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.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Art Persists

With pretty much everything sliding into the crapper--my personal life, London, the stock market, and new power to the Tea Party front for the corporate interests that won't stop until they've sucked us dry like the world's freaking biggest mosquito, the government having run out of repellent--it didn't look like there was any bright spot anywhere in my vicinity. Until my son and I leaned back last night and gave ourselves up to a film.

Last Christmas I had gravely disconcerted him. We needed something new for the top of the tree. When I stumbled on the image of the dove of peace, above--sporting flak vest and a laser target on his chest--I knew I'd found the perfect thing. So Today. (Unfortunately, also so Yesterday and Tomorrow.) I printed it and tied it on with a silk ribbon. I then had my very own Banksy for the tree; my son, thankfully not yet attuned to the sad ironies of the grownup world, was disturbed. I told him I found it oddly hopeful: at least someone was watching, and speaking the truth. With the keen succinctness of art.

Banksy is a British street artist whose work is subversive, haunting, poignant, knife-sharp, humorous and/or disturbing. It's unrelentingly smart. And--though this seems painfully obvious, even if to me it is the point--he has always done it because he had to, not because he was making things to sell. A lot of it was precisely observant of the institution of commerce, in fact, though one cannot really blame him for the eventuality that its very success in this endeavor has lately made it hugely valuable in the buy-
and-sell art world.

The art world makes me want to vomit, actually, not only because it is filled with reprehensible characters who position their impossibly fashionable selves at the sharp pinnacle of the food chain, but because they eat artists whole and spit out their bones on the sidewalk. I had a taste of this (um, not an artist) working in a gallery in the eighties, and dating an artist. And now I know brilliant artists who can't get the time of day from a gallery; thus they are in despair almost to the point of giving up their work.

Don't give up--take it to the streets! That, in part, is the message of hope in Banksy's marvelous, surprising movie Exit Through the Gift Shop. It is a window on the life of the enlivening world of street art (aka graffiti, in some sense, but a full bloomed, legitimate genre of its own). And it is a subtle, wise discussion of commerce, the necessity of persisting against difficulties, and true art vs. simulacra produced for the purpose of selling--and the fact that the public is often so stupid they can't tell the diff

I needed to watch this, right now, at this very moment, it seems. Giving up, in every particular, had been looking like the informed choice. But now I don't think I should. Nor should any of us. We need to take to the streets, because that is what is left to us now. There, we can make people wonder. Make people see. Make art, and persist.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Just a Wee Tiny Despair

Here at the swimming hole, Nelly is tied on a long line. She ventures out--freedom is mine!--and then she hits the end and feels the implacable rigor of The Tree. She is tethered, an unusual state for this free-ranging dog, because there are people here with food. (And where, I submit, are there people in America who don't sally forth without food anymore? I know we're hardwired as animals to eat whatever food is available, but hasn't this gotten ridiculous? What meal is it that these people are eating at 3:30 in the afternoon--tea? With submarine sandwiches?)

Nelly too is wired, programmed, habituated, reinforced, and possibly drawn by supernatural beings to obtain food. Now--and here is the secret that many people don't get--some dogs are born like this, and some aren't. It's not a moral thing, though that's the gloss one hears over and over: "My dog is a good dog. He won't steal food." Ahem. To a dog, as long as there aren't bared fangs in the proximity, anything is fair game. On a plate or not. What is a plate?

Until someone can give me a plausibly logical explanation of how a member of another species learns the concept of ownership--something that's messed us up, for sure, and leads to taxes, wars, partisan fighting, and the whole Housewives franchise, to mention a few of the pits dogs have not fallen into--I won't buy it. Just as I no longer believe in the tooth fairy, having been the tooth fairy for some nine years now.

Which brings me to my small despair. No, not that after said nine years, I have pretty much run out of ideas for what to put under the pillow, before he has run out of teeth. And no, not that Nelly is driving (has driven?) me nuts with her incessant vocalizations--why didn't I get one of those good dogs, one of the quiet ones?

(I say, like a mantra, what trainer Kim told me long ago, when I had also reached the end of my rope: "You get the dog you need," meaning the struggle to overcome her problems will somehow lead me directly to the problems I must struggle with inside myself.) My companionable despair has to do with how dogs are treated--and the book I feel I must write about it.

Five years now, and I've been spinning my wheels. The way in has not shown itself. No subject has seemed as big, or as impenetrable. I don't know how to say what I know I want to say--desperately want to say--in a way that will yield better results than it has at any number of parties.

Take one last week. The chitchat turned to dogs, and to trainers. As always, there was murmured approval for one of the telegenic proponents of old-fashioned German military thread of training (developed by Konrad Most at the turn of the last century). William Koehler popularized the style, though if you have a drop of genuine love for animals in you, you might want to spare yourself the nausea that follows on studying his methodology. He is alive and well (though he himself is dead) in the trainers that people today adore. They look stricken if you dissent: I literally cannot count the times I got into conversations at parties in the past six years--yes, flirtations that were going quite well, thank you, with smiles and deep eye-locks and all the rest--when such a dissent from me caused the immediate dynamiting of good feeling and turned it to rubble. So quickly. But I can't not say what I know: that our sad, sick love of domination because it makes us feel good to hurt, to make others fear us, is harming the animals we purport to love. And do. The myth of dominance in regards to dogs--just Google it--has been put to rest by scientists with knowledge far greater than mine. (Hence a seed of the despair.) And the way of hope--an obedient dog, as well as a happy one, who has been taught without pain or fear--is readily available. But people don't want it. Why? The despair grows.

It bloomed full open, when a guest, a gentle young woman, revealed that a movie had been made about the local trainer I call The Nazi (I've seen him teach his clients to kick their dogs, and his prime arsenal consists of neck injury by collar pops and repetitive yelling, which nonetheless don't work all too well, witness the time I walked by his class with Nelly in a perfect heel, while his students' dogs were breaking all over the place). And she smiled as she declared herself a fan of the guy after seeing it.

Why are we so attracted to punishment? Why do we fear, and belittle, kindness? Moreover, kindness that works, because it is scientifically grounded in how mammals learn? A law, rather than a myth. Why? Why the persistence and valorization of methods that hurt, and that don't even work? Why our blindness?

Why the demonization of a treat? Please, folks, it's just food. It's just what the dog is programmed to want more than just about anything, although in their time, water, freedom, the door opening, a tennis ball, can be more desired, and hence should be used. The one thing it's silly to think a dog wants--though people do it all the time--is praise. Hello? Words in English? Where do those appear in canid evolution, pray tell?

If my life depended on a dog doing what it has been taught, then I will find a dog who has been clicker trained. (My clumsy shorthand for operant conditioning.) It is what the Navy realized, when it was placing people's lives on the line when it was training dolphins for top-secret work. They hired a man named Bob Bailey, who in 1962 became the Director of Animal Training for the Navy. This is not an outfit that has any place for sentimentality; they must know that something works, and they must be damn sure of it. And Bailey found that only operant conditioning could give that level of reliability. In his illustrious career as an animal trainer--across 140 different species, and thousands of individual animals--he has proved beyond a doubt that what works is positive reinforcement. It is also, just coincidentally, humane. He has said that if aversives worked, he would have certainly used them; but the uncontrollable fallout from their use is too dangerous when lives are at stake. He meant the lives of humans. But he could as well have meant those of our companion animals, whose troublesome behaviors are often exacerbated by punishment-based training to the point where euthanasia is required.

It is possible, if one searches, to find the trainers who have been called in to mop up the messes created by our beloved television personality, the one who gives us permission to frighten, hurt, and dominate our dogs--and smile while he is doing so. He tells us it is right, and we happily believe.

My despair crystallized in the deeply dismayed gazes of the dinner guests whose paeans to the local trainer were not seconded by me. The conversation froze. I froze too, thinking, How? How can I say what I know in my heart and in my mind?

If I cannot get it across to some friends gathered around the cheese plate on the kitchen counter, and if I cannot get it across to some guy who was already leaning toward "Maybe I could give you a call sometime?", how the hell can I write a book about it?

Oh, it's a good thing my despair is so small.