Saturday, January 30, 2010

Grab Bag

Swag used to be for common people, too, in the era formerly known as Long Time Ago. I know, because I used to get my fair share, and you don't get more common than me. I ride motorcycles, after all.

It is true that I never took home a Rolex watch in a discreet silver bag. The closest I have come to an item of real value--like the down jacket a director friend snagged one year at Sundance--is via one of those seven degrees of separation things: I have been to the festival, and I have gone to parties with this director, so I'm sort of related to his jacket.

Because it was my signature on the requisition forms for ordering the many xeroxes of every manuscript that landed on my editorial-assistant desk in my first job, at Christmas the copy shop sent an ornately wrapped toiletry gift set of bath powder and cologne. No matter that it didn't smell so great. There were no bonuses in the paycheck--in fact the paycheck was
utterly without padding of any sort; I had economic bruising all over. That gift that appeared out of the blue on the mail cart with my name on it felt like the sun coming out after a sleet storm.

The next year I was in grad school, which is the strict anti-swag institution: you gave them everything you were worth and then some, and when you left with a useless degree in English literature, they handed over the first of five years' worth of loan-due bills.

The universe likes to play fair, though, and that must be why the next job more than made up for that year of solitary confinement in the ivory tower: a part-time proofreading gig that yielded health insurance, profit sharing, free books, magazines, records, and a boozy Christmas party. Ah, those were the days, weren't they?

(They shit-canned the proofreaders as soon as they realized they could make do with spell-check, doubling the typesetters' workload, and lowering the bar on error tolerance. Thus they were at the forefront of this new, leaner, meaner, swag-less--and quality uncontrolled--era.)

Then came the brief epoch of going to the occasional literary gala (MAC cosmetics in a Barnes and Noble canvas bag, along with a brand-new, thick anthology on a deadly subject like "writers on writing" that went straight onto the bookshelf, never to come down until packing day and its final journey to the library book sale). This period coincided with the best job I ever had or am likely ever to have: freelance video reviewer at a new publication called Entertainment Weekly. Above the fat paycheck, the easy and fun work (can you guess that I am rather fond of delivering opinions?), and the rapidly growing home film library, there was the often interesting swag thrown freely by the video companies. Perhaps they thought free stuff would affect reviewers' judgment of their product? Hard to imagine. (What--you think I'll be like the candidates for elected office after the Supreme Court rules they can be auctioned off to the highest bidder?) Of course it never changed a bad movie into a good one, but that didn't stop me from sticking my mitt in the air when their tchockes started flying my way.

"Free" does things to people. I'm just saying.

I had cause to remember this long-gone time of treasure yesterday, when I searched the knife drawer for the whetstone I hoped was still there, the rolling-wheel knife sharpener carrying the Virgin logo and the legends "Edge of Sanity" and "Never a Dull Moment." (I see I missed an opportunity for paying back the grad-school loan, since Virgin obviously had a whole department of English majors dedicated to the conception of clever swag.) I am also just now getting to the bottom of the cube of note paper, also from Virgin, commemorating the release of Communion: I've been writing grocery lists for years over the ghostly impression of an almond-eyed space alien.

Now, the swag is running out. I have nowhere to get any any more. I am certain, in some glass-enclosed corner of the western world, many sparkling items of untold luxury and cost are dancing their way into silk-lined pockets. But here, at the motorcycle show for instance, the only offerings presented to us commoners are the likes of refrigerator magnets from the state police, brochures for new bikes we can't afford, and plastic Suzuki keyfobs.

Not needing any of these hardly stopped me from taking them home, however. They were free.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Time Lapse

There was a time when life without the newspaper was unthinkable, a life hardly worth living, like one without the consolations of bourbon or coffee (each to counteract the other). The New York Times, seven days a week, was simultaneously a crucial connector to the wider world, an exercise for the brain, a relaxation in the day. Then came children. Children are, it turns out, powerful enough to obliterate one of the western world's foremost cultural institutions.

When my little sister had kids, a couple of years before me, she announced that she'd stopped delivery of her paper. I was flabbergasted. I chalked this--smugly, as is my despicable wont--to the fact that she had gone to a party school: she knew how to take pleasure, and none of it from the printed page.

Life has a way of chucking you in the jaw when you pass judgment. It finds a way to deliver judgment back, hard, in due time.

Ten years ago I moved into a house on a former farm. The woman we bought it from had just been made into a single parent of a kindergartner, by virtue of her husband's deciding that the grass was greener on the other side of the fence, or at any rate the other side of the online-dating screen. I could not fathom her furtive tears at the closing, the flares of anger in her red-rimmed eyes. Man, this woman has gone completely around the bend, I thought. My uncharitable head-shaking increased the first time I went out into the garden, or what I could only guess was the garden: what kind of insanity was this, secreted under the tight net of waist-high weeds? Annuals? So, in May, she buys some marigolds and impatiens, and then never again manages to go out and pull the weeds? How could you let life get that out of control?

Eight years later, I was her, at the same table in the same bank's conference room. Alternately crying and going blank at what felt nearly impossible to bear. And not only had I long before stopped reading the Times every day, now my annuals (as it were) were struggling to breathe under a metaphorical mat of single-parenting weeds.

The English major, to most people's surprise when they inquire as to my reading list, reads not for pleasure. She has no time for books read only because they promise joy. I don't even know what that would feel like; might just shake me into blindness, it might. It's also a good thing that between 1976 and 1999 I averaged six movies a week (cinema co-major) because I haven't seen anything but the occasional Disney since then.

This is not to say that I don't read, however: my bedside table is home to a stack of the six books I need to read as research for the current writing project, which I will soon attack since I finally finished the similarly useful Tender Is the Night, though it took me two months to get through that, probably longer than it took Fitzgerald to write, even factoring in the gin-fueled blackouts. During that time I also proofread one novel as well as a Shakespeare play in a new annotated edition. Oh, yeah, and read the galleys of a friend's memoir in order to blurb.

But these days I mainly read, and write, in a genre called "To-Do List." Each day I get through perhaps half of my list, and then it metastasizes during the night to twice its former size. I am sometimes awakened from sleep by the shock of realization that I forgot to reply to that e-mail, and that one . . . all while I have carry-over lists of e-mails to which to reply that have now haunted the desk for over a month. Guilt weighs heavy on my head; and now it extends all the way to Facebook. When I log on I see an ever-expanding column of friends' comments, links, and important life events. I fear to begin, because then it might not end. I click out immediately, lest the whole tower--everything undone, unread, unacknowledged--fall on top of me, burying me under its load.

Thus was born the concept of multitasking. It's a way for mothers to get everything done, all of it half-assedly.

So at this moment, as I scribble busily on my yellow pad, my son is poised in a muscular crouch in karate class. The students go through their martial sequences, a symbolic conversation between life and death.

Then again, sometimes you want to lose yourself in just one thing. Tell the other things to wait, go away for now. I put down the pen, and the sight of them gathers me in to them, just them. Suddenly there is nothing else to read but this moment, in which I see life in motion.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Have you ever persisted in pounding something into a hole that was not made to fit it? (No, of course you haven't, unless you're me or have little mechanical aptitude, which in my case is a redundancy. Watch: I'm about to demonstrate how.) The more it doesn't fit, the harder I pound. In Skinnerian terms, this is called an Extinction Burst, the frenzied increase in a futile behavior before you finally come to your senses and cease. It's great fun to look for in daily life: Karen Pryor, in Don't Shoot the Dog, cites the store clerk who more and more energetically swipes the malfunctioning credit card through the machine until crying uncle at last and manually entering the number. Another common example is the guy who keeps phoning, with greater frequency all the time, the less you return his calls. Or maybe that's something else, something non-Skinnerian.

With every piece of new technology in my house, that's what I feel like doing: pounding harder. Maybe a good, analog kick will make things work, because my native abilities sure aren't doing the trick. (Sometimes kicks do work in the digital realm, as well as checking all plugs and connections; now that, I can do.)

My brain, I must now face, simply won't accommodate certain types of knowledge. Other types, yes; I'm your girl if want some fairly opaque poetry! But increasingly, my ability deficits encompass almost everything in this new world. My camera; my ever-slowing computer; the GPS I am soon to acquire, as needed in the first rally I am hoping to run; and, I have no doubt, the radar detector I so desperately need. Need.

We had tears the other night when, after a hard-fought war with homework, the victor asked, for his prize, a movie during dinner. When the screen resolutely faced us a stony gray, the red word "VIDEO" appearing at intervals in the upper right corner (Yes, I know--"video," that's what we want to watch. Why won't you respond?) no matter what I did, I knew I had failed. Not just my child (a small fail, to be sure, but "I'm sorry, honey, I just don't know how to fix it; maybe I can get someone to come over tomorrow who will know" is repeated an awful lot in our small barracks), but the entire new century.

So it is a good thing a patient, generous, and technologically apt friend was around when I brought home the new flat-screen TV, then. I realize these things are for most men in the same line as pro football cheerleaders, winning at craps, and imagining sinking a knife into a terducken on Thanksgiving. For me, though, it's just a replacement for the 1978 vintage set, otherwise destined for the dump, I got on Freecycle last year. The one that is barely visible from across the long and narrow bedroom in the new house. Sometimes you just gotta watch movies while under the covers, you know?

I noticed in the store the sales placard, laden with exclamation points, listing all the extras you could jack up the final price with. "Let our experts do the installation for you! Only $99!" I guess this is a savings, provided one's time is worth at most $25 an hour, since the owner's manual takes around four hours to read. This seems to be about the average these days; as a writer, I should take note, since I suspect that it's not true that people don't read anymore. They read manuals now, which means there's no time for War and Peace.

I opted not to pay the Geek Squad, and relied on the kindness of a friend. I have yet to figure out what's going on with the TV downstairs. I may never know. It has its secrets, which it is not about to give up to the likes of me. I would rather coax cream, semisweet chocolate, and espresso to rise inside a ring of rum-soaked ladyfingers. I can trade you a hell of a chocolate charlotte, buddy, if you will show me how to upload photos--and then show me where they've gone to inside this computer. Because I haven't the faintest idea.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

While My Beemer Gently Sleeps

I have a classy garage. Everyone says so. They admire the stone construction, the interesting impossibility of dating the structure, its now-empty stovepipe holes. And they also say, "This would make a such a wonderful little guest house. You should convert it into a writing studio!" Whereupon I recoil in horror: Then where would the bikes go?

I've waited all my life for a garage, and now I have one. Now I have one just the way I want it, filled with bikes.

They're not even my bikes. Well, one is. Parked next to it, also shrouded in a gray cover and wearing the same pearl necklace--oh, OK, mothballs-in-pantyhose necklace, not quite as elegant--is its identical twin, a blue 1992 K75. Its owner, a sharp wit, quipped that if in the spring we open the door to find a lot of pocket rockets scattered around the floor, we'll know what these two have been up to in these long cold nights.

Behind these are Dan's and Ed's machines, the latter brought over at the eleventh hour, an evening at dusk after the first snow; a few minutes before I heard it approaching the house up the hill, I was desperately clearing the grainy ice from the end of the drive, lest its rider take an unintended second turn, lateral. But no, the man, a year-round rider who is the second among my acquaintance to completely eschew four-wheeled conveyance, negotiated the drive, and then backed the bike into its winter lair. Ed already has something like eight motorcycles pressing the very seams of all his outbuildings. Hurray for him.

Around here, it seems, we're all in denial of Zone 5. In the same way that I'm in denial of all my accumulated years, and still find myself in the grocery aisle, holding some package at arm's length to see if there's any way I can learn whether this thing contains high-fructose corn syrup or chicken stock. I can't, not without reading glasses. But who needs reading glasses? Old people. And I'm not one of them. No, I just can't see right. For some reason.

I kept thinking global warming was going to single me out for a special favor--it might be extinguishing the polar bear, but hey, it could extend the riding season--and so I never got around to that final wash and wax. I didn't change the oil, either. There. I confessed.

This gnaws at me. I am not one of those meticulous owners who can check their teeth for spinach in the shine from their rocker box covers, but putting away an unwashed bike is offensive to my basic sense of decency toward a machine that has cared for me so kindly. Now I have to fret about what might be going on with that little spot of wind-blown black grease I just noticed gathered north of the radiator. This is why you always groom a horse both before and after a ride: until you move your hands and brush and hoofpick over every inch of body, you won't find the scab or fresh sore that means something. And that creature is utterly dependent on you to find it, sooner rather than later.

In the days of the Moto Guzzi, the putting to sleep of the bike was a long and involved process, one I dreaded because of this. The wash, wax, and oil change was just the beginning. Then there was the draining of the carbs, the removal of the spark plugs and the introduction of a little fresh oil there. a couple turns of the engine by hand to distribute it. A light coat of WD-40 pretty much everywhere. And, since I lived in a city apartment, the removal of the battery to the warm hallway, where I walked past it every day for months and put it periodically on a charger and checked the water. Then, I would go to the storage several blocks away every few weeks and rotate the front wheel to guard against flat spots in the tire. It was such a lot of work that if January yielded one of those aberrant gifts from the heavens, a fifty-degree day, I could not join my confreres out yahooing on a winter ride. I couldn't face going through all of that again.

Now there's just those mothballs and some fuel stabilizer and, I hope, forgiveness. The K has forgiven so much already--lousy riding, even lousier braking, idiotic mistakes (only her native charm, I believe, protected me from becoming a John Chamberlain sculpture the day I blithely followed a car I assumed was making a left turn onto a highway on-ramp--but both our assumptions were half a block wrong, off-ramp wrong; she somehow cleared three lanes of all oncoming traffic so I could save myself just before the point of no return)--I wonder if she can forgive this neglectful treatment.

At least I have given her company out there in the frigid dark, in a classy garage.

It was suggested to me that I might collect a few dollars of rent, but the idea is almost as offensive as the mechanical maltreatment I have thoughtlessly meted to my companion. I remember the days of garagelessness myself; I remember the unnatural sight of motorcycles stored out in the snow, a blow to the senses. But most of all, I remember that motorcycles, and motorcyclists, have saved me. The things I most value in my life right now were freely given by them. I could not possibly give enough in return to bring equilibrium back to these balances. So more: there should be more bikes in the stone garage. Do you need a place for yours? Bring it here. It would give me something, too: happiness. To know it's there. Just to know it's there.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Once in a Blue Moon

Certain passions, I now realize, are an inextricable part of the time of life in which they occur, although they feel solely like a part of us. But then we move on. They are forgotten, like the toys of yesteryear. On occasion we pull out a long-gone memory and marvel that we once thought some brightly colored bit of plastic was all that we lived for.

A little boy once loved trains with all his heart. He saw only them; he built and drew and heard them in his dreams. It seemed as if it would go on forever, this love. And then, they were gone. Supplanted by swords.

Perhaps one day in the future, he will dally with trains again for a time. It will be a way for him to remember with surprise who he once was, and to locate that internal file cabinet in which are stored the old albums of ephemera that chronicle a passion that helped make him who he is: a lover of swords who will soon lay them aside too, in favor of girls, photography, or some new interest not yet devised by technology.

The recovery of a passion thought abandoned forever is an interesting personal occurrence. It reappears at once paler than it was--nothing ever exceeds in brilliant tones one's First Time--and richer, containing both the amazements of rebirth and the ghost impressions of prior life: Now I remember how that felt! Now I recall that taste! I can both recall and hardly believe it was so long ago, and so big . . . Such is motorcycling to me now, a perpetual surprise.

And such was last night, dancing like crazy at a party. The sound system, the dual turntables playing tech house, was impossible to refuse. I did not care that I was probably too old--and too full of champagne--to move at this sinuous and rapid rate. But I suddenly remembered what it was like to do so, the hours after hours in clubs under colored lights where the bass thumped through the floor and into the bones, pulling me straight out of myself and into a synesthesia of sound, sweat, and air. I would be alone in a well of music, within a dense landscape of people, both separate from and one with them all.

On New Year's Eve, bits of green light climbed the walls of the dance room, broken and reconfigured endlessly by the disco ball suspended there by the hosts. People wandered in and out, children ran in and pogoed violently for a time then left, but I could not leave. The music, and the memory of what this had felt like long ago, now reanimated my cells, closed around me. I danced. I was thirty again. My body was new. I closed my eyes and I danced. The passion was back. (So too was the knowledge recollected a bit late that wearing cotton--not microfiber and spandex, for crying out loud--is advisable for a night of dancing: soon comes the memory of the imperative need to step outside in the cold, flinging forward the hair that clings to the damp neck, head hanging down, uncaring of who might pass by and witness this strange scene. It was necessary in order to be able to go back inside and get carried away again.)

The DJ worked the turntables, and on I went. Embraced by memory and pure experience of the moment.

Then, suddenly, it was time for a new year. For the future of new passions. I walked out from the room where I had briefly visited with my old self. I walked out toward the waiting friends, the match poised to light the fuse of the fireworks, the glass of sparkling wine sending its bubbles ever upward to the present. I walked out into the night of a blue moon, rarest of all.