Saturday, June 26, 2010


The mind is such a strange thing, untethered to our wills, going one way while the body in which it resides goes another. We think we control our thinking (itself a form of veering off the road we pretend to be motoring smoothly down), but really we don't. We are two things, each holding maps of different worlds.

How did I get so lucky? I don't know. But I am, unspeakably. The latest apparition of the roulette wheel stopping just where I wanted it to (Black, 31!) is that last week I was able once more to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway. I have now done it four times, on three different motorcycles, and each time it has revealed itself to be utterly new. I felt as if I had never been there before, riding the crest of the world, looking left down into impossible space, right, the same. It's slow dancing with your motorcycle, that road, rich with sensualities like skin against skin, an intake of breath suddenly full of the scent of someone else. So what was I thinking as I went along, flicking side to side? I was thinking of animals.

There was the vision of Nelly's body as I left her with the petsitter; her tail arcing down as the other dogs rushed her at the gate, crowded around her for a sniff and a "I'm priority here and don't you forget it" hard, cold look. "Take me with you!" she seemed to cry, quietly. But bikes were loaded on a truck, and a full ten hours were needed to get to North Carolina, starting now. I had to turn away.

I was abjectly grateful, then, on return to be given some photos: Nelly doing her own slow dance, once I was gone, canoodling with a retriever on the floor, luxuriating in slobber and pawing of an almost X-rated sort. She did not suffer, thank goodness.

At last I was on my way, on a trip that magnetizes my thoughts for longer in advance of it than the trip itself will last.

Along the way, at the sides of the road, there were cattle, lying serenely in the shade of the trees, ears tagged with big plastic markers to show what they were really here for. My stomach lurched at the sight. They did not know. They would not know, until the last moments, until the truck, until the smell of death. But what was worse was the sight of the long barns, exhaust fans spinning on the roofs, that were full of the animals we would never see.

There was the black racer, venturing out onto the heat of the parkway's pavement, that I saw too late; I veered around, with a childish futile wish that the next vehicle behind would also go around. I knew I should have stopped, moved him to the grass. The same with the turtle, surprised, motionless head raised, in the middle of the lane. I wish I had stopped for him, too.

There were horses in the meadows, stately in silent self-possession. Horses do not know how well they own their ideal and impossible beauty. How they strike me speechless with their muscled smoothness, their Greek form. I love them still. Always will.

There were the dead by the roadside, golden fur ruffled by the wind of our vehicles, a brief simulacrum of life, quickly reduced to goneness when we have passed. A fox. A skunk. A squirrel. A deer. A chipmunk. Numerous dead, some appearing to reach to heaven in supplication. Oh, but that's my gloss; the end was swift (evinced by the exploded state of the corpse, the proximity to the point of impact) and rigor mortis plays tricks.

I've long wanted to write a poem about roadkill, but another poet has already done it, and anyway it is a tough subject to get right, without hitting a tone of accusation, sentimentality, or worse, both. I leave it alone. There's really nothing to say about these anonymous lives slowly assuming oneness with the paving.


Night fell, and still I was riding. The second year in a row that the clock pulled a fast one on me, found me still riding past dark on the parkway that only belongs to us during the day. A flash, an animal crossing ahead, and--what was that? A tail, brown fur, what was that? --Not given me to know. But safely into the grass on the other side. The kamikaze toad? Well, some make it. And some do not.

The fawn, with mother, shocked by the feel of strange hardness under soft cloven feet, scrabbling now in panic, slipping in the roadway. I was the agent of this fear.

The luna moths, dropping down from above, then yoyo-ing up and down, as if drunk. They are rare, now, but always were rare in their strange beauty. A luminous blue-green in the headlight., the color of old bottle glass. I looked, but could not see, in the mirrors what became of them in the darkness behind.

I went on, and the days, the nights, were filled with animals. They prompted thoughts about them, and us. (Them versus us.) They made me both sad and awestruck, filled with a sense of my own otherness. That's the tables turned, for a change. That's the way the mind works, the body going down one beautiful road, the thoughts down another.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

That's Amore

{This piece, an interview with one of the most fascinating motorcyclists

I know, originally appeared in "Boxer Shorts," the newsletter of the

Yankee Beemers. The photo below shows the subject

running in the 2006 Motogiro d'Italia.}

For a pursuit that is largely solitary, motorcycling has a satisfyingly perverse habit of bringing people together. Across miles, even continents; over years and differences. Then the cement is as lasting as any found in human society.

Marina Cianferoni is an Italian writer (in addition to contributing to a Spanish classic-bike magazine, she is author of a 2007 study detailing every significant appearance of motorcycles in international cinema) and rider who lives north of Florence. Her story is but one of many examples of how these singular vehicles set us up better than ever could.

Our mutual love for them brought us together: I’ve corresponded with Cianferoni for a decade. Her command of English has been helpful in bridging whatever gaps our deep regard for bikes can’t cross; my Italian is limited to a few choice words picked up in the days of attempting to comprehend Guzzi workshop manuals. It was my good fortune to meet with her last December for coffee in Great Barrington, where she laid out proof that she is one of the great philosophers of the inimical passion motorcycles inspire.

For her, bikes are both a personal pleasure and, for a hundred years, an historically important aspect of culture. Not to mention a supreme matchmaker: she is sitting in Uncommon Grounds with her husband, Juan, a Spaniard who one day logged on to, looking for information about the R75/7 he hoped to buy. It so happened that this is her beloved bike—“a real friend,” she says, as she believes the relationship can be so profound that you come to know your bike almost as a person—and the machine she says she will never, ever part with. “A bike is more than an instrument; more than just a way to experience freedom. It is a creature, like a human being. Always as a child I heard my father speak of his cars and motorbikes as ‘he’ or ‘she,” and this colored the way I approached them.” That introduction left her, she says, with “a very romantic feeling.” It will be returned by the machine, she believes, “if you respect her maintenance.”

Her first bike, at 21, was a Yamaha SR250—“I really fell in love with her. It was a very easy bike to learn on. I rode this bike to work in Siena—and what emotions! to ride, alone, with my map, me and she.” Not only emotions toward two wheels, once again: she proposed writing an article about the 200-kilometer trip to the editor of a bike magazine, and he took the article—and, briefly, her heart. After selling the Yamaha due to the requirements of a subsequent boyfriend, a Greek (we agree that she would have done well to remember you get rid of boyfriends, not bikes), she borrowed a Honda VF400F from her father. That is when she learned she prefers two cylinders: “This was a very nervous bike. I developed a relationship with her, and I liked her, but the need to rely on brakes, not the engine, is not the way I like to ride.”

The way she likes to ride—on a responsive, beautifully engineered and balanced opposed twin—was literally a gift. The R75/7 (“less beautiful than a /5, but rare”) was given to her by another boyfriend. “I will never sell her, never never. Even if I was going hungry. She and I will always stay together.”

She says that in Italy, being a female motorcyclist is still relatively uncommon, and those women who ride are more often interested in competing against men on the track. But this Cianferoni finds hard to understand: she has little interest in riding fast, but much in riding well. “Like a painter, I want to draw a line through the turns that becomes a thing of beauty. Then the satisfaction is enormous.”

Like the stereotypical BMW rider, perhaps, she prefers to ride alone. The club mentality is not for her, nor is new-bike fetishism. To her, history is a continuum that lives inside each and every motorcycle, and thus the mark of a “real” motorcyclist is an abiding appreciation for that genealogy. Riders of newer models, she observes, often won’t look at her bike, an unconcern she finds incredible: “After all, she is the grandmother of their machine!” She feels the majority of bikers today are not “real” because they do not care about history or philosophy. They don’t have respect for the past, she explains, and knowledge of the past is fundamental to a true understanding of motorcycling. That is why she wrote her book on motorcycles in cinema—because movies show the history of our culture, and motorbikes are situated solidly inside culture. “The film critic does not understand this—they know cinema, but they don’t know what a motorcycle is. For this reason, I wrote from anger: I will explain to you why this is so important!” Her title is a manifesto of her theory: Due Ruote e una Manovella, or, loosely translated, “Two Wheels and a Crank Camera” (a reference to Dziga Vertov’s 1928 film Man with a Movie Camera, which contains footage of the director riding pillion while operating a crank camera), since the development of moving pictures was coincident with the development of the motorcycle. They are bound together in both the velocity of their rise during the first decades of the last century and in the particulars of their “moving,” cyclical technologies.

Marina Cianferoni is the truest of the true biker, and a passionate exponent of the power of motorcycles. Without them, we wouldn’t be friends; she wouldn’t be married to Juan; and I would not, that day in Massachusetts, have been given a package of the most unbelievable pasta I’ve ever tasted. Viva le moto.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Your Pretty House

There, in one momentary flash, it all comes: the pang of hope, of a dream vanished, the squeeze of too many years; and then it goes--one whole life, over in the time it takes to pass. Then it's on to the next lapidary life: But take a look at that place, will you! When I'm out riding country roads, into small towns and then out again, every few seconds I see the next, and the next, all the beautiful houses I would have lived in, if I had had the time, the possibility. I long for each one in succession, then give them up in the space of a minute.

Inhabiting each mile out on the road more fully because on a bike, and therefore feeling a part of the air that surrounds the domicile of another, the yearning is more intense as well. The Victorian farmhouse, on a height above the Hudson, with the view of distant mountains; the urban brick townhouse, black wrought iron surrounding; the slick dark wood modern glimpsed down a gravel drive in the hillside woods--I want them all. I want enough lifetimes to live in that beautiful place, and that beautiful place. In a beautiful place, life would be beautiful too. I would have lawn parties, and tend great gardens, and have large spaces inside in which to move, room to room to room, as if traveling the road of the interior.

I have seen your pretty house. And I have wanted your pretty house, in a fit of lust that embarrasses me. I should not want; I have what I need. It is modest. It is mine. But it is not your pretty house, and I want to own it, just once. Yet I am in my lifetime, on the downward arc, and there is no longer room to even fantasize many more lifetimes. (When I was in my twenties, in my thirties, I could still imagine the supply of lifetimes was more or less infinite, like the selection in the cereal aisle at Shoprite.) I get but one. That is the point. Silly.

This, for me, is the wage for riding around. New England, New York, the South. We built great houses here in the past, didn't we? And damn if each one isn't calling out to me, pulling my sight from the road ahead to an orgy of imagining: What if I lived here?

I love the beckoning drive, the spreading maple. The large porch, the dining table out on the patio. The horses calmly cropping their green meal beside the barn, living paintstrokes to embellish and beautify the homestead.

Hey, look, you: I have had my time. I had the big house and the big parties, the big garden (or the beginnings of one, anyway, though it did have the big weeds). I should not ache that keenly to go back, to have that kind of time, energy, money, dreams. To want that is to want youth with all its attendant hopes, and that's not cool. But riding these back roads has taken me back, so I seem not to help it, no matter how Buddhist I aspire to be: Desire is the seat of all unhappiness.

Today I listened on the other end of the phone line as a friend, in tears, described her frustration that as her husband works, their own house seems to be falling to pieces. This broke, in the recent winds; that is falling off; the other is crumbling or shearing or graying or tearing. And her husband is helping other friends get what she knows she will never have: the backyard pool, the perfect siding, the ravishing landscaping, while yet others have kitchen renovations and new mosaic tile in the bath.

The thing is, I myself think of her place as someplace I could never have: so lush, so welcoming, so amenable to the outdoor dinner party, in part supplied by the vegetable garden I will never have (at least not here, in the tree-locked shade of a small yard). She wants the house of someone she knows; I want the house of someone I know, as well as a hundred houses of those I do not.

I ride, slowing, past the great estates, and past the farmhouses of promise. I try to quell desire. It is all telling me something, my ache, and the quick shame that follows.

Anyway, at the end of the day, I come home. I pull in to the drive, and admire the stone on the side of the garage. I'm pretty happy with that pot of annuals, there. The house looks tidy. Someone else, passing by on the road, is probably thinking: Look there! How sweet. I wish I could have a house like that, someday. They don't know, but maybe they will.

They ride on, down the street.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I'm Sort of Thinking About Procrastinating

1. Write letter to prison pen pal. This will prompt three long letters in return, filled with lists of books read and questions about what you are reading now (letters from prison, primarily), so you feel guilty and have to respond at least once more, and also file the clippings of recipes included and daydream about when you might make the pasta with grilled asparagus and parmesan.

2. Decide to see what's really in that filing cabinet; spend an hour revisiting the "unfinished projects" folder, and marvel that you had some very interesting ideas twenty years ago, and spent considerable time getting halfway into some perfectly viable subjects. Maybe you will come back to them someday, eh.

3. Unload dishwasher. Then write one and one half sentences. Decide laundry needs doing.

4. Pick up Legos from son's bedroom floor. Tomorrow, you can do it again.

5. Recognize that Facebook is a bad way to procrastinate. It's another thing you feel like procrastinating about. Look for ticks on dog instead.

6. Check the National Weather Service. Weather is always useful to know, in case you want to do something other than work.

7. Check email (good for hours).

8. Check the mailbox (if you start early enough in the day, this can mean two or more time-wasting trips).

9. Stack wood (never ends).

10. Start researching weekend trips you might like to take, someday, if the writing gets finished, which it won't now, since you are researching trips.

11. Go outside for a breath of fresh air before tackling another sentence. Notice the garden is full of weeds since yesterday, when you also did this.

11. Go back to the laptop, now in sleep mode, and reread everything you've written previously. Don't write anything new, though; you're exhausted.

11. Get a good night's sleep, so you can write well tomorrow.