Armpit Travel and Beer Poems: Torg Stories Podcast with Editor Peter Gregutt

I met Peter Gregutt when he worked with me as an editor on a piece published in Asheville’s Mountain Xpress titled “How Christopher Mello Sows Peace and Community in his West Asheville Garden.” 

In addition to listening above, you can click here for the iTunes link or just search for “Torg Stories” in the Podcast App of your iPhone.

When I learned Peter had climbed volcanoes in Guatemala, trekked the Himalayas, and spontaneously took a boat to Africa, I wanted to get him on the podcast. I was interested in his time in New York City studying English at Colombia, that he’d spent decades as an editor, and I admired his clever phrase Armpit Travel as a way to capture some of his experiences on the road.

Armpit Travel, Peter Gregutt, Travel, Mountain Xpress

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As a way into our conversation, I asked Peter to read from the introduction to his collection. Here it is:

 

My Slime, Your Dime, High Time

Some folks “travel” via flickering images that dance across the screen. Others prefer to plant their ample posterior on a cushy seat in plane or train or air-conditioned motor coach and watch the world pass by beyond the glass.

And then there are the Armpit Travelers, those intrepid souls who strive to sniff out places a less ardent sort might choose to skip entirely in favor of a visit to the proctologist’s office.

Guided only by their own nose or gut, these indefatigable wayfarers aim to see the world — to taste the motley pleasures of the road and touch the very essence of experience — while ducking the troublesome encumbrance of paying for it. (Inevitably, of course, one does pay, though perhaps in blood and suffering in lieu of legal tender.)

To some, the words “budget travel” evoke visions of bland, greasy food; filthy, flea-infested beds; bathing in frigid water thick with icky microbes; and long, arduous bus rides that seem to go from nowhere to nowhere else. But to the true Armpit Traveler, the rewards of the road don’t stop there.

Beyond thrift, beyond grit or grift, beyond sanity, even, there lies a further storied realm whose streets might well be paved with gold if only they were paved at all. And to those with ears to hear and a nose that isn’t overly particular, that unceasing siren song may ultimately prove as irresistible as the last unprepossessing-looking person who’s still lingering in the singles bar at 2 a.m., blurry but determined, and casting inflammatory glances your way…

No travel agent orchestrates the Armpit Path; no map can aptly delineate its putative treasures. No, it’s up to the self-annointed pilgrim to discern and pursue the elusive way, guided only by the kind of enigmatic inner prompting that drives the arctic tern on its annual pole-to-pole journey and makes lemmings take their fateful leap…

But to the curious, the damned, the misfit or the annelid, a hint or a whistle or a tissue of outright lies just might prove to be the fire that lights the fuse, the fire ant whose mordant mandible incites the sluggard’s reluctant posterior to forward motion…

And to any and all who thus succumb to the blandishments and ballyhoo presented in these pages, I bid you a hearty bon voyage, albeit tempered by the slippery wisdom of an old Scottish proverb: “What may be, may not be…”

Thanks for checking out this edition of the Torg Stories podcast!

Coming soon: French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson and Grail Moviehouse owners Steve and Davida

Four Keys to MY Daily Happiness

You’d think I’d know better than to try and tackle a big-ass abstraction such as happiness, but what I’m trying to write about here is the stuff I need to do most days to continue to feel pretty good about the prospect of another day. I was careful to include MY in the title as a nod to you all that my way of finding a degree of happiness could be real different from yours.

Let me say this, first: there’s a lot of big-picture happiness that is derived from my family. That I’ve got my sister Anne, my mom and dad here in Asheville, my wife Megan, and our two girls, have helped me to build a strong foundation from which to live a life. If work isn’t going great, rejection slips for my writing seem to be piling up, or people are otherwise giving me a hard time, it’s pretty easy to shake all of that negative weight.

Georgia Review, rejection, writing

The Georgia Review says, “No Thanks.”

 

When little girls are calling you daddy, the world isn’t as likely to land a good punch.

Journey, Torg Stories, Charlotte, 80s, music

Family at Journey Concert

1. Write / Make Stuff

When I need a short answer for why I spend so much time writing, podcasting, making films, posting on the website, shooting video with my kids, and participating in projects such as the 48 Hour Film Project, I say, “It’s fun to make stuff.”

My answer is an oversimplification in that it ignores the mental health portion of why I need to write. I have A LOT of mental energy that can take the form of what can feel like tornadoes of too many thoughts slamming around inside of my head. Writing regularly–preferably first thing each morning–seems to dissipate the strength of the mental storms that seemed inclined to form in my thinking. I understand writing might not lead to improved mental health for all.

2. Exercise 

In addition to having a lot of excess mental energy that I need to burn off each day, the same is true for the physical part of me. I really stumbled onto this key ingredient for my well-being back in the late 90s when I was in the midst of becoming divorced. As that process began, I started to train for a marathon. There’s nothing like twenty miles on a Saturday to help calm the soul put you down on a bed fast asleep. These days–with a family I want to spend time with, teaching to do, writing I want to accomplish–I don’t want to allot the time needed to do long-distance running, but I do run at least six days a week. I like running way more than I like lifting weights, and my latest plan to get the lifts in has been to do half of them each day. So on a typical day, I run three miles and do half of my weight-lifting workout. This usually takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, and is a big part of what helps me feel good about myself and the rest of what each day has to bring.

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My Running Partner Indy

3. Moderation with Alcohol

I can have a beer–probably two–in the evening and be at my best the next day. Anything more than that or something along the lines of two margaritas, and I’ll find myself waking up after a few hours of sleep unable to get any more rest. It could very well be that I have talked myself into such a cycle being true, but it does seem to me that alcohol is the primary fuel for those tornadoes of thought I was describing earlier.

4. Good Sleep 

This post could have been shorter if I’d just have written I need a good night’s sleep to call myself a happy person. I have found that if I get in a bad rut of sleeping…

writing + exercise + abstinence from alcohol usually equals a good night’s sleep

The other part of getting a good night’s rest is that when my wife is teaching, she gets up no later than 5:30 am and that means I at least wake up, if not actually get out of the bed for another thirty minutes. I am the kind of person prone to staying up late to watch sports or play sports video games. When that happens, I wake up tired and am less likely to get in good writing and running sessions. And then I’m feeling bummed and ticked off. Most days, I know I hate not writing and not running enough that I can make myself go to bed early. When I fail to execute the above four-step process, I try to give myself a break and do better the next day.

Alone in New York City

I mostly live in Asheville, North Carolina with my wife and two daughters, but for about thirty-two weeks a year, I spend quite a bit of time in New York City where I teach First Year Writing Courses at St. John’s University. In NYC, I rent a 400 square foot studio apartment in Kew Gardens in the borough of Queens. The place is just a bit bigger than most of the hotel rooms in which I’ve stayed.

 

People–and these are often people who have a lot of daily family obligations–want to know what I do with all the time I have to myself. Well, for example, here’s what I did last Saturday:

 

Work / Write

For almost a decade, I was nearly an everyday writer. I’d do an hour or two first thing each morning and that work allowed me to complete a book-length manuscript each year. After all, even with some missed mornings at the writing desk, a page a day allowed me to write over three hundred pages a year. There’s much more to finishing a book than enough pages, but that schedule gave me a manuscript to work with.

Lately, I have not been an everyday writer, but instead I have wrote in binges. Because I’m gone so much during academic semesters, I feel guilty about holing up in my home office to write. I’m also often flying twice a week. This involves catching morning trains or driving about ninety miles from Asheville to Charlotte, and so writing first thing in the morning is often not an option. For the last year, I’ve been writing essays. This lets me take some days off and then spend many hours for a few days in a row to pump out drafts of essays. If I’m writing novel, I need to write everyday to keep my head in it. When I’m doing essays, it’s not so hard to start from the beginning the next time I have a few days in a row to binge work.

On this particular Saturday I’m telling you about, I spent the morning sending out essays (and one story) for consideration of publication.

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in the small studio apartment, naps are always a threat to writing goals

Exercise

At home in Asheville, I get up to see everyone off to school. Indy the dog needs walked. She needs to be told to be quiet when she barks at everyone who ever walks by our house. There are dishes in the washer to put away. Dry cleaning needs to be picked up. One of the cars needs an oil change. The grass needs cut. I think I’ll paint lines on the basketball court. I’ve got plans for a green-screen wall in the garage. You get the idea. You probably know what its like. There’s a lot that asks to be done everyday.

In New York, I often wake up with no obligations other than to answer email and read student work. The small studio is clean. I already washed the one dish and glass I used the night before. All that awaits are long hours at the writing desk, something every writer says they crave. I’ve learned that I can’t do much more than three hours straight at the desk. I can do more than one three hour stretch a day, but I need a break and usually my breaks are working out.

I run and lift weights. There’s a little gym in the basement of my building. I often go down there twice a day, once to lift and a second time to walk on the treadmill or ride the exercise bike and watch sports. I figure riding the bike and watching sports beats (at least long-term) drinking a beer and eating nachos in my studio while watching sports. You might be surprised what a great place Queens can be to run.

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this road in Forest Hills Park is closed to cars

 

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the pull up bar marks the halfway point of my regular run

Stand Up Comedy

I like comedy, and I think that’s because of the writing. I’m interested in what makes a story funny and the creative process that takes an idea and evolves it into something that a comedian performs. My favorite places for comedy are the Comedy Cellar and both locations of the Upright Citizens Brigade.

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the train rumbles right outside my studio apartment window, that’s the station just down the tracks

On this night, I took in a comedic double header. First, I saw Mike Birbiglia perform his “Thank God For Jokes” at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in the East Village. Mike’s act is heavily informed by his Catholic education. He says something like, “I did the program,” by which he means Catholic high school and college. Here’s a memorable line from Mike’s show:

Jesus was the original Bernie Sanders.

-Mike Birbiglia in “Thank God For Jokes”

Mike notes that Jesus, like Bernie, was a Jewish Socialist. Before this performance, my favorite stuff from Birbiglia was his film (available on Netflix at the time of this writing) Sleepwalk With Me. I thought the performance I saw was Mike’s best work yet, and I highly recommend the show.

To get to Manhattan, I took the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station. From there, I walked the two miles from the station to the East Village and the theater.

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there was plenty to see on the walk from Penn Station to the East Village

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Cooper Union (college of architecture, art, engineering)

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the banner out front of the Lynn Redgrave Theater 

Comedy Part II

The back half of my night of comedy was at the improv at the Upright Citizen Brigade’s East Village location. I saw a show called “What I Did For Love.” The troupe brings up an audience member for an interview on stage about their love life. Then the performance is based on information derived in the interview. The whole thing felt like a relative to my novel Love on the Big Screen and my enthusiasm for the decade of the eighties.

I feel at home with the people who attend shows at UCB. They feel like people who like to talk about making stuff, and they enjoy attending a performance where people make stuff on the fly. I’m especially interested in the structure that informs improv. I recently obtained The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. I think this summer will probably bring some improv exercises for the whole family in the living room.

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Out Front of UCB in the East Village 

The Saturday night I’ve described above is a bit uncommon for all of its late-night activity.  On most days in New York, (sorry to disappoint) I meet my teaching obligations, write, workout, write some more, workout again, and then I read or watch movies in the evening.

The not-so-great part about going into the city is either waiting for the train to take me back out to Queens or the long ride back on the subway that can take up to an hour. So I figured that while I was making the trip into Manhattan, I take in two of my favorite things about being in New York.

Thanks so much for checking in on the site and reading my post. It’s fun to make stuff, but it’s also fun to have a few readers. I appreciate you!