Saturday, December 31, 2011

Swimming to Reality

When I first get in, it's a shock. It's cold, and I think, What am I doing? And then I begin to swim.

A hundred yards of freestyle. A hundred yards of breaststroke (aka reststroke). Fifty yards of freestyle kick. Then another round of all. At the end, fifty yards of freestyle, as fast as I can go. It erases everything in my brain, except for the thought: You can do it. You can do anything, as long as you know there is an end, eventually. Then I see it, under the moving blue, the line that tells me there are just two more revolutions of the arms. Finally, I touch the wall.

Actually, I hit the wall before I in fact hit the wall. At some point, there will be the place where swimming and thought merge. Where skin and outside temperature have no boundary. Then, there is realization.

Last week at the Y, I realized something that had been there all along, something that had underlay my entire life up to that point. There are things we think that are as the concrete foundation under the house, unseen but holding it up nonetheless. As usual, the sudden realization hit me in a fully formed sentence, words to an assumption that had never been spoken, all these years. If only I had been born with a perfect body, I would find someone to love.

I almost laughed underwater (not a good idea in a public pool) at the absurd idea. A perfect example of magical thinking. But yet it is what I believed. All my troubles, all my life, in fearing that I might never find the perfect union, had been about my imperfect genetics. If only I had been one of those women with lithe and shapely legs, there never would have been any of that heartache. There never would have been those years of dearth, those thousands of nights alone in city apartments, wondering if there was anyone, ever, who would lie beside me, take my hand, say the simple words I thought would mean the end of loneliness.

Now I know that wasn't the problem. Or perhaps it just complicated the problem for me. Because, according to the cover story in this month's The Atlantic, the problem is men. Or rather, economics, imbalanced numbers, and the freefall that ensues.

The author of the piece is pictured on the cover, as if to prove a point: She's very attractive. And she's obviously smart. She just didn't quite know what she was dealing with. So she's alone now, on the sharp edge of forty.

She was attracted to the same sort that I was at her age: the dark artist. The poet, or the painter. The kind who goes out with you for six months, then announces: Uh, not yet. I'm not ready.

Turns out they're never ready, until they're fifty-five or so, at which point they're ready . . . for a thirty-five-year-old. So they get it all--decades of banging scores of beautiful women (see, here's where my realization really hit: many of them do have perfect bodies, and see where it gets them?), and then, just under the wire, "commitment." And a family. Their old girlfriends, all the six-month wonders? They get to spend their fifties coming to terms with what it means to be well and truly alone, to know that they will never experience the touch of another again, and to feel the empty pride of knowing they are capable enough to be able to go out in the middle of the night while a freezing windstorm rages and get the generator in the garage started and hook it up so the basement doesn't flood. Quite a feeling of accomplishment.

There are not enough men, and always enough women twenty years younger. So there's always a lost generation of women who put their fine educations to use in constructing justifications: Hey, I've got my friends. My work. My hobbies. That's so much!

And indeed it is. Gratitude abounds. But what of the creeping bitterness? The little nagging hatefulness that comes on at nine on a Friday night, just you and the newspaper and a glass of wine? What to do with the wish, just once, for someone with whom to talk over the wisdom of this car over that, saying this to your child instead of that, staying in for dinner or going out? Well, you shouldn't feel it.

Usually, the people who tell you this with such conviction are those who are paired. (And the notion of pairing: It just feels so natural, so like the summer rain; all of those millions of us in our separate households, with our separate bills, might be excused for a primitive wail into the silence: Isn't this stupid?) They usually tell you, a little too quickly, how sick they are of their husbands' neediness, their selfishness, their bursts of critical unhappiness. At least you don't have to deal with that. But I tried to explain it to one of them once like this. If you get a flat tire, who's the first person you call? And if you find a fifty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, who's the first person you call? It's the same person, isn't it? Well, some of us have no one to call. We share it with no one. The frustration and the happiness both. A closed system of one.

The author of the piece, after explaining the causes for this state of affairs, ends at the same place as the apologists of the single lifestyle. Isn't it wonderful to be in the company of other lonely women?

She never contends with the simple, central issue--what to do about the primate, its inborn needs and its skin? You can't talk that away. Flowers, a ring. Another. You can't think that away. You can only swim.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

These Too Are Gifts

We went down to the city of the past and the present. We rode the bus. One of the aims, besides encountering the serendipities a visit to the place always provides, was to see the bonsai collection at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; the boy has become fascinated with these frozen moments, these living paintings. One thing led to another. We arrived a half hour before closing time, in a foggy gray drizzle. Only it wasn't a half hour before closing, it turned out. We walked past the windows, through which we could see people standing in the room of miniatures, gazing in silence, and when we reached the door we found it locked. A guard stood on the other side, shaking his head.

Because I had, for inscrutable and unfortunate reasons, seen the tree at Rockefeller Center by myself while the boy was still downtown, and I was saddened that he had not had the experience, I was now determined he should not miss another thing. He would especially not miss this, for which we had spent hours of travel time. I stood there and gestured, with what I hoped was a pleasant but pleading look on my face. "We're closed," he said as he cracked open the door.

I won't retail all that I said, but it was a lot. And, though he hesitated--"If I get in trouble for letting you in . . ."; "Then I'll tell them that it was all my fault," now that my foot was almost literally in the door--he relented. "Thank you. You've made a child very happy."

And indeed he had. The quiet beauty of the trees resisted time. Amazing us. Yet only five minutes had passed. On our way out, I touched the guard's arm. "You are a good man. Merry Christmas."

We walked down the street, entered the museum next. After we had wandered through four floors, just aimless and seeing what we felt like seeing, not talking too much, we went back down and sat for a moment in front of a temporary piece in the atrium. "Movable Garden," it was titled: a long brick trough of dirt in which hundreds of variously colored roses had been stuck. If you took one, the placard instructed, the t
hing to do was to pass it along to a stranger.

I called Tony on my phone. This was another aim of the trip: to say goodbye to Fannie, Tony's dog and my god-dog. Fourteen years before, we had found her as a puppy wandering alone in Prospect Park. She found us within five minutes of each other, almost simultaneously, even though we were not aware at the time, being on other ends of the park, and she further bound us together. She had always been one of those extraordinary beings, a spirit dog. We loved her with e
verything we had. And now she was dying.

Tony picked us up in his van. We didn't have long before we had to get on the subway again, to make our bus home. Fannie had lost so much weight. Her bones stuck out, and her fur was coming out in clumps. I am not sure if she recognized me. The boy put his arms around her; he loved dogs almost as if he were one. He gave Tony the white
rose he had selected.

While the boy ate some pizza at a table indoors, I finished mine outside on the sidewalk while Tony and I tried hard not to cry. I do not like goodbyes. He said Fannie would barely eat. Not even pizza, or cheese? No, not even that. But I held out a piece of crust; her eyes had been distant, but now she took it gingerly in her mouth. And chewed.

To a passerby with a dog who stopped to chat, Tony recited from memory the inscription on a stone in Greenwood Cemetery. Underneath the aged soil rested a dog, the only one in this graveyard. She had belonged to Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine. Tony had named his dog after Howe's. Fannie.

Only a dog, do you say, Sir Critic?
Only a dog, but as
truth I prize
The truest love I have won in living
Lay in the deeps of her limpid eyes

Frosts of the winters, nor heat of the summer
Could make her fail if my footsteps led
And memory holds in its treasure casket
The name of my d
arling who lieth dead

Tony could not see me at that moment, but hearing him was my goodbye. And tears fell then.

Soon we were on the bus north, to home. The boy fell asleep against my shoulder, and all was as it was supposed to be. Beginnings, endings, and in between the gifts.

Tony, right; Jupiter, in Santa's lap; Fannie, center. Prospect Park, 2009.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Oh! Tanenbaum

When I was a kid in the city (of course, I never was a kid in the city, but 24 looks sufficiently childlike at this remove, when I thought I was an adult but I was living instead in that netherworld between youth and adulthood, walking a swaying bridge between the two), I always celebrated my birthday the same way. I gave myself a tree.

Out I would venture in the dark to some otherwise barren quarter of Hoboken, where a December tree seller had set up shop on a street corner. The trees had appeared in the nighttime bringing with them the scent of elsewhere, the perfume of a place I called nature. Breathe deep; close the eyes. The animals of the woodland creep closer. Inhale the piney freedom. Then open the eyes. Hoboken's wildlife--rats, chihuahuas on leash, and teenage boys bearing boomboxes as big as steamer trunks on their shoulders--reappears. Oh well.

Inside my railroad flat the tree would unleash its smell, and I would get busy decorating. Some of the ornaments had been made by friends, and delivered to a tree-trimming party that was probably the smallest gathering the world has ever known, as my apartment was something like two hundred square feet. The tree--even the smallest one I could find, from the $15 rack--now occupied one-fourth of the available real estate.

No matter. I proudly, happily, placed dead center my favorite friend-made ornament: the logo from a Ritz cracker box, a bit of red yarn glued to it, and to that a small caption: "Robert Venturi is God!" Can you guess the profession of its maker? Three and two don't count. Yes, architect.

Oh, and the other tree-trimming tradition: "Messiah" pouring from the stereo. Good thing I was alone, because I sang along. Always. Loudly.

Christmas trees date back some five hundred years, to eastern Europe. At first, people would sing around a tree in the public square, then light it on fire. Later, this would sometimes happen in people's living rooms, as evergreens were decorated with live candles. But that almost seemed worth the danger to me; although I only ever got as far as white mini-bulbs, I envied the few friends who braved the risk for an incomparable, transporting vision of a green tree alight with dancing flames.

My tree this year, as ever since I moved here, comes from the advancing woods retaking the open fields. A giveback, then. And even more of one to me, since all this land is now owned by New York City. I'm sure they wouldn't mind, right? The tree is always lopsided, having grown toward the sun on its own terms, with two crowns.

We just finished reading a book on the Christmas truce of 1914, my boy and me. What a cheering, and depressing, story. The former, because it proves that when we come to know one another as men, as friends, we no longer wish to kill. The "enemy" is destroyed, when he is no longer the vilified unknown, when he is just like you--sick and tired of senseless slaughter. And it is the latter, because in the true story, the officers outlawed friendship. Finally, after months of pressure later, the men were convinced to kill again. The enemy was restored.

But for a brief while, lighted trees stood on the ground of No Man's Land, bringing peace.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Occupy Their Shoes

Why did it take so long? Why were we not in the streets, with our placards and our anguished shouts, before this? It took nearly a fifth of us out of work--no hope of it returning, either, because it had been slipped out of our pockets while we were watching the parade, entertained by today's official clowns (ever more team sports to show us how to be mindless followers, happy pills that simultaneously pacify us and put billions in the coffers of Big Pharma, brilliant!, the little screens in all our hands giving the illusion of Connection to Friends, jobs disappearing incrementally into automation)--before we thought to rise up. What the encampments will bring, no one yet knows. Change, one hopes. But hopes are sometimes dashed.

My coat, anyway, now sports the button I had been long wishing someone would stamp and a million wear: "I want Roosevelt again." Or at least someone with the courage to do what is necessary, no matter how unpopular, and then to proclaim (as in 1936): "They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred." Only bravery like this, and a willingness to put the country before a desire to be liked, aka reelected, can effect the change we need now. Because, truly, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little" (second inaugural).

I was in the presence of a few who seemed to have too much, on Saturday evening. The venue was the grand new luxury hotel built by the man who has brought high-stakes horse shows to the banks of the Hudson; he had to build the hotel, he explained to a magazine reporter, because there was no place in these parts that offered the kind of lodgings the extremely well-heeled horsey set demands as a matter of right. And so he built a place that exudes the right sort of silky anonymity, with high thread-count sheets and turn-down service, that is expected by the one percent. He is also the parent of children in my son's new school, and that is why I was seated near the fireplace at a large table at the lavish buffet in his hotel's two-story banquet room, for the school's annual fundraising auction.

The items bid upon ranged from gift baskets prepared by every class (the seventh grade's was a game basket, for which I'd bought Scrabble and a dictionary), a chance to be headmaster for a day, a custom-made dining table (value, $9000), a Cape Cod house for a week (value, $2700), lunch with Entrepreneur of the Year (value, priceless), and a "dream car tour," enabling one to take for a spin, one after the other, a Lamborghini, Bentley, Aston Martin, Maserati, and Mercedes. The one I wished for, though, was "Fighter Pilot for a Day," at the controls of an Italian light attack fighter. Then I could die, feeling complete.

The paddles were raised all around the room, blinking on and off like explosions in a video game war. And indeed it was a game, only played with real money (we had given our credit card coordinates before being seated). I noted the frequent bidders always sat back in their chairs, as if resting while servants (volunteers
with clipboards and fast pens) recorded their thousands tossed off with an insouciant flick of the wrist. They seemed to enjoy it. The next thing I knew, auction fever spiked my temperature for a brief, hysterical moment, and in a single flash of my paddle--wait, who did that?--I had given away money I didn't have, so that the kids might have a weather station with Mac and six iPads and dock. Then I came to my senses. I went back for some paella and put the paddle safely into my bag so no more temptations would call me out of my place firmly with the 99 percent. Those who had no access to an open bar and chocolate-covered cheesecake slices.

For one night, I stood in their shoes. And I knew why they didn't want to give this up. But I also knew why we must fight so that they will.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Greener Grass

I finally found peace. Or at least for the duration of the eight-CD set I did. As soon as I switched on the ignition, for those many and dreaded car trips that always split the day into shards, the car was flooded with the very substance of peace. It came in the form of the milky, sober intonations of Eckhart Tolle's voice reading the absolute sense and logic of his hybrid Buddhism.

It is simple to judge a book by its cover, and his books had previously seemed to be that most loathsome and easy to ridicule variety, "self-help," that at which the intellect police snort before tossing onto the garbage heap along with chick lit and Snow Falling on Cedars. But I had been wrong. Of course. As wrong as the ignorant always are before being hit with the force of truth. Now I know that contained in his credo--Now is the only time there is--was the only thing that could matter. I wish I could let you hear it now ("the eh-go-ick self," that trickster wretch who leads us astray again and again--half-whispered in a Germanic accent). It makes you feel good about life, just settling into the calming air filling the interior of the car. It makes you feel good about all that you lack--because you really lack nothing.

It took a while to go through all of them, during the multiple twenty-minute trips to the dump, the library, the bus stop. And while the discs were with me (for too long, no doubt angering the lengthening list of library patrons who had put holds on the New Earth set while I drove all over Ulster County with them) I was able to conquer my persistent, strenuous wishing. Every time something upset me, whether my child losing something, my dog running away, my possessions breaking or tearing, my prospects dwindling (that one always seems permanent to me: there's never going to be another chance! my egoic child cries, though it's funny that it never seems to work in reverse, where I believe my enlarging prospects will remain better forever), I said to myself: That's okay! They don't matter. They are not me. They are not my life's purpose. My ego wants me to believe they're important, and I mustn't give in to that damaging whiner.

Although I knew dear Eckhart would have been disappointed in me, I secretly felt a little proud when I did so. I could let go of so much! And in such a short time! My, what a quick study. Full enlightenment seemed only weeks away--why, just a little more practice, and I will be there! I would no longer care about anything. I would never again be imprisoned by worry. Not about the years reeling by, pulling me by the hair; not about the want of things, which are never quite good enough so that I must want more.

The thought occurred that I should buy my own set: I was doing well so long as I kept listening. But I worried that finally I might tune my teacher out, after so many replays. I would become bored, on the seventh hearing, with having to think so hard about sorting out the real feeling from the egoic feeling. Right from wrong; right from wrong, like those boxes we give to babies so that they might put the plastic triangle into the triangular hole, where only it will fit. So much to correct! And I might just want to listen to some classic rock on WDST instead.

Then, they went back to the library. Back, to go to the next eager student, the next vaguely unhappy person wanting more--not more stuff, at last, but more peace. And while they were getting happier, I--I was going back.

I went back to where I was. Back, and back, through the years, to my original packaging: dissatisfied. Oh, happy in bursts, certainly: grateful for them, the ability to feel happinesses and even to call them by name. I still made lists, on an almost daily basis, of all the gratitudes I felt. But then I dreamed.

I was walking through the front hall of the house I grew up in, the only place I think of as "home." I passed from the door of the kitchen (first going by the powder room, off a short hall onto which the back staircase also let) into the heart of the house. It was a place of passage, naturally. One did not linger there, for it was transitional. See, house as metaphor. There I glanced at the nineteenth-century portrait in a gilt frame of some English personage in uniform whose name on the plate was spelled "Peirson." Underneath the painting was a three-drawer chest in which we stored family pictures, baby books (mine blank after the first page, testimony to tired parents and second-child status). I looked left, up the staircase. Then right, to the leaded-glass door of the library. Beyond, the living room. And in my dream, I heard myself think: There will never be a place as perfect to me as this.

My longing returned anew, CDs a vapor carried away by the wind. When I had company over last week, and there was no place to sit for drinks, we stood awkwardly since there had been no room to put a table near the couch in this imperfect house. Two days earlier, the sump pump had broken, followed quickly by the furnace (again) and then the fireplace door's glass, irreplaceable because old and painted in a way that gave this place one of its few touches of charm.

I realize only now that the pattern on the glass reminded me of the diamond-shaped leading in the windows of that other, lost, house. It was like losing it all over again.

Desire is the problem. It is the devil, urging us to walk into the fire that will consume us. The rocks that will splinter the hull, while the Sirens sing on.

I put in my request last night. Whenever they are returned to the library, another CD set will be laid aside for me, my name on a slip of paper stuck between the discs that, when played in the car as I drive, will teach me that the loss, too, is not as I had feared.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Not a Theme

For the boy, it's become All Weapons, All the Time. While his mother dreams about how to make it All Motorcycles, All the Time (but will never really succeed, and, to tell the truth, doesn't actually want to: there are so many other alluring pursuits devised by man and nature, she never wants there to be only one).

The boy is the product of a mother who is repelled by war, yet also fascinated by its abundant detail, not only the parade-clean, gold-braid variety of detail, either. (To the point of thinking about writing a book about this strange love.) She believes war is a treatable insanity.

The boy is the product of a mother who has been vegetarian for thirty-six years, and who winces every time mid-November rolls around again. That is when she encounters the bow hunters walking into the woods, and it is all she can do to print a tight smile on her face and return a small hello as they pass. She averts her eye from what they carry,
horrific instruments of pain and eventual death. (Anyone who says pshaw might volunteer to have an arrow fired into their soft tissue at 300 fps, then walk around for a day or two like that. All in the interests of science.) She sees no beauty there, no pleasure. And if there is pleasure, for the shooter, she does not want to examine it very deeply.

The boy is a gentle sort, who loves all dogs. He would not, as the saying goes, hurt a fly (though he draws the line at mosquitoes). But the boy is a boy. Therefore he is besotted with weapons. He studies them, draws them, discusses them, and possibly dreams of them.
He suffers a deep sense of personal offense when a popular boy's book discusses one sort of machine gun but then illustrates it with another. What an affront!

Finally, the boy is the product of a mother who also loves guns. She feels like a terrible hypocrite, the hater of all voluntary killing and the lover of that which arose from the purpose; the beauty of guns is a terrible beauty, a powerful one because of their true purpose. She sees them in the same class as all mechanisms that combine functionality and art: architecture, motorcycles, certain cars, the martial arts. She has a gut feeling that Frank Gehry would design deeply ugly guns, because for one thing they would fall apart very easily and have a lot of gewgaws on them that didn't relate to any practical purpose.

Can a committed pacifist love the instruments of death without apology?

I would like the answer to that question. Meanwhile, I listen to the dinnertime disquisitions on armaments and their designers. I realize that, for my boy, they represent what motorcycles do to me: a focus, history and experience wrapped up in one complex yet also simple object, a pleasure, a way in and a way out. Meanwhile, I borrow the Airsoft pistol when no one is watching, and I feel something when the pellet hits the can, square in the heart of the target.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Where in the World

You could have lived anywhere. And chances are, you have lived several places. Your forebears came from yet other places which you may never have visited, and never will.

Our nomadism is inside us. It is indubitably linked to the hope that also is inside us. Our species moves and wishes to move.

I think a lot now about where I'd like to live. Not in the way I did decades ago: with the certainty that I would eventually live in every place that attached itself to my daydreams. Then, I had many lifetimes; some of them would be spent in California, in Italy, and perhaps somewhere in the Southwest. (In 1985, I put a thumbtack in the map on the dot called Taos, New Mexico, having determined that moving there would solve each and every one of my multiplicitous problems. I arranged interviews, talked to friends of friends, rented a motel room and flew there, only to be struck full force in the head the first night there with the doom of an even more certain truth: that the place I lived was not the originary point of my problems; I was. Back I went to home, and into the terrible beauties of psychotherapy.)

Even now I am questioning the wisdom of rural living, gorgeous though it is: having to drive everywhere--twelve miles to an affordable grocery, seven miles to the library, six miles to decent coffee, and (most desperate of all) very little in the way of takeout.

Of course, there is the fact that the solution to the current economic fix, one that is not going away because the system that gave rise to it is untenable, fully broken now, and that has caused actual unemployment upwards of seventeen percent (per the government's own figures), is the erasure of a hundred years. By that I mean a return to the employment structure of pre - industrial revolution times: small farming. I'll need a new house, though, or else a tiller to take care of the lawn and a chainsaw to take care of the neighboring forest. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the city recently with friends who had also retreated northward at the same time and for the same reasons I did eleven years ago, I asked R. if he missed living in the city. "Nope, done that. This town belongs to others now. But we do think about where we'll go for the next chapter. When the kids are grown, maybe another city, like Portland or Austin. Where you can walk to the coffee shop."

I am not the only one, then. At some point we'll pack our bags again. We'll feel that mixture of quivering fear and hopeful possibility: a new life! We will colonize our dreams. Then, at some other point, later on, we will start thinking again. Where will it be better? Where in the world will we go next?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Be My Guest

Writing poetry is hard. (Writing good poetry is even harder.) Writing about bikes is hard. Writing good poetry about bikes is impossible.

Yet I have found one man who can do the impossible.

Ed Milich, gearhead and vintage racer, specializes in deliciously complex endeavors: bringing back the ghosts of dead and superannuated Italian bikes and making them screamingly alive on the track; collecting bits of what others might call "junk" but are to certain blessed
Linkindividuals "Just what I needed to make life complete!" He parts out bikes, and he parts out himself, as a writer for a collection of motorcycle publications. He is also the mastermind of But what he does that that amazes me most is write poetry about what he does--poetry that is the real thing. Do you know how hard that is? Impossible. It is an amazing thing to watch a mortal do the impossible, which is why we watch vintage racing in the first place. And which is why I asked Ed to be my first guest blogger.

If the two poems below affect you--and you would not be made of metal-loving flesh if they don't--do yourself a favor and lay hold of his two books, Wrenched (free verse) and
Fueled (containing both poems and self-described "short stories about the passions and madness of racing: rusted motorcycles, crusted men, and how Milich won a race at Daytona on a $600 Moto Guzzi").


two poems by Ed Milich


Some people think he is just
a sour old man
with a limp
and a limitless supply of curses
which he shouts generously
at the mechanic
and the parts manager.
But I know why
the man behind the counter
at the motorcycle shop
is such a dour old firecracker.
For years he has stockpiled parts
one at a time
from wrecks that show up at the shop.
He has
for many afternoons
screwed with carburetors
and ignition advance units
and breathed the gray, sooty filth
that spews from exhaust pipes of bikes
that haven't run in years
but under his magic touch come alive
with only a few hours of work.
I know why.
The old man used to race,
the Catalina Grand Prix
and at Steamboat
and Riverside
and Daytona
and the bowls of his old tarnished trophies
carry a haphazard baggage of bolts
and rubber bands
and slightly used spark plugs,
and dust.
He never speaks of his racing career.
This man has tasted glory at the racetrack.
and he has acquired the skills
to tune Triumph motors to sing like
twin sopranos.
But you still need a to make a buck,
so he sits in this motorcycle shop
from 9 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday
and there is always some tightwad
who offers $17 instead of $20
for a starter solenoid.
For these reasons and more
one should carefully consider
before forming an opinion
about the old man
behind the parts counter.



After twenty hours of fussing and fighting with clearances
and turning wrenches
and cutting down pistons
on the twelve inch swing lathe at my workplace,
and stuffing the new motor in the machine,
and two thousand dollars in parts bills,
I was able to dyno test the bike.
To my amazement, it was up 9 horsepower.
That's 20% higher than stock.
My surprise transformed to cunning
as I imagined my competitive advantage.
On the first day of racing at Daytona,
I got the hole shot
and went forward into turn 1
with a snaking trail of racers behind me.
I led for three laps
until Craig on his Ascot
made his move in Turn 4 and passed me.
I caught him on the banking and surpassed him in Turn 1.
We did this dance for two more laps
and then on the last lap, he led
and would not let go.
I drafted his wake, and made an attempt to catch him,
but at the line I was still three feet behind him,
so I took a second place.
On the second day at Daytona,
I again got the hole shot
I focused hard and rode swiftly for three laps.
when I looked back, I saw nothing but
the sun bleached Daytona asphalt,
so I continued for two more laps
until I crossed the finish line alone
and in first place.
And where was Craig? Had he faltered or crashed, or had he merely geared wrong?
I do not know and don't care to ask,
for first place means
not having to burden one's mind
with such thoughts.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


You know who this is, right? Yes. It's the person we all want to be. It's the fictional me: the one who has it all under control. Nancy Drew, stand-in for master of the known universe.

In the space of twenty chapters, all of which end with a cliffhanger, she met with trouble, grappled with it, and sent it back into the exile of the impenetrable. The sun emerged from behind the clouds to bathe the world of River Heights in light. At least until the next book. Beginning, middle, end. Contained, and curbed. The first in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, written by Carolyn Keene (no such person existed, although she continues to write the series, all the way from 1930
to now), gets right down to business in the first sentence: "Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible." Four short paragraphs later, still on the first page, " . . . she gasped in horror."

My first stay in summer camp, at the outset of which I was miserable with homesickness, and at the end of which I couldn't bear to go home and be separated from my new friends (not to mention the horses), the counselor read out loud to our cabin of girls one chapter every night of a Nancy Drew Mystery Story. It was intolerable: we all groaned when she reached the last line--"The next moment she heard a piercing scream!" was typical--and said, "Lights out." Even though we knew she would get out of every scrape, we didn't know it. We could all imagine ourselves an attractive girl of eighteen. And we all wanted a convertible roadster, and to look dashingly pretty as we drove it. Perhaps growing up, that mysterious passage we longed for so hard it hurt, would provide such things to us.

Later, I was married. Well past Nancy Drew now. Then, they started to come: bizarre panics in which my heart would race, my skin crawl, a terrible fear from nowhere like stones falling, falling on my head without cease. There seemed no remedy. Sometimes I would write in a journal, the words racing too, trying to talk myself out of a deep hole. Whole nights, sitting on the couch in the dark living room, watching the Brooklyn skyline out the window as if its yellow lights might offer some answer. It never did. But one night I found something that helped, Xanax in literary form. An old Nancy Drew (Mystery at the Ski Jump, I have a feeling it was). Suddenly, reading it in the cold hours while around me eight million slept their contented sleeps, everything that was in question ordered itself, fell into categories with neatly typed labels. This will happen, then this, followed by this. There will be a chapter (really!) titled "Happy Finale."

I discovered that reading Nancy Drew made me feel all right. Everything always fell into place, because she had her dad, lawyer Carson Drew, and her pals. She had her roadster, and Ned. She had her slender form and her hair was never out of place, even when she had been blindfolded and dragged into a cupboard (from which she was guaranteed to emerge in the next chapter). She had her wits about her. That which I seemed to lack.

So I borrowed them from her. On a weekend visit to friends' in the country, the sun shining and everyone enjoying themselves, the darkness came over me and I started to sweat, to tremble. Excuse me, I said with a smile I hoped no one could see through; I'm not feeling well. I think I'll go lie down for a minute.

Into the bedroom, draw the curtain. Lie down on the bed, every cell zinging. "Why is this happening to me? What do I do?" the voice inside repeated, in a sort of frenzy. Then my eye fell on the bookshelf across the room: there was a lemon-yellow spine with royal blue type. At that moment the ripcord pulled, and I was pulled back up into space: the chute had deployed and my fall was slowing. Nancy Drew was here. She turned up in the most astonishing places, always at the very last second. That much was assured.

It took an hour to read. And when I rose from the bed, my smile was real. She had put everything to rights. For the time that I was between those covers, I felt as though I would prevail. My fictional self had untied the knots of a fictional misery. How could I be frightened, if Nancy Drew never was? Out I walked, into my own River Heights. I lived there for a little while, until the next mystery hit me from behind. There were over thirty books in the series.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Only today did it finally show itself to me.

I had walked this portion of the rail trail over twenty times, I estimate. And only today did it give me a tangible prize. Maybe that is why we return again and again to the places we have come to love: the promise of something more, something that lay hidden, that will finally give itself to us. The views, the fall of the light, the smell of spring; all these wait for the patient watcher.

On the way back, after going down, then up (and up, then down) the river cut that was once spanned by a bridge whose ghost piers allow me to imagine it--train rumbling slowly through the woods, by the edges of farms--did I finally see what was there all along. A glint of glass. I could see immediately that it was broken. But beside it, emerging again from the leaf mold of decades, there was another bottle (patent medicine, probably) that was intact. These make nice bud vases for the bathroom sink. Or little things to fill the shelves.

I scrambled up the bank of the lost railroad, and I see it's a goldmine: a huge spill of a farm dump, probably from the fifties. Old rusty oil cans, broken tea cups, shards of milk glass, endless buckets with the bottoms eaten through. Oh, the things you can find in a farm dump. When you find something intact in one, it's like a gift from the universe; but it's really a gift from the past, from someone long dead who is reaching down through the years: "Here. I knew you would like this. See? It's usable. Go on."

I once found a bucket (this one unrusted) stamped "NY Water Supply," from a dump tumbling down the ravine of a little creek feeding the Ashokan Reservoir. I once found an enameled pie plate half buried in the stony dirt of an old farm I once owned, and it's made many pies for me since. I can't even remember all the other things I've brought home, stuffed with mud, to either give away again or place among my most beloved possessions. Uh, after a wash in the sink.

I don't quite know what drew me to scrape away a layer of leaves over something dully gleaming among the glass and rust. But there it was. The barrel of a toy gun. I pulled it out. Broken, without its grip. But wait. There's something next to it. The white-plastic grip (or something that was once white). A cowboy-hatted man in relief on it; Kit Carson. I carefully fitted the grip back over the handle, and there it was, except for one piece that contained the grommet that held it on the other side.

In the car later, waiting for the school bus, I absently picked it up off the floor. A stream of tiny ants moved from the inside of the grip, where they had found a tidy home, and up my wrist. And then I saw it: the other bit of plastic that had broken off, neatly stowed inside.

When it dries, I will try to make it whole again. If I do, I can look upon it anytime I wish, and wonder why it was that, today of all days, I found a prize from some boy's past, waiting in the woods.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Las Vegas Living Room

It feels like what is taking shape may well be the battle of my life. It's a classic war, with a new twist: the digital-age takeback of a child's mind by a parent who Knows Better (and parents always know better, as you well know).

One Sunday evening, when my son was still swimming around inside me gills and tail intact, we went to the local inn for its old-fashioned smorgasbord (I confess to filching roast beef scraps--after all, I wasn't eating them but I was allowed to have all I wanted--and taking them out in a napkin to the border collie waiting in our car). Across the dining room was a long table at which was seated what I took to be an extended family, some twelve or fourteen people straddling the ages. But there was something strange about their seating arrangement. One of them was standing. Throughout the entire meal. Facing the wall.

The little boy had his back to his family, his hands furiously working the buttons of his Gameboy. He was in a world of his own, and I imagined it was a very small world indeed. He seemed on the verge of being sucked inside the small black device, and I bet he surely wished he could.

The image printed and framed itself in my mind in that instant. The subject was alienation, addiction, and a sad situation. I titled it: "Never."

I was never going to let this become my child, and for a long time I was able to fend it off, more or less. Of course, we watched movies on screen, and we looked for things, and we occasionally played games. But I never felt I might lose my child to the sirens inside a microchip, until now.

He received a netbook as a gift before starting a new school, and the first day came home and announced that it was good he had one, because all the students were "required" to have one. This was the first, uh, untruth to be attached to the instrument. There were more to come; an alarming direction in a child who rarely if ever lied.

Certainly, the computer is helping. It helps overcome what is for him the laboriousness of handwriting, so that his written work becomes fuller and richer when he employs a keyboard. His science teacher uses a site to pass on homework and allow the kids to communicate with each other on their answers. After lunch, however, the seventh-grade boys eschew the outdoors, where they might run around, throw a Frisbee, wander, or talk, and head to the library to bend their heads over their solitary computers and play video games. When I learned this, my blood ran a little cold.

Every day I would ask if he'd gone outdoors at all, and the answer was always no, even on those bright glorious days of fall: the campus has a drop-dead view of the mountains. Then again, so does the town dump; sublime views are cheap around here.

At the school's annual Harvest Dinner, on the lawn in full view of the aforesaid picturesque vista, I bumped paper cups with the student body ombudsman. We loved everything about the school, I allowed, except for this one little problem . . . my son the addict. What should I do? I'd tried the 45-minute rule, the one-day-a-week-without-screens, the threats and the positive reinforcement. "Yes, Mom. I'm turning it off." Fifteen minutes later, I go upstairs to check, and there's the hasty click of the laptop closing, the furtive face looking up. "You don't trust me!" I take it away, and I get "You're stealing my property!" And, as he sees his mother the addict boot up the computer ("boot up" for both heroin and the Dell, yes, very interesting), he calls me on the carpet for my hypocrisy. Even I know that "I use this computer for my work!" isn't the only truth.

The fellow at school tells me he knows, and he agrees: he's concerned too. "Last year we had to do an intervention on a student. We came and ripped the computer out of his wall. He lay there on the couch, twitching and crying." The Sunday paper's Parade supplement coincidentally contains a "special report": "Born to Be Wired: Being connected 24/7 is changing how our kids live, and it may even be altering their brains." Great. But I know this already. ("The prefrontal cortex . . . is not fully developed until the early 20s"; "When kids play video games, that little pleasure chemical dopamine also kicks in. The intermittent reinforcement that games provide is similar to gambling, and for some kids, just as addictive." Most at risk? Loner boys.)

Perhaps I could have seen this coming from decades ago, in Poughkeepsie, at the bar across the street from campus. Every night the last semester of school, we closed it down, a few friends from the art history/philosophy major sector. Every night, we stood in front of the Galaga console, its pinging-whooshing constant and exhilarating. If the barkeep hadn't thrown us out at 2 a.m., we might have stood there all night, our beer glasses sweating on the table behind us as we bathed in the black glow from the pleasure dome before us. If only I had known. But I was powerless to stop.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

I Know I'll Get There Somehow

I am looking forward to the road in the way that one looks forward to standing under a long, hot shower after a chilly fall day stacking wood. Soothing, sensual, and--of pertinent interest to me right now--alone.

I haven't been riding much lately; this must be what happens when you publish a book about motorcycling. You have no time to motorcycle. The interims between readings and promotional trips are devoted to the kid, his haircuts and bus schedule and school meetings, as well as the forgotten assignment (whoops!) and the filth that builds up in the house while you aren't looking. Then there's the dwindling supply of clean underwear. But for once, in this long month of rehashing what is already finished to me, and meeting scores of fascinating people and talking with all of them, I will get to be alone on a motorcycle on a long road. I expect it to provide its certain sustenance intravenously, going straight to the bloodstream without intermediary actions. It's just there, feeding you.

After the first leg of this ride, I will again feel restored and happy to shake hands and hear others' stories of their rides, and how they found motorcycles, and how motorcycles keep them anchored to life. When that is over, the meeting of friends and the dinners and the socializing, I will once again put my leg over the Rockster and wave goodbye to where I've been. I will face the calm aloneness of hours on the highway, and the possibility of figuring some new things out. (It appears that I am never to be without something I badly need the road's help in decoding.)

I am a little bit tired and a little bit discouraged and a lot confused. I may think that this is new, but I have to remember that it is not. I will always need the road again and again and again, for different reasons and the same reasons. Ride, rinse, repeat. That is life's image, the revolution of the wheel. Need, and relief. Need, and relief. I map my destination with a combination of care and faith.


I would like to reiterate my apology to a group of people who command my highest respect. Through
unconsidered misspeaking, I have harmed and angered them. I am deeply sorry for what I did. Since I cannot unspeak
it, I can only regret it, learn from it, and ask for forgiveness. The intention to honor their pursuits remains, as it was in the
beginning, the only thing in my mind.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

There Are the Dead

A final resting place is also a good temporary resting place. Do you recall the old burying grounds you have chanced upon on your walks out in the country? The timeless calm, as if an intaken breath was captive forever. As if life merely entered another state and was now going on, in the air around you. The breezes touch the headstones, then touch you.

On a childhood visit to Vermont, I was introduced to the notion of the graveyard as picnic ground. Those buried here had certainly seen it all, having lain in the ground for a hundred fifty years or more; I had the feeling, even then, that they welcomed the sensation of youthful feet on their heads and arms. The farms that had once been their homes were now vanished, and so it seemed they had been forgotten, untied and left to float away on this boat of land.

Still, for a child, it is not easy to shake a deep fear of the afterlife. And when I saw what looked like a white branch from a tree, though no tree was in sight in the hillside pasture, lying on a grave, panic gripped me. A bone. It was a message. Or perhaps a warning.

Indeed: This is what you will become.

I couldn't stand the idea then; now it bothers me far less, which is good, since I ought to get familiar with something that will soon get familiar with me.

It was the hip bone of a cow.

Twenty-five years ago a friend and I were working on a book proposal we called Where the Dead Are. It was going to be a guide to beautiful, picnic-worthy, eerie, strange, notable cemeteries. The kind you happen on, the surprise beyond the old hedgerow, the orchard-side collection of leaning, lichen-stained, heaved-up or sunken-in plots that give a frisson of happy-sad. The full circle that is really impossible to grasp, though you want to try, at least here, in the sweet outdoors.

Where Nelly and I went walking this morning, a trail in the wide valley between mountains, we pass a tiny split-rail-encircled family burying ground with four graves. The stones tell a brief story of the Winne family, whose named, misspelled, is borne on a road sign a mile away. Their tale is that they lived here, farmed here, died here; the paterfamilias went off to war, then returned. There is no more, although at one time there was.

On the other side of the loop trail is a modern cemetery, in which interments still occur. The lawn is mowed, and the stones stand upright and white. This kind of rigorous order is more frightening to me than the lost, weather-beaten act of reclamation by larger nature that is evident in the forgotten burying grounds of the past. It speaks of a resistance to the inevitable that is deeply creepy. On some of the graves I see colored glass tubes on stakes; these had always puzzled me as a child, when imagining can be a terrible thing. What were they? I had thought of ashes, of spirits, of the incense that the Greek Orthodox priest had shaken into the air at my great-uncle's funeral, the first dead body I had ever seen. That odor sometimes recurs--I get a whiff of something just like it sometimes, out in the open, and then I think: Death. Death is about to visit.

These tubes, I now know, are everlasting lights. You can currently get them in solar- or battery-powered versions. Candles are more appropriate, I think; they too go out with the wind. Things are not supposed to last. We do well to remember it. And to visit it, on lovely peaceful days when we are out walking, and stumble on a peaceful scene with just enough edge to make us feel alive.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Ugly Truth

Where in America do we now get our truth? Since newspapers have eliminated reporters and cut budgets for news-gathering, there's little of substance in them anymore--they figure AP and the unquestioning reprinting of press releases oughta be good enough for the American people, who aren't even watching.

The documentary film, I would submit, has taken the place of investigative journalism in this time when we basically don't know shit about what's really happening (to our freedoms, to our soldiers, to our economy, or to the earth, to name a few areas of concern) and by whom. These independently produced documentaries are delivering coverage of otherwise undiscussed issues in unparalleled depth. In color, with soundtracks, too!

The problem is that these films are not made of material that can be loaded into street boxes and bought with loose change. They need to be shown in theaters. And there are only a handful of theaters in the U.S. that will show them; these are not going to be playing at the local Cinema One Two Many, up against Iron Man 2 and The Last Airbender. (Which exemplify truth of a different, possibly more disturbing, sort, but we don't have time to go into that here.) Moreover, the few art-house theaters that do screen documentaries tend to be located in towns where the homogenous population forms a choir already predisposed toward the preacher.

Too bad, because one documentary every American should see is The Last Mountain. It details the reprehensible, almost unbelievable practice of mountaintop-removal coal mining, which is laying waste to the timeless Appalachian range. It is greed in motion. It permanently destroys landscapes, woods, waterways, the homes of people and other animals, for such short-sighted and ultimately small gain it makes your head spin. Say you wanted to have a piece of toast. But first you had to burn down a forest. That's pretty much the size of it.

In truth, any time we
unthinkingly switch on the lights, we drive the bulldozer. The movie gives us some facts:
  • Almost half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from the burning of coal.
  • Sixteen pounds of coal is burned each day for every man woman and child in the US.
  • Thirty percent of that coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia.
It doesn't take deep thought to wonder how much longer we can do this--how much longer the coal will last, not to mention how much longer we can last, given the greenhouse effect driven hotter by burning coal, and the health problems associated with it. We are so smart--we can make a Facebook; we can make a guided missile--but we can't figure out how to power our appliances without massive destruction of everything and everyone?

What the movie does so well, though--what documentaries can do that no other medium can--is to put the insanity in front of your eyes in large format, no explanation required other than the ugly truth. Take one of the most beautiful places on the planet, emerald green hills rising up from hollows through which run clear streams like lifeblood, and first tear down the forests, then scrape off the top of prehistory's own geography, then dump it down to bury the water until it no longer runs. (Into the bargain, flood the people who live in the hollows, when rain pours and it has nowhere else now to go.) It is breathtaking. In a bad way, I mean. When you are shown what the coal company terms "reclamation," you want to laugh, then cry, finally scream. Or perhaps some other order will occur to you. In one scene, water tumbles down from the pristine hills in its ageless bed; in the next, the green is erased by gray as far as the eye can see, blazing under the sun, and the streambed is a dry spill of carefully placed rocks. They might call their replacement a "river," but this is the most cynical use of the English language I think I've ever encountered. (Well, next to "enhanced coercive interrogation technique" and its ilk.)

But words can be changed up so long as you create a diversion, then slip a new one into a law somewhere. Bingo! Now what was drafted to protect us suddenly protects a business interest, and we can all go to hell. Or wait--they'll bring it to us. You just sit right there.

That's what this movie shows, literally (a word disappears from a document before our eyes and another is dropped in), and a more dispiriting moment in cinema I have rarely seen.

Happier, though still depressing because it needed to be caused in the first place, is the visual evidence that people are taking to the streets in protest. That is really our only hope, and the greatest of our freedoms. If only everyone could see The Last Mountain, the protests might become big enough to stop something very bad. First, we need to see the ugly truth.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Up in the Air

Where does it come from, trust, and what is its use? Does it exist only to give you courage to do things you shouldn't? Such as love?

I've been thinking lately about this amorphous thing. It is not made of substance, yet it is the very foundation on which you build things of great substance. Your life and all it contains, for instance. Where does it come from--childish hope?

I refer not to love which is given: that is always its own reward. And I refer not to the love we offer so joyously to our children, to our friends, and to our dogs, who alone may be counted on to never change suddenly in midstream: I just decided I don't love you anymore, so I'll see you later. The trust in a dog's return of affection is never misplaced. If anyone is looking for the primary reason we choose as companions domestic canines by the million, there you go.

(I was recently sent--by a fellow dog person, of course--the Mad TV skit in which a man stands on a ledge outside his apartment, ready to end it all, while his wife tries to talk him down. She gets sidetracked by her pets, though, a dozen ankle-biters who get cooed at, wovey-dovey, while he gets readier by the minute to jump. She finally thinks to ask him why--it's because she loves the dogs more than him, of course.)

One cannot always know what children are thinking.
Children are hard to understand, especially when
careful training has accustomed them to obedience
and experience has made them cautious in conversation
with their teachers. Will you not draw from that
fine maxim that one should not scold children too
much but should make them trustful, so that they
will not conceal their stupidities from us?

These are the words, written in 1776, of Catherine the Great of Russia. They illustrate, to devious ends, how trust leads to openness, and openness to the fullest experience of relationships in which nothing needs to be hidden. In this utopia made of trust, the energy one would otherwise devote to manipulation need never be expended. It may be spent in happier ways.

Recently I had cause to write in a notebook: "Insecure people are inherently untrustworthy." And so it is that trust is the chicken-or-egg question rolling endlessly from one side of a life to the other. Being unable to trust one's primary caretaker makes one insecure; then one turns around and later proves himself unworthy of trust.

We have all heard of people who exemplify the sad craziness of falling in love with those who are transparent liars and cheats, but who nonetheless elicit trust from their victim. "He told me he was never going to [fill in the blank] again!" "And you believed him?" "Yes! He promised!"


But how can any of us really know? We go on our merry way, trusting in all sorts of things--the electric light that will go on when we flip the switch, the sun that rises every morning (so far!), the honesty of our elected officials, the promise and the vow and the kiss. Is it all a big craps shoot? Maybe someday we will be able to determine the logarithm of trust, that which will render heartbreak a thing of the past--the princess telephone of emotion.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Out There

Last weekend, I went on a date with my dog.

The sun, which I'd feared had spun off into the farther universe never to return again, finally came out. It had rained for weeks, it seemed. We hadn't had a decent walk in a long time. It was Friday evening; I was feeling too restless to stay at home. Besides, I was curious about what had happened to the small town of Phoenicia in the floods. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do: walk up the side of a mountain just outside town, then take Nelly out for a nice dinner. Even if I would be the one eating it.

It would be my first dinner out alone in so many years I can't count. I never liked it back then, fearing I wore the visible badge of the pathetic. I usually armed myself with a book. I wanted to be braver than that now, but I have to admit I wasn't: I brought a pad of paper on which to write. Just in case the muse visited, you know.

Phoenicia has always been a magnet to me. I love the way the mountains cup it; I love the fact that Main Street is two blocks long, then vanishes into the formidable green. I wanted to buy a house there. Now I'm glad I didn't: Phoenicia is sort of cursed.

Their library burned a few months ago. And every time it rains, now, the town is flooded.

There were piles of food and supplies in Rotary park, left for anyone who needs them. There was a board for posting help needed/help offered. The streets were coated with silt and mud, and huge piles of dirt that had been
scraped up stood everywhere.

I watched two women, one maybe a young sixty, come out of Mama's Boy across the street from where Nelly & I were dining. They were eating ice cream cones. They walked over to the restaurant, where they spied someone they knew on the patio behind me. I heard the older woman say, "Did you see my house? It collapsed just yesterday." She then reached down to pet Nelly, and tell me she was just like the dog she'd wanted to get a while ago. Now, she said, she was glad she didn't. But I said, "Do--for when you rebuild." She smiled and said, "Yes, that can be my reward."

I felt bad for every moment I've ever spent pitying myself. This woman, who'd lost everything, could smile, and hope for a dog.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


The traditional gift for a tenth anniversary is made of tin.

Perhaps that is why the tenth anniversary of the terrible, momentous events of September 11 are bringing out the conspiracy theories again. Apparently nothing got the doubters going quite like the structural damage of the Pentagon, which seemed to them impossible to square with a commercial jetliner going into the side of this building. They don't see airplane debris (or if they do, it was what was surreptitiously brought there later, no matter that it would be hard to hide such maneuvers in the hours following one of the most well-publicized and photographed events of the century). Every picture of this site has been scrutinized, stared at until it's a miracle the photos themselves didn't burn, and reposted online overlaid with impressive-looking lines, arrows, and angles supposedly pointing out the fact that there is something being hidden from us.

Of course there is something hidden: the answer why. Not the complex, distant historical answer; political theorists have plenty of explanations, most of which make sense and most of which none of us have any use for. But the answer why destruction and death rained suddenly one beautiful blue-sky day, and made us wonder: God, why?

According to the experts who have considered the proliferation of conspiracy theories in the wake of large and effectively incomprehensible events, it is more comforting to believe not that we are random targets but rather are worthy of elaborate, careful constructions of huge scope intended to dupe us. We are prized. And the long unraveling--the deceptions never fully unreeled, they are that big--keeps the thing from ever having an end. We can study it forever. It is never over; "over" is the point at which you bury the dead.

It is as impossible to describe what was truly felt that day as to catch the tail of a kite, line cut, that becomes smaller and smaller against the white of a large sun. Everyone has their story, every detail etched with acid on the memory's plate. You remember exactly where you were when you heard. Or, for so many of my friends, where they watched the black smoke billowing into the sky, which building roof or avenue they stood on as they watched a tall tower sink to the ground like a poleaxed animal. That sight was impossible to fully grasp either with eye or emotion. The gray ash fell everywhere over the city, and then our world.

I know exactly where I was, and why. My child's second birthday. The parents visiting. The phone call, bizarrely from across the ocean, the voice asking in French: Are you all right?

As we sat eating breakfast outdoors on the patio, the planes must have gone directly overhead; they followed the line of the Hudson River south to reach their objectives.

Later, the first time I revisited the city that had been like my second parents, the city that raised me to adulthood, the bus came around the spiral of roadway pouring us into the Lincoln Tunnel. I saw that great cityscape, but now with something missing that had seemed it would always be there (the Twin Towers were how I, directionally challenged, oriented myself when emerging from the subway: ah, there--that's south, then). The gasp undid me.

When people hear that September 11 is my son's birth date, they for a moment look stunned, as if they don't know how to respond. Is it a tragedy? No, not for me. It allows the happiness of hopeful new life to pull on the other end of the line that is pulling back with eternal sadness. I don't know why, either.

This week, as if on cue, the leaves started falling from the trees.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

These Thoughts (After a Storm)

Twice a day, empty sixteen-wheelers roll past my house. They are going to the factory next door. When they roll past again, the other way, they are loaded with silent wind chimes. These will someday hang outside of homes all over the world, where they will make sonorous sounds. When the wind kicks up, they will bang and cry.

The first fortune cookie that cracked open, empty, brought forth a nervous laugh. It went sort of like "uh-ha-ar-a-aah." But the second one, a week later, caused nothing outward. Just a sudden cold inside. I am to have no future? Or, maybe: I am to write my own future. That came from the brave little imp who lives inside me. He is very perverse.
Drinking a gin & tonic right now from a purple glass. I bought the set because on the box it said "Happy."

Children love ghost stories because they get scared. Then they get scared.

The term "glacial erratics" sounds like a poem.

He kept opening the basement door to shine a light down on the strange sight of two and a half feet of water, just sitting there.

In the woods, nothing looked different. In our yards, the devastation was breathtaking. This is the difference between nature and domestication.

Friday night, and where is everyone?

While the rain fell, I read out loud from a set of booklets that had brought magic into my childhood, and sent me out into the woods to see what evidence of fairies there I could find, as had the photographer and author, Ellen Fenlon. Each book cost 29 cents. A Woodland Circus. Signs of the Fairies. The Fairy Church in the Woods. In the pictures, things looked like other things. "We saw some little mayapple umbrellas stuck in the ground because it had been raining earlier." "The bloodroot shows each fairy just how to wrap a leaf around himself to make a nice warm coat." There are many, many orchids pictured--all of them, all of these wonders of nature, photographed in the woods of northeastern Ohio. I don't think there are many orchids left. On the final page, the author's biography: "Ellen Fenlon lives at 945 Hessel Drive in Akron, Ohio. She is helping to save the woods from being cut down so that all the little animals and plants won't be chased out of their homes. That way your children and grandchildren will have a place where they can go and visit them." The year was 1962. I go visit them in these books now.

The days when the electricity was out had more hours in them.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Night Road

Riding north on the Thruway late last night. The entire rest of the world save myself and the steady breathing of the engine--well, maybe every once in a while the cold fingers of the air pressing on my neck, and maybe a sudden awareness of my hands on the grips, the right one starting to cramp--was merely a suggestion. The world reduced to Might exist; might not. And That's not my concern anyway.

There was only me in a large blackness. This led to a long riff on the nature of riding as ideal metaphor: We are all essentially alone; we glance off substances, and we occasionally sense others as well as the ether around us, but we're always riding alone.

Actually, this thought did not occur to me, true though puerile. That's because I was busy doing it. There was no time to think about it.

Here's what I was really thinking: Thank god you got off Long Island intact--those freaking urban drivers are maniacs. I love feeling the risk of an Infiniti taking off my footpeg at 85, don't you? And man, my taillight must look so small they won't know what exactly it is until they hit it. I wonder how well the reflective tape on my jacket and helmet is doing? And does 287 really turn into 87, or do I have to exit? Wait--that was a deer crossing sign: Pay attention! Do not forget!

Does my high beam suck too much power? Is it okay to run it against oncoming traffic?

I can't see the watch I velcroed onto the dash; you know, I thought it had a luminous dial. Oh well. The tach's gone, too, broken; the only thing I have to gauge my passage the speedo, and the wheels and dials (so lightly calibrated! so meticulous in all they measure!) inside of me. That's how we really know we're going, no need for anything else really. I have the sensation of being here. It's small enough and big enough all at once.

Actually, the metaphor is apt. I am going through it alone. My dear friend, the one who has always been there for me, in times of trouble and of happiness but mainly the former, which is why he is so dear, is once again counseling me. "Until you see that being alone is not lonely, Melissa, until you are able to embrace solitude and being with yourself, you will not be happy."

The ride alone last night was composed of solitude, and I could see exactly what Tony meant. I felt it. I've had rides that were lonely, so that's how I knew. This felt different. Full and rich: simple, just a straight shot up the highway on a late summer evening, but sufficient unto itself. I was attentive to the risks, but not their prisoner; I knew I would be home in two hours, but I was happy I was not there yet; I trusted the thousands parts of the little Guzzi valiant underneath me, every working piece (every clap of the tappets audible in their millions when I listened--the amazement of it!) put together with love, in love, and loved in return, which is how she runs.

There have been moments recently, I regret to report, that have caused a lump of self-pity in my throat: Why do I have to handle all this alone? Just a little help. That's all I want!

I know the response this will call forth from my friends, but they can save their energy: I've already excoriated myself for it. Now I would like to report some new knowledge. I can turn anything around, at least in my mind, even if it doesn't stack the firewood or fight with the school district or repair the broken shower. That's because those aren't the real problems, I now see; feeling that they are is the problem. All our big battles are always fought alone, whether our armies contain one, or two. The victories, too, belong to each in isolation. So I can keep the phillips-head screwdriver in the bathroom, and that takes care of that. The rest is just like that ride on the night road: done, and everything.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Girls on Motorcycles

{The piece that follows was written for the Women Who Ride seminar at the 2011 national BMW rally, in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, on a July weekend that was the hottest I've ever endured. Reference is made to that in the third paragraph below. This short piece, I realized, encapsulates my past four years. And it points to the future.}


In a profound and complex way, motorcycles have given me a life. They have brought love, both for an object and with other people; after making it once, I don’t think I’ll ever make the mistake again of finding myself paired with a man who doesn’t ride. But more important even than that, motorcycles have given me a subject.

For in the deepest part of me, I am a writer (as well as a rider) and I don’t know that I would be one without motorcycles. It was the intense, jumping-up-and-down, collaring-strangers-in-the-street passion I felt for them that gave me an idea I could not let go of until I had exhausted many pens, a tree and a half, and a prototype laptop. The result, although I did not know it when I began scribbling simply because I had too many thoughts in my head and they were going to cause it to explode if I didn’t offload them, was my first book.

Although I didn’t conceive it as something I was writing as a woman for women, the fact is (last time I checked) I am a woman and that colors every nuance of how one looks at the world and its phenomena. Men and women, even in the pursuit of a common passion, necessarily experience it differently. We literally have different brains. Then there is the fact that we are perceived differently by the rest of the world—but I have to tell you that, despite what they think, I have never ridden while wearing a bikini, with the sole exception of the ride here, but at least it was under my Aerostich—while we too perceive things differently. My pride in the long history of my sisters who rode—a history as long as that of this machine—was equal parts “Hey, see here! We can do it too, and well!” and pure human joy. It was not the whole story, just as men do not own it all either, but I did not want it excised. I wanted it there, emphatically.

I wanted everything there. I thought I had put it all there, everything I could possibly say about bikes, and then I closed the cover. Done.

But what we believe about what we are doing is not always what is in actuality what really happens.

After a long period during which the aforementioned mistake was practiced at length, I faced the same crisis so many of us do—fifty percent of the population, I am given to understand. This has a way of unmooring you from all that is familiar, all you thought was stable and permanent. For a while afterward, you just float. For me, it was motorcycles that reappeared to provide an anchor in choppy waters.

Or rather, it was motorcycles as delivered by one person. A very, very persistent person by the name of John Ryan. At first I just thought he was one of those messianic boosters that our sport occasionally creates. But no. As I slowly learned, he is sui generis—no one lives or thinks as he does about bikes, and no one does what he does on them.

It was a blessing not only to be riding again, but also to have a puzzle to ponder: briefly, in the case of John, it was “W. T. F.??” I had known about the Iron Butt Rally, certainly, in what I was beginning to refer to as my First Motorcycle Life, but then I’d just figured they were a tiny group of fringe fanatics who were so deep into something ungraspable by the rest of us that they were merely a footnote. I’d already written that footnote; I think I took care of them in a sentence. Done.

Then my brain started chewing again on the subject of motorcycles—ever various, I now know—and what in particular extreme long-distance riders like John were doing. And lo and behold, I had a new subject. A new bike, and a new book.

New friends. New destinations. New life. If a woman ever needed these, it was me. If a machine can ever give such gifts, it is the motorcycle.