Saturday, May 30, 2009

Where I'm Getting To

I spent today looking at people and trying to figure out how old they were. Ten or twenty years older than I am now seems a mere little hop over a drainpipe trickle, not the rolling wide Mississippi that it was a little while ago. Time collapses like an umbrella all of a sudden. Today becomes tomorrow morning before I can adequately grasp that it's afternoon.

That man with the cart ahead of mine--he moves very slowly and deliberately, fully enmeshed in his task, which is trying to lift his groceries onto the belt. He is having some trouble. But given his intense concentration, at least he is living in the moment.

The twelve-pack of individual bottles of spring water is challenging him (and me, too, because I don't understand why such things exist). It slips askew; he tries to regrip. His fingers don't seem to want to work the way they were meant to when they were given to him. They're like something not quite connected, not quite flexible, and he ends up holding the package somewhere off to the side, with his palms.

Is this me in fifteen years? I think with what feels like a startling, and very mean, smack upside the head. Shock of white hair, inability to focus on anything but the job at hand? Certainly, then, unable to swing a leg over a motorcycle, much less guide it safely (or at anything above 15 mph) down the road?

Then I'd better get busy.

A lot of living to do, quick. Suddenly, I want to throw my head back and gulp, the whole tall, sweaty glass of physicality: hike up to High Point, rocks underfoot; dance to exhaustion at a friend's party in a hillside art studio, luminaria glittering below on the path to home; hammer in the tent pegs and gather the night's tinder; dress for dinner on the patio of a restaurant with a view; touch the place where the brown hairs fleck the white ones and then join the black ones, the tenderest place on Nelly's lovely face; sway on the chairlift in a bitter wind, knowing that soon warm speed will wash me downhill; wear the gold sandals; unfurl three contiguous maps and look at them for a long time, make lists of what goes into the saddlebags, then early one morning put the key in and go; ride. Do a lot of riding. If all this is a midlife crisis, I don't care. I call it coming back to life.

Recently one of my friends on a social networking site that shall remain nameless mused on how ("at my age!") he was starting to feel the urge for a motorcycle. He was soliciting opinions; wanted to hear from anyone who'd ever crashed. One friend posted about the two times she'd dropped her bike; another one wrote about someone he knows who's now an amputee. Many, many people wrote to express alarm: "Don't do it!" they pleaded. I weighed in on the opposing side: "1. Yes, do it! but 2. Do it only with training, training, and more training, so you can be in the group that is underrepresented in accident statistics." Unfortunately, my comment appeared just below one that tersely said, "My son-in-law was killed on a motorcycle."

I felt awful. And then came my trip to the shopping plaza, where I went shopping for a glimpse of the future. Which would be worse? Deciding that, since so many of these intense flavors will be untastable in a short while, I should decline them now? Or taking the risk that I might not get all the way to 75 and custom-made orthopedic shoes if I drink that whole glass?

Maybe I wouldn't reach 75 anyway, all my efforts to preserve this web of blood, bone, tissue blown to powder one day in a surgeon's office.

And what is so great about 75, I'd like to know?

I do not have a death wish. I have a life wish, one so strong that it requires me to scoot a little closer to the silent but breathing hulk of death's form; I reach out and take his hand in the dark. We are together in this, not like friends, not like lovers, but like parts of the same self. It's the life wish that makes you want to open wide every sense, go screaming into the air, waving wildly to your partner, he who is The End, as you go. It's the death wish that makes you slow down to an acceptable speed for someone your age, comparison-shop for walkers and canes, resolutely denying the existence of the quiet watcher. He who is going to get you, sometime. Not to be morbid or anything.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Predation Picnic

Some days build into magic, and you can never know which days those will be when you set out. Remember this. I had forgotten to remember, when I showed up for an afternoon art exhibit in the nearby burg of Rosendale. A small canal town enlivened at the end of the nineteenth century by the cement industry (Rosendale cement was famed, and ended up in the pilings of the even more famed Brooklyn Bridge), it has now been re-colonized, a century later, by a new generation of Brooklynites. These are the hipsters looking even farther afield than the shores of the tapped-out borough that is simply too cool for most humans: it will slay you dead if you dare to show yourself in Red Hook without the proper accoutrements. The shame of it! I call Rosendale "Williamsburg North."

On this Saturday afternoon, the Interesting people had gathered in the town park for a show of sculpture and furniture made sensuously from cement, on the site of derelict kilns cut out of natural caves in the cliffs and then bricked in. A little grassy sliver of park with some big rocks and little running water, which is all children need to amuse themselves with for hours, so the grown-ups can conduct their business (which my son defines as "yak-yak-yakking for hours!"), aided by microbrew from a keg. Of course, since events in Rosendale are always louche and cool--ruleless--off-leash dogs wandered among the yakkers. As did a couple of twentysomethings who were got up in costume they had taken from the set of Gangs of New York. Nelly, though, was ordered to stay on leash, at least until the giant platters of cheese and Asian noodle salad were all gone. Not even Rosendalians will suffer a dog to stand in their food and gorge on it till sick.

Lots of friends, no goddamn computers, a pretty day: magic rose up out of the grass. The children were up to their knees in pond scum, and so it was magic for them, too. Four hours, and nary a toy, just opportunism: using empty beer cups and gravel from the parking lot, they built dams in the stream, and jumped from rock to rock. With all the cheese finally gone, it was time for Nelly to groove the day as well. I dropped her leash.

That was the moment I apparently forgot where I was. Rosendale. Rosendale--where there are chickens on leashes.

It happened so fast you could practically smell the release of adrenaline into the air. Nelly and chicken, different sorts of extreme desperation acting as rocket fuel (life and death, respectively). Around in a circle of increasing velocity, and I tried to grab the ring on this infernal carousel. I have rarely acted this fast. In a blur.

How glad was I she was still wearing her leash? Well, how glad is the chicken to be alive still? Just before the first mouthful of feathers, I glimpsed an opening. It was worth the skinned knuckles: I got her. Magic. Friends who had observed from far off came over to commend the mindless burst, the save. Nelly was shaking. Every cell in her body was on high alert. She wanted chicken dinner. Warm chicken dinner.
The day, and its happy vibe, was preserved. We went home to eat our dinner of omelet. I let Nelly lick the pan. That is as close as she was going to get that day--the skin of her teeth. I was so glad I had not let her out of the house that morning, because there was a newborn fawn in the side yard. Alive, and magic.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Drunk Again

Have you ever had an emotion hangover? It's worse than the day after those four martinis you artfully talked yourself around, because not only do you feel physically sick, you are also empty, corroded from inside, and certain you must be black and blue, although when you look there's no evidence of it on your skin.

That was the result of the emotion binge I went on last week, when all the heavy boxes I had precariously stacked
on the closet shelf -- there! that's handled, she smartly tells herself and shuts the door -- came tumbling, brutally, out at once. Knocked senseless to the floor by cartons of realizations.

Every damn thing was in there--every wound, every anxious moment, every aspect of how I live my life from how I greet the store clerk to what ambition I have as a writer, every piece of what I am, or were, or will be.

A Dark Night of the Soul was had there, in the closet, all my psychic possessions now naked on the floor, where I could see them exactly for what they are.

The next day, puking sick. Revisiting the site, like the party that never got cleaned up, I saw all of it still strewn, and now I could see how meticulously built the whole thing had been, over the past few weeks, this disaster meant to resemble the original disaster I've repeated and repeated and repeated my entire life.

I have used others, too, in my precise creation (that which hides as it simultaneously rips off veils, endlessly). To them I say, I am sorry. It's not your fault. Even if I do still want to spit bullets at them for their selfish cruelties. I never claimed consistency. Still, I apologize. I was the one who cast them in this drama. I was the one who wrote the play.

The day after it all fell on me, after I wiped up a bit, no hair of the dog available, I placed an emergency call to the only one I could think of, my go-to guy for truth, A. He ladled it out in ample spoonfuls, an act of generosity. Then an emergency visit to the shrink, where she commented, "You know, A. really loves you. Maybe more than anyone else." I know, I know. Perhaps this, then, is the curative that will bring about the end. So that I will never again find myself on the floor among the detritus of what I always do.

Then, to the walk with my dog, the streaks of tears dried by the stiff spring wind blowing across the freshly tilled cornfields. Not the portion of fields where I'd been--the one of the deadly rat poison, the one with the carcass of raccoon into which the dogs would delicately dip their pulse points like teens at the perfume counter--but the other one. The one that to Nelly is a candy store of wild animals; the one where I've lost her, time after time.

From the point ten minutes in that she flushed the wild turkeys, then, she was gone. I took the walk by myself, cursing myself for coming back here again. Why do I keep looking into the alluring blue eyes of disaster, and proceed anyway? Another box hit me on the head.

Sick of this, too, I tell you. I rounded the field, wondering how I was going to find her in the twenty minutes I had left. That is as nothing in Nelly-time. I stopped to listen; do you know how many birdsongs precisely mimic the distant sound of dog tags jangling? Oh, she was well and truly gone. Why did I come here, the scene of past lives in hell?

I walked back, dejected and pissed at myself. The car came into sight, way over there. And then, what's that? Can it be? Nelly! She was there, waiting. She had thought it was I who was gone. She was now ecstatic to see me. She ran to the encircling leash.

And so, this time it did in fact end differently. I am thinking, now is the time for it all to finally end differently. I am going to try, in twelve steps or less. The first is to stay away from anyone I can write into the script called "Here We Go Again." I hate hangovers. Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

You Meet the Nicest People on a BMW

Maybe returning to biking after long years away is analogous
to becoming pregnant a second time: only a severe and pervasive amnesia preventing recall of the physical details permits one to dive in and do it again. Then, when it's too late, you go, A-ha. It all comes flooding back, the sensations, the joys, the miseries that feel like joys.

At night, after the first ride, you unclothe and see that mysterious forces have been at work on your body without your knowledge: there's coal black stuff under the skin of your fingertips, which you haven't seen in eleven years, like the return of an old (unkempt but convivial) friend. And a bruise on your shin, another on your thigh--you have absolutely no recollection whence they came, but you know their wandering about your person is to become a permanent feature of your skin for as long as you ride.

You find yourself suddenly wishing you did not have to work anymore, because it cuts deeply into your riding time. But just as quickly you reflect on the fact that after all you do need some way to buy all those hyperexpensive BMW parts, key fobs, and coffee cups. (Not to mention rally fees, hotels, and gas.) It all adds up, Sigh. You vow to keep working, harder than ever now.

You know what cold is once again; 80 mph in the early-spring-night cold, that is, which is a special brand. The next day it has taken up residence in your neck, which is so painful you can barely turn your head. Now you remember you need to remember to bring that green wool neckerchief you last wore all those years ago. It is still folded in the underwear drawer, and now you take it out and look at it for a while. It is not saying anything, but it knows all about every mile you ever put on your former bikes.

You get the experience, at long last, of walking into the convenience store at the gas station and looking around the racks, total permission to have anything your eye falls on and desires: sticky honeybun, fake pie, peanut M&Ms, anything. (Except liquid: there are the stirrings of a need to pee, and since the bathroom is in the building behind the pumps, and motorcycles are only good for what's before you, you no longer want to take time to go back, anywhere. Riding alone, especially, is about proceeding--into space, into the future, into the experience of going into the pure air of what's ahead.) So you choose a big slab of prepackaged carrot bread. And you know that you can take its caloric load and burn it all in the next twenty miles; there's been no dinner, and who cares, when you can have cellophane-wrapped carrot bread eaten in chunks off the bike's seat while you put your gear back on, oh, and the ear plugs too that you had forgotten for the first sixty miles.

Also forgotten all this time was the weight of guilt for those you've left behind, in others' care. The wondering dog--oh, the dog. What to do now about the poor, sweet pooch? Since there is no answer to the splitting of your loves right down the middle--riding away to the places you want to go; staying with the dog who wants you to stay--you do a Scarlett O'Hara and tell yourself you'll think about that tomorrow. Although you know that tomorrow it will be as unsolvable as it is today, and just as fretful to think about.

How was it, how possibly was it, that you had forgotten that a hundred dear friends, fomrerly strangers, were waiting on the other side, and that as soon as you opened the door again, they would spread wide their arms, say "Welcome back!" and mean it with a sincerity that is stunning for its depth, unknown to any human bond but this? You want to weep for its strength, for its warmth, which we need.

Before you left on your first voyage after such a time, something, you don't know what, caused you to run back to the bedroom to root through the jewelry box: there it is. The talisman. The ring you never once forgot to wear, under your riding gloves, on your right hand. Lucky charm. You need to cling to this, that you'll be safe, that there is a way to make yourself safe. You put it on and rush out the door, into what awaits.

{Not my bike up, there, but damn . . .!}

Saturday, May 2, 2009


The new season announces itself in oriental tones: every morning as we wait for the school bus, we see that fairies in kimonos have overnight added new watercolor daubs to the weeping willow, painting expressive longings in ever deepening, lengthening strokes of green. An even more telling seasonal appearance, on a Moto Guzzi listserve, is one clever wag's Oil Leak Haiku. It prompts a call-and-response of a dozen other haiku on the eternal sadness of leaky seals (clearly lots of folks out there doing last-minute maintenance on their old Ambassadors and Sports), and in them you feel the fresh wind of hope, impatience, frustration. And good spirits.

That is what the new season inspires in me, too. Actually, I'm impatient in fall, winter, and summer as well, attested to by my growing collection of speeding tickets; I narrowly averted one yesterday only by the grace of a school bus placed around a corner by the angel who occasionally looks after my bank account. A few seconds after I stopped, a state trooper filled my rearview mirror with ominous blue and yellow.

See, there's this urging to move, in every sense of the word. All us mobile creatures have it--and for all I know, barnacles dream of velocity--the desire to spring forward fast. (Nelly most of all: she gives me this strange look, and then she's off, a flash across the street, to torment the neighbor's dog, tied up so he's safe, ha, as she noodles around in their yard just out of his reach; thankfully, unless there's garbage or rodents, in which case all bets are off, I have an ace in the hole or rather my pocket, leftover lunchbox cheese quesadilla, and she's soon back for some greasy yum.) Assisted quickness, aka engines below us, are a permanent draw for us humans, hence the lure of motorbikes. I invite you to imagine what Nelly would do with a pocket rocket of her own. And no, she's not getting one for Christmas.

We thrill to the speed burst, canine and human both. As Mario Andretti said, "If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."

Yet also in this season, for me, is the persistence of remembered unhappiness: it will never quite leave my system, the linkage of May with the sudden loss of the great dog of my heart. As soon as the mourning doves make their return in this month, I am drawn back to that time when their amplified heartrending coos echoed the song of my grief.

Aversives are imprinted in our cells in that way. That is why it is so important to remember what behaviorism taught us. They can even trump the most essential biological urges, such as the drive for food. My friend J. tells me of her friend's child, who as a baby had such powerful, painful reflux that even the appearance of food became aversive. Now, with the medical emergency past, she finds the sight of food distressing. At age five, she weighs thirty pounds.

Thus our bodies bear the memories of the good, and the bad. Our histories, carried forward into the present. This is the lesson of Pavlov, and it is how positive reinforcement works (a law, like gravity, not a theory). I saw it in action, and I will never forget that moment, either. In group therapy, a long lifetime ago, one of our members came in for several weeks running complaining of a sudden darkness that had descended on him; he couldn't explain it, this oppressive cloud that hung low and wetted him with its gray tears. He kept searching for the cause--work? something a friend did? the weather? And finally the therapist said, quietly, "Isn't it this week, eight years ago, that your partner died?" He looked stricken. He had not thought of this. But he did not have to think of it, because his body was thinking of it for him: Yes, he said. Yes. It was.

Spring forward, but bound back. When we do, fast into the future, we take with us, in our bones, the places we've been. The things we've felt.