Saturday, February 26, 2011

At the YMCA

Recently, I joined the YMCA in "the big city." The term is relative: I live in a hamlet so small its sole businesses are two pizza parlors, two gas stations, one wine store, and an unspeakable "Chinese" takeout (you see where our priorities lie). The city that has vastly more gas stations, pizza parlors, liquor outlets--as well as the Y--is twenty-five minutes away.

This town is Kingston, New York, on the mighty Hudson. It is an undiscovered gem. I like the fact that parts of it feel like I alone know them--this sense of ownership of discovered things that appeared to be waiting for one for a hundred years is what made New York City in the seventies and eighties such a paradise in which to be young and poor. I also like the fact that lately a few enterprising folks have seen the promise in Kingston's situation, above the river, with unremodeled nineteenth-century buildings (and more than a few ghostly seventeenth-century stone houses, too) so that now, in uptown, we have a couple of gently hipsterish restaurants and one of the most awesome bars ever (so awesome, in fact, it renders me speechless but for teenage gibberish like "awesome"). The rest can stay undiscovered, and mine . . . now that I've got my hand-made cocktails and raw oysters.

Then there is midtown Kingston. Poor, poor midtown. The summer after I graduated from college, I went to visit friends, a couple who had taken an apartment somewhere. He (who would later become an architect in the true big city) gave me directions to a place I'd never heard of before. I simply drove, glancing down at the paper in my hand, until I got there. Later, I didn't even remember what city I had gone to, or in which direction, only that it was about an hour from the town in which we'd gone to school.

I do remember thinking I had to be lost. This, this . . .depressed landscape of ugliness, emitting hopelessness from every lopsided, peeling building, nary a tree in sight, could not possibly be where anyone--much less a couple of young bright stars just out of a very good college--would choose to live. It was the kind of place people no longer bothered to dream of getting out of; it was so bootless, and so they continued to shuffle up and down the wide avenue, their horizons ever the same, and ever gray.

Twenty years later I was talking to my friend and thought to ask, "Hey, where was that that you guys were living the summer of '80 and I came to visit you?"

"Broadway in Midtown Kingston," he replied.

"Trust me, it will never change," he added.

This is thus the perfect location for the YMCA, an institution that was founded in industrializing London, where in 1844 workers faced a bleak and filthy future. George Williams, 22, was concerned and wished to offer a farther horizon (and some Christian saving) to the men coming to the teeming city from the countryside. (In Boston in 1851 the first American Y was created, by a retired sea captain.) It now promises "strong children, strong families, strong community." Midtown Kingston needs it.

I need it, too. The Y is no-nonsense, and every single type of person makes use of it. In the parking lot you'll see Audis and Hyundais, Volvos and Scions, as well people waiting outside for a ride because they have none of their own. We'll all equal inside the walls of the Y: we're fat and thin, young and old, black and white. Signs in the teen center remind kids to be respectful of one another, no dissing allowed. People say hi with a smile, and mean it.
As there are in the tumbled-tile locker rooms of a posh spa, here there are no cotton balls, Aveda hand lotion, or basket of tampons in individual protective cardboard cases (BTW, lady motorcyclists, take these when you find them: one day you'll be very glad you remembered you put one in the tankbag). Eh. Who cares. Anti-elitism is the best medium in which to grow, even if the faint odor of mildew that hangs over the pool and the strange smell that greets you when you open the door to the steam room knock you back temporarily. But then you quickly get down to business. We're here to swim, and to sweat. And occasionally to say hi, smile, and mean it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


I am, and then I am not.

The magazines piled up on my bedside table through the winter: BMW ON, Cycle World. They had something colorful on their covers each month--what were those things? They had two wheels, and what looked to be some sort of human crouching, lizard-like, on top of it, clutching something in each outstretched hand. Huh.

The snow piled up against the garage doors. Occasionally I would beat my way to one, throw it up, to get the skis, the sleds. The garbage can, to go to the dump. Large gray-covered shapes, I was vaguely aware, were also there; I would glance over to make sure there was a glowing green diode on a small black box sitting on the floor next to one of them, attached by orange extension cord snaking toward the outlet on the wall. Then bang, the door went down again.

I was not. But now, the temperature rising bit by bit and the snow beginning to darken the pavement of the driveway with slowly expanding water, I am.

I am a motorcyclist again. I stayed up till midnight last night, suddenly possessed by the contents of one of the magazines, which I at last cracked open and could not stop reading. Here's the rally I will go to. Here are the tips for riding better, and here is the endless stream of information of all types, too much, too much to absorb. I am suddenly feeling the initiation of a turn, the downward pressure on a grip, the magical balance of weights moving places, becoming something else. I am thinking about tires again.

(How is it that, several feet distant, you can feel your tires, every molecule of their being, though you are made of different stuff?)

I had entered a fugue state, I realize now with appreciable surprise. And with the coming of spring (its warming promises), I am becoming something else too. At long last.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


The obituaries, although the last thing, are the first thing for some people when they open the paper. They exert some strong pull on certain readers--gratitude, perhaps, or schadenfreude, or proof that indeed life can describe a fully comprehensible arc, when laid out in 10-point type and finished off (if invisibly) with the words "The End."

I myself was never drawn to read them. It always felt like I was reading a review of a show that had already closed: what if I realized, too late, that I wanted to go?

Something has changed now (yeah, it's that view of My Obituary Time in the distant circle of the spyglass). So I find myself scanning them now with a certain mathematical interest. I calculate the average from the ages of demise on any given day: 82, 78, 85. I can't help it; it just happens, and . . . Whew. I still have a decade or two! As if the newspaper is a prognostigatory tool. As if it's all about me.

The other day, though, an obituary caught my eye and held it: "Parasailing donkey dies of heart trouble." The lede read, "Moscow.--The Russian donkey whose brays of terror while parasailing won her worldwide sympathy has died."

I'm afraid I didn't have the heart to look for the YouTube clip that got her such sympathy; I spent many years when I was younger and stronger--and apparently hopeful enough to believe that knowledge was the power behind change--looking at pictures and reading academic papers on the endemic torture of animals that seems to be a human birthright. I am too brittle now. Just reading those words, brays of terror, started a sickening loop in the auditory imagination.

The other day an image flashed on the inward screen, and it coincided with (or was precipitated by) a week in which I found myself thinking, longing, again for the touch of a horse. It's been a long time. Horses are nothing that you can break the addiction to that easily; the nicotine of the animal world.

That's when I suddenly saw myself looking once more out the bedroom window of the old house--a place I do not think much about anymore, being a resolutely forward kind of person, ha, except when I yearn for the kind of expansive summertime yard party for several dozen of kids and wine-happied parents I used to be able to have--to the tumbledown barn out back. This was to be fixed up, risen from the dead, to become itself again. It was the place to which my hopes flew like swallows. Someday, I knew, I would complete that view with some horses and donkeys. It would remain largely a view, for I would only feed them, and brush them, and spend secret moments, muzzle to muzzle, breathing sweetness from their nostrils. The rest of the time they would lead their own lives--that which was taken from them before. For they would be ex-circus, ex - carriage horse, ex-racehorse, ex - kill pen. We would grow old together, nothing ever placed on our backs again.

Just a few. Just a few of the many, the too many, who had expelled their own brays of terror, or silent prayers for surcease. A few, given some good time to help wash away the memory of what had happened before. I believe they would have forgotten easily, out there in the pasture beyond my window. Because they, like all of us, naturally face forward too.

This is because, as I have found, all heartache passes. Except for a vague residue barely felt, weightless, almost. After a time, you barely remember what caused it, or why.

The obit mentions that near the end, Anapka the donkey spent her final months on a farm outside Moscow "in luxury." She deserved it, and more, though the heart trouble she was made to suffer proved more durable than most experienced in the usual course of life. Then came the blessing that is finally offered to us all, but only, it is hoped, after uncounted mouthfuls of green grass ripped fresh from the ground.

The End.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Revisitation

I am in the peculiar position of finally rereading--not by choice, but as an editorial assignment-- a book I last read just after I wrote it over fifteen years ago, and the experience is deeply unsettling. I wish I could say this is because of the evidence of how entire large swaths of my own life have vanished from memory, though there is that bit of uncomfortableness. No matter; here they are again. The moments come right back in all their fullness: I am on the Parkway again for the first time. Now I feel that warm grass on the back of my head, while above is the impossible and great blue, with the kind of sweep and saturated color they only make in the South. Here too is a lonesome night in Germany (see? you got through that all right!), cut adrift from all that I knew. Oh, and I had forgotten ever riding through that white sleet, so surprising; and getting lost in a foreign country; and worrying about where to park, when I knew I could not afford anything to happen to a bike I simply had to sell when it was time to leave.

I am startled to meet myself again in these pages, but it is not due to forgetting so much that I had done in so many places, in so many frames of mind. The alarm comes from suddenly seeing a person I wish that I could forget: the person who wrote them. I long for the eraser that could blank out whole paragraphs, this comment or that, this smugness or that secret better left unsaid. I was like a bulldozer of experience, too sure, and wrong about so much. I misread my own life, and though I see that with a painful clarity now, there is also the awful sense that the off-kilter assessments came from some obdurate part deep inside, running my full length, that I cannot and will never change, no matter how many hours I spend sobbing (or nodding) in therapists' offices.

I keep coming full circle, again and again, to the past that is me, to the me that is past.

So many say change is simple: Just do it. Yes, just decide to change, and presto. New person. One who does not find a part of herself sheared away and watching in sadness and dismay as she does--again--what she had vowed never to repeat. It is at these times that I feel I am but a subterranean riverbed through which run the old incessant waters of my family past, back, back down the lineage, all the way to those sepia people in the old photograph on my wall, standing silently, waiting for the shutter to close, in the side yard of a farmhouse somewhere in Ohio. People I never knew, but whose stern words and angry actions and private sadnesses were passed down, hand after hand, and now lie inside me, waiting for the match to touch the fuse.

Although it seems contradictory, I am a biological determinist when it comes to the human race; but I believe absolutely in nurture over nature when it comes to the individual. A behaviorist when it comes to the formation of the personality; and a Freudian when it comes to how it all comes down. How it is remembered, and repeated.

Maybe what ones writes should never be reread. Or maybe just not when one is in a mood. These pages to me now have the feel of the communion wafer, dry and tasteless, but actually a metaphorical food, full of body and blood.