Tag Archives: Livingston Manor

Traveling is Lovemaking

I’ve used the term Wabi-Sabi in a previous post. There’s something about Japanese philosophies that attract me. Perhaps, it was my early karate training. Perhaps, it’s just one of those past life “things”. They say when we’ve left something unresolved in a previous life that it affects us in our current life. Ask most people and they’ll claim they were a Queen or some such other royal figure. Me? I probably picked up the horse shit from riding Samurais for fertilizer.

In any case, it’s ironic that on our journey south from Toronto, we ended up couchsurfing in Livingston Manor with a poet that also has a love of Wabi-Sabi, Susan Deer Cloud. Susan is mixed Native American heritage and discovered that she’s part Jewish too. Native and Jewish with an attraction to a Japanese aesthetic makes perfect sense, right?

The term wabi may have once meant poor or lonely, but poetically, it has come to mean simplicity and peace. When the judgement about possessing little is removed (a task that is quite foreign to our Western minds), the term is elevated to the Zen status of peace with what exists, a monk that has little and needs little. Sabi implies the effect of time or age. It is the patina on an antique desk, or the weathered look of an old temple.

Somewhere along the line, Japanese artists put the two words together because it has a catching prosody. It sounds nice together, and it ties together “simple” with “time”. The school of wabi-sabi appreciates simplicity, imperfection and impermanence. It finds beauty in the ephemeral designs of nature and imitates that. It appreciates art that is in tune with Nature, the true Mistress of Time.

Google searches in the English language turn up articles on how to make your house wabi-sabi. In the Western world apparently, it’s replaced feng-shui as the new fad among interior decorators. This is not the wabi-sabi I was looking for.

Reducing everything we owned into a portable life is an exercise in wabi-sabi. Simplicity is key to packing. One traveling couple we met never unpacked their bags. Their theory was that if you take out what you need and put it back at the end of the day, you always know where it is.

For the moment, we don’t have it quite right. Currently, we’re traveling in our van, and it has
more than enough room to store what’s left of our possessions. Humans that we are, we’re not motivated to scrunch down even further as long as we have that roomy van. Someday, it will die on the road and we’ll be faced with the decision of what to jettison. That day, we’ll hone our packing skills with the sabi of world traveling, the patina of experience.

Susan has published a beautiful poem called Place of Blue Smoke, in which she writes this beautiful traveling metaphor:

The Great Smoky Mountains
Place of Blue Smoke – The Great Smoky Mountains as seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway

 “But once when I said lovemaking
is a kind of traveling, you half-echoed traveling is lovemaking.
(Susan Deer Cloud)


Yes, and …

When I was training for theater, there was an improvisational exercise that changed forever the way I live my life. It was called the “Yes, and …” game.

It goes like this. Actor A makes an imaginary, possibly ridiculous statement of fact. Actor B cannot deny the statement of fact in any negative way whatsoever. He has to accept its reality and continue the scene with “Yes, and …” adding his own perspective to the fact.

A typical encounter might go like this: “I got picked up by the Aliens last night. They want you to return their spaceship.” “Yes, and they must realize by now that I’m not moving on this. Did they really think that threatening my brother was going to help?” “Yes, and they even offered Joan and me a nice cushy spot on the mother ship. You know how much that means to us, right?” And so on.

On stage, “Yes, and …” is important for an actor because it keeps the suspended disbelief alive. As soon as one actor denies the other’s reality, the scene will come screeching to a halt. There’s nothing left to talk about. Imagine how different Shakespeare’s Hamlet would be if Horatio does not in earnest accept the real pain of the King’s ghost. When actors are not grounded in the imaginary reality of the play, the audience will not enjoy the play, even if they don’t sense exactly why.

The Metaphor

I came to understand how this particular acting game is a metaphor for living. When we approach any situation with a denial, however slight or couched, our connection and communication comes to a screeching halt, just like on stage. Negativity stops creativity. The same truth holds for listening to our lover, friend, parent or child. We cannot help or connect with them, unless we first manage to truly accept their reality.

From that time on, I started living my life as if I were playing the “Yes, and …” game. It was one of the most positive things I ever did for myself. Ironically, many years later, Jim Carrey starred in a film in which he lived exactly this philosophy.

I Forgot to Say Yes

On our way south from Toronto, we couchsurfed with BeWelcome hosts, John Gunther and Susan Deer Cloud. John was excited to have some hiking buddies and had planned a Sunday hike for us.

When we awoke in the morning there were snow flurries coming down. Two Floridians hiking in the cold and snow was just not going to happen. Boy, did we ever say “no”. It’s a very good thing that John was persuasive. In the end, we reluctantly said “Yes, and …”.

The day warmed a little and the 1100 foot ascent from the trailhead was enough exertion that we had to shed layers on the way up. In the end, we were glad we did the hike. We climbed the Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower. It’s not something everyone has done, and fire towers are mostly not used anymore. Along the trail, the forest dressed in white chiffon was indeed very beautiful.

The hike reminded me that most pleasant memories, and all great adventures, start with “Yes, and …”.

Balsam Lake Mountain TrailBalsam Lake Mountain Trail

Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower
Ivan scaling the Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower.
Balsam Lake Mountain Trail
Balsam Lake Mountain Trail near the lean-to.
Lunch is ready
Lunch is ready! Deena with our guide and host John Gunther.

More pictures are available here.

Couchsurfing in the Borscht Belt

The act of hosting a foreign traveler in your home is right on so many levels. The Judeo-Moslem-Christian tradition of hospitality emanates from Abraham, the father of all three religions.

In the book of Genesis, Abraham welcomes three travelers. He goes out to greet them since they are respectfully hesitant to intrude. He washes their feet, as was the Semitic custom, invites them into his shade to rest and feeds them. That the three travelers turn out to be Angels is irrelevant to the fact that Abraham’s hospitality is a role model for the generations that follow him.

Livingston Manors 1916
A 1916 hotel catering to the visitors of Livingston Manor

I remember that my earliest couchsurfing was in college and the experience was rich. My introduction to fried ice cream was a delicious, homemade version on a farm in upstate New York where I had dinner and spent the night while traveling home from college. The circumstances of how I came to be there escapes me after all these years, but not the warmth and generosity of the family. Nor does the taste of the fried ice cream, to which I’ve never found an equal in some forty odd years since.

Covered Bridge in Livingston Manors NY
A few of Livingston Manor’s covered bridges, though reinforced, are still used.

While living in Wilton Manors, Florida, I hosted couchsurfers many times, including with Deena after we started living together. The most remarkable aspect of hosting or traveling is much more than free lodging. It’s a chance to participate in personal dialogue with fascinating people from all over the world. It’s a hands-on cultural experience that has no equal. Like Abraham, we discovered the angel in all the travelers we hosted.

On the way south from Toronto to New Jersey, we checked the website BeWelcome.org just to see if there were any hosts on the way. Surprisingly, we found a hosting member in the tiny village of Livingston Manor which is nestled in the Borscht Belt. It was on the way since we were heading toward New Jersey from Binghamton.

The online profile revealed an IT guru about the same age as I, living with an JewInjun poetess. It doesn’t get much more compatible than that we figured. We wrote them a note and they invited us to stay for a couple of days.

Livingston Manors
Late fall in Livingston Manor, NY, USA

John and Susan were terrific hosts. John, who had been on a low-calorie diet (and looked pretty slim by now), was overjoyed to have an excuse to cook selections from the heart-attack menu for us. It was delicious. Even if we feel a little guilty about keeping Susan from her writing, the conversations were intelligent, meaningful and a joy. Besides, how many guest interruptions could one possibly have in Livingston Manor in winter? She’ll have the rest of the season to catch up.

I wondered how Livingston Manor could survive, now that the Route 17 traffic was re-routed to an Interstate. It manages with visitors who come for the hunting and fishing. The area and environs has some of the best fly fishing in the eastern U.S. The trails, rivers and woods in the area are beautiful, even with the naked trees of winter.

We had a fantastic meal in an unassuming restaurant in a tiny town. We had an amazing hike in snow flurries. We had wonderful conversation and company. We had delicious home-cooked comfort food. Abraham would have been proud.

Lake, Livingston Manors, NY, USA
Light dusting of snow at the lake.

The Borscht Belt

My grandparents lived in New York City when I was growing up. We often made the pilgrimage from Binghamton to the Big Apple along the old Route 17 that wound through the Catskill Mountains in eastern New York State. It was a road with switchbacks and hairpin turns that was downright treacherous in the winter. To this day, I have an image in my head of an accident on this route with an overturned car on the side of the road. It was a dark and stormy (wintry) night.NY-17

Good ol’ Ike, President Eisenhower, straightened out that road when he decided that the United States needed an Interstate Highway System to move troops around just in case the Russkies landed. Route 17 has been replaced by I-86 which is still twisty, but safer. As always happens when an Interstate is built, the little towns along the way shrivel up. Some die.

That region of the Catskills along Route 17 was known as the Borscht Belt. It had an abundance of summer resorts that catered to the New York Jewish population. Since they were mostly from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi clan), and since that part of Europe was known for cabbage soup, or borscht, the resort area became known as the Borscht Belt.

The Borscht Belt was also where all the “schtick” comedians worked. I’m talking about the greats here, people like Mel Brooks, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Billy Crystal, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller (the father), Rodney Dangerfield, Henny “Take My Wife, Please” Youngman and so many more.

Grossinger’s photo by Brule Laker, some rights reserved CC

The Borscht Belt is dead now. The hotels are closed, burnt or converted to something else. I don’t blame this passing on President Ike, though. Hell, that faster road should have helped them. No, it passed because all their customers died off.

Borscht Belt Hotel. Some rights reserved by Boston Public Library
Borscht Belt Hotel. Some rights reserved by Boston Public Library

The subsequent generation of Jews had other priorities, became secular, intermarried or generally preferred television and film over live comedy. It’s the same reason I couldn’t find a decent bagel in Tamarac, Florida recently. When the last old Jew in the neighborhood died off, the authentic bagel shop, having lost its last customer, went out of business.

In the new millennium, we only have the ersatz bagel of the big chains. The ersatz bagel is an ode to the retail homogeneity of the United States. We’ve left behind the unique proprietor cafes, bakeries and boutiques, and filled the countryside with strip malls of chains that make every town look like every other town.

Leaving Binghamton, Deena and I took that old Route 17 through the former Borscht Belt. Along the way we couchsurfed in Livingston Manor.