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.