Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dream State

On Route 17, past Salamanca, a small sign by the side of the road: "Natural Area." As opposed to what? Beyond it, a scene that spreads to the vanishing point, land, houses, trees, empty warehouses, soil.

How bad can anything truly be? I have running water -- in the house. No need to go outdoors at dark-thirty, break the ice lying heavy on the surface of the trough. In the house.

I dream my computer has been stolen, and my laptop, and the external hard drive, everything, everything gone. My work, my life, my connection to things outside me, my toil of a year and a half. Gone, too, is the antique desk it stood upon. This is a desk that never existed in reality, unlike the computers. But it is taken anyway. The room is empty, echoing now. It is a room I never had, but would have liked if I did. The person who should have cared in my dream does not care at all: "Oh, why are you complaining?" And so I learn to stop.

Sudden Poem

Those early evening stars,
alight in a washed blue sky
(Repeat after me: "Ciel");

there for me
as I turned the car along a curve on the Berme Road
--and there are many Berme Roads here, none of which meet, so beware!--
but then, you
might have an epiphany, getting lost, cursing yourself,
at twilight in this part of the world where you often go out and
look for a very

Blessings often wear funny disguises--the earrings you unwrap, and think: Eewww; I don't like these at all. And then, over time, they transform into the pair you reach for every time you go out. They make you feel wonderful. Or, say, the funny fleece shawl/sweater thing, with no arms, your mother gives you one Christmas: When am I ever going to wear this? The short answer, it turns out, is every single chilly night, now; it alone permits you to sit up and read in bed. And so it is with so many gifts. Those tricky things.

Dreams carry with them the residue of the past, and a bit of the future. They are the bridge between night and day. Your fears, and your hopes. The year past and the one to come in one strange, half-known package. Pull the ribbon. See. See.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Home for the Holidays (Kitsch/Non-Kitsch)

The little things are beginning to bug me. A splinter I can't get fully out, or a pebble in the shoe; a broken filling in the tooth, which the tongue runs over ceaselessly until raw.

Although sometimes I still look out into the diminutive living room of this temporary abode and think: How cozy! And mine! more often these days I just think: How diminutive.

No room to have people over, either for dinner, or for the cocktail party I always itch to give whenever the holiday season occurs: after all, god must have made eggnog, candy canes, and triple-creme cheeses with some purpose in mind, yes? (This recessionary year, the party would have to be BYOMC: bring your own milk chocolate.)

The little things combine into one big steamroller of dissatisfaction: the drawer in which I keep foil and waxed paper scrapes on its broken guides; the shelf on which I keep the quart of olive oil--used forty times a day, on everything--is just a tad too short in every spot but one, the one I miss all the time; the kitchen faucet drips; the dishwasher leaves crud on the plates; only three burners on the stove work; the toilets don't flush very well; the hopelessly ugly and cheap storm door doesn't fit the jamb and must be slammed so forcefully the glass insert shakes loose; there is no mudroom or even hall, so you are greeted by tripping over a pile of shoes, and the mittens fall behind the recycling containers they must sit atop--and thus must be shuffled from one to the other every time you need to use those. Capital among the deficits: no fireplace, no beating heart to the home. And a long winter ahead. But the granddaddy of all these little things is blowing up ever larger: the need to leash-walk Nelly every morning. Which means leaving my son alone in the house, as well as interrupting the 50-yard dash that is the morning attempt to be ready for the school bus.

This means, as I learned last week, to court danger. I leave my son hopefully well occupied eating his breakfast or getting dressed (or so I have requested, at least). I then take off down the road, praying to the gods of quick evacuation. And also of safety: I hope nothing goes wrong. Last week it did.

I had just reached the bottom of the drive when I heard it, heard it with those super-keen ears they give to all new mothers when they leave the hospital: my son is crying. Wailing, actually, in a combination of fear and pain. I can tell this particular admixture precisely.

As I raced up the drive, a thousand ghastly scenarios cinematically unreeled across the screen of my frightened head. When I burst in the door, he was standing there clutching at his throat. (But no spurting blood, as one of those films had showed.) He screamed, with difficulty, "A Lego! A Lego is in there!" At least he could talk, somewhat.

What do I do? How quickly the possibilities occur: Would my neighbor know what to do? She's had three children to raise. Surely one, if not two, had gotten a Lego stuck in his throat too. Would an ambulance be able to arrive in time? Or do I throw him in the car--with the nearest hospital thirty minutes away? Instead, I bent him over double and whacked his back, then did a watery version of a Heimlich, or what I hoped was one anyway. Out it popped.

I would like to say I embraced my son in gratitude upon this happy ending. Which I did. Right before the recriminations began, the aftermath of fear putting me on maternal autopilot: What were you doing putting things in your mouth? You are nine years old!

It was quickly apparent, though, that he had not "put things in his mouth"; he had merely used his teeth as a tool to pull two pieces apart. Just as he's seen me use my teeth as tool too many times to count. Just as I've always done, since youth, when my mother used to admonish me to stop, I was going to break a tooth. I think maybe this is called karma.

Just the same, I am looking forward to a better, more permanent home situation soon. A home of our own. Then I can only blame myself for the little things that go wrong.

The first thing I'll do is put up a fence, so I can let my dog out to walk herself. The second thing I'll do is put some more logs on the fire.

Happy holidays. And looking forward to a new and improved year, for all.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Paean

You never know what you're going to find in the dollar store. [I love the sensation of allowing myself temporary status as world's biggest sucker on passing through the door; also, it's like getting an extra prize in the Crackerjack to live in such a depressed area, because then one has so many different dollar stores to choose from. Although you learn just how depressed your region is when the dollar stores start going out of business en masse.] Like a DVD collection of ancient Christmas cartoons, including one for which Paul Anka did the songs; it features early seventies space robots dancing as well as a flying gang of aliens called the Bells Angels. Then there is the B&W "Toyland Caper," from the dawn of cinematic time; one must be grateful for the fact that this material is being archived, even if it is shockingly violent (the cats get beat up very badly by the proto-Mickey Mice). Or maybe because of that. I don't know.

Whatever, it made a fabulous beginning to the December 7 Home Film Festival of Holiday Movies of Yesteryear, subsumed in the general heading of Pizza Picnic, a weekly observation in our household. It does not necessarily concern pizza, but it does concern dinner eaten on the bed during family movie night. Nelly has been conditioned, whenever a certain large round tray is brought out, to evince uncontrollable excitement at the memory of my stupid decision, years ago when she was just a puppy, to bring her dinner upstairs too. Although I discontinued this practice years ago, the excitable behavior (you got it: screaming) has not extinguished. Why? Of course, you moron: you replaced dinner with something else edible. That's because, in my attempt to keep her quiet so we can actually watch the goddamn movie, I have to do so with a batch of tiny treats. I am trying to keep her quiet and on the floor, so she is not seen creeping inexorably closer to our plates on the "table" in order to finally reach out with her snake of a tongue and snatch the victuals right out from under our forks. The gold stars in this scholarly lesson are leftovers, spirited home in sodden paper napkins, from restaurant meals. Fine food that would otherwise be thrown away.

This gives me an idea that I know would never fly: partner to the excellent effort carried out in cities to collect uneaten food from restaurants to feed the needy. Well, what about the half-eaten stuff off plates? That could be collected to feed needy animals. That gristle and half-consumed salmon fillet; that lima bean puree and excess hamburger--all far better nutrition than the processed, dead, chemical and byproduct laden stuff they call dog food. To those who are offended by the notion of giving "people food" to animals, I say: You blooming idiot. How the heck is a dog to understand your arbitrary categories? They know only tasty food, and yucky food. Those are the only meaningful distinctions they can comprehend. After all, "dog food" is the invention, a mere seventy years ago, of hucksters who needed a place to unload "excess" wild horses (now there's a concept) and slaughterhouse detritus.

Instead, my dog is dining on bits of a feta-and-spinach omelet, courtesy of Sweet Sue's in Phoenicia, and the remnants of my dinner partner's chicken quesadilla, from Chefs on Fire (you read that right). All while Burl Ives sings tunefully from the little box, as the immortal Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cavorts across the screen. I've seen this movie every year since the time I was six, and I will never tire of it. Now my son embarks on the same journey. I hope that, although the landscape of life is now changing permanently, constricting in ways I think we are only now beginning to imagine, a permanent shift from the bloated consumption we had come to think was the American way, a misfit elf who wanted to become a dentist, and the little reindeer who was different from the rest, will accompany us into the future. Every year, no matter what else may come.

Friday, December 5, 2008


It's nice to stop talking for a while and let nature have a few words.

--A boy, age 9


Sometimes you have to listen to the wisdom of your child. Like when he stuns you with something you should have known, as you walk through the woods in Ohio. You have paused on a little wooden bridge, and all around is the sounding quiet. The water trickles beneath you; the brown leaves quiver on the branches. Your dog is far away, but near. You want her to come back soon, though, so you can get to Skyway for some fries on a silver tray hanging on the car window.

We were in Akron last week, where I renewed my love affair with the Cuyahoga River valley--O place of mysterious ravines, and odiferous waterways!--and thus with my appreciation of the man who saved this area from its certain destruction at the hands of greed incarnate (aka developers). This man was the late John F. Seiberling, who had the vision, and the passionate love for this Ohio land in his blood, and the position--in the U.S. congress--to do so. My Thanksgiving contained a silent prayer of thanks to him. We said it together, in the middle of the deep woods at Oak Hill, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area.

On the long drive from New York to Ohio, the wheels of the fast-moving car loosed my thoughts. I had long wondered why Nelly had pulled a Cujo on her little "brother," Monty the Boston terrier, two years before. It had seemed so bizarre, so untoward. But suddenly, now, as I was thinking about my older sister and our long-simmering antipathy, it came clear: resource guarding. Nelly had a bit of a Problem in this regard, viewing meaty bones, open dishwashers filled with food-bedaubed plates, the kitchen floor and its crumbs, any dog toys, and my entire person, as resources she must guard at all costs from the incursions of other dogs. She could act pretty vicious. And so did my sister and me, snarking just as vociferously. What was the resource we were fighting over? Parental love. That's when I realized that human jealousy and canine resource guarding are one and the same thing.

Before I came to this, on I-80, I had spent the previous month--far too short a time for the task--belatedly trying to crate train Nelly. I thought I could condition her to the cue that when people sat down to eat, she should retire to her crate. Not. (Though we did make some progress; with a few more months, and many bowls of cut-up grilled cheese sandwich crusts, I think I could get her there.) Now, though, I knew I just had to prevent her from taking possession of anything she deemed so valuable she would pin Monty to the floor for the temerity of wandering too close to it. I thought if I could avoid bloodshed for a whole week, it would be a miracle. I didn't sleep the whole first night wondering how I was to pull this off.

As it turned out, I did. And completely missed the other big danger--did I mention Nelly is a screamer? My family went around with a shell-shocked look on their faces, or their hands over their ears, for whenever the dinner hour approached, or we dared to put on our coats, Nelly would start vocalizing--loudly and sharply--her distress. Boy, she calls it like she sees it. Whence this impatience, little girl?

My younger sister, who has never worked with a dog or heard of B. F. Skinner, floored me in much the same way as my boy did on our walk in the embracing woods. "What if you didn't give her whatever it is she wants, when she screeches like that?" Bull's eye, dear one: unwittingly, she had described one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and exactly the one that a knowledgeable positive reinforcement trainer would suggest. Negative punishment. (She did not, surprisingly, suggest positive punishment, which is where our entire world, alas, is oriented.)

I had no good response to her suggestion. Because it was correct, because I had been lazy, because Nelly's screaming is so entrenched, well practiced, and damn near instinctual with her. Also because, in daily life, I could never get to the point of actually doing anything, like going out the door or giving her dinner, because I'd always have to be giving her a chipper no-reward marker like "Too bad!" and pulling the food bowl away, or turning back from the door. I'd be a prisoner in my own home.

Not to mention, in this particular case, I would have missed the movie at the Highland Theater, the absolute best theater in the whole world, where you can get a drink at the bar, and a one-dollar bag of popcorn, and sit in a booth at a table and watch the silver screen that is the proper size, meaning the width of the whole building. All the while a neon glow from the art deco bar warms your back. And it was Nelly's screaming that made me need to leave and get a drink. Got it? Round and round it goes. Life. For which I am thankful, quite thankful, anyway.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

What Will Save Us? Biology Has the Answer

I want to let you read something. It's written by a man incarcerated at Attica state prison, apparently forever (he did something very bad). I've been corresponding with him for years, and have found him a deep-thinking, and deep-feeling, man. He is black, by the way.

A quote I heard yesterday on a radio show: "Rosa sat, so Martin could ride; Martin walked, so Obama could run; Obama ran, so our children could fly." When I look back over my nineteen years in this hell-hole I will forever lament the fact that I could not vote for Barack Obama. I've voted in every election since I was eighteen, and even voted in 1990 while on Riker's Island. I can't ever remember voting for anything, I remember voting against things. . . . All I know is that the world looks a lot brighter today than it did yesterday, even the sun is shining brighter and the air tastes sweeter and once again I am proud to be an American and so proud of my brothers and sisters who took such a leap of faith in our future.

I cannot comment further on that. It is everything already.

Because it is about what we are in our cells: bonded as a species. And therefore made to survive, which we can only do together.

As an example, take the local Moto Guzzi listserv I'm on. Usually it's about get-togethers, finding parts, connecting with like-minded others (um, yeah, then: species bonding again). But a couple of weeks ago someone posted an idea that, given the economy's meltdown, any list members with knowledge of available jobs let the rest of the list know. You know, altruism. Assistance. Love (dare I say it).

This is the tenderness of bikers. It sort of cracked open my heart.

Last night I was at a party. I didn't know many people there, and I'm not good with meeting others, alas. So I sat on the couch and watched. This put me near the front door. Which turned out to be the prime stage for a beautiful drama: the care of fathers for their children. They knelt and made sure the hats and gloves were snug before their offspring went outdoors into the chilly evening to play. From across the room, I saw the mothers quickly glancing to make sure their children were being cared for; they were satisfied. I don't think the parents were aware they were exchanging information across a crowded room: the drive to do so is instinctual, hormonal, built into the pair bond. And the pair bond is one of the most naturally gorgeous things in all of nature.

The evening before, I had sat in a large gymnasium as an Arctic wolf was led around on a heavy chain-link lead (and how do you teach loose-leash walking to a wolf?). The representative of the Wolf Conservation Center was telling us about pack structure, about how the whole extended family cares for the young in equal measure. They must have very subtle methods, built deep into their biological essence, to communicate to one another this information about the pups. Suddenly I realized it was that same language that caused our two dogs, Mercy and Roscoe, to exchange information on which one of them was to take care of us when we were out on walks together. They would take turns, one staying with the human "young," the other going off to forage and hunt. Then, wordlessly, and sometimes we did not even know it had happened (they were both black dogs the same size), they switched places. But one was always there.

Watching by the door the impossibly lovely concern displayed by these fathers--remembering my own pair bond, lost--did something. In the vernacular, it slayed me. I could not stay at the party, so overcome was I by both grief and thankfulness for this transporting vision. I left, and I left my own offspring in the care of my pack. In my absence they would watch him as their own.

I drove home quickly, the tears pouring down my cheeks. Then I realized they might be tears of joy, for I had been allowed to see what it is that will save us, from all we currently face. It will be called forth by the needs of others, and we will be powerless not to hear it. It is a part of our fluid, our cells. And some people call it love.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Dog I Need

Here is what he suggested.

From the left, a car approaches. On its side is printed the legend "Sweet and Cute." Next panel: Another car moves in from the right, and on this one is written, "Big Pain in the Neck." In the third and final scene, the cars have collided with each other, their front ends crumpled to merge as if into one. Now all that is visible is a single, wrecked car: "Sweet Pain."

This is the creation of my son, revealed to me on the cold, wet trek to the car after our miraculous capture of the wild beast that is Nelly. (Now he coos to her as she sleeps, "Oh, Sweet Pain! You are so cute, Sweet Pain." And I remember the words of trainer Kim: "You get the dog you need." Because she will teach you exactly what you need to learn. But what if I keep refusing to learn? Oh, damn! This is what traveling the yogic path is all about. And I keep losing the way.)

We were on our way back after the Number Two Most Disastrous Hind-Brain Rabbit Hunting and Disappearance Episode. (Second only to the four-hour, nighttime winter disappearance into the briers chronicled here almost two years ago, the one where I thought she was gone for good, and was almost grateful for it.) Nelly had been so good lately, too; I thought she was a changed dog.

I should know by now--in fact, I do know, but as with so many things, I seem to be perfecting the ability to know but to persist in ignorance anyway--that certain weather conditions predict trouble. A soaking rain seems to amplify the scent of rabbits. And so it was a couple Saturdays ago. But we went for an off-leash walk anyway.

To High Falls, the Five Locks Walk, heretofore one of our more innocent walks. Nelly's beau Platypus was there, and Platypus's human, and my son. All was well. Except it had been raining. And then we turned around: we were going to a party in a couple of hours, and I needed to get the tomato tart into the oven. Halfway back to the car, and no Nelly. I sent the rest of the party back to wait in the car, lest she take a different route back to the parking lot, then decide since we weren't there to go looking for us in the middle of the road. There she would be done in by an SUV hurrying to the New York Store for a loaf of ciabatta and a four-dollar coffee. (Nelly is a tenacious rabbiter; I am a tenacious catastrophist.) I waited by the footbridge for ten minutes, anxiety growing. For her as well as for the tomato tart. But why wasn't I having other visions, knowing what I knew? Well, for one, I didn't know there were enormous brush piles situated right next to miles of brier patch, just through the woods to the edge of the apple orchard there. Nelly had hit the bigtime, oh boy.

This is what I realized only after thirty minutes of running through the woods, including the incomparable experience of stepping into a hidden swamp up to my ankles, so that now my forest floor, as it were, was as soaked as the one I was scrambling over. My son and friend had driven in the car up to the other end of the trail, to see if maybe Nelly had gotten her directions reversed. Or was eating roadkill in a ditch, a likelier scenario. But no, she was up in the cut brush, running around like a flea on a hot skillet. When she saw me, she looked at me through eyes deranged, then sped off, on the circuitous scent trail of rodent.

I called out, saying "I've found her!" But they could not hear. Down I ran to the parking lot to wait for their return. (I was getting my exercise today for free.) Then we drove up to the orchard, and I gave my directions. We'll draw a tightening cordon around her, all three. To my son I said, "You know how I always tell you to be careful to not pull on Nelly's neck, or her tail? Well, today I don't care where you grab her. If she goes by, throw yourself on her faster than you've ever moved before."

That freaking tart was never going to get baked.

Platypus acted as GPS. Thank goodness, because the brush was so thick it was impossible to see her under it. With him pointing the way (he is a setter!), I started walking on sticks. I only spotted her through the thick lacing of pruned branches, on which I was trying to stand four feet above the ground, when she was directly under my heel. But it was so tight I could barely fit a hand down through them. Much less bring up a twenty-pound dog. But miracles sometimes happen. Even to owners of crazed and besotted dogs. I was lucky to be able to grab her--somewhere--and pull her up. On the way back across the top of the brush pile with her in my arms, my leg suddenly went down, all the way. I could have lost my eye, from a stick. But I was lucky again. And when, oh when, is all my luck going to run out? How many times had Nelly run across a road? How many lives did she, and I, have?

This was brought home, yet again, in the woods out back last weekend. A chance conversation gave me the information that it was the opening of hunting season. ("There are too many deer. Their numbers have to be controlled somehow." Well, there are too many humans, too, and they do immeasurably more damage than deer ever could. Yet I note no one is issuing hunting permits for us.) So when I headed out for a quick walk with Nelly in the wet and dusky forest behind the house, she wore her orange vest. Then, in the gathering dark, I saw a tree move. No, it was a man. With a gun.

He stood only a few feet from me. He said nothing. Then he moved. Nelly was now out of sight, and then I heard her bark. Furiously. She had found something. Now, though, it was a yelp. And then the man lifted his gun. I called out "NO!" Boom. I saw a streak of orange and white go by in the distance. And I started to run, too. Faster than I can remember, with my heart obstructing the passage of breath. I approached the house, gasping now. For many reasons. And there she was, waiting by the door, frantic.

I could see blood on her shoulder.

I reached her, ran my fingers all over her. It was miraculous, yet again. The blood was someone else's. She was fine, just scared. It was something else out there that lay dying.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Past Comes Through the Air to My Radio

Before I moved to this region ("this region" being not the chair in front of my computer, although I do actually live there; I mean upstate New York), for many years the soundtrack to my daily life was, in part, whatever kooky brilliance WFMU threw at the wall until some of it stuck. And in another part it was the lonely wind soughing through a twenty-five-acre red pine plantation, which incredibly enough I appeared to own. I had two homes then, city and country. At the latter, there was no radio reception in the car, and only spotty numbers in the house, so I was always desperately draping the wires of the T-antenna over various pieces of furniture in order to conjure the spirits of NPR. Otherwise, we'd have to make do with only the glossy riches of "nature"--that wind; the coyotes at night and our own dogs' returning howl; and (ohmygoodness) silence. But here--here, odd pieces of my past started returning to me via the radio dial.

There I was, 90 miles up the Hudson, and the first night I plugged in the kitchen boombox and started spinning the dial, feeling a bit lonely and displaced and homesick for the city that had been my first real home away from the homeland, and suddenly I hear a familiar voice. It is as if my mother has materialized in my kitchen. But not mother, exactly; rather, it is the postulated ideal mother, in the form of a mellifluous, disembodied voice of an announcer from WQXR, New York City's commercial classical station. I thought she must have reached across all the miles to me, me alone. Maybe this was a ghost station, and I was hearing something that had gotten loose from time and had been floating out in the ether until my radio grabbed it and pulled it down inside my new house. Or maybe some fluke of the weather was allowing me to remain connected over a great emptiness of space to the place I left behind.

It was eerie, standing there and hearing it. As if something out there knew I needed an aural bridge to travel across to permit me to return to the place I both did and did not want to leave. This kindness of the airwaves.

Later, I found out that there was a relay station nearby, and the signal I thought was from the city, direct to me alone as an otherworldly gift, was there for all. No mystery, just concrete.

But before that happened, I found something else on that little purple machine. Another part of me, cut loose and all but forgotten, floating around in the old air of my personal past. WVKR! How had I failed to notice that we had moved back to the vicinity of some of my most powerful happiness? (I admit it, college was wonderful, the great awakening it was promised to be.) Now I was living not far from Poughkeepsie again, though I was far from the girl who knew so little when she went there, decades ago, and now knew so much. As well as so little. (So it goes.) Now I tune in this station whenever I want, and there's a little frisson every time I do. Because geography is as fractured, as strange, for me as the separate selves that are apparently stored within. To visit the past in the present: oh, such a weird joy.

[composed with the help of a 2006 organic Redwood Valley Petite Syrah]

Saturday, November 8, 2008

New Day Dawning, Again

The historic event of this week--the one where you pinched yourself to make sure it was real, and it appears to be!--is making me reflect even more than usual on the paradox of good often arising out of what appears to be bad news. Maybe that ill-looking black soil is really the ideal growing medium of delicate, bright flowers.

I've been experiencing it (touch and go, of course, but that's the way it is) over the past year and a half since the delivery of my apparent bad news, which--according to the predictions of many of my friends--is slowly transforming itself into the sign and symbol of good luck. And now it's happening to all of us in a much bigger, nationwide kind of way, because it is the frighteningly dismal crap of the past eight years that made us willing to wake to this new sunrise.

I left my friends' house on Tuesday night tired, elated, but also strangely anxious underneath it all. Whenever I get something nice, I immediately think about what might happen to the gift: it might get wrecked, or lost. What broken thing inside me does this reprehensible thing? Whatever it is, it sure makes people recoil. And that, in turn, makes me feel even more unfit: I can't even be happy in the right way! Things work better for me when I am handed something that overtly appears to be a terrible blow, because then my inner Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm gets busy, digging under the top layer to reveal the sweet incipient green down below. And it is always there. The process can feel almost mystical. Inevitable. Made just for me, to learn the lesson I most needed to learn.

Last month, driving down the Thruway. At 75 mph, with one's child and one's dog quietly occupying themselves in the backseat, one concentrates very deeply on what one is doing; maintaining safe following distance, watching to see which idiot (the NJ tags a useful giveaway) might be approaching from behind at hurricane speed. You never lose the attentive lessons learned from motorcycle safety class: at a stoplight, stay in first gear, clutch engaged, with an eye on the mirror, in case the guy coming up behind forgets he has brakes. Et cetera. On the road, this is when it really pays off to be a pessimist. (Ha! Finally, Melissa!)

So I'm thinking about what we'll be doing over the weekend, the friends we'll be seeing, where to eat dinner, the route I'll take in (should I cough up the money for the Battery Tunnel, or brave the Brooklyn Bridge for free?) and suddenly a thought appears like a printed legend in my head: Did I ever turn off the broiler?

I'd packed a lunch containing a not-dog for my son before an early pick-up at school; when Nelly is in the car, I don't like to leave her at a rest area while we go in to eat--more negativity, eh.

Not-dogs are greatly improved by being served on a bun that's been lightly brushed with olive oil, then toasted under the broiler. This oven, though, is new to me: before it lies seven years of turning just one knob to shut off the heat, which became instinct. But now, suddenly, I have a stove that requires me to turn off two knobs. It hasn't even been seven months. You do the math.

Oh, come on, I told myself. You really are negative, just like they say. Obsessive. This must be one of those convenient catch-all worries for all those painful thoughts the mind wants to repress. And you've got more than your share of those right now.

And suddenly, I was standing in a parking lot in the Adirondacks, arguing with my old boyfriend while a cold wind made the tall pines whine in the darkness above. He was saying, over and over again, that he was sure he had left his iron on, and it was slowly burning through the board on its way to conflagrating the entire Brooklyn apartment building. I was trying to assure him that he had not. I could be certain of this, too, since we had earlier that day already turned back from the road to go home and check. It was not on, even though he knew it was. I felt then, and I felt now, a burst of sympathy for the weight of horrible worry he must have been carrying, to make a fire like that in his own mind.

Still, I needed to make sure there would be no fire in my rented house now. When we arrived in the city, I went online to try to find the phone number of my neighbor--whose last name I did not know. I spent 30 minutes searching for a business listing for him, since I did know that name (it's on the side of his car), but I could not turn up anything there, either. Finally, I conceded defeat and called Janet, the one friend I call on again and again. Four hours after I had left home, she drove to my house. She reported later that the heat slammed into her like a wall when she opened the door.

Why had that thought occurred to me, somewhere south of Bear Mountain and moving fast? Why does anything occur to us, the thoughts that can save us?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ankle Biters

If I am about to save you a $9 ticket fee--oh, and a $6.75 one too, for the kid (or at least that's what it costs at my local Cinema One Two Many)--would you please just send me half of it, so I could recoup at least part of what I wasted the other night by going to Beverly Hills Chihuahua?

(Wait--you mean you never had any intention of going? Well, could you send me some money anyway?)

My son and I had seen the trailer for it a couple months ago, a rousing and pretty funny Busby Berkeley - esque number set in an Aztec ruin with a cast of hundreds of tiny dogs. Made the movie seem like a must-see. But when the credits rolled last week, my son's expression was dour. He had waited through the whole movie, through two hours of Us Weekly level comments on the contemporary penchant for absurd-looking trophy handbags and similar inexplicable excesses, in expectation of that scene. And it never occurred. That's because trailers have become another American lie, commercials that bear no relation to the products they sell. He felt ripped off, as well he might. He is persistently initiated into the disappointing realities of modern life, courtesy of capitalism.

The movie might as well have been titled Beverly Hills Paycheck: it was the usual grabbag of cliches, stock situations, a seemingly endless rollout of gags about wee doggies, perils, reunions, uplift. Film writing by committee at its most dispiriting. There was only one true laugh in the whole film, and we erupted into giggles and leaned against one another helplessly: it concerned a rat and a pinata, and I'll say no more.

The other moment that prompted at least a knowing smile from the likes of me--offered as a sop, and there's always one in kids' films these days, to the parents who must accompany their children--was where the horde of chihuahuas arises to declare "No mas!" to their enslavement as coddled lapdogs, dressed in ridiculous costumes and jewels. (At the end, the writers do yet more duty, their social give-back, with a printed request that the audience consider adopting a shelter dog. You can't argue with that, no matter how predictable.)

It reminded me of everything I dislike about lapdogs, which is that it's people who have made these dogs who do not resemble dogs. This is why my jaw clenches every time someone declares that Nelly just must have some Papillon in her. "No mas!" I inwardly shout.

It doesn't help my outlook on small breeds that recently someone, I can't remember who, informed me that lapdogs were originally bred to perform a truly unsavory job in the days of nonexistent hygiene: to sit on the pubic region and thereby entice fleas to abandon the ship of their human hosts for that of the dog's.

I lacked the inner strength to ascertain if this disgusting tale is even true.

But tonight, I loved Nelly's quite possible heritage as a lapdog. I curled up on the couch to watch a movie after dinner, and I heard her tags jingling as she ran down the stairs, down from her usual evening berth on the bed. She jumped up with me and pressed her back against my leg, as close as she could get without merging flesh. Or maybe we did. She laid her chin on my thigh, her smooth head offered up to my stroking. Pure sugary affection for her flooded through my veins. A good thing, too, considering what she did the next day on the trail. But for now, she brought that warm complication of love to my being.

I was watching Jules et Jim, a movie I had last seen twenty-five years ago. I was astonished to see that I remembered only one or two brief seconds of this film, and the rest was as if I'd never laid eyes on it. That was no doubt because I did not understand it back then, three and a half whole lives ago. I did not know what that kind of pain--love always presaging loss, loss yielding back to love again, like a dish passed around the table--could mean. Tonight, too, I found that I did not understand it, the ability to court and tolerate pain like these three did to one another. But now it was the other side of nonunderstanding. The experience was for me as if I had gone through the surface of the mirror and now stood looking back, a different perspective on the same idea, both sides seen, positive turning into negative, then back again, watched at a remove, that of life lived, lived life.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


David Foster Wallace is, in the end, proof that outside affirmation is nothing in the face of our actual need for it to come from elsewhere. Like, within. (Why do I feel so defensive for saying something like that, something that is literally a matter of life, death, and/or fundamental happiness? Nothing more profound than that, eh? Yet it's impossible to speak of things like "affirmation" or "self-esteem" in this culture without emanating the horrid odor of triviality: "pop psychology," nothing more despicable than that. Now I realize I have just quickly given away the whole point here: we are so afraid of certain kinds of truth that we do a number on them in order to dispose of them quickly. So through projection the critical becomes the unimportant, and poof--literate intellectuals need not bother.)

Back to this particular literate intellectual. He gathered awards as easily as one might heap a basket with windfall apples in October. Um, darn easily, I'll tell you from experience just yesterday. His writing was so fluid and self-assured, smart and fluid (yes, I know I said that twice). You'd think he would wake up every morning and immediately start laughing, a robust acknowledgment that the world was in his hand.

Instead, he woke up one day and felt so hopeless and irrevocably shitty he killed himself.

I didn't know him. I don't know his true story. (You are aware that nonfiction writers tell you only so much of their true debilities as to make you like them in all their frail humanness, even to the revelation of partial but never entire shame, right? Just so we're clear.) But I know that his death had to do with a deep, deep fissure right through the center of his being. The hopelessness of ever tacking it together--of having to keep on living without anyone ever knowing how deep it was, riven through the place where a sense of self might have gone--had to have been what got him in the end.

I sit in the den of the house I grew up in, the cozy womb of bookshelves, dark paneling, and television. I am, I seem to recall, a teenager, though I might be older. I am watching a show on PBS. What I see makes me remember forever this moment and its setting, although now, the minute I write these words, a worry steals over me: Are you sure? Sure you didn't in fact watch this on the little black-and-white set in your less cozy, but even smaller and darker, bedroom in your second apartment in Hoboken, when you were 23?

A man on the screen is pulling on one element of a hanging mobile. When he does, the whole thing goes out of balance; it can no longer move freely, harmoniously connected yet also discrete. This is a model of the family, he is saying. One member of the family falls, or leans, and every other member must scramble to pull backward, contort themselves to cover the void.

This notion was so radical to me, it stopped time almost. It began, at that moment, to do nothing less than alter my worldview. And after beginning psychotherapy, this reconfiguration continued until I could no longer understand any motivation, whether of individual or society, the same way I used to.

The man, I am so unfashionable as to admit, was John Bradshaw. A world-shaker. Galileo, Bach, Melville, Einstein, and John Bradshaw. Oh, how funny you are, Melissa!

(Later in the series, he said something else that struck and stayed with me, an image frozen on the internal screen: Proportionally speaking, the adult is an eighteen-foot-tall being to the child, fearsome and formidable and otherworldly. [Use that power wisely, gently, parents.] It made me realize how afraid of my mother and father I had been.)

Every time someone assures me how happy their childhood was, I think of the tenuousness of that mobile. And because they have gone out of their way to voice this assurance, it becomes suspect to me. There is the truth, and then there is the self-protective turning away from it. Again and again. On the basis alone of what I hear when I chance to meet other dog owners on the trail--strangely convoluted stories about how their dogs are evincing "guilt," or their purported ability to know something they've done in the strictly human realm is "wrong," or is not bothered or or unafraid or "just playing" when their body language is fairly screaming that none of these is true, or is not being hurt by the zaps on the two (yes, I saw this on a beagle yesterday, and was sick) shock collars the dog is wearing when he is actually yelping in pain and redirecting the aggression that arises to the other dogs he meets on the path--I know our far greatest talent as people is the turning of reality into fiction.

I've been reading Bradshaw again, demeaning of my status as a literate intellectual as this admission is. I know David Foster Wallace would have found something laughable in it. It would have looked so pathetic to him, and in that, fair game for his ever-trenchant observation. But I offer this bit from Bradshaw, without shame:

Our culture does not handle emotions well. We like folks to be happy and fine. We learn rituals of acting happy and fine at an early age. I can remember many times telling people "I'm fine" when I felt like the world was caving in on me. I often think of Senator Muskie who cried on the campaign trail when running for president. From that moment on he was history. . . . True expression of any emotions that are not "positive" are met with disdain. . . . Playing roles and acting are forms of lying as a cultural way of life. Living this way causes an inner split. It teaches us to hide and cover up our toxic shame. This sends us deeper into isolation and loneliness.
It's too late for him. But maybe not for some of the rest of us, who in hearing it may suddenly not feel so alone with the truth, so damn deathly alone.

Friday, October 24, 2008


This is not the regular post. This is a movie review. Because I get severely bummed when the truth is as big as a billboard yet no one seems to see it. (This does in fact foreshadow tomorrow's post, though I didn't plan it that way. Or did I?)

Oliver Stone's new film W. is a strongly worded statement, but don't go looking for the meaning in the movie itself; it is carried extra-cinematically. Namely in the timing of the release: three weeks before election. So that he's asking us a question, and in that form issuing a whomp of a powerful warning.

The question: How [in the hell] does a man with no higher aspiration than baseball commissioner get to be president instead?

And the answer: through the unfair exercise of legacy (the same way a dope got into Yale), machinations, and the carefully constructed opportunity for a puppet to hold one of the most powerful positions in the world so that Machiavellian (and cynically greedy) operators can pull his strings.

The movie, qua movie, is a measured bore--just like its subject. But the warning is clear: Watch out, America. Watch out, because this is what you're really dealing with--a post that has lost its meaning, and a government that is no longer what you believe it is. This is how we get into trouble. And rain destruction on anyone who stands in the path of what the operators want (money, power, oil).

In this, Stone has created one of the scariest thrillers ever.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Feeling Oats

Every year, I say I'm going to catch it this time. But the leaves change color anyway, while I'm not looking. It's the analog to the birthday that creeps up without us "knowing." We'd rather not know, thank you very much.

Still, I'm very happy for the change of season. Autumn feels like death to some people--flora does indeed look like it's dying, but it's not; it is dying in order to live again, just like some of us. This is the stream of paradox into which life pushes us. It carries us along swiftly, and cleanses us at the same time. But don't resist, or you drown!

Some people are anticipating a winter they feel is dark and oppressive, a boom that's lowering. It's called SAD. (Who came up with this one? Is there a hiring office for Apt Acronym Creation? What's the salary like?) There should be an award for naming this one, Seasonal Affective Disorder. Aka despondent depression. I've never felt it myself, but I am intimately acquainted with its effects.

Nelly doesn't feel it for her part; quite the opposite. The snap in the air brings a snap to her step, and she bounds off the rail trail (or "trailrail," in the parlance of a non-native-English-speaker I know) hot on the heels of a chattering squirrel.

[Think, for a moment, about what a squirrel's heels actually look like. Thanks.]

Just teasing you, Nel! I know you can't climb trees, heh-heh. She freezes, looking up at the branches, noble face outlined against the brown of the woods.

She is full of life, and so am I right now, for some reason. I don't know why, but I'll take it. Even though there seems to be so much that is frightening now. The prospect of another Great Depression. This horrible bubble we've been forced to sit on top of and now feel deflating under us--You mean none of that money ever existed? It was not real, yet we were spending it anyway, billions and billions and billions of dollars they simply call "the deficit," much of it ending up in the pockets of "contractors" for the "rebuilding" of a country we destroyed for no purpose, and somehow buying things like seven houses for one person who pretends to represent us--I can only shake my head, then decide where today I will take my dog for her walk.

Yes, though, of course I feel genuine fear: I do not want to be alone on November 4, because I am afraid I may then have to cry alone. I naively do not know what people are capable of; I do not know what the Republican Party is capable of, though I am being given to fear that it is truly deep into malfeasance and practically evil. I understand they are busy trying to wipe the rolls clean of all the new voters recently registered, because most of them are the previously disenfranchised, i.e., likely to support Obama. And do not underestimate the power of racism to curdle the milk. (My prison pen pal, who happens to be black, writes, "I'm really freaking pissed off at McCain after the last debate. I mean, why didn't he just call Barack a nigger? Instead he used the Southern 'that one,' which in case you didn't know is what passes for it in 'polite' circles. . . . McCain/Palin rallies are one rope short of a lynch mob.") This is something to be frightened of, and energized by. I am feeling my oats now. I don't want to cry alone. If the Bad Guys (and Gal) win, we will face an unprecedented disaster, on moral and physical levels both. We have been living in Fantasyland for a while here in the U.S.; we created an unsustainably high tower of cards. That it is now blowing down is cause for a paradoxical pleasure: only in destruction of the unreal construction is there the hope to rebuild something that can last because it is built on a foundation of truth.

Only because the leaves fall and die can the green of spring burst forth. Only by grace of a small recent disaster could I have unwrapped this gift of possibility: a new life based on the giving and receipt of love. Renewal hides inside death. So I say: Death to the old regime, and its false promises. Life to what is real. Feel your oats.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Driving through New Jersey on a Bus

In New Jersey, on Route 17, a place called Romantic Depot--the most unromantic, scary place you can imagine. Like death. Also, "depot" is maybe not the right image to call up in promoting warm, loving thoughts.


The Meadowlands: cattails, and cranes. Building cranes. Every inch of land not designated swamp is growing huge machines, poised and silent on this day, a brief pause in the rising of great stadia and electronics company headquarters.


Gas is 3.07. Cheap enough to forget what has happened, what you must face.


Then it comes to you: New Jersey is all about forgetting.

Who you were. Who we are.


And finally, around a triple curve of traffic, a spiral bridge drawing us down, around, down: the majestic city, glittering on its flat pad laid on the water that is gold in the sunset. Impossible, unreal. Distant, yet where we are going. We will get there. And when we do, it will not look like anything we are seeing now.


At the corner of Essex and Delancey, in a part of the still irrepressible city, a liquor store with Chinese characters. And then the English explanation: "As old as hills." You believe it.


And leaving, once more, it is late at night. But New Jersey defies it, glowing under pulsing yellow-orange light. And then, the bus slows. Three lanes of double red brake lights extend all the way to the vanishing point ahead. You creep. Ambulance lights circle. Finally, suddenly, you are upon it: a window seat onto a frozen moment, breathtaking, the sight of an empty red car, flipped onto its roof, a river of lost fluids darkening the pavement. Silent and strange. Then you are past, going faster, and you think: This is what New Jersey is. Something stupid and crazy, frightening and deep, all at once.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Please, I Want to Understand, Please

The students are all on their yoga mats. The teacher is still downstairs, checking in latecomers. She greets each with a great smile and a delighted exclamation that you've come, as if she'd heard that you'd fallen overboard in the middle of the Pacific, and that you're now here is so wonderful! Hello! You managed to swim ashore! That's just great!

This welcome is enough to keep you coming back every week, but there is more. The truth of it is that this is your big treat, the only thing that you give to yourself (the rest is to your child, your dog, your work, and your myriad possessions; but come to think of it, giving to them is giving to yourself, so why does it sometimes feel as though it's not?). You know that afterwards you will drive home in the dark, to a dark house, get out of the car, and, newly limber, pour yourself a glass of wine. Then you will make yourself the kind of dinner you can't the rest of the week when you cook for someone else too, replete with black olives and salad (or swiss chard, the most recent bogeyman of the nine-year-old boy).

The teacher comes up and dims the lights; you feel yourself start to relax. You have come to almost be able to exemplify her instruction: realize "there is noplace you need to be but here." You start to anticipate the wince-sigh-wince of a good spinal twist. And, at the end, before that lovely dinner, the gift of shivasana--the only time you really like the idea of being a corpse.

The teacher turns on a CD. It is some sort of faux native American flute, though sometimes it's pseudo-Indian chanting by Californians who've seen the light, or e-z listening guitar, wallpaper music that flows through the back of your head because it isn't smart enough to take up any of the front. Like a cheap version of Brian Eno's "Music for Airports." (You think wistfully of this record, sitting far away and out of reach in the hermetically sealed storage pod with the rest of your things which will rise one day in a sort of Rapture, the glory day when you find your home--and you mean this both in the larger sense and in the quite concrete one.)

You find yourself blissfully happy the music police are not here tonight. Because you like this non-music, its unchallenging quality, perfect for exactly this time and this place. It reminds you of a long-ago time, another of your many lives, when for six months you lived on ether and fantasy. You went down to Philadelphia, and the promise of happiness, and through some mistakes of happenstance, the soundtrack to the journey was the stuff they call Lite Jazz. Why this was, you don't remember; it just happened that way. And so the memory of your happiness for that time is laminated to this particular type of sound, and now it melts on your tongue as sweet as sugar ice. So you don't want some tiresome pedant from the hipper-than-thou school of music appreciation giving you a bad grade for liking something you shouldn't.

You close your eyes now, breathe in deeply, out. Just as you're trying to find your sitz bones on the floor, vaguely aware of the sound of American sitar floating in the air among you all, anticipating the "om"--

Please, I want to understand: why are there always some people in a yoga class who have to show they've taken voice lessons by harmonizing an octave and a third above the rest--but off-key--on the "om"?

--and suddenly the guy next door starts up his weed whacker. The sound comes in through the studio windows, open for fresh air against the moment when, in the middle of a long Warrior II, your thigh muscles start to tremble and you realize you're feeling rather warm. Is there any uglier sound in the world than a weed whacker? Zing, buzz, zing, buzz, around his yard he goes, and it goes on and on, thirty minutes, while you try so hard to concentrate on the breath, and then, at last, it stops. But in a few seconds, you can hardly believe it, a leaf blower starts up, and its sound is perhaps even more abrasive, and you can't really imagine there could be that much plant matter left to require so much energy to obliterate.

Please, I want to understand: what is so awful, so offensive to the sight, of leaves and growing plants that they must be assaulted ceaselessly by gas-powered machinery so that finally the yard is as free of this abomination of non-human life as a living room?

Now you are starting to think ugly thoughts. It comes into your head, the phone call from a friend you got just before coming here, in which you heard the upsetting news that she encountered a couple of guys that afternoon in the cornfields where you walk the dogs who told her they were going to set steel traps "for coyotes and rabid foxes" along the placid stream. It suddenly comes to you: Do they think you're idiots, to believe a leg-hold trap can tell the difference between a sick animal and a well one? What is it, a medical diagnostic tool? You can't help but think of the fox you saw a couple of nights earlier, coming home after dark: he crossed the road, reached the berm, stood for a moment as if on a pedestal, turned his head and was silent, surveying a far greater reality than the one you inhabit, then faced forward again and leapt away with such grace it left you breathless. So now you can't get it out of your head, the scene of struggle, torment, pain--

Please, I want to understand: how can it be that the skin of this living being can belong to someone else? To be torn off and exchanged for some money to be put in a pocket?

--and next you are remembering the passage in a book you just read, about the early days of Amazon exploration, in which one of these heroic men of science forced a pack of hysterical, fighting horses and mules into a river full of electric eels and piranhas--driving them back in with spears when they sought to escape--just out of curiosity to watch how they expired.

Please, I want to understand: what gave them the right?

Please, I want to understand: what is the matter with us, anyway?

Finally, you realize your ability to heed the injunction to "be present in only this moment" is shattered, though you try to get it back. You breathe deeply. Night is falling now. The sound of the leaf blower abruptly stops; it has taken him over an hour to get his lawn completely clean, and you know that it has accomplished something deeply meaningful for him, even if you lack the capacity to know what it is. As does he. That's all right. We know so little about what we do, or why. These are the eternal questions. Sometimes you just want a few moments where there is nothing you want to know.

In a few moments you will say it, and bow your head. You will put your hands together in prayer position. Then you will acknowledge everyone in the room, most of whom are strangers to you, with a gaze and a smile. Namaste.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Living End

There is good reason to not talk about what I am going to talk about; the subject is repellent, disgusting, outre even. Yet it is one we think about often enough, and it is of especially vital and consuming interest to parents of both canine and human children. (I'm sorry, though, when it comes to feline, the subject is truly unspeakable: even when I had a cat, I felt this way. Which is one big reason I have not gotten another cat.) I'm talking s--t.

It is believed that wolves were domesticated after they were drawn to human settlements by the smell of human waste. To me, and you, it is repulsive, as it needs to be, full of dangerous pathogens. To dogs, though, I am sad to report, it is one of the finest delicacies. (As is the aforementioned end product of canned cat food: people who have both species in their households know that the only reason most dogs desist from killing their smaller brethren is they don't want to harm the source of those Puppy Tootsie Rolls they love above all other hors d'oeuvres.) You don't truly know despair until you have to share a car ride home with a dog who has ventured into the bushes at the park and come out having rolled in human excrement. It would have been far preferable for him to have ingested it--though in that case you have to worry about not learning that fact until after the big sloppy kiss.

Although you might have known by the look on the dog's face: it's called "a shit-eating grin."

I don't hold much with Freud's sort of strange notions about children's purported feelings about their productions; one suspects, with a sinking feeling, his theories say something about his upbringing, a little bit aberrant (or was it just the age, or the Germanic milieu?)--and who wouldn't want to generalize, or normalize, something like that? Just to get it off you alone?

But we parents need to admit one thing: our own children's do does not not repulse us. Nor is it pleasant. It's just . . . very interesting.

I love to watch Nelly when it's time. Her lithe little spine inscribes a full "C." Her legs tuck in out of the way (her long tail feathers, um, not always completely, but that's just an error of nature). Her eyes get this faraway look. She is the picture of a vulnerability. And it pulls at my heart.

Who knew that pooping could let loose a tide of bittersweetness?

Then, I admit, and you might as well too, I make an inspection. It absorbs my attention. For this is where you will notice anything amiss. It's the same reason you should groom your horse every day: peering minutely at every little bit is when you'll notice tiny cuts, bumps, parasites. Plus, it brings you together.

Crap: our little bond.

This is also where I can become self-righteously proud of my dog's food: garbage in, garbage out. Because she eats Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, what she expels is smaller, less smelly, and disintegrates far faster (becoming an odorless white powder--a pile of calcium, I suppose--within two days) than that of dogs who eat kibble. In other words, crap.

We were just as interested in, and not offended by (well, usually . . . ) our baby's output. It's a good thing, too, since we had to be so intimately involved with it many times a day. This only pertains, of course, to your own baby. Anyone else's--yuck. Nature is beautiful, isn't it? Takes care of everything.

Then is this the place for me to ask the question that's been burning a hole in my brain for years now? OK. So why, alone among species, did humans end up needing toilet paper? What's up with that? Did our evolution arise to include the need for corporations too, to provide the products to finish the job nature wouldn't? Weird.

Weird, too, is this disquisition. I can't explain it. Like so much else that comes floating into consciousness. You mull it over, and it floats out again. I'm only going to bring this particular subject up once. And at that, it's once too much. As is the admission that I love Nelly so completely that I love watching her, you know, do her thing.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Just Perfect

I must have done something very, very bad in my previous life, because I have been reincarnated in this segment of my current one as a nonmotorcyclist. When my son celebrated his ninth birthday last week, I realized, A decade. That is how long it's been since I last rode a bike. How is this possible? (The locution we use when we look in the mirror and finally see we have a face commensurate with our years: Why, we rule the world. Um, don't we? What, you mean we're no longer the youthquake? We're the invisible middle-aged? Not possible!)

Yet it happened. This long lacuna in my life in which I behaved as if Live to Ride, Ride to Live was a slogan for other people. Nutcases, to be precise. But I was happy when I was a nutcase. I am just beginning to recall how happy. Others foresaw this for me: I think it's time you started to ride again, Melissa. Read your own book, in case you forgot.

The yearning I am beginning to feel--not to read my own book, I mean really; but to turn around and finally face the imposing presence I have sensed following me through the years, breathing quietly, patiently--may be a form of Seven Year Itch. (A little delayed; that's me for you.) Biologists tell us this type of wanderlust occurs naturally at the point when human offspring become self-reliant. Well, not in the world we currently live in, but cavemen children were apparently a different story.

I yearn again for the tribe. For that is what we were, with our own customs, language, greeting (left-hand wave as we pass each other, with personal variations: the full hand up, or two fingers down; but the left hand at any rate, because the right is on the throttle, the pumping heart of this spectacular beast you have become). And the tribe is fractured into subgroups. Mine was, of course, the Super-Elect, Italophiles. (We voted for ourselves.) The kind who thought it fun to spend the whole night cursing at the spirits of bad-natured, black clad grandmas who cackled as they made short circuits in the electrics.

There was never a question of what you were going to do with your weekends: "Wanna ride to Danbury?" "You going to the IMOC rally?" "Yeah, we'll have dinner at that diner with all the pies before we have to hit the highway," after a day eschewing the straight-and-not-narrow for the twisty byways; and I have noticed an almost tenderhearted relationship between the biker and the authentic diner.

There was never a question of what you were going to do with your money, either: as a friend of mine put it, "Motorcycles are to buy. Not to sell." Projects in various stages of revivification filled the garage; the car could live outside. The most precious of the polished stones went inside; I mean inside, in the house. I have personally seen a Laverda and several Moto Guzzis that had displaced hall rugs. This is only appropriate for a machine that quickly becomes something else: the most intimate of partners, the one you entrust with your life.

One talks, therefore, to one's motorcycle. It is a relationship of dialog--I know you, inside and out--and is made false if it is based on mere economic exchange. After all, what sort of friend can you buy with your Visa?

There are, I suspect, many, many brandnew Ducatis--a bike I think of as dollar signs on wheels--currently centerstage in people's living rooms, but very few are engaged in this deep, existential conversation (not composed of wifty philosophy, mind you, but the central practicalities that are what underlie the theory). That's because the opening line is usually something like, "Here, let me rebuild those carbs for you!" and no one's saying that to these over-engineered babies. The paid mechanic is.

But then life held out to me its sleeping powder that caused the long night of nonriding: first it was the puppy. I'd go out for a Sunday ride with my buddies, and an hour in I was talking to her behind my helmet--thank goodness no one could hear, because it was death-defyingly embarrassing--and wishing I could turn around and use my horsepower for one thing only, go fast, back to her.

The puppy was, predictably to everyone but (surprise) me, the precursor to the baby: a year before he was born, the white motorcycle, already sadly bereft of her rider, who felt unending guilt, was sold to a Brit. He intended to ship her across the sea where she could join the lovely accented tribe over there, which had a particularly exciting approach to threading the city-traffic needle. There, too, she might have all the tires and spark plugs she wished but could no longer obtain here (there were only 250 of her type on these shores)--I felt like a penniless mother selflessly sending her child off to live with a wealthy family that could give it all the things she could not. And when I closed the garage door on the newly empty space, I closed the door on a part of myself.

It slept. And now it awakens. But in the intervening years, everything has changed. The bikes are bigger, faster, made up of different designating numbers. I am the Rip Van Winkle of the motorcycle world. It scares me, not knowing anything. It scares me, the whole prospect. Everything from my aging physical apparatus (O reading glasses: I surrender at last) to the change in the world, its million more cars and trucks, to a new tendency toward an almost stultifying awareness of my own motivations, as if I am now two people intead of one, standing beside herself and questioning everything.

I read recently that the middle-aged are vastly overrepresented in the accident statistics. Another thing to stand there and think about while the moment flees.

Well, I have a solution of sorts to at least one of the misgivings. The numbers on the vintage bikes have not changed, have they. While I slept, their names at least stayed the same. And their years have kept pace with mine. We might make a team, after all. With, I think, a sidecar for the kid and the dog.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Flag-Wrapped, Afraid

This morning the rain falls from steely skies, the thunder rolls off into the distance. Fear runs through every member of the household, and like all fear, it walls each of us off so we are alone with it, unreachable. You don't really hear anything but that white rushing sound in your ears; you can't talk sense to yourself in this state. [Another powerful reason to forgo coercive training methods that use the fear of punishment to shape behavior: ability to learn is at its lowest ebb when the subject is afraid.]

This morning, Nelly glances frequently at me, nervous: she does not like this thunder business, though she has it in far milder form than the millions of dogs who pant, tear things up, sweat from their paws in this type of bad weather. I make a move, and she runs to the bottom of the stairs: Are you going up now? To that safe place, the bed? No, my pet. I need to clean up my boy's breakfast dishes. OK, now, let me get my pen and these books and, yes, up the stairs we go.

Earlier, before we went out to wait for the school bus, my son suddenly looked afraid. Then, it was out of him in a spill: what happened yesterday at school, the boy who teased him until he saw red and retaliated in a particularly ill-advised way (though, of course, retaliation is never well-advised: but I know what the urge feels like, oh do I ever, the heat that burns from inside until you don't know what to do, and you start swinging madly; my boy has alas learned from a master, and what a hypocrite I am now to have this discussion with him about turning the other cheek, the fact that getting back never gets you anywhere, the ways to be bigger than your nemesis and gain the respect of your teachers but, more important, also yourself). He fears failing in school because of this; he fears the lingering anger of the two teaching assistants who reprimanded him. He fears, period, and cries out his fear in my arms. Then he tells me he feared I would be angry, too.

As for my fear, waking me at 4:30 in the morning, so that I lay in the dark totting up all the things I have to do in the next four days, an impossibly long line of items parading steadily through my head to an oompah-oompah beat for an hour or more until I finally fell back asleep, only to be awakened again at 7:00 by the bass thudding of a computer game being played (against general's orders) in the room below my bed. Sometimes I really hate computers, you know? Lots of reasons. Go into later.

But there is an underlying fear in me now, the same one that afflicts every American with both a brain and a heart: the fear that the awful duo, McCain and Palin, could actually be allowed to finish off the ruination of this country (next: the world) started in earnest by you-know-who. When he was elected, I remember all too well--the body retains the imprint of these aversive experiences, cringing at their remembrance ever after--I found myself curled up on the floor of a hotel room, watching the TV screen in horrified disbelief, until tears of frustration and anger fell onto the carpet. (Non-stain, of course.) There was no one there to retaliate against, only my overnight bag.

Now I fear I couldn't live through something like that again--and I wonder, secretly, if I would really follow through with my threat to move to Europe--but what I fear most is Sarah Palin. Because she, as I wrote in my letter to Women Say No to Palin, represents the ugliest tendency of humankind: the desire to conquer and control all others. (That goes for wolves as well as wayward people, in her view.) In other words, the will to fascism. She brings to mind Sinclair Lewis's dictum that "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

(And reminds me, non sequitorially, of the line in Billy Wilder's 1948 A Foreign Affair, "If you give a man a loaf of bread, that's democracy. But if you leave the wrapper on, that's imperialism.")

She makes me so afraid. Deeply, shakingly afraid. The worst part of my fear is that so many look at her and are not afraid. Contra Roosevelt, in this case, the thing I fear is not fear itself, but rather its absence.


Saturday, September 6, 2008


Observe: the dog. It is T-minus fifteen and counting. (Dinnertime.) She moves closer to the launching pad, i.e., refrigerator. She plasters herself in a down to the kitchen rug, and if she were any more flat she would be made out of cotton rag. She has put her chin down, too. And stares, quietly intent (the only time this particular dog ever is quiet; did I mention she's a screamer?).

I think she believes--and what, really, is a dog's "belief system"? interesting question, though I think it's essentially the same as ours, without the incense and robes--that putting her head on the ground and piercing me with her eyes actually makes the food come into existence.

This is the legacy of, get this, one five-minute training episode that occurred two years ago. It was at ClickerExpo in Cleveland, and we were sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt, which with its carefully anonymous furnishings (analogous to the politician's speech in election year) you couldn't tell from any other of a thousand Hyatts, or Radissons, or the rapidly proliferating spawn of a half-dozen other chains.

Ou sont les Quality Courts d'antan?

The only thing to differentiate this hotel was the fact that nearly everybody walking through it was attached by leash to a dog. This is a splendid thing, by the way. A couple hundred hounds taking elevators, waiting for room service, peeing on the bushes outside--ah, life as it should be. To have a dog here marked you as an insider, and it made me cozy in exactly the same way as riding a motorcycle into the arms of a rally did: you could instantly see who was inside the cordon and who was not. (Helmet, yes; no helmet, no.) We are a species--very much like the dog--to whom belonging is so needed it marks us in every way, inside and out: a primitive song sung by our cells, and evident in the way we are absolutely driven to pair, and to form our packs.

This night in Cleveland, I was blissful in the sense of belonging. I was one of this little multitude who believed that you did not need to coerce or intimidate your dog, bruise his trachea while pretending it wasn't happening, shock or yell or deride or "show who's boss." (Who is boss?) We were suffused with the sense that it really was possible to change the world, with only a clicker and a bag full of dog treats.

It is an ethical decision, and a practical one. The obviously happy dogs all around us were proof of both. (And, see, if it can yield happy, smart dogs, why not happy, smart children? And happy, smart citizens? Oh, B.F. Skinner, you gave us the means, but our imaginations have failed us.) Many of these dogs were "difficult"--abused, unsocialized, shy, fear biters. Their people had been driven, through love, to find a way to work with them that worked, because otherwise they would be dead. The way was positive reinforcement.

So that night we sat in faux petit-point-embroidered wing chairs in the Hyatt lobby. Nelly looked perky--her specialty--and said, Well, what the heck are we doing here, anyway? And Jolanta, gripped with training fever (for it can be a sort of intoxicant, reinforcing the trainer as it reinforces the learner), started free-shaping with Nelly.

I really wasn't one of them, the brilliant trainers here: my timing was terrible, for one thing. Jolanta's is great, and as they say, timing is everything. The clicks were coming rapid-fire, and Nelly's attempts to get them even faster were rapid-fire, too. (She's a quick dog.) When Jolanta started to see a little pattern--Nelly was trying to figure out if the act of dipping her chin to the floor is what was making those beef tidbits fall from the sky--she withheld clicks for any other movements but those toward this. And in a minute, Nelly was putting her head down on the marble, reliably, again and again. Eureka. This is what they want, she thought. And she was right.

Now, every night, as I am a typical slow human, and taking so, so long to get the dinner bowl ready, Nelly figures she needs to do something to get that food already. Well, it worked before. Down goes her head. I am still not as quick as Jolanta. But eventually dinner materializes. And Nelly, in her infinite wisdom, knows she had something to do with it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


If we didn't have the beach, the last place in America where people do not primarily function as ports for their electronic equipment, the publishing industry might be dead. But here, at Coast Guard Beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore, all around me, people are reading. Maybe they're foreigners? No, they're reading books in English--classics, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, nonfiction and mysteries, YA and magazines. The rest of the people stare off at boats slipping along the horizon, or eat sandwiches, or fly kites, or play Kadima, or sleep. Even more varied than their occupations are their bodies. Infinite are the ways in which we sag, bulge, ripple, mottle, swell, discolor, bend. To the gulls who patrol alertly for those sandwiches, stepping among the beach towels, eyes darting this way and that, or glide sideways through the air to stop, unflapping and unblinking, on a current three feet above your head (watch out), we look all the same. We too don't see their infinite variations, in the size and placement of that red spot on the beak, the width of tail feathers, a million other aspects of differentiation that make one gull go, Ooh-la-la! and other say, Wow--weird!

We are in the human world here, nature but a preserved strand along a central corridor of purveyors of fried fish (that's what we think of nature: Good, but better with tartar sauce), t-shirts and boogie boards, "art" work, and, yes, books. (But more ice cream than books, by a ratio of six to one.) Don't get me wrong--I love it. We're having fun. Yet I wish it weren't quite so relentlessly human--Cape Cod as all the proof you need that overpopulation will kill us. And I wish I didn't have to leave Nelly behind, due to vacationland's human bent, though she is having the equivalent of a resort vacation herself with "Aunt" Janet and her beau Willy. She is also very probably eating more ice cream than I am.

But I am filled with longing. For the depopulated beaches of the past. To re-unite these halves of my life. To not always feel such longing.

At least it reminds me that I am alive, and that I have been. I watch my son in the surf--he declares it the best fun he's ever had, to be smashed face-first down onto the pebbles of the seabed--and know he is laying the groundwork for his own future longing.

But, I hope, no other kinds of irredeemable pain. Yet I fear it is so, especially after reading a book I found in the beach house we rented, which was clearly put there expressly for me. To make me feel almost overwhelming despair. (What bad angel wanted that?) It is about the largest study ever done on post-divorce families. And it is called Second Chances, only because it's clear the publisher told the author, "I know--but no one will buy it if we title it It All Sucks!"

The gist of it is, If you care about your children, move heaven and earth to avoid breaking up their world. (We like to repeat common wisdoms, such as "An unhappy marriage is bad for children," but the psychologists found, except in a few extreme cases, that divorce was always worse.) The news does suck hugely for these poor kids: far higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, suicide, delinquency, alcoholism, and lower educational attainment than their parents. (The psychologists could explain almost everything else, but never understood why almost all of the men in the study, no matter how supportive or involved in their children's lives until then, basically stopped giving a shit when their offspring turned eighteen. College became a daunting and debilitating struggle for a great number of the kids, and not one father cared, even the wealthy. My theory--because you knew I had to have one--is biologically, not behaviorally, based: At eighteen, your child becomes your competition. Overall, this study makes naked so much that is obviously biological, no matter how much we try to retroactively dress it in rationalizing costume.)

The news, according to the study, sucks for me too, but I can assure you I really don't care, not in the face of what my child will be going through. I'm also perverse enough that, when told I now belong to a 98 percent group of anything, to do anything to snub that membership and get myself into the 2 percent camp instead. Conventionality is a bore.

Nonetheless, I wept about what I'd learned from this book, until a friend I was sitting with on the beach told me gently it was not something for me to read now; it was maybe something couples contemplating divorce should read, but not much you could do after.

Ah, yes, so. Regrets. I obviously missed the sign they posted over the Bourne Bridge: Intact Families Only Beyond This Point. From every corner I hear, "Now, wait here for Daddy"; "Mommy's gone to get the towels." This was my past, too. Now I am different. But aren't we all? Just look around you here, on this bright beach.