Saturday, April 24, 2010

Geography of Memory Part CLXXXVI

Time changes everything, almost. It compresses memory
under its weight, the years making it denser, so it takes up less space. It is the recent past that seems more alive to the senses. The past behind it grows thin. Until you are no longer even sure if it happened to you, or if you read about these distant things, or imagined them. What is this ache? How can you today sit at a stoplight in Manhattan, staring at the blank and grimy brick wall of a hundred-fifty-year-old building on the edge of the edge of nowhere, waiting for the green that will send you flowing into the tunnel, and think, "Mother of god, I love New York City so much I can't stand it"?

It is because living here has changed your molecular structure, and it will always be in you. A visit back will trigger the fountain of memories, and the incessant play of emotions. Some are so powerful they seem a part of the fabric of the city itself--out there on the concrete--not in you.

A couple of years ago, thrashed by an inestimable pain, I could think only of fleeing to the city. It was going to help me understand something, or fix something, or get something back. I had to go to the place where our life began, together.

The second, and almost simultaneous, urge I had was to write about it. It's part of the strange concoction that is me. It feels like the only way to know where I am, as if I am constructing the geography of my life by drawing a map made of words. Then I will be able to put a red dot on it and say: There! There I am! I am not lost after all.

Here is what I wrote about that first trip back, a few days after it felt like the world exploded:

I was driving quickly away, as if pain were a locale. When I reached Brooklyn, I would finally escape it.

After we moved away from the city, our route back for visits had become the Battery Tunnel. But that costs money, and suddenly I saw before me a new life in which I would sit up late, stacking pennies into red paper rolls. Now it was dark Monday night, rain-slicked, and the Brooklyn Bridge would be empty. Free, also.

I followed the way off an old map stored in memory. This was the path of a thousand trips—-after dinners, after parties, after movies; in the back of a cab with my head on his shoulder, or in a car I drove too mindfully, trying to stay in lane after a cocktail or two so I could get to the place I used to call home.

The front tires hit the up ramp, and that’s when I knew I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have gone anywhere near our past, which resides at the junction of physical place and embroidered memory. Now my old life was rising up before me, all around me. The lights of Brooklyn were almost singing. They drew me toward the rocks, and I thought I was lost, until I looked through the windshield and saw myself, walking around the corner at Douglass and Fourth Avenue, Mercy at the end of the leash. I was hoping she would squat soon, so I could get home, put on my pajamas, maybe watch the eleven o’clock news in bed together. Then I vanished from the street, because I could no longer see through the windshield. The rain. Or no. Not the rain.

Today, I went back to Brooklyn. I traveled the same route. It took me along the same streets of history, and this time went even farther back; for a strange reason, I had forgotten the deeper, preceding parts of my life there, Pacific Street, Dean Street. Until suddenly I was going past them, in sequence. How wonderful of them to arrange these streets in chronological order for me. I drove up St. John's Place, to show my son the place into which he was born. He had never seen it. And I found something else there: the realization that with time, sadness goes. It leaves only a wistful residue of memory, and a new happiness: that I had it then, and that it is gone. I am glad for all of it. And especially that I am happy to return to Brooklyn, running into people from the past on occasion, walking the same grass in the park that was touched by a dog who is also gone, and mourned, but at a distance now. I remembered the way to get to the bridge, and I always will.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


I am a communist. Well, not really. I am more of a socialist, but that is an attention-getting statement to put up front. Yet for a brief while it was literally true: a long time ago I attended meetings of the communist party in the United States.

Which one, you ask. What faction? Because there were so many. (Check your card, Melissa!) While I may well have thickened my FBI file, I did not receive a card--nor did I know or care what faction it was. Because, as you may guess, I was not there primarily on account of politics. I was in my twenties; I was feeling revolutionary; but, as the first clause suggests, it was an adorable guy who lured me into the red room.

We met through some labyrinthine arty channels whose specifics I now forget: screenwriting class? punk rock? some freelance-underling gig? At any rate, he wrote a zine espousing the party's views as well as his musical tastes (and if you weren't writing a zine in the early eighties, what the hell were you doing?) and I wanted to help. After all, I liked the Clash too. I also would have poured his Cheerios in the morning plus milked the cow for them, but I never got the chance. Instead, I tailed him around to meetings and wielded the stapler when the time came. It seemed to me that all they did was argue about arguing in those meetings, anyway. A child could have seen that these people were never going to get to the point of actually doing anything.

I will never forget the moment Mr. Cute Commie looked up at me from his careful rulering on a cartooned zine page, narrowed his eyes, and with a tight smile hissed, "I look forward to the day when heads roll down Park Avenue."

Now, I was all for metaphoric heads rolling down figurative corridors of American financial inequity. But this guy was looking forward to real severed spines and blood-spewing carotid arteries. His look chilled me through and through. All of a sudden he was not so adorable anymore.

I ran.

But I have stayed a happy joiner of many of the rare socialist endeavors that have presented themselves to me. They represent, in my view, the flowering of the highest potential of the human spirit. Just plain good, in other words. The eloquent version, of course, belongs to Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The good and just society is neither
the thesis of capitalism nor the
antithesis of communism, but a
socially conscious democracy which reconciles
the truths of individualism
and collectivism.

A good place to see this in action, at the plodding fundament, is at the food co-op. I am addicted to this type of collectivism in action. My first was in college. On the first floor of a drafty farmhouse there was a basket of brown eggs and about eight barrels of foodstuffs you scooped yourself (because no one was going to get that messy on your behalf: peanut butter, honey, liquid soap). That was it. Back home in Akron on holidays, I searched until I found a food co-op there, and I dismayed my mother greatly by bringing home brown rice and raw wheat germ, worse because she imagined it was also dirty. To her relief, the co-op closed, because Akron is just not a cooperative place, being a town that would sell its soul to the devil in return for a chain store of any sort (or so says Chrissie Hynde). But then I moved to Brooklyn, and I found the beating heart of edible socialism in the Park Slope Food Coop, one of the largest and lushest in America; you could practically hear my smug laughter all the way down Union Street as I hugged to my chest an affordable bag of otherwise unaffordable blood oranges, French cheeses, and fragrant soaps. I could get them because no one other than the producer was making a profit, and we all had to work in the store, no exceptions. ("No exceptions" is the soul of collectivism.) Moving away from this store is what really broke my heart; leaving the crowd and pace of the city, not so much. So when I found a tiny food co-op up here, I felt right at home: it was a little dirty, a little expensive, and a little little, but the sight of people like me lugging sacks of grain around and bagging dried fruit cheered my heart.

Up here in the sticks, we even managed to find a cooperative swim-and-tennis club: membership was cheap, because everyone worked. It felt like heaven--familiar and right.

What is wrong with me that I feel this way? So un-American.

[Please, please note that I agree not with the perversions of communist-based systems that have anything to do with top-down control or violence of any kind--as with Christianity, more damage than kindness has been done in the name of this ideal--but with the theoretical possibility of leveling the field, and living for and with each other.]

This past Christmas, for the first time in our new life, we did not go to Akron or Utah to be with family. I was a bit scared: I myself become a child at the holidays, wanting them filled with people and cheer. The prospect of spending the twenty-fifth alone, the two of us, was frankly terrifying. So I canvassed all my friends, just short of grabbing them by the collar and pleading for an invitation. I finally found someone; yes, we could come over for Christmas dinner. Relief. That's settled.

Then, two days before Christmas, an e-mail arrived: Actually, no, sorry, you can't come for Christmas dinner; I neglected to ask my husband, and he doesn't want you. (Well, not said exactly like that, but it was the meaning.)

Two days before Christmas. My son, asking what we were going to do. "Something fun, honey, I promise. I'm just not sure what."

Desperation now. To the point of asking distant acquaintances. I practically had to do it with eyes closed, it felt that embarrassing. If it was just me, I'd take a klonopin, get into bed, and wake sometime on the twenty-sixth. But it was not just me. And that is the point of this story.

One of those acquaintances told me, at last, about the community dinner in Woodstock. It's for everyone, she explained. Come, work, eat.

It was what I had been looking for. An opportunity to show my child that it's just not us here. It's not always about our wants, needs, desires. Sometimes those have to be pushed back into the wings while others stand out front getting their share of spotlight. (I hope I am not making myself sound unselfish; that would be a lie. And I am not good, though I want to be.) Giving unsavory lessons: one of the yucky jobs of parenting.

We walked into the large hall of the community center. It was bubbling with noise, activity, and yes, good cheer. Every type of person was there: the wealthy, the poor, the strange. People on public assistance, people whose taxes (one could only hope) were helping to fund that assistance. All going down the food line together. And we spooned equal amounts of food onto each of their plates.

My son was proud to help, I could see. And when our turn came, we ate too. We sat in chairs recently vacated by people who had filled their pockets before leaving with bread and apples, because they would need them for the coming week. We left without filling our pockets. But we left full. Have you ever felt this way? I hope so. Maybe you are a communist too.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Chaos Theories

By now, everyone in the western world with a mouse and a vague interest has seen BMW's elegant commercial for the S1000RR. The crystal and flowers, dozens of place settings and candelabra--all remain coolly upright while the small matter of the thing they were standing on is removed from under them. (Suddenly, to be sure: 193 hp.)

My table, on the other hand, is haphazardly loaded right now, and the piled-up china needs no encouragement to come crashing and clattering to the floor: walk by, gently, or perhaps even just give it a hard look.

No, I am no longer depressed. I am too breathless for that. In my unconscious attempts to fend off the dark demon, I have apparently decided to back myself into impossible corners while carrying tippy loads: a schedule that looks like it belongs to six people belongs only to me. The deadline that looked doable when I inked it--and perhaps was, way back then--now has its jaws open wide, and I can see the yellowing on the great shiny fangs. That should be enough. But I've also tossed in a 24-hour rally (again, looked doable when with a click I sent my ninety-five dollars and my name; now, though, I think about the reality of riding hard, and thinking, for 24 hours, and I know I am utterly out of my league). Oh, and planning a month on the road . . . with my child.

On what bike? That is the first, and necessary, matter, and it too is falling away out of my grasp. Last week, on the way to Virginia for spring break with children, I stopped to look at an R1150R that was for sale. Riding it: in a word, wonderful. After the weighty issues of the K75, it felt resolved. It does not take me long to dream my way into an imaginable reality, and by the time I'd hit Williamsburg, that bike was mine. I was already making space (space? where did that come from?) in the schedule to return to pick it up. And then, in a phone call yesterday that I thought would include making an offer, I learned the owner did not intend to sell it after all.

I sit, chin in hands, staring at the table. I've moved some of the piles around, but they are still lopsided towers, trembling in their silent warning pre-fall. I wonder what exactly it is in me that makes me build such things, only to look at them--my life--in such bemused dismay. There must be a reason I get myself into such jams. Reasons, but no reason. Perhaps for the hilarity the recollection will bring, far in the future. Not now, though. Right now, I'd like another motorcycle, please. I have a feeling that would solve everything. I'll use it to pull the whole table down.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Wishes Come True

In his 1930 book The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell put his finger thus on a hard-won truth: "At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty. I, at the age of fifty-eight, can no longer take that view." I no longer believe there are any chances that may not yet present themselves, either, because last week, at my age (whatever that is), I got the opportunity to redress an omission in my life. After decades of wishing to, I finally went trail riding.

Without Woodstock itself, this old dream might never have been realized. It is the kind of place--unique, perhaps, except for certain crunchy outposts in sun-addled California--where a diehard motorcyclist like Ed, major domo of the local riders, would live across from the real estate holdings of super-rich weekenders from the city who rarely visit their fiefdoms. Says Ed with the gentlest of sneers, "Aw, they come up on Friday, have a barbecue on Saturday, and go home on Sunday. They don't even go into the woods. Probably afraid." These are people--like the Russian who owns the mountaintop across from Ed--who simply like the feeling that their names are inked on deeds filed away in some county office, affixed to a map of some mysterious hundred acres. This (and not a visit to the woods themselves) is a source of great comfort.

Also to the people who like to go riding there.

So Ed, collector and fixer of bikes, can get on his Bultaco, or his Super Sherpa, or one of a few others, and head up a gravel road opposite the Mill Stream. Up, and then to the right and to the left he passes masterpieces of modernist architecture, expansive wood and steel domiciles secreted in the deep woods, homes for people who have too many homes. In other places, it's the abject poor who hide among the shadows of trees in mountainous cloves; in Woodstock, it's people who have made it big in media.

There, back beyond the type of houses I have ached for all my life, is heaven for the guerrilla trail rider. (Heaven, because in this well-to-do wilderness there's little chance that an Upper West Side music producer will dispense shotgun justice at the property line.) So, with me on the reliable and light Super Sherpa, and Ed on the two-stroke Bultaco (which will soon complain of thirst and quit running, needing to be rolled back down the hill and exchanged for something with a clear fuel line), I followed the leader off the road and into the woo

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what the bike would be doing, either. I could only extrapolate from the fact that Ed did not keel over sideways when his tire glanced off a rock or went over branches, though whether that was solely due to his experience and skill I could not guess. I just kept that throttle on (yeah, in first gear). When the bottom third of his wheels disappeared into the water of a spring freshet, I put on the brakes. "Uh, Ed!" I called. He turned and looked, and there was I, shaking my head. My fears were inchoate enough--did I imagine I would hit and awaken some submerged miniature Loch Ness monster, or was it simply the clothed-human urge not to suddenly find oneself sodden up to the neck?--but they were furiously roiling my insides. Ed dismounted and crossed back to me, riding the Kawasaki over for me.

Onward over the narrow trail we went, too much passing continuously under the wheels to identify: rocks were gone over, boulders skirted, ends of logs grazed. It was both fun and as scary as anything I'd ever done, and maybe the two are not separable here. It could not have been fun if it did not scare me, and if it did not scare me, it wouldn't have been all that much fun. Suddenly I was aware I was gripping the throttle as if it were something I had to kill.

Up ahead now was another small stream, this one wider. It was only my shame that would not let me beg this time too. Ed's shouted wisdom was unassailable: "Just ride through it!" "Just through it? Are you sure?" the small girl asked. "Yes, I'm sure. Just ride through it."

I did.

Nothing happened. Except that I rode through it.

Onward over the narrow trail we went.

But then into sight came a steep hill. That is where I stopped and decided nothing would make me go up it. Because after you go up, you have to come back down. This time my shaking head had nothing of the question about it. "Had enough? Well, another time you might want to do it. You just have to cut the engine on the way down. Here, watch me." And up, revved high, he went. A minute later he was rolling back down. It looked like so much fun. Like a big, huge room of fun, in which you could get lost for a long time. As long as the trail itself.

I think I got it. Why you'd want to throw yourself around all day, sweat, slew sideways, fall down, get up, hurt like hell the next day. My natural timidity did not allow me to go all the way, but at least I left the road for
a bit. To search out a second chance, up in the hills around Woodstock, the place I now find myself.