Saturday, October 31, 2009


We may say we don't like being labeled, but what we really don't like is being labeled by others. We are eager to label ourselves, however.

Bumper stickers, membership badges, t-shirts, protest posters. We choose the words we wear so that others will know exactly who we ar
e. 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 h

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.

For more like the one pictured above, go to

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 Ohio, the commander in chief of the forces of Union? The man who helped us regain unity?

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


It once seemed that my whole life was just one long reluctant approach to the party, followed by retreat. And approach again. From the dark outside I would enter, the bar, the club, the private party. The sight of the people inside, a huge gang of togetherness, would hit me like the wall of heat when you open an oven door. I would stand there, furtively scanning the floor, or the fire exit more likely, quivering inwardly from a fear I could not name. After a couple of hours of gripping the bricks with my fingernails behind my back, never speaking to a soul, and invisible to all of them anyway, I would put my coat back on and re-enter the night cold outside for the subway trip back home. There was both relief and inestimable sadness in this moment. Look! I can be abandoned by people I don't even know yet!

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.

[Written to the sound of The Name of this Band Is Talking Heads ("There's a party in my mind, a party
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

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Going Places

Go expressly to enjoy the moon and it turns to tinsel,

but discover it on a necessary journey and

its beauty bathes the soul.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every new bike comes with a warranty card, which you mail in, and an urge to travel, which you hang onto. It grows. Now, in the fall, I am overcome with an almost painful wanderlust. Remembrance of trips past, perhaps, triggered by the peculiar length and feel of these days. But no matter why, this is the season—the slant of a burning orange ball in the sky, a wash of brown and red leaves across the road from right to left, or a miniature cyclone of dead foliage chasing itself around and around—that makes me want to go find new motels. Too bad it comes in a life that is little suited to this enterprise anymore. I look in the pages of the agenda and flip them back and forth: here? No, drat; there’s that thing I have to be here on Saturday night for. Here? Shoot. The schedule got changed, and I’m a parent that weekend. The next clear one is in November, and I have been thinking Adirondack-y thoughts lately; probably too cold. And on it goes.

But I will persist, and drive a wedge somehow into the calendar, split it clean through with the adze of determination and make a space into which I can insert this novel idea: I will go away. For two days, I will be on my bike and going somewhere for the simple purpose of going and seeing what it looks and feels like.

Where? Well, that’s what god made the Rand McNally Atlas for, didn’t he? (“America’s Love Affair with the Road,” US $9.95.) I stare into its pages, too, trying to imagine myself on those thin red or black lines, preferably the ones edged with little dots (Scenic Routes). There are too many to make a choice, and I am rapidly approaching the stasis I embody before the nine-page, eight-pound laminated menu at the Greek diner: after reading entry after entry, my brain getting slower and slower like a logey computer loading more and more, I end up ordering the same damn omelet I’ve ordered for the past thirty years in Greek diners. Rye toast, please.

Where I've really been longing to go is the Grand Canyon. I want to spend the night at the soaring lodge--an architecture that meant to mimic the scenery outside, and because it was from a period in American history when we cared about aspiration as much as we did about craftsmanship (I refer to the time of, gasp, socialism's brief flower), it comes close. But two days to get to Arizona and back? Not even the Iron Butt fairy could wave her wand and make that happen.

I will probably choose someplace familiar, then, Pennsylvania somepart, or Massachusetts. Soon will come the moment I will turn out the driveway and not look back. For two or three days I will answer to no one, pace myself to no one, talk to no one, dine with no one. By necessity and circumstance alone, and potentially by choice. I will know that, though, only when I get back.

There’s a strange alchemy that sometimes works itself on the material of the lonesome trip: it can be a great movement outward, an opening that seems to propel you forward toward a boundless horizon. Or it can suck. Then, it quickly reveals itself as the dreadful mistake you just have to get through, forty-eight long hours of What Was I Thinking. This is when, paradoxically, the great act of freedom becomes a self-created prison, the close walls made of loneliness and fear. Have you never felt them both?

I am reading Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, and it’s both fueling and cautioning my wanderlust. It is a raw and perfect cross-section of grief; it chronicles a long, aimless road trip undertaken because there was nothing else he could possibly do, having lost his daughter and his wife a year apart. Inconceivable. How does the human mind deal with loss of that magnitude? Well, he tells us how. Basically, it is not built to do it. It’s like asking a perfectly good canoe to take off from a forty-foot cliff and get you to the ground safely. It’s like taking a disconnected rotary telephone outside and pointing it at the sky and expecting to get a signal.

If he didn’t have motorcycling . . . Well, god forbid. He just had to ride it out. Having all that stuff to do—navigating, calculating, performing all the mechanical tasks of operating the machine, regulating speed, every second thinking defensively, all in a continuous, multivalent flow—protected him from being eaten alive by corrosive, overwhelming grief. It saved him.

That is why I am getting so tetchy with people flinging the danger card down on the table in front of me. Don’t they know that when you reach a place where there is nothing to eat anymore, and the cupboard is empty and you’re out of everything, then something appears that is suddenly full and ripe and tastes so good, it would be insane not to save yourself, not to fill yourself up again? What is a bit of danger on a full plate next to starving? Not a choice, but a necessity.

The weekend of October 16, then, destination to be determined. Warmer gloves to be bought, electric vest to be tested. Bags to be packed; not much is needed beyond pajamas and two sets of underwear. Book, paper, pen. Credit card. Open road, opening.