Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ode to Speed

Can one regain innocence past? Let us return to a lost time
and see.

It is 1909 and the world is coming alive with the hum of engines. Fearsome, alluring, raw potential pushing at the edges of its own constructions. F. T. Marinetti quivers with excitement in the words of "The Futurist Manifesto": "We are going to be present at the birth of the centaur and we shall soon see the first angels fly!" He was talking about mechanized speed, and the new, improved version of happiness it would deliver to the populace. "Time and space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed."

He rails against the "gouty naturalists" who he sees as counterposed to the forward-looking embrace of the engine. But a smarter head than his--and one that knew the engine profoundly well, not just as objet with good lines--Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the poet of flight, knew that this was a false opposition. The machine brings us to a place of elemental humanness: the moment when every sense is fully engaged with time and space, and when life and death stand starkly looking at each other, right over your head. This is living--pure, animal living.

His swoon-worthy book Wind, Sand and Stars, which situates the point where man, nature, and machine meet, was published in 1939. This was five years before he disappeared in an airplane over the Mediterranean. (Is there anything more unrelievedly eerie than the lone aviator who flies over the horizon and falls off the edge of the world?) In the chapter titled "The Tool," he takes on the naysayers who carp that mechanization causes a decline in spiritual values. He puts paid to that "fictitious dichotomy" (as beautiful language in the service of beautiful thought always will): ". . . the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them."

It is not with metal that the pilot is in contact. Contrary
to the vulgar illusion, it is thanks to the metal, and by virtue
of it, that the pilot rediscovers nature.

The speeding engine compresses time, and our instincts race to keep up with it. We vibrate with the effort, but do not notice, because we are no place but fully inside the experience. There is no way to comment on it.

Therefore speed is life. It keeps us in this instant, which is the very--the only--definition of living. Here, now, fast. But do not fool yourself. About any of it; that which I only intimate.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

California Dreaming

It is a place I've been exactly twice, in what felt like two distinctly separate lives that I have been given the memories of, so apparently the same person experienced them, and that person is me. Or why are these sensations and recollections in my head?

In 1980, in that between-college-and-real-life juncture--more like a pothole into which the wheel thunks suddenly, because you do not see it coming--I went west to California. A stay in a roommate's lovely old family house in San Francisco (not withstanding my ugly ban on her Laura Nyro records in the communal student housing) was offered, replete with sushi breakfast in the garden. A a week of doing little but skulking around the best bookstores I'd ever seen, drinking coffee and Anchor Steam beer, and having my conception of Chinese food rearranged in the most pleasing fashion, I got on a Greyhound bus. I was headed for Utah, and a breakup, though I did not know this detail until after I'd arrived. Now I see I survived. Then, I was less than sure; such is youth.

The second time I was another person, a new mother. This journey was by airliner, praying all the while the baby would not start screaming somewhere over Indiana and not stop til LAX. The flight and the hotel--the kind with cool marble lobby, artful bowl of green apples on the reception desk, and alluring fountain sending a wall of gold water into a basin--were paid for. I was just along for the ride. So ride I did: around and around an unfamiliar city in a car with an infant in the backseat, day after day, in order to explore, or rather push a stroller around, by myself. But there was more car than stroller. Way more. I did not like L.A. I'm sorry.

It is time, I've decided, for a new view on this variegated and gorgeous state. The baby is now big--we wear the same shoe size, at least for the moment. And I want to take him there.

The plan got byzantine, even for someone whose daily bread is twisting things into impossible shapes. It involved overnight camp with California cousins, visits to friends both known and as-yet unmet along the coast, traveling Highway 1, and a real sense of having gotten there: ergo, by motorcycle. Because there is just as much to see along the way. I have grown tired of hearing myself say, "I want to take you to the Grand Canyon, honey," and "We could go see those Indian cave dwellings in New Mexico," and repeat the variations the next year. When is "next year," anyway? Is next year when I'm leaning on a walker, or, worse, never? I want to be as good as my word. Or not utter words--or have hopes--at all.

The problems would pop up, and my brain would find a counter for them. Don't feel comfortable enough on the K75 to put my dear heart on the pillion seat? Well, how interesting that I happen to know one of the finest riders on the planet; I would trust my son to him, if to anyone. It all seemed possible, if not truly, overwhelmingly, excitingly difficult: a month total on the road, two bikes, three people, thousands of miles.

When an idea takes hold--and an idea I go public with, to boot--I am loath to let it go. Even when the other rider suddenly finds himself without a motorcycle to ride. So my brain starts churning again. I could ride someone on the back of a bike like a Lario: there was not a place I did not feel fine taking that nimble, well-balanced machine. Too bad it is recommended to bring a certified mechanic along on rides of more than forty miles. But a bike like the Lario but not a Lario: how interesting that a Breva 750 is up for sale nearby. Do I need three bikes? Is that a rhetorical question?

I am still California dreaming--August sounds fine, doesn't it, the word itself like gentle heat--but now it takes place in a fitful sleep. I wake suddenly on the what if . . . and suddenly feel as though all the balls are in midair but I am watching some of them fall to earth, uncaught, in slow motion.

I never know what I am going to do, really, until just before I do it. I somehow sense this is not normal behavior. But a trip like this is not normal, either, which is why you have to sleep on it, and wish hard upon waking that it is real. Not disappeared into day.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

It Happened One Night

Tuesday belongs to me. It represents what summer does to the eight-year-old: an alluring expanse of time stretching all the way to the vanishing point and beyond, into which every single activity and longed-for pleasure can be packed. It will never end.

On Tuesdays, alone of the week, I do not need to be home at four for the arrival of the bus, nor do I need to think of what to make for dinner that would not shock my circle of organic-eating, protein-aware mothers (tell me, what really is wrong with a meal composed of corn chips, frozen french fries, and ice cream?). It is my day, and dinner will be what I want, when I want. Eight, or nine, it matters not. By Monday afternoon I am full of happy anticipation: I think I will . . . answer all those e-mails, and take my time doing it; I will go to the grocery, a period of time when I can let the brain go into sleep mode, cool off while I throw things into the cart; take Nelly for a long walk and not care--too much--if she goes AWOL in the briers at the cornfields; go home and put on some records extra-loud while preparing dinner, usually a can of vegetarian chili; build a fire; and, finally, have some time to write.

Awful as it is--sometimes twisting the gut, forcing me to get up and wander the house in search of anything that needs doing so as to delay the ugly confrontation with the blank page (sometimes I am sure I hear it go "nyah-nyah!")--I like writing. Only problem is, I can't do it anymore with anyone else in the house. If there is, I find myself steeled for the inevitable moment when at last a pour of words is about to come, thank god, and . . . "Mom? I need ______" [fill in the blank: pencil, toilet paper, a definition, math help--ha!--a book on Indians, a hug]. All of these are given gratefully. Nights alone us two, talking about cartoons or music or (now, sometimes) girls, are so amazing I wish I could share them with everyone. But when I finally grab on to some slippery words that have been eluding me for hours, and then they slide away again (such is the power of the word "mom"), it's best not to even begin.

So I treat myself to the full array of lonesome pleasures on Tuesdays, chief among them the glass of wine, the laptop on the floor in front of the fireplace, and time.

Last year--it seems just a dream, a whole year gone in that place--in my rental house without a fireplace, I made a vow to my child. It went like this. "As god is my witness, we'll never live without a fireplace again!"

So when I went down the spec sheets of houses for sale, first I looked to see if they were Nelly-friendly; next, if I could afford them; and third, if they had a fireplace. My amphibian's blood needs this warmth; a house needs a heart. Plus, where are you going to roast marshmallows when the urge takes you in mid-February?

So Nelly and I walked the cornfields next to the icy river on Tuesday; for a mile there and back, there was no one, only crows, their own cut-paper silhouette against the yellow-blue-brown land and sky, and the sound of Nelly diving into the brush, her tags jingling far away. We got back in the car; no one. We drove to the store for a bottle of pinot grigio, for no one else. At home, no one. Nelly ate, then got up on the couch to see what I would do next, but then she couldn't keep her eyes open after her rich day of careening about at top speed, and now the bony meal calling forth digestive effort from her body. I put a match to the paper, and yellow-orange leaped up so I could watch this small magic, wood consumed and turned into unmatchable warmth. The chili was heating on the stove. The computer screen turned blue, clicked.

I could stay up late, just as in the olden days when there was no seven-thirty alarm to hit me between the ears with its urgent message: Get up, get up, make breakfast, make lunch, make snack, get boy out the door at eight-fifteen so as not to miss the bus. I was free to do whatever the hell I wanted, and that alone made a little nest of satisfaction into which I could psychically curl.

Then the words came. The keys clicked and clacked. Hit save. It does not happen like this every time; it does not happen like this even a quarter of the time. But Tuesday it did. Tuesday, it did.

I threw on two more logs, then lay back on the floor to feel this passing triumph. That is when it came to me. It moved upward along my body, until it stroked my face. Joy. For I wanted nothing in my life to be different, not this night, in which I give myself anything I please, and not the next day, when I would rejoin the community of men, or at least indoor soccer and homework struggles. There would be my son's shy smile when he first comes in the door, looking to see if I am unchanged after a whole day in which we have not seen each other.

On Tuesdays, I can practically shout it to the mountains that rise in their unknowable mystery behind the new house, the one with the fireplace: I love my life, every striated bit of it. Being alone; being unalone. Each in their own proper time.

But let me know if you have something better I could trade you for.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Nostalgia Trip

Music is a component of the DNA that makes us who we are. It is uploaded into our cells during the most intensive period of growth, young adulthood. It comes and finds us, but we are pre-set to receive certain types. It tells us who we are, and we use it to tell others who we wish to be.

Oh, it's so neat.

Consider its importance as personal code: There is a point in a courtship when the CDs are exchanged. This is usually quite early, and it is the simplest, purest way of saying, This is who I am; can you love this as I do? It functions both as warning --"Speed metal speaks to me!"--and as hope--"Here is an aural nude portrait of me, to show you just how much I trust."

It is, really, a visit to the Mudd Club in the first year of the eighties, a dark and galvanizing (and filthy) night at CBGB when the Talking Heads took the stage. Most especially, it is the small back room of Maxwell's in Hoboken, when you did not yet know you were where history was being made (What? In this tiny adjunct of my tiny living room?). You also did not know it would be made by these kids you saw every day at the bodega or waiting (waiting, and waiting) for the PATH train--looking very much like you, in fact, in thrift-shop sweaters (which they would write a longing song about, "Autumn Sweater") and Danish book bags--but who would form a band called Yo La Tengo that, unlike the others who would have their moment and then break apart, would stay together and keep blooming, like the peony. Twenty years on they would still be making music that could break your heart, set your teeth on edge, express pure yearning, be depressing as all get-out, or exemplify ironic wittiness. Sometimes in the same song.

The music that I would offer as having made me did so in the two decades starting in 1978. That was the year my college station played a song called "Psycho Killer," and I can still remember where I was standing when I heard it. Actually, I was lying. On the floor of my bedroom. David Byrne's cool and controlled aggression reached out from the air and put its trembling hands around my neck. I had never heard anything like this, but I knew it was made for me. Six months later I spent a cold January alone in the communal house at school while everyone else was home, and every day I struggled with the outline of an aesthetics to explain how genius in art announces itself. The soundtrack to these intellectual gymnastics was my recently purchased Talking Heads: 77 record, played repetitively and at great volume (it was outlawed when the roommate from San Francisco was in residence, as was her Linda Ronstadt when I was home; we agreed only upon Joni Mitchell). The thesis got a barely passing grade, but Talking Heads got the zeitgeist.

The next time music got hold of the weird stuff that was floating around in my brain and gave it external form and voice so I finally knew what I was thinking was after graduation, and this is when I was created by what I heard. There are two tiers of it, the music that's fun to dance to and the music that freezes you where you stand when you hear it. What is it about being young, soft clay that wants to be hard as obsidian, and only music can make its indentations on you? It is perhaps the only form that can reach you then and in that way: from your mind, to your heart, via the pulse of your blood. It moves you. Then later, when you find it again after a remove of many years in which you thought you had changed, you put it on the stereo, just a little test, and there it is. There you are. The past, present. Pounding through the floorboards, and you--singing. Formed again.

{Connect the dots of the music. A picture will take shape: you. Below, my dots. And yours?}