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.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Gratitudes IV

It's time once again to feel grateful. This is something that sometimes occurs to me spontaneously: an almost electrical sensation, energetic and soothing at once, and I ask myself, What was that? Just as quickly the answer, almost bemused, occurs: Why, that's happiness you're feeling!

More often, though, the totting-up must be conscious.

Talking to my mother on the phone recently, I heard myself exclaim, "Do you realize how damn lucky I am, Mother? My life is so incredibly good, with work that I love, more than enough food to eat, a child I am so proud of I could burst, and a dog whose sweet face I want to kiss. Plus, I live in a place that is so beautiful--that they haven't managed to totally wreck yet, if at all--that sometimes it makes me breathless and I stop the car and stare. How lucky can one person be?" She was quiet for a minute. "My, you have learned a lot recently."

This exercise, while of great psychic value to all, also makes for the perfect post before vacation, when your mind is taken up with packing lists and traffic fears so that it couldn't really come up with anything else cogent; sort of E*Z Blog (TM). And it may have to hold till the car is unpacked, too, sometime next week.

I am so happy . . .

* That I didn't have to be the copyeditor on The Chicago Manual of Style.

Thelonious Monk's middle name was "Sphere"

* The woods right now are filled with baby spotted salamanders

* For the smell of deep-fried food in the air on a particularly hot August day

* That a friend brought and left at my house this especially tasty Grenache Shiraz

* That someone has considerately thought to station blackberry canes along the trail's edge, so that you may refresh yourself during the more arduous parts of your hike

* For peanut butter and jelly (but not just any PBJ: wild blueberry jam--oh, all right, ginger marmalade works too; soft multigrain bread, sorta like Wonder Bread you can feel good about; and chunky natural): the food of the gods

* That at the time we chanced to stop, the soft custard flavor of the day at the Jolly Cow was banana

* That I have a dog who still, and very cutely, chases butterflies. A goddamn living postcard. And a dog who has not gone AWOL on a hike in a very long time (though the collection of small burrs in a long coat has been record-setting of late, perhaps in offset)

* That I have finally learned my lesson: You don't buy your tin foil at the dollar store. (Nor do you get your matches there, either. Just a word to the wise)

* That I can still afford to drive to Mohonk for a hike, and revel in the Million Dollar View, an ohboy sight if there ever was one--but which a European tourist might now pick up for the equivalent of about ten grand

* For the joy on a young boy's face on going to the fair: $75, but priceless, as they say

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Same Path Twice

I dreamed about Kurt Cobain. This was a while ago. I should not perhaps admit that I wrote a poem about this dream; it was vibrant to me, one of those you don't shake it was that physical and strange. This puts me in number of most females in the western world, of course. (But I'm different, I whine.) But it wasn't what you think. We were trying to communicate; we had things to say, but we were caught on separate floors of some echoing ruin on the edge of something devastated.

He came back into my mind today, so I played the great Nevermind again. And was struck again, forcefully (um, Nirvana was never exactly quiet, though it was subtle), by its genius. "Grunge rock" did not begin to capture anything central about this group; somehow, though, "human condition rock" does not quite cut it. But funny to think how this man--now dead, a suicide and a terrible cosmic mistake--captured so much that is scarily essential: how rage is the only appropriate response, and how clean it can be, paradoxically, when expressed head-on. And how almost achingly sentimental. The driving insistence of the tempo and the beat, the yelling of the guitar, combine with humor about sadness, and it all equals pretty much anything the best poets have been able to say about how sucky life is, how much it hurts to be with others, and our beautiful helplessness in the face of it. If music can be compared to water (and it can), Nirvana was the cenote of rock: clear, profound, and bracing.

("What the hell am I trying to say?")

He said everything about the impossibility of living. And since he was so allied with what he made, there he went. He couldn't do it the denial/suppression way, like the rest of us. That spared him coming to this mid-life point, where all around you people's lives start imploding: friendships, marriages, how much drink can be stood, mental equilibrium, all blown sky-high and falling to earth in bits, because people can't hold it together anymore with the chewing gum and twine they'd been using for the first fifty years--not when mortality starts pushing on the whole fragile construction, too. I can't tell you how much emotional destruction is going on now around me.

Why is it that I see something new on the path after I've turned around on it, now coming home? I missed that piece of fluorescent pink surveyor's tape lying in the middle of the road through the woods, but how? I missed the bright red cardinal flower--impossible--on the rail trail. Why did I not see that joe pye weed over there, magisterial as it is, the first time? Of course, that unearthly orange fungus wasn't there on the way out. Just in the past five minutes. (It's been raining a lot.)

Is it a metaphor for what we do in life? Or is it just that I'm a witless person, inclined to visual stupidity?

Probably. Then again, to a horse, say, it is a completely new path: the evil-bad mailbox has jumped to the other side and crouches, cunning, malevolent. Better run! Just like you did from that other scary mailbox a mile ago!

Maybe to us too it is actually a completely different path after all. It's different even when it is the same. Kurt missed something he was telling the rest of us. But the ironies had too sharp an edge. It's never the same path twice, but he didn't give himself the chance to turn around and see what it looked like on the way back.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


Nelly is finished with her dinner. She comes out to stand on the deck as I sit, trying to find the part in the Times Magazine piece from a few weeks ago about how we are now doing to our pets what we've done to ourselves (and our children as well, for shame): give the pharmaceutical companies a grand new sendoff toward world domination by refusing to deal with the situational causes of our pathologies. Which is as much as to say "deny us a chance to live honest lives" by medicating the chemical byproducts of them. No chance (or opportunity) to address the cause.

At least the article gave Dr. Ian Dunbar a chance to speak, and he acquitted himself well. (He might not be as thoroughly behaviorist as one might like, but his "Sirius Puppy Training" has saved a whole mess of dogs from the gas chamber, I'll wager: and I feel tenderly toward him as I do toward everything associated with the tender years of our tender Mercy: a friend, lucky us, gave us Dunbar's video and it was the first exposure to training that us woebegotten, ignorant new dog owners got. Lucky Mercy.) In the article, his was the voice of reason and truth: Drugs are unnecessary, he said, "if you know some of the simplest things about dog training." And those things are? The basis of positive reinforcement: "Ignore unwanted behaviors and reward desired ones."

It's simple. It's Occam's razor, in training terms. And instead of being prevalent, it is ridiculously hard to find trainers who practice it. Instead, we put into play essential cruelty, a form of denial, our favorite mode of living when it comes to ourselves, too. (You know what, moms? I suddenly realize I've had it with the "time out" punishment for kids, too. I think it's a way of smacking your child without the physical contact that would make you look bad, but it performs the same function as a beating: it's mainly a steam valve for a parent who can't control her anger, and results in confused, hurt, resentful children who learn nothing from the experience except that they can be pushed around by people who are bigger than they but who excuse it with the words "It's for your own good." Thus begins a spiral of hidden truth, projection, and fractured reality that will, guaranteed, be passed to the next generation in turn.)

The other morning I watched my neighbor walking his new standard poodle puppy. On a choke chain. The dog, naturally, alerted at the sight of Nelly. But his owner didn't want that, for some reason. He wanted him to sit. How do you make that happen? Why, choke the dog, obviously. Yank. Yank. Yank harder. The dog's expression was full of incomprehension. He had no idea what he was being asked--because he had not yet been taught, no matter that his owner thought he had--and his brain was sloshing in his skull with every jerk. Finally his owner reached over and pushed his hind end to the ground. What did he teach his dog? Not much. Except a few things he would be surprised to know he had.

But give him a reward for sitting? Never! It's immoral!

Nelly stands next to me, her white front paws stained pink by the blood of her beef chuck neckbone. (I am sorry, dear cow.) At least she wears her violence honestly, on the surface.

Yesterday she used up another of the karmic lives she's been granted: how many have there been, now? Let me get out the calculator.

As usual, I put too many things on the docket, hence I was stressed and rushing, late, to all of them. After the car inspection, and the wine store, there was a walk in Woodstock. Already twenty minutes late, and so rude to make my friends wait. The light on Ulster Avenue--oh, what a bore. Please change. We roll to a halt behind a line of cars on the four-lane street. The first lucky thing is that we have to make a right turn, placing us next to the curb. Just chance. Because when the thunder boomed--all so fast--I see a streak of white from the corner of my eye, and I know without having to look. Nelly has squeezed herself out of four inches of open window and is now racing toward the front steps of the house we're stopped in front of. That was the second lucky thing: a house. With a driveway. And the traffic starting to inch forward. The light had changed. Permitting me to pull in the drive; a few minutes later, I was able to think, "How strange, Melissa. You actually put the car in park, and turned off the engine." I had no recollection of it. Because everything was moving faster than the storm that was stirring in the sky, apocalyptic, black and full of bursting fury. That's when Nelly suddenly turned and started racing, full out run, now toward the street. With its four lanes of thick and fast-flowing, unheeding hunks of metal. I opened the door and screamed her name. I screamed. When I heard the sound, I was confused: Where had that come from? The sound of pure, panicked fear.

Then she turned. Ran toward me now. "Get in your car!" I say with happy voice, as I have, thank my lucky stars (and they are: I was born under lucky skies indeed) a hundred times before. Each time, paired with a treat. And that's what saved Nelly's life yesterday. Chicken jerky.

I believe everything happens for a good reason. Or else you postdate a reason in order to explain what's happened: well, hey, that's a good reason, too. Even though I also believe there is nothing in the universe that could postulate a reason. This is a conundrum I'll never solve, and don't want to. Beautiful mysteries.

Is it unlucky to speak of how lucky you feel? Then, uh-oh.

This morning, on a leash-walk along the road here, I saw something glittering in the ditch among the Queen Anne's lace and cornflowers. It was a mouth-blown pot pipe, a spiral of hallucinogenic colors. Someone else's bad luck--Ditch the pipe, quick!--became my good luck. I took this as a sign, as I take everything these days. But what was it telling me? What did the universe have to say about my condition with this chance find?

Get high. And pass the luck around. It's the only thing for the madness. That's my story, anyway.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Downward Dog

High mid-summer; high church. Cicadas the choir, a synaesthesia of the sensation of heat melded with the look of white sun and the sound of buzzing. Together, and forever, they have meant "summer." When I was a child, I wanted to lay eyes on the source of this noise, but I never succeeded in finding them. So I decided that it was simply the sound the summer day made.

I can be back in Ohio, lying on the grass of the lawn, staring up at the slowly moving sky--the sudden erasure of an intervening lifetime--at the sound now of cicadas, starting up, crescendoing, chk-chk-chking to a close.

Right now, the most vibrant thing about the present is the past.

For some reason, as I sit on this bed in Ulster County in a late-July 2008 room, memory is pulling at me, practically gnawing my flesh. An ache of nostalgia has descended on me, and I don't know why, and I can't stop it, any more than I could stop a broken bone from hurting. In a way, the grip of memory is a broken bone in the body--you are imprinted physically by the past, knocked heavily into by the years.

Today, I ache for New York City. I am on a street, the Lower East Side, and I see a certain cast of light. Pictures are coming to me, and I don't know if I lived them, or I'm viewing them from collective memory, just as powerful; I don't know if they're specific (I was there: March 19, 1983), or if they're an amalgam, like pressed leaves, of all the days and months I spent wandering there. Lafayette Street in a late dusk, streetlights to the vanishing point. The ancient gray wooden floor of a shop in Chinatown.

These memories, coming unbidden, are almost a sickness that has come over me. But why? Why is a whole slide show of this meaning-laden place forcing itself on my inner eye, without telling me why it has chosen now to press on my chest with such insistence?

Have you ever had memories so old you cannot place them come back to life, so they are before you, both young and old in the same instant?

The first yoga class I ever went to, maybe ten years ago now, I used to go with a neighbor whom I didn't know very well. Yet it was immediately apparent that she carried a heavy weight of sadness wherever she went. After a while, she stopped going to the class. I saw her on the road one day and asked her why. "I don't know what it is," she said, "but at some point in every class, I'm suddenly taken with the urge to cry, and it hurts too much."

I know what she means. In some mysterious way, yoga knocks something away from you, some armature that's holding up a careful construction. Bang, the supporting pillar goes, and suddenly you feel pure grief wash over you. Is there a hidden spring of it always inside, always bubbling up from underground? Sometimes, doing yoga, a little clot of memory is knocked loose, and you just can't stop thinking about one thing.

For the past couple of years, I can be doing a spinal twist and the next thing I know, I am washing in an image of the Diamond Grille, West Market Street, downtown Akron. I see its blonde wood interior, the booths, the warm circle of its glowing lights. It's a marvelous place, unchanged since the forties, very conducive to memory-dream.

The funny thing is that I never went there very much, and never as a child. Only a couple of times, fairly late in life.

To a Skinnerian, yoga class was accidentally connected to an idle thought I had there once--hmmm, maybe we should make a date to go to the Diamond Grille when we go back to Ohio on our next visit--and now it's a conditioned response to being in yoga class. A well-rehearsed one.

But maybe there's something more than just that. (Yes, I think Skinner was one hundred percent right; but Freud was about eighty percent right, and both can fit into the same world of experience.) Yesterday, my therapist and I were discussing various schools of thought. I want to know how and why--though certain of my friends are clearly disapproving of this quest. They think it mires me in the past; I think it is the way out of it.

So I persist. A book the shrink recommends, for some nuggets of interesting information, is I'm OK--You're OK. Well, if you say so. (Wasn't this pop balderdash? Perhaps so, but I'm now less inclined to dismiss everything on the basis of appearances.)

Chances are the library wouldn't have this old and disparaged book on its shelves anymore, so I'd probably have to get it from interlibrary loan. I open the door to the library's foyer. And my eye falls on a large stack of books that have just been placed in the giveaway bin. On the top book. I'm OK--You're OK.

What does this mean? That the universe wanted to me to learn about Transactional Analysis? Or that there are just too many damn copies floating around of a former bestseller that no one wants anymore?

In it was part of the answer I'd been seeking. Everything we experience is stored inside, printed on us because we are made of such light-sensitive emulsions. All there, laid down in order. Some unprocessed, from the time when we were unable to do anything but take in events, feel what they made us feel.

Now I just have to figure out why New York City, why now, in midsummer. Why the summer cicadas of this fateful time, a one-year anniversary, are calling forth these memories of a time that was filled with hope and expectation and sensation. And longing. Deep, aching longing for something I did not have. The desire combined with the sights of a beautiful city that itself expresses hope and longing in every vista down every street. Downtown New York. Why haunt me, you city, you ghost?