Saturday, November 28, 2009

How I Became a Vegetarian

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 Paris. Perhaps my subsequent history would have been all different if she had ordered anything but rabbit. But she did. And I sat there staring at it.

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


Whatever was there before is wiped so clean away it is not even a memory; it is a level place such as can never exist but in the imaginings of men with heavy equipment. What was there is expunged. What is to come is a drugstore. CVSWalAid, I think.

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

It's Hard, Wiring

Motorcycling is always an adventure. Sometimes the biggest adventures occur while the bike is still in the garage. Or at least they do if you have me assisting in the repairs.

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

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

Writing hurts. (Sometimes reading does, too, but that’s a story for another time.) It’s not the same agony as laying pipe nine hours a day, or waitressing—another of the paths not taken because impossible for someone of my impatient, unkind temperament—but at this very moment I am undertaking the kind of work that causes an unrelenting internal sweat. Or an anxiety akin to disrobing in a public locker room, where you wish you hadn’t neglected to shave, or maybe to have worked out just a little bit harder in the gym.

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 Javits Center. I took two cartons of the untried book and sat down at a table there, where the now-familiar humiliation of selling myself first sent almost electrical shocks through my system. Actually, I’ve never gotten used to the feeling of being invisible, or worse, of being a lanyard or a pair of sunglasses picked up, examined, and replaced before the would-be buyer moved on, without a word. People will stop in front of you, look from your face to the cover of your child, I mean your book, and back again, and speechlessly say: I don’t really care. Sometimes they will pick one up, turn it over to read the back of the jacket, look at you for an instant—Are you the help? Are you even human?—and then put it back while simultaneously spying something better across the aisle, and hastening toward it.

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.

Gelatin silver print by Fawn Potash