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.