Saturday, July 30, 2011


As the years wind on--given the fact that this summer is going by in about three minutes, I predict I'll be checking in to the assisted living center sometime late fall--I try to stay healthy. I'm not real good at that, though, because evil temptations unveil themselves before my inability to resist like buff young men, winking their dark brown eyes from under locks of curling hair. So my longevity plan consists largely of friends.

Being connected to others socially and familially is one of the best predictors of a healthy longer life. Besides the fact that a life without friends isn't really worth living.

But there is a special type of friend: the girlfriend. It may come as a surprise to some (and it's possible that I'm aberrant in this, being aberrant in so much else), but there is a point in a young girl's life when she desires a girlfriend more than she desires any boy ever made, or even conceived of by Hollywood's fabulist machine or author of transporting fiction. There's an intensity and excitement to the friendship that is all-consuming, like a four-story fire.

The first girl I ever fell in love with (for it was that, love: blinding, filled with craving for her presence) was Beth. It was high school. She was a fabric artist, dark and yearning, moody and fun. She took me horseback riding on her family's farm. She was the Older Girl (one year) and I was breathless with the news that she apparently considered me a friend. One night we put Joni Mitchell's Blue on the record player in her room. In the morning, it was still turning round and round. Nine hours, and every song on the A side is now permanently burned into my soul.

Several years ago I heard that Beth had died. The thought that a chunk of life--time, energy, blood, discovery, everything that is ever is or will be--had been cut out and then pushed through the side of the universe to leave such a hole (the way an eye is cut out of a pumpkin, leaving only absence) was impossible to hold in the brain. It actually hurt the neurons.

In college, freshman year, I met Beatrice. Corner room across from mine. Abstract painter, beauty. We sometimes walked the campus hand in hand. I posed for a life-size portrait. She posed for my Yashica and its Plus-X film. The next three years we joined forces with other girls, other tight friends, to live in on-campus housing. After that, she found us an apartment together in Hoboken, and we launched ourselves, together, though also increasingly separately, toward bigger life. She showed me her New York, the one she had grown up in, all the places that became my own.

Nearly thirty years later, today, her voice on the phone, buoying me. She knows me, and loves me, I think, and cares for me. And I her.

Someday, maybe, we will shop for our canes together. I hope so. They will be stylish, unusual, and she will make a joke and laugh with that quick knowing laugh of hers. I think we will always be friends, until the bitter end, which will be sweet therefore. Because she's mine.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rally Round

They come from all over. They've packed up to depart at first light. It might take them two or three days. There's that moment--crystalline, kept forever in the small jewel box of such images--when they take the last turn of a thousand, and then they have arrived. Spread before them is a sacred ground. The movable nation.

The call of the rally is the motorcyclist's muezzin--the ritual call to prayer. It is what the summer is made for, unless you are truly hardcore. Unless difficulties make you smile, and party all the better. Unless you are up to camping in Bavaria in winter (above) at the Elefanten rally. Actually, this looks like a ton of fun to me.

Because there is something about gathering with your tribe. Strange as you may be, there are at least a hundred others just like you. What a relief.

I am one of those people who rarely turns down an invitation. If I have to break the speed limit to get to two parties on the same night at opposite sides of the county, well, so be it. I love gathering.

But there is nothing like a motorcycle gathering. I'll stand on my head and balance a chair on my foot, metaphorically speaking, to rearrange the calendar to get to the one or two rallies that are most important to me. And why are they important?

Well. For one thing, there's that crystalline moment. What--a split second of a vision? That's what you go for? A day or two of riding, so many gallons of precious fossil fuel?

No, not exactly. For the expectation of that moment, something even more ephemeral.

It is the same expectation that precedes the party. Plan what you will wear (lay out the gear). Take pleasure in arranging the conveyance (the straps cinched down just so on the camping equipment, clicked together as neatly as the pieces of a puzzle). The route taken is the embarkation on a slowly building crescendo of anticipation (the backroads map placed in the map pocket, highlighted). All of it drives toward the moment of arrival.

So tonight the bike is washed (after a fashion; my scattershot approach to everything, including washing, shows on my bike, which actually looked worse after it dried than it did before I first turned the hose on it). Tire pressure checked, oil checked. The clothes are folded on the chair upstairs, ready to be packed, while on the kitchen counter sits a bag of miscellaneous foodstuffs (hey, it's possible that when you get to the motel, the thing you'll want more than anything is a plastic cup of pinot grigio from a paper carton and some salt-and-pepper cashews, so it's best to bring these along for the eventuality).

One thing I know. I will not know what will happen this weekend. I could meet my new best friend. I could meet a thousand of them. I am prepared. I am even prepared to take a jaded view of the religiosity of this particular event, an industrial-strength meeting of the tightest and (some might say) most sanctimonious of all marques. I have to tweak them, just a little bit. So I had a sticker made to put on my bag lest anyone have any doubts about my true allegiance: "My other bike is a Moto Guzzi." Still, I quiver with excitement. I do not know what might happen. But I know what I hope.

A couple of weekends ago, I was found at another gathering that has taken its place on my calendar as one that I will not miss. It was local, so I didn't have to pack, or release all that much greenhouse gas. But there was the flutter of excitement that to me will always accompany meetings of motorcyclists. For most who had pulled in to the parking lot at the lodge for an hour of tire-kicking before a show ride to lunch, this was merely a pleasant way to pass a Sunday in July. But for me, it was and will remain something far greater. Two years ago, this vintage ride out of Woodstock was the place where, as I now assign its true importance, life began again for me. There were people to talk to again. New hope. New affiliations. A new purpose. And a new date on the calendar, every year. Where we get together, and I arrive.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Concern File

What is important?

It depends on where you sit and what moment you ask the question.

If you are struggling with something--and who isn't struggling with something; I used to believe everyone else was happy and confident, but now that I'm older and wiser, I know that anxiety is pretty much everyone's little companion--it's hard for the worry du jour not to become the world. The front page of the paper is just that: paper, thin, and replaced in twenty-four hours by another sheet with grisly color photos taken in some other world. One so terrible it can't be believed.

The most powerful biological urge in the undamaged psyche is the care of one's offspring: it is this way for you, for me, and for the milk cow whose calf is taken from her and for whom the anguish is vocal, and complete. It is the same for all parents.

The Somali people are stumbling toward Dadaab, Kenya, on journeys of more than a month, to reach what is now the world's largest refugee camp. They are trying to escape drought-induced starvation, and their children are falling by the wayside. Can you imagine this? Your small child, malnourished, thirsty, forced to walk day after day until he can go no farther, and he drops. The reversal of nature's order turns the universe on its side, and everything falls off into clattering ruin.

The magnitude, and the raw agony, of such a situation makes the privileged feel paralyzed, at least for a moment. A little while ago, it was Japan: and we couldn't wrap our brains around that, either. Although there were a lot of benefit concerts to aid that ravaged country. I haven't heard much about Japan recently. I also haven't heard about many charity art auctions for Somalia. Maybe it's too big. It's been going on for too long. It's too far away.

First their animals starved. You can do an image search--"Somalia drought" is all you need to type in, and 628,000 results later you are drowning in the horror. Small children whose bloated bellies over spindly legs and empty eyes define the word "wrong." The adults who know what's coming for them, unstoppable, and they show it in fearful faces. Goats and camels, skeletons with hair, some still walking, most only a few minutes away from the final groan, the drop to the knees that will be their last. The people, the people, ground down to bare life. Nothing more.

I will not point out the awful disparity between our lives, even those Americans who are struggling in this economy that assures so much to so few, and tells the rest to go to hell, and people who are dying by the million because they have no water and no food. It's a cliche to mention that I just bought whatever I felt like buying (watermelon, bread, strawberries, olives) at the grocery store, and still I have worries that keep me awake some nights. What is wrong with us? Do we not do anything because we don't care? Or do we not care because we can't do anything?

It's a messed-up world where those who have too much can't even reach those who have nothing. And are about to fall over the edge.

Yesterday at the farmer's market (the line for felafel sandwiches, $8 each, was about twenty-five people long), I ran into an acquaintance I hadn't seen in a year or so. A brilliant writer. She smiled and told me I looked wonderful: "It's so nice to see you. How are you?" I told the truth: really well. But the question returned caused a strange look to pass over her face, even though she said, "I'm pretty well." Maybe it was the half-beat pause before the adjective. "Pretty well?" I asked. "But not great, right?" All of a sudden her visage collapsed, the happy-to-see-you mask. "My daughter's just been diagnosed with cancer."

The universe is tilting for her, and things are beginning to slide to one side, precedent to falling off. We would do anything for our children. It is an imperative written into our cells. Their survival is our concern. The only one that matters.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Be Here Now

I live in history. I live in a place that is not the place you think. That is to say, I live in Woodstock. (All right, near Woodstock: the town that I live in is no town at all now, being located on the barren rocky floor of a New York City reservoir.) It has long called to artists; the picture here was taken in 1924, at one of the annual Maverick festivals held on social activist Hervey White's farm, to which he invited all sorts of outcasts and Greenwich Village "bohemians," who scandalized the local farmers.

It was just a place to which they came. They hardly knew, or chose, where exactly it was. It could have been a little farther into the Catskills, say Fleischmanns, for all they cared (it was not; later, that place would call to the Hasidim, who likewise scandalized the locals, but for different reasons). But it was a good place--the perfect place. All an artist needs is endless green views, miles of woods, a few hard hills to climb, and stuff to make costumes. Then bring on the wine.

Years later, and the musicians came. Notable among them was Bob Dylan, who brought mystery to Woodstock.

He was becoming famous, as was his destiny, if not his plan. He was often seen zipping around town, from and to his house in the Byrdcliffe artists colony, on his '64 Triumph T100. In July of 1966, he either did or did not crash said bike on Streibel Road. It's certainly a crashable road: it climbs steeply up from 212, Woodstock's main street, nearly opposite the Bearsville complex that housed Dylan manager Albert Grossman's recording studio, then Todd Rundgren's Utopia studio, and now a theater, radio station, and fancypants eatery at which all Woodstock society (read: New York City expatriates) comes to see and be seen. History rolls on, from the past directly into the present, merely changing casts.

The bike wreck may or may not have occurred; some have speculated it was a publicity ploy. At any rate, it didn't hurt Dylan much, even if it did crack a vertebra. He got famouser and famouser. Then he left Woodstock.

And then Woodstock left Woodstock. The famous music festival that bears its name was supposed to have happened here, but wasn't; it was about 66 miles distant. Perhaps this has saved the real Woodstock. Or perhaps not, since there probably wouldn't be this new generation of stoners hanging out on the village green, or shops selling tie-dye and candles and pipes (not to mention triple-milled soaps and cashmere sweaters) if the mistake weren't rather easy to make.

There aren't a whole lot of mavericks, or artists, in Woodstock anymore; it's too expensive. There are film people, and music industry people, and industry industry people, and their gorgeous modern houses up in the woods, or their gorgeous old farmhouses with beautiful and vast gardens in the valleys between peaks.

But it's become my town too, by accident. Or fortune. These are the same things, I believe. The town park is the ground that Nelly and I love best, of all places. There will never be a day, I hope, that I don't walk into the meadow and gasp at the sight of the mountains rising up on the other side of town, magisterial, implacable, eloquent in their silence. Then we turn and go into the woods. We are refreshed by the water of the creek; me, by its permanent flux, Nelly by the cool wet of it on her long tongue.

Woodstock is not my home--home is the place that grew me, the place that sent its minerals into my sap through the roots, the place that will never leave me though I have left it. It is always there, underneath, bedrock anchoring me. It is the place that I start breaking the speed limit as I approach on return, eager to see: as if I might turn the corner in my old neighborhood to catch sight of myself, riding fast down a brick-paved hill on Delaware Avenue on a green Raleigh, the English racer that long ago disappeared from the stairwell in another home, Brooklyn. It is the place that visits me, strangely, as I lie on my back on the sticky mat in yoga as the teacher intones "Peace in your hearts . . . " I see Ohio then. I feel Ohio then.

Woodstock is temporary. I walk its sidewalks in the footsteps of the departed, Dylan, and Hervey White before him, and a hundred others who have come and gone. It is home, for now. Maybe it will visit me, too, in years hence when I am told to not hold on to anything, to let it all go.

Going into town: this is a way of saying "rejoining society." When I need the feeling that I belong somewhere, to the strange tribe that has gathered to make something of our lives, I go now to Woodstock. It is a fine place. It is what I have been given.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Somewhere Up There

Dear Abby runs a repeating theme in her column (and yes, I am a devoted reader: where else can one simultaneously gloat over others' extraordinary bad behavior, and be chastened about one's own?) titled "Pennies from Heaven." In it, people recount their experiences with what they believe are messages from their dear departed. In an uncharitable mood, I might retitle it "Wishful Thinking"; it's such a bald case of desire remaking reality in its own image. (The intense version of what we do all the time, in so many ways, count them.)

But my smugness vanishes when I simply imagine the cold thump in the chest when the eye lands on what it believes it sees. What could be realer than the slow dawning of a sensation that eclipses every other sensation? The sensation that someone is back.

Apparently pennies are worth more as melted copper than they are as currency. People throw them away. If you feel a twinge of unrightness every time you see this, then you are officially Old. Sorry. There are signs.

We have thus all become accustomed to finding them everywhere, including our sock drawers. But in the past several days, they've been leaping at me in such numbers I started noticing, then puzzling, finally feeling a bit alarmed. My opinion on the existence of a Higher Power in the Great Beyond has been tiresomely documented here, so I don't need to repeat that. And yet . . . (The great hallelujah in life: the opportunity to say "And yet . . . ")

Someone is trying to tell me something. And either that someone is a masterful magician, or else I am wrong in my scientific suppositions. Then again, that someone might well be in me. Perhaps I am trying to tell myself something. But how'd I get all those pennies to appear?

On the seat of my car. At a table in a restaurant. In my pocket. In the tankbag of my bike. On my bedside table. On the kitchen counter. Underneath my desk. Yesterday, at Trader Joe's, I heard a clatter, and a penny was rolling toward my foot. It stopped right in front of me. I looked up, but everyone was busy perusing the organic lemonade and sea salt potato chips.

Was I about to get lucky? You have no idea how much I need it, right now. Or so I think. I am aware this has dangers: Luck is not delivered. It is made.

(My brother-in-law, a crack backgammon player, was once smearing me all over the floor in a game. He threw doubles after doubles, racing around the board while I stayed still, taking the hits. "You are so lucky!" I exclaimed after he threw double 5s, again. "A good player makes the dice look lucky," he replied, and I heard this with the unmistakable press of truth. Look: I'm retailing the story twenty years later, so it made an impression.)

In a moment of despair, questioning everything but getting stony silence for answers, I phone a friend. Well, at least there's one thing that's right in my life right now: wonderful friends I can call when in despair. Finally, I tell her about this . . . this weird occurrence. The plethora of pennies suddenly coming to me. I feel strange as all get-out relating it. But I know she won't laugh.

Instead, she assists me in crawling toward the first answer I've had in a while: maybe, she says, it's my way of reminding myself that in order for something good to happen, the initial step is realizing how much good I already have. The anguish re-frames itself in that moment: Maybe things are going to be all right after all! I take my hands from the iron railing of the figurative high bridge over the hard gray river. I turn and start to walk again. To the other side.

At that moment, holding the phone against my ear, my eye stops roving--over the roofline, the sight of the chimney cut out against the sooty clouds, the branches of the pine swaying. It is drawn downward. I am still laughing about the pennies from heaven. That is when I see it. A penny, right under the footstool of the deck chair I am sitting on. I am saying the word, and here is the thing.

Yes, here is the thing.