Saturday, September 26, 2009

It's a Guzzi Thing

One of the most magical items in the childhood arsenal was the package of small clamshells, labeled “Japan.” Into a glass of water they went, and the waiting began. Rarely did persistent watching yield the prize; this was shy magic, the kind that wants to happen in the night, while no one sees.

In the morning, though, the glass revealed all: wonderment. The shells had burst open, and paper flowers of every color now waved slowly in the glass. It was always an unexpected blessing, a world that had bloomed for your eyes alone.

My grown-up version of the sneaky gift recently arrived through our latterday portal of magic, the listserve.

It is both with pleasant anticipation and a shaky dread that I confront the multiple switches that animate the computer every morning, as with coffee mug in hand I watch a tower of bold-faced notifications construct itself in the in-box. I’ve joined so many groups, each with such necessary information, that all I lack is sufficient time to read them all and still conduct such secondary business as providing sustenance for the household, or making money enough to be able to do so. Lately, more and more of those chatty lists are motorcycle-related: for project research, the LDRiders list; for current bike concerns, KBMW; for old times’ sake, NE Moto Guzzi. With the volume of yammering on most of them one wonders when, if ever, these people actually ride; they’re writing disquisitions, sometimes witty, sometimes lacerating, on minutiae that makes you redden with the knowledge that you didn’t even know you were supposed to worry about such things, much less the 24 steps it would take to remedy them.

The New England Guzzi list, though, was different. And so I always read promptly through: even though I no longer had a Guzzi, it was impossible to say Guzzis no longer had me. Plus, the exchanges were refreshingly free of attitude or folderol. Because these people actually knew one another, they were civil. And they were about the business at hand—where to meet on Sunday and at what time; who had a part and was volunteering to come help install it; the occasional in-joke about previous mishaps or the primacy of duct tape—carrying with them the immediacy of real motorcycles, real rides, real friendships. Some of the people I too had met and could put a face to (as well as a yankee accent); the others I felt I knew, or could imagine easily enough: they were genuine, kind, smart, unpretentious, but still daunting to me, in all their knowledge of Mandello’s great, glorious, occasionally misguided history.

So that’s what I usually clicked on first, a gentle envoy to the day. But one day last week the theme of the messages took a turn that, in as short a time as it took shells to open and release their hidden blooms, would change the world.

Their voices began to speak, not to me, but about me. I listened, frozen, because I could not believe what I was hearing.

At first I thought it must be another of those humorous volleys that keep these lists engaging. But then the thread “Lario for sale in NH” was quickly renamed “Lario for Melissa?” And that’s when something clutched at my gut: a million things, actually, a carousel of emotions going around and around at the same time they went up and down. The bike I had loved and lost, the thought of which struck me with the same chill trembling as did the prospect of catching a glimpse through a crowd of a lover last seen decades before. Joy at the idea. Fear at the idea.

Disbelief at the idea. Because it was soon apparent this had become a spontaneous uprising, more and more participants piling on--and what was this?, evincing something very much like joy as they did so. I watched from behind the screen as the velocity of joiners increased, a recruiter’s office on the day after war has been declared. “I’m in for $100”; “I don’t have much since I’m unemployed, but put me down for $50”; “I can help with transportation too”; “I’m good for $200 but only if I don’t have to work on it.” (The wag is a staple of the Guzzi club, and who indeed could last long, or want to, riding thirty-year-old machines without a cool drink of humor?) Finally I was forced to realize the impossible, which they thought very possible indeed: this congregation of near-strangers was uniting to buy me a motorcycle. They had in fact been thinking of doing so for a while. When at last this incredible truth forced itself into my head, the tears started. And would not stop for days. I couldn’t speak, or even think, of this unprecedented event without being overwhelmed by what felt mysteriously like both grief and startling happiness made into one wholly new emotion. It was like a force massing on the other side of a sturdy locked door, pushing, pushing. It would break it in splinters, and then what had been shut tight would never be closed again.

What caused the tears had to be bigger, far bigger, than the gift of a motorcycle. Huge though that was; who gives someone a motorcycle? Someone not related to them, I mean. Such an enormous, gorgeous thing could be conceived only in Guzzi land (sort of like Oz but with Italian food).

The next thing I felt was the impossibility of ever accepting such a thing.

Then, after three days of crying, it came to me at once: Whether they knew it or not, and I believe they did—crack diagnosticians that they are—what they were giving me was not just a shapely silver motorcycle with only 8,500 miles (and hopefully new valve springs). They were giving to someone who had recently found herself in a lightless place nothing less than the sunrise. They were using the perfect vehicle to send me the kind of news that would change everything, if I was wise enough to simply accept:

I am not alone, though I thought I was.

Love is possible, though I thought it was not.

What kind of people band together to give such a gift? Guzzi people. What kind of people then give more, the work of setting to rights an example of one of Mandello’s “experimental prototypes”? Guzzi people.

Lest too much cloying sentiment arise from this profound generosity and gum up the carbs, however, the breed’s native dryness quickly acted as emotional solvent. In an ungainly effort to show how moved I was, I wrote effusively of how one night I had dreamt of the Lario. You don’t get more ethereally excited than that, do you? "I dream of riding every night!” came the response. Calm down, lady.

And it is true, Guzzi people get to live a dream every day. They have figured out how to do life right, just as they know how to party, an important skill set for rallies, particularly those where a Teutonic spirit prevails. And, it turns out, they are as good at fixing a broken heart as they are at pouring wine, phrasing wry opinion, or sourcing parts.

Togetherness is a fundament of motorcycling, but these people have brought it to the level of high art. I do not know whether there is something about foreign V-twins that draws a certain type of person to them, or whether the sound of valve clatter and the smell of Italian sausage finally changes them into what they become, earthy angels of the road. I only know that I want to be among them. And now that they have brought me back, I will never, ever leave again.

Because what am I, crazy?

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for one of the most amazing episodes of my life, to John C., Tom H., Bud C., Sean R., Allen C., Jay D.,

Chris E., John G., Dave K., Tim F.,

Dave C., Peter K., Mark B.,

IMOC Rally,

Leslie A., Grace F.,

Adam M., Doug and Jacquie R., Peter Kj., John S.,

Pierre D., Anonymous, and anyone inadvertently left off

the list of those who supported

this cause. You better believe it: Guzzi people ROCK.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wrong with This Picture

Ah, how lovely they are, rot and degradation.

All that we have built, all that we are, will ultimately melt back into earth. Far from maudlin, I find this happy-making in the extreme, as it is a reminder that all is as it should be. Scarier than this indeed is the reversal contained in the post-apocalyptic vision (now afoot in several "children's" movies, as if the young alone are still impressionable enough to heed the message that we should think before we act) of the technological un-dead--our creative acts turned against us, animated metal with gleaming diode eyes who cannot be killed, though they can kill us.

This thought occurs during a reconnoitering in the woods nearby: I may live on a claustrophobic postage stamp of a lawn, but there are opportunities aplenty to trespass on city-owned expanses just up the street. As I scrambled over the rock walls that to me are eerie reminders of sweat and pain expended by men long forgotten, but who had loves and cares and woes that now rise like vaporous mists from the forest floor when they are imagined into being, I suddenly found myself looking down into what had been one of their houses. The house of one of these stone-wall-building ghosts I keep meeting, for our strange unmentionable rendezvous, in the untraveled woods.

This was the foundation, still neatly laid up and square, looking like it would never change, hidden as it was by its rocky camouflage even though it lies just beside the road, one I'd walked a dozen times before. But everything else was gone. Doors, sills, windows, floors, all vanished into the immortal earth, done in by microbes too small to see.

A satisfaction, to me at least.

What was in no way satisfying, however, was an event the next day marking the kind of loss that represents the opposite of Everything As It Should Be. This--this was nothing like what it should be, because it was about a child's death.

The rest of us were going around persisting in living, at least for a little while, as yet unspecified. Under the picnic pavilion of the local town park, hundreds upon hundreds of origami paper cranes hung from the ceiling, were heaped in their myriad colors and sizes on the tops of tables. Photos, blown up and exquisite, for the boy's father is a photographer, of the family and the child that he used to be, adorned the columns. I could not look at them; the happiness that shone from them felt too brutal. Food was piled high everywhere, for if we have no idea what to do with ourselves, we eat. Different musicians played all afternoon and evening on a little stage in the corner; the boy had been in love with music, the guitar, the ukulele. Children ran and played, a game of softball ongoing on the diamond. The adults walked around shell-shocked, for we could not change speed that quickly back toward life, as the children did; we could not forget what we were here for. And it was godawful, and not comprehensible, and no one could deal. You kept stepping onto landmines, and the shrapnel of "what if it were my . . . " kept lacerating your skin. You'd haul yourself back from this brink, whipped with guilt for knowing you did not have to go all the way there, like the boy's parents did. But then you'd start toeing that line again, because you were helpless not to. The sirens lured you toward the rocks. You'd think what it might be like to be that mother, radiant in her grief, smiling and then sobbing and then smiling again, as if only she knew they were really all the same emotion, a slippery continuum.

This is not the way it should be, but it is really not given to us to know how it should be. Unless, perchance, that is what you are meant to learn in the final moment when it is all taken back into the breast of the earth, in order to someday be born again, into something else.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Coming Up for Air

I put my child on the bus for the first day at a new school, in a new season that feels very, very old--isn't fall the Methuselah of seasons, ancient and wise though it's not going to tell you what it knows?--and he hated me for it. His face through the window was a mask of misery and it made me remember my own hideous experiences with the coming of September: a cold, vague fear squeezing relentlessly from inside.

The night before, he asked me what a "gulag" was. Such an interesting query from your grade-school child. Then he paraphrased the immortal Calvin & Hobbes: "Off to the gulag in a bus."

He berated me all the way to the stop in the morning. You don't know what this feels like! (Ah, honey, but I do; you make it fresh for me, and I am suddenly eleven again.) Why can't I still go to my old school? (The reasons are too many, and have to do with the childishness of the adults who were supposed to have more care for your helplessness.)

Then the bus rumbled out of sight, and I was free again, with a day to get caught up on the life that for the past several weeks has been fleeting like highway scenery past the long-haul trucker's windows. The trees rimming the black waters of Onteora Lake yesterday reflected red and yellow suddenly on their surface. I can breathe a little now. I wonder what my son is doing today, though, in that new school. Is he breathing easily, or is his chest still tight with the newness and the inchoate fears that change always causes to rise in the human heart?

I myself would welcome some change. I think. Right now, though, I want to sit still for just a moment, in the presence of the late-summer cicadas, the light sleepy breaths of the visiting dogs at my feet.

Then to the bank and the auto parts store, for the giant bottle of 15W50. The bike will have change, at least.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Oh Deer

Working part-time at Time-Life in the eighties gave me many things. A place to be in the middle of the night once a week; free telephone calls to anywhere; all the insipid magazines to flip through in down-time that one could ever want; an acerbic, brilliant proofreading partner who could keep me awake with his commentary on every aspect of American mismanagement of life; full health benefits, and, equally amazing, ten dollars cash in an envelope to buy take-out from the Japanese noodle shop; upon a temporary firing--followed quickly enough by re-hiring that it didn’t matter--a check for a thousand dollars that bought my first motorcycle. And something that just now reminded me of this whole gravy-train episode: records and books from the freebie table that held the outcasts from the critics’ desks. One night I took home an album called How Did You Find Me Here by someone I’d never heard of, and bet you haven’t either, named David Wilcox. It featured an image of an acoustic guitar, which is no doubt why I expended the effort to pick it up, and a promise that among its tracks was a song titled “Eye of the Hurricane.”

I learned to love that album, with Wilcox’s honeyed voice and tight, classic songwriting lines. It plays now in the background. And that one song has new resonance now.

It is about a girl who buys the farm on her Honda Hurricane.

The tank is full, the switch is on,

The night is warm, cops are gone

Rocket bike is all her own;

It’s called a Hurricane.

She told me once it’s quite a ride,

It’s shaped so there’s this place inside

Where, if you’re moving, you can hide.

She wants to run away, but there’s nowhere she can go

Nowhere the pain won’t come again

But she can hide, hide in the pouring rain:

She rides the eye of a hurricane.

Tell the truth, explain to me

How you got this need for speed.

She laughed and said,

Might just be the next best thing to love.

. . .

We saw her ride so fast last night

Racing by, a flash of light.

Riding quick, the street was dark,

The shiny truck she thought was parked,

It blocked her path, stopped her heart.

But not the Hurricane.

It can be one of many things, what can get you. Or you can fit together several of them to make your own individualized catastrophe. Often, deer figure in the scene.

The way motorcyclists hit deer is sometimes impossible, sometimes spectacular. The bike may stay upright; it may go down. Riders die, or they live through it; the deer always go. They explode upon impact.

Think about that.

As a motorcyclist I am supposed to hate them. They are, as one friend says, The Enemy. The appropriate response is to want to kill them before they kill you. This is the American way, after all.

But I love deer. I cannot hate anything that is made of fear, and pure beauty, and has to come up against us.

They call them “forest rats,” and I hate hearing that disparaging term; it comes from the same place that thought up "gook," and "nigger." Makes all of them easier to wipe away, diminished like that. But who in fact made deer so plentiful? Their inflated numbers are another creation of our penchant for killing; we took out the wolves and coyotes, too, so now there are no controls. We need not control ourselves.

I had a wonderful stop in Hendersonville, drinking coffee and talking with a friend. I should have been watching the clock. Because I should have gotten on the Blue Ridge Parkway an hour earlier; I needed to make Roanoke that night. Which meant I had an hour and a half of that lonely byway, made mysterious by the dark, after sunset. The deer had reclaimed the roadside; their heads raised, startled, at my headlight. They were the armies of the night, and I had invaded their territory. Fortunately, the BMW, aka the Blender, was as silent a goer as a bike can get. They watched me go by. But I could only do so at thirty miles an hour. There were so many. And though I was frightened—or at least, respectful of the possibilities—I still felt privileged to be in their presence.

The next day, after enjoying the remainder of what is surely one of the great motorcycling roads of the world, I had to face the clock again, and hop onto I-81 for the race home. The Parkway had been my gift to myself, but its wrapping paper was now torn aside.

The happy rhythm, the growing intimacy with the physics of riding the turns on the parkway, made me feel cocky and invincible. So I forgot things, important, basic things. Do not follow trucks. Do not follow anyone closely. Especially trucks.

It emerged from under one of them so quickly I could not do anything, swerve, move over. I fixated on it, and in one portion of a second it was burned onto the film of the inner eye and even now I cannot get it out of my sight. A foreleg first. Then a head, black eyes staring, shocked. Then a brown body, and the crunch of my wheels as it went over, through.

If it had been something solid, made of wood or metal, you would not be reading this. Or, if I had been going slower, it might have brought me down.

A hundred miles later I pulled up next to the pump. I looked down as I put my heel to the sidestand, and what I saw made me ill—at the same time I smelled it, which made me more ill. Not only physically, but right in the heart. I had brought that dead deer with me, dripping from every part of the machine, covering my boots. It had baked onto the engine; hair was caught behind bolts. I felt tears pushing behind my eyes, and maybe only some of them were of relief that I had escaped a spill to which I had been so close.

She had not escaped. She had no hope to. They have been made, by the same evolutionary pressures that made us, to wheel and throw the predator off track. How to hate the dead? And I saw, hanging in threads from below me, that what is inside them looks exactly like what is in us. We are the same under the skin.

Today I walked with Nelly on one of our old trails; we have missed our walks lately. It was nearing dusk; their time. I would have felt lonely, as I sometimes do this time of day, out in the woods far from anyone. Except I knew they were there, watching. And that I find myself wondering if I am more like them than I am like you.

Postscript: The above was written well before the news that several riders on the Iron Butt Rally, which just finished yesterday, were the victims of deer strikes, and one was hurt critically. This kind of news makes me feel nauseous with sadness. Do I want motorcyclists to go down in collisions with deer? No. Do I want to go down myself? No. Do I like having to split my sympathies? No. Do I not even understand why I must? Yes. I feel the framing of this problem is what has gone seriously wrong: Ride a bike; must desire to kill.

"Solve the deer problem!" say the posters on the riding forums. But it's not the deer's problem.

Bring back their predators. Control human numbers. I hope I am ready for the flak this is going to cause to rain down on me.