Arts Listings

Arts: Monologist Recounts the Travels of Fools By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday February 24, 2006

Travel writer Jeff Greenwald, primed to be the raconteur of stories from his books, improvised on the spot in answer to Strange Travel Suggestions, climbs the stage at The Marsh-Berkeley, and begins to explain his props: a gameshow-like wheel, the rim covered with odd symbols—and a huge Tarot card, featuring the romanticized image of The Fool from the Rider Pack, carrying a bindle on a stick and proceeding trippingly over a cliff while dandling a rose, as a little dog prances by his side ... 

“The Fool’s dressed as if he’s going to Burning Man, wearing Dr. Seuss boots,” Greenwald quips, and then states that the esoteric card is the perfect image of the traveler beginning the trip—the little dog, who some see as warning The Fool, being to Greenwald that impulse we all have that says “take me along!” 

(Research on the iconography of the Tarot has shown much of it to be drawn from the Carnival procession, and The Fool a zany who’d run alongside the triumphal cars—“trumps”—beating on them with his stick, an even more essential allegory of travel. The card game itself, Tarocchi, is thought by some scholars to have been invented by clerical diplomats, like Nicholas of Cusa, as “serious play” to kill time while traveling to, and during delays at interminable ecclesiastic conferences.)  

The game show wheel, Greenwald explains, is from another Tarot card, The Wheel of Fortune. The symbols on it are of his own invention; there’s a key in the program, and he requires a “co-Fool” to spin it, to come up with the Strange Travel Suggestions from such hieroglyphic cues as “The Birdbath of Memory,” “What’s That Smell?” or “Unexpected Gifts.” 

More to the point, and as a kind of appetizer, he offers two anecdotes: S. J. Perelman, after winning the Oscar for the script of Around the World in 80 Days, suggesting a producer take a trip around the world, only to get the reply, “but there’re so many other places I’d like to see!” (“The traveler versus the tourist: the traveler sees the world; the tourist sees what he came to see.”)—and the reply to Greenwald’s question to astronaut Buzz Aldrin, as they saw the full moon rise over La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles, if he ever got nostalgic looking at the moon. “Just another place I got dust on my boots,” Aldrin said, humorlessly. 

The preliminaries over, and the mood of the upcoming tales established—a little bit playful, a bit mysterious—Greenwald gets audience members to spin the wheel. There’s a little reluctance, though much enjoyment of the proceedings. On finding out his second “co-fool” is son of the first, he quips, “It’s like a mafia here.”  

The rambling intro has now become, with the selection of the themes, a different kind of ramble—Greenwald pacing the stage, recounting tales, stringing vignettes together: the flash of recognition he had at a painted cave in India, like a revelation of a past existence, which later seems to get activated knowingly by a guru Greenwald interviews on camera. Within the bigger story are pictures, portraits: the wise man, Papa-ji, a former wrestler, soldier at Partition and avid cricket fan, cures a disciple’s fear of dogs by giving her a puppy and commanding her to raise it ... Or the fellow traveler on a Himalaya trek who becomes enamored of his map, and Greenwald’s attempt later to emulate him, only to find semanticist Korzybsky right: “The map isn’t the territory”—or at least not until it’s suffered the spills, stains and tears of handling during the trek; a pristine chart’s just a soulless topographic image. Or the little Italian captain with regal bearing (and a pungent stench) Greenwald meets on a tour ship like a floating Vegas, to whom the odor of garlic is “the smell of freedom” ... 

As a raconteur, Jeff Greenwald’s affable, engaging—even kind of the hale fellow, well-met ... but a mite precious. His chatty recountings get stuck sometimes between the grand gesture to the romance of travel (“they besought the deep blue sea to roll,” Henry James said of the Romantics) and the banality of so much of it, but without always getting the sense of the daily coin of small talk, like a good cabdriver or bartender. 

“Not the big notes, gentlemen, just the small change, please!” philosopher Edmund Husserl used to gently admonish his students of Phenomenology. The bits and pieces of Greenwald’s tales sometimes gleam through the the words he seems to be sifting. In time, mannerisms can become style. Like the map that isn’t the territory, the story’s different told to a familiar ear, on the page and from the stage. It’s an old literary conceit to travel only to discover what’s in your head. What’s interesting is the paradox of how far you have to go to find that out. In the first known account of climbing a mountain “because it’s there,” Petrarch stands on the summit of Mt. Ventoux and reads a passage at random in St. Augustine’s Confessions that casts doubt on his alpine enterprise. Paradoxes of that sort would make Greenwald a better metaphysical voyageur. 

And a little less false naivete—he has enough charm when he gets down to business, or even just jokes around. He ends with a benediction to the audience: “May all your travels make fools out of you.” 


Strange Travel Suggestions plays at 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays through March 3 at The Marsh, 2118 Allston Way. $15-22. (800) 838-3006 or›