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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

This is not the way to do this.  When there are no words.  When loss, like the centrifugal carnival ride with the floor that suddenly drops away, pins you helpless against the wall.  You hang there, wondering only when you will fall.  When the world stops spinning, I suppose.

It's too new, this news.  I have nothing cogent to say about it.  I can only tell you what happened.  It was uncanny, in its way.  In the way, come to think of it, of everything that had to do with this man who to me seemed larger than life.  Because he encapsulated everything you could really say about life's grace, its gifts, its terrible, terrible uncertainties.

Last night, happy: on the road.  For three days, going to all the places the motorcycle can take one.  The dinner out you give yourself, after a long day of riding, all the stops pulled out.  We had been talking about calling John Ryan, to thank him for yet another gift.   This ride, and this company.  Only we waited one day too long.

First, one message: Call me.  It's about John.

Next, another message: Is it true, what I read?

Then I knew.  It was too late to say thank you.

All the way home, today, the wheels repeated their messages.  First, the uncounted gifts.  He changed my life.  He gave me a new subject; he gave me a return to motorcycling (he, alone among all, would not rest until his mission was complete: he knew I needed to ride again, and he would not rest until I did); he gave me so many new friends I was startled with the recollections after every turn: Oh, and her!--and her!--and him!--and him!   On it went, through gas stops after the tank was filled, then drained by the miles through an autumn world where trees were afire, soon to be ash (but risen), then filled once more.  I remembered another gift, another, another.  Then I realized: No one had changed my life more than John.  The generosity he experienced was motorcycling's: its curious solace.  The generosity he passed on to innumerable others was particularly more.  Once, he literally gave me the shirt off his back.  I was cold; here, take this.

I will leave it to others to add to the ledger: we may never be able to fully account for what John Ryan gave us.  One by one, we will come out with our stories.  And they may well be endless, unlike John himself.

It was like a sucker punch.  I didn't see it coming, only felt its effects.  A sickness.  Maybe a cry; I don't know, I was hustled out of the restaurant.  For an interminable moment I sat outside alone on a bench, howling to the moon.  Animal anguish has no words.  This death, so far, has no words, but it has already amassed some miles.  He was there, riding not alongside me, but far ahead.  Always, he will be there, vanishing in the distance.


alec vanderboom

I can’t count the things I love about Ohio, or this corner of Ohio: it is literally a part of me.  I revisit memories by going to the places at which they occurred; when those places are no longer there, I turn away, anger and sorrow admixed.  The McDonald’s at Wallhaven in Akron was an exciting place to a small girl—there was something about the glad futurism of its soaring yellow arches, and the taste of those French fries, that was unspeakably exciting.  They tore it down several years ago (its look of naïve hope not up to the stresses of twenty-first-century commerce) and its replacement looks aggressively vulgar to me.  But the early sixties original must have assaulted the sensibilities and memories of some older Akronite.  I wonder what had been on that spot that he missed?   And so it goes.  The history of us is not only what we leave behind in the hopes that it be appreciated, understood, preserved.  The history of us is equally what we have the will to destroy.  We seesaw back and forth between these opposing points, in an effort to go forward from the ground on which we stand.  It is the manner in which we destroy, and for what reasons, that is the issue that affects us, civically, aesthetically, and finally emotionally.
Dear to me, too, is the great river that cut its valley through what appears to be the center of my being.  The preservation of the valley is one of the rare triumphs of a higher impulse battling the unheeding pressures of greed—and it was a pitched fight, not to be won without the valiant perseverance and apolitical stance of perhaps one of the last congressmen to maintain a residence outside of someone’s pocket.   The victory gave the river the chance to prove itself an analogue to the movement of human history itself: falling down, getting back up, coming close to being a goner, but rising again when given the chance.  Finally standing not untouched by what it has been through, but bearing the marks so we can see them, and see preserved that accumulation of history (geologic, aboriginal, commercial, illustrative of the ongoing mutations of our desires) all simultaneously present.
It was in 1969 that an oil slick caused the river itself to burn, giving the world a parable, richly ironic, that sounded last call at the bar at which we’d apparently stayed too late.  It gave the band R.E.M. a metaphor for all the losses we can visit on ourselves, and the predecessors we’d rudely elbowed out of the way on our headlong rush to a future we hadn’t thought through very well:

Let's put our heads together and start a new country up
Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like
Let's try to fill it in, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red

(chorus 1)
This is where we walked, this is where we swam
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

Cuyahoga, gone

Let's put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in faith
Bury, burn the waste behind you

And although the river is and forever will be buried to those prehistoric peoples (who by the way were not aware they did not have a “history”) we in turn buried, it is by grace of preservationists not now buried--but easily might have been--to those of us of European descent who “borrowed” it from them.  And we all only ever borrow: that is perhaps the single greatest lesson of preservation.
For we make terrible mistakes when we build unthinkingly, especially when money rather than dreams of civic virtue call the shots.  It is now, it was so when the great lanes of the Montrose shopping metropolis were being laid over the farms, and it was so in the great age of industrialization written of by Booth Tarkington in his 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons:
A new spirit of citizenship had already sharply defined itself.  It was idealistic, and its ideals were expressed in the new kind of young men in business downtown.  They were optimists--­optimists to the point of belligerence--­their motto being “Boost!  Don’t Knock!” And they were hustlers, believing in hustling and in honesty because both paid.  They loved their city and worked for it with a plutonic energy which was always ardently vocal.  They were viciously governed, but they sometimes went so far to struggle for better government on account of the helpful effect of good government on the price of real estate and “betterment” generally; the politicians could not go too far with them, and knew it.  The idealists planned and strove and shouted that their city should become a better, better, and better city ­and what they meant, when they used the word “better,” was “more prosperous,” and the core of their idealism was this:  “The more prosperous my beloved city, the more prosperous beloved I!” They had one supreme theory:  that the perfect beauty and happiness of cities and of human life was to be brought about by more factories; they had a mania for factories; there was nothing they would not do to cajole a factory away from another city; and they were never more piteously embittered than when another city cajoled one away from them.

The novel, of course, captures one particular moment between hands in the continual shuffle of cards that define the end of one era and the beginning of another; indeed, there would be no such thing that we could define as “era” without replacement, though “progression” is a kinder model.  In progression, there is a building upon and respect paid to precedent; there is no wholesale slaughter as there is with when corporations become people, or at least kings.  When progress serves only these entities, rather than people, there is no respect for remnants of the commoners’ past.  In Tarkington’s representation, Eugene Morgan, an inventor tinkering with the newfangled horseless carriage (and the ironic thrust of the book, written only some twenty years after its advent, is that its readers were well aware of the permanent changes wrought by the invention), says, “There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead!  There aren’t any times but new times!”

The truth of this is self-evident.  Yet the truth of the rightness of saving the documents of “the old times” also feels self-evident.  A friend who lives in a 1937 apartment building in New York’s Westchester County reported that when they lost, to disease, a magnificent copper beech that had stood since before the Civil War, they held a wassailing memorial on the site at which residents gathered to sing “Auld Lang Syne”; several wept.  The physical remnants of the past which have been there longer than us seem to offer a sort of immortality; when they die, whether of natural causes or unnatural bulldozers, they imply that we, too, might be buried without memorial, unimportant and forgettable.

The impulse to preserve is thus, at base, emotional.  Not in a childish or unconsidered way, but in a true and high sense.  To live is to feel.  To feel is to desire justice.  We impoverish ourselves when we destroy the traces of our footsteps on the way to these “new times.”

As long as a coat still has enough threads left to show what it was, it’s still a coat (in my book: I have been known to wear shabby clothes from the thrift store, and for the sense that there were other lives than mine also lived in them, they are my favorites).    Progress requires loss; life demands it, too.  When we speak of what we should save, even remembering in anger what we have lost, we should first speak not a lament for what is gone; but rather, a hosanna for what is still here.



A World

alec vanderboom

Last summer--how can it already be that long ago?--I traveled to the National.
What's "the National"?  And of what nation do we speak?
Read on.  
This is the unexpurgated version of a piece that appeared in Motorcyclist magazine.
And these are two of my favorite photos taken by my pal Joe Sokohl; used here by kind permission.
Now, excuse me while I go pack to go to another rally.


I am in northern Pennsylvania on one of the oldest highways in America, the transcontinental U.S. 6, doing what I love best: eating a luggage-smashed peanut butter and jelly while sitting on the curb at a gas station in the company of the vehicle that brought me here.   I am scribbling in a notebook a few of the six hundred - odd thoughts that occurred to me during the past 140 miles (tank limit), and also on why I seem compelled to do this mainly when I sit on a curb, looking at my motorcycle.  Through it also; air is its heart.  A bike is both solid and insubstantial. I write that down too, as it occurs to me it’s a good metaphor for pretty much everything.

And it makes strange sense, because I am making for a gathering that is simultaneously as unlikely as chance can make anything, and as absolute as familial blood: the 41st annual national rally of those who ride the motorcycle conceived in 1920 by three World War I veterans of Italy’s Corpo Aeronautico Militaire and built in a village perched on the rocky shore of Lake Como.   Then there is the fact that we are meeting to pledge allegiance to our small-town Moto Guzzis in a village in the Virginia foothills of the Shenandoah, Buena Vista.  If that isn’t a little weird, I don’t know what is.

Guzzisti are themselves a peculiar lot—a bit like the air-cooled V-twin itself, maybe, an engine about as refined as a tractor’s but curiously gorgeous too—and in the decades I have known them I have compiled the riders’ Identi-Kit: in descending order, their livelihoods are most likely to be engineer, IT, photographer, pilot, musician, and academic.  They are “independent thinkers,” and they are a veritable portrait of middle-class America (with the exception of Billy Joel).  An owner of one of Mandello del Lario’s output is most likely to retorque his own bolts, possibly wearing a tee that reads “Moto Guzzi: Going Out of Business Since 1921.”

I know motorcyclists who have never been to a rally, but I don’t understand them.  A rally is a combination community barbecue, mutual need society, and tent revival. A rally on the calendar is the motorcyclist’s ritual call to prayer, his muezzin.  From May through September, hundreds of regional rallies convene various tribes, which will each attract a couple hundred; it is the nationals that are the big deal.  BMW’s is an industrial-scale shindig with hundreds of vendors and a full docket of seminars and tours for its 10,000 attendees.  For Moto Guzzi, which is lucky to sell 600 production units a year in the U.S., four hundred diehards will converge.  This year the factory will send neither demo bikes nor even a representative, perhaps in memory of 2007’s disastrous rally in Houston, Minnesota: a flash flood swept away their entire fleet not to mention the semi they came on, along with much else.  A rally is the usual ride, writ large: Four days and hundreds of miles; four nights of beer, bourbon, mediocre potato salad, campfires and campfire tales; four hundred buddies, not four.  We will meet whatever comes—pain or pleasure, or usually both—together.  The banner hung from the park pavilion’s rafters proclaims a truth.  Moto Guzzi: A World of Friends.

On the first day of two I need to get there, I choose the back roads that my bike—a 1986 650cc Lario—prefers over “the slab,” the anonymous interstate that gets you somewhere without letting you know just how.  I am traveling old-school, with tent and sleeping bag strapped to the seat, paper maps, and a route cribsheet in the vinyl map pocket of my tankbag to read while riding and therefore invariably misread.  I had to make a guess at the junction of I-180: lo, it does not in fact run north-south as it does in my road atlas.  OK, then, West.  I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right.  I have never won the lottery, either.

But I chose right, in a way, the way of the journey.  On the phone to friends waiting that evening for me at a Comfort Inn in Maryland, I report the good news: I have discovered an amazing road in Pennsyltucky (as it is called, presaging the next day’s dive into the real South).  Route 74 from Port Royal to Carlisle exceeds every criterion of goodness the motorcyclist asks—little traffic, uncountable curves, scenic surprise.  Then there is the bad news: I had to go a hundred miles out of my way to find it.  No matter.  As a famous long-distance rider I know says, “There is no such thing as a bad day on a motorcycle.”  I would eat a grocery-store meal in the room when I got there, after the rest had returned from their pub dinner.  For some reason, my notion of what constitutes excellent grub reverses itself on a motorcycle trip.

The good day/bad day switch occurred to Tom from Massachusetts the next day. We were finally on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the legendary road that always inspires a prayer to dual gods: the one in charge of providing an asphalt dancing partner who never steps on your toes and can seemingly waltz all night, and the one who permitted us to safely wade into socialist waters long enough for the WPA to build an unprecedented temporal museum of culture and geography the length of a road.  Tom dropped out of sight in our rearview mirrors, and when we doubled back to find him at a scenic overlook, he announced that the main seal on his lovingly restored 1973 Eldorado had given way.  It’s not a Moto Guzzi event without leakage.

It is also not a Guzzi event without the selflessness of the brotherhood’s bond becoming manifest. Tom got on the phone to a fellow sixty miles away who immediately agreed to come with a truck; once at the rally, the Eldo traded places on another rallygoer’s trailer with his Norge (named after the Guzzi that in 1928 accomplished 4,000 km to the Arctic Circle).  Tom would head home at the end of the weekend on a fully functional late-model machine, a kindness extended simply because both men had, one day, found the same object of an outwardly inscrutable affection.

As we pulled in to the rally grounds at Glen Maury Park, my long anticipation of arrival—and to me, a rally is as much about expectation as it is about being there—insured that all I could see were the tents massed along the treeline, the people moving back and forth between their sites and the bathrooms, the pavilion like Valhalla on the hill ahead, bikes passing us on the drive as they headed for ice, or for a ride on the fabled roads of Virginia.  Who might I meet again, after years that would seem as moments? It was only later, after I had unpacked and furled the tent, that I even noticed the park was dominated by Paxton House, an imposing antebellum mansion.  This gathering, from all corners of a united republic, of fans of a European motorcycle few have heard of would be overseen by the ghost of a Confederate general. 

In his honor, perhaps, or maybe just because they’re tasty, that night we enjoyed mint juleps by the light of tentside tiki torches.  In honor of no one but global warming, the next day we sought refuge from the excoriating heat (102 and counting) in a pool below Panther Falls, attained by carefully negotiating three miles of steep downhill gravel road.  And that night, all hell broke loose.

After dinner, the time of commingling and chat, beer drinking and good-natured complaint, someone walked over, smartphone in hand.  “Folks, there’s a big storm headed our way.  About fifteen minutes.”  The radar showed a dense green mass, admixed with angry yellow and orange, stretching from southern Ohio to Tennessee and moving east.  Within ten minutes, rallygoers had assisted everyone in battening down tents and bringing bikes under the pavilion’s roof.  Then we waited for the show to begin.  Some thoughtful person had left a box of Cheezits on a table, which we devoured while watching lightning shear the night sky and trees bend under the force of brutal winds. The storm was a derecho, and when it had passed, it was revealed as one of the most destructive storms in American history.  We had felt strangely calm.  Everything was going to be all right, or would be made so later.  Guzzi people are good at fixing things.

The next day brought departure.   A friend familiar with local roads saw me on my way by leading a private tour, and that is when we saw the storm’s full aftermath: great trees snapped in half, wires festooning pavement.  He found what was certainly the state’s only craft brewery with enough generator to power both air-conditioner and pizza oven.  Afterward I said goodbye.  I was headed north, home, alone.

But a motorcyclist knows this is not how it will always be: alone. Next year we will be rally-bound again.  There will be new expectation.  New affiliations.  And a new date on the calendar on which to fix an anticipatory pin, every year.  When we come together, and when we arrive.

{Photos: Joe Sokohl}

Wild and Crazy

alec vanderboom

Last week, we celebrated Endangered Species Day.  (Or you know what I mean: not 
a whole lot of celebrating going on.)  In its honor, I wrote about
a new book that is both important and a masterpiece of absurdism--an amazing
feat perhaps only attainable when confronting the subject of man's
relationship to the rest of creation.
Here's my review, which appeared in slightly different form in The Daily Beast.  
Appropriately enough.

Happy Endangered Species Day!  Well, “happy” might not be the word, since there are currently over 1,200 species of fauna listed as endangered or threatened, and those are only the ones we know about.  Some as yet undiscovered may well have disappeared between the time we lit the birthday candles and, appropriately, blew them out.
            If you’re in the mood for a celebration anyway, the Endangered Species Coalition suggests you consider visiting a wildlife refuge, help prevent the deaths of millions of birds each year from colliding with windows by affixing decals to yours, slow down while driving to avoid turning the berm into any more of a wildlife cemetery than it already is, or stop dousing your lawn with chemicals.  You could also depress the heck out of yourself by watching the 2010 documentary Call of Life, in which eminent scientists posit the probably inescapable mass extinction of over half of all plant and animal species before the end of the century.  My recommendation, though, is to read Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, Jon Mooallem’s stupefying account of our historic inability to stop meddling with everything under the sun—bringing masses of creatures to the brink of extinction, then expending perverse amounts of energy and ingenuity to haul them back, one by one.  “Dismaying” is right, “reassuring” sounds like it came from the marketing department, while “brilliant in conception and execution” doesn’t fit on the cover but should.
            The author, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, gives only a brief history of the act signed into law forty years ago (“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” opined President Nixon, pen poised), because his main subject is instead the bizarre gymnastics we have sometimes performed to uphold it.  He uses three examples—the polar bear, Lange’s metalmark butterfly, whooping cranes—to explore our confounding and contradictory relationship to the brethren species with whom we share the planet, though apparently we share the way toddlers do with sandbox toys.  All three of these endangered species are charismatic—awing us with the kind of aesthetic endowments lacking in the Helotes mold beetle, say, or atyid shrimp (“off-brand animals,” in the author’s sly term)—and so they call forth our most conflicted response, the better for Mooalem to display and dissect.
            When first encountered the animals of the New World were so profuse we could not imagine them otherwise, although we wanted to; wolves, bears, and cougars were the massed enemy on the hill, and our stories were of their unbridled ferocity.  Only when we had finally (ferociously) cracked some links in the Great Chain of Being that Thomas Jefferson, for one, had believed could never break—“no instance can be produced of [nature] having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct,” he declared—did the morals reverse.  As soon as the grizzly bear “disappeared from the land, it found new prestige in our imaginations,” Mooalem writes, and his book is truly about the animals of our imaginations, because it is their status there that will lead us either to eradicate them or to save them (or both at the same time; since 2007, eleven whooping cranes—of a population of fewer than three hundred laboriously nursed into existence from the small handful left alive in the 1940s—have been found shot, and in 2011 a Minnesota farmer smashed thousands of eggs and young chicks of the federally protected American white pelican).
            As a carnivore that naturally ranges over vast territory, the polar bear does poorly in captivity, developing stereotypies (think Gus “the Bipolar Bear” of the Central Park Zoo, ceaselessly swimming the same circuit of his small pool).  Now they’re doing poorly in the wild too, dropping from starvation as the ice from which they hunt forms later and melts earlier due to climate change.  This is why the town of Churchill, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay (which a conservationist estimates will stop freezing entirely by 2050, dooming one of only nineteen polar bear populations on the planet), has become a favorite stop on the “Last Chance Tourism” train.  Mooalem visits at the same time Martha Stewart does, although she proves more elusive than any of the bears.  It is one act in the theater of the absurd Wild Ones presents in all its prodigious eccentricity, but by no means the most outrageous.  It is hard to say which of the increasingly nutty episodes in man’s tortured relationship to his own conception of wildness here is the most outlandish: page by page they mount.  You can only stand back and gape.  (Only rarely do the animals have the last laugh, as do three and a half million Canada geese today: in 1962 only a single flock could be found, which was prayerfully coddled and fed, raised and reintroduced.  So they could later be shot, gassed, eggs scrambled in-shell, and chased away by eager border collies.)
            Butterflies, the stuff of so many glitter stickers and ankle tattoos, are nature’s airborne art.  They seem to capture a sense of ephemeral life at its most impossibly beautiful, so our sadness at the prospect of losing even one of the approximately 20,000 species of butterflies known to exist is understandable.  What is not is the contortions a few governmentally supported conservationists (along with a host of concerned, or obsessed, volunteers) must execute to preserve a tiny remnant of Lange’s metalmarks in the small, grotesquely compromised habitat of the 67-acre (55, says the government website) Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge.  The sand dunes were relentlessly mined in the past century, and a gypsum plant and power lines split the park.  In 2006, only 45 of the orange-and-black butterflies could be found, down from thousands a decade before.  They lay their eggs only on naked stem buckwheat, which is being overrun by invasive hairy vetch that has to be pulled out by hand or herbicided to death (with predictable fallout, namely the harming of butterfly eggs).  The attempts to maintain a viable habitat this isolated—attempts, dubbed conservation reliance, that are at once comedic and tragic, a strange opposition balletically explored here—illustrate the phenomenon of “island biogeography.” As David Quammen described in his elegiac Song of the Dodo, islands are “where species go to die.”  But as Wild Ones shows, they’re not going down without a fight—even if it is a futile one, and involves lots of grad students with plastic cups and captive female butterflies.
            When finally we read of whooping cranes reared by humans in costume, taught to migrate behind men in ultralights, and shoved away from food sources deemed insufficiently wild, the question can no longer be avoided: For whom do we do this?  Probably not for the bird who has just been pepper-sprayed “to promote wildness.”  Such efforts—“heroism in the Sisyphean sense”—seem to be made primarily for us, so we can write a bedtime story that contains man and animal intertwined, exchanging nobilities. 
            This book is dense with both thought and fact, but no one will mistake it for an article in the journal Biodiversity.  It is written with a vernacularly light touch, shot through with compassion and wit, not to mention open amazement, the only apt response to the story of our monumental hubris.

Zoom out and what you see is one species—us—struggling to keep all others in their appropriate places, or at least in the places we’ve sometimes arbitrarily decided they ought to stay.  In some places we want cows but not bison, or mule deer but not coyotes, or cars but not elk.  Or sheep but not elk.  Or bighorn sheep but not aoudad sheep.  Or else we’d like wolves and cows in the same place.  Or natural gas tankers swimming harmoniously with whales.  We are everywhere in the wilderness with white gloves on, directing traffic.

            At the end of this rich feast of irony, let there be cake.  Make a big wish, America.  Then blow.

The Mary Files

alec vanderboom

I have been waiting for the day my master’s degree in literature would return me something.  So far the wait has been very, very long. But still one hopes, unless one is dead. The degree cost me ten thousand dollars and the worst year of my life.  In the morning I would push myself out the door in Hoboken onto its desolate streets, walk half a mile to the PATH station, change trains at Herald Square, rattle up the left side of Manhattan, propel myself through the great black gates of the august university, then into some amphitheater smelling of epochal sweat and filled with the drone of Stanley Fish congratulating himself on being thus.  At the end, a hundred students—my compatriots—would flow outdoors, and disappear.  They vanished into the molecules of breeze that animated in slow motion the leaves of the ancient trees.  I never knew any of their names.  I never figured out where they went.

In the library I would look for the books I needed.  They had all been checked out to members of the faculty years before, never to return.  At the end of the day I reversed the morning’s process, capping it with the sound of the deadbolt on my apartment door slammed home.  I was prisoner and guard both, the sentence solitary confinement.

Those were the days when books were as exciting as restaurants are now, the hard-to-get reservation and overwrought morsel on a Pacific ocean of plate—foam, reduction of berries, moss, possibly small twigs made cunningly edible and written about breathlessly—more important than life itself. The city’s used book stores (the pleasantly dirty shelves of the Barnes & Noble annex, the Strand, visited worshipfully, hopefully) gave me long happy hours.  Still, I couldn’t get enough.  I wanted to go to high church for books.  If college was good, university would be better.

The disabusement of this quaint notion was as quick and violent as a two-by-four to the head: college was indeed about reading books, but university was about reading political currency.  How well can you rephrase the party platform? (The more abstrusely the better.)  This was not what I wanted!  Moreover, I did not want to not do what I wanted in the company of . . . no one.

I had not made it into Yale.  My boyfriend, however, did.  On a full ride.  My visits there were drenched in envy, though I could pretend for a weekend that I too belonged here.  We sat with other students from the comp lit department in cozy booths in the student center, talking for hours; we separated to do work in the library of our choice.  Sometimes I would retire to the Beinecke Rare Book Library, filled with a creamy cool light emanating from the impossibly thin Vermont marble that were its windows; such was the magic of this place that stone could be unstoned, gracefully relieved of its rocky essence.  Sometimes I would find a desk in the magisterial Sterling Memorial Library, a cathedral of books wherein, as described by the university, ”almost every available wood, stone, and plaster surface, is carved [with] a design that will remind the viewer of the dignity and significance of learning in general and of libraries in particular.”  The significance fell on us heavy as fur mantles.  Lined up with precision on the shelves set aside for each class were the soldiers of essential texts: twelve pristine copies of the book I so desperately needed, the single copy of which had vanished forever from Butler Library back home.  I loved Yale, but I wish I had never seen it.

That I chose to write a thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—a work whose words and story both utterly escape me now—seems a testament to my state of mind: lost.  I felt pretty much nothing for medieval literature.  One of the readers claimed she could not understand what I wrote because my grammar was so broken.  So was I.

I had told myself I would write about Moby-Dick in my second year, and finally get my mind back, but there was to be no second year.  The loneliness of it all had done me in.  I would crumple their letter, exegetically read as congratulating me on having passed the first-year hazing, which offered a full scholarship and teaching assistantship to continue on to the doctorate, and toss it into the empty metal olive barrel that was my wastecan.

Even grad students need some wind-down, and at night when I was exhausted from the day’s wrestling matches with public transportation and literary theory, I fell into the consoling embrace of Mary Tyler Moore.  There were back-to-back reruns of the old show into the night on my minute black-and-white TV.  More even than Yale I wished to matriculate in Mary’s world.  Her travails always ended in twenty-five minutes and with much smiling.  She perennially rose to the top, with hair and shirtwaist unmarred.  I fell asleep to her voice.

Halfway through the second term, having one day miraculously found a seat on the PATH train and thus the opportunity to take the strap of my Danish book bag off the shoulder it was excavating, I looked up from my book.  The person standing there had said, “Excuse me.  Aren’t you in my Edward Said seminar?”  (The one in which the teacher had asked, “Who would like to be a generalist?” and I simultaneously discovered I had the only raised hand and that the question had been ironically rhetorical.  Of course no one, only me.)

Jim became the only friend I made that year, but he was the only one I needed, because Jim contained multitudes.  It did not take us long to discover our basic commonality: not that we lived in the same small burg far from our hopes and aspirations, but that we both needed Mary Tyler Moore.  He phoned every morning, and we relived what episodes we had stayed awake long enough to consider for essential life lessons.  When we met for beers at the Elysian to discuss intractable educational dilemmas, we found a shortcut to the answer, always the answer. What would Mary do?

I have long had the belief that someday, although I can’t foresee when, my terminal MA will lift me from a dark and empty sea before it swallows me forever; it will be a lifesaver thrown from a small boat that has happened by.  It had to have been for something, the loan I worked to pay off for years, and the year that almost pulverized me. 

It has not happened yet; there is still time.  Until then, I will remember I have lived many lives, and when one is over another always begins.  I have a witness to this usual miracle.  My friend Jim.  But I have not watched Mary in years, and I miss her.



alec vanderboom

From the deep fonts of inspiration the words flow.  The craggy-browed writer sits in his sparely furnished study, oblivious to the wintry drafts seeping through the chinks in the plank walls, his spaniel lightly dozing on the rag rug.  He hears only his higher calling, to create.  Create!

One of the slightly mildewed volumes on his beloved shelf of classics--Homer, the Bard, Suetonius (who?)--bears on its spine the most revered name of all: Roget.  This is really the secret of the transported writer: when the brain comes crashing up against a stoic brick wall, it has only one recourse.  The thesaurus.  If you don't have one, you don't write much.  A lot of that vaunted creativity actually comes from categorized lists of blindingly small type on hundreds and hundreds of thin leaves.

Or, nowadays, when we need our information instantaneously--when even touching a few keys seems too laborious, much less consulting the alphabetized backmatter in a book, and we now demand it from the transfer of unseen heat from a fingertip on the screen itself--we open a new window and call up Thesaurus. com.  I open that window somewhere in the second or third paragraph (to foreclose dents on my walls caused by sudden concussion with a very hard head) and leave it there, to be called up in a second by the frustration that is for me the preeminent emotion of writing.  The thesaurus is my balm and salve, and I can go on.  For another sentence or two.

Yet nothing is itself alone, anymore, online.  Even the multitudinously cross-referential work, like the thesaurus in its essence, is now outwardly bound to an equally vast commercial web.  Every site knows where you've been, and it shows you motorcycle gear you must buy; read a news site, and it offers discounts on medications for the ailment mentioned in a memoir you are reading and wanted to learn more about.  Apparently, you have (or want) everything you ever looked at.

Thesaurus. com offers "targeted" (which says only they aim, not that they hit) ads based on the word you are searching, while your forehead is still more or less intact.  It took me a while to notice they were there; ads are just one more annoying cost of business online, and they become easy to tune out, just as in the olden days we used to go into the other room during commercial breaks (which they tried to circumvent by boosting the volume, as if the commercials weren't already maddening enough).  But when I started to look . . .  Who, who on earth compiled these?  (And how?  Millions of words, matched to their "appropriate" commercial synonym.)  What poor cubicle drone in India works for a company that won the contract to sift through billions of possibilities, to fulfill the bizarre obligations of his job?

If you are able to see it in the right light, far from a cynical nuisance, these ads are a value-added proposition for the writer: jokes, delivered along with the right (acceptable, adequate, advantageous, all right) word (concept, designation, expression, idiom).  Herewith, a few from my latest assignment.  I scratch my head.

miraculous                "Buy products made by monks and nuns"

reverberate                "Become a social worker"

evidence                     Master Dispute Settlement


recurrent                     Showers for the Disabled

agnostic                      "Could you be a Muslim?"

provoke                        Anger Management Classes

complicated                  "All metegenics ship free"

invective                       The Motley Fool

heinous                         MSW at online university

rouse                             Bottle-top Filtration System

On second thought, I find that the results mirror the thesaurus itself: a coin toss between literalism and the beautiful randomness of language, connecting us with things we never knew we needed, but might.  Just might.


Pre-Thanksgiving (Post)

alec vanderboom

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.    



alec vanderboom

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.

Just Grand

alec vanderboom

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 entrée 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.

Ancient & Underground

alec vanderboom

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.


alec vanderboom

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.

See You in the Movies

alec vanderboom

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.]

Down the Line

alec vanderboom

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. 



alec vanderboom

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.


alec vanderboom

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.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

alec vanderboom

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?

21 Questions Minus 11

alec vanderboom

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.

Second Chances: A Play in Not Quite Two Acts

alec vanderboom

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.



alec vanderboom

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.

We Were Devo

alec vanderboom

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.