Saturday, June 25, 2011

Not-So-Total Control

On Friday night, I drove my son back to the school he had left on the bus four hours earlier. Now, though, it was a transformed place: no longer just a place of boredom, occasional interest, even more occasional tears. It was the place where a milestone has now been planted deep in the earth, the place of the First Dance.

In the car we approached the cafeteria door, my son wearing the jeans he had worn all day but with the addition of a button-down shirt, not tucked in though (fashion-immune, my son nonetheless had a small moment of panic a half hour before we left: "Oh, I wish I'd asked somebody else what they were wearing!"). The door of a car before us opened, and from it emerged a . . . a what? A girl-woman, in high-heeled silver sandals. A slinky dress. And blonde hair arranged as if by paintbrush into a multitude of glistening arcs, each held by a rhinestoned clip. I had a sudden understanding why none of the boys I liked when I was this age liked me back: we were living in different countries, in different centuries too, that's why. My boy, who still plays with Legos and is in his All Weapons, All the Time phase, does not exist in the same space-time continuum as these girls. (I now saw a gaggle of them crowded around the door, pointing to their friend; they were nervous as all get-out yet dressed to thrill).

He grimly opened the door of the car--I know he would have pled with me to keep driving and take him home, but for the fact that those six girls had spied him, too--and without a word of goodbye got out. As if there were a noose hanging from the disco ball in the decorated cafeteria, just waiting for him.

I know the anxiety. It doesn't just disappear all at once, when we leave sixth grade behind. ("Oh, I've mastered all that. I'll never again care what others think of me so much it keeps me awake all night. I'm done!")

I still have it, if in slightly reduced form, when I go to a party where there are strangers. I still have it, when I get up to read in front of an audience. I still have it, when I feel judged by an editor or the panel of a prize committee. But nothing ratchets it up quite like publishing a book. That is where I am at. Every step along the way--getting back the edited manuscript (I let it sit, in its unopened FedEx envelope, on my office floor for two weeks before I mustered the courage to open it); seeing the first jacket designs, like the prom dress you will wear on what feels like the most important night of your life, and then the fights where you implore your publisher to take off the frilly sleeves and remake it in something other than scratchy polyester; the interminable wait while a list of eminent writers decide whether or not your brand-new baby is worthy of a read and a comment for use as a hook on the back of the jacket (in today's new publishing world, apparently not, I've learned).

There's more. Much more to make my stomach lurch in the coming months.

The day after the dance found me in Troy, New York, in a blazing hot parking lot. I was there to take a Total Control riding clinic, the culmination of a dream first dreamed two years ago when I witnessed one at the BMW MOA rally in Tennessee: Is it possible that I could ever ride like that? I wondered as I saw riders inscribing small but precise circles at even speed, inside knee kissing the tar.

I worked hard. I tried hard. My clothes stuck to me as if they had been painted with glue, and my helmet was damp whenever I put it back on. I hope I learned; I felt as though I didn't, but the instructor insured me I would realize later that I had. I will try to treat it as a fun game, as they taught; I will not let my anxiety turn my frontal lobes off while it consumes the primitive brain stem. I will control my out-of-control fears about not doing well enough, not writing well enough, not looking cool enough at the dance.

One student in our class stood high above the others. One student moved elegantly, precisely, an instant master of every exercise. At the end of the day, I turned to her. "I want to tell you that you are the prettiest rider here--both out on the course, and when you take your helmet off." She smiled widely. She was indeed pretty; what I envied most, though, was her skill on the bike.

"What's your secret?" I asked conspiratorially. But I didn't really expect her to be able to tell me such a thing. It had to be too big to voice.

It turned out not to be.

Her smile widened as if to light the whole world. "A life lived in joy!" she explained.

There is no question to which this is not the appropriate answer. I left there thinking on this all the way home. A week later, and it is still in my mind. When it's my turn to go to the prom, I hope I can remember. But better than that, I hope it's soaked all the way down. So that it's everywhere, in me and all the potentially lost moments of this life.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


It took a while. It always takes a while for the road to run through you, so you can run through the memories of the road. These come back, not strangely at all, as you ride the current road. This is how you know what that trip really meant, by visiting other landscapes (which will in their own time be recalled at a distance). I never wrote about that monumental trip of last year, because until now I did not know what it was about. I know what it felt like. But it did not have a story to tell, until I put my son on the back of the bike again last week.

I remember one moment of terror, out west last August. My child, the most precious, necessary thing in the world--without whom, I am lost--is sitting behind me. Most of the time, he squirms. If our riding partner is behind us, my son turns suddenly, shifting his weight near disastrously, to make certain he is back there. (No matter how many times I have told him I will always keep our friend in my rearview mirrors, and will stop immediately if something happens. No matter how many times I have told him he must not move around, especially when we are moving slowly through narrow gaps in traffic--yoicks!) He suddenly decides he needs to look at the ground under the left side of the rear tire, throwing all his weight left as we approach a stop sign; I have lost track of how many times I was this far from that mercuric white panic: S**t, we're going down!

But the particular moment I was recalling had in fact been preceded by a long, long period of calm happiness. It was so pure, in fact, I was not aware of anything at all: I was completely inside it, riding-happiness, thick and creamy and sweet. Then, suddenly, I was aware of it, which means I was aware of something wrong. By way of something right: I had been riding along for many miles not feeling anything but the machine propelling me through air and time. There was no demented sprite of the ether pulling the bike to right or left, no brief gasps or injections of adrenaline.

My child! He fell off the bike ten miles ago!

I thrust my hand behind me and felt his leg there. Oouhh. Jesus H. Christ. That was scary.

He had just been . . . quiet. Perhaps he too had entered that whipped-cream cloud, riding-through-peacefulness.

Now, in central New York, on our way to a seminal destination, one I had been thinking of taking him for several years and was here en route at last, I was back on the roads of what has passed into my own history, the thousands of miles that traced our manifest destiny. I looked and saw again what I had seen then. A sight that moved me so profoundly I never found words for it: the vision, in the mirror, of how he was occupying himself back there behind me, so close and yet so far. He was testing the air, arm out. He was flying along, to wherever I would take him. Seeing his hand held against the air, a tender wing, called up in me so many different emotions I could not count them all. It resisted, just slightly, the pressure of the wind. And I realized then: the pressure of youth, of years, of himself versus all else.

That is what he did last year, too. That is what I remember. Only now it is a story, not just a sight.

We parked the bike and walked up and down the main street of the quaint and lovely town. We got sandwiches--"the second best grilled cheese I've ever had, Mom!" [do you remember the other?]--and walked down toward water's edge of a glistening lake. I took my feet out of my riding boots and cooled them in the grass as we ate, at the foot of the statue of an Indian, in James Fennimore Cooper territory. As we headed back to the bike, ice cream was promised for later (as it always must). In a few more minutes, we were there.

Up the circular drive, to sit idling under the portico. Sliding glass doors, nurses entering and leaving, checking their watches. An empty wheelchair waits. I turn to my boy. "Through these doors we came, eleven years ago, and you breathed your first breath of the outside air." I could see it all suddenly then: the trepidatious mother, hand tight on the car seat in which her baby was strapped, watching through the glass for the arrival of the gray Toyota. And then . . . outdoors, into our new life.

It was as if it were yesterday, but also someone else's life I had watched in a movie. O strange disjunction of time and events!

My son did not feel all these things last Friday, as he of course could not. They were mine alone, because they were his. The road had not yet moved all the way through him. Someday it would, and this moment in this land would finally come to have a story. That is when he will remember.

We pulled out of town. In a little while we were in the place I wished I could tell him about, the place we had lived before and after his birth, the place where every road was known, every byway had something to tell me about who I had been, and who I was not now.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

If Wishes Were Horses

Sometimes you'd wish something so hard it felt as if something inside you might break. As if wishing it would bring it into being, changing all of history behind you. And you, sitting on the fulcrum of this world, could change the years to come because you changed yourself.

That is the way it was with me, in the days I wished I was an Indian.

I looked into the mirror, at my shiny dark hair. Hey, that could mean I'm an Indian! I looked at my family, and decided that since they didn't "understand" me (who could?), it meant I was adopted. Oh, how I wanted to be adopted! That would explain everything, and also give me the hope of what I wanted to believe: that I bore in my veins the blood of the noble, true people. I wandered the woods collecting things of the woods; I spent hours alone there, imagining being captured, or capturing in return. I walked with my toes in, as I was informed the Indians did, in order to move silently through the woods.

All summer long--oh idyllic Ohio summer!--I went barefoot. (Do children still do this today, or is it another sensuality lost, the heat on the sole, the gravel ouch, the cooling grass?) And when I came home, my parents called me Melissa Blackfoot.

Did they know how much I wanted this to be true? Their joke was my dearest hope.

The Blackfoot people, of the area that is Montana and Alberta, Canada, were the "Indian" Indians--they were the ones with the tepees. They used dogs to pull travois, until they were introduced to horses in the early eighteenth century. These they called "elk dogs."

The Blackfeet had the honor of becoming the first natives killed by the encroachers who called themselves Americans, but were not. At first trusting of the Europeans, they soon realized, as did all their confreres, the trust was misplaced. When they learned the men of the Lewis & Clark expedition had traded guns to their enemy tribes, the Shoshone and Nez Perce, they attempted to steal the guns back. One warrior was killed.

They believed that each day, it was a perfectly new sun that climbed over the eastern horizon. How profound a philosophy, how purifying a therapy, this is has only dawned on me now.

I did not know any of it when I was a child who wanted to be an Indian, but was merely a little savage. Indeed, if I had, the flames of desire to be one of them would no doubt have burned hotter. Murder and injustice--now there was something I could really have wrapped my imagination around.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


For twenty-five years, reading the New York Times every day was as close as I got to religious observance. Usually by the time the coffee pot was empty, the last page had been turned.

Sometime in the dawn light it had been thrown against the apartment house door--thwap--in the blue plastic bag that found second use as the ideal urban dog waste bag. The contents of every street-corner garbage can in the city was at least half composed of knotted blue bags.

Then we moved to the sticks, and had to drive to get the paper. So we did. Every day of the week. Sometimes it was sold out, so we just drove farther until we found it. When we moved to a more civilized part of the sticks, it was again delivered, to the end of a long drive, but still before we woke. I had a small child by then, therefore I couldn't read it in the morning. And so it became the pre-bedtime ritual. As with all rituals, it served many masters: desire, need, addiction. I sort of knew what was going on in the world then; I felt the need to know. Not that the Times is everything: it has a smarmy self-congratulatory residue all over it; its idea of "balanced" journalism is to counterpose obvious truths against fringe lunatic views, just so there are opposites presented; it is clearly in thrall to its advertisers (one is never going to read an expose of fur farming or diamond mining in its pages). It made me mad as hell. But I was used to mainlining it. I had to go to the Guardian to find out what was really going on in the world--it was astonishing to read in its pages stuff, even stuff our own country was doing, that never reached the paper of record.

I don't read it anymore. The paper version is not delivered in my neighborhood (jeez, moved again), and I simply can't read it online. I haven't got the hang. The paper does not crinkle in my fingers; the sections don't look the same. My ritual has been deconsecrated.

But people still send me links, because they're still reading that paper. The one I got the other day was to Jonathan Franzen's op-ed piece about loving and technology. Or maybe it was about life's pain and the horror of blind consumerism. Then again, maybe it was about sadness and narrative. I wasn't entirely certain, by the time I got through. But I was clear on one thing: Like the bags the paper came in, the piece had been recycled (it was written as a college commencement address). A writer of his stature is simply not going to get paid once for a piece. Not when he can double- or even triple-dip.

Although it never said so directly, that is what I suspected about his recent essay in The New Yorker. It was about the death of his friend David Foster Wallace. It was also about revisiting the site upon which Robinson Crusoe was based, as a way to discuss the novel. Oh, and it was about loneliness and, tangentially, stupidity. Also about birdwatching as a way to order the world. (I didn't believe for a moment, though, that he "just went" to the island to get away and get his head straight: a writer of his stature doesn't do anything without intending, first and foremost, to write about it. What do you want to bet he'd inked the contract with the magazine well before he started looking for flights? That was the one thing--perhaps the only subject of central importance--that didn't make it into the article, though it hung over the entire thing for me.) He cycled around all manner of material. And when he was through, he double-dipped. Yes, folks, he sold the movie rights.

I am not griping here about Franzen. I do not find it a problem when writers recycle their blue bags. I never bought the idea (as you can certainly tell) that one piece of writing should contain only one idea. Instead, I know all too well that when you set out on one track, the cars sometimes get switched onto another track. That is, quite literally, life. I started in one place, then moved to another, and another, and another. (How many of us are still living in the same place we were born, much less living in the same head?) I think one thought, and it takes me to another, and another, and another. Sometimes I return to my starting point, sometimes I have no interest in going back there at all, because I've been drawn to something far more interesting.

Digressions are life. Or maybe life is digressive. Let me think about which. For now, I return to the beginning, though not the beginning of this--I'm no longer thinking about the New York Times. Writing takes you on a one-way track to elsewhere; the only problem I had with Franzen's essays, I realize now, is that he tried to tie it all back up into a single subject, which felt to me a bit like pandering. Profound ideas will not be circumscribed, even if they will cohere.

Years ago, I started writing here about one subject. But then life came along and threw a firecracker on top of my head, and blew the one idea to bits. Those are still widely scattered. Now, I've decided I like them that way. I can follow their trail, which takes me away from the place I began.