Saturday, December 25, 2010

Duplex Me

I drive south on Route 9 toward my goal. Ever since I crossed the Mid-Hudson Bridge, the vista has offered nothing but the works of man, spreading vastly to either side: one enormous monument to middlebrow consumption. Store after store after store; and lo and behold, they are exactly--down to the blueprint, up to the items' placement on the shelves--identical to stores in Akron, Ohio, and Your Town, Your State, too. Soon I will sit still by traveling all over.

I remember this road, north-south through Poughkeepsie, the place that schooled me, as a country road through farmland. But that was in ancient times.

Today I was on a secret mission, as Santa's elf, to H&M at Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall. As I turned in to the lot, it struck me right between the eyes: Jeez, is man complicated! To have made all this--and there was a heck of a lot of "this."

I should have felt slightly sick, slightly guilty. I should have boycotted the relentless commerce, the destructive commerce, the blinding, empty commerce. But I did not. Or at least, part of me did not; another part, counterposed, did. In other words, I am a stone hypocrite. I like my little luxuries, aka unnecessary stuff. I like buying presents for people who also like luxuries. I like shopping at the fancy-foods store (hey, all you really need to live perfectly fine is oatmeal), the one that grew from the seed of the primitive vegetable stand that we used to visit in college. Now it is our area's only source for triple-creme cheeses and European cookies. And instead of bemoaning the loss of an impossibly humble, genuine and real bit of history, I am pleased as punch it's here.

Last night, I went to church for Christmas Eve service. I loved seeing the candles glittering in the windows with dark night beyond, the scent of the undecorated firs flanking the altar, the choir singing and the organ vibrating the floor beneath my feet. I loved the message from the pulpit as well the place in which it was delivered--love; compassion; empathy; look past the stuff, into the heart--even though to do so was another manifestation of my hypocrisy, for I am an atheist.

For the human animal, maybe hypocrisy is a font of richness. For this particular human animal, it is the beginning of a happy dissonance, one that resonates like bells, with their sound that goes on after the metal is struck. Their sound that says, This is joy.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


In August of 1741, George Frideric Handel sat down to work. He was setting to music a libretto by Charles Jennens drawn from the King James and Great versions of the Bible that narrates the idea of a messiah as interpreted by Christianity. In September, he got up, having created one of the most galvanic, powerful, and gorgeous works of music ever written. He had been in debt, and depressed. Whether or not this contributed to the brilliance of the oratorio can only be guessed; need, of which sadness is a type, is known by many artists as the most provocative of all the muses.

He wrote Messiah in twenty-four days, and a critic later commented that in that case, it was obvious that Handel spent twenty-four days in heaven.

My annual Christmastime listening--and, unfortunately, singing along to--the double-album set I've owned for years (Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Joan Sutherland, Grace Bumbry, and Kenneth McKellar) occurred not during the usual tree-trimming. I used it instead as soundtrack to my tortured revising of my book, hoping that something of the composer's genius would leach out into my own work; no freaking luck there, alas. But it did do what it always does: sweep me, as if I were before the inexorability of a twelve-foot wave in the ocean, to the sand gasping for breath. I do not believe in the particulars of what its elemental language conveys, but I believe that Handel believed. And I believe that he touched the angelic clouds of creativity.

For years I sang in choirs, and at this season was enlivened by the unparalleled experience that is being carried on the swells of the choral portions of Messiah . It is, perhaps, the only time I ever felt immortal. I both heard my voice (not a terribly good one, but adequate to singing in a choir, being generally on key its prime qualification) and heard it lost in the whole. That's the good kind of loss, by the way; a loss that magnifies.

To sing it now, at least once a year, feels like a need. It feeds a hunger. When you open your mouth to sing, with a multitude of others, "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together" and "Arise, shine, for thy light is come . . . " you are transported. Where? In, to the mysterious heart of man's yearning, and out, to the hope that we are gloriously bigger than just one. In the choir, you are. "For ever and ever," rings out, again and again: Something is going to go on, beyond our small lives. Hallelujah.

Some believe what endures is an omnipotent deity, part of which came to earth one winter in order to spend a foreshortened life here with us, before ascending home again. Some, like me, believe that the only thing there is that lives on is the works of man, yet only those that are somehow touched by an otherworldly grace. This is one of those things, born of earth, rising toward heaven. It is enough. Most certainly, enough.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Into the Fire

Why does the brain hide things? It sometimes acts like the mice in my house lately. I put my foot into my shoe, and--heck! This feels funny. Whatever is in here?


No, I mean really: nuts are in there, hidden in the toes of my shoes. (Also in the dirt of the houseplants, and among the logs in the stack by the fireplace.) The mice have been busy in advance of the hard season. How difficult it must be, even if it is hardwired behavior: Time to get busy! A fretful, anticipatory feeling. And so I have deep misgivings on taking one of these nuts and tossing it outdoors; this is a future meal, counted on. Something in me gets deeply distressed, in particular, when I envision anyone's disappointment. It screws itself into my gut; I hate it. A vestigial memory from the childish past, of course: I have spent plenty of time in therapy, after all.

Notwithstanding the fact that I ought to be considering just where the acorn-sized holes are in the foundation of my house, I am instead thinking about the passage of time. Here we are again, time to mark the pagan hope that we will make it through the winter, just like the mice. This got translated, through the eons, into people like me squirreling away wrapped presents throughout the house. (Ironically, these are at the moment not exactly in my shoes, since they won't fit, but they are on my shoes, in the closet; please don't tell my child, as he still believes in Santa Claus. For myself, I believe in Santa Clause, as I saw it written on a firehouse signboard this morning.)

As swiftly as time is moving these days, it is fitting that it now rockets even faster through my imagination. Yesterday, I swear to god, driving through an ice-hard landscape of sparkly lights and absurd blown-up holiday figures quivering in small yards, a profoundly soul-crushing sight, I felt a premonitory wash of springtime. The smell of wet earth; the time-lapse opening of a flower bud into wide-open petals, in the space of thirty seconds.

The nuts that are hidden in my brain (no comment) are made of knowledge. Someone asks a simple question, "So, how are things going?"
And then, issuing from my own mouth, is the truth that I had not been able to grasp for a long time now: "I have been trying to see around corners, know what is there before I have gotten to it. But corners are simply not to be seen through, are they? They have rocks, buildings, or trees in the way. I should not have expected myself to know what is in a place I haven't come to yet." It had been killing me, the insistence on trying to see the unseeable on the road ahead.

"Being in the present moment is difficult," replied the questioner, my yoga teacher.

Yes. Yes, it is.

Time takes away, but it leaves lessons behind, like Santa eating your cookies but leaving the gifts. (Santa as perfect life metaphor--ha! But think. We must learn to ask directly if we want something. And For everything that is taken, something is given. A child's hopeful fiction, yet--of course--full of difficult truths.)

My lessons this week include:

1. Converse; it will help you to uncover all sorts of valuable nuts that have been socked away in your mind.
2. That fizzy anticipation in your stomach? Yes, Melissa, there is a Santa, and ever will be, in your perpetual youth.
3. Men suffer silently, and women wonder why they aren't doing what they are supposed to (catering to women); each sex lives in a separate cultural and emotional paradigm, but I have come to believe that women don't appreciate this fact at all; are in fact insensible to it. Therefore they have no idea what men are up against. I have been gathering evidence lately, from a very small sample. The people I know.
4. My bikes, out in the garage, unprepared for winter storage because of my denial of the actuality of time, can make me feel very guilty. As much so as the mice, whose food I have removed from my shoes.
5. In the night I wake, and when I go into the bathroom I am arrested by an otherworldly green light pulsing from inside the garage, in the exact rhythm of a heartbeat. At first I am confused, startled. But when I shake my sleepy head and realize what it is, a new battery charger--a birthday gift of uncommon goodness--connected to the Guzzi, then I know. It is indeed a heartbeat.

Time, and much else, has been surprising me. And on it comes.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Born of Elegance

Does everyone deify their parents? Or was it just me?

Back then, somewhere below my consciousness (like the concrete beneath my feet) was the certainty that the most beautiful creature on earth lived in my house. That was the little girl's belief: the power that swept all before it was my mother as she went through the door, on her way to a party. (The sensitive reader will immediately sense a shadow here, the one cast by the figure of the mother leaving, but the brilliance of the light for the moment has bedazzled the girl so she does not see anything but it, just now . . . just now.)

She was schooling me. She did not know, but she was chalking important lessons on the blackboard: Revlon lipstick in classic garnet red; a last glance in the mirror, head this way, then that (chin tilt: up). Nipped-in waist. Pretty heels. Then off--off to the place where beautiful goddesses congregated.

I had no idea what they did there (handsome demi-gods in tweed jackets alongside), but I knew it was not for me to know. It had to do with things they called cocktails, the exact contents of which were as mysterious as the print on the newspaper that was apparently so necessary to my father's regaining of his sanity every evening when he returned from the office, sitting down with it and a bowl of dry-roasted peanuts and, yes, another cocktail.

Everything left behind after would bear a ring of lipstick, the colorful ghost of a kiss: the rims of the glasses, the white butts of cigarettes. When they had a party at our house, my parents, after the furor of preparations (my mother in high snit; the purposeful need for the good china and glinting silverware to come out of their gray flannel wear and the place in the sideboard where they lived for most of the time, behind doors locked with tasseled skeleton keys), the doorbell would ring, and the smiles would come out. We girls were charged with bringing the coats upstairs to my parents' bed, a pile of deep furs and chesterfields and plaid scarves. There was tinkling--ice in glasses, laughter--and smoke. Things to eat perfectly arrayed and in great abundance (the legacy of my mother's Greek parents, and their belief that too much was never enough).

When they went away to others' parties, it was their coats carried to some other grownups' bed, I supposed. But I did not suppose much, when they went away. I only wanted them to return. This happened after epochs had passed. After I had resisted and could resist no longer the call of sleep; after I had dreamed. I usually dreamed of my mother, her beauty.

And then she was there. Bending over me in the dark, her sealskin coat still holding the cold as it brushed against me, releasing its sequential smells: perfume, cigarettes. I could fall back into the soft brown dark after that, after she retreated and the door closed. She was home.

My love for her colored her beauty, I see now. Both were towering. The utmost one can feel.

I wore, for a time, her clothes. In the city long ago, to parties and clubs. I never believed I could put on her distant beauty, though.

Now I rotate my jeans and t-shirts. Recently, I got a full-length mirror for the first time in years. I am, let's face it, a slob. We were born for different worlds: she never walked dogs in the woods after a heavy rain, jumping downhill rivulets and sometimes missing. And I no longer go to cocktail parties wearing a dress just like the one I saw in Vogue. But we are nonetheless bound. Somehow.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Lately I have been given to recalling how I lived not in this world but in profoundly sensed others a long time ago. The reason I now remember is that boy out there, visible through the verticality of bare trees in the woods. He is slashing his invisible enemies with swords that are transformed from sticks to glinting metal, indomitable in his hand alone. He is not playing; he is truly there, in the unearthly din of battle (only supplemented with those shkk-shkk sounds from his mouth), loacating himself at the extreme edge where death and heroism meet. Childhood fantasy is big. It is as big as Wagner and Beethoven and Jackson Pollock put together. It is not made of small things; it is the biggest thing there is. It is the only thing.

Psychologists tell us it is the way we arrive at theories, in the safety of our tender youth, of how we are to exist in this strange community of others. Fantasy is formed of pure logic, but painted with colors so vibrant they would hurt the eyes of adults. And the child is always in the very center of the maelstrom of his own making.

Sometimes these take the form of "paracosms," imaginary worlds replete with systems of economy and governance.

I do not remember having imaginary playmates; I was too desirous of real ones. Oh, the yearning for friends, fast and yearning in return to be with us, only us. But I did live inside places that fairly quivered with passion--that was where I belonged, oh boy! Blood and cries, cannonballs and bandages, horses wheeling and tattered banners whipped by the fury. Every moment a moment that tested one. I wanted to be tested. And, in my imagination, always to pass. (I was not the one with the skirts flying, by the way; I was the dirt-smeared soldier, falling to rise again and face the minie balls.)

At another point--or perhaps the same one, since that is the way it works when you're very young, no limits to simultaneity--I was utterly convinced I would one day live in the Newport mansion The Breakers. This constituted not just heroism, but heroic levels of wealth, so long as robber-baronial tendencies could be allowed in the truer world of the dream (they could). This may have coincided with the period in which I knew I would become an astronaut, visiting the moon on my way to farther reaches of the universe; this small imagining came courtesy of not just watching Lost in Space but inhabiting it. My first visit to a planetarium drove the belief deeper into the wild subconscious, where at will I could feel the loneliness hurtling by my rocketship at vast speed. How many lives did I imagine I had, in order to follow these disparate lines of work? Perhaps I would arrive home from a journey to Pluto and drop my bags in the marble hall of The Breakers, I don't know. Nothing made sense in that way, but it did make certainty.

That was it: certainty. There was a heightened sensation in these fantasies that I do not believe I could conjure today, even with drugs. I now live in a pastel world, reasoned and reasoning, with clean bathrooms. Every now and then, I mean.

Now that I am all grown up--too grown up, a very hard place especially for a woman, walking this bridge from the desirable to the . . . what? I don't know what to be, and that is the problem--does it mean I have figured it out? The theory supplanted by the pale real, no need for further questing. No more inhabiting the great hero of the mind's imagining. No living there, in the thrill of what I might call Deep Imagination. The place that echoes with cries and blurs with color, brilliant red and blue and hard grays. At least I can view it afar: through the window when he is out there, learning who he is among the trees that hide opponents, the ones to vanquish, always and soundly, vanquish.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanks for the Gratitudes

Gratitude--the meanest and most
sniveling attribute in the world.
Dorothy Parker

If I had a nickel for every time in the past week I’ve overheard someone saying that Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday, because it’s solely about being with others and not about buying things (though I’m waiting for the American inevitable), then I could buy my cranberry sauce with the accumulated change.. We are wired, as primates, to cooperate, to gather together, to aid and assist. At least as much as we are wired to stab each other in the back, literally and figuratively. Go on—count the wars and tribal hostilities that are currently occurring worldwide. (Here's help: Twenty-seven military conflicts at present count.)

It is difficult to pause and mentally list all the things we might feel grateful for in our present moment—as hard as it is to practice any Buddhistic mindfulness, and as mystically rewarding—but it suddenly feels necessary. A psychotherapist explained to me this week something about how it closes a circle, or maybe it was something else that did; I am not grateful to have a waning memory, though I am grateful to still be around and able to bemoan its deficits. See, nothing is perfect.

As I clambered up a rocky trail with Nelly earlier in the departing light of the day, to stop and turn, greeting the sight of the mountains wearing the diaphanous silk of mist in what others might find a depressing gray-and-dead portent of heavy winter, I organized my gratitudes. They fall into three categories: the immediate world in which I live; the people who walk alongside with me in it; the fears that I am privileged to spar with, as challenges that will either kill me (they haven’t yet, yay!) or will propel me to an as-yet unknown new spot on this weird trajectory called life. At some point I know I will fall into the ocean at the horizon, like a rocket trailing sparks. The sizzle as the fire is extinguished will be heard for a moment, then gone.

I might have been born in Afghanistan, and I would wear a burqa. It would never occur to me then, or even be possible, to engage in a small struggle with creating things out of words, because I would be busy with a great struggle to create something out of beige sand and rocks. I would be struggling to stay alive.

Instead, I live in a place that offers multitudinous possibilities every day. Which of several internal-combustion machines I will take down which road. Which sight I will see among the mountains and the small towns. Which meal I will put together out of the endless variety that spills from the cupboards and the grocery store bins. Which trail I will walk, to be alone with thoughts and leaves.

I am grateful for any opportunity, never in equal measure to what I receive, to give back to the friends who have, inexplicably, stayed with me as I walk the rocky trails I have chosen to walk. By all rights, they should have stayed at the parking lot, waving as I stumbled upward into some lonely wilderness of my own choosing. But they did not: they have remained at the end of the phone line, the email message, the opposite side of the table at bar or café, while I laid out the dilemma, the worry, the tearful expose. I am filled with gratitude for every moment in their company, and every evening they have closed with laughter that began in despair. I am grateful for every cocktail, every peanut and olive, in their sunny company.

I am grateful for the complex riches I live among—at this moment, the laptop on the floor in front of the fireplace, the glass of wine and the radio giving out the sound of music, an infusion of pure emotion mysteriously crafted from a sensual mathematics—but what they all do at base is simple. They deliver connectedness: to others, and to the temporal pleasures of living in this body, in this moment.

Luck this big is stunning. I try to grasp it, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: it shivers, alive.

That is perhaps where gratitude to strange, unnamed fears comes in. Odd as it is, from this remove, I sense I should thank those long-ago hours spent trembling on the sofa at the front of the apartment in Brooklyn, awake in the middle of the endless night, a black dog asleep but still watchful at my feet. They brought me to the very edges of life, sharp, unyielding. They gave me the chance to come out the other side, back into momentary joy, the only kind there is. The wondering, the whys, the decisions. The ephemerality of everything, tears and a brilliant taste of something delicious. None of it lasts. I have it for a moment, it all goes, and in looking back, I feel this smooth ecstasy that is being enclosed by this skin, which feels everything—the warm touch of others, the cold of aloneness too. I will be thankful for all of it, and all of you, and for smashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.

It seems strange to think of Dorothy Parker and Josef Stalin as bunkmates in the same camp, but here they are: “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs,” said Stalin. I consider the source, and would feel grateful to be a dog, so long as I was not a Russian dog in 1932.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lessons for Arriving

If you think of every disappointment as an "opportunity to learn," it goes down a lot better. You might still cry with frustration, but then you gather yourself up and give yourself a stern talking to: No, this has provided something you needed to discover. A bonus!

Besides, is any day on a motorcycle a disappointment? Even if you never reach your much-anticipated destination?

He who travels alone travels fastest. Ignoring that was my first error, on October 31, 2009. I called a riding friend when I learned, at the eleventh hour (or at 5:45 p.m., to be more precise), that the universe was giving me Part I of a multi-part gift, in the form of a friend who volunteered spontaneously to take care of the Child and the Dog the next day so I could go to a joint BMW/Guzzi meet in eastern Connecticut. I had felt so childishly frustrated: the date I'd cleared in the calendar had been moved for weather, and now I was not free, though the weather was. Then this angel (actually, a mermaid in a blond wig) appeared in the middle of the rain-soaked Woodstock Halloween parade. I could go.

At 8:15 a.m. I was ready to roll, heated jacket plugged in. The sun was breaking through the cloud cover as we headed east. Although my friend, whom I had little experience riding with, had a GPS, I led. That was my second error; not bringing a map, my favorite little traveling companion, was my third.

At the junction of 199 and 44, there were no directional signs, just "Amenia" one way, "Millbrook" another. The bike seemed to want to go one way, so that's the way I went--forgetting that my motorcycle had been perfecting its role as a crafty teacher. It was whispering questions to me, and I was neglecting to shut off the constant droning in the brain that prevented me from hearing them. It was whispering very, very quietly now.

After stopping to fumble with the GPS for a while (it was not mounted, but carried in the map pocket of the tankbag, which doesn't really work, we found), and our two sets of middle-aged eyes being unable to quite make out whether that was an "E" or a "W" on the sign behind our shoulders, I suddenly laughed out loud. "The sun! What terrible cavemen we would make. Just follow the sun!" And indeed, at 9:30 in the morning, the sun was hanging low, right over there. East. I felt both dumb and pretty smart at the same time. Away we went.

And in twenty miles, discovered we had made a large loop, and now needed to turn around.

Stoplights are suggestions. I may be the world's slowest impatient person--I still couldn't figure out how others could replace ear plugs, zip zippers, fasten buckles, and pull on gloves in a fraction of the time it took me to do the same--but once I was underway, I wanted to go. A yellow light appearing overhead in the near distance caused a warning beep in my brain: Get through! Get through! Red lights are terrible things. My riding partner did not feel the same way, however. Indeed, he felt the opposite. After a couple of times pulling over beyond the light to wait for him, I soon learned to expend some brake pads when a light was about to change. It was a hard thing.

Nutritional standards go back on the shelf for the duration of a trip. I am sincerely OK with a meal made from a cookie that was first placed in cellophane around the time of the last Bush administration. This is eaten (after the dust is quickly wiped from the package) while standing next to the pumps at the gas station. But my friend's eyes widened in horror at the idea. My dismay matched his: Egads, a sit-down breakfast? On the road? Breakfast, dammit, is a granola bar shoved into the mouth while doing the pre-ride light check before leaving home. My heart sank, but I could not tell an already slight man, who had informed me he had neglected to eat, that he needed to wait till past noon. So I found a bakery cafe that would be a bit faster, I hoped, than a New England diner on a Sunday morning.

Be satisfied with what you have. Or else, I hear my internal anxiety warning system booting up, you may lose it.

At four and a half hours later, in the Rite-Aid parking lot in East Hartford after venturing through the epicenter of the stoplight industry in the northeast, we conceded defeat. The Vanilla Bean, in Pomfret, Connecticut, was still an hour away, and I realized most people were probably already gone. I almost wanted to cry, thrash my fists. But this was the gist of adulthood: control in the face of impulsive desire. "All is change. All is change," I repeated to myself in the manner of the yoga instructor.

This is enough. We turned around and headed home. It was a pretty nice ride.

All except the stoplights.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Date with Eternity

What does it feel like to know it is coming?

I mean, really coming, death. That final blankness, beyond which there is . . . nothing. Not in the way that, when you're thirty, you can sagely tell everyone within listening radius how profound you are by expounding on this brief lease we are given, or the fact that the moment we are born, we begin to die. Ye-ah, we know. You can say this in such a knowing tone because you don't really believe it at all: you are going to live forever. You are the one who's going to finally beat this bum deal.

Because it's way too enormous to actually comprehend. Know why? Because you comprehend stuff with your brain, that bowl of blood and gunk that makes your head weigh something like ten pounds. And when the blood ceases to flow, so does your comprehension.

I'm wondering if there's a moment when you can realize that you're living on borrowed time. (Borrowed from who? What's the interest rate?) Is it every moment after the median age of death for your gender, in your milieu? Hit 73, say, and from then on know that by rights you ought to be dead, so if you aren't, you're pretty happy with the world? I mean, when does denial end? Does it ever?

I am wondering this because my mother, this past week, in the words of the sister who was there to witness it, "dodged the bullet, this time." The unspoken remainder of the thought concerns the notion that, at eighty, in already fragile health, the strength it takes to keep throwing yourself sideways out of the way of speeding projectiles remains in very limited quantities. Slowly but surely--have you noticed this yourself?--you don't bounce back "like you once did." In college, remember? How you could so utterly abuse yourself, staying up all night, washing down your stimulants with soporifics, skip breakfast and go straight to dinner (for breakfast), then repeat the whole death-defying deal the next night--and still look dewy fresh. Others your age would want to have you for their next meal, and vice versa. It just didn't take it out of you. As for chronic worries of various sorts, the back troubles, the incipient arthritis--huh?

At fifty, that crap starts catching up with you. Or rather, it has outraced you, and you watch its back disappear down the track up ahead, while you, winded, limp along at half the speed in which you so easily used to do the fifty-yard dash.

I recall my stern Presbyterian grandmother, who raised five boys singlehanded after her husband died way too young (my father remembers his father going on medical calls with nothing but beer in his cancer-riddled stomach, the only sustenance he could tolerate), grasping my hand as she lay in bed in the old-age home into which she checked herself early. She did not want to be a burden on anyone, so she took it upon herself to do it while she was still mobile. She made my hand hurt in hers, the iron of her grip, as if to say: You're not going anywhere, because I have something to tell you. It is pressing. She had to pass on nothing less than the narrative of her life, then she would be ready to go. As if I was going to do something worthwhile with it. Me.

After the long, long stories that at once frightened and bored a small child--stories with morals, the most important things, which I hope I absorbed on some level, though I fear I will one day bore some other small child with something similar--she would fall back. "I am tired. Tired of living. I am ready to stop."

I wonder what she saw coming. A relief? Maybe she was tired of resisting it. Denial takes as much out of us as dancing ourselves into a salty wet mess at 2 a.m. I wonder what it would feel like to welcome it.

I know that my mother is, right now, depressed. How it must feel like it was waiting behind the basement door. She knows it's there, but she's not ready. I don't know how to be ready for it. I don't know how to watch it coming, and say, Well, come on, then.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


photo: Mark Friedman

Nelly is hosting her boyfriend Playtpus the setter this week. (As my son hastens to tell everyone, Nelly has three boyfriends. He does not yet know to apply the term, but he does know that dogs are polyamorous. He believes in his gut that people are not.) Platypus is beloved--of her, of his owner, and now, of me.

I am recalling some of the wonderful, and mysterious, behaviors that emerge when two dogs live together. (There are plenty of even more mysterious behaviors that come out in humans when they live together--Can you not throw your socks into the hamper? What about that is so hard?--and if I allow my living-alone state to persist much longer, I don't know that I could ever stand to share a roof with someone else again. The years make of one a calcifying control freak, and I find myself wondering if such things as love, companionship, assistance, and warmth could ever offset the terrible difficulties engendered by discovering yet again too late the toilet seat has been left up.)

Dogs who live together send invisible (to us, that is) signals to each other. The most fascinating concerns the trade-off of empty dinner dishes: as soon as both are through, they switch places and lick out each others' bowls. This practice is invariable, from what I have experienced of multi-dog households. Another, similar, communication concerns who is to take care of that poor sot, the human, on a walk: "OK, it's my turn to stay within ten feet of her--you can go disappear for a while. But be sure to come back, because you'll have to take care of her next." Then they trade off, but I have never been able to locate the semaphore they wave in order to signal it's time.

Then they love. They love by playing at aggression and control--they roll around on the floor in the most X-rated of fashions, growling, taking hold of each others' ears and legs in fearsome-looking, but factually gentle, teeth. This is my gift, watching this pure, animal energy of affection. I could watch it for weeks.

Taking care of another person's beloved animal also brings with it a heavy weight of responsibility. You don't know this dog as you know yours--the sound of the breath, the habits of sleep, when things are just right and when they are ever so slightly off. I love Platypus, but I am on edge. I will be happy when his owner is back, and I can sigh with relief as I hand back the reins. "It was lovely having him here! [Which is true, but it's lovelier having you take him back, safe and unharmed.]"

On Monday night, though, all of it--the love, the worry, the desire for another body in the night--came together at once.

I stayed up late working; I have developed bad habits that are in part born of necessity, in part my inability to deal with things like blank pages on which I am supposed to write something partway readable. I wait. Or I am blindsided by weeks in which all at once there are school holidays, costumes to make, other assignments to do, friends' visits, social events, homework to monitor and soccer practice to go to, and the next thing I know it's 10 p.m. and I haven't started to write the chapter that was due two blown deadlines ago. So I sit down then and start. The next thing I know it's past 2 a.m., and I need to be up by 7.

I lay there in bed, awake. My heart has been hurting for weeks, my mind roiling. And now my heart is beating erratically, not only figuratively, but actually. In my chest. Ah, perfect. The literary theorist heart. It manifests its metaphors literally. And gives me something else to worry about.

In a way, I feel as though my world is breaking apart. That is how things can feel in the dark of the night at 3 a.m. when you are also wondering if you should drive yourself to the ER now, before you start getting the paralyzing pain in the left arm. I don't know what to do, in any way. That is when Platypus starts up the stairs, and I hear him fall. Finally he makes it, jumps up and curls himself up at the foot of the bed, next to his dear Nelly.

My foot feels something. He is shivering. A rhythmic, episodic shivering that gets stronger and stronger until it shakes the whole bed. Now the two of us are beyond help, lying awake in the middle of the night. I try to hold him tightly, but not too, knowing that sometimes some firm weight around us when we are frightened gives the apprehension of solidity. He is afraid of something, I am afraid of something, and now I am afraid I did something that will kill this other person's beloved. Was it the lamb bone he ate tonight? Ach, I shouldn't have given him that lamb bone. Did he break his leg on the stairs when he fell? Should I take him to the ER too? If so, which one of us should go first?

I pulled him up to one side of me, so I could curl myself around him and stroke him, to try to calm him down. Then I pulled Nelly on the other side of me, so I could stroke her to try to calm me down. I recalled that she has been with me through some of the direst nights of my life, always steady, always there. She did not know how much I needed her then, or how much I needed her now.

At some point, we fell asleep. All three of us, into whatever dream worlds were there waiting. In the morning, Platypus jumped off the bed, tail wagging. When Nelly moved to jump off too, he showed his teeth to her--Grrr! I'm fierce! You will not pass by me, you rapscallion!--which is one of those things dogs do to one another when they live together. When they share what they mean what we call love.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

White Out

I have lots of new experiences (even if at my age the occurrence of the truly new has slowed down a bit). For instance, at this moment, I'm listening to my absolute favorite new music, Sleigh Bells. But sometimes now, when I feel like doing something new, it's actually old: a reconnection with something that once was new, and important. Vastly important. Get-under-my-skin-like-chiggers important. For me, this is art of the sixties, seventies, and some of the eighties--the part that contained neo-geo (some of it).

I reconnected with this part of me by visiting DIA Beacon again recently. And what I encountered in the halls of this enormous ex-factory (which, should it not be currently housing seminal works of contemporary art for all to see, would actually make a splendid home and party space for me and my friends [that includes you]--all three hundred thousand square feet of it
. Give or take. Will install pool and bowling alley).

It was like coming home to myself, wandering and standing, moved anew, before the works that formed me. I don't know how they did that, but I think the experience of first seeing Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, Joseph Bueys and John Chamberlain, Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson, scored me right across the flesh, leaving a permanent scar. This stuff resonated with some part of me, made me feel fluttery, excited enough that I wanted to collar passersby and cry, "Do you see what's going on here? I mean, do you see this surface, this sensual, worked-over surface? This painting that appears to be on
ly white/only black--it is not, and it . . . " Every passerby in New York City can thank their lucky stars I never actually did this. Gawd.

This post is intended to be the visual analogue to the formative-record-albums post of a while back, and which got so many people remembering what music made them (and collaring-passersby excited). But I wonder: Does everyone have formative art, in the way they have forma
tive music?

If there was one single piece that turned me quite around, it was one by Richard Serra (well represented by other pieces at DIA Beacon). Installed at the exit of the Holland Tunnel, it was the purest expression of what sculpture is I had ever seen. It was both theory and practice at once, in a stripped-down, compressed, infinitely subtle, powerful package. It used the speed and vantage point of the car, in which the viewer sat, encountering the piece as if from inside a movie camera. That's when you got it, smoothly and fully, that sculpture becomes another sculpture every second, flowingly, as the viewer moves around it. In its immovability, it moves. Or moves you. Or som
ething. Damn this gets me bollixed up. Always did. The head wants to burst. But I think that's the point, too.

Another revelation at DIA was re-learning that Warhol could be better, realer, than the Warhol who has been beatified in art-history texts.
The installation here, Shadows, stops you cold. It is a bit of a religious experience, standing in the middle of the room (or reclining on the conveniently placed kneeling-pad, er, sofa) and being eaten alive by the slashing black and chrome-hard color.

Some have expressed the opinion that the reverence shown to this particular art, sanitized and en-altered in this rich-people's church of accepted high art, kills its intent. Yeah, I'm sure it does. (We got nailed by the black-clad guards with their little headsets, for letting our kids go and explore the art by themselves. They could take their own time, bypass what they wanted, spend time with what they wanted, say what they wanted. But no: Children must not be in the galleries unaccompanied. They might fall into the Heizer holes in the floor; they might touch a piece of glass from the pile that is Smithson's Map of Broken Glass, now immobilized in a way I can't believe Smithson ever meant. You must stay with your parents! Horrors. What would Warhol have said?)

Nonetheless, standing in front of Chamberlain's mashed-car hunks made me happy. Discovering Bruce Nauman's neon in the basement disturbed my son. He saw things in the De Maria that I didn't. This was formative for him. In the second half of life, he will reconnect with it. Or with things, unimagined by me, unseen yet by him, that will mark him. What marked you?

Saturday, October 16, 2010


I am watching a room full of children finding that in life which we all search for: the sense of dancing, with tightly fixed control, along the edge of the uncontrollable. I am watching my son's karate class.

Eavesdropping, as is a parent's wont, on my kid's writing essay last week, I peeked inside his private life. "'Pack every punch with focus and with life,' my karate teacher says," he wrote, and this was galvanic: for it was a global truth. A generalizable
truth. (On the way to the class, my child tells me I have "a big taste for small things," in response to my sudden laughter at his lovely turn of phrase after he'd asked me to tie the knot on his red belt: he could only make a "sad knot" himself. It's a beautiful image, one that could easily support a poem built atop it. It also yielded another pleased laugh at his big-truth appraisal of what moves his mommy.)

Now the teacher is saying, of a student who wears a perpetual mysterious smile: "I want to know his secret--I want to be like this guy." The teacher who teaches the c
hildren is in turn taught by them.

What the children do not know, but I do, is that their sensei has a reason that the smile, its inner impetus, eludes him. He has lost someone. I lost her, too, a friend. But he lost much more, when the young woman he loved left the world upon which she shined, in an eclipse that left us breathless in the dark.

He is looking thin and pale these days, even as he exhorts his students to "get into it, with spirit--that's more than half the battle. Every day, apply yourself to something. Y
our homework, doing the dishes, your sports, whatever. If you do something, really do it."

I am learning things here, too, watching and thinking, as the late-day full sun streams through the windows at this nice school. I am thinking about going home and applying myself to something that waits for me, something I need to hit as hard, with as much "ninja spirit," as my child just hit the practice pads (thump-thud). A fleeting thought intervenes--"I wish I had enough money to send him to this nice school"--and I realize that, indeed, if I truly applied myself (thump-thud) I probably could. I thi
nk of how I miss seeing my friend's child in this class, his happy, funny presence, because now that his mother is gone, he has had to go live far away. To leave us, and start anew. To hopefully apply himself to a new life.

Most of all, I am thinking about how desperately much I still need to learn about this time I have here, however much there is left. Part of this is how to move through loss with the grace of the karate master, with application and spirit and focus and humility. At this moment, in particular, I am thinking about how you get out from under an opponent who has got you on your back, with his full weight on you and your muscles quivering with the impossibility of it. I want to know how you make the im
possible possible. I want, as the sensei now observes to the children, the feeling after battle that is "kind of losing control, but in control; kind of angry, but kind of peaceful." It's a strange feeling, he says. I am thinking I would like to feel it soon.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Golfing in the Desert

The earth owns itself.

What a strange concept, eh? It's very similar to the notion that An animal owns itself (the idea that PETA tries, in its regrettably bullheaded way, to get across--and an idea that is so logically, morally, and intellectually unimpeachable that the greatest difficulty I have now in life may well be trying to wrap my brain around how a single human, much less most of us, can hold beliefs like "animals are ours to wear" or "animals are ours to torture to death with chemicals" or "animals are ours to cage so we can look at them").

Add now to the list, though a bit farther down in immediacy, the difficulty in comprehending what's up with building golf courses, not to mention spas, luxury condos, and vast retirement communities, in the desert.

That bizarre concept--the voiceless earth has a right to speak--came into my mind as I was driving north in the Arizona desert recently (yes, in a car, with my closest relatives in it with me, only weeks after I had been in Arizona on a motorcycle, gloriously free of the compunction to order a Bellini at poolside). We were driving back to lie down and nurse the aftereffects of a grand dinner that included a bottle of champagne, and lobster--the latter not ordered by me, I'll have you know, since I also have a tough time getting the logic of putting a living creature into boiling water. It was the most lavish meal I'd had in years, in honor of my mother's eightieth birthday, and we were en route to the most lavish resort I've ever been in, an almost sickening spread of lush villas and a spa and, of course, the grotesque indulgence of golf greens made to grow from desert sand amid the saguaros.

Yet there are javelinas out there still, in the night . . .

(I longed to see one, but restrained myself from leaving tortilla chips out on the back patio so I might have a sighting. A fed wild animal is a dead wild animal. And I'm really, really sorry for feeding that chipmunk at the Grand Canyon, but he raised his hands in supplication and told me he was starving. Truly.)

"Someone bought this land, when it was boulders and space," my sister wonderingly said.

"Bought it from whom? Who 'owned' it?" I asked. Stolen from the Indians, who never dreamed of a thing called ownership. Strange concept, made up from whole cloth, I am beginning to suspect.

And that's when I thought it. The earth owns itself already, so it can't be owned by us. How then did the idea get flipped over on its back, so now it waves its four legs helplessly, scrabbling at the air? "We own it all." So that it, like all our animal brethren in the world, can be bought, sold, killed, or played golf upon.

Strange concepts indeed. I'm taking an aspirin and going to bed.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Walking through the fall woods, suddenly I make a realization: All squirrels have granite countertops. You think you are cool, stepping up to the de rigueur symbol of attainment in today's world? You secretly go into your kitchen in the middle of the night, don't you, and stroke that cold, shiny, black money with which you've lined the counters, don't you?

I don't know if squirrel society has its yuppie class--"My work surface is bigger and flatter than yours"; "My tree is a Lexus, you Corolla-dwelling commoner"--but I see the evidence of their winter food preparation occurring all through the forest, on low, wide rocks. They have left the crumbled shells of acorns behind. They are getting ready.

Should I be getting ready, too? Oh, I forgot. I have ShopRite. Any week of the year, I can get bananas and strawberries (they blow, of course, but they look like strawberries). Maybe I should be getting, you know, psychologically ready.

For autumn is a little death. (Hardly as pleasant as the French variety; I don't feel like fully explaining the petite mort reference now, or especially why I thought to make it. Never mind, please.) It's the part where things die in preparation for rebirth; that old wheel, turning, turning. Reruns. Endless reruns on the TV of life. This is partly why some people get depressed around September. Others of us are remembering the gut-searing anxiety of the school year. Why? What was so damn terrifying about it?

Perhaps it only was for me. To tell you the honest truth, I don't know if I'm even reasonably normal, or if I'm like the kind of godawful psychological wreck that people can only talk about in private, it's that bad--and that irredeemable. There's no value in telling her . . . they think to themselves.

This is like going through life not knowing if you are a blonde or a brunette.

I guess I won't be finding out at this point. But it remains that I still do not know what I feared so deeply about the post-summer return to campus that to this day, decades later, gossamer butterflies still beat their ghost wings against my ribcage at the approach of fall.

And then--they cease. Or maybe migrate. I am no longer afraid, just eager. There is a use to be put for all of it: the shorter days (more work, more reading, more movies watched in bed); the cold (bracing walks, with Nelly bounding after squirrels, zinging with energy all of a sudden, coming to a dead-square unmoving of such magnitude she makes of herself a statue of watchfulness; then bounds away again, and I am filled with loving admiration of her skills, herself); the holidays (more excuses for prosecco). The negative curmudgeon in me deplores the smarmy, featherbrain's phrase, but fall and winter indeed make me think, Hey, it's all good! Fires in the fireplace, too: oh, yes.

The squirrels don't think it's all, or even a little, good. It's life and death. Edging closer to the latter every minute. Unaware, the heedless driver of a two-ton weapon runs over the mate busily helping put in stores for the lean time ahead--I have seen one half of a couple rush out in disbelief to investigate the corpse of the newly dead partner--and I have no problem (indeed, no particle of doubt) believing the survivor feels the sharp knife of grief, and hopelessness, and terror. And that she weeps.

Why should we have been singled out by evolution as the only animal to experience sadness, and to respond with the full range of emotion to it? It makes no sense whatsoever. And the biological world, if nothing else, is scrupulously logical.

Welcome fall. Fear it, only a bit. And drive exceedingly carefully, for the squirrels are en route to their luxuriously appointed kitchens. They have serious work to do.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hooray for Poverty, and Riches

As we know, sometimes accidents are more educational, more salutary, than anything determined. Such was the case with the e-mail in-box last week.

I received the following message, in its entirety, from one of my dearest friends, a talented painter and ebullient soul:

It isn't all so bad, I know. I am living my dream really. I just want to be paid better.

Turns out she meant it to go to another friend, with whom she'd been having a discussion about how to manage the frustrations of a hopelessly busy family life while worrying about how to keep the finances upright.

I shot back my response, before I knew I needn't have. And I found myself saying something I had no idea I actually thought. But now I know I believe it, with all my heart.

No, it isn't. And in fact I'm beginning to realize that low pay IS the trade-off for living the life of one's dreams.

And I'm also starting to feel lucky that I do not in fact make a lot of money. It has a tendency to ruin lives.

Yes, we have it good, both of us. Beautiful children we love, the occasional laugh and hug, and cocktails.

No woman ever had more.

In Line, Lynn McCarty

Saturday, September 18, 2010


There comes a time in every writer's life when she has to face the music. The name of the tune is "Deadline." Until then, she may sway to "Denial." But then the lights go down, the disco ball spins, and there's an insistent thumping through the floor.

I had done much considering of what one might call my working method--an astronomer could discern nothing remotely methodical in it, and most of the time it does not work--but then I received a letter inquiring about how it was that I organized my thoughts over the course of a long work. It would seem the letter writer has the same challenges ("How do you return to your focus? . . . How does one return to a frame of mind that is familiar, or at least conducive to the ideas of the previous pages?") as I do, mentally. Poor sod.

I have been giving this some thought lately, finally, since I am in the midst of my rush to the end of my book (after waiting a year and a half, writing basically nothing). These days I fret endlessly about exactly the matters my correspondent has raised.


I just hope and pray it will all turn out intelligible, or that a reader can at least connect the disparate dots. There is so much to say that my brain can probably be heard issuing sounds like a bowl of Sugar Pops when the milk is added.

Perhaps it is another form of denial, but here is my "working method" in a nutshell: I simply trust, in an almost religious sense, that since it was conceived by a single mind (barring the very real possibility of schizophrenia, I guess), then the myriad ideas are related to one another.

This is made harder by my incapability to write linearly. My ideas, to put it another way, are all over the freaking map, and I can't corral them any better than I could the fleas in a prairie dog town.

So, off in the distance, I see a hazy shape: the structure of the book. It is a stack, or a body. And not that I claim anything poetic for it--believe me--but the outline is conceived, when it is conceived at all, in exactly the same way that a poem comes to me. In a state of faith. In a state of external blindness. So that, I hope, I am in a state of internal seeing.

Or, in less mystical terms, I do what feels right at the moment. Out of the horrendous mess of all the notes and the snatches of longer bits I scrawl whenever the urge hits me (and it does so at the bizarrest times, like just after I've gotten out of the shower, or turned out the light, or walking with Nelly, or riding of course), I may reach for pieces written a year or two before. I had no idea then when or if they would ever be useful. And some of them never are. But amazingly, given the sad state of my memory, I can recall that they're there. Somewhere. Now, in which of the three notebooks, two file folders, and thirty-nine printouts, I couldn't begin to say. Just the looking can take an hour or two, and drive me crazy. I am highly unorganized, within this precisely organized mess.

"If you have any hints, tips, or the like that might possibly aid in keeping my stack of pages on track, they would be appreciated."

My dear D----! If only I could! But I sense that they are already quite unsteadily steady on track. You just do not know it yet, or trust yourself that they are. There is in fact some internal librarian in your mind, scuttling about and ordering thoughts according to the Dewey Decimal System.

Of this I am sure. It is just that librarians are very quiet. It is their profession. And fearfully doubting that we can pull it off: as writers, you and me, that is ours.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ride: to Eat

The motel nights punctuated the days: the period at the end of the sentence. The next day, a new sentence to write. At last, they strung together in a long prose poem, The Big Trip. The meaning was not known until the end. And the end has not yet been arrived at, since big trips have an endless coda--memories. They recur at strange moments, disconnected sensations bubbling up from somewhere unseen. The sun slanting across the Napa grapescape. Garberville ("The Hemp Connection"; the Sherwood Forest Motel). And, like the commas and semicolons in the middle of those sentences, meals.

Outside Yosemite, at the Best Western, the Spaniards swum darkly in the pool; the French spoke in low tones to one another. The Germans asked politely, and formally, in near-perfect English for directions at the front desk. And at the "breakfast buffet" the next morning, I cringed: So this is American cuisine, they thought to themselves. Cheerios, white bread soft as paste, gluey margarine, "coffee," gelatinous jam inseparable from its plastic pack.

This is largely how I, too, ate for a month. The high end was Outback Steakhouse; the low end was . . . low indeed. Much trail mix passed through the digestive system, many cheese crackers. In the hellish heat of Kansas, of Nevada, orange dye mixed with chemical electrolytes washed into the bloodstream. A pack of peanuts, ice cream, French fries. More French fries.

In San Francisco, we wandered through the farmer's market at the Ferry Building, and my craven sighs were audible. Not just organic peaches, by the cartload, but nine types of organic peaches. A great spillage of colorful produce. And none of it would last a half hour in a tank bag. So we wandered some more (twelve dollar malted milk balls?), fresh fruit juice from our single taste dripping from our fingers, and then turned to walk back to the shop: the bikes were ready, wearing fresh rubber, and we needed to ride again.

There is a kind of riding where meals are simply a kind of fuel to burn, and procured at exactly the same place as the bike gets its gas. Or maybe from the saddlebag, where you've stashed the granola bars you bought at Target way back when. I had food that had seen hard miles, crushed beneath the electric jacket and the laundry bag, from New York to California and now back to Colorado, where their crumbs perform a utilitarian function at last, when I was hungry enough not to care. Much.

The motel rooms
were our temporary home. (What is it with the astonishing proliferation of chain hotels in America? I must remember to update my drugstore rant; there's something up with the economics of so many, many imposingly large, anonymous structures, with their expensive rooms and, yes, identical [and identically bad] breakfast buffets). For maybe ten hours. A quick swim. Then to dinner at the nearest option, usually scoped out while still on the exit ramp. Applebee's, IHOP. There was real food out there, but it required getting back in gear. Sometimes you just want to walk, you know? So, next to the chain hotel, surprise, there is the chain restaurant.

This is America. But that is also America, too, and we saw it all: the miles, the miles, the miles. The variegated. The old, the places they have not touched. The Cowboy Cafe nearly made me laugh, its perfection. The dust in the air, across the empty crossroads.

We saw it all. Or what we passed, which felt like all.

For the record, the pies at the Thunderbird Restaurant were delicious. And if they were in fact ho-made, well, I think everyone deserves a pleasant way to spend their downtime.

Monday, September 6, 2010

On Return

Returning is itself like embarking on another journey: inserting yourself back into this newly strange thing called your "life"--as if that wasn't!--becoming "yourself" again--but who might that be?

I have much unpacking to do. From my luggage. And from my mind.

But then: Welcome back.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Time Like a Bridge

I was a different rider now. I moved back and forth between two worlds, mommy world and motorcycle world. They had different people in them, different priorities, different codes and language. Citizens of these countries on the other side of the globe from each other couldn’t understand why I didn’t fully inhabit one or the other, and I could not explain. Did I want a unified life? No, I just wanted time to be endless so I could continually slip through the crack between the two people I was. I wanted all the time in the world to put on a dress and go to friends’ for dinner, drinking wine on the patio and discussing the current presidential administration while the children played in the backyard. I wanted all the time in the world to go motorcycle camping and ride to Florida and talk merits of tires and spend whole days taking pieces off engines and cleaning them and putting them back.

I did not have all the time in the world. All at once, I knew. Time had become rare, elusive, choked off and breathing hard. While I was going on my way, I had unwittingly made a passage of some moment.

There is a time like a bridge—let us say it is the age of fifty. On one side of the bridge is forever: no idea of “end” intrudes on anything, especially one’s daydreams. Tell the fortysomethings, then: Go, have your big parties with your big platters in your big houses. Sometime soon, it will all seem too big, too full of infinite hope; a little pointless. Life’s vista has narrowed. That is when you have crossed over the bridge, and that is when you find yourself thinking alarming things like, Holy shit, I may, if I am lucky, have something like twenty-five, maybe thirty, years left. And I’m not going to be riding into my seventies, probably: some people do, but perhaps they shouldn’t. Enough said. So—fifteen years left. That means fifteen seasons, those ever-shorter leases on fine weather that blaze by and melt into cold.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

This Is the Iron Butt Rally

In 2009, some thousand riders vied for a hundred spots, which were determined by lottery, and also by fiat of the emperor, who can make as many exceptions as he likes. This is to ensure “color,” in the tint of bikes like the two vintage RE5 rotary engine Suzukis from the seventies that were considered Hopeless Class entrants. They were also ones, a quarter of a century later, that gave a reverent nod to rally history. That is because George Egloff was mounted on an RE5 when he rode to one of the first place finishes in the original “Ironbutt” in ’84. Their inclusion was the equivalent of placing a george washington slept here plaque on some old stone house; historical markers signify less the commemoration of a place than the legitimation of an institution. The Iron Butt Rally was now officially a Big Event, wrapped in a corporate identity replete with sharp-minded legal counsel, an international following, two solid pages on trademarks and the association that go out to each person who becomes a member, and the voluminous storytelling—from multipart ride reports posted on blogs and forums to the official word of the organization in its daily reports during the rally and the articles in its new glossy magazine for “premier” members—that form Old and New testaments of long-distance riding’s Bible.

Besides, the underdog is an irresistible category in American self-conception. Motorcyclists may be disproportionately drawn to expressing humor of a dark sort; they are certainly fond of testing themselves, as witness the entire long-distance enterprise, and so they are driven again and again to prove that Hopeless is sometimes not so hopeless after all, provided the rider on the underpowered machine has the guts to make up for the lack of displacement. The two smallest bikes ever to survive the crucifixion that is the rally are 125s, Suzuki and Cagiva. The 2001 Hopeless Class was especially lively, with Paul Pelland finishing on a 2001 Russian-made Ural (which might as well have been a 1944 Ural) and, more heroically, a 1946 Indian Chief piloted by Leonard Aron making it all the way to the final checkpoint. In 2003, Leon Begeman came in twelfth on an EX250 Ninja that was actually the resurrected ghost of seven previously expired Ninjas. If kites were allowed in the Iron Butt Rally, someone would find a way to fireproof lightweight nylon and fit a four-valve engine to a balsa-wood frame. Then fly seven feet above the ground for eleven days, finally to crack jokes at the finishers banquet while being good-naturedly jeered for stealing a top-ten place from someone who really deserved it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


It is generally accepted as comprehensible, the Once in a Lifetime Adventure beloved of vicarious travelers, to spend three years going around the world with your girlfriend and a soon-to-be battered-looking motorcycle. The public adores it, the idea of someone doing what they would do, if only they could take the time, get free from work, family, all the bonds we spend years tying about our own ankles. So these collect sponsorships (cold-weather underwear, aluminum hard cases), stop by the wayside to write accounts for the blog the world is booting up to read, and publish a book when they return. There’s a lot of riding, but there’s a lot of people-ing, too (the readability factor demands Interesting Encounters). Hotels, hot meals, nights in tents as opposed to the saddle. Seventy or eighty years ago, an individual could easily make a First: first man around the world, first woman, first sidecar. Now you have to work to even think up some minor fillip that would make it new. In the case of Norwegians Tormod Amlien and Klaus Ulvestad, outlandish humor alone could have been their contribution to the 70,000-mile journey (self-titled the King Croesus Contempt for Death “world’s dumbest motorcycle trip” begun in 2009), but they decided to gild the lily by undertaking it on two 1939 Nimbus machines with sidecars “piloted by pure idiots.” Extraordinary, even grueling, though it remains, the round-the-world trip is . . . travel. And travel is the antithesis of the Iron Butt enterprise. Round-the-world the Iron Butt way is covering 19,030 miles in 31 days and 20 hours, as Nick Sanders did, to enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

This yearning to break a record (largest chocolate-chip cookie ever baked; longest solo flight) is a purely human deviation from animal nature. Yet it has become profoundly in our nature to do such essentially unnatural things as expend energy in otherwise fruitless acts. The patently absurd things we do—swim across the Atlantic, compete in the Self-Transcendence Race (ha! exactly!) by running 5,649 half-mile laps in 51 days, kill ourselves on icy mountaintops for the sole purpose of trying to get there—are a compulsion left by our evolution. We were built to contend with threats that swept down from trees, food that ran swiftly away, blood that spilled and could not be stopped. Pushing a heavily piled cart at Walmart does not count. And so it is that long-distance riding can be seen as a proxy for the daily life-or-death struggle we were kitted out for as forest-dwelling hunters. In its absence, we feel a need to find pursuits that exercise the same mental and physical capacities. Or else they start to itch. We want to feel fully alive, and fully ourselves. In this way, riding to extremes takes humans home again.