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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

The new season announces itself in oriental tones: every morning as we wait for the school bus, we see that fairies in kimonos have overnight added new watercolor daubs to the weeping willow, painting expressive longings in ever deepening, lengthening strokes of green. An even more telling seasonal appearance, on a Moto Guzzi listserve, is one clever wag's Oil Leak Haiku. It prompts a call-and-response of a dozen other haiku on the eternal sadness of leaky seals (clearly lots of folks out there doing last-minute maintenance on their old Ambassadors and Sports), and in them you feel the fresh wind of hope, impatience, frustration. And good spirits.

That is what the new season inspires in me, too. Actually, I'm impatient in fall, winter, and summer as well, attested to by my growing collection of speeding tickets; I narrowly averted one yesterday only by the grace of a school bus placed around a corner by the angel who occasionally looks after my bank account. A few seconds after I stopped, a state trooper filled my rearview mirror with ominous blue and yellow.

See, there's this urging to move, in every sense of the word. All us mobile creatures have it--and for all I know, barnacles dream of velocity--the desire to spring forward fast. (Nelly most of all: she gives me this strange look, and then she's off, a flash across the street, to torment the neighbor's dog, tied up so he's safe, ha, as she noodles around in their yard just out of his reach; thankfully, unless there's garbage or rodents, in which case all bets are off, I have an ace in the hole or rather my pocket, leftover lunchbox cheese quesadilla, and she's soon back for some greasy yum.) Assisted quickness, aka engines below us, are a permanent draw for us humans, hence the lure of motorbikes. I invite you to imagine what Nelly would do with a pocket rocket of her own. And no, she's not getting one for Christmas.

We thrill to the speed burst, canine and human both. As Mario Andretti said, "If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."

Yet also in this season, for me, is the persistence of remembered unhappiness: it will never quite leave my system, the linkage of May with the sudden loss of the great dog of my heart. As soon as the mourning doves make their return in this month, I am drawn back to that time when their amplified heartrending coos echoed the song of my grief.

Aversives are imprinted in our cells in that way. That is why it is so important to remember what behaviorism taught us. They can even trump the most essential biological urges, such as the drive for food. My friend J. tells me of her friend's child, who as a baby had such powerful, painful reflux that even the appearance of food became aversive. Now, with the medical emergency past, she finds the sight of food distressing. At age five, she weighs thirty pounds.

Thus our bodies bear the memories of the good, and the bad. Our histories, carried forward into the present. This is the lesson of Pavlov, and it is how positive reinforcement works (a law, like gravity, not a theory). I saw it in action, and I will never forget that moment, either. In group therapy, a long lifetime ago, one of our members came in for several weeks running complaining of a sudden darkness that had descended on him; he couldn't explain it, this oppressive cloud that hung low and wetted him with its gray tears. He kept searching for the cause--work? something a friend did? the weather? And finally the therapist said, quietly, "Isn't it this week, eight years ago, that your partner died?" He looked stricken. He had not thought of this. But he did not have to think of it, because his body was thinking of it for him: Yes, he said. Yes. It was.

Spring forward, but bound back. When we do, fast into the future, we take with us, in our bones, the places we've been. The things we've felt.