Sunday, January 1, 2017

It's Nelly's World Again


It is one week from Christmas Eve, and I walk Nelly along the road at dusk. New snow has fallen and it is too deep for her to negotiate; not that she can no longer leap like a fox, but at her age she can leap and land, leap and land only in short bursts, not for the duration of the long wanders in the woods we once took.

Her bounding happily, seemingly forever. Nothing is forever.

Yesterday a DJ on the radio, obviously a relative youngster, referred to a lyric that ran, and here I paraphrase, We’re all going to die sometime. He remarked with a laugh it is of course true. Yes, I thought, but not for you. You don’t really believe it yet. No one really can until it is about to come true, like a wish made manifest. The gifts that appear under the tree overnight. The ones I can picture in my mind’s eye at this moment under the crystal-laden tree my mother decorated in the old house on Ridgecrest Road in Akron, the home long gone in reality but never in my yearning. Especially come December.

I wonder if Nelly feels nostalgia for all she used to do. I wonder if she feels nostalgia for her sight, also gone. Today when vacuuming the living room I moved a table off the rug. She walked into it. Startled, she looked at me (or toward me; I must be precise) with such upset. That table is not where it used to be! Which is as much as to say, Where it should be. It was not the arrangement she was accustomed to. Nostalgia in action.

I apologized, sought to comfort her. I told her we would go walk in a little while. My words of nglish were incomprehensible, ineffectual to her sense of order lost.

This is not the arrangement I am used to, either. This is a new house, a new road, a new view onto fields sweeping down to a ring of dark pines at the edge of sight. As we walked I thought about words—“crepuscular,” “swale”—that are now not used very much. I thought about the history I go past, seen and unseen. I bear nostalgia for language and in euqal measure for the overspilling hopes of youth. That is the way things “used to,” “should” be. I am nostalgic for the times I never felt nostalgia.

As we walk, past the Dutch stone house hand-built in Colonial times and then in a few steps past the one brought in two and a half centuries later on a truck in prefabricated pieces, I think about how we have gotten here. This moment, I mean, when we might be finally on the very edge of change that is more destructive than any will to destruction we—the species with destruction written in our DNA right next to “survive at all costs”—have previously evinced.

I had wandered in a desert for some years. Now I have a home in which I aim to stay a spell. One that provides new vistas onto hopes both future and past. “Dusk” is a good word too, one still current. It says much. Its sound in the mouth. It is a bridge between now—this moment, as Nelly and I pass evergreens decorated in crystals by the hand of the sky, as well as that big idea known as “the present moment”—and then. The past inhabited by personal ghosts and those of posterity. Such as the naturalist John Burroughs, not read too much anymore, but in the last quarter of the nineteenth century a regular literary superstar, with 23 volumes to his widely known name. A half mile away from our house on this very road is the schoolhouse in which Burroughs taught at age seventeen, after his father refused to give him the money he requested for further education. Twenty years ago I had also left one home and found myself in another, close by Burroughs’s boyhood home. Now I’ve bought a house near his next stop. I feel we’re growing up together.

Ah, my friends. My mind is filled with shifting layers. It is ripe for an archaeological dig. Under this, that. And under that, more. Conflating, conflating. The longings I feel toward my past—childhood, with its sparkling hopes (inchoate, except for the very concrete wish for frosted cake on Christmas and the sight of hope itself under the tree on the morning: nothing measured up to the moment we attained the last step from upstairs and craned our necks to see what had been left overnight in piles of wrapped packages and bulging stockings)—is joined by strange yearnings for my child’s past. Yesterday I saw a train set in a store and reflexively thought of the speechless joy it will bring. Um, not anymore. The times are over when the dollar store could be relied on to provide magic in cheap quantity. We no longer read a story aloud the night before the big excitement (nor do we remember to put out milk and cookies and then nearly forget to take a couple of proof bites, either). No more recitation of “A Christmas Carol,” that tale of awakened compassion. We believed it possible. We believed it an annual certainty, in the same league as glittery white lights and a Droste dark chocolate apple in the toe of the stocking. A necessity of life.

But then, I also find myself—get ready for it—missing the times of tribulation. I miss my own sorrows with a sorrow of their own. It’s so intense it’s almost pleasurable. I remember everyplace I ever cried. I go by the places in Kingston I was so enchanted to discover in an another life and even though they’re still there they are like a sharp blow to the chest. I first spied that fading Coca-Cola ghost sign on the side of the brick building on Broadway in 2000. Seeing it in 2016 pierces me with sadness because I remember the prelapsarian joy it inspired. I know. This is odd. Makes me seem like I haven’t gotten over something. But I have. Really. I can’t really rouse a care about the cause of the unpleasantness. What’s left is enduring wonderment about the emotional crevasse that’s left even though the earthquake itself is forgotten.

Some pain is so intense it changes both inner and outer world. The nostalgic pinings I feel for my own sadness occur because I’m no longer sad, but at one time pain fused itself to these sights. Coming upon them now makes me remember. It is not the arrangement I am accustomed to.  
Entering a place where the happy past remains frozen (an old email address that used to be everything but now I use for junk and rarely check) I am jolted. “Letters from Santa ™” and “Ride the Polar Express!” are sitting in the in-box from this week, although the person to whom they refer is now 6 foot 1. Here in hyperspace he remains smooth-cheeked and pick-up-able and I am the person who contacted Letters from Santa™ to surprise him.

Always the childlike hope. Then came the Fall, and hope was never quite the same. I had to use a crowbar to force hopefulness into my head, but goddammit I did. I picked up pennies wherever I saw them to remind myself how lucky I was. Even if, and precisely because, I did not particularly feel it then. I got a few dollars this way. I made special glasses for my eyes that willfully cut anything from the frame that did not look beautiful. It was work, satisfying and sweaty.

When the deflations of hope occurred, I kept them to myself. I said nothing about the Episode of the Treehouse. We had always wanted one. One appeared. A treehouse had magically come with the minuscule rental house—luck again!—and so came the day a little friend came over, and the two young friends decided to paint it (permission granted from the landlord; he was happy too, as it had been his son’s, long grown up) and I drove them to the store and let them pick three pints in shades of their own choosing. Then the friend never returned, the treehouse remained unpainted, and the treehouse was never visited again. I gave the paint away.

Why do I keep thinking about wolves? I mean the real ones. Waiting in the quiet north woods. They are no match for the wolves in human skin.

It came to me at birthday dinner the other night. Sitting in a subtly lit dining room next to the open fire, it must have put me in a colonial frame of mind. I was mad, and am mad, and am trying to understand this whole thing. I had trusted in the system of checks balances always. The grease that kept the gears of the nation moving sweetly, a miracle of mechanics. A free press. The veto power of the executive branch, and the legislative branch’s ability to override that veto with enough votes. Who thought this up? The concepts of the framers were informed by the world in which they lived, which was one where machines were made by hand. Problems were solved by mechanics. The men who made the Constitution were farmers and merchants, a cobbler, an astronomer, a blacksmith and self-taught lawyer and surgeon and candle-maker. Every one of the machines they used in daily life had its system of counterbalances; the carriages in which they traveled had brakes lest they run downhill over the horse. The gates through which they came and went swung closed because of a gravity ball: what went up when pushed came back down because of its weight. Largely hidden to us now, checks and balances were visible everywhere in their world.

When they conceived of how this nation might be governed equitably, they could only build a machine like the ones they themselves used every day. A system of gears, pulleys, weights and counterweights. They built the government that adhered to natural law, a beautiful engine.
It is one that seems to predict eventualities that could never have occurred to men of the eighteenth century, who had no idea this country would grow to the size and complexity it has. Handmade in their primitive time, the watchworks they set in motion still keeps perfect time.
Night falls softly around here. The sky is the biggest I have ever had. It is a dome in which the stars can’t be taken in without turning around, head thrown back, full pivot. I wake before the sun is fully up. I never quite catch the moment it does, because it is bent on doing what it does, which is for purposes far bigger than my eye. The sky moves like a watercolor in the moment the brush touches the wet surface.

Some say nostalgia is a great failing of the emotions, the intellect. I say it was born in love.
I am hinged to the present, and so I might swing to the past or the future depending on what comes in through the senses: dark pine, a shadow. The cold still held in the fur of my mother’s coat touching my face as she bends over me in bed and half-wakes me with a kiss upon coming home from a party late. All this history streaming through me like the ever-flowing Tongore Creek, by the side of which a great writer taught over a century and a half ago and which I can hear after a hard rain as I lie in bed in the present moment. Long may it run. I hope, I hope.

Happy new year.

Monday, October 14, 2013


This is not the way to do this.  When there are no words.  When loss, like the centrifugal carnival ride with the floor that suddenly drops away, pins you helpless against the wall.  You hang there, wondering only when you will fall.  When the world stops spinning, I suppose.

It's too new, this news.  I have nothing cogent to say about it.  I can only tell you what happened.  It was uncanny, in its way.  In the way, come to think of it, of everything that had to do with this man who to me seemed larger than life.  Because he encapsulated everything you could really say about life's grace, its gifts, its terrible, terrible uncertainties.

Last night, happy: on the road.  For three days, going to all the places the motorcycle can take one.  The dinner out you give yourself, after a long day of riding, all the stops pulled out.  We had been talking about calling John Ryan, to thank him for yet another gift.   This ride, and this company.  Only we waited one day too long.

First, one message: Call me.  It's about John.

Next, another message: Is it true, what I read?

Then I knew.  It was too late to say thank you.

All the way home, today, the wheels repeated their messages.  First, the uncounted gifts.  He changed my life.  He gave me a new subject; he gave me a return to motorcycling (he, alone among all, would not rest until his mission was complete: he knew I needed to ride again, and he would not rest until I did); he gave me so many new friends I was startled with the recollections after every turn: Oh, and her!--and her!--and him!--and him!   On it went, through gas stops after the tank was filled, then drained by the miles through an autumn world where trees were afire, soon to be ash (but risen), then filled once more.  I remembered another gift, another, another.  Then I realized: No one had changed my life more than John.  The generosity he experienced was motorcycling's: its curious solace.  The generosity he passed on to innumerable others was particularly more.  Once, he literally gave me the shirt off his back.  I was cold; here, take this.

I will leave it to others to add to the ledger: we may never be able to fully account for what John Ryan gave us.  One by one, we will come out with our stories.  And they may well be endless, unlike John himself.

It was like a sucker punch.  I didn't see it coming, only felt its effects.  A sickness.  Maybe a cry; I don't know, I was hustled out of the restaurant.  For an interminable moment I sat outside alone on a bench, howling to the moon.  Animal anguish has no words.  This death, so far, has no words, but it has already amassed some miles.  He was there, riding not alongside me, but far ahead.  Always, he will be there, vanishing in the distance.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I can’t count the things I love about Ohio, or this corner of Ohio: it is literally a part of me.  I revisit memories by going to the places at which they occurred; when those places are no longer there, I turn away, anger and sorrow admixed.  The McDonald’s at Wallhaven in Akron was an exciting place to a small girl—there was something about the glad futurism of its soaring yellow arches, and the taste of those French fries, that was unspeakably exciting.  They tore it down several years ago (its look of naïve hope not up to the stresses of twenty-first-century commerce) and its replacement looks aggressively vulgar to me.  But the early sixties original must have assaulted the sensibilities and memories of some older Akronite.  I wonder what had been on that spot that he missed?   And so it goes.  The history of us is not only what we leave behind in the hopes that it be appreciated, understood, preserved.  The history of us is equally what we have the will to destroy.  We seesaw back and forth between these opposing points, in an effort to go forward from the ground on which we stand.  It is the manner in which we destroy, and for what reasons, that is the issue that affects us, civically, aesthetically, and finally emotionally.
Dear to me, too, is the great river that cut its valley through what appears to be the center of my being.  The preservation of the valley is one of the rare triumphs of a higher impulse battling the unheeding pressures of greed—and it was a pitched fight, not to be won without the valiant perseverance and apolitical stance of perhaps one of the last congressmen to maintain a residence outside of someone’s pocket.   The victory gave the river the chance to prove itself an analogue to the movement of human history itself: falling down, getting back up, coming close to being a goner, but rising again when given the chance.  Finally standing not untouched by what it has been through, but bearing the marks so we can see them, and see preserved that accumulation of history (geologic, aboriginal, commercial, illustrative of the ongoing mutations of our desires) all simultaneously present.
It was in 1969 that an oil slick caused the river itself to burn, giving the world a parable, richly ironic, that sounded last call at the bar at which we’d apparently stayed too late.  It gave the band R.E.M. a metaphor for all the losses we can visit on ourselves, and the predecessors we’d rudely elbowed out of the way on our headlong rush to a future we hadn’t thought through very well:

Let's put our heads together and start a new country up
Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like
Let's try to fill it in, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red

(chorus 1)
This is where we walked, this is where we swam
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

Cuyahoga, gone

Let's put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in faith
Bury, burn the waste behind you

And although the river is and forever will be buried to those prehistoric peoples (who by the way were not aware they did not have a “history”) we in turn buried, it is by grace of preservationists not now buried--but easily might have been--to those of us of European descent who “borrowed” it from them.  And we all only ever borrow: that is perhaps the single greatest lesson of preservation.
For we make terrible mistakes when we build unthinkingly, especially when money rather than dreams of civic virtue call the shots.  It is now, it was so when the great lanes of the Montrose shopping metropolis were being laid over the farms, and it was so in the great age of industrialization written of by Booth Tarkington in his 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons:
A new spirit of citizenship had already sharply defined itself.  It was idealistic, and its ideals were expressed in the new kind of young men in business downtown.  They were optimists--­optimists to the point of belligerence--­their motto being “Boost!  Don’t Knock!” And they were hustlers, believing in hustling and in honesty because both paid.  They loved their city and worked for it with a plutonic energy which was always ardently vocal.  They were viciously governed, but they sometimes went so far to struggle for better government on account of the helpful effect of good government on the price of real estate and “betterment” generally; the politicians could not go too far with them, and knew it.  The idealists planned and strove and shouted that their city should become a better, better, and better city ­and what they meant, when they used the word “better,” was “more prosperous,” and the core of their idealism was this:  “The more prosperous my beloved city, the more prosperous beloved I!” They had one supreme theory:  that the perfect beauty and happiness of cities and of human life was to be brought about by more factories; they had a mania for factories; there was nothing they would not do to cajole a factory away from another city; and they were never more piteously embittered than when another city cajoled one away from them.

The novel, of course, captures one particular moment between hands in the continual shuffle of cards that define the end of one era and the beginning of another; indeed, there would be no such thing that we could define as “era” without replacement, though “progression” is a kinder model.  In progression, there is a building upon and respect paid to precedent; there is no wholesale slaughter as there is with when corporations become people, or at least kings.  When progress serves only these entities, rather than people, there is no respect for remnants of the commoners’ past.  In Tarkington’s representation, Eugene Morgan, an inventor tinkering with the newfangled horseless carriage (and the ironic thrust of the book, written only some twenty years after its advent, is that its readers were well aware of the permanent changes wrought by the invention), says, “There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead!  There aren’t any times but new times!”

The truth of this is self-evident.  Yet the truth of the rightness of saving the documents of “the old times” also feels self-evident.  A friend who lives in a 1937 apartment building in New York’s Westchester County reported that when they lost, to disease, a magnificent copper beech that had stood since before the Civil War, they held a wassailing memorial on the site at which residents gathered to sing “Auld Lang Syne”; several wept.  The physical remnants of the past which have been there longer than us seem to offer a sort of immortality; when they die, whether of natural causes or unnatural bulldozers, they imply that we, too, might be buried without memorial, unimportant and forgettable.

The impulse to preserve is thus, at base, emotional.  Not in a childish or unconsidered way, but in a true and high sense.  To live is to feel.  To feel is to desire justice.  We impoverish ourselves when we destroy the traces of our footsteps on the way to these “new times.”

As long as a coat still has enough threads left to show what it was, it’s still a coat (in my book: I have been known to wear shabby clothes from the thrift store, and for the sense that there were other lives than mine also lived in them, they are my favorites).    Progress requires loss; life demands it, too.  When we speak of what we should save, even remembering in anger what we have lost, we should first speak not a lament for what is gone; but rather, a hosanna for what is still here.



Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A World

Last summer--how can it already be that long ago?--I traveled to the National.
What's "the National"?  And of what nation do we speak?
Read on.  
This is the unexpurgated version of a piece that appeared in Motorcyclist magazine.
And these are two of my favorite photos taken by my pal Joe Sokohl; used here by kind permission.
Now, excuse me while I go pack to go to another rally.


I am in northern Pennsylvania on one of the oldest highways in America, the transcontinental U.S. 6, doing what I love best: eating a luggage-smashed peanut butter and jelly while sitting on the curb at a gas station in the company of the vehicle that brought me here.   I am scribbling in a notebook a few of the six hundred - odd thoughts that occurred to me during the past 140 miles (tank limit), and also on why I seem compelled to do this mainly when I sit on a curb, looking at my motorcycle.  Through it also; air is its heart.  A bike is both solid and insubstantial. I write that down too, as it occurs to me it’s a good metaphor for pretty much everything.

And it makes strange sense, because I am making for a gathering that is simultaneously as unlikely as chance can make anything, and as absolute as familial blood: the 41st annual national rally of those who ride the motorcycle conceived in 1920 by three World War I veterans of Italy’s Corpo Aeronautico Militaire and built in a village perched on the rocky shore of Lake Como.   Then there is the fact that we are meeting to pledge allegiance to our small-town Moto Guzzis in a village in the Virginia foothills of the Shenandoah, Buena Vista.  If that isn’t a little weird, I don’t know what is.

Guzzisti are themselves a peculiar lot—a bit like the air-cooled V-twin itself, maybe, an engine about as refined as a tractor’s but curiously gorgeous too—and in the decades I have known them I have compiled the riders’ Identi-Kit: in descending order, their livelihoods are most likely to be engineer, IT, photographer, pilot, musician, and academic.  They are “independent thinkers,” and they are a veritable portrait of middle-class America (with the exception of Billy Joel).  An owner of one of Mandello del Lario’s output is most likely to retorque his own bolts, possibly wearing a tee that reads “Moto Guzzi: Going Out of Business Since 1921.”

I know motorcyclists who have never been to a rally, but I don’t understand them.  A rally is a combination community barbecue, mutual need society, and tent revival. A rally on the calendar is the motorcyclist’s ritual call to prayer, his muezzin.  From May through September, hundreds of regional rallies convene various tribes, which will each attract a couple hundred; it is the nationals that are the big deal.  BMW’s is an industrial-scale shindig with hundreds of vendors and a full docket of seminars and tours for its 10,000 attendees.  For Moto Guzzi, which is lucky to sell 600 production units a year in the U.S., four hundred diehards will converge.  This year the factory will send neither demo bikes nor even a representative, perhaps in memory of 2007’s disastrous rally in Houston, Minnesota: a flash flood swept away their entire fleet not to mention the semi they came on, along with much else.  A rally is the usual ride, writ large: Four days and hundreds of miles; four nights of beer, bourbon, mediocre potato salad, campfires and campfire tales; four hundred buddies, not four.  We will meet whatever comes—pain or pleasure, or usually both—together.  The banner hung from the park pavilion’s rafters proclaims a truth.  Moto Guzzi: A World of Friends.

On the first day of two I need to get there, I choose the back roads that my bike—a 1986 650cc Lario—prefers over “the slab,” the anonymous interstate that gets you somewhere without letting you know just how.  I am traveling old-school, with tent and sleeping bag strapped to the seat, paper maps, and a route cribsheet in the vinyl map pocket of my tankbag to read while riding and therefore invariably misread.  I had to make a guess at the junction of I-180: lo, it does not in fact run north-south as it does in my road atlas.  OK, then, West.  I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right.  I have never won the lottery, either.

But I chose right, in a way, the way of the journey.  On the phone to friends waiting that evening for me at a Comfort Inn in Maryland, I report the good news: I have discovered an amazing road in Pennsyltucky (as it is called, presaging the next day’s dive into the real South).  Route 74 from Port Royal to Carlisle exceeds every criterion of goodness the motorcyclist asks—little traffic, uncountable curves, scenic surprise.  Then there is the bad news: I had to go a hundred miles out of my way to find it.  No matter.  As a famous long-distance rider I know says, “There is no such thing as a bad day on a motorcycle.”  I would eat a grocery-store meal in the room when I got there, after the rest had returned from their pub dinner.  For some reason, my notion of what constitutes excellent grub reverses itself on a motorcycle trip.

The good day/bad day switch occurred to Tom from Massachusetts the next day. We were finally on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the legendary road that always inspires a prayer to dual gods: the one in charge of providing an asphalt dancing partner who never steps on your toes and can seemingly waltz all night, and the one who permitted us to safely wade into socialist waters long enough for the WPA to build an unprecedented temporal museum of culture and geography the length of a road.  Tom dropped out of sight in our rearview mirrors, and when we doubled back to find him at a scenic overlook, he announced that the main seal on his lovingly restored 1973 Eldorado had given way.  It’s not a Moto Guzzi event without leakage.

It is also not a Guzzi event without the selflessness of the brotherhood’s bond becoming manifest. Tom got on the phone to a fellow sixty miles away who immediately agreed to come with a truck; once at the rally, the Eldo traded places on another rallygoer’s trailer with his Norge (named after the Guzzi that in 1928 accomplished 4,000 km to the Arctic Circle).  Tom would head home at the end of the weekend on a fully functional late-model machine, a kindness extended simply because both men had, one day, found the same object of an outwardly inscrutable affection.

As we pulled in to the rally grounds at Glen Maury Park, my long anticipation of arrival—and to me, a rally is as much about expectation as it is about being there—insured that all I could see were the tents massed along the treeline, the people moving back and forth between their sites and the bathrooms, the pavilion like Valhalla on the hill ahead, bikes passing us on the drive as they headed for ice, or for a ride on the fabled roads of Virginia.  Who might I meet again, after years that would seem as moments? It was only later, after I had unpacked and furled the tent, that I even noticed the park was dominated by Paxton House, an imposing antebellum mansion.  This gathering, from all corners of a united republic, of fans of a European motorcycle few have heard of would be overseen by the ghost of a Confederate general. 

In his honor, perhaps, or maybe just because they’re tasty, that night we enjoyed mint juleps by the light of tentside tiki torches.  In honor of no one but global warming, the next day we sought refuge from the excoriating heat (102 and counting) in a pool below Panther Falls, attained by carefully negotiating three miles of steep downhill gravel road.  And that night, all hell broke loose.

After dinner, the time of commingling and chat, beer drinking and good-natured complaint, someone walked over, smartphone in hand.  “Folks, there’s a big storm headed our way.  About fifteen minutes.”  The radar showed a dense green mass, admixed with angry yellow and orange, stretching from southern Ohio to Tennessee and moving east.  Within ten minutes, rallygoers had assisted everyone in battening down tents and bringing bikes under the pavilion’s roof.  Then we waited for the show to begin.  Some thoughtful person had left a box of Cheezits on a table, which we devoured while watching lightning shear the night sky and trees bend under the force of brutal winds. The storm was a derecho, and when it had passed, it was revealed as one of the most destructive storms in American history.  We had felt strangely calm.  Everything was going to be all right, or would be made so later.  Guzzi people are good at fixing things.

The next day brought departure.   A friend familiar with local roads saw me on my way by leading a private tour, and that is when we saw the storm’s full aftermath: great trees snapped in half, wires festooning pavement.  He found what was certainly the state’s only craft brewery with enough generator to power both air-conditioner and pizza oven.  Afterward I said goodbye.  I was headed north, home, alone.

But a motorcyclist knows this is not how it will always be: alone. Next year we will be rally-bound again.  There will be new expectation.  New affiliations.  And a new date on the calendar on which to fix an anticipatory pin, every year.  When we come together, and when we arrive.

{Photos: Joe Sokohl}

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wild and Crazy

Last week, we celebrated Endangered Species Day.  (Or you know what I mean: not 
a whole lot of celebrating going on.)  In its honor, I wrote about
a new book that is both important and a masterpiece of absurdism--an amazing
feat perhaps only attainable when confronting the subject of man's
relationship to the rest of creation.
Here's my review, which appeared in slightly different form in The Daily Beast.  
Appropriately enough.

Happy Endangered Species Day!  Well, “happy” might not be the word, since there are currently over 1,200 species of fauna listed as endangered or threatened, and those are only the ones we know about.  Some as yet undiscovered may well have disappeared between the time we lit the birthday candles and, appropriately, blew them out.
            If you’re in the mood for a celebration anyway, the Endangered Species Coalition suggests you consider visiting a wildlife refuge, help prevent the deaths of millions of birds each year from colliding with windows by affixing decals to yours, slow down while driving to avoid turning the berm into any more of a wildlife cemetery than it already is, or stop dousing your lawn with chemicals.  You could also depress the heck out of yourself by watching the 2010 documentary Call of Life, in which eminent scientists posit the probably inescapable mass extinction of over half of all plant and animal species before the end of the century.  My recommendation, though, is to read Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, Jon Mooallem’s stupefying account of our historic inability to stop meddling with everything under the sun—bringing masses of creatures to the brink of extinction, then expending perverse amounts of energy and ingenuity to haul them back, one by one.  “Dismaying” is right, “reassuring” sounds like it came from the marketing department, while “brilliant in conception and execution” doesn’t fit on the cover but should.
            The author, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, gives only a brief history of the act signed into law forty years ago (“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” opined President Nixon, pen poised), because his main subject is instead the bizarre gymnastics we have sometimes performed to uphold it.  He uses three examples—the polar bear, Lange’s metalmark butterfly, whooping cranes—to explore our confounding and contradictory relationship to the brethren species with whom we share the planet, though apparently we share the way toddlers do with sandbox toys.  All three of these endangered species are charismatic—awing us with the kind of aesthetic endowments lacking in the Helotes mold beetle, say, or atyid shrimp (“off-brand animals,” in the author’s sly term)—and so they call forth our most conflicted response, the better for Mooalem to display and dissect.
            When first encountered the animals of the New World were so profuse we could not imagine them otherwise, although we wanted to; wolves, bears, and cougars were the massed enemy on the hill, and our stories were of their unbridled ferocity.  Only when we had finally (ferociously) cracked some links in the Great Chain of Being that Thomas Jefferson, for one, had believed could never break—“no instance can be produced of [nature] having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct,” he declared—did the morals reverse.  As soon as the grizzly bear “disappeared from the land, it found new prestige in our imaginations,” Mooalem writes, and his book is truly about the animals of our imaginations, because it is their status there that will lead us either to eradicate them or to save them (or both at the same time; since 2007, eleven whooping cranes—of a population of fewer than three hundred laboriously nursed into existence from the small handful left alive in the 1940s—have been found shot, and in 2011 a Minnesota farmer smashed thousands of eggs and young chicks of the federally protected American white pelican).
            As a carnivore that naturally ranges over vast territory, the polar bear does poorly in captivity, developing stereotypies (think Gus “the Bipolar Bear” of the Central Park Zoo, ceaselessly swimming the same circuit of his small pool).  Now they’re doing poorly in the wild too, dropping from starvation as the ice from which they hunt forms later and melts earlier due to climate change.  This is why the town of Churchill, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay (which a conservationist estimates will stop freezing entirely by 2050, dooming one of only nineteen polar bear populations on the planet), has become a favorite stop on the “Last Chance Tourism” train.  Mooalem visits at the same time Martha Stewart does, although she proves more elusive than any of the bears.  It is one act in the theater of the absurd Wild Ones presents in all its prodigious eccentricity, but by no means the most outrageous.  It is hard to say which of the increasingly nutty episodes in man’s tortured relationship to his own conception of wildness here is the most outlandish: page by page they mount.  You can only stand back and gape.  (Only rarely do the animals have the last laugh, as do three and a half million Canada geese today: in 1962 only a single flock could be found, which was prayerfully coddled and fed, raised and reintroduced.  So they could later be shot, gassed, eggs scrambled in-shell, and chased away by eager border collies.)
            Butterflies, the stuff of so many glitter stickers and ankle tattoos, are nature’s airborne art.  They seem to capture a sense of ephemeral life at its most impossibly beautiful, so our sadness at the prospect of losing even one of the approximately 20,000 species of butterflies known to exist is understandable.  What is not is the contortions a few governmentally supported conservationists (along with a host of concerned, or obsessed, volunteers) must execute to preserve a tiny remnant of Lange’s metalmarks in the small, grotesquely compromised habitat of the 67-acre (55, says the government website) Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge.  The sand dunes were relentlessly mined in the past century, and a gypsum plant and power lines split the park.  In 2006, only 45 of the orange-and-black butterflies could be found, down from thousands a decade before.  They lay their eggs only on naked stem buckwheat, which is being overrun by invasive hairy vetch that has to be pulled out by hand or herbicided to death (with predictable fallout, namely the harming of butterfly eggs).  The attempts to maintain a viable habitat this isolated—attempts, dubbed conservation reliance, that are at once comedic and tragic, a strange opposition balletically explored here—illustrate the phenomenon of “island biogeography.” As David Quammen described in his elegiac Song of the Dodo, islands are “where species go to die.”  But as Wild Ones shows, they’re not going down without a fight—even if it is a futile one, and involves lots of grad students with plastic cups and captive female butterflies.
            When finally we read of whooping cranes reared by humans in costume, taught to migrate behind men in ultralights, and shoved away from food sources deemed insufficiently wild, the question can no longer be avoided: For whom do we do this?  Probably not for the bird who has just been pepper-sprayed “to promote wildness.”  Such efforts—“heroism in the Sisyphean sense”—seem to be made primarily for us, so we can write a bedtime story that contains man and animal intertwined, exchanging nobilities. 
            This book is dense with both thought and fact, but no one will mistake it for an article in the journal Biodiversity.  It is written with a vernacularly light touch, shot through with compassion and wit, not to mention open amazement, the only apt response to the story of our monumental hubris.

Zoom out and what you see is one species—us—struggling to keep all others in their appropriate places, or at least in the places we’ve sometimes arbitrarily decided they ought to stay.  In some places we want cows but not bison, or mule deer but not coyotes, or cars but not elk.  Or sheep but not elk.  Or bighorn sheep but not aoudad sheep.  Or else we’d like wolves and cows in the same place.  Or natural gas tankers swimming harmoniously with whales.  We are everywhere in the wilderness with white gloves on, directing traffic.

            At the end of this rich feast of irony, let there be cake.  Make a big wish, America.  Then blow.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Mary Files

I have been waiting for the day my master’s degree in literature would return me something.  So far the wait has been very, very long. But still one hopes, unless one is dead. The degree cost me ten thousand dollars and the worst year of my life.  In the morning I would push myself out the door in Hoboken onto its desolate streets, walk half a mile to the PATH station, change trains at Herald Square, rattle up the left side of Manhattan, propel myself through the great black gates of the august university, then into some amphitheater smelling of epochal sweat and filled with the drone of Stanley Fish congratulating himself on being thus.  At the end, a hundred students—my compatriots—would flow outdoors, and disappear.  They vanished into the molecules of breeze that animated in slow motion the leaves of the ancient trees.  I never knew any of their names.  I never figured out where they went.

In the library I would look for the books I needed.  They had all been checked out to members of the faculty years before, never to return.  At the end of the day I reversed the morning’s process, capping it with the sound of the deadbolt on my apartment door slammed home.  I was prisoner and guard both, the sentence solitary confinement.

Those were the days when books were as exciting as restaurants are now, the hard-to-get reservation and overwrought morsel on a Pacific ocean of plate—foam, reduction of berries, moss, possibly small twigs made cunningly edible and written about breathlessly—more important than life itself. The city’s used book stores (the pleasantly dirty shelves of the Barnes & Noble annex, the Strand, visited worshipfully, hopefully) gave me long happy hours.  Still, I couldn’t get enough.  I wanted to go to high church for books.  If college was good, university would be better.

The disabusement of this quaint notion was as quick and violent as a two-by-four to the head: college was indeed about reading books, but university was about reading political currency.  How well can you rephrase the party platform? (The more abstrusely the better.)  This was not what I wanted!  Moreover, I did not want to not do what I wanted in the company of . . . no one.

I had not made it into Yale.  My boyfriend, however, did.  On a full ride.  My visits there were drenched in envy, though I could pretend for a weekend that I too belonged here.  We sat with other students from the comp lit department in cozy booths in the student center, talking for hours; we separated to do work in the library of our choice.  Sometimes I would retire to the Beinecke Rare Book Library, filled with a creamy cool light emanating from the impossibly thin Vermont marble that were its windows; such was the magic of this place that stone could be unstoned, gracefully relieved of its rocky essence.  Sometimes I would find a desk in the magisterial Sterling Memorial Library, a cathedral of books wherein, as described by the university, ”almost every available wood, stone, and plaster surface, is carved [with] a design that will remind the viewer of the dignity and significance of learning in general and of libraries in particular.”  The significance fell on us heavy as fur mantles.  Lined up with precision on the shelves set aside for each class were the soldiers of essential texts: twelve pristine copies of the book I so desperately needed, the single copy of which had vanished forever from Butler Library back home.  I loved Yale, but I wish I had never seen it.

That I chose to write a thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—a work whose words and story both utterly escape me now—seems a testament to my state of mind: lost.  I felt pretty much nothing for medieval literature.  One of the readers claimed she could not understand what I wrote because my grammar was so broken.  So was I.

I had told myself I would write about Moby-Dick in my second year, and finally get my mind back, but there was to be no second year.  The loneliness of it all had done me in.  I would crumple their letter, exegetically read as congratulating me on having passed the first-year hazing, which offered a full scholarship and teaching assistantship to continue on to the doctorate, and toss it into the empty metal olive barrel that was my wastecan.

Even grad students need some wind-down, and at night when I was exhausted from the day’s wrestling matches with public transportation and literary theory, I fell into the consoling embrace of Mary Tyler Moore.  There were back-to-back reruns of the old show into the night on my minute black-and-white TV.  More even than Yale I wished to matriculate in Mary’s world.  Her travails always ended in twenty-five minutes and with much smiling.  She perennially rose to the top, with hair and shirtwaist unmarred.  I fell asleep to her voice.

Halfway through the second term, having one day miraculously found a seat on the PATH train and thus the opportunity to take the strap of my Danish book bag off the shoulder it was excavating, I looked up from my book.  The person standing there had said, “Excuse me.  Aren’t you in my Edward Said seminar?”  (The one in which the teacher had asked, “Who would like to be a generalist?” and I simultaneously discovered I had the only raised hand and that the question had been ironically rhetorical.  Of course no one, only me.)

Jim became the only friend I made that year, but he was the only one I needed, because Jim contained multitudes.  It did not take us long to discover our basic commonality: not that we lived in the same small burg far from our hopes and aspirations, but that we both needed Mary Tyler Moore.  He phoned every morning, and we relived what episodes we had stayed awake long enough to consider for essential life lessons.  When we met for beers at the Elysian to discuss intractable educational dilemmas, we found a shortcut to the answer, always the answer. What would Mary do?

I have long had the belief that someday, although I can’t foresee when, my terminal MA will lift me from a dark and empty sea before it swallows me forever; it will be a lifesaver thrown from a small boat that has happened by.  It had to have been for something, the loan I worked to pay off for years, and the year that almost pulverized me. 

It has not happened yet; there is still time.  Until then, I will remember I have lived many lives, and when one is over another always begins.  I have a witness to this usual miracle.  My friend Jim.  But I have not watched Mary in years, and I miss her.


Saturday, January 26, 2013


From the deep fonts of inspiration the words flow.  The craggy-browed writer sits in his sparely furnished study, oblivious to the wintry drafts seeping through the chinks in the plank walls, his spaniel lightly dozing on the rag rug.  He hears only his higher calling, to create.  Create!

One of the slightly mildewed volumes on his beloved shelf of classics--Homer, the Bard, Suetonius (who?)--bears on its spine the most revered name of all: Roget.  This is really the secret of the transported writer: when the brain comes crashing up against a stoic brick wall, it has only one recourse.  The thesaurus.  If you don't have one, you don't write much.  A lot of that vaunted creativity actually comes from categorized lists of blindingly small type on hundreds and hundreds of thin leaves.

Or, nowadays, when we need our information instantaneously--when even touching a few keys seems too laborious, much less consulting the alphabetized backmatter in a book, and we now demand it from the transfer of unseen heat from a fingertip on the screen itself--we open a new window and call up Thesaurus. com.  I open that window somewhere in the second or third paragraph (to foreclose dents on my walls caused by sudden concussion with a very hard head) and leave it there, to be called up in a second by the frustration that is for me the preeminent emotion of writing.  The thesaurus is my balm and salve, and I can go on.  For another sentence or two.

Yet nothing is itself alone, anymore, online.  Even the multitudinously cross-referential work, like the thesaurus in its essence, is now outwardly bound to an equally vast commercial web.  Every site knows where you've been, and it shows you motorcycle gear you must buy; read a news site, and it offers discounts on medications for the ailment mentioned in a memoir you are reading and wanted to learn more about.  Apparently, you have (or want) everything you ever looked at.

Thesaurus. com offers "targeted" (which says only they aim, not that they hit) ads based on the word you are searching, while your forehead is still more or less intact.  It took me a while to notice they were there; ads are just one more annoying cost of business online, and they become easy to tune out, just as in the olden days we used to go into the other room during commercial breaks (which they tried to circumvent by boosting the volume, as if the commercials weren't already maddening enough).  But when I started to look . . .  Who, who on earth compiled these?  (And how?  Millions of words, matched to their "appropriate" commercial synonym.)  What poor cubicle drone in India works for a company that won the contract to sift through billions of possibilities, to fulfill the bizarre obligations of his job?

If you are able to see it in the right light, far from a cynical nuisance, these ads are a value-added proposition for the writer: jokes, delivered along with the right (acceptable, adequate, advantageous, all right) word (concept, designation, expression, idiom).  Herewith, a few from my latest assignment.  I scratch my head.

miraculous                "Buy products made by monks and nuns"

reverberate                "Become a social worker"

evidence                     Master Dispute Settlement


recurrent                     Showers for the Disabled

agnostic                      "Could you be a Muslim?"

provoke                        Anger Management Classes

complicated                  "All metegenics ship free"

invective                       The Motley Fool

heinous                         MSW at online university

rouse                             Bottle-top Filtration System

On second thought, I find that the results mirror the thesaurus itself: a coin toss between literalism and the beautiful randomness of language, connecting us with things we never knew we needed, but might.  Just might.