Saturday, May 29, 2010

These Dogs

In a former life, I lived in Hoboken. It's hard to convey what a little shithole my apartment was, even though this was a time when all urban young people lived in execrable conditions. But the amazing thing was that a family of four had previously lived in the place I thought was so small it was going to squeeze the life right out of me. It was the kind of space that gave you a steady run of dreams specific to living in miserable confinement: there are magnificent palaces spreading out just underneath you; there are grand apartments that may be accessed through the back of your closet, etc.

This family had moved to the basement apartment, which they considered a step up due to a shed-like addition that thrust out into the back "yard"--a storm-fenced pad of concrete.

One day, out front by the trash cans, appeared an assemblage of the most impossible riches: as strange as finding pieces of Versailles beside--well, beside a shithole in Hoboken. Porcelain figures (I think one was indeed Marie Antoinette) and objets d'art. And two life-size ceramic whippets, elegance personified, sitting on ceramic pillows with noses lifted to sniff a rarefied air. They sported real jeweled collars. (Who put those on?) I furtively looked around to make sure no one was looking, and I hauled all the loot into my apartment. I didn't know where I was going to put it, as it would not really fit anywhere. I would have to get rid of a chair.

Later, one of the children downstairs told me her family had had this stuff for a long time, then suddenly decided to get rid of it in a spring cleaning. Jeez: four people and two whippets in my tiny apartment? The bric-a-brac went to a friend who needed targets for his air rifle. But the whippets have been with me now a very long time.

{This originally appeared in the book Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, edited by Joshua Glenn & Carol Hayes}

Saturday, May 22, 2010

In the Good, Old Summertime

As the temperature rises, so do my hopes. It's a function of the memory, how it is connected to ambient states.

I remember, as if from yesterday, the
sound of the ice cream truck, and how it chose our house to stop in front of. We would converge at a run, clutching our dimes in sweaty hands, and then came the agony. To choose; how to choose? Popsicles of the sweet rainbow: root beer, 7-Up, sky blue flavor (what does the sky taste like? Like this). Then all day, playing; long days that seemed to promise no end, no rain. In my memory of summer, there is no rain. Ever.

Besides the neighborhood-wide games of kick the can ("All-y all-y in free!"), there was the family road trip. We always went to the beach for a couple of weeks, all the way from Ohio. This is the paying-the-piper part, the horrible before the happiness part. Because we would be going in one station wagon--a large one, to be sure, first the Comet, then the Country Squire--but there were five of us, and a scotch-plaid cooler for lunch at a wayside picnic table (it never, ever rained), and suitcases and, at least one summer, a large white styrofoam surfboard.

Dad would make little modules for us, one girl on the backseat floor, knees over the hump, pillow for the head, and still damned uncomfortable. One of us in a seat, the other half being piled high with towels and the portable bar--gin and tonics could not be done without, for it would not be summer then, to the grown-ups--that never missed an overnight outing with my parents. The third of us would have a pallet in the way back, smashed between the rest of the suitcases and the side. There was, of course, no air conditioning. And hours to fill, with what? Reading, of course. I always had books I had to read. In return, emphasized my father, we were to give advance warning that he needed to pull over. In the way back, there was no window to stick the head out of so to streak the side of the car with vomit.

We would fight. Of course: what's a summer road trip without the shrieking girls hitting each other, and the angry father threatening to leave us by the side of the highway if we didn't quit it? I never believed he would not do it, either, as he slowed down on the verge. My heart would pound; I could not imagine what would become of me, a lonesome girl standing on the side of I-80, watching the white station wagon accelerate toward small invisibility, but I imagined I would find out.

It would keep us quiet for a few minutes, as threats do, before the heat and carsickness and crampedness and miserable excuses for sisters finally overboiled again. When will we get there?

Well, finally, we would get there. Then came long ferry ride, and the excitement of the sea air, the rolling waves, the gulls swooping down for bits of bread (and bits of fingers) above the boat's wake, was a combustion chamber of magic. Pulling in to the pier at Nantucket, seeing our friends waving, growing larger by the moment, was sheer happiness in a frozen minute.

A lot of living takes place in two weeks at the beach when you're nine. A lot of bicycling, and getting slammed to the sand by the waves, and sunburn, and clam rolls, and bonfires on the beach after dark. The next day, we'd do it all all over again. Sometimes we'd pick blueberries, and then there would be pie.

Is it possible there is a world like this out there still, with shimmering heat rising and painful feet running over the hot parking lot, and no schedules to keep? My memory, intruding into today, says yes, and so it plans trips. Trips in the future that are going to be a lot like the trips of the past. Now that I am the parent, the days are shorter, and it sometimes rains. But I understand, in the deepest part of me, the part about the gin. Now I have inherited the portable bar. And it's coming with me. No matter where I go. I'll buy the limes when we get there.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


I get too moony when I think of friends. I know. But I am overflowing with soppy emotion again today. I have been thinking of all the riches motorcycling has bestowed on me, and the mysterious path that led me back to it, a place I needed to be even though I did not know it. Yet something, someone, did.

The friendships that hold me closest in their embrace--the ones that hold me up, and will ever do so--have come to me through this. In only a short while, they have become the tightest, the blissfully stickiest, that I have ever known. How do you know when a friendship will last until the final days? Look around. Then place your money on the folks who are wearing helmets.

Beyond the internal, unmixable, physical and spiritual joys of riding--the soul's great "yahoo!" reverberating inside your brain at every shift into gear--there is the equal joy of knowing you ride with a great net under you. A net made of people who also ride, and on whom you can call when you are in need (company, assistance, advice, presence, tools, time, affection).

I took a ride today on my new motorcycle. I have never before owned more than one. Much less three. I can see how this becomes a habit.

I took a ride today on my new motorcycle because a friend took two airplanes and rode it eight hundred fifty miles to get it back to me. Just because he is a friend, and because he loves riding, and because he loves it when others love it. Then he gave me a brief tour of the new machine's bits and pieces, intimidating since new, but soon to become friends, too, of a sort. Then he followed me on a forty-mile circuit of local roads not because he desired a ride--though he does not ever scoff at those--and upon returning home, gave me an intensive lesson in bike-washing. (I am impatient, but the bike is happy that he is not; it will probably never shine so well again.) Finally he stood by while I gingerly backed the bike into the garage, a maneuver that requires finesse and strength and an initial watchful eye, or at least it seems so to me.

This morning I had breakfast with motorcycle friends. Afterward, I went to borrow a tool from a motorcycle friend. Tomorrow morning, I will meet and ride with new friends. Throughout the day, I have been marking down on the calendar in my head future rides with other friends.

I have a friend, on the other side of the country, delivered to me by the agency of motorcycles. He is of profound heart and mind, and I can count on him to see into me, and through me, and to say things that will either make me think deeply or laugh idiotically. I have never met him, but he is one of my best friends.

The correspondence I carry on with another friend, also a writer and a motorcyclist, is to me like sustenance. When I get an email from him--literate, fascinating, long, full of thought and passion--I feel like the doorbell has rung and it's the takeout delivery man, with a delicious meal for a very hungry person. Go on and say it, though it sounds wifty as hell: I cherish them, and him.

With another friend down south, I have shared some ups and downs. But we have carried on. On bikes. They bind us, and I hope always will. It is not my fault some emotions have gotten involved: high emotions are what these machines are all about.

I realized, with a start, that in one short year, a circle of new friends has drawn itself about me, impermeable. It's a thousand friends strong, because with bike friends, friends of friends are friends, too. I could probably ride across the country and stay every night with some motorcycle connection, strung like pearls from sea to sea.
I could share every meal of the week with motorcycle friends if I wanted; I could talk on the phone, or email interminably, with no one but motorcycle friends.

What a good idea.

It makes me go all gooey inside. It surprises me, this suddenness, this unending richness from the one thing that life is all about: connection. And love. Oh, and that moment the gear engages and the world is new again.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

This Is My Day

Tomorrow is Mother's Day. It is a day to think fondly on your credit cards. And about the miracle of breakfast in bed.

Today my son asked, as I showed him the folding tray I had just fished out of a box in the garage, the tray upon which we used to carry breakfast upstairs to our mother on her special day (I am subtle with my hints): "Mom, when is Kids' Day?"

Ha-ha, my son. Every day is kids' day!

He was buying none of it.

I seem to never know what I know. As my happy-go-lucky clock was ticking onward a decade ago, I would go to group therapy and say: I just don't know about this baby thing. Every other woman seems desperate to have a baby; it's this natural, unsubdued urge. You see this look in their eyes. The look of Please, Dear Lord. And I have no idea what that would feel like. I just feel this blank . . . not-knowing feeling.

The members of my group--who knew what was deep inside of me better than any other humans, poor souls--looked back at me. We know, Melissa.

What do you know?

We know you want a baby.

I do? You know??


The one thing that clinched it, strange to say, was a simple picture that swam up in my brain one day. My husband and me, sitting gray-haired at the Thanksgiving table. By ourselves.

Well, you know how history has changed that particular image. It could never, ever become real now. In several and unexpected, contradictory ways. Because fate doesn't like it when you decide you know what's in store for you. You do not.

And boy, did I not. All along the way, I did not know anything I thought I knew. I was going to do this the non-invasive way. I was going to listen to African finger-harp music and lull away the time before arrival in a birthing-center whirlpool, a beatific look of knowingness on my face.

Not exactly sure where the morphine drip fit into this, or the hollering--twice--for the anesthesiologist. I thank modern medicine. In fact, I genuflect before the epidural.

I wonder if motherhood has made me better. It has certainly made me more conscious, most of the time, and at moments almost bloodily, painfully conscious of my failings. They are legion. I never knew this so fully, before.

They were right, my friends in the therapist's office. Now I know what I did not know then. You can't always get what you want. But in a birthing-center room ten years ago (assisted by a male nurse and my little sister, who thought this baby was never going to come and so went out for a drink, coming back only about five minutes in advance of the big push), I did get what I want. And what I need.

Art by My Needlepoint Habit

Saturday, May 1, 2010


In the dog park, I sometimes watch movies of people's childhoods. Or at least that is what I feel absolutely certain I'm seeing, projected on top of their interactions with their dogs. For when could we possibly learn to parent, except from our own parents? God knows, I have the eerie experience all too often of hearing my mother's voice coming out of my mouth--saying something I have no business saying, and something moreover that I do not want to say, but only hear when it's too late, out there weightless as vapor but able to slice nonetheless.

In fact, I've had too much experience of late learning how my words--wayward, unthinking, unintended, but once out, unrecapturable--can hurt. Even though I would do anything I possibly could to grab them back out of the ether. Once there, it is too late for anything but apology, which is like a tetanus shot well after the wound. It only works sometimes. I lay awake at nights, remorse pushing down on my chest.

The majority of dog owners, like the majority of parents, generally try to show their offspring a good time. So you bring your dog to the park, or your child to the playground, and unclip the leash. To run, play with others, chase balls, roll in horse manure (the dogs, not the children). Seeing the enjoyment--yes, dogs smile when they're happy--is an enjoyment to you, too.

That is, if that is what you were once given to experience yourself.

If not, and there are plenty of unspeakable parents out there, who didn't have to get a permit to have a baby but should have, who get busy visiting their bad news to the next generation. It's just, unfortunately, the way it works (without intervention, of course); the mechanics of parenting like the mechanics of pistons and cams.

I saw a horrifying movie in the park last week. Worse than that, my child saw it too. But it was a dog who had to live through it.

It started out such a happy visit. The old places the same, greening in spring; the old friends, too. Blue sky, happy Nelly, happy child. Thus happy Melissa.

And then, a scream. There is no way to mistake the sound of pain, or surprise, or anguish. If your channels are open, the way they were made at birth--a baby has an infallible truth meter for animal expression, and so does a child--then you knew what this sound was. Canine or human, you knew.

A man had his spaniel down on his back, pinning him to the ground by his neck. The dog was writhing, uncomprehending (Why has my person done this to me?), and, sickening to see, was trying with his whole body to ask the man to cease the attack. Dogs have a particularly rich vocabulary of appeasement gestures, even if most people have no idea what they are--which is one reason a park full of hundreds of loose dogs will have such a relatively small incidence of fights. Trust me, the people in a dog park will go five to one in terms of intra-species fighting to that of their charges. It was as sickening to watch this dog throwing everything he could--wagging his stump of a tail, trying to lick the hand of the man--as it would be to watch someone whisper, "Please don't . . . " before the punch. The man merely tightened his grip, pressing down on the animal's trachea. That's when the dog screamed in pain. There was no way to mistake that sound. It seemed to streak the very air with blood.

My son ran to me then, his face contorted in distress. He was starting to cry. "Mom! Make him stop!" I wanted nothing more in this moment, both for him and for the helpless dog. But I did not know how. The group of people with whom I'd been talking went on, oblivious. Or so it appeared; I knew all of them were distressed, too, but no one could "interfere." You can't do this kind of "discipline" to a child in this country anymore, but to do it to a dog--why, be our guest. My son didn't know that, however; he thought there had to be some law of justice to which one could appeal. Barring that, he felt sure the most powerful person in his life would surely have the power to stop this. That person would be me.

He buried his head in my chest, unable to look anymore. The scene went on and on; the man was looking for something in his dog, the look of the prisoner of war who knows it's all over and has given up everything, even the will to live. The dog, though, still wanted to live. So the man stayed on his knees, the ugliest look of pure rage on his face I think I've ever seen.

My anger built too. And finally I could not stand it anymore, the cries of the dog, the shuddering of the boy's sobs, the movie of this man's childhood unreeling before us, in which he was smacked "just because" by a grownup he had trusted and loved, though neither was earned. Why, Mom? and Please do something! were spoken into my coat, and then I moved.

Some people are politick, and know how to say things so they can be heard. Non-confrontational, nicely couched.

Not me. My voice breaks with anger, and the jig is up immediately. I knew it would fail before I set out, but I had to set out. It was being asked of me. I stood over him. "In addition to hurting your dog, you are also hurting a child, who is now in tears because of what you're doing. Please stop."

That is what I said; I wanted to say a whole lot more, but I turned away. I knew it would not be heard, and it wasn't. He was just "training" his dog; he was not hurting him; did I want my child to be knocked down by an unruly animal? I did not reply, because it would unleash in me what was now roiling in my brain, on the verge of becoming so unchecked I feared I might throw a punch. I duly noted the irony, at that.

He finally let up his dog. To follow me. His voice rose now into a holler at my retreating back. But violence never solved anything. Plus, he was a very large man.

We walked out of the park, my love and I, arm in arm. There was nothing I could say, so he did: "Some people do not deserve to have a dog." Nelly walked next to us, and he held her leash. It was a very long time before his tears would stop.