Saturday, March 28, 2009

Her Seventeen Lives: Eight-point-five and Counting

This is just a story. There is no narrative arc.

The walk was the time-honored cornfields walk, the rocky path between the Esopus Creek, sent on its way after a sojourn in the drinking water reservoir of the great metropolis to our south, and the seed-corn fields. We've been coming here for eight years. It is convenient. It is a good walk the dogs love. We have only to dodge the detritus left by other users of this old-time private-but-public place: rusted fishing hooks, half-burned beer cans (one of the towering challenges beloved of the local yahoo set), dismembered deer legs. (Once I found a rottweiler's severed paws, tossed by the side of the path, but this belongs in a different story. Although thematically related to this one.) I can tell it's spring again, because the black garbage bags are blooming by the riverside; their presence is a mental puzzle I use to keep my mind fit as it tries to figure out why people choose to drive their bags into the beauteous landscape rather than to the dump. I have not succeeded in untying this particular knot yet.

Today it's the usual crowd--Bonnie, Janet, their four dogs, and Nelly--only, actually, it's sadly not very usual anymore since I've moved. Anyway.

On we go. Bonnie stays in her car with the pile of New York Timeses Janet has brought for me; it's too cold for her to walk. So her Malcolm comes with us, while Nora turns back soon and rejoins her human. Dogs--as individual in their proclivities as each of us.

We walk to the end, the literal bend in the river, where last time we saw a quick brown fox jump over a log.

That is not a story. That is true. A true story.

We turn back. Nelly is searching frantically (she has no other channel than the frantic one here) for rabbits in the undergrowth. At one point I see her in the field chewing on what looks like someone's coonskin cap, but I actually call her off of it, so there must not have been anything left but hair.

Ah, the getting back in the car part. Always a challenge. Bonnie got out and spied Nelly at the water's edge, down the ravine. It was just a matter of waiting for her to decide--or not--to come. Miracle of miracles, she soon did. Hup! I say, and she jumps into the back, with a bit of biscuit as thanks.

When I started the car, I noted by the clock (though no timepiece I own tells the actual time; all are set differing times ahead, though none has yet succeeded in making me anything but late) I had fifteen minutes to spare. So I ran to the drugstore for an errand. Then it was time to make the after-school pickup, at which I learned my son is the school's top expert on, and much in demand for advice on how to beat the next level. It was hard extricating him from there.

And so it was that, after an hour of waiting, the little miss was on her way home. We were on the final curve before the drive, and What should we have for dinner? Well, I have some-- Suddenly from the backseat came the most horrific sound my dog has ever produced. It was a howl of agony. By the time I'd braked to the side of the road, hit the hazard lights, and turned around, Nelly had vomited all over the exactly five inches of upholstery that was not covered with old dog blanket. Now the deed was done, I raced to home. When I had the proper perspective to actually inspect the stuff, my stomach clenched in fear. Blue and green crystals of some sort--nothing that nature could produce. It looked like something I had seen, but what? How did I suddenly know it looked like rat poison?

Nelly was now consumed with an overwhelming desire to re-consume what had just been forcibly evicted, and she waited panting by the closed car door to regain entry.

I ran in to call Bonnie. She confirmed what I already knew: get to the vet. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes to close.

I had to weigh the choices. So I told the boy, who is not old enough to be left home alone, to stay home alone and do his homework. I didn't need to tell him to avail himself of one of the electronic babysitters, perhaps finish watching that HBO series on John Adams. Then we got back in the car, Nelly this time perched on my lap with my fingers around her collar so she could not get access to the backseat again. And I drove, fast fast fast.

It cannot seem like luck to have your dog ingest a poison that will kill her in the most brutal, bloody way possible. But it was a series of individual pieces of luck that unreeled this movie backwards. The what-ifs are arrayed like the spindles of the hard-to-hit carnival ring toss game: if we got home any earlier, she would have gone out somewhere in back field and I would never have seen what she threw up (and ate again). I would have watched her drink increasing amounts of water all night, to no avail, and merely wondered why. If the vet's office had not been open, they would not have been able to induce her to vomit the rest, and given her quick applications of medicine. What if, what if.

What if Nelly were not here now? But she is. Sidelong on the couch behind me, three feet away at this very moment, and I can hear her gentle breath. Sleeping beauty. And we lived happily ever after.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

High Dive

Say I have an errand in another town (say, going to look at a house for sale, and, say, having big hopes crushed to powder yet again). First I ascertain how to get there--which is why god invented Google Maps--and then I break out the paper maps. In a combination of nostalgia and necessity, I revert to the hopelessly old-fashioned for this most meaningful of tasks: finding a good place to take Nelly for an off-leash hike.

When you are a motorcyclist, you read maps as others do tea leaves (or 401K statements, and we now know which of these holds more promise for the future). You know that if you look deeply enough into what was folded and is creased, new worlds will be found along the yellow brick road. Only one hopefully less slick. You will find the Here to There that will take you somewhere. You get good at reading maps for all their nuance, their lines like those of sonnets you will repeat as their scansion pulls you down into a corner lean.

Then, when you get a dog, you go even deeper into the map, searching out those green swathes of unroaded space that signal the ever-shrinking gift of running room, that which bears no threat of accidental death for prey-besotted canids. Because you love to see your dog run, it's that simple; even if you plod on two feet, your heart flies on four.

This kind of map reading is itself a map, back to the vast territories of the inner imagination.

On the state forest trail by the careening Kanape Brook, heading gently upwards under still-unleafed giants in the early spring, I reentered a place I had forgotten. It was a country where I used to spend so many hours, of such historic importance to me that now rediscovered, I can hardly believe I had ever left (this is the kind of age-propelled amazement that now drives Facebook for the middle-aged crowd). This is the place where, when you are a child, what is inside the imagination is colored far more brightly, with sharper edges and deeper deeps, than anywhere your sneakers actually meet the ground.

This struck me full in the face at a turn in the trail. Up ahead, a spring freshet was chasing itself down the slope that rose on the left, hurriedly pulled by the magnet of the powerfully rushing stream in the ravine to the right, via a culvert underfoot. The bed of this melodic little waterway was a tumble of rocks entirely painted in emerald moss that glittered in the slanting sun of late day. (And begorra if it this wasn't St. Patrick's Day, too.) Suddenly I was there, at seven, with wondering eyes that beheld fairyland. I just knew it was peopled by the handsome, spritely beings in a gigantic book, called, yes, Fairyland, that I had found at my grandparents' house, itself a sugary magic land for an introspective child. The book, with its watercolor drawings, had belonged to my mother, or maybe my aunt, at the same age as I when I discovered it. Its pages were over-danced with creatures who slept on such moss beds, and I too lived with them, and sailed on their leaf boats, huddled under their toadstool umbrellas in the sweetly dripping woods; the works.

This was the time when I not only looked at such pictures in books--I dove into them from a height, splashed down into their depths and stayed there, bubbles silvering from my lips. And remembering this now, at the sight of a fairy stream, made me wonder where it all has gone. The immersion in something other than details and logistics and responsibilities and groceries and agendas: the life vest that keeps me bobbing on the surface, unable to sink down into the wanderings of the mind. The way you get to be who you become.

For a moment I recaptured that way of being, the one who stared outward to see inward. Then we turned back on the trail, because I had an appointment to keep.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


There she is, through the window, my dear companion, her head bobbing up and down in the field: she is supping on deer shit. Ah. My son says, "Nelly the barbarian." She is that, oh yes, though she is also the closest thing to civilization I have in the middle of the night, pressed close against my leg as I wake in a literal cold sweat, numb and in pain at the same time (she, like me, specializes in encompassing opposite poles at once).

It was she alone who prevented me from making a panicked run to the emergency room at 2 a.m. -- But I can't leave Nelly here by herself! -- though there was also the unsavory aspect of a thirty-minute drive when I was so exhausted it might as well have been driving drunk. It seemed safer to use denial, cue up The Thirty-Nine Steps and sing mantras to myself (It's probably nothing you'll die from . . . ) while breathing deep, and fall back into fitful sleep, to assess the situation in daylight.

It was a good thing that the results of the second blood test later revealed that the cost of such a dark quest would have been paid in vain: it was simply a continuation in new symptomatology of the same virus that for six weeks had stretched me on the rack, toyed diabolically with my senses, and made me recall for the first time in decades the movie scene that had spooked me so completely as a child that it erased everything else, including the film's name, from my memory: a convicted witch, laid beneath a wooden raft on which
was heaped rock after rock by a mirthful populace until she was crushed to death.

This illness has caused the physical strength to seep out of me, at the same time that psychic confidence has also sprung a slow leak. I try to recall if it was ever thus with me--the heaping on of circumstance and emotional reaction until I am like that pancake witch, in a cycle of boom and bust that has me up in the clouds of hope one week, plodding through an earth-hugging gray fog the next. No, I realize, the cycles are much shorter these days --and sometimes they occur so rapidly that they are almost simultaneous, so that I take on the quality of the many-armed Kali, a statue of whom sits on the sill in the yoga studio. I look at it and see a mirror. Destroyer and giver of life, all inside my one little brain.

The source of one great hope lately is simply an idea--one that came on me gradually, a dawn whose sun soon blazed hot and huge overhead -- and ideas excite me more than anything else in this world, even chocolate, money, or the prospect of not having to decide alone at 3 a.m. whether to get out of bed and drive to the ER.

This idea has to do with something I once deemed peripheral, but now see as central to the whole shebang. It arises from the top echelon of a top echelon organization, the Iron Butt Association, whose membership has cornered the market on what is essential in life: single-minded purpose that can blast to powder the
notion of impossibility. A few of these people see something that cannot, should not, be done (say, ride through all forty-eight contiguous states in eleven days; sleep is for wimps, or people of little determination) and then do it. Simply do it. The idea is a window into not only a particular psychology -- one may say pathology, but then, like Kali, sanity and insanity may be encompassed by one and the same act -- but into the nature of purpose itself. This is an amazement to me. And a lesson, at this particular juncture in life.

The friend whose pronouncements about the import of recent events have never yet been found untrue, paradoxical as they are, has given another. In order to not be alone, I must first learn to be alone.

So Nelly and I once more climb the familiar trail in the Shawangunks, my ailing bones protesting at every step (and even worse when we get home, giving me a presentiment of life at age ninety). The endurance of this virus is arm-wrestling me now, and both of us tremble in the stillness of the effort. My dog, civilized barbarian, turns back to look at me with adamantine eyes from her advance position on the trail. The slant of the sun reveals her eyes to be both brown and blue. She is with me, except when she is not. My mind is the destroyer and it is the creator. The man who wills himself to stay within the funnel of light his auxiliary headlights throws always ahead of his machine into the long night of a thousand miles just to prove it can be done is at once unhinged and the most rooted of all. That is what this means.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Sometimes I look out through my eyes, and I have a feeling that they do not belong to me. That is because it is not me doing the looking--it is the other me, the one who used to exist many years ago, the me who has been displaced against my will by time. The other one still lives in the years of youth, the juice-filled years. In these moments I feel I am walking in my body many years ago, and it is a coiled spring of energy and hope and possibility. It is the body that had curves (yes) and swagger, the one that leaned back into life watchfully, as if perusing the buffet. The body that my mother, in the passenger seat, would stare at and then bark, "Both hands on the wheel!" When I would silently persist, as it felt much better, right, to cock an elbow out the window, let my right hand hold all the power, she would sniff, "You drive like a dime-store cowboy."

And that is me, a dime-store cowboy who is every inch a gi
rl, walking down Fifth Avenue at lunchtime, aware that eyes were following. Sometimes the mouths below those eyes would open, and I hated it. I cringed, because those comments were supposed to rile me, rob me of my composure and thus of my integrity. And now I hate the fact that no one says anything anymore. Hypocrite.

Or else I might just be sad at what I can not control, and what I did not understand. This is a special sadness that belongs only to women. See, we were the girls who reveled, for the first time in this social history, in our ability to
wield our sexuality for our own devices, or so we thought; but now that we're old, we find we've lost the visibility that helped make us who we were. You'd think we'd feel free at last, now that no one wants to take us. We can walk where we want, unremarked. But it feels like a terrible loss anyway. We can't win.

American Girl in Rome by Ruth Orkin

Exactly thirty years ago, I walked down a street in Athens, Greece, with my new junior-year-abroad girlfriends, tight in the embrace of adventure. A car slowed to walking pace next to us. We kept our gazes steadfastly ahead. They razzed us continuously: "Beautiful! Oh, my god, gorgeous! Come with us. Let us buy you a coffee. Please! Just a coffee. Come on. Oh, beautiful!" We said the appropriate things, in our American-inflected Greek: No, sorry, we're busy. No, really, we can't. But they didn't stop. "Just one minute for us. You won't be sorry. Oh, gorgeous! We don't believe you." Each moment we had to up the arms race, the words more and more forceful: No, leave us alone. Still we walked (now looking for anywhere, an alley or a shop, into which to duck, but there were only apartment buildings, miles of them, nowhere to hide). Then we were yelling: Get the hell out of here! At last, Leila, a spirited Greek-American from Boston, threw a plastic bottle from the gutter into the window of their car. They asked for it. And suddenly, it was war. Full-out war. "Whores!" they screamed. We walked faster, and faster, and their car jumped the curb. They were driving behind us, and we were running. For our lives. Because if they couldn't have us, they would hurt us.

What is this impulse?

That kind of controlling assault by men--constant, from the minute you went outside--made my sojourn in Greece something I almost could not wait to escape. My experience there now, I suspect, would be that of an entirely different country. I might actually get to see it, instead of hiding behind ancient kore and dusty shrubs half the time.

So why is it that I fervently wish for, oh, I don't know, just five years to be erased from my log? I mean, is that so much to ask?

Ah, but it wouldn't really change anything, would it? Anyway, I have my small pleasures: prime among them the pastime of thinking, as I gaze upon some dewy-cheeked young beauty, "Know what? Some day you are going to be exactly as old as I am now. You too will look at pictures of your cohort when they were thirty years younger, and be stunned to realize you cannot even recognize them as the same human being."

But if hope is the province of the young, then I am suddenly a child, with a whole life spread out ahead of me, with surprise and greenness. Things are going to happen. I am not sure which eyes I will use to see them with.