Saturday, November 24, 2012

Pre-Thanksgiving (Post)

Garry Winogrand: San Marcos, Texas, 1964

Is there, really, anything sadder to ponder than Thanksgiving dinner alone?  Alone, at a restaurant, therefore alone among others?  Alone, at a restaurant like Odessa on Avenue A?

It's one week till Thanksgiving, the one holiday that so far has escaped total cooptation by pop-up stores and cynical commercial grabs; I'm not even sure they make Thanksgiving-themed Peeps, but I'm sure to be proved wrong about that.  Still, it retains a certain old-time purity, although I make it a point during the usual public grace lauding friendships and blood ties to say a silent thanks to the Indians for letting us kill them and steal their land.

I wait for my salmon burger in this place that has long meant home to me (although, truth be told, I was more of a Veselka girl myself, venturing to the Second Avenue Ukrainian coffee shop for three-dollar pierogies and potato pancakes once or twice a week).  Who can't love New York City: at the table next to me, a Jew and an Irishman talk, in a Ukrainian restaurant; then in walk four fellows who look nothing if not Mongolian.

Courtesy of the window onto the street in front of me, I practice my backward reading.  We really don't do enough of that, you know, after age ten.

A poster taped there, advertising its come-on to passersby on the sidewalk, can be read from the back:

Complete Dinner
glass of wine*
cup of cream of turkey soup
Turkey with stuffing
sweet potatoes
cranberry sauce
& fresh mix vegetables
Pumpkin pie
tea or coffee

*as I can attest, this is more likely to be a "thimbleful" of "wine"

It takes a lot to be alone for Thanksgiving, the quintessential family meal (which I haven't shared with my actual family for decades; until recently I celebrated it with my misfit friends, which meant we were more firmly cemented than by genetics, being the chosen rather than the pressed upon).  One year, and one year only, I made the bright and bad suggestion to go traveling for Thanksgiving, and we spent the meal, two of us, in an otherwise empty hotel dining room.  I've never felt quite so suicidal while still wearing a brave and utterly false smile for two hours.

My heart breaks for the people who will come, alone, to buy the Odessa special.  I wish I could invite them all to my home.  I won't serve cream of turkey soup, though.

Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco.  "Familiar with misfortune, I learned to assist the unfortunate": Virgil's Aeneid.  That sounds bigger than I mean it to.  But it is a small reminder to myself, a future job.  And a wish that around every table in the Odessa there is more than one chair.    


Wednesday, November 14, 2012


A thoroughgoing rube from the sticks now, I had almost forgotten how a city dweller is a flea in the flea circus: most of the time low, invisible, touching the ground.  Then, suddenly, vaulting high.  You can always count on unannounced possibilities for temporary transformation, the chance to spend a night passing as someone you were never born to be.  You don't know exactly where you're going, but you go; and sometimes afterward you still don't know exactly where you've been, except that the air was thin up there.

What's going on this weekend? Maybe the question wasn't even asked, it was thought, and only electrical impulses passed among friends.  Party on Lispenard Street would come to you Friday afternoon, and past darkfall you were walking alone down an empty street, watching for a single row of lights on a fourth floor somewhere along the block.  Whose place? Who knew?  Party the only information  necessary.

At one--all I remember was huge, dim, crowded--I stood in line for a drink.  The girl behind me struck up a conversation as we waited.  It was a long queue.  It was good, therefore, that I felt I could listen to her British accent, creamy rich, forever.  She wore a silk cocktail dress from the fifties; she worked in a thrift store in the Village.  Whatever it was we talked about, it was lively, full of bubbles, and once I had my chardonnay in hand I turned.  "You aren't going to be one of those people who take someone's number and promise to call but never do?" Her swift arrow flew straight.  It was one of the most galvanizing, and brave, questions I had ever heard.  The friendship it caused has spanned thirty years, three continents, and two marriages.   All from a chance meeting in a chance place.  That is why you wanted to live in the city in the first place, and forever.

Twenty years later I asked her if she knew whose place that was.  She named a famous (and famously bitchy) British expatriate fashion editor.  Who knew?  See.

To prove you can go home again, only you may not quite recognize the place anymore, this week I again received an invitation: friend of a friend, downtown, like before.  Only now there's a specific address, and there's Google.  With its real estate tabulations that tell you exactly what the penthouse loft went for last year.

Oh my goodness.

I went to survey my closet, only to find it full of the same things that were there ten years ago, and ten years before that. A shopping expedition was in order, but now there were no sales racks at Saks and Bendel's to haunt every lunch hour until something eventually showed up, in my size and in my hands: what a steal.  Feel that tissue silk?  An editorial assistant had no business owning something so fine, except she did, by effort and a little magic.

Now and here, though, the only option was J. C. Penney at the rural mall.  How is that thirty-dollar frock going to go down in the loft of today, no longer dimly lit raw space with blowers hanging from the ceiling, but the Sub-Zeroed, Wolf-ranged domicile of the one percent?

We'll see.  I'm going.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Just Grand

To get to 1928 from my house, I discover, all I have to do is drive two and a half hours west-southwest. After turning in at the driveway of the Skytop Lodge, from a deeply shaded road through the lonely forests of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, nearly a century drops away while attaining the final hundred feet of altitude on the climb to the mountaintop hotel.  And there you are, in the heady days of the Jazz Age, when vast hotels were rising all over America as precipitously as stocks.

This one was conceived in 1925 by men of foresight, though it did not extend as far as late October of 1929.  The building is especially momentous, of stone in the Dutch Colonial style, with massive wings reaching out to either side of the entrance like welcoming arms—not a raucous welcome, to be sure, befitting a certain age-appropriate reserve, but welcoming nonetheless.  Well, so long as you are of the class that will not blanch at the tariff: $499 a night, double occupancy.  Not as much as the modern-day luxury spa, of course.  But then most spas don’t offer a Saturday-night Elimination Dance and Grand March.  (“Everyone is holding hands in a long line . . . then we weave in and out of rooms through a secret passage, outdoors, then back in the Pine Room.  The festivities conclude with punch, cookies, and dancing.”  So much more Nancy Drew than a sea-salt bodywrap, yes?)

That spa—though even Skytop has stuck a toe in twenty-first-century waters by retrofitting spa-treatment rooms into the top floor of the hotel, taking space from the diminished members-only club that was once an integral part of staying here—also probably won’t ask guests to dress for dinner, or to refrain from wearing anything too modernly disturbing; only “modest” and “generally conservative” (one in fact assumes that most of the visitors are registered Republicans) will do around these 5,500-acre grounds.

In keeping with a general theme of traditionalism, the activities speak in cultivated tones of yesteryear’s pastimes: lawn bowling, archery, skeet shooting, boating, skiing, tobogganing, and hiking.  (No way to escape golf, no matter what year it is.)

The basement game room has acceded to recent—albeit not too recent—taste with a small arcade that includes Galaga, which after all is ancient history to anyone now under the age of forty, though it happens to be my ancient history.  There remain the tables for billiards and ping-pong, and a cunning miniature golf course for the wee ones.  Upstairs are the de rigueur card rooms off the grandly scaled main room, as well as a beautiful lending library whose titles, Dewey classified, reside timelessly in glass vitrines.  The books remain also timelessly undisturbed, for no one who arrives from this century seems to know their purpose.

At dinner in the main dining room, I explained to my twelve-year-old tablemate how all these knives and forks were to be deployed, elaborating further on quaint dining customs of yore: “In real olden days, one would be given a fingerbowl.  But don’t do what a friend once did when presented with one—he drank it.”  A few minutes later, fingerbowls arrived.  “For your fingers,” the waitress offered helpfully.

My son (the aforementioned twelve-year-old) brought to my attention the detail that marked this as a veritable old hotel: actual room keys, dangling from those plastic rhombuses so redolent of vacations past.  No key cards for the Skytop.  I hadn’t even noticed, which shows how old I am.

At night we mounted four flights of stairs to the top floor pressed under the eaves, heading for the old observation tower.  At the foot of its narrow staircase, before ascending a dark tunnel-like space that opened onto a slightly less dark but immeasurably expansive space—the curvature of the earth was visible on a horizon tinged light rose under the gigantic bowl of planet-studded sky—a plaque commemorated spotters who during World War II manned the post around the clock watching for enemy planes.

What stay in a long-lost era would be complete without discharging a firearm? This is where the wheat gets separated from the social chaff—or perhaps where redneck and elite join in agreement on one thing (besides low tax rates for the wealthy): guns are fun to shoot.

Meeting at the obligatory Orvis shop down by the obligatory lake, excursions to the mountaintop skeet-shooting center are conducted by van; it takes you to 2,200 feet and a supreme view of this heavenly half-acre.  There, in the far distance, is the Delaware Water Gap, and for the first time you see exactly what it is: a symmetrical deep notch carved by a giant precision instrument.  After the Civil War, this region was second only to Saratoga as the country’s most popular inland resort.  Now, in the near distance, orange compact sporting clays are mechanically flung into space, and bang! They magically explode into shards.  Suddenly, you can’t wait for the next one to do the same.  Then the next, and the next.  It’s addictive, this focused destruction.

And, you realize, necessary: in fact, when mealtime arrives with its caloric load you see you needed to engage in every sport on offer; there are three of these abundant occasions per day (on the American plan, correctly named) plus tea and cookies in the Pine Room at four.  Though sometimes it is advisable to join the two, intake and expenditure: that is when you order a box lunch (I just love saying that: box lunch box lunch box lunch).  It will accompany you on any one of multitudinous trails, amounting to more than thirty miles, meant to guide guests to “places of quiet beauty and restful charm”; when you reach the end in addition to peanut butter there may well be Indian Ladder Falls.

At dinner you are attended with the miracle of two types of service at once: nearly invisible, and ever-present.  The menu offers delectable-sounding opportunities in the appetizer, soup or salad, and entrĂ©e categories; and if what is delivered with care to your place is just a sliver under delectable—falling rather into tasty ’n’ ample, a variety of Institutional Haute—what cynic could truly complain?  You’ll revisit your hopes at the breakfast buffet, complemented with table service of eggs aplenty as well as Belgian waffles.

The visit to another age, a black-and-white one where cherry-lipped, wool-clad, bobbed-hair women lean ever smiling against their ski poles and sleighfulls of laughing young people are pulled by strong horses through the cold air, is a reminder of what we used to be.  And trusted we would eternally remain.  Healthy, joyful, always festive.  Always beautiful.  Always well-heeled.   There was no end to the bigness: America ascendant.  The grand hotel provided the frame for the picture we wished to make of ourselves.  It was carefully posed; it seemed possible, within its bounds, that life itself could be an endless holiday with impeccable service.  This was the period Booth Tarkington compassed in The Magnificent Ambersons: “’There seem to be so many ways of making money nowadays,’ Fanny said thoughtfully. ‘Every day I hear of a new fortune some person has got hold of, one way or another—nearly always it’s somebody you never heard of.’”

In some places today you can catch the scent of the belief that the future holds the promise of permanently expanding luxury, no longer thrillingly sharp, but soft and vague, the perfume that rises from a vintage fur.  At these historic hotels that preserve the happy traditions of privilege, the past comes back as a memory you are not certain you ever had.  It is just possible you read about it in a book, or saw it from afar, in a dream from which you wished to never wake.   The times will never roar like that again.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Ancient & Underground

In 1825, the great Delaware & Hudson Canal was being built between two important rivers and passing by a small village called Rosendale.  (The canal remained in use for less than seventy-five years although it represented an engineering marvel of the most excitingly advanced sort. It should thus--but probably won't--give us pause when we become breathless about our own revolutionary devices; they too will be superseded and left to be found, containing only a trickle of water and grown over with vines, by unknowing passersby.)  There, in the rocks alongside the Rondout Creek, was discovered the presence of an especially pure natural cement (dolostone) that soon caused a boom in mining.  Rosendale cement was taken south to the big city and poured into the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge and the pediment of the Statue of Liberty.

One of these mines, known as the Widow Jane, is both forgotten and found.  Its new use is to transport those who enter: they stand dumbstruck by its enormous mystery.

In the cavern lighted by luminaria whose reflections danced yellowly on the water that stretched back into the darkness three-quarters of a mile, a stage was set.  The place for an ancient rite of some sort--a marriage, a meeting, a prayer. 

It is reputed to be acoustically perfect; it certainly seemed so to me, today, when I went for a performance of ensemble taiko drumming.  Appropriately, this is a mix of old and new, rivulets of different traditions joining together in one grand rushing river of sound and sight.  There was dance, masks, flute shivering behind the stirring percussive rhythms banged out on stupendous Japanese (via Chinese lineage) drums, gongs, bells.  The precise ballet of the performers striking the various sized drums with their bachi was an amazement of power that transcended, somehow, the human state.  It became as timeless and deep as the place we were seated, occasionally wet by drops of water falling impassively from the stone ceiling into our laps, into our hair.

The sound entered our bones.  It changed us mineralogically.  Place and history meet at one strange moment, an intersection that is counted in an infinity of seconds ticking rhythmically, and we realize we are moving down the waterway from here to there.  Ephemera laid down in stone.

Monday, August 20, 2012


So here's some of what I've been doing in the past couple of months, apart from my usual occupations of fretting, riding too little, and walking the wee beastie in the woods, where we encounter all sorts of magic, every time.

The publication of this p
iece, ostensibly a book review but also an essay (I did not write the incendiary head, by the way, because it does not reflect my beliefs, which are, basically, do get married, but don't get divorced) taught me a lot of things. One is something I knew before: people are impatient with others' sadness. They do not like to hear about it, they want it over and done with in five minutes, and they call you nasty names if you do not comply. Of course, one suspects that most of the commenters--of which I read the postings of about five, before deciding my skin was way too thin to withstand their rocks--are guys in their twenties who have never been married, and so have yet to experience the dissolution of the namelessly large and overdetermined experience that is marriage. I'm mean. My wish for them is to be left suddenly by their wives after, oh, some 28 years. But only after they have become fat and bald. Then we'll see what they have to say about not whining and just getting right back up on their feet.

Or maybe they will indeed do it. Maybe it's just an anomaly of me and almost everyone I know who's ever been divorced to experience it as a process, like grief (wait, not like grief; it is grief), that can't be hurried. One that does not represent a moral failing to live through in its fullness. Before getting back up on your feet. For sure.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

See You in the Movies

It is a well-known fact that nearly everyone is planning on writing a movie, and the few who aren’t are wishing they would get off their cans to try. The difference between my statistically unrealizable movie and your statistically unrealizable movie is that mine actually has a built-in, sure-fire audience: starving motorcyclists. They can only watch World’s Fastest Indian so many times.

This won’t be my first attempt at the practically impossible, oh, no; I’m a slow learner. I was cutting up reels of super 8 at my kitchen table in Hoboken long, long ago. Then I took an NYU screenwriting class—of course! me and nine-tenths of New York City!—and met others with the home-splicing habit (some of whom were even on the brink of graduating to 16 mm). It may have been that era’s great democratic medium, but without YouTube it was like playing air guitar: nothing issued from the effort. The need for a venue birthed the collective called Film Crash, which favored the back rooms of bars and clubs. If you were young and had either seen a poster or attended that screenwriting class too, all of nature could not stop you from wanting to make movies then. I immediately enlisted a founding member to collaborate on a screenplay. Not my first, and not my last, to find permanent residence in a filing cabinet. The paper on which it is written is as yellowed as the idea.

Although these early efforts failed—failed in some intrinsic, fading-ember kind of way, the way most assays into making art fail, miserably—one idea I had as soon as I started riding should have succeeded. Perhaps because I conceived it as made by someone else. This unknown should have made a documentary on privateer racing, focusing on one particularly driven weekend warrior, the type who worked forty hours solely for the purpose of blowing the proceeds on fuel, tires, and inevitable emergency room visits. That level of incredible and largely inexplicable passion would have made as absorbing a film as ever took on a type of human madness, and packed an art house to unreel it.

When, more recently, I embarked on writing about long-distance riding and some of its more outrageous practitioners, I secretly figured I had found another such subject for the perceptions that only the big screen is capable of delivering. The friends with whom I discussed my book’s ongoing research would invariably envision it not written, but exposed: “I can see it now!” They would then go on, avidly, to cast it too. It was a movie forced uncomfortably between hard covers, I began to feel.

But if no one with the means to realize it in that form has yet seen the cinematic potential in a tale of weirdo cranks who sacrifice so much to gain an equal amount of ineffably personal happiness, I do. And so it is that I am once again joining the ranks of dreamers, waitresses, and the ghost of myself long ago. I am writing a movie.

In it, I want there to be plenty of pure sensation, conveyed visually and aurally: the sound of an engine in the dark, steady and unremitting; the cone of light always ahead describing the small space into which the bike forever moves; and then . . . the hours. The time that both collapses and expands at once, extending in opposing temporal directions. The long ride’s road lies on the map not from west to east but from past to future. On a bike, the present vanishes both ways.

One day it came to me (and probably should have occurred much earlier than “one day”) what the movie will really be about, beyond a slightly warped love story, or a single mother, or the bike that can always be improved, or a scenario with some valuable outsider cachet, being the heretofore unexplored minority world of long-distance record chasing. It will concern a strange familiar: the kind of person who does something that partakes of death in order to fully live.

We all know this is what we are doing, even though we also enlist denial every time we head out to ride, or else we wouldn’t. (Denial is a healthy, and necessary, part of life, until it isn’t.) It’s the other guy who is courting danger, we think. The unprepared, the unschooled. The unlucky.

When it is someone who is not like us because he is better than us—someone we aspire to be, and therefore have spent time imagining being—who is the one who gets taken, it cracks the thin glass of our denial. The possibility suddenly feels real. Very, terribly, real.

There is a motorcycle movie I hadn’t yet seen, and it came to me courtesy of my harmless dollar-store addiction. (See? Denial in action.) I have to say, the dollar store is a more or less appropriate place for this one, notwithstanding its laudable earnestness as well as its setting in the world of road-racing, which is ridiculously vastly more interesting than car racing and puzzlingly remains one of the best-kept secrets from the public at large. Idiots.

The movie is Flat Out, the 1999 story of racer Stewart Goddard, paralyzed from the waist down in an accident but determined to ride again. (Interestingly, although Goddard plays himself, co-wrote the script, and otherwise situates the film solidly in fact, the turning-point accident is onscreen transposed from racetrack to pickup truck, presumably to deflect the notion that racing is perilous. But if not, where is its meaning? And meaning it has, make no mistake.) As he says a few too many times—Note to self: don’t repeat dialogue—“I’m just trying to get back a part of me that was taken away!” But one line will truly resonate with us all. “You wanna take up something safe? Try bowling.”

That’s what the ideal motorcycle movie gets at. The fundamental fact that the thing we do in order to feel most alive could not perform its function without also showing us the view from eternity’s edge. We all go to the grocery store fully expecting to come home with the bags; too, we go on every ride as if at day’s end we’ll draw down the door to the garage once more. Just like always. Yet one day, whether on meaningless errand or mowing the lawn or Sunday ride, “always” becomes different.

The truth that we do die, inevitably and every one, is lodged somewhere in the very center of the experience. The knowledge is like salt. Brutal, bitter, desired. It makes it taste like something.

[I now write the occasional column for the estimable CityBike magazine, which is available only by subscription and to the lucky ones who happen to live in San Francisco and its environs; if you are not so blessed, I'll post my contributions here. Until you move there.]

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Down the Line

Sometimes whole chunks of life go missing, only to be retrieved in an unlikely spot (always, come to think of it, an unlikely spot; the likely yields little).  In this case, the locker room of the gym last night.

There, a little latch heretofore hidden was accidentally knocked free.  Then from behind the open lid spilled sheaves of memories, some stuck together from the heat and long storage.  This little latch was in the form of the socks I pulled on before heading to the treadmill, little white socks with pompoms on the back, not decoration (though certainly cute) but functional: nothing worse than having your socks creep down underneath your heels.  Later I would find myself thinking, On my deathbed, will I remember to thank tennis?  

Tennis, for the huge chunk of my young life it made thrillingly happy.

Sweat trickled relentlessly down skin, on face, arms, thighs.  The toweled elastics around the wrist were wiped across the brow; a few drops from the wet bangs fell into the eyes.  Granules from the Har-tru made their way into shoes.  And it was all good.  It was all sense, and sensuality.  The thwack of balls hitting the sweet spot, hard, echoed from courts all down the line.  We were inside the fence, and inside the experience.

All day long in the summers we took to the courts and played for hours at a stretch.  It was like a need, to hit hard and to hit true.  The reward center in the brain lit up like a pinball game when the shot was perfect, and you wanted it, required it, again and again, more and more.  The driving shot that skimmed the top of the net--glanced the wire--was the fix.

When the Virginia Slims women's tour came to town (imagine that! the quaintness of a sporting event organized to promote a tobacco product aimed at women--the logo was a willowy Jazz Age flapper with a chiffon scarf around her neck and a tennis racket resting insouciantly over a shoulder).  This was the age of the wooden racket, and the age of Billie Jean King, Chrissie Evert, and Martina Navratilova.  Oh, how great they were!  Finesse, guts, and power.  And we were watching so close (women's sports tours were a bust, the indoor stadiums largely empty throughout the days of practice and secondary matches) that we could feel the breeze from the swung racket against our cheeks.

The players were our idols, but they were humble.  They stopped to talk with us, and they signed anything we held out to them, in no hurry and on no thrones.

I saved my babysitting money and bought a Chris Evert Wilson.  It was forty dollars.  I can't remember how much I paid for this house three years ago (honest), but I will never forget how much that racket cost.  I developed a two-handed backhand.  The racket had a longer grip to accommodate two hands.  I also loved resetting my right hand--the web between thumb and forefinger positioned precisely over the second-widest flat--for the serve, even though my serve was never up to the rest of my game.  My overheads either.  Well, let's just say that half my game was okay, half not.  I just wanted to rally.  I didn't even really like playing games, and I frequently choked in competition.

I kept the racket in its press.  Probably it should be restrung.  Twenty-five years after I bought it, it didn't seem to work as well, and the metal racket (or whatever they're made of now) never worked for me, either.  But one never can blame the equipment.  Maybe I could get it back with practice, the sensation of the ball meeting the center of the strings, pausing infinitesimally in the pressure of their meeting, then flying.  Out, arced, and over.  The endless rhythm of the game, back and forth, the suspension of time in the heat-generating friction of the good swing, the ball sent to backcourt every time. 


Saturday, March 17, 2012


Outside the Key Food on Avenue A and Fourth Street, the woman was in deep conversation with the man, her hand firm on the baby carriage. A black and white pigeon perched on the carriage's cover, just inches from the sleeping baby, and that's why I stopped in my tracks after exiting the store. I was curious as to what exact form the gasp would take when she finally turned and saw what was there: a scream, an obscenity, a violent expulsion of the dirty feral beast? Instead, it was my gasp that was heard in the next minute, for when she said goodbye and in the same movement turned and leaned into the handle to push forward, she never blinked. Nor did the pigeon. Instead, all three made their way down the avenue, each in their own private world together.

Oddly, I had just been writing about pigeons a few days before, considering them in all their myriad fascinations. Here is what I wrote.


Close your eyes for a moment. That is when you first begin to truly see them, soft clicks and coos making them present to the mind’s eye. For they had become invisible to true sight, like the impulsive yellow cab drawing its line down toward disappearance or the girl with a phone pressed to her ear, the scaffolding draped in black cloth and the concrete planter containing something (you never notice what) growing from cigarette-ash-flecked dirt. The elements that make the city what it is, the sudden absence of which—any of a thousand thousand things—would render it preternaturally strange.

Now you may look. And finally see. The pigeon reveals himself in paradoxical beauty: omnipresent, yet startlingly singular; a moving iridescence in the colors playing along neck feathers against a body as gray (and common) as pavement. They are maligned as “flying rats,” but from their point of view we may well be walking rats.

The flocks that move as one corps de ballet when startled from their crumb foraging in New York City parks (and that leave unsightly reminders of their species preeminence in numbers second only to the real Rattus rattus, though behind Homo sapiens, causing city ledges to be bristled with nest-prohibiting wire spikes) are composed of extraordinary individuals.* These are the birds that mate for life, and raise their young together. These are the feral, or rock, pigeons descended from the first domesticated variety introduced to North America, through Nova Scotia, in 1606. These are the pigeons who received 32 medals for bravery in World War II, and who helped build the Rothschild empire from lofts built for them throughout Europe in order to deliver information between the family’s financial houses. These are the animals that in 1850 began carrying news for an outfit called Reuters. These are the birds selected in 1944, to take part in the U.S. military’s top-secret Project Pigeon, conceived by a psychologist named B. F. Skinner, who codified what he learned from how they learned in a new science called behaviorism.

These are the pigeons who live in New York, and who are not seen.


What would the city be without its reminders that beyond our human horizon, the persistence of the larger world in which we came to life still pushes up from the earth between sidewalk cracks, still visits from the sky we have yet to enclose? The city would be silent without its gray denizens, its birds at once common and unknown. The city would no longer be itself.

* Like us, perhaps? --In our human flocks, foraging for crumbs among the skyscraper nests of our own intelligence.


And with this ends, or for an indefinite hiatus, "It's Nelly's World."

I hope to return (if one can return to these ongoing things after an interruption; perhaps they necessarily vanish into the electronic ether, but I'll find out if I try to take it up again sometime) when I manage to arrest a downward spiral. It is time to turn all my energy to that, for as you know, a boy and a dog are depending on me.

I owe you all much gratitude, for reading, for considering, for contributing your thoughts, wisdom, humor, and well-deserved kicks in the seat. They will serve me well.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Did I do a bad thing?

Sitting in the restaurant tonight, at a table for two, I began to think so. A family whose daughter goes to my son's school owns a couple of eating establishments, and every once in a while they designate a night where a portion of the proceeds go to the school; what private school isn't always scrambling for funds? I decided to do my share, and how onerous it was to pitch in by downing sweet potato soup, caramelized onion tart, and slabs of transcendent bread that instantly brought me back over the decades to Hoboken, where I lived around the corner from the Policastro bakery, which supplied bread to New York City's best restaurants. (Only I got it cheap and hot from the oven, its readiness announced by the breeze wafting in my first-floor window.)

I began to think so because I looked around at the tables filled with families. "Real" families, with mom and dad and multiple children. The absence of a dad . . . well, nothing to do about that. But a sibling? Shouldn't I have provided at least one of those? My son doesn't know the pleasures of sibling rivalry, the stolen stuff, the pranks, the heartless ribbing, the fights, the teeth knocked out with a hammer (yes, a unique gift I once gave my older sister). Holidays, vacations: just him, and me. Is this healthy for him? Is it joyful? Is it a big hole in his heart?

The impulse to have a child was completely selfish. (As it must be: the couple wants something they don't have; they do not wish to give something to someone who has yet to exist. Only after the child is born does the selflessness begin. One hopes.) A sudden image had come to me: my husband and me, gray and wrinkled, sitting alone at the Thanksgiving table sometime in the distant future. Overcome with an anticipatory crushing loneliness, I decided in that moment that we should have a child. And see how it turned out? Still only two at the Thanksgiving table. Hmmm. But would it have been any better with three?

When we went on vacation when I was a child--to the beach, to the grand hotel, to Williamsburg--we sometimes went as a family, and sometimes with other families. In either event, though, there were a bunch of kids. At the very least, three girls, and always someone to do something with. The adults were busy, anyway: they were always drinking cocktails and smoking cigarettes and talking about things we could simply not comprehend. Those aliens.

What I need is not, but, where I could be set up with other parents of only children for the sole purpose of going on vacations and having holiday meals. (The anxiety slowly creeps toward me with the approach of spring break: what twelve-year-old boy wants to go on a trip alone with his mom?)

Maybe I created, in creating an only child, something that will come back to haunt us. The two of us are alone together too much, for all that I work diligently--hours every week--managing the social life of a boy who simply has no interest in making plans with his own friends. Until it's Saturday afternoon and he's bored, or I need to work, or . . . I think it would be a real good idea for us to have a little break from this steady diet of closeness. Then it's too late, because everyone made their plans days ago. (And yes, he reads and draws and gets lost for hours in the computer, but I'd prefer he occasionally experience the true happiness of humanity, which is other humans.)

I have two sisters. One is pretty much a stranger. The other--well, the other would walk through fire for me, and has. Her feet are singed. She is my best friend and my blood too. I would not want to imagine life without her, alone at the table.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I will have crossed a continent by the time this appears, but will not have crossed back. I will still be there, in California.

The last time I was there, I did not get there over this wide country in a matter of impossible hours; I traversed every foot, every mile, on the two wheels of my BMW. Well, except for the times that I was on the two wheels of his Ducati, during the days in which the clutch on my bike did not operate and it took a subtle genius to roll to the inevitable stop and then--this was the trick--not lurch to a dangerous deadness, but instead keep it alive and coax it into going forward again. Rinse, and repeat. This is not a skill I have; it is among many, many that I lack. But my redoubtable traveling companion did, and it was just one of the dozen ways in which he saved my butt on that trip. Making me laugh, frequently, was another, perhaps more valuable even than taking the bars of the Rockster and not making pained expressions as I threw a leg over his desperately beloved machine. Me! Which was not him.

Tonight, avoiding thinking of packing until the last minute has come and gone, I am arrested by one memory in particular from that trip of memories.

We consult the map. A shortcut--a long shortcut--to get where we needed to be that evening. The road starts out, as all roads do, full of promise: it seems ours alone. They give it to you like that sometimes, the arrangers of time and space. The sun falls slowly, stickily, behind us. It is rolling out a golden carpet on which we motor forth, into new scenes. Then the pavement ends. The ground tilts imperceptibly but progressively; ah, more traction for the rear wheel, anyway. As the light constricts, so too the road: its sides move in, a corset whose strings are being surely pulled. Now it is one lane, and the rocks are getting bigger as the incline is growing steeper. And as it is getting dark. That's the word for it, dark. My companion can do it; he can make his bike do anything, like a Jack Russell trained for movie stunts. But he knows my limits, knows what my mind is doing: worrying, at its depths now. He stops, and I inch alongside. "If we don't turn around now, we are going to have to continue. And it's a long way. Up into the hills. It's possible we'll be riding rocks on a single track in the mountains in the dark. What do you say?"

What I said was: Please.

Not in words. He knew I said it, even without doing so. "Do you want me to turn your bike around for you?" Gently, so as not to imply anything about my lack of skill, but I was doing all the implying for both of us. He dismounted, then took the bars from me, and magically--even though I saw it, I still do not know how he performed it--arced the bike around and then I took hold of the front brake and gingerly swung my leg back over. His red bike was next, and then we were heading down, even more difficult for me than going up. Or maybe not. Maybe it was all one inheld breath.

In a few days I will once again ride a motorcycle over one of those great bridges, a song made of three harmonies: man's engineering, the span over water, and the sun.

And then I will get on a plane again, perhaps to arrive home and wonder, was I really there at all?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

21 Questions Minus 11

1. Is it possible that you might be wrong about something you believe in more deeply than anything in the world?

2. Will we see cloned humans in the next generation's lifespans? (And if so, dammit, why can't I have mine now?)
A very smart twelve-year-old offers why he thinks it will be a very bad day when this occurs: "Because then we will have infinite armies."

3. What is the loveliest flower?

4. Can one write beautifully, but not truthfully or logically?

5. What is the real purpose of pro sports?

6. Does school teach what we think it does (or would like to think)?

7. Are some art forms of the past--painting, film, poetry--now superannuated, and if so, what has replaced them?

8. What is the most joyful aspect of being human?

9. Will entirely new religions be created if we manage to last another few thousand years--ones with new gods, worldviews, and moral codes?

10. What is the more fruitful in life: Questioning? Or answering?

Jes' asking.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Second Chances: A Play in Not Quite Two Acts

ACT I, scene 1

The lights go up, but not all the way; we see the stage is empty. A spotlight searches, finds nothing, goes out again. A figure enters stage left, walks across, exits stage right. Another enters stage right.

Actor A. At any given moment, we do not know what is in the next one. This is why we should not believe either the darkness or the light will stay; the sun goes up, the sun goes down.

A third figure walks down the center aisle of the theater. At the proscenium, she looks for stairs to the stage front left, finds none. She implores Actor A wordlessly; he finally walks downstage to offer his hand, hoists her up from the orchestra pit.

Actor B. [to Actor A] Thanks--I couldn't have gotten up here without that. [Pauses, looks around] In fact, I couldn't have gotten much of anyplace without a hand reaching toward me out of the half-light, I realize now. It keeps happening, when I least expect it. I've known darkness--you all have. [gesturing to the audience] Didn't you have the experience, too? I mean, when something terrible happened, and you thought this was the way it was going to be for all time? Terrible, unrelieved terribleness? And then you found there were others out there, waiting to give you back what you thought you had lost forever? I mean, you didn't know they were even there, watching, knowing! And you didn't know you had missed those parts of yourself they gave you back? I guess when the sun goes down, the sun comes back up.

Upstage, the spot lights suddenly on a rosebush that wasn't there before. It goes black, then lights on a man holding an open book. Goes black again, then
lights on a beautifully decorated birthday cake on a pedestal. Offstage, the sound of a motorcycle starting.

ACT 1, scene 2

The curtain rises on a gym exercise room. It is filled with machines--rowers, bicycles, treadmills, elliptical trainers. Actor 2 is on one of the latter, in a row of otherwise empty machines. There is only one other machine being used in the whole room. We can see she has been there for some time: sweat rolls down her face and wets the collar of her shirt. She is watching the small screen in front of her. Then a man comes through the door to the room, towel around his neck. The stage lights grow dimmer and dimmer as he strides past three rows of machines and directly to the one she is in. He goes by three empty machines, then throws his towel on the bar of the machine next to hers. We see that something has come over her: although she still stares at the television screen, her movements slow, and the look on her face is one of confusion, disbelief, and a sort of terror mixed together. She knows who he is. The source of this darkness. He plugs in his iPod and begins to peddle. Their arms are so close that if they wanted, they could reach over and touch each other. She knows him well, better than any other man save her father, and maybe better than that. She had thought he knew her too. But now, one foot away, he has not even noticed she was there. Her movements slow to a stop. She silently gets off her machine. He peddles faster, absorbed in his music. She walks deliberately toward the exit, and as she does so smoke rolls across the floor, rising up until it obscures the man, and she is gone.


Actor A. The road presents two forks. [gestures] But one cannot in fact be taken: see, a tree has fallen. One must take the left fork, then. The obstacle changes everything that comes after. The shadow of the tree remains. The traveler knows it is there, preventing a return, preventing the discovery of all that may be by the wayside along the other road. It may be beauty. It may be success, happily ever after. Or maybe not. The left fork, unfortunately, is a narrower way. It turns to dirt, and is muddy in places. [Actor B enters upstage right, walking hesitantly, then more quickly, then nearly stops, bewildered; a spotlight comes up right on the place before her, and her look brightens as she picks her way around a boulder, then continues] It is fortunate, a blessing, that the traveler never knows what is on the other road, the one she was prevented from taking. It is ever thus, for all who walk. And you--you all walk on. [The actor who crossed the stage in Act I now appears from opposite Actor B, walking toward her. The lights go down as they continue to pick their way forward. We will never see what happens at the place they meet]

Music up: a string quartet plays something plaintive yet light.


Saturday, February 11, 2012


Mice are on my mind, because they have been on my counters.

I am not alone in feeling that I am in a battle to the death with these small gray denizens of the night, but I prefer if the death go on outside my view. Therefore, I employ traps that allow me to "humanely" catch and release them. I am under no illusions as to what happens to them after I do: mice reproduce at an astonishing rate (in seven months, a happily wed couple may be responsible for bringing over two thousand little beings into this world) because they have to, living at the bottom of the food chain as they do, and being relatively fragile in relation to the giant species that surround them. Still, I'd like to give them a chance. A chance to live elsewhere. Not here.

They have a fine nose for the ideal meal. The unripe bananas go untouched. When they reach the perfect state of yellow, however, gently flecked with brown, then they are ready, and I am likely to find a repulsive mess of scored and gouged fruit, surrounded by the post-digestion effects of that meal.

So I lose some bananas. And bait more traps. But it is what is in the garage that is a more threatening meal, or rather, chewable nesting material: the wires of my vehicles. Every winter the motorcycle forums are filled with long threads about how to repel mice from the airbox, which seems to be a favorite spot to nest (and who can blame them? A dark and quiet hotel room, just perfect for Valentine's Day trysts!). That nest is likely to be softly lined with the shreds of former electrical components. Nothing you want to discover on the first warm day of spring.

After festooning moth balls, tied stylishly in plus-size stockings procured from the dollar store, throughout the engines for the past couple of years, this year I tried something new, just for the sake of it: dryer sheets. Not the Free & Clear kind, either: the toxically perfumed ones. I don't know how anyone can use these on their clothes, in the house, without asphyxiating. Surely, then, these would do the repellent trick!

Stuffed in every crevice and opening, they make motorcycles look like they're fresh from the French cleaners, hung on paper-covered wire hangers and enlivened with tissue paper wads to prevent wrinkling. I even added them to the new Honda generator, because I would have to take the bus all the way to New York City to find a tall building from which to throw myself if this absurdly expensive addition to the garage were ruined after only two runnings. However, the protective stuffing takes some getting used to, as I discovered the first night I was called upon to fire it up. It was four a.m. in the middle of a windy, icy rain storm. After putting my boots on, grabbing a flashlight, and donning the ski jacket to run outside, drag the generator to the front of the garage (not easy, as it is a hefty devil), then race back down to the basement and six inches of water to punch out the window, run the extension cord from the garage, and plug in the pump, I was running with adrenaline myself. At five, back in bed once more, I wondered how I was ever going to get to sleep again. A half hour later, I had willed myself into a state of calm, doing some slow breathing exercises and starting to count sheep--or mice. Oh, jeez! The dryer sheets! Back I went, out into the whirling black cold.

The next time, though, the dryer sheets were the first thing I remembered. You can be sure.

When I was a girl, my friend Laura and I kept mice as pets. One was called Trubloff, as in "The Mouse Who Wanted to Play the Balalaika." (Her family also had a calico cat named Mnlop, as in the contiguous letters of the alphabet, and pronounced Menelope, which to me always sounded like one of the missing Muses.) The thing was, these mice kept eating their babies. This was rather disturbing to two little kids. What we didn't know then, but I do now, is that this was the result of living in captivity. It was a very nice glass cage, mind you, but it was still a cage. Later I came to realize that access to the social and physical systems in which a species evolved is a birthright. Rights can never be conferred. They can only be taken away. And that is what has been done to every gerbil, hamster, rabbit, songbird, or human who is put in a cage, whether it is made of iron bars, tyranny, or wire from a pet shop.

I wake up sometimes at night, wondering what defenses I, a claustrophobe, could muster against solitary confinement in a small cell. The panic uprising. None, I decide. I would eat my young.

An animal rights group has recently brought suit against Sea World, on the grounds that their orcas are subject to slavery. The verdict may be arrived at quite simply: open the pools to the wide sea. If the killer whales swim out into the dancing waters of freedom, we have the answer.

The other morning, there was a mouse in the trap, trying to hide itself in the corner. I knew I would not be able to leave the house and drive it away to release--at least three miles away and preferably on the other side of a body of wate-- until later in the afternoon. I pulled from the cabinet a tiny cup I had bought at Ikea some time ago for its lovely mustard color and amusing bowl shape. I had never found a use for it, but now I saw that it was a water bowl for mice. I gingerly opened the lid to put it in, knowing that I might risk a gray flash and the loss of the mouse, forever, to the land under the stove. Mice, like all of us, are powerful learners. Give them liberty, or give them death. Every time I open the door of their cell, I sincerely hope it is, for them, not both.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

We Were Devo

Times have changed. Everything has changed.

Well, maybe not the fact that it is the nature of all things to change; but everything else. Take Devo, for example.

It was probably 1975 when a few of us convicts, er, boarding students escaped campus one night. This was verboten. Boarding students were to stay on campus, in dorms or the library, and we had a curfew. But we also had day students, who had access to cars, and those cars had floors, which were convenient for hiding boarding students until the edge of town. Furthermore, we had Kent to lure us away . . . a university town, which like Oz rose majestic in our imaginations with glittering promises. Those were called bars. With beer, and music, and everything.

Sometimes the school deployed professors to go hang out in Kent's bars to catch us--probably not a bad Friday-night assignment--but this one seemed devoid of official presence. What it did have was a band, announced with a silk-screened poster taped to the door, that none of us had ever heard of. No matter. We were going to hear, plenty.

They began the show with screenings of some grainy 16mm movies of the type once called "experimental." The experiment in this case succeeded, brilliantly. I was stunned by what I saw, like nothing I'd seen before. I knew I had just walked to the brink of a great canyon, with a breathtaking view of the future.

The band followed the promise of its short movies. Together they were sarcastic, nutty, mordant, and finally really, really smart--exactly what I liked, even if I didn't know it quite yet. (Perhaps because both bands were started by art students, and this touched their music, their gestalt, in similar ways, I would have similar feelings when I heard, on my college radio station, a song called "Psycho Killer." Instantly I knew I would never be the same again. I wrote my senior thesis to endless spinnings of Talking Heads 77, which might have had something to do with the way it turned out.) After the show I went up to the one or two Devotees to babble incoherently, though I was trying to say how I had seen something new that shook me from top to bottom, and thanks for that. I did mention my belief that they should get out of Kent--they were obviously too big for Ohio--and go to New York City. "We're thinking of doing just that," one of them said. (A couple of months later I saw Devo perform
in the basement of the Akron Art Institute, where they confused the audience into near silence; these were not college-town bar patrons for sure.)

As I left the bar, I ripped the poster off the door.

There is a recent interview, here,
with band member Jerry Casale in which he sounds depressed and bitter, as well he might. He describes a situation that is little remarked on: it is not just "the" middle class that has vanished in the United States; it is also the creative middle class that has been squeezed into nonexistence, between a vast population of working artists who can no longer hope to make a cent and the 1 percent that will make killing in the corporate marketplace and get covered by Entertainment Weekly. Musicians have nothing to sell anymore; when Barnes & Noble closes, following the final disappearance of most independent bookstores, authors will
join the ranks of the newly unpaid "content providers," which has become the fate of most other writers who used to be able to cobble together a living writing for print.

I found the Devo poster in my closet when I was cleaning out my childhood home a few years ago. Unearthing it from where it had lain under the bed for decades was like finding a priceless artifact from an ancient civilization. I put it away somewhere, and am counting on finding it again sometime. Hopefully soon.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Tonight, I drive through a town with no name and no place, because it is every place. It is just as well not to name it, because naming things corrals them, and sometimes you want them just to leak all over the page, saturating every memory with the same ink to bring them together in the blue wash. To assure yourself you are still the same: The past is not in a different zone, latitudes away from where your eye lands just now. Your past and the people who made it are here right now.

Old buildings carry with them accreted emotional layers, air-dried, of the people who lived in them, one on top of the other. Why do they read as predominantly sad? Why is most life, when over, an encrustation of sufferings? I feel it as soon as I look at it: unhappiness, crushed hope, years collapsed too soon. With a sprinkling of efferverscent moments, joy and the spring of luck and hands caressing skin. That happened in these walls, too.

The redbrick building I pass slowly was built the same time as the one I suddenly recall: in the twenties. At the exact same time that I am in an old Subaru that sometimes makes strange noises, I am inside the building that glides by (a light turns yellow up ahead). That is because I am now in Akron, my hometown (you can be in yours, too, crossing miles and years in a brilliant flash), in the dark interiors of the Twin Oaks Apartments. They were across the Portage Path--itself a road into the past, that of the long-disappeared original peoples who had worn it down to hard-pack under their stolid, moccasined feet--from the Portage Country Club. I daresay no one who lived at Twin Oaks belonged to the country club. My grandmother lived there.

Sometimes we fall. Sometimes we have something we think we will keep forever, and then we lose it. We fall downward.

That is the story of life, and its inevitable tragedy: not the loss, but the belief that in the end excoriates--that we will never experience it. Sure! We will have into old age what we have now--oh, and also that there is no such thing as old age. That which is nothing but a final series of losses.

The front door to her apartment was never used; the way was blocked by a huge dining table wedged into the hallway. It belonged to that past she never believed would leave her, either: the stately Tudor house in the town's best neighborhood, into which she and her husband had clawed their way from the decks of the ship that arrived from Greece to the shores of new hope. Uneducated, but driven--I am educated, but undriven, which may be the true tragedy hidden in the immigrant's story--they worked, each at their trade. My grandfather's was (need you ask) restaurants. The first, the Roxy Cafe, in downtown Akron held great promise. The town was gripped by rubber fever: the newly populist automobile had put every hand to work making tires, and still the workers poured in. The only similar jobs boom one could experience now would be in China, and it might be as pleasant: the work was long, hard, dark, and smelly. But it was work, jobs by the thousand.

There was only one thing wrong with the Roxy Cafe, and it was not its phalanxes of white-draped tables and bentwood chairs arrayed with military precision, its gilt-painted walls and dark-wood booths and neat checkerboard tile floor. It was that it was opened on the eve of the Great Depression.

But he bounced back: there was no choice for a Greek. There would come a time for more restaurants, each more impressive than the last, until the late fifties, and another boom, this time supporting the Continental pretensions of a downtown establishment bearing the name The Beefeater. Thus was a wish attained: the final expunging of any taint of the truly foreign. The way had been made clear, before this, by the gentle twisting of the odd otherness of the family name, Roussinos, into something more palatable: Russell.

My grandmother's work was similar: to study, closely, the customs and manners of the native-born and emulate them. Thus the woman with the grade-school education learned where to send her children to college (cleansed and white bastions of the highest reputation), what clothes to wear (anything from the pages of Vogue, bought on trips to the department stores with velvet-covered banquets in their inner sanctums of couture, where the salesladies knew her name), what to prepare for dinner (House & Garden was the Bible here). The meals were six courses, and though they sometimes contained the best of Greek cuisine--garlic-studded legs of lamb, homemade kourabides, taramasalata--they also reveled in ice cream bombes and ornate hors d'oeuvres bristling with toothpicks.

They were consummate students of the American way, Gatsbyesque. And then, they fell. Perhaps it was my grandfather's habit, American-hopeful, of buying stocks on margin. Maybe it was simply the trajectory of many a life. Downsized. The furniture, most of it, went. Sold, dispersed. I have the canopy bed of their youngest child. My sister has the olive-velvet settees from the living room; my other sister has the wicker screened-in porch furniture. Their dining table, seats for twelve, followed them to the three-room apartment at Twin Oaks. It never fit.

My grandfather died, as grandfathers do. My grandmother lived on, never sure again what she was living for. The small apartment depressed her. It depressed me. The kitchen was so small. She slept in a twin bed. The place still reminded me of him. She bought a lottery ticket every week. She still hoped to pull herself back up, and out of there, Twin Oaks.

She called us often. Get me out of here. I'm lonely. She had never learned to drive. She was a prisoner of the Twin Oaks Apartments. And this is what I felt when I drove by its doppelganger, far away but as close as the mind will sometimes allow. The sense of falling, falling, backward. Into time. Into the past, or into the future, all of a sudden, mine.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


With a little patience and a lot of paper, I could map out every great thing in my life. I would discover, when I studied it, they are all to be found at the junction of other people and chance. Where these two roads meet, wonderful things appear.

Riding a motorcycle takes you to that corner faster than any other way. Motorcycle riders are a source of the same endless surprise that their rides offer them--open to serendipity and to what happens: to the great Come What May.

Through a chance meeting (and is there any other kind?), one rider has lately become a friend: closer and closer, bit by bit. Funny and magnanimous and generous, he is willing to share his friends in turn. And so, one night a while ago, I found myself at a table of people new to me, and the possibilities they represented were spread out like a feast. As in fact a feast was on the table in front of us; it's a very good restaurant. But some possibilities are tastier than others. Midway through the meal, I asked the man next to me--talking to whom proved a bit like getting rocks out of a mountainside garden--if he wouldn't mind changing seats. That is because there was something about the woman on the other side of him. Our mutual friend had had the idea we might get along. He is perspicacious that way.

A few rare times in a life, we are given what we need at the precise moment we can use it most. A person appears whose words, ideas, spark and burn.

They reveal themselves slowly, though, in their ideal purpose as catalysts of furtherance: that is in fact how you know it was "meant" to be. Because you had no idea, at first. No idea that a friend can help show the way with such a bright light, or even that the way had been so dark before. Not to mention how much fun it is to talk about the things that matter most to one, when they are also the things that matter most to the other.

I was told at first only that she was an artist. OK, an artist. There are millions of those. But a real one, one of the true uncommon, and one who just happens to have a studio in the factory building next door, the roofline of which you can see through the winter-bared trees out your kitchen window?

This was beginning to feel eerie. And then I walked into her studio, and gasped. Emily Dickinson, herself one of the rarest of the rare--the true artist--said she knew something was poetry "if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off." I felt my skull rising skyward as I saw the beautifully strange works hanging there. And then I caught sight of the small office space off to one side of the studio.

The walls were papered with show ribbons, a solid quilt of blue and red. Her dogs. Agility champs. Turns out she is also a dog trainer, and she knows more about positive reinforcement training than any nonprofessional I've ever met. This--the artist, to bring me back to what had fed me for a long time in a past life, and the dog training theorist, to bring me back to a project long stalled and now barking to get free again--feels like I've stepped into a moment of preordination. By way of a very nice dinner, a friend who knows more than he knows, and the lines converging on a map.

Let's go now.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Apocalypse Then

It’s an arbitrary construct, the “new year.” It gives us false hope—which becomes real—of rebirth. Yet it is of course made of pieces of the real, the revolution of this planet we are on, its revolutions around a solar system in turn. We can’t get off even if we want to! Instead, we can leave it only by being buried a few feet into it.

Think about that for a moment.

I am doing so right now, as I sit by the fire, with R.E.M., a dead band, revolving on the turntable. It all goes around and around, the years and the records both. Music is just a construct too, but made of real bits of mathematics and resonances and neurology. Perhaps it could never not have been conceived. It is that much a part of who we are. I feel that way about movies. I feel I can never see enough. I feel that we were just waiting all our history for 1895 and the coming of the movie.

On Christmas Day, we sat in three seats in the second row, a crappy vantage in any theater. But it was opening day, and across the land, those of us unmoored from a family feast were looking forward to being transported by an epic vision, followed by the requisite Chinese food (or, in our cases, Indian). This is what is known as “Jewish Christmas.”The boy has long been wondering, in his preternaturally smart way that frequently dumbfounds me, why World War I is relatively infrequently considered. After a little thought and a little reading, we discussed the probability that such unspeakable destruction, based on a lie that then gave rise to another horrific multinational bloodletting, was simply too hard to look in the face. Better to bury it, and hope it does not rise again. But of course it does; the world turns always anew in revolutions of willful forgetfulness.

After the happy chocolates in the stocking and the strewn wrapping paper and ribbons of youthful fiction—Santa came!—I strongly suspected that a movie scheduled to open wide on December 25, even if based on that unfathomable episode, would not partake too much of truth: nothing won; so much promise, contorted in frozen pain in the mud. No, in the malls of America, one must be certain of a happy end. Certainly there would be moments of fear, but they would be quickly relieved in a spreading pool of corn syrup, our national food. Children’s movies now permit death to come to only peripheral characters in whom we have invested ten minutes or less. I knew thus at least one War Horse would survive. Even if none of his real-life counterparts ever did. Over eight million horses died in varying levels of agony in the war. Those that managed to survive got a trip to the slaughterhouse as a medal.

What has happened to Steven Spielberg? Has he completely given up? On the evidence of this movie, apparently it is he who has laid down and died. There is no heart even in his conventions, of which “War Horse” is a cryonically sealed package full. There is not an original moment, or a true and human word, in the full 146 minutes. Yet there is a performance of toweringly noble proportions, though the actor speaks no line. The horse, with four white socks and a white star, says in his silent appraisal of this foolish world of men all that could possibly be said.

Otherwise, two scenes, and two scenes only, rouse the viewer. The tracking shot of the first cavalry charge, through the wheatfield, is a moment that widescreen film is made for (only a construct,--but also all that we can make of this inscrutable life). The movement, the rhythm of the editing, the vantage given to us even in the second row, work simultaneously on eye, brain, and heart, and it is thrilling, as it must always be when the recipe’s measurements are followed precisely. Yet it leads necessarily, given the particular plodding mission Spielberg has set himself, to pedantry: in the next moment, we are lectured on historical fact. Cavalry is retroactively rendered anachronistic by machine guns. They do not belong in the same place at the same time. War is an awful place to discover the mistake.

The second time the emotions rise, though duly bidden by cinematic manipulation that feels awfully familiar, is when the horse is in danger. In terrible, potent danger. The type that an actual horse could never survive for a fraction of this time, not enough to wind us into the frenzy of sickening dismay that a fictionally extended run through razor wire does. I longed for the larger shoulder in which to bury my face. Instead, I used my own coat. And when I looked again, he was there, bowed but unbroken (and barely bleeding!), ready for his own Christmas Truce made by wire cutters.

As I had suspected, our appetite for samosas was undiminished by the ending, a happy reunion and the promise of endless fields of emerald green. Not that I wanted to cry. But then, I do. When I go into the dark theater, I want to feel something, life and its awful beauties compressed like poetry, by the revolution of the spools and what is made by a simple turn.