Saturday, July 31, 2010

Remembrance of Remembrance of Things Past

I recently looked through an old notebook. I think it dates from some twenty years ago: dusty history. I was apparently nostalgic for my own past even then. This should be a lesson to me, but is probably not. I will no doubt continue to take long, soapy baths in ill-advised remembrance.

I have had to amend one brief passage, so as to render it suitable for all audiences. And also to respect my own sense of shame. See if you can guess where.

(Illustrated, fittingly, with Robert Frank's "Parade--Hoboken, New Jersey.")


"It was a dream," said John quietly. "Everybody's youth is
a dream, a form of chemical madness."

. . .

"But," inquired John curiously, "who did plan all your wonderful reception rooms
and halls, and approaches and bathrooms -- ?"

"Well," answered Percy, "I blush to tell you, but it was
a moving-picture fella. He was the only man we found who was used to
playing with an unlimited amount of money, though he did
tuck his napkin in his collar and couldn't read or write."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"

God damn, I wish I had stayed inside my young adulthood, savoring those odd moments--

Think, for instance, of the sunny white bedroom on Bloomfield Street, the fruit crate of books next to the tousled bed (onto which he dumped a mug of tea, damaging the copy of The Americans you had searched out and bought for him as a present, then didn't give him because you decided it was too extravagant, too early). That room, that apartment, seemed to belong to you and him, even if it did not. You spent hours in that bed, you slept late in the day on weekends, then woke to go straight out to dinner. In short, you did what kids all over are doing this very moment as they fall in love, and that you now look back on with horrible unquenchable longing. That will never happen again, you think, and if you had just known you would feel this now, wouldn't you have at least remained aware of its sweet temporariness, aware of the great gift you held in your hand like a magic fountain pouring itself out over your fingers as if the water and its gorgeous coolness would last forever?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

See, the Future

The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.
Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

It was as if I had been dropped into the middle of the Atlantic--blue-gray water rising up and down, up and down, for as far as the eye could see. But no, I was simply at the BMW MOA national rally in Tennessee, last year. It was so vast and industrial, corporate even--but well organized, as one might imagine, given the tendencies of the marque's followers--that I simply wandered about in a daze, letting the waves wash over me.

Which is exactly the way to go about one of these things. In that manner, experiences and people find you. If I had been looking for them, of course, I wouldn't have been able to locate them, and then I would have experienced disappointment. Instead, I talked to dozens and dozens of strangers, having deep talks in which we got to know one another in the space of twenty minutes, and then we moved on.

Last week, I found evidence of one of those encounters in the notebook I had taken with me to scrawl those pithy apercus that hit me from time to time, like bugs against the forehead. "Get Stumbling on Happiness!!" I'd written. Obviously someone had made a case that this was a book I had to read, and since I've started on it, I realize it's another of those gifts I'm given for which the use shows itself much later (a theme here of late).

And "later" is in fact the theme of the book. The author, a Harvard psychology professor, collates the science on our behavioral and neurological use of the concept of the future.

Apparently, the future lives in our prefrontal cortexes. When you get a frontal lobotomy--basically, an icepick through the forehead--you get calm, but you also lose the ability to picture the future. (Yes, I would be quite calm without that ability. Sometimes, I lay practically quivering in bed late at night, thinking of all the things I need to remember to do, all the people I said I would call and emails I neglected to answer; the birthdays coming up and the potluck dishes I need to make; the items for camp I need to pack and the things I need to wash; the tickets I need to buy and the deadlines I need to meet. I turn on the light and write lists. In the morning, I forget to look at the lists. So that is one more thing I need to add to a list: a reminder to look at the lists.)

In one amazing passage, Gilbert points out that "later" is a concept that was previously unknown to our primate forebears, then suddenly available to us, and recently too: within the last 3 million years. A brief blip on the timeline of our development.

I think about this. It seems that our preoccupation with "later," our inability to not think about anything but Now, has both given and taken away, from the species as well as the individuals in it.

Ironically (because it is not here yet and therefore doesn't exist), in future, there is safety. Or rather, we survived because we had the ability to plan, to put up our barricades in advance of the attack, to move to higher ground, to imagine sweet love forever. (Ha-ha, fooled you there! But in fact, we do. And it is the imagining of it that is often sweeter than the reality. He cites an experiment in which people were told they had won an expensive dinner out. The majority of people said they wished to claim their prize next week, not tonight, or tomorrow: They wanted that whole week to imagine how delicious it would be. It heightened the sense of pleasure. As well as, just maybe, yielded greater disappointment at the getting. Such are the trade-offs with our peculiar brains.) While learning to "live in the moment"--to Be Here Now--fosters calm in those superhuman enough to attain it (obviously not me), planning can make us feel safe.

So I am about to do something that runs counter to every instinct I possess: head off on a major trip without much planning. I am thinking of planning--it only takes a couple of days to have a tire shipped to somewhere in California, so when I have some idea of when and where (if I do), I'll make the call. And, of course, I am making lists. Certain to leave many things off. But this is America, and there is never a Walmart Supercenter far off. Alas.

(Come to think of it, Walmart itself is the great manifestation of our urge to think ahead. Those carts are piled high with provisions against the future, and supplies that will also ensure a return visit in the not-too-distant future, given their quality. We envision our necessary survival into the future, for when else will we consume a five-pound tub of mayonnaise?)

A voice is heard in my head, one that never used to be there. Perhaps one of the small recompenses of aging. It's all going to work out fine, Melissa. It's all going to work out.

This I have finally gleaned from that other ability we have, thanks to our susceptibility to operant conditioning: learning from the past. It has always worked out fine, in the long run. I am here, at the far side of my long run. From the past, I see the future. Looking back, I can look forward to it all working out, though I would really like to find that last list I wrote. It's here somewhere.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Doors and Windows

Here, this moment, at the swimming hole on the rocky banks of the Esopus, I look up to the mountains rising starkly all around, and suddenly I see that the world is painted in love. I am alone in this green and gray, and I drip water from a swim in the fast current that makes a poor man's Endless Pool (TM). Nelly has finished screaming for me on the shore while I am but five feet out--she likes me, as we have established, but not enough to get her feet wet--and is off trolling the waterfront for dropped Cheetos crumbs (now that the last family has left just as we arrived, and with them their hopeful picnic hamper and garbage bag). She has found every molecule of foodstuff among an acre of rocks, and nameless bits of inedibles as well.

The world looks like love to me now because yesterday I rode a Moto Guzzi again, at last. My Moto Guzzi. It does not seem possible that that lovely silver machine, sinuous curves and engine block that holds up its two arms as if to the sky in hallelujah (look to your cylinder heads!), is mine. But it is. It has both come back to me out of the past, and points toward a new future that I cannot yet know. A good thing, not to know what surprises lay ahead. (Yeah, duh, or they're not surprises, are they? Or life?)

I had put my hand out in the darkness, grasped something, and now see diamonds in their unnumbered spill falling from my fingers.

As sultry evening comes down, alone on the rocky banks of the Esopus, I feel unalone, and rich.

On my office floor at this moment is spread a large map of the United States. That, too, will soon be mine (the real stuff beneath the skin of the map, I mean). And similarly, I will not believe it until it arrives: the day of leaving, of slipping the clutch. Guzzis gave me something for this, too, although I will be on the big BMW for the long trip and big load: a great new friend to ride with, funny and kind and capable and a hell of an elegant rider. I am hoping he will lead, just for the pleasure of watching him ride. And, I confess, for his GPS.

I don't know why things turn out the way they do. But sometimes, it seems because it is that they must. It's analogous to what Nelly's trainer said long ago, when I was tight with frustration over her recalcitrance to civilized behavior: "You get the dog you need." I needed Nelly to teach me tolerance, acceptance, and the grace that both confer. I am still trying, every day, and that is the perverse gift I also could use.

The things that happen are the things you needed to have happen. The terrible, and the good that comes reeling out of it, like silk ribbon. It can take time, but it always, always comes.

This weekend during the festivities in which the sweet Lario came home to me, I found myself looking down at my wrist. There was the bracelet that is now my favorite. I saw it many years ago, and requested it for a present. I said it represented something I dearly wanted to believe, though I did not fully understand it, or need it, then. "When a door closes, a window opens," it reads. How could I have known then that a door would slam, and it would take me a long period of staring at a hole in the wall, sill and frame and sash raised high, before I could see what it was?

The window, opened wide. For me to go through. I stand on the other side, and turn back to look.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Apparently, to Nelly, there is no such thing as too hot to desire two warm bodies, one furry, one mine, pressed together. Who am I to disagree? At night, she inserts herself against whatever curve presents itself, and whatever temperature can be driven sweatily upward.

At yoga class, I look down and see my black pants are etched with tiny white lines: I take her with me wherever I go.

Nelly has been my shadow now for years, some of them hard years, and through both the days and nights of this particular passage of life, she has been my shadow.

She walks just ahead of me on the path. If I shift to the other rut on the logging trail, without looking backward (dogs, like mothers, have eyes in the backs of their heads), she shifts too. I think it's not because she wants to trip me. I think.

We go to the swimming hole. And except for the periods during which she is investigating other people's picnics, she is standing on the shore, looking worriedly at me, five feet away across an unbridgeable expanse of water. She starts to whine. No matter how much she wishes to shadow me here, however, her aversion to swimming trumps it.

We have grown closer over the years. This, I think, is true love. Or it's not; it's learned behavior. I am a biological determinist, a pragmatist, except when I am being an unabashed romantic, believing pretty tales and weeping at simple narrations of longing and loss on the movie screen.

She follows me from room to room, up and down stairs, panting now in this heat. What is her fear? To be left alone. That is it, to be left alone.

Startled, I look at her with the sudden realization that once again she has known things before me. Both of us the same in the most elemental way: we do not want to be left alone.

She cries out her dismay as I back out the door to go to the grocery store (did I mention that Nelly is a screamer?). She has no idea that I will return, or aim to at least. That this parting is temporary. In this way, she also knows something before me: that someday, when neither of us can know it, the parting will not come to an end. The door will not open again. This is why--even in the heat, even in the annoyance of tripping over the dog who has silently situated herself exactly where my feet are planning to land--I do not complain about the little heater, black and white, who follows me everywhere, who presses herself against me in the night. She knows, sometimes, I will need to reach out in the dark. To be reassured, for now, we are that most delicious of things. Together.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

True--or False--Love

This is all hypothetical, mind you. I have been considering the idea of love, as a subject for scientific study, and find myself curious as to what others have found in their experience. Like, is it ever real?

The princess story is a potent one in the life of a little girl. She will find, or be found by, her prince. And then the adventure ends. The story ends. Life basically ends. But it's all good, because, after all, life is hard. With the prince, another plateau is reached. Heaven, let's call it. Up there in the clouds, there's nothing much to do but roll around in the warm goo of mutual love.

It can be that way, can't it? For the first year, I mean.

Then, inevitably and always, reality strews its nails and glass shards in the roadway. The smooth and elevated ride goes bump, bang, down. [True or False?]

I see them now, the women who are approaching forty and who have not yet found their prince, or even any kind of regular guy who does not have an addiction to liquor, poverty, or an endless series of six-week relationships. I can almost see it in their bodies: the hopefulness, tensing under their skin, pulling them along by a certain belief that if only they find a man to marry, they will finally be happy. It becomes, in fact, the driving feature of their lives: they are looking, furtively, anywhere and at every moment, for a possibility. He just might be at the dinner party tomorrow night. And then he isn't, and you see them sag, see the impatience to get out of there--you mean I have to sit here, captive, for three whole hours, wasting time I could better use in the search of a lifetime?

I see them, because I was once one of these hungry women. I haunted the streets and the clubs, a desperate look in my darting eye. The more that people told me I needed to stop being desperate, that it alone would prevent that which I desired most (they were right), the more unhappily heartsick I became (I was right too, inasmuch as I never did learn the trick of not feeling what I felt).

There are only two options then: either you finally give up, realize you're never going to meet anyone, get on with your life, and then meet someone because of it. (The Zen of Marriage, this is called.) Or--in the happy ending that invariably turns sad--you attract the kind of man who could really, really use a desperate woman. [True or False?]

Funny, now, though. After much of a lifetime spent yearning for just one thing as if it were everything [True or False?], now it's the one thing I don't really want. I feel pretty much the same way toward marriage that I feel toward being bitten by a rabid dog.

Marriage: it can't end well. [True or False?]

It so often ends in contempt, over-familiarity, at best the death of the floaty, ecstatic dreamworld of first love.

But tell me different. Go ahead, tell me. Love--is it true?