants and desalinization projects.
  • It still seems incredible to me that such animals, which aren’t fish, have no spines, no brain, limited mobility, etc., could be so communal. Are they drawn to one another? What do they feel (longing?) when they’re alone? Is feeling even possible with a mere “nerve net”? What draws them together, these creatures that absorb food, have no digestive tract, are 90 percent water?
  • I came close to a 2-ft.-diameter jellyfish in Malaysia, where I was lost in the jungle and had to cross a lagoon. I mistook the jellyfish for a trash bag, and when I realized my error, I was halfway across. Many species of jellyfish in this part of the world can paralyze and kill their victims.
  • As a rule: The jellyfish tank is always my favorite part of any aquarium. There is a Taoist peace to their flotillas.
  • Jellyfish are routinely eaten in China, seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil.
  • I wrote a jellyfish into my latest play, although it is never seen on-stage. (Will be performed in April).
  • In 2006, a full 19,000 swimmers were treated for jellyfish stings in Spain.
  • I have never been stung by a jellyfish.
  • But I would definitely eat one.

Excavation #5: Coins

In Vermont on May 25, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph taken in Nova Scotia hotel.

Dad opened a plastic baggie and spilled coins over the kitchen table. They clanked against the wood, formed a pool of tiny metal discs. Hundreds of coins, each a different shape and color. Some large and silver, others tiny and copper. They were grimy and old—scanning the dates, I saw that none were older than 1972, the year a heart attack struck my grandfather dead.

“These were all my father’s,” Dad said. “He collected them from all the places he went.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Lost Lake

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 at 12:00 am

An excerpt from my Nature & Environmental Writing class. We were asked to maintain a journal about environmental concerns.

For a few years, Kylan and I have rounded North Park Lake. She runs, I bike. In summer, this is a fun, sweaty outing. In winter, we duke it out with flogging winds and clumped snow. So far, we have sprained no ankles.

          The lake isn’t much of a lake — it’s more like a serpentine pond — but I’ve always enjoyed the views. And Pittsburghers reallytake advantage of North Park. I’ve attended weddings here. I’ve seen anglers tossing lines. In mid-winter, some daring souls walk onto the ice. The only thing you can’t do is take a boat on the lake. And my girlfriend’s favorite event: The Frigid Five Mile Run.
         For Kylan, who has run two marathons and has two more scheduled, the Frigid Five isn’t much of a run. It’s more like a parade. All kinds of jocks gather together at the starting line, clad in Spandex unitards and nylon shells. Kylan is perhaps the cockiest of all: She wears Vibram Five-Fingers, which enable to run, effectively, barefoot.

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Excavation #4: Pictures

In Egypt, Vermont on May 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of temple interior, Egypt.

Each morning, Dad drove me to the elementary school, where he taught sixth grade. I could have slept later—past 5:45 a.m.—but I liked to wake with him, eat Cheerios in the dark, and ride with him to work. Dad would set up his classroom, file paperwork, and raise the American flag in the schoolyard. Since I went to middle school in the shire town, I could pick up the bus at 7 a.m. The less time I spent on the bus, the better. This gave me more time spent alone with pictures. I would slip into the library and sit in a big easy chair. And as I waited for my bus, I opened copies of National Geographic.

The Cornwall Elementary School had an entire wall of National Geographic magazines, dating back to the 1920’s. The earliest volumes were scattered and incomplete, and the pages were so ratty that I avoided them. But each morning I would press my finger against the phalanx of spines and pick an issue at random. I’d flip through the pages, viewing picture after picture, headline after headline. I never read a full article. The photography was enough. Read the rest of this entry »

The Other Cancún

In Mexico, Uncategorized on May 16, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Photograph of Mexican youths, side street, Cancun.

The Ark Podcast: The Other Cancun

Each evening, Juan opens the bar, switches on the lights, and waits for customers. But it’s not a bad place to work – the third-floor terrace has no ceiling, because the air is almost always warm and dry. Breezes whisk across the floorboards and playfully lift the plastic tablecloths. Most nights are relaxed and easy, and even if that doesn’t mean much tip-money, he doesn’t have to scrub dishes in the scullery or push a mop.

And there’s the view – the lounge overlooks a wide plaza, and every single night of the week this square floods with families and merchants, teens and policia, taxi drivers and buskers. A half-shell stage looms over the scene, and every night there plays an endless, hours-long variety show – mariachi singers, modern dancers, a woman singing the Mexican national anthem, a fashion-show, a torch-singer, an acrobat – nearly any act imaginable. Juan serves drinks, then he goes to the bannister, listens to the music, and yearns for a cigarette.

“It’s good,” Juan says, shrugging. Juan is so petit and skinny that a shrug requires most of his bodyweight. “But what I really want to do? I want to be a tour guide.”

Juan is a full-time student and a full-time waiter. He and Carlos work nearly every night, no matter how busy or how void, because you never know when customers might show up, and they need all the hours they can get. Juan paces the deck, passing empty tables and long couches. Music videos are projected on the wall, like a 12-foot television set, and the music of Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera blasts through the open-air, but it doesn’t take long to ignore the flash and volume. Juan is busy dreaming. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bird Man

In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 at 12:00 am

An excerpt from my Nature & Environmental Writing class. We were asked to maintain journals on environmental concerns.

A man stooped over the sidewalk, but I could barely see him. He was surrounded by a cloud of pigeons. They whirled around his arched body, a great cyclone of feathers and heads. Beneath his feet, a pool of pigeons rippled, their hundred heads pecking at the ground.

When I got close enough to take a picture, the man turned suddenly — which startled the entire flock. They all took wing at once, the air whipped with sound and movement, and I could feel the breeze of their bodies as they whisked just past my head. I ducked, and a moment later, there was only me and the old man.
          The man glared at my with yellowed eyes. His tongue lay over his bottom lip, as if paralyzed in mid-smack. His face was pruny and leathered, and when I nodded to him, he only jerked his head from side to side. His throat made a little sound, but no words came; and a second later he rotated, revealing the worn-through spots in his coat. As he walked away, he groped popcorn from his pocket and tossed it to the pavement, which spawned a new pool of pigeons.
          “They’re just rats with wings,” my ex-girlfriend used to sniff. “They’re disgusting.”
          I’ve always been drawn to city pigeons, these odd ducks of the avian world. They could be no city pigeons without cities, and their global migration is owed entirely to humans. What’s odd is that doves (the symbol of peace and hope) are practically identical to pigeons (the symbol of urban pestilence). It’s hard to imagine your average park-pigeon carrying a fig-leaf in its beak, but there’s not a lot of genetic objection.

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Excavation #3: Paintbrushes

In Uncategorized, Vermont on May 11, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of excavated obelisk, which was never fully carved or removed from its quarry, Egypt.

We crowded around the site, and the archaeologist pointed downward. We followed his finger to the rectangle of open soil. The shape of a grave, only wider, shallower. The bottom lay uneven, like a broken sidewalk. We fidgeted and bounced on the balls of our feet. It was a warm, humid spring day. The sun beat down on us, and we kept swatting away flies and honeybees. This was not what we expected.

“From the evidence,” said the archaeologist, “there was an Abenaki settlement right here.”

Evidence. This was something they never sought in the movies. This archaeologist was not what I knew an archaeologist to be—not the rugged man in a pith helmet, but a skinny, middle-aged guy wearing a button-down shirt. His hair was thin and graying. He wore glasses. This was not an adventurer who showed up in villages and got into car-chases. He sported hiking boots and blue jeans. And there was no pick-ax, no shovel, no torch burning in an ancient tomb. Read the rest of this entry »

The Long Haul

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2011 at 12:00 am

An excerpt from my Nature & Environmental Writing class. We were asked to keep a journal of environmental concerns.

Wind whipped off the river as I pushed my bike, inch by inch, down the 10th Street Bridge. The sky was iron, the water rusted copper. The slopes of Mt. Washington looked dead and scraggly, cleanly bisected by the Incline track that massaged itself with cars. A man passed me, nodding from within layers of hood and coat. Otherwise, the only sound was the maddening rush of traffic.

In the distance, I saw a coal barge closing in. Having watched barges for years, this vessel was only exceptional in size — eight container units, each a hundred feet long, linked together and pushed along by a muscular tugboat (The Janet Marie was printed in large Helvetica letters on the back). I set my kick-stand, armed my camera and waited for the barge to emerge beneath the bridge. When the craft rumbled into full view, I snapped.

Even today, U.S. Steel still sends barges up and down the Monongahela. This is a year-round process, even in the dead of winter. The mounds of coal are dusted with snow, but the transport continues.

When I interviewed the Pennsylvania Environmental Council last year, I was surprised to hear that coal doesn’t have much impact on the Three Rivers. Sure, there’s acid rain, and yes, there’s probably some spillage, but these are negligible compared to the real problem: overflowing sewage tanks. The tonnage of raw sewage that spills into the Three Rivers can be measured in billions — about 22 billion every year. This is particularly disastrous in springtime, when rain-fall and flooding are unpredictable.

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Excavation #2: Crown Point

In Vermont on May 4, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of Colonial re-enactors, Pennsylvania.

I knew this: Crown Point looked like a star. As I ran along the walls, I tried to feel its colossal shape. Twisting around a turn, I felt the pointed edge of the battlements. And it was only by somersaulting down the walls, sliding along the grassy incline, that I could relish their height.

For a fort, Crown Point was open and covered in grass. There were no tickets booths, no doors, no docents to guide me through. When we visited on summer days, there were hardly any people. In social studies, I was told that Crown Point was one of the biggest forts in North America. The space inside was like a soccer field: vast and empty, except for the mown grass.

The barracks were long stone buildings, but the roofs had long collapsed and the chimneys jutted into the sky. The empty windows and doorways caught the wind and whistled. I would explore room after room, hop into a great hall, spy around corners—as if, at any moment, I might surprise the ghost of a colonial soldier. To me, the barracks were still haunted with minutemen, and they lugged their rucksacks and muskets into the present, eager for coming battle. Read the rest of this entry »