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In Memoriam: Matsuo Bashō

In Uncategorized on October 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

It was a marvelous coincidence:

I recently finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Bashō, the great Japanese poet. Bashō is a colossus of Japanese literature, but he was also a pretty ordinary guy who wandered around Japan on foot. He hiked dangerous roads, slept on the ground, and wrote haiku. He was depressive, and he expected to die at the hands of vagabonds or sickness. But the more he roamed, the more Bashō’s spirits rose. For several years, Bashō has inspired both my writing and daily life. I had read excerpts, but never his seminal work. The Narrow Road has no equivalent in Western lit, but you might say it’s the Canterbury Tales of Tokugawa Japan.

It just happens that Bashō died on Oct. 12, 1694, according to translator Nobuyuki Yuasa. It seemed incredible that I would finish his book, cover to cover, on almost the exact date that he died. Then I double-checked and was disappointed to discover that the Internet disagrees with Yuasa, claiming that he died on Nov. 28.

No matter. In honor of the master poet, a humble offering:

After Bashō

Pages flip—

their breeze scented

with ancient ink

Rock On

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2012 at 8:41 pm

My latest video collaboration, filmed yesterday:

Seasoned climber Bill Holman shows off some of his favorite walls — right in the middle of the city. Pittsburgh becomes Holman’s personal playground in this hometown tour.

The Return of the Lazy Mob Movie

In Uncategorized on September 14, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Today, I saw the trailers for two different mob movies, Stand Up Guys and Killing Them Softly. Both trailers have their funny lines, Oldies soundtracks, and flashes of firearms. They look, in many ways, identical—a bunch of famous actors, with nothing left to prove, wander around Gangland looking badass. They reassess old relationships, and either Christopher Walken or Brad Pitt is assigned to kill the main character. One movie belongs to Roadside Attractions, the other to five different studios.

Back in the 1990s, all anybody could make was lazy mobster movies. We had no drama in our Clinton-era lives, and screenwriters knew that shootouts and sex were essential to a successful movie. So Hollywood made The Mexican, Analyze ThisThe LimeySnake EyesPaybackThe Long Kiss GoodnightBangkok DangerousHard EightLast Man StandingRoninGhost Dog: The Way of the SamuraiSuicide Kings, Boondock SaintsGrosse Pointe Blank, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, plus untold others.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore some of these films, and a few are Sunday afternoon favorites. But they’re not exactly movies about the mob. The mob just makes them interesting. If Grosse Pointe Blank didn’t feature an assassin evading hit-men, it would look like the last act of Our Town. Without organized crime, The Mexican would be about Brad Pitt’s car breaking down in Mexico and James Gandolfini being gay. Analyze This would be a real-time therapy session with a middle-aged man, but not starring Gabriel Byrne, who, in turn, would only be a washed-up businessman in The Usual Suspects. Take away the witty sociopaths, and Guy Ritchie would actually cease to exist.

Some movies are about the mob, but they are rarer. Serious films like Donnie Brasco and Gomorrah don’t come around often, but when they do, they open up a frightening and psychologically complicated world. They are not just a bunch of white guys in black leather jackets standing around with shotguns. Whether you lean toward The Godfather or Goodfellas, these are the stories that make the mob real. Maybe Stand Up Guys will win everybody a round of Oscars. It doesn’t come out till January, after all, and anything could happen. But I doubt 100 Stand Up Guys could stand up to one minute of City of God.

The problem with lazy mob movies is that they’re easy—easier than the most generic CIA movies, which have taken Hollywood by storm. Mobsters don’t have a protocol. They don’t follow traditional laws, so they improvise, often creatively. They’re usually men, and men with a lot of personality. As a rule, they’re not Black Belts or computer whizzes or even well traveled. Usually, they’re just working-class guys who can shoot straight. Any actor who can suppress a smile and pull a trigger can play a mobster. The caricature is so routine, the audience barely flinches at the broken fingers and ridiculous names. So they call him Lucky? Wow, didn’t see that one coming.

“I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own,” murmurs Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly.

Oh, God. So much for Hollywood’s Prince of Peace.

We got a break from lazy mobster movies because terrorism and spy thrillers took their place. Who wants to meddle with a bunch of no-account bank robbers when Jack Bauer is saving the world? After September 11th, even Tony Soprano looked annoyed that he was stuck in a mob show—the greatest mob saga of all time, mind you. Hollywood shifted its attention toward spies and law enforcement, lawyers and vigilantes, the folks who stop mobsters, not the mobsters themselves. It’s hard to say whether thug-comedies like Stand Up Guys and Killing Them Softly will revive this mediocre little genre, but I’m not thrilled about that prospect. I love me some Boondock Saints, but if they ever get around to making Playing God II, Bobby I’s is gonna break some fingers.

The Myth of Job Creation

In Uncategorized on August 28, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Predictably, TV attack ads have soured. They started hostile, and they grow meaner by the day. You can’t view YouTube without seeing President Obama, and you can’t turn on the evening news without seeing Romney. But the most childish mudslinging is also the most misleading: Who, they ask, has created more jobs?

Let’s get one thing straight: Politicians don’t “create” jobs. Indeed, nobody “creates” jobs. Jobs aren’t some raw material waiting to be smelted. Nobody waves a magic wand so that jobs appear in a burst of light. “Job creation” is among the most misleading buzz-idioms in the political bullshit lexicon. Set aside whether Obama or Romney had anything to do with a new job existing, or an old job vanishing. Creating jobs is a myth, and too many people accept it.

Which is absurd, because everybody knows how jobs come into existence. A quick summary:

  1. There is supply and demand. Someone needs a product or service, and someone else can supply a product or service.
  2. But the provider can’t do the work alone. There’s simply too much to be done.
  3. So s/he decides how the work should be allocated, draws up a budget, and hires people to divvy up the labor.

At no point does a politician personally enter a warehouse or Costco and say, “Oh, my, it seems you need some jobs here, don’t you?” Never does a governor’s enchanted unicorn stomp the dust until a 401K appears.

What politicians do do is encourage or discourage development in certain sectors, by supporting or not supporting certain bills and initiatives. But keep in mind that the “politician” is actually a cohort of aides and advisors, and “supporting or not supporting” certain “bills and initiatives” is a hurricane of lunches, meetings, conference calls, backroom deals, and more lobbyists than you or I could imagine. In other words, the politician behaves like a businessperson, weighing costs and benefits. Helping out-of-work citizens find employment is a nice side effect of a bull economy, but mostly the politician just wants to get re-elected, and if John Q. gets a cubicle job after three years on welfare, the politician looks good. But the only job the politician really cares about creating is his or her own.

Meanwhile, an attack ad never indicates what kinds of jobs these politicians have “created.” As far as we know, Romney or Obama “created” 50,000 minimum-wage food-service jobs, with no benefits, limited sick days, and no possibility of advancement, which all take place in an office park in Lowell, Massachusetts. For all we know, half these jobs were taken by people who already have jobs, but they can’t keep up with their mortgages, because they purchased their crummy little houses in increasingly dangerous neighborhoods through a predatory lender. Taking a second job at a Taco Bell to make ends meet doesn’t sound as compelling as “50,000 jobs created,” but if a politician helped developers rezone that land into the office park that made the Taco Bell possible—well, it looks good at the polls.

Americans are constantly told, these days, that they should just be happy to have a job. Unfortunately, this is accurate. A harsh truth about the American way of life is that our society has no obligation whatsoever to help you find employment. Our safety nets (free clinics, homeless shelters, food banks) exist only to make sure you don’t actually die in the street, which would embarrass politicians who are trying to get re-elected.

But when politicians “create” jobs, they often support sectors that are risky, short-term, or environmentally destructive. Take my neighboring state: Tens of thousands of West Virginians work as strip-miners. The money is decent (for now), it’s relatively skilled (heavy machinery is involved), but the work is finite, and the toxic run-off will make entire regions of West Virginia uninhabitable. A politician could say that s/he “created” 10,000 mining jobs, but once the last mountain is razed, what will all those workers do? They’ll stand in line, like everybody else, and probably in another state.

So let’s not be fooled into believing that “job creation” is anything but a rhetorical tactic. No politician can claim to invent jobs out of the ether, and the social reality of those jobs is usually dubious or even tragic. The politicians who claim to “create” jobs almost never conceived of them, much less worked out the logistics of hiring and execution. If anything, the politician listened to some seedy businesspeople, nodded, made some speeches, and signed a piece of paper. This does not make you a saint. It doesn’t even guarantee you humanity.

My Artist’s Statement

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm

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Above: Photographs described in artist’s statement (below)

As many know, I am currently enrolled in Flight School, a brilliant program that trains up-and-coming artists (like me) to be better businesspeople. Since right-brained creative types tend to also be flaky, scattered and overwrought (guilty!), Flight School is training me in business models, budgeting, time-management, and proposal-writing. It’s ridiculously fun, and the effects have been immediate and profound.

One of our guest-speakers, Sherrie Flick, assigned us an “artist’s statement” as homework. I’ve known Sherrie, tangentially, for many years, and I’ve always loved her writing, but her assignment gave me pause. An artist’s statement? I’ve written countless bios, proposals, pitches and queries, but I’m almost never asked to write an actual statement describing “my work.” It’s so rare that I think of the phrase “my work” only in quotation marks, because it seems too epic to contemplate. (It’s this kind of false modesty that Flight School is trying to shatter).

Since I work in a variety of media, I figured it was shrewdest to focus on only one—and because artist’s statements are most commonly found in galleries, photography seemed to fit best. I invented, in my mind, a series of large-format street-photography prints, much like my show at ModernFormations last year. (Granted, I wrote the artist’s statement for that as well, but because it was a dual-show, I was really writing it for both of us).

Here’s what I came up with:

Artist’s Statement

Robert Isenberg specializes in street photography, a blend of improvisational travel and photojournalism, which he dubs his “great collaboration with the world.” His photographs are mostly candid, un-posed, and taken in public places.

As a native of rural Vermont and longtime stage performer, Isenberg approaches subjects with both innocence and brash energy. Taken together, his photo essays illustrate people and places most likely unfamiliar to the viewer. Following in the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Charles “Teenie” Harris, Isenberg offers moments that are workaday yet unrepeatable.

In many portraits, such as “Bosnians Are Cute” and “Girl with Bomb,” the scene is both surprising and explicit. His titles are clinically descriptive, allowing the images to speak for themselves. In many photographs, such as “Family, Luxor,” or “Old Woman, Sarajevo,” Isenberg dissolves expectations about a region or culture, documenting instead the mix of traditional lifestyles and globalized influence. Many of his titles tinker with narrative, such as “Secret Agent, Egypt,” giving viewers only a hint of the photograph’s context. Isenberg is magnetized to places that have suffered large-scale trauma, such as war, natural disaster, and economic collapse.

Best in Photography 2011

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Dear Friends, Readers, and Friendly Readers,

Looking back, 2011 proved to be an extraordinary year for me, filled with writing, travel, and the completion of my MFA at Chatham University.

As a growing photojournalist, I’ve endeavored to produce a wide-ranging portfolio of portraits and landscapes, photographing Pittsburgh personalities, Aruban desert, Mexican beaches and the Laotian interior. I am very proud of the results, and prouder still to share them with you. This “best of” compilation showcases some of my favorite work in 2011.

Happy New Year,

Robert Isenberg

Birds, Downtown Pittsburgh

In Uncategorized on December 21, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Book Review: The Lost Cyclist

In Uncategorized on December 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm

The Lost Cyclist:  The epic tale of an American adventurer and his mysterious disappearanceThe Lost Cyclist: The epic tale of an American adventurer and his mysterious disappearance by David V. Herlihy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most enjoyable histories I’ve ever read — largely because of the subject, but also because Herlihy tells such a gripping, romantic, mysterious story. His research is impeccable, and the narrative pedals along as steadily as a bike on rough roads. Although his story is tragic, Frank Lenz has become a new hero of mine, for his humble Pittsburgh origins, his tenacious “globe-girdling” venture, and his martyrdom in the name of anthropology of adventure. I wanted to begrudge his rivals (old-money New Yorkers who never had to raise a nickel for their three-year trek), but they were also a delight to read about. It’s heartening to know that, even during the Victorian age, a clique of young men could travel the world and embrace its diversities.

Should you have a similar fetish for history, photography, long-distance cycling, early journalism and adventure travel, “The Lost Cyclist” absolutely must be found.

View all my reviews

The Great Allegheny Passage : Ten Years Later

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm

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Ten years ago, I biked the Great Allegheny Passage, from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD. It was a difficult time: The world was reeling from 9/11, the U.S. had just invaded Afghanistan, and the newspaper I had lovingly freelanced for had just folded. Desperate to escape my troubles, I pedaled into rural Pennsylvania with limited supplies, little training, and no idea that the trail was incomplete.

My friends Bill and Lee recently biked the entire Passage and C&O Canal, from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. In celebration of their achievement, and to commemorate 10 years since I took my own strange journey, I present this essay, first published in Pittsburgh Magazine in 2004. Photographs taken on the trail in November, 2001.

From the start, I knew it was a terrible idea – to bike 150 miles through the woods, from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, in fewer than three days. My deadline was Thanksgiving, which meant biking at the onset of winter, braving sub-freezing temperatures and rifle season in one of the most aggressively hunted regions in the country. I knew that every campground would be closed, the towns were scattered, and I’d have to subsist on my meager provisions for long stretches.

But the Great Allegheny Passage was too enticing to ignore. Nearly completed and billed as the megatransect between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, the Passage winds along the meandering Youghiogheny River, forming a level, continuous trail through the rolling wilderness of southwestern Pennsylvania. As part of the Rails-to-Trails project, an endeavor to convert retired railroad lines into bicycle paths, the Passage has few rivals for length and panorama. I’ve always been an avid cyclist, traveling with my parents through France and Germany back in high school, and the thought of another lonely Greyhound ride to Washington’s overpacked bus station was less than thrilling.

So I called my parents, who graciously volunteered to pick me up in Cumberland, and I gathered my gear: My Trek hybrid bicycle, two saddlebags my Dad had fashioned for long trips, a waterbottle, a book, a portable radio, a few Snickers bars, a Salvation Army blanket, and a road atlas, in case I lost the trail. I lacked a great deal – a bunjee cord to attach the bags, a flashlight, a cell phone, a Swiss Army Knife, a tent, a book of matches, and, most importantly, spare tires. One false move could mean getting stranded in the forest, miles from the nearest house, with no passing traffic and no means of calling for help. But for a recent college graduate stuck in an office job, the deadly challenge was worth it.

First Day

After a pit stop at Bruegger’s Bagels, I wove through the streets of South Side and headed for McKeesport, where the Passage begins. It was a warm day for November, and I was sweating by the time I reached the first bridge. Driving through Pittsburgh is often confusing, but for cyclists it’s far worse – restricted highways and dangerous underpasses force riders to cross bridges, stick to sidewalks, and huff over dilapidated, glass-strewn side-streets. I later learned that the bus to McKeesport bears a handy bike rack, and I could have skipped the small factory neighborhoods in-between, but few riders ever came out this far, and I was grateful for the sunny views of the homes and warehouses along the Allegheny riverbank and the scruffy hills looming above.

The entrance was hard to find; the signs announcing the trail zigzag through McKeesport, and I spent nearly an hour talking with locals, who shrugged their shoulders and said they’d only heard of the trail, but didn’t know where to find it. I crossed a final bridge, cut through someone’s yard, and staggered into it; joggers bounced past me, along with other bicyclists, most of them older and nodding distantly as they passed. Spoiled by shorter trails in Vermont and Minnesota, I was surprised to find the trail composed of finely ground gravel, not street pavement, and I was grateful for thicker tires – the narrow treads of a road bike would have flattened within hours.

I followed the river for nearly five hours, catching glimpses of human life – a man, strapped into goulashes, fishing in the water, some nature walkers ambling by, and the occasional house. The old mills gradually vanished, replaced by occasional water-towers and rock faces. As the sun melted through the trees, I got anxious for a place to stay.

In the lonely dark, I could make out the lights beaming on the horizon, and though I couldn’t see any signs, I guessed the next town was Connellsville. At last the trail broke into even streets, and as a freezing breeze whistled between the old houses, I tracked down the highway and a vacancy sign. The woman smiled she handed over the key, and I slept until six the next morning.

Second Day

The mist lifted by late-morning, and as I pedaled away from Connellsville, the landscape become lonelier, more isolated. The hills no longer supported radio towers or secluded houses; the river, I finally realized, was flowing against me, which meant I was riding up an imperceptible incline. I rode for hours without spotting another cyclists, instead hearing the pops of rifles echoing through the naked limbs of trees. As I reached Ohiopyle, the favorite state park for vacationing Pittsburghers, I wondered when I would find an open visitor’s center, or even a restaurant with an open door. I filled my waterbottle with the hillside run-off – the tiny trickles along the rocks – and ate the last of my food. My legs and back ached terribly, and I swore to look into the latest ergonomic bicycles.

By mid-afternoon, a light hail was falling, and the gunshots had died away. The forest parted for a half-hour as I ventured into the Allegheny Highlands, riding over isolated wooden bridges and a graveyard for retired school buses, wedged into a forgotten valley.

Sunlight was precious, and when I found one of the tunnels closed for construction, a treacherous detour burned a lot of valuable time. My wheels clunked over exposed rocks and broken sticks, threatening to pop the innertubes at any moment; as I finally circled the small mountain, noting the other boarded-up entrance to the restricted tunnel, dusk had nearly descended. I fished out my atlas, disheartened to find the next town lay over 20 miles away.

At last, exhausted from two straight days of biking, I lost my balance from vertigo and crashed into the gravel. I lay there, breathing hard, as my wheel still spun, then stopped. I unfolded my blanket and wrapped myself up, shivering in the dark, and considered staying there. My muscles burned fiercely; I hadn’t eaten a full meal since breakfast. This seemed as good a place to sleep as any.

The howls from the woods changed my mind. Coyotes, I decided, and lots of them. I’d run from coyotes before, but in the dark, they had the upper-hand, and a slumbering biker was an easy target. I grumbled and set my bike back up, summoning the last of my energy, and biked the last 20 miles, where the trail abruptly ended.

In Garrett, I asked a gas station attendant where I could find a hotel. “Well,” he said, “you’ve picked a hell of a place to get lost. You might find a place in Meyersdale, but I don’t know if anybody’s open this time of year.”

Left without options, I followed the unlit highway, coasting at breakneck speeds down the long, curving shoulder as rigs flew past me, throwing debris into the air. After two days with only the occasional freight train for company, snaking along the opposite side of the river, the sight of Meyersdale’s lights over the hills was overwhelming; I found a bed and breakfast downtown, begged the proprietor for a room, and thanked her profusely. I slept for five hours, waking an hour before dawn.

Third Day

Nearly paralyzed from exhaustion and down to my last $30, I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and found a payphone in a windswept shopping outlet parking lot. My parents were happy to hear from me, and my Dad started the four-hour drive from Washington to Cumberland, where we planned to meet. The Passage hadn’t been finished, and the remaining 20 miles were made up of labyrinthine country roads and steep highways, which are technically off-limits to cyclists. Left without options, I biked over mile after mile of multi-lane highway until I hit Frostburg. I called my Dad’s cell phone and implored him to meet me there, but he said to press on; Cumberland was only a few miles away.

The last leg between Frostburg and Cumberland was all downhill, a relieving surprise after so much climbing. I pressed my pedals sparingly, floating down long hills and whizzing into the town center, where I met a maze of streets that all shared similar names. At last, using the last minutes on my calling card, my Dad found me at a fruit store wedged between Cumberland’s famous cliffs, just a few hundred feet from the C&O Canal, where heartier bikers continue their journeys through Maryland. As for me, I was spent.

An egregious stench wafted off my clothes, and I slept in the passenger seat, all the way back to my grandmother’s house. A turkey and stuffing awaited us, and though my calves throbbed, I was left with only a couple scratches. My brakes were worn to the nubs, but otherwise my bike was still in working order.

Which meant I’d be ready to traverse the Passage again – maybe in summer, this time.

The Virtual Poetry Reading

In Uncategorized on October 28, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Virtual Poetry Reading

A li’l podcast action, celebrating the release of Wander.