Saturday, December 26, 2009
When we arrived, moments to spare, I wrestled a large suitcase, a carry-on, and two sets of skis from the outlying five-dollar-a-day parking lot into the terminal, by which time I was clammy with sweat under my ski jacket. And learned our flight had been cancelled. More monologues ensued, this time actually delivered. We were rerouted to Texas. Then another cancellation. Yet more forceful but polite words were exchanged. (A helpful hint: do not remonstrate with the beleaguered airline staff behind the counter; they are being yelled at from every corner. Instead, look them in the eye, smile with compassion, and say, "It must be terrible to have to deal with all this." Only then describe your predicament and ask for a hotel room; in the afterglow of human understanding, they will give.)
Why do I not remember all of this? Because some things are meant to be forgotten.
I wrote last year at this time about a bridge. Dreams, being a bridge between night and day. And now, I think, I was really saying that I felt myself to be on a bridge, from darkness to light. I know, from the feeling under my foot, that I have stepped off the swaying bridge and now stand on the other side of what has past.
"I am in a different place than last year," I find myself saying to people. What I mean is that I could countenance my son's request: Please, Mom, can we stay home for Christmas? We've only done that twice.
It did not take long to realize that in the magical-thinking way of the child (or, hell, of most of us) he hoped that in waking up at home as he last did several years ago he would also wake to the restoration of his family. I had to disabuse him quickly of this, though: it was as pleasant as telling him that people and animals suffer horrifically all the time, all over the place, and therefore we must be mindful of it. Something you don't want to think about, but must.
And so he and I will wake together, in a new house: home for the holidays. I am grateful not to be hurrying through the crowds to get to someplace else. I am also a little frightened of how I will feel. Alone? Sad, as a conditioned response triggered by the memory of this date, repeated previously in woes of various sorts? A vagabond of the heart? I am in the position of asking people to take us in this year, a bit squirmy, emotionally speaking, but as necessary to the happiness of my child now as getting to the airport was then. I need to prepare a speech to the internal state trooper who would try to stop us getting all the way to our destination: feeling all right, now, with what we have, and what we are. Which is two lucky people who have each other. Splendid.
Can I wish the same for you? Yes, I do. I do.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Inside the school doors stands a tree decorated with ribbons and yarn-tied paper ornaments. On the back of each is hand-written a legend: “Girls’ boots size four”; “Boys pants (not jeans) size 10-12”; “Mom: gas card.” I pull the latter off the tree and hustle my son out of the building, and to his puzzled look we explain that for some people, these are things hard to provide. He knows, somewhere in his ten-year-old mind, that out there is want. But he has never experienced it himself. Nor have I. It is almost as brain-bruising for me to realize that this is just one of a vast forest of trees of need, a green spread that would wash beyond the horizon. Even if viewed through professional-grade binoculars.
Another motorcyclist told me he likes Christmas mainly because it yields approximately two weeks of people being nice to one another. Well, we’ll take what we can get.
The white icing on birthday cake; its yellow sugar roses that crunch slightly between the teeth. The effervescent pleasure of the prosecco that washes it down. The gift in the mail, and the friend who thought to buy the perfect gloves and wrap and send them to arrive on the right day. The tree hung with ornaments that each represent a meaning, and a memory. Those are riches. They pile up in a life like presents. Even in the days when my starting salary qualified me for food stamps, I never once feared that I would actually go hungry. Only that I might lose some enthusiasm for Top Ramen.
Almost every day now finds me parked in the lots of the shopping plazas, because every day I realize there are more things to buy. We are drowning in a sea of stuff, but golly, I need to get some more.
I wouldn’t really care if all the stores imploded at once, sending up an obliterating cloud of dust, and then, at last, were no more. What I would care about is losing the thoughts that move silently through the air between friends, binding us as solidly as a single being, and the more occasional and piercing longing for the deeper regard of another. These are the necessary sustenance I could not do without. And that I have never wanted for, either: how many times have I wondered what I did to deserve friends like these, the very force of their affection a powerful wave that carries me forward and up, ever cresting and breaking just beyond. I now even have close friends I have never met, who are right beside me when I need. And when I have no direct need, I laugh with them and their sparkling humor on Facebook. Yes. I mean that.
One of these far-flung friends, who writes long and brilliant letters in an exchange he terms our private blog, just between us, remarked on my wonderment that there is no one, no matter how sick or evil or dull, who lacks friends. The exception, he said, is the schizophrenic. Otherwise, mass murderers and narcissists—they all have their friends. We each even count among our friends people we don’t very much like. What a strange thing is friendship, then.
Well, we’ll take it.
I stopped at the Hess station on the way back from shopping and the motorcyclists dinner (tonight, around twenty-six friends, along with the fried tofu at the Chinese buffet, which I was pleased to make the acquaintance of; I’m in an inclusive mood of late). I thought briefly of the nameless mom who felt the need to ask for a gas card as I put down a twenty for it. My own tank was half full, and I knew there would always be more when I needed it. Until it gives out; that will affect all of us equally. I for one do not view internal combustion as a right, but as a privilege.
Then to home, where there is wood for a fire, cheap white wine in the fridge, and Baroque Christmas music pouring smoothly, endlessly, from the radio. Nelly, too, has eaten well tonight; better than 90 percent of humans on the planet. Though I refuse to apologize for that: feeding her slops is not going to help a single starving youngster in Somalia. Now she sleeps on the beautiful couch that until the advent of dogs in my life—another incalculable source of wealth in life—was a lush piece of
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Another birthday hoves into sight, like the dangerous rocks on the landing shore, glimpsed through the slantwise curtain of gray rain in a cataclysmic storm. Watch out! There’s no way to avoid the collision now! Ahhh----
No, no way to avoid the piling up of years, is there? A friend sent me an e-mail picturing a befuddled gray-hair with the caption, “Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what the fuck happened?” That about says it.
When one’s birthday is elided with another, somewhat more famous anniversary (oh, just this guy everyone keeps talking about, his birthday December 25), and the end of the year, with its wistful nostalgia melting into hopeful prognostication, one is apt to be slightly mystical. Even if one is a stone atheist.
A couple of years ago, this person was clinging to every form of voodoo there is, from fortunes in cookies to newspaper horoscopes. There was a heart milagros taped to her front door, and at dinner she made sure to light the Fast Luck and Siete Potencias and superscary Most Powerful Hand candles. (Notwithstanding the word “Alleged” appended to the Lucky 13 candle, lest one feel moved to sue the Goya company after failing to hit the big scratch-off or win the girl of one’s dreams after burning the wick well into the wax.)
These things felt necessary, because there was nothing else to hang onto in order to not fall down, down, into some unfathomable abyss. Since the basic truth of daily life that had been operated upon for years and years had vaporized one day, it seemed just as likely suddenly that dice and stars knew what was what. Better than she did.
But sometime after last year's birthday, the world slowly started to right itself. There were invisible winches at work, slowly moving the surface on which everything rested back to horizontal. But she has not lost the taste for hope, and will take it from whatever source gives it.
Tonight she reenters the world of portents and for the first time in a year lays out the tarot cards on the amateur’s cheat sheet.
If I don’t like the answer the Magic Eight Ball gives, I turn it over and try again. Eventually, “It is certain” shows up in the inky window, and I know “Will I be able to write something good?” or “Am I to find love?” will have the outcome I desire. Surely one can trust the Eight Ball to know these things. I can sleep.
If I don’t like the way these cards tell my future, I’ll do it two more times. Isn’t this a best-of-three game?
I can reason my way around anything, even the opening “Caution about the present” card. Of course I am being cautious. Aren’t I? Well, yes, in my usual incautious manner of approaching anything. It is the last card that tells the truth, however. I do not need to shuffle the deck again, hurrah. “A good augury.” I will take it. I can live on auguries in the absence of proofs. It is all I need, along with all I already have.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
I am just back from a visit to the hospital. I had not intended to go; the day was mapped out and included the usual round of errands, work, and procrastination in order to avoid the first two. And then came a phone call.
Morbid is my middle name. I have been borrowing trouble as long as I have known what Valentines were all about; I have long ago written in my head the teary eulogy for a friend who is so dear to me that he could be my brother and husband in one (but is neither, so the law is grateful), ever since college when I learned that his father's heart exploded when he was not even out of his fifties. I cross rickety bridges before I've come to them, and they give way when I am imaginatively right in the middle, tossing me into the dark, heartachey abyss.
This particular phone call was not unexpected, then, especially since its subject was a man who is both lodged like shrapnel in my affections and chronically ill. Boy, I can go to town with a combination like that.
My breath was panicky, but my actions were direct: phone the family; Google map the hospital; call the petsitter and get Nelly's leash and dinner together. Car gassed up, pee break so I wouldn't have to stop, cell phone in pocket. Out the door.
Two hours later and I walk boldly through the softly swishing doors. They let you in if you act like you belong there. Go straight in; do not ask questions, just search for signs. Elevator bank for Jefferson wing floor 5: neurology.
Down long halls past a repetition of open doors through which are seen only feet: feet in socks, feet under white cotton sheets, feet that might as well belong to cadavers, and will, sooner or later, as always. Is it possible to walk into a hospital without feeling a quivering, inchoate fear that but for one small detail--and you are not privy to what it is--you might be told to lie down in one of these beds yourself? Why am I here in my street clothes, and this man, the emblem of strength and determination and fearlessness, is seen sock-first through this door?
I walk in and he looks up, a small sandstorm of confusion and wonder in his eyes. Before he is able to quiet the winds, I have kissed his cheek and laid my hand against it. For just an instant that neither of us is sure has really passed. Because, at the moment, he does not remember anything, even the greatest of his many great feats. But he does remember who I am: I ask him that first.
He gets off the bed and sits in the chair; he wants to get out of here, and who that can walk would not? The fluorescent light that is probably what each of us will see in the moment before death; the smells, the chemical fluids that can both keep us in life and would push us out with one sharp whack; the aged, curled slivers of humans who breathe, but not much else--they remind us: It is coming. It is coming.
And so we want to get out of there as fast as we can, and forget this ever happened. But it did, and stay he must, at least for another day. I am already anticipating the drive back up the Thruway later that night, the cup of coffee I can get, the thoughts I will be alone with in the car. But for now we talk, and he tries to remember. It is not so much that he is struggling: he applies the same quiet concentration to this task that has taken him far, so far, to other destinations out there. He asks questions about where he's been, what he's done, and when. Disbelief, sometimes, when the deed seems inconceivable, or utterly irretrievable: most things, when described, come back, though in pieces, or slightly frayed. Then his questions repeat, as if new: How long were you without a motorcycle? Eleven years? (This is beyond his ken, so five minutes later he asks again, again incredulous of my answer.) I ask if he knows what kind of bike I have. Yes, K75, he says; but what color? Burgundy. No. Not that. [A beat pause.] Blue--a sort of electric blue?
Yes, the blue K75 he bought on my behalf.
He sits and looks at his feet, for a long time.
We revisit other memories. Then the male nurse comes in with two hypodermics. This is something he remembers how to do; like riding, it is in his muscle memory, not the shriveled synapses of some tiny portion of his brain that has taken away everything he is--his past.
So, while he's in the bathroom, I ask, with my eyes, cocking my head to one side, and the nurse knows what I want to know. "Oh, it's always this way. He'll get it back, don't worry."
So that he has something to do--he is a person whose worst fear is not moving, not having somewhere to go--I ask him to walk me to the elevators. Slowly, in his sock feet. The door opens; a quick hug, and I back in. The door closes.
On the dark highway I move forward into space. Random songs on the radio speak only to me, as they have been doing for a couple of years now. I wonder how it is they can be so specific, then I realize: they are only ever about two things, love, and loss. Both of which are behind me, down the hospital corridor, and ahead of me, in a place called home.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
It is very strange for the genesis of such a momentous choice to hide itself so completely that it is impossible to recover it. If I make my head hurt with forcible recollection, I can barely get a hazy picture of me reading a paperback copy of Diet for a Small Planet, and spooning several scoops of brewer’s yeast into the blender along with fruit and a raw egg while dripping sweat from a morning jog around my parents’ gracious neighborhood of old Tudor houses. Then again, I appear to be eliding this strange interest in granola and the nutritional complementariness of beans and brown rice with another unprecedented decision. Or it is possible that I suppress the memory of where that book came from because it might have been my mother who gave it to me.
But this could not possibly be; it does not square with anything I know. The daughter of Greek immigrants—that is to say, the daughter of a restaurateur—my mother was raised on a deluxe plenitude of food. Her uncle would come home from the fish market with red snapper wrapped in paper, or octopus that would, thankfully postmortem, be beaten senseless against the concrete walk. Her father would fill the commercial-size double-door refrigerator with everything available to the patrons of his “continental” style eatery, especially whipping cream. And her mother would pore through Vogue with special attention to the entertaining column, and glean ideas from Larousse, in order to put on holiday feasts whose over-the-top sumptuousness (whole suckling pig, mountains of shrimp, candied nuts, sugared grapes, ice cream bombe) raised us all on a cloud far above any peasant roots.
As one of three children raised by busy parents who came of age in the fifties—and who requested some time to themselves every now and again, over dry-roasted peanuts and a martini or Manhattan—I was no stranger to the Swenson TV dinner consumed in front of Disney’s Wide World of Color. Certainly, my mother cooked for us, too: we clamored for her New England boiled dinner, her iceberg lettuce quarters with Thousand Island, her cube steak and those spirals of filet mignon pierced with a sharp stick, and every once in a while the Greek specialties of moussaka and leg of lamb studded with garlic.
And so I was in no way prepared to make the sudden move I did one night in a restaurant, where we were feting the imminent departure of my older sister to her Junior Year Abroad in
It was interesting to be the sole vegetarian at a boarding school of hundreds of students. For a while I subsisted on the Wonder Bread with margarine and Jell-O (I didn’t say I instantly became an educated vegetarian) that appeared at every meal. Then I joined the swim team and went into training: every day we swam our hearts out for two hours, and I watched the bones of my hips become increasingly prominent. Only so much of this could satisfy the adolescent girl’s pathological concern with fat; finally I became so hungry I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was a fair-weather vegetarian, it seemed. Then it started raining again.
The meal I happened to elect for my reversal of tastes featured that toothsome staple of boarding school cuisine known as Elephant Scabs. If the inspired image was not enough to put you off your feed, the dish certainly would; it purported to be breaded veal patties covered in cheese in a bath of tomato sauce. I immediately re-became a vegetarian.
I would often sit and ponder, as I now had plenty of free time during mealtimes, the ceiling of the dining hall. Like a busy galaxy it was studded with gray dots of grease: the margarine pats of generations, launched skyward by catapults fashioned from knives and spoons. Perhaps one of those marks was made by my father thirty years before.
I suspect I survived by coming home for weekends. But instead of sitting down to mother’s cooking, or even my formerly favorite takeout of a big pile of suspicious gray meat on a bun from Arby’s, I was eating a parallel meal that my family in no way could comprehend. I had a lot of peanut butter. My mother, good Greek parent that she was, wore a permanent look of concern, perplexity, and hope that I was about to change back into the child she once knew (who would nonetheless gag on liver and never bought her line that tongue was corned beef). I never obliged her. Not even the first Thanskgiving I came home after making my weird transformation. She asked many times over the preceding weeks if I was sure I meant I would not eat any turkey. No, I insisted: no turkey. I could tell this was causing deep intellectual consternation in her. Indeed, it may have made some permanent damage. After I sat down to table and everyone else received their plates, she reappeared from the kitchen with mine: it contained a cornish game hen.
Twenty-eight years on, my mother still sends me clippings about the dangers of the herbs she steadfastly but mistakenly believes I take, the best sources of iron for women (meat), and the body’s need for B12 (best obtained from, you got it, meat). But she absolutely will not admit to the cornish game hen episode. And she would not read Diet for a Small Planet if her life depended on it.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
A mile away, the same scene exactly. In between these, there are already two others, completed.
This, in a town that is hanging on by its own tatters. It is the model city of the future: nothing but pharmacies, to dispense the medications that keep the population from noticing its despair that there is nothing but pharmacies.
On a chilly dark early evening, I wait in the forbiddingly long line at the back of one of these stores. Everyone is uncomplaining of the wait: this is business as usual, I surmise, and when what you are waiting for is necessary to survival--bread, gas, Lexapro--it does not occur to question or complain. You just wait.
No one much is in the rest of the store; an implacable wall of refashioned corn syrup, bagged for the Halloween holiday just past and marked down seventy percent, stands ignored. In the line we desultorily watch four white-coated employees beyond the counter scurrying to fill the prescriptions, click-clicking little tablets by the hundreds into bottles and then white paper sacks. In a mirror image beyond them, another white-coated employee tends to the cars that have pulled up outside in the dark to a window with a microphone in it.
The only money changing hands this night is doing so over drugs.
So it is in this small city; so it must be in thousands of other towns this very moment. It is America, and America is medicated. Unemployed, disenfranchised, friendless, alone, but medicated. That is maybe why we don't care, or don't notice, that soon all we will have is drugstores. Well, perhaps a few fast-food joints to help fuel the need for the drugstores, and then the rest, drugstores.
We had gone to get a prescription for my son. His Bad Enough mother (who has come to face the fact that she has finally graduated with high marks from the Good Enough Mother soothed of her guilt by Winnicott in the famous paper of that name) had tried to fix the problem with home remedies and over-the-counter ointments and even denial, none of which worked. I generally try to stay away from the entire medical establishment, but this time I could not.
Since I no longer read The New York Times, I don't know if they still run full-page ads bought by an obviously well-heeled German doctor who rants about Big Pharma and its destabilizing effect on world peace and economics and health. He looked of a piece with the raging cranks who likewise bought ads to tout their secret methods for restoring harmony to the universe. Only thing is, I suspect he's one hundred percent correct. Pharmaceutical companies are indeed behind it all. Nothing more insidious, or more pervasive; how many drugstores are there in your town?
When I changed doctors a couple of years ago, a nurse administered the intake questionnaire. Pro forma stuff. Answers scribbled without an upward glance. Until "Medications?" None, I replied. The pen stopped and eyes met mine. "None?" Finally she overcame her incredulity to explain, "I've never had anyone your age who isn't on something."
I'm not sure what the alternative is, or what the disruptor to this endless spiral into a life where we so need our pills, and our pills need us. But it's possible it might be found on Ticetenyck Mountain (as well as on pretty much any motorcycle ride).
The gravel and leaves slipped underfoot as I clambered up the steep old trail, Nelly a few yards ahead but periodically stopping to look back inquiringly--Is this the way? I mean, you intended for us to go this high, right?--her pink tongue hanging long from the effort.
Yes, I intended it, even if it cost me a hard thump on the coccyx on the way back, when I lost my footing and gravity won. I intended it because at one point I would turn, a red-tailed hawk screaming from someplace invisible in the wide blue cloudless above. There, before me, would spread the world. The world as a view of the reservoir from end to end, a 280-degree view twenty miles long, and deep as hope.
I suspect, in all its mystery, that is one alternative.
Just beautiful, isn't it? Municipal
architecture at its most thoughtful.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
How did it escape my notice, after living in this universe for so very many years, that everything is so damn connected? Take the insides of my motorcycle, for example. Even a regular old carbureted bike, such as I am used to, is intricate beyond my wildest imaginings; throw in a fuel pump, and I get lost in the maze.
It all began with my desire for higher visibility to those whose sport it is to turn in to the path of oncoming motorcycles. I wanted Motolights so I could paralyze them into inaction, or at least be able to accurately gauge my speed because the wattage is triangulated.
Seems simple, right? Install some auxiliary lights, under the tutelage of my Enabler (or is that Procurer?), the man who above all is responsible for getting me back on a bike. A knowledgeable fixer of K75s, because he is a prodigious rider of them (not to mention others). He would come to my house and, for a paltry fee as that is the only kind of fee I can rustle up, wire the lights, and that would be that.
That is rarely that, however, when you start disassembling a machine that was put together for maximum sensation in a minimum package.
All was going quite well at first. (This is the wrenching-tale analog to "Once upon a time . . . " and is usually followed by the appearance of wolves in the woods.) I wasn't altogether crazy about suspending the gas tank a few inches above the frame--the wires needed to be laid underneath it--by means of straps around the garage-door runners, but I had to trust in the guide who knew much, to my little. His belief that it is unwise to disconnect fuel line that has probably never been off the bike in its entire life did follow my previous experience--nothing ever wants to go back on as easy as it comes off. That's axiomatic.
By six in the evening, cold and dark, and especially so in my cold and dark garage, we had amassed a short list of items needed from the auto parts store, as well as a hunger for dinner. We could satisfy both in one trip, then get back and continue in the cold and dark. So that when the sun rose in its warm and accustomed way, I would be ready to ride. There hasn't been half enough of that lately, and I was keenly aware that the waning days of autumn would be offering fewer and fewer opportunities (without personal wiring, to full heated gear that is). I felt anxious to be back on the bike, and the National Weather Service for once was smiling broadly on the coming weekend.
That must have been what did it, then. Or too much logic in my brain, with its well-worn pathways that continuously ran this message every time I left home: "Better close the garage door, because you don't necessarily need passersby to know you have a nice ride and a few good tools in here."
You know that moment? The "oh shit" moment that follows so closely behind an instinctual action that it's all over before you can reach out and pull it back from the past and into the present? --Into the present where you can stop a calamity.
The door was halfway down when I heard it and realized what I'd done in the same instant. I wanted to turn away, not see. Or turn into someone else. Or . . . Oh, I don't know what I wanted. It was a million things at once.
The tank was upside down on the concrete floor. The fuel-return tap--the one we had been carefully protecting by not taking the line from it--was sheared off and still seated at the end of the line, staring at us in blank innocence. As it in fact was. Machine parts do not have emotions. They have no intentions. Although at times it is impossible not to think of them as trying to teach you hard lessons indeed.
Now the adventure began. It took us to Kingston; to many points on the United States map by way of cell phone call to the voices of disembodied people who might, but did not, have the part that was a hoped-for solution; to the car wash on 28 to slop out the rest of the gas--what gas, that is, that hadn't already splashed out on the driveway, on our hands, on our clothes; and to western New Jersey in the car, tank lashed to the roof. It took my seer and guide into his basement in the small hours of the night, attempting to drill out the tap in preparation for a new something to be installed in its place, while I slept the sleep of the damned in my clothes on top of a guest bed. It took us to a specialty hardware store in the morning; it took us to the parking lot of a welder, closed on Saturday. And it took us to the near edge of despair, as the possibility of a fix being eventuated either before the end of the month or the end of the bank account looked increasingly grim.
And that was the moment where the crossed wires in my mind uncrossed for a second, and I remembered the friend who was a metal fabricator. A quick call ascertained that he did indeed weld aluminum. Another two and a half hours north ensued.
Two hours after arrival, the tank, now miraculously repaired (there was danger, there, in the thin place on the skin of aluminum where a torch was to play), was riding pillion with my Enabler on its way back to the, uh, cold and semi-dark garage.
Twenty-four hours of mechanical adventure now put us twenty-four hours behind, and to a necessary caesura where the knowledgeable half of this duo had to return home to attend to business. The bike would wait, patient, for days. Days in which its blood supply was drained, the tank quiet and unheeding on a blanket. I would wait, too, for another chance to ride, because it sure as shooting wasn't going to be that weekend.
Frustration is a part of this game, the part where you pay for the intermittent joys. Something that delicious has to be expensive. I pay for my rides with scheduling mishaps, weather delays, and the occasional smash-up of well-laid plans by trying to make a long line of dominoes all standing on edge, but instead brushing the first one with a sleeve and watching the whole line topple in a flash. We all have to pay the happy-ride bill sometime, somehow.
Flash forward four days. The work resumes. The pieces go back into the tank, one by one. (And I hadn't even known there were pieces in this tank; the collateral benefit of this small disaster is that now I know. Sort of.) They don't go back in precisely as they were: long exposure to gas additives has crumbled the pump's rubber sleeve so that it leaves black flecks behind--"That's what that filter is for," I'm told, though I still don't like anything in there, including the two hairs, one from Nelly and one from me, that I fish out from the bottom in disgust--and the plastic fitting that should click into place never really does. But finally, finally, we are ready to pour back in what gas we had managed to capture in a red plastic can as it spurted wildly out from the broken tank nearly a week before.
The bike had not expended all its adventuresome spirit yet, though. Because soon this gas was spreading out again from under the tank; now it was dripping from one of the four bolts on the plate that hold the wiring for the pump. Again, it was getting late at night; how much more can go wrong? I thought. "Unfair" came to mind, but of course only the bike determines the moral laws of its own universe. And in that universe, gaskets that have been continually wet don't want to be dried out for four days, and that's that.
Yet another emergency phone call; thank goodness for the people like Paul Glaves, who not only know everything there is to know about the K75, but who will pick up the phone at all hours and patiently answer breathless questions. "Put something under to catch the gas, and I predict it will stop by morning." The self-healing break: such things are rare in motorcycles. We both had our doubts. But in the morning, the adventure had run its course. The leak had stopped. My bike was back.
There was only time for a twenty-five-mile shakedown run: I could barely hope that it was indeed fixed, and that something so infinitesimal we could not conceive of it had not been forgotten, now laying in wait to halt the proceedings. But no. The Valiant K started right up. She was restored, her old self, the one who beneath me always said quietly, in the sound of her fuel pump that is sometimes louder than her engine, Run and run and run and run . . . That is what I imagine she's saying, anyway.
I had almost forgotten how to ride, it had felt like that much time. But suddenly I remembered again. It never takes long. I remembered, oh yes.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Yet it’s all I can do, for better or for worse, having left the ranks of the conventionally employed in another era, one to which it would impossible to return from so long a remove. So here is where I must stay, to tote this particular bale.
It can be so fraught I need to fake myself out, or provide some egress from the claustrophobic workshop inside my brain where the overly long sentences are fabricated—a place to rest the eye away from the page, or dishes to suddenly get up and do, mid-sentence; a coffee shop or park bench or (as now) a fireplace full of ever-moving flames into which to stare periodically. A glass full of tinkling ice cubes and eighty proof to assist in making conversation with the blank page. Sixteen years ago, my writing helpmeet was the world’s most perfect bar, on the corner of First and Bloomfield. It provided that ambience of aloneness in a public place ideal for the setting down of words, and the candy-colored light from the jukebox illuminated the beginning scrawls of what would become (though I might have been paralyzed had I known where it was heading) my first book.
When it appeared in hard covers, four years later, it was winter. Two days before the annual bike show at the newly built
But that January weekend, seventy-five people out of many hundreds took out their wallets before leaving with a copy of my book under their arms.
What you secretly expect when your first book is published is for the heavens to break open before you, or at least for everything to change. And when it doesn’t, you feel abandoned. By the world. I’ve since seen that look of stunned disappointment on many first-time authors’ faces to know: it is always like this.
What I didn’t know then, and only realize now, is that the personal letters and cards and gifts and seemingly urgent phone calls that started arriving, a dozen a week, were better, and more validating, than parting clouds and angelic choirs. Silence there might have been from officialdom, but people’s snapshots of their own motorcycles, people’s stories of how riding had transported them, were the only reviews that mattered.
How I wish now for a Fabian’s Brauhaus in which to sit by the door and write, haltingly, in a notebook; or a New York Public Library with a real card catalog, a pneumatic tube to deliver my wishes to some vast unknowable underworld from which the arrival of the anticipated volume would be announced on a lit number board that must have represented the ultimate in 1920s technology. Or for the science reading room, where in three days I could read pretty much everything that had been written on the subject of bikes; no more, that. There is too much new, sophisticated, huge, both in the machines themselves and in what has been thought and written about them.
But I know I will never find the right place in which to write. Because writing itself will never feel quite right. It will always be squirm-inducing, uncomfortable, an itch in some place that can never quite be reached.
My desire to replicate the experience of being where I started something once--when I fear, deep down, that I might not be able to pull the finished-book rabbit out of my hat again--is an act of forgetting. I remember it as easy: a Weiss beer in a tall glass, a few mysterious strangers, me and a notebook. And hope.
But it was just as bad as this, I know. It always is.
Less than the vanished history of the place where I first began that journey, I realize, is that I wish for the whole big anciently creaking mystery of it all—the first book.
What reappears of that time, though, is only the pain. The fear and misery of starting anew (except that now this is overridden by a new fear in addition, that the age of the book may well be past; that what you do in such bloody terror is for naught, because few can or will buy the expensive and outmoded delivery system of type on paper). I’m still looking for the place that will allow me to fake myself out, to momentarily escape the anxiety of influence—the shadow of books past, both my own and all the other ones, the great ones that loom large over the enterprise.
One possibility, the cafe down the road that was half empty during the day, the one with the couch facing a big window, is now closed. At night I lack the freedom to go to a bar of any sort, ideally Hobokenishly depopulated or not. But I forgot to mention one thing: that the pain is shot through with sudden bursts of joy, much like the subject itself. On any ride, there is the moment when the sun hanging low directly ahead momentarily blinds you, leaving you to a gasped prayer; or you follow the turning car ahead of you—and discover that it is turning onto the one-way ramp the wrong way. But then a few miles later you find yourself alone on a road that climbs and turns and suddenly delivers a view over a mountain lake in the late fall. A few miles after that you’re wishing your electric vest had a “high” or “highest” position on the switch, but you’re still glad you came. It’s like that. A happy pain I would not trade for any other. And one that I couldn’t now, even if I wished.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Bumper stickers, membership badges, t-shirts, protest posters. We choose the words we wear so that others will know exactly who we are. And maybe we will even know ourselves.
I myself seem to choose particularly poorly. Or maybe my sense of humor is not what I imagined.
I finally gave up on one of these printed personality pronouncements, and last week removed what I thought was an alarmingly clever bumper sticker from my car. It was the creation of Chris T., the brilliant talk show host of the late Aerial View show on WFMU (and now the equally brilliant, I suspect, host of a show on Sirius satellite radio, but as I still live in horse and buggy days and lack satellite radio in addition to other twenty-first century technological wizardry such as television--whoops, wrong century--I can only guess that Chris has lost none of his acerbic edge). He is one of those people with a naturally aphoristic mind, who sees the idiocies of the world and can immediately encase them in a compact, diamond-hard bromide.
In other words, a natural at the genre of the bumper sticker.
He has a rather sour view of humanity, but this just adds the right soupcon of sarcastic humor to his observations. Besides, it is well accounted for by having grown up on Long Island and living now in New Jersey. If anyone is entitled to a sour view, it is he.
Chris made up his own bumper stickers as a rejoinder to this urge to display one's affiliations on the back of one's vehicles for all to admire, or as a caption to what must then be considered the cartoon of one's own life. What gives with the need to tell everyone what you believe in? Could it be that these folks doth protest too much? And what about the separation of church and car? Is nothing sacred?
So to this, he created a series that captures a certain dunderheadedness in the American road-going psyche: My Other Car Is Jesus; Kiss Me, I'm Jesus; Jesus Loves Drag Racing.
I liked these, but to display them always felt like it might be toeing a line beyond which was danger, of the keying variety, or perhaps the punctured tire sort. Somehow poking fun at others' weird professions of their faith made me a little hesitant.
So, because I had long ago given away many of Chris's other strangely funny stickers (I'd Rather Be Driving--get it? on the back of your car?; I've Never Eaten at Bay Ridge House O' Clams), I carefully thought about the remaining ones. I passed over the flag-emblazoned one that decreed Don't Blame Me--I Didn't Vote. I finally chose the one that both made me laugh and that left a vague scent of unease behind--the mark of the deepest-cutting humor.
Chris had seen, and obviously been annoyed by, the borderline self-righteousness of the Mean People Suck bumper sticker most often found on Volvo station wagons and Prius sedans. ("Oh, so you're one of the .5% of the population who's never been mean? Well, hearty congratulations!") This sticker might actually tell the truth if it simply said Republicans Are Mean People, and They Suck, but then this would be hurtful to the several Republicans who are nice.
Yet Chris calls it as he sees it, and you can practically hear him snort as he delivers his pithy and spot-on rejoinders. Because I know him, I hear him add a colorful "Hell!" before countering with this truism: Most People Suck.
From the minute I put it on the car's back window, I was stopping people dead in their tracks. One friend actually gasped and said, "Melissa, that's so negative." Hello? You haven't noticed that about me after years of friendship? It's like that beauty mark on my cheek; I can't get it off.
Pulling in at kids' soccer practice, I could fairly see the other mothers hugging their children to their breasts, away from this force of malevolence, this black station wagon of negativity. But it was the day my car suffered catastrophic engine failure, throwing valves and spitting belts--thirty-six hours after having gone in for a tune-up and being pronounced fine--that I started to suspect the power of bumper stickers. One person, a conservative and former Army man, voiced what was an inchoate, submerged, yet persistent feeling in me: "I have to wonder if your bumper sticker didn't have something to do with that."
He was probably not referring to the one that says Why Do You Love Animals Called Pets, and Eat Animals Called Dinner? And I sorta think he was not referring to Chris T.'s little joke, though perhaps that was the whetstone to the knife of the one he did mean: the one that goes Be Nice to America, or We'll Bring Democracy to Your Country.
Now, instead of making an acidic observation about the state of society, my window requests, nicely, Share the Road--with a Moto Guzzi. Can you argue with that?
Well, I suppose mean people could.
I had been warned previously against putting my "liberal" views on my bike (I had already taken off the car's Obama magnet, though I'm not sure why); I was reminded that most state troopers were unlikely to share my leanings. A maximum fine for speeding might be their commentary on my commentary, my friend suggested.
He and his ilk (with whom I am in complete agreement on this) sticker their bikes and helmets with the motorcyclists' own variety of religious experience: contra the bizarre, and ultimately political, belief that "loud pipes save lives." There are an almost infinite number of responses from the "civilized" motorcycle sector: Loud Pipes Scare Little Kids; Loud Pipes, Little Penis; and Loud Pipes Risk Rights.
The one sticker that never gets any response is the one I put on the back of my bike, the only one it sports. I made it myself, and it is near to my heart, as well as my head. I congratulated myself on what seemed to be its densely layered dual meaning; a conceptual bumper sticker, and I so rarely have concepts, you know. If you read it from a moving car, it reveals the immediate past. If you read it while parked, it shows the future. Both are certain, so long as I live and ride. This Too Shall Pass.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
The cameras they use in dreams are tricky things. Simultaneously they picture you, and are you. The one recurrent dream I had as a child—though it might have just been a dream that it recurred, and maybe it only came to me once but was so potent an image that in retrospect it seemed to capture me again, and again, in the night—showed a silent clip of a lone figure running across a dark lawn, white sheet flapping behind like vapor. Then gone.
It was me at Halloween. Only it was not me. Unless I once dressed as a ghost and did not remember I did.
It was scary, not knowing who this was, or why she kept appearing to me.
But that was the level of costuming we attained back then—put white sheets over our heads, cut some eye holes, and called it a night.
Halloween is a much more complicated undertaking these days. Not to mention expensive.
It is another of those holidays now screaming on the runaway railcar called capitalism. We spend scads of money for prefabricated costumes that come in plastic bags fronted with a picture in which the attire appears to have been constructed from actual fabric, as opposed to the extruded test-tube shiny-stretchy film it really is, presenting a simulacrum of the costume it purports to be. It snaps up the back, while the front is just that—a front. But it costs $44.95 nonetheless.
I am not handy with a sewing machine, and indeed lack a sewing machine (the sewing portion of junior-high home ec was the only class I’ve ever failed—gotten close with others, like shop, but never outright failed, until I made this machine run backwards and eat up its own thread, back into its innards, which then finally crawled to a stop, strangled by miles of filament, while a meandering trail network of stitching now bolted two sides of a putative dress together). And so I must go shopping for the boy’s costume, and it is a terrible penance to pay for my lack of aptitude with machinery. Especially since the bloating of the holiday now means three separate costumed appearances for the youngsters: the town parade, the school parade, and finally (at long last) trick-or-treating. And it can’t be the same costume, either, if you are a little boy, because little boys require dressing as men bearing weapons of one sort or another, and weapons are outlawed at schools. Zero tolerance. Which means that, say, a boy who wishes to emulate the virtuous anti-capitalist Robin Hood may not do so—bow and arrow forbidden.
I have to buy two costumes.
Though I will have to make accoutrements for Nelly, however, since they don’t make U.S. Cavalry saddles for twenty-pound border collie mixes. Can you believe it?
The boy wants to be a nineteenth-century cavalry captain, which requires a blue uniform (and for Nelly to be his steed). And guess what all I found at the local seasonal emporia of Halloween gimcrackry? Outfits for the Men in Gray: confederate uniforms only. Robert E. Lee, to be precise.
What, may I ask, happened to the folks who won? Forgotten? Drowned in whiskey and sickness and corruption and mistakes, like the victor from
This is a bittersweet time, indeed. I cannot shake the memory—not even the corn-syrupy promise of harvest mix will now dislodge it—of the coming of Halloween two years ago. Cold descending from the sky, hard and heavy. In the last celebration I was to have in the house I loved but was soon to leave, I invited the parents of other children, my friends. I made a large vat of chili, pans of cornbread, and hauled the picnic table down to the fire circle. It was advertised as a Burn the Past Bonfire, what I faux-bravely, and prematurely, wished to do. We all brought paper items that represented historic burdens we hoped to render into ash. And when it was done, we piled into our cars, ferrying our children into the dark night of sugar and happy fright.
This year, most of the past does feel fairly well incinerated, except for the memory of how much I wanted it to be gone. That will stay with me, and recur, like the dream of the childish ghost running silently across black suburban lawns, disappearing only to reappear again another night.
Don't get me started on my travails with sharp knives and pumpkins. Truly frightful.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
But hope sprang eternal in some gland, and the next weekend I would ride the train to some other convocation of strangers. Return home again.
Now I am a (forcibly) changed woman. Time growing short will do that to a person; so will finally getting sick of one's own crap. So will finding where you belong.
People who speak Dutch often like to hang out with other people who speak Dutch; go figure. Dog trainers meet for coffee at their regular spot to share the latest scandals and how to get clients to actually follow the protocols they've paid the trainers large sums to impart. Scuba divers go out for margaritas and plan trips on their cocktail napkins. And motorcyclists, at once fractious and cohesive, form their societies based on marque or riding style or locale, if neither of the first two can support social numbers.
And so it is here, I was overjoyed to learn. But only because I interrupted the long approach-and-retreat gambit of yore.
At first it was just me and my bike, in this new world, and the left-hand wave passed between two projectiles headed in opposite directions. But one day I found out--how? I forget--about an annual vintage-bike ride leaving from Woodstock on a Sunday afternoon. The gods who preside over the calendar of child visitation schedules smiled bemusedly down: --Shall we give her this one, Hal? --Yeah, sure, Gus, let's give her a try and see how she does.
Let the tire-kicking begin. Upwards of seventy or eighty bikes, including my own cusp-vintage, but really all over the map, from Royal Enfield to airhead to sportbike, gathered in one place and a lot of talking to get done before we embark on the world's slowest ride to lunch. I came home later that afternoon with phone numbers on torn-off scraps of paper and the news that there was a local-riders dinner that met every Tuesday.
Obviously the deities in charge had judged my performance with approving benevolence, because Tuesday is the only night of the week I could do such a thing as go out, the only night I could practice such selfishness as this is for me alone. Heretofore I had used the evening to hunker down at the kitchen table and and work while eating vegetarian chili from a can. But now I would go out, be with others of my kind. What a certain poet of the riding community once called "my people." The family whose bond is closer than blood.
Still, it was hard. Walking into the restaurant I clutched my helmet, affixing what I trusted was a nonchalant but pleasant look atop my features, but which probably appeared as brittle as old paint. I went up to an empty chair, pulled it back, and felt inside a little like cheese toast that has been left under the broiler for a few seconds too long: about to burst into flame. Still smiling, though.
Now they are my people. Every Tuesday I belong to them; they belong to me. It's one big warm bath of belonging, there at the cheap restaurant. I don't even remember what I eat: house salad? chowder? Because what I really eat is words--talk about all things concerning that which brought us together, motorcycles. And there is so much to say, about so much: gear, trips, rides, mishaps, the one great moment of speed, thrill, luck that rises up like godly hands to carry you up and over. People gesticulate, laugh, pass the bread. One fellow sits with his iPhone continually six inches from his face, as people with iPhones always will, but he's listening, and he can provide video illustration on demand of whatever the conversation has come to.
We are a great plurality, none of us the same yet all similar in one deep and sticky way. One night there were four European expatriates in attendance; most weeks a fellow (on a BMW, natch) rides in from Connecticut, because our group is superior to the one he has back home, he opines. Once we had Art Garfunkel's brother, and the former head of the Goethe Institute. There almost every week is the man who arranged and played on "Dueling Banjos" in Deliverance. Whoever is sitting next to you might reveal surprising things, about his past in Germany or in the city or in walks of life you'd never have heard of otherwise. And I sit with them. With them.
All across the country, nay the world, this scene is repeated: weekly dinner with the folks, all of whose motorcycles wait patiently outside for the bills to be paid, the final notes exchanged, the goodbyes till next week, or next weekend ride to somewhere, together.
One week I happened to sit next to a couple, perhaps in their sixties, who looked neither to right nor to left, who kept their eyes on their plates, working at them like machines until they were empty. The people across the table, laughing and questioning and talking about all the bike stuff that in the end boils down to life itself made no impression on them whatsoever. It seemed impossible that they had come to the right place. What rider comes to Tuesday night dinner for the pasta or scallopine or dinner rolls?
It was an aberration. I never saw them again. There must have been some mistake. For they were not ecstatic to be there. And that is how you know us: those who belong.
that never stops.").]
Saturday, October 10, 2009
The Little Engine that Had No Idea was chugging along on its track, happily entering a right-hand curve, its favorite kind. It did not see the rail that had been peeled back off the ties like a paper clip. It went roaring up and off, sun was seen briefly under its wheels, and then it careened headfirst down a ravine, taking trees and brush down as it went. When it finally hit bottom, it waited a long beat before gingerly testing itself to make sure it was still intact. It was afraid to find out, really. But it had absolutely no idea it was going to be derailed that day.
And so every big life change, mine included, can be described. It happens. Yeah, so what. Good news at last: It's beginning to bore even me, so this is the last official mention. See, I realize, s**t happens—devastating, horrific s**it oftentimes—to people in life. Even worse happens to the other animals; they endure it, we don’t notice it, since they don’t have blogs. Then we pick them up after they’ve been quieted in cool plastic-wrapped packages. But I digress. Thinking of pain always makes me take long scenic detours.
Two years have passed, and I sleep through the night. Big freaking deal—me and half the population, so there. Insouciance is wince-inducing when it’s a pose, but feels as great as fleece socks on a cold night when it’s real.
So I return to the site of the accident, a voyeur, to see what remains of the wreckage. I survey it from a cool distance, assessing what might be built out of it again, what working parts can be retooled and fitted into some other conveyance. At the time I dove nose-first into the ravine, I had worked for three years gathering information for a book on the ethics of dog training. The problem was, there came more and more information, an ever-towering growth of research that threatened to topple onto my head and knock me sprawling, and a seeming inability to ever master either the amount or the intricacies of it. So the big accident was a sort of blessing—bringing with it many other blessings, too, as I have recounted here—in that it temporarily derailed a project that had been heading down the wrong tracks. But the past week, as a result of certainties delivered either with a mean snarl, or a tossed-off ignorance posing as common knowledge, I’ve been thinking of that unwritten book again. Especially as those thought-provoking comments were uttered by men who likewise thought they knew something, but did not, about me. Their self-assurance made me realize I wanted no part of them, or anything they were selling. Another blessing.
One of the earliest ideas I had when I conceived of the topic was that a certain set of beliefs about dogs led to a certain mode of training them; let us call it the Republican method. Another way of conceiving of them led to a wholly different way of teaching, and that mindset might be termed the Democratic. Each side holds fiercely to its beliefs, indeed knows their way is the One True Way.
Certainly, I strive to incorporate “live and let live” into my daily routine, suffering idiots and wise men alike to teach me what they know, which is considerable in both cases. But the fact remains, there can only be a single truth when it comes to laws: evolution and intelligent design can’t coexist, notwithstanding the strenuous contortions of some religious scientists to make them do so; medieval belief in the Four Humors does not fit with what has been learned of the human body since the early nineteenth century; a flat earth does not behave as our globe actually does. And the human nature of the Republicans cannot be the same as the human nature of the Democrats.
One of these is right, and one of them is wrong.
One fellow, snarkishly dismissing the two grand I put out to the fence builders so that Nelly would not be ground into fur and tissue on the road we live on by the sixteen-wheelers that ply it, not to mention the overpowered four-by-fours of the local populace, informed me that an electronic fence would have been a better choice. When I femininely demurred, avoiding a fight by not voicing what I believe—They are cruel and stupid and the fact that no one would put a shock collar on their children is proof enough that they are not fit for dogs—but rather by saying, “I don’t really agree with those,” he snorted and laughed, “So you think it would hurt your dog?” Ha-ha. Well, obviously he knows better. Why, he wouldn’t even need to read this; he knows better just by osmosis.
He also knows what I need, apparently. Not what I want; what I should have. Him.
Another fellow, the next day, informed me from a lofty perch high above all canine scholars that dogs just want to please people, and also that one needs to be alpha dog to one’s pets. As the owner of some labs, and not a decidedly difficult little border collie mix who would probably be dead by now were it not for a lucky affection for food before all else, and thus amenable to thousands of applications of chicken jerky that have finally made her 80 percent reliable in most situations that do not involve rabbits (in which case all bets are off), he never really had to work with his dogs. He just thought he had. He practically sneered at me, paying Nelly from the treat bag for checking back in with me on an off-leash walk. He had no idea how hard-won, and how impossible to attain other than with repetition after repetition of reward, this behavior is—and how proud I am of both Nelly and me for getting there. He does not know, and does not care to know, that science has definitively put to rest the abysmal myth of dominance. This one dies particularly hard with those who do not wish to stop doing what they’ve always done, simply because they’ve always done it.
Just like assuming women like to be pawed, without being asked first.
Even if he (and by “he” I actually implicate many, including myself, when I smugly think I know everything—though that is usually the point at which the universe decides to gently instruct by swinging a two-by-four in the direction of my head) would step down off the stacked concrete blocks of certainty to educate himself, there is a dearth of scholarly work on the faint signals women send to suitors they are not interested in but lack the courage to say so to outright. Or maybe desperation—a similar train having wrecked in his own past—occludes the ability to read, either signals or the knowledge of anybody else.
By this point in life, we are wheeling our broken and patched pasts around like filth-encrusted old shopping carts that have had too many hard meetings with parking lot curbs. Ba-ba-dump. Ba-ba-dump. On and on we go, the off-kilter wheel beginning to seem normal, the way it always was. Though once it spun free, chromed.
Whatever; icky though this brief passage has been, it has provided its own small gift, in my renewed interest in this paralyzed project. (I have life before derailment, BD, and AM, after motorcycles.) I’ve almost finished hoisting up those iron bits smashed against the forest floor, finished finding new use for them in the two-wheeler that’s taken me in a new direction, though it curiously feels also like an old one, back into life. I am going to spend some time figuring out, out loud, what it means to be here like this, at this particular time, with these particular people I’ve suddenly found myself in the midst of. Their extreme need to ride, if not mine.
Then I'll try to parse the difference between Democrats and Republicans, and give my dog some treats for doing the thing she is now certain is right. I find I know less and less, like I am growing backwards with the years, into a fresh young creature, a baby ignorant as bliss.
Nelly Prays (c) Andrew garn