Saturday, November 26, 2011

Not a Theme

For the boy, it's become All Weapons, All the Time. While his mother dreams about how to make it All Motorcycles, All the Time (but will never really succeed, and, to tell the truth, doesn't actually want to: there are so many other alluring pursuits devised by man and nature, she never wants there to be only one).

The boy is the product of a mother who is repelled by war, yet also fascinated by its abundant detail, not only the parade-clean, gold-braid variety of detail, either. (To the point of thinking about writing a book about this strange love.) She believes war is a treatable insanity.

The boy is the product of a mother who has been vegetarian for thirty-six years, and who winces every time mid-November rolls around again. That is when she encounters the bow hunters walking into the woods, and it is all she can do to print a tight smile on her face and return a small hello as they pass. She averts her eye from what they carry,
horrific instruments of pain and eventual death. (Anyone who says pshaw might volunteer to have an arrow fired into their soft tissue at 300 fps, then walk around for a day or two like that. All in the interests of science.) She sees no beauty there, no pleasure. And if there is pleasure, for the shooter, she does not want to examine it very deeply.

The boy is a gentle sort, who loves all dogs. He would not, as the saying goes, hurt a fly (though he draws the line at mosquitoes). But the boy is a boy. Therefore he is besotted with weapons. He studies them, draws them, discusses them, and possibly dreams of them.
He suffers a deep sense of personal offense when a popular boy's book discusses one sort of machine gun but then illustrates it with another. What an affront!

Finally, the boy is the product of a mother who also loves guns. She feels like a terrible hypocrite, the hater of all voluntary killing and the lover of that which arose from the purpose; the beauty of guns is a terrible beauty, a powerful one because of their true purpose. She sees them in the same class as all mechanisms that combine functionality and art: architecture, motorcycles, certain cars, the martial arts. She has a gut feeling that Frank Gehry would design deeply ugly guns, because for one thing they would fall apart very easily and have a lot of gewgaws on them that didn't relate to any practical purpose.

Can a committed pacifist love the instruments of death without apology?

I would like the answer to that question. Meanwhile, I listen to the dinnertime disquisitions on armaments and their designers. I realize that, for my boy, they represent what motorcycles do to me: a focus, history and experience wrapped up in one complex yet also simple object, a pleasure, a way in and a way out. Meanwhile, I borrow the Airsoft pistol when no one is watching, and I feel something when the pellet hits the can, square in the heart of the target.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Where in the World

You could have lived anywhere. And chances are, you have lived several places. Your forebears came from yet other places which you may never have visited, and never will.

Our nomadism is inside us. It is indubitably linked to the hope that also is inside us. Our species moves and wishes to move.

I think a lot now about where I'd like to live. Not in the way I did decades ago: with the certainty that I would eventually live in every place that attached itself to my daydreams. Then, I had many lifetimes; some of them would be spent in California, in Italy, and perhaps somewhere in the Southwest. (In 1985, I put a thumbtack in the map on the dot called Taos, New Mexico, having determined that moving there would solve each and every one of my multiplicitous problems. I arranged interviews, talked to friends of friends, rented a motel room and flew there, only to be struck full force in the head the first night there with the doom of an even more certain truth: that the place I lived was not the originary point of my problems; I was. Back I went to home, and into the terrible beauties of psychotherapy.)

Even now I am questioning the wisdom of rural living, gorgeous though it is: having to drive everywhere--twelve miles to an affordable grocery, seven miles to the library, six miles to decent coffee, and (most desperate of all) very little in the way of takeout.

Of course, there is the fact that the solution to the current economic fix, one that is not going away because the system that gave rise to it is untenable, fully broken now, and that has caused actual unemployment upwards of seventeen percent (per the government's own figures), is the erasure of a hundred years. By that I mean a return to the employment structure of pre - industrial revolution times: small farming. I'll need a new house, though, or else a tiller to take care of the lawn and a chainsaw to take care of the neighboring forest. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the city recently with friends who had also retreated northward at the same time and for the same reasons I did eleven years ago, I asked R. if he missed living in the city. "Nope, done that. This town belongs to others now. But we do think about where we'll go for the next chapter. When the kids are grown, maybe another city, like Portland or Austin. Where you can walk to the coffee shop."

I am not the only one, then. At some point we'll pack our bags again. We'll feel that mixture of quivering fear and hopeful possibility: a new life! We will colonize our dreams. Then, at some other point, later on, we will start thinking again. Where will it be better? Where in the world will we go next?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Be My Guest

Writing poetry is hard. (Writing good poetry is even harder.) Writing about bikes is hard. Writing good poetry about bikes is impossible.

Yet I have found one man who can do the impossible.

Ed Milich, gearhead and vintage racer, specializes in deliciously complex endeavors: bringing back the ghosts of dead and superannuated Italian bikes and making them screamingly alive on the track; collecting bits of what others might call "junk" but are to certain blessed
Linkindividuals "Just what I needed to make life complete!" He parts out bikes, and he parts out himself, as a writer for a collection of motorcycle publications. He is also the mastermind of But what he does that that amazes me most is write poetry about what he does--poetry that is the real thing. Do you know how hard that is? Impossible. It is an amazing thing to watch a mortal do the impossible, which is why we watch vintage racing in the first place. And which is why I asked Ed to be my first guest blogger.

If the two poems below affect you--and you would not be made of metal-loving flesh if they don't--do yourself a favor and lay hold of his two books, Wrenched (free verse) and
Fueled (containing both poems and self-described "short stories about the passions and madness of racing: rusted motorcycles, crusted men, and how Milich won a race at Daytona on a $600 Moto Guzzi").


two poems by Ed Milich


Some people think he is just
a sour old man
with a limp
and a limitless supply of curses
which he shouts generously
at the mechanic
and the parts manager.
But I know why
the man behind the counter
at the motorcycle shop
is such a dour old firecracker.
For years he has stockpiled parts
one at a time
from wrecks that show up at the shop.
He has
for many afternoons
screwed with carburetors
and ignition advance units
and breathed the gray, sooty filth
that spews from exhaust pipes of bikes
that haven't run in years
but under his magic touch come alive
with only a few hours of work.
I know why.
The old man used to race,
the Catalina Grand Prix
and at Steamboat
and Riverside
and Daytona
and the bowls of his old tarnished trophies
carry a haphazard baggage of bolts
and rubber bands
and slightly used spark plugs,
and dust.
He never speaks of his racing career.
This man has tasted glory at the racetrack.
and he has acquired the skills
to tune Triumph motors to sing like
twin sopranos.
But you still need a to make a buck,
so he sits in this motorcycle shop
from 9 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday
and there is always some tightwad
who offers $17 instead of $20
for a starter solenoid.
For these reasons and more
one should carefully consider
before forming an opinion
about the old man
behind the parts counter.



After twenty hours of fussing and fighting with clearances
and turning wrenches
and cutting down pistons
on the twelve inch swing lathe at my workplace,
and stuffing the new motor in the machine,
and two thousand dollars in parts bills,
I was able to dyno test the bike.
To my amazement, it was up 9 horsepower.
That's 20% higher than stock.
My surprise transformed to cunning
as I imagined my competitive advantage.
On the first day of racing at Daytona,
I got the hole shot
and went forward into turn 1
with a snaking trail of racers behind me.
I led for three laps
until Craig on his Ascot
made his move in Turn 4 and passed me.
I caught him on the banking and surpassed him in Turn 1.
We did this dance for two more laps
and then on the last lap, he led
and would not let go.
I drafted his wake, and made an attempt to catch him,
but at the line I was still three feet behind him,
so I took a second place.
On the second day at Daytona,
I again got the hole shot
I focused hard and rode swiftly for three laps.
when I looked back, I saw nothing but
the sun bleached Daytona asphalt,
so I continued for two more laps
until I crossed the finish line alone
and in first place.
And where was Craig? Had he faltered or crashed, or had he merely geared wrong?
I do not know and don't care to ask,
for first place means
not having to burden one's mind
with such thoughts.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


You know who this is, right? Yes. It's the person we all want to be. It's the fictional me: the one who has it all under control. Nancy Drew, stand-in for master of the known universe.

In the space of twenty chapters, all of which end with a cliffhanger, she met with trouble, grappled with it, and sent it back into the exile of the impenetrable. The sun emerged from behind the clouds to bathe the world of River Heights in light. At least until the next book. Beginning, middle, end. Contained, and curbed. The first in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, written by Carolyn Keene (no such person existed, although she continues to write the series, all the way from 1930
to now), gets right down to business in the first sentence: "Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible." Four short paragraphs later, still on the first page, " . . . she gasped in horror."

My first stay in summer camp, at the outset of which I was miserable with homesickness, and at the end of which I couldn't bear to go home and be separated from my new friends (not to mention the horses), the counselor read out loud to our cabin of girls one chapter every night of a Nancy Drew Mystery Story. It was intolerable: we all groaned when she reached the last line--"The next moment she heard a piercing scream!" was typical--and said, "Lights out." Even though we knew she would get out of every scrape, we didn't know it. We could all imagine ourselves an attractive girl of eighteen. And we all wanted a convertible roadster, and to look dashingly pretty as we drove it. Perhaps growing up, that mysterious passage we longed for so hard it hurt, would provide such things to us.

Later, I was married. Well past Nancy Drew now. Then, they started to come: bizarre panics in which my heart would race, my skin crawl, a terrible fear from nowhere like stones falling, falling on my head without cease. There seemed no remedy. Sometimes I would write in a journal, the words racing too, trying to talk myself out of a deep hole. Whole nights, sitting on the couch in the dark living room, watching the Brooklyn skyline out the window as if its yellow lights might offer some answer. It never did. But one night I found something that helped, Xanax in literary form. An old Nancy Drew (Mystery at the Ski Jump, I have a feeling it was). Suddenly, reading it in the cold hours while around me eight million slept their contented sleeps, everything that was in question ordered itself, fell into categories with neatly typed labels. This will happen, then this, followed by this. There will be a chapter (really!) titled "Happy Finale."

I discovered that reading Nancy Drew made me feel all right. Everything always fell into place, because she had her dad, lawyer Carson Drew, and her pals. She had her roadster, and Ned. She had her slender form and her hair was never out of place, even when she had been blindfolded and dragged into a cupboard (from which she was guaranteed to emerge in the next chapter). She had her wits about her. That which I seemed to lack.

So I borrowed them from her. On a weekend visit to friends' in the country, the sun shining and everyone enjoying themselves, the darkness came over me and I started to sweat, to tremble. Excuse me, I said with a smile I hoped no one could see through; I'm not feeling well. I think I'll go lie down for a minute.

Into the bedroom, draw the curtain. Lie down on the bed, every cell zinging. "Why is this happening to me? What do I do?" the voice inside repeated, in a sort of frenzy. Then my eye fell on the bookshelf across the room: there was a lemon-yellow spine with royal blue type. At that moment the ripcord pulled, and I was pulled back up into space: the chute had deployed and my fall was slowing. Nancy Drew was here. She turned up in the most astonishing places, always at the very last second. That much was assured.

It took an hour to read. And when I rose from the bed, my smile was real. She had put everything to rights. For the time that I was between those covers, I felt as though I would prevail. My fictional self had untied the knots of a fictional misery. How could I be frightened, if Nancy Drew never was? Out I walked, into my own River Heights. I lived there for a little while, until the next mystery hit me from behind. There were over thirty books in the series.