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.