"Ouch!": Writing Through Upheaval: In the space of less than a year, during 1982-1983, I was at the end of a two-year-long fight against a co-op developer (complete with suspicious burglaries, lawsuits, and other excitement); my mother died following a prolonged illness; I left my husband and moved to another state; and I started living on my own and supporting myself for the first time. And I kept writing to save my life. That, in turn, spawned this article, tailored to a how-to publication for science fiction writers.

The Poem and the Journal: On the value of keeping a journal as a repository of ideas and inspiration.

External links to photos of articles:
"Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave!" (Poets' Forum Magazine, Summer 2007), on copyright.
"A New Lens on Life" (Wagner Magazine, Fall 2007), on bug photography.
"The Many Shades of Dark Poetry" (Poets' Forum Magazine, Autumn 2007).

Hallucinations was the newsletter of my undergrad psychology department. It was spearheaded by Dr. Lee A. Borah, Jr., whom I was lucky enough to have as both a mentor and a friend. When he retired in 1997, Hallucinations retired with him. I edited the newsletter during my student days in the 1970s. Two decades later, Lee asked me to submit material as an alumna. Length: two pages. Material: anything I wanted. How could I resist? Hence, a selection of articles from the period 1994 through 1997:
A Practical Fetish: about my love of tools
Singin in the Rain: account of a flood
The Spirit of Giving: my idea of shopping for the holidays
Whatcha See is Whatcha Get: on artistic and other perception
The Adventures Continue: how to break into your own home
Waste Not, Want Not: the joys of composting
Pilgrimage: a 6-part series chronicling my training for and participation in the first Boston-New York AIDS Ride

"Ouch!": Writing Through Upheaval

Discipline. Quotas. Honing of skills. Self-marketing. Fleshing-out of characters. This piece will attempt to answer the question: How do you pull your characters together when everything else is falling apart?

Upheavals come in many forms: Death of a loved one. Marriage. Divorce. Childbirth. Fire. Eviction. As someone who is in the process of change I see a need for some "first aid for writers" going through similar processes. Translation: This is a marvelous opportunity to gather feelings, insights, experiences, that will flesh out one's writing as never before. But first, you must live through them!

Malcohn's Rule #1: You Can Be Raw

This is particularly useful in times of high mobility and uncertain futures. For four months my writing was almost exclusively in a journal. Any upheaval will bring with it a certain degree of self-insight... which is personal, private, and useful. Dreams may be especially vivid. The need to meditate may be acute. A journal is the type of place where you can write down your raw feelings and put them aside, but the point of the matter is that they are in writing (which can be personally as well as professionally therapeutic).

A journal is also a hedge against the unavailability of a typewriter... whether you are living out of boxes or spending your days hanging out in hotel lobbies. The behavior of the people around you, strangers or close friends, may affect you much more strongly than before, because with an upheaval comes the loss of familiar reference points. "This person does 'A', I'm doing 'A', thank heavens I'm still human!" Or, "This person does 'B', I'm doing 'A', thank heavens I'm still human!" If you're too numb to think about crafting, don't think about crafting. The raw stuff may more than compensate; save the crafting for later (months, perhaps, even years) when things have begun to settle down.

Malcohn's Rule #2: You Can Feel As Though You're Going Nuts (It Doesn't Mean You Are)

"Many of the symptoms reported by newcomers -- the exhilarated as well as the depressed... resemble those of people with severe neuroses; yet, unlike neurotics, most of the newly uprooted soon begin to get better, with or without professional therapeutic help."

The above statement is paraphrased from Morton and Bernice Hunt's book, The Divorce Experience -- generalized to reflect all upheavals. Add the stresses involved in abrupt, traumatic changes, to the two-fisted set of idiosyncracies we exhibit (1) as writers and (2) as writers of science fiction, and the effect on our all-too-human souls and flesh can be downright terrifying. There's nothing quite like the feeling of being Lost and Alone when you are in a profession that specializes in self-isolation for extended periods of time. What is important is this: Do not hold your own terror against yourself. Such self-recriminiation can lead to paralysis.

Malcohn's Rule #3: Paralysis Is Not Evil, As Long As You Intend To Move Again

There are times when the work of writing Simply Can Not Be Done. During an upheaval this, as well as everything else, can exert a much stronger effect than usual on your well-being. Since it is writing that is affected, the resulting stress can be nightmarish... especially if writing has become one of your more influential raisons d'etre

My first mental paralysis during upheaval went something like this: Feel tired, fight the feeling. Try to write, get frustrated. Try to write, write dreck. Rip dreck into little pieces. Try to sleep, feel jittery. Try to cry (without success). Sit and try to think. Think fuzz (not the H. Beam Piper variety). Try to write, write fuzz (ditto). Rip fuzz into little pieces. And so on.

Some reactions (good and bad):

"Am I being lazy?" -- Most likely not, but if you're like me that's the first question that comes to your mind. Don't automatically launch into self-blame.

"What brought this on?" -- This can be a crucial question, because it has various potential answers.

There's a catalyst (rainy day, burned dinner, argument, etc.) and there's the "deep structure" like one's childhood. Deep structure has the potential both for new insights and for self-destruction. When in doubt, pursue a sense of wonder even if it takes pain to get there. Don't pursue a sense of defeat.

"What's coming up?" -- In times of paralysis, make this a standard question to ask; it may save time and heartache. Is a significant date coming up, or a visit? That, rather than self-failings or an unknown terror may be the cause of depression, and realizing that you're having a knee-jerk reaction rather than a nervous breakdown can keep you from becoming panic-stricken. The point is: during times of upheaval, so much is thrown out of whack that self-perceptions change. Things are not as easy to see as they were before, and it's very easy to question your own "sanity" when feelings are suddenly unknown, elusive and locked away. When feelings are locked away the writing becomes static... and especially during an upheaval, when feelings are strong and often threatening.

In this case the work may not be in the actual act of writing but in sorting things out on a deeply personal level. Do not deny the personal level for fear of "being lazy"...psychologically you're probably working desperately hard, and the knowledge you gain from that will be of help when the writing does come.

"This too shall pass." I'm thinking of writing this one on a slip of paper to tape onto an empty Rx bottle. A litany for all seasons.

Malcohn's Rule #4: Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

I've always kept lists of projects at hand: deadlines, schedules, priorities and so forth. However, during upheaval a new list should be added: Log of Completed Tasks (otherwise known as Did I Really Do All This?).

This is particularly useful when your self-perception is skewed, no matter in what direction (skewness can go all over the map in times like these). During times of paralysis it can help you get over the guilt and deal with the deeper pains. When you've finished something... story, poem, outline, draft, sending submissions out in the mail, proofreading, layout, any valuable task at hand no matter what its level from drudgery to glamour... don't just cross it off a list of things to do. Put it on a new list of things done. Let yourself know that you didn't waste your time idling, because during emotional and physical upheaval your sense of time can change. Feeling "lazy" for having done a ton of work unrealized is downright foolhardy, not to mention self-destructive.

Malcohn's Rule #5: Love Your Mutants

If you've written stuff under "normal" circumstances that looks crazy after you've had it out of your sight for a few months, an upheaval can augment that tenfold. The trick is not to become overly self-conscious about what you turn out. Bite your own head off and your ideas have no choice but to come out the other end.

I've written some stuff during upheaval that I find damn hard to recognize as mine. Again, allow for the skewness... and save the "crazy" stuff (which may have seemed brilliant when you wrote it). Heaven only knows you may come up with characters who've gone off the deep end who'd be perfect for your oddity; remove your name from the byline and dump it on them!

These experiences can lead to stylistic changes and experimentation as well. I have indulged in primal scream mysticism and cardboard existentialism and once in a while they make me stop and come up with something I think is useful. Don't be afraid to play games with your writing...invite the mutants in! Try not to giggle hysterically in public places, but enjoy a good belly laugh with your typewriter (which is used to such things, after all).

Malcohn's Rule #6: Keep Your Sense of Wonder in Good Working Order

If you're trying too hard, switch gears. Take a walk. Take a bubble bath. Write doggerel. If you start taking yourself so seriously that you can't work hold a contest with yourself and see how bad you can get! Got a cliche bothering you? Now's the perfect time to work it to death; you can get all blubbery-silly and get it out of your system.

Upheavals can make you take yourself so seriously that you become afraid to be funny (fear that the pain can lead to cynicism and the cynicism can lead to malicious humor that's used as a weapon). Get it out now before it sneaks out and spoils "the good stuff." Don't throw the malicious stuff out, either... put it in storage for times when you need a sadistic character and you're feeling benevolent. Then the raw material will look new and be at a distance where you can work at it objectively.

Worrying is a potentially chronic pastime that is not at all fun. If it spurs you on to write it's productive; if it interferes with writing it can lead you into a vicious cycle. Set a panic button for worrying (about anything... money, phone calls, legal proceedings). If you can't do anything about the source of the worrying now, set a panic button for the time you can do something about it. If you start to worry before it's time, stop! It's a waste of energy. If you can't stop, get a character to worry for you (unless it's a waste of the character's energy, too) or convert it into creative action be it real or fictional.

These points are for everyone. However, the writer in transition, the one surviving recent or ongoing trauma, can more easily be distracted from and lose sight of them. There is simply so much else going on both psychically and on the outside.

Nothing is to be taken for granted. Like our characters on the Great Frontier, we, too, must make survival -- and thriving -- a part of our craft.

© 1985, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Empire: For the SF Writer, No. 34, 1985.

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The Poem and The Journal

Who among us hasn't been stopped in our tracks by a poem? (If anyone out there hasn't, don't worry; it'll happen.) Clear favorites crop up – the ones that jump to our tongues in conversation, the books we send to friends, the URLs to which we refer online correspondents now that so many poems dot the Internet.

Then there are the ones we pass in the night, that we remember fleetingly – a line, a concept, whose title and author we may have forgotten but whose spirit has never let us go. Those are the frustrating ones, the gems that have sunk back into the rough. Finding them again is like unearthing an heirloom once thought to have been lost at the pawn shop, when it had been sitting patiently and smugly in one's attic all along.

I recently recovered such an heirloom in the form of Joseph Payne Brennan's "When Tigers Pass," from his collection Sixty Selected Poems (The New Establishment Press, 1985). Brennan (1918-1990) is better known for his fiction, much of it horror, but his bibliography includes seven books of poetry and dozens of magazine and anthology publications. His work spans over four decades.

Brennan's poem is a sobering but transcendant look at extinction. His tigers are worshipped as a byproduct of their decline, becoming the stuff of legends and temples. When too late we realize how vital they are to our well-being, we deify them. His poem ends:

"Half a continent will be closed
to protect the possibility of one last tiger.
But the last tiger will be turning dust."

When I read his poem in 1985 it hit me like a bullet in the head – not obliterating but rearranging gray matter. I was riding the bus home from work. By the time I reached my stop I had outlined a story. Three days into writing the story I had the sneaking suspicion it was destined to be something much larger; and when I workshopped what was then a 9000-word tale my readers agreed that I hadn't gone far enough. Twenty years later I am trying to sell what's become a trilogy, sparked to life by Brennan's 15 lines.

I had been wracking my brain to find the "tiger poem," whose title and author I had forgotten. Finally I combed through old journals in the hope that I had documented it there; and after reading through several years (since I didn't remember when I had first written the story) I finally reached the entry. It was like finding a seminal chalice at an archaeological dig, the root of a civilization. I literally whooped with joy. A poem can do that.

Had I not kept a journal I'd have been lost. Journals truly are attics of the mind, yielding extraordinary treasures when one takes the time to look through their dusty boxes. Journal material can inspire years later; and documenting one's inspirations provides fodder for future insights as well. There's no telling what a poem – or a thought, a vision, an overheard snatch of conversation – will yield, or when. The next time you are stopped in your tracks, take a moment to record your location. You never know when it will show you the way.

© 2005 and 2006, Elissa Malcohn. Published in Of Poets And Poetry, September 2005. Reprinted in Poets' Forum Magazine, Winter 2006, vol. 17 no. 3.

Follow-up: Covenant, the first volume of my Deviations series (inspired by a 15-line poem), was published by Aisling Press in 2007. More information about the series is here.

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A Practical Fetish

I get excited when the copier repair person visits the office. Not necessarily because it means the copier will be fixed, but because I get to view its insides and gaze covetously at a sleek black attache case filled with chrome and steel tools, each with its individual, special function. I know nothing about copier repair, but a little voice in my head starts chanting: I want it....

Darwin had his finches. Goodall has her chimps. They both use tools, and this is significant — tool use marks the sophisticates of the animal kingdom and confers a certain elite status: to be seen as more highly evolved you must be "tool literate." But there it ends — the animals find the branch or bench or whatever is useful, use it, then couldn't care less about the object. If I were a finch I'd probably save all the branches and end up with no room left in my nest for me — which of course means that I'd have to build a second nest to hold all my branch tools — which might require me to get yet more branch tools! I'm the one my neighbor calls when she gets something that says Assembly Required, and I come with my hammer and screwdrivers and wrench and vise grip.

I still have the rubber wedges and tuning hammer from my piano tuning course: one of the my favorite Wagner electives. I still have the diagrams cataloguing the dozens of parts in a piano action, including the ones with odd names like spoon and bridle strap. In class, I would gaze longingly at our instructor's attache case with its arcane collection of shiny objects. I fell particularly in love with one of them: a sleek, asymmetrical silver punch used to remove flange pins. On one side of the head was a tiny steel rod; on the other side was a hole. You lined the rod up with the flange pin, squeezed the handle grips, and the rod on the one side gently pushed the pin through the hole on the other side. It was elegant. It was efficient. it was drop forged. It doesn't get any better than that...

And it has a cousin! When I took a course in bicycle repair and maintenance I was introduced to the chain tool — what you use to remove, replace, and repair bicycle chains. Bicycle chains have over 100 links, connected to each other by rivets similar to flange pins. For me, it brought that thrill of "deja vu all over again." Same metal rod, same hole to push the rivet through. It required more torque than just squeezing handles because the rivets are harder to push and you're pressing metal instead of wood, but I had found an old friend in a new incarnation. I had stumbled on a morsel of tool trivia. Here was a new translation of a general principle — like recognizing a Richard Wagner musical motif in a work by Richard Strauss, or stumbling on the similarities between Ecuador's Cuzco School of Art and the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The mere Gestalt could take your breath away.

The Australian Aborigines have a tool they call a spear thrower. When I visited the Outback and was shown one and its uses, I found myself looking at the Aboriginal version of the Swiss Army Knife. To make a spear thrower, you remove the bark and first wood layer of a mulga tree and clean off the bark. One end of the spear thrower serves as both a club and a cutter, with a sharp piece of quartz attached to the wood with a glue called kiti. The kiti is made by heating and melting crystals that occur naturally in a local plant called spinifex. On the other end of the spear thrower a short, sharp piece of wood (perhaps an inch long and looking like a pointed tooth) is attached with kangaroo sinew taken from the back of the foot. That sharp piece of wood, the "tooth," is inserted into a hollow opening made in each spear, while the hunter holds the end that has the quartz. In this way, the spear thrower becomes an extension of one's arm and adds leverage, distance, and power to the throw. Not only does the spear thrower contain this throwing tool on one end, and a cutting tool and club tool on the other end, but its center is hollowed out into a bowl (used to make such things as the kiti) and it has a sharpened edge for making fire. That's at least five uses out of a single tool made entirely from elements in nature. It was ingenious.

My first present to myself when I started living on my own was a Swiss Army Knife. Not just any knife. I got the big one: the one with the scissors, magnifying glass, two knives, fish hook disgorger, keychain (and yes, my keys are on it), bottle and can openers, wood and metal saws, nail and metal files, regular and Phillips head screwdrivers, ruler, wire stripper, and about a dozen more tools-in-one (and I've used most of them). Several of us in my office decided to compare our Swiss Army Knives one day — and, well, one can relate the experience to other size comparisons typically reserved for men's locker rooms. I thought it was great fun (but then again, mine was the biggest!). I've got the equivalent for my bike: an all-in-one with a chain tool, several Allen keys, spoke wrenches, box wrenches, screwdriver, crank ball socket wrench and bottle opener, all in a tiny device weighing around 3 ounces. (And by the way, a 6-millimeter Allen key fits the piano tuning hammer. So if you're ever stuck needing a 6-mm socket wrench and don't have one and a piano tuner is nearby, you're in luck.)

I swear to you that during my last root canal I was studying the drill bits and listening, fascinated, as my dentist explained to a dental school student why he was choosing one drill bit over another and what millimeter size to use for what job. When I had a laparoscopy and got the chance to look through the scope to see my own "internal mechanics," I jumped at the chance. A gory movie will give me nightmares for weeks, but a PBS special involving a surgical technique with blood and bone and real body parts gets my undivided attention.

It's no wonder that my favorite crib toy, and the only one I remember, was a "busy box." When I first moved to Massachusetts I needed a desk, so I got a used book on woodworking and built one. Never mind that I had to buy the backsaw and mitre box, the T-square and level, the wood (uncut, of course!) , the sandpaper, the screws and brads, the piano hinge — all of which cost more than it would have for me to have bought an inexpensive desk. Never mind that the desk took me three days to make. Never mind that I left it behind when I moved to an apartment where it wouldn't have fit. It was the manipulation, the sweat, and those tools that made the whole experience positively wonderful. I mean, I listen to Car Talk on the radio and I've never owned a car. But listening to an automotive problem being diagnosed and debated — hearing the hosts probe, always hilariously, for every clue — commands my attention more thoroughly than the most spellbinding of mysteries.

Meanwhile, I await the delivery of bike tools with the tongue-hanging, tail-wagging anticipation of a dog at dinnertime. Crank extractor, lockring and pin cup spanners, rust eraser, calipers, pliers, freewheel remover. Of course, I can't use the freewheel remover without a bench vise and I don't have a bench vise yet, but the freewheel remover is such a simple, beautiful tool and I know how to use it and it was only $5. And the next time I have to overhaul my rear hub I can get a bench vise or borrow one, and then I get to use my freewheel remover and replace the old icky grease with smooth-flowing new grease and insert a shiny new set of little ball bearings — and clean up with the new towels I've ordered, because my old towel is cut from an old shirt and it's all stained and ratty — and getting soft, heavy cotton shop towels is like treating myself to a special bath with milled soap and aromatherapy mineral salts followed by a rubdown with massage oil. I can pamper myself with shop towels.

First, though, it's time to clip the cat's claws. I do it myself. It saves on grooming costs. It's better for the indoor cat. It theoretically (though not in reality) saves the furniture, and it definitely saves me from being skewered when my cats want to cuddle.

Of course, it also means I get use my special little stainless steel cat claw clipper!

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Singin' in the Rain

It is 10 PM. The pumps that have been active all day continue to growl. It is a neighborhood thing; almost all the houses around me, including the one in which I live, shed feet of water from their basements (around 5 feet for my residence, 8 feet for another) one slow inch at a time.

My kitchen looks out onto Alewife Brook Parkway, a major thoroughfare that separates Cambridge from Arlington and provides chief access to Route 2, which runs across Massachuetts and connects with various interstate highways. The parkway, so named because its next door neighbor is Alewife Brook, is a stone's throw from several small residential streets, including mine. In heavy rains I've seen cars throw waterfalls and send bow waves down its 4 lanes (2 in each direction), but I didn't see those cars drown until now. And I didn't, until now, experience a certain sense of glee, not at the misfortunes of others but at the sheer extremism of nature and its impact on human behavior, including my own.

When Mary and I awoke on Sunday the tree-filled grassy stretch separating the brook from the parkway on the side across from us had been narrowed to a small strip as yet unsubmerged. Traffic waded up and down the parkway, some cars slowly, others racing and sending up high plumes of water. Once that far stretch of grass and trees became completely submerged, we noticed that the utility poles on the near stretch separating the parkway from a 1-way street called, appropriately, Seagrave Ave., were set no longer in the ground but in the water that started encroaching upon the neighborhood playground.

We did the most natural thing. We got out our binoculars and watched, crowing. Crowing incredulously, as traffic in its quest for shallower waters suddenly switched directional lanes and drove, British-style, in the "wrong" direction. Peering through field glasses as a car, 1 of 11 drowned cars we saw that day just in our neighborhood, died in the middle of the parkway and was passed on both sides by others going in the same direction. Laughing at the drivers who, on the verge of breaching the flood, made as hasty a U-turn as they could and beat a retreat. Between spying with the binoculars, we took pictures.

Suddenly our side streets, designed for low traffic volume, became a surrogate parkway and all traffic laws went to hell. One-way Seagrave and another 1-way became 2-way streets. Soon enough, Seagrave, closest to the flooding from the brook, became impassable. We watched, hooting, as cars and trucks alike maneuvered U-turns and K-turns in tight 1-way spaces and attempted 2-way travel, even to the point where traffic trying to head in the legal direction was overpowered by vehicles heading in the illegal direction. The problem was compounded by drivers who, used to the major thoroughfares, were simply and utterly lost; our corner of Cambridge is a place unknown even to experienced cabbies born and bred here.

In the evening we put on our best rain togs and took a stroll. As we did a car dodged the deep waters of the parkway by driving off the road and weaving around trees; whatever was still above water was rutted with tire tracks. We could see where traffic tried to get from the parkway to Seagrave by crossing the grass-and-tree median -- that is, until the median and Seagrave were underwater as well. Tow trucks hauled off dead cars; other casualties flashed their hazards on the few dry patches of road that became slowly submerged during the night. By the time of our walk, roadblocks were up in an attempt to discourage driving on the parkway, but what are a couple of barrels and sawhorses in comparison to access to Route 2? We replaced downed sawhorses twice, but not before we saw 3 cars head onto the parkway. We stood, watching, with something approaching maniacal grins on our faces. Mary said, "We look like vultures waiting for the kill," and I burst out laughing; we chortled as the trio attempted to choreograph their K-turns in a tightly-encased shallow water ballet once they spotted the abyss.

Alewife Brook is usually a small stream set off from the parkway grass and a small park with trails by chainlink fences that are about 6 feet tall. When I trained my flashlight on the fence I saw a tiny bit of metal whose top was maybe a foot above the water. In fact, we were looking at what we now called Alewife Brook Parkway Lake. Usually placid, the brook coursed past us in swift currents. The park's trails had disappeared under the overflow. Near the subway station, a small pond that 2 summers ago became bone dry and cracked now nearly splashed itself onto the walkway. Upon our return home, we wrung out, for the dozenth time, the towel we'd placed to catch drips from a leaky window frame and went to bed.

In the morning all 3 side streets that we could see from the kitchen were flooded, as the closer grassy median disappeared under the lake. Rush hour traffic, detoured from the parkway, had less luck than rats in a maze, trying to negotiate literal waves and 1-way streets with 2-way traffic. If the water didn't get them the congestion did. One of my neighbors across the street handled the situation by jumping with her small children in the deepest puddles as hard as they could. Someone else splashed around barefoot.

In the office, I entered to hear the very familiar sound of pumps and passed black-on-yellow CAUTION tape blocking off the entrances to the basement. Our duplicating staff mopped their floor while meeting deadlines; I reached them after passing water-stained carpets and soggy cardboard boxes. I was going to compare notes with a coworker who lives on the other side of Alewife Brook, but she stayed home to pump out her basement. Another called to ask me to put a note on her door saying that she wasn't coming in, and asked, "Are you able to work there?" When I said yes, she added, "Usually when there's a really hard rain we lose electrical power, don't we?" This had happened in the past, but so far this time we were lucky. Not long after I got off the phone the lights dimmed for a second and I heard someone scream as his computer crashed.

When we weren't screaming over brownouts we were comparing notes on how wet our neighborhoods were and swapping traffic tales. Another coworker pulled me aside. "My husband is dying to know why they closed Alewife Brook Parkway." I felt like an advance scout as I passed on my privileged information.

Over dinner, Mary and I grabbed our weather radio cube and found the man whose New England twang sounds like the voice-over for Gorton's fish sticks. Governor Weld had declared our county and the rest of Eastern Massachusetts an emergency area. Despite ourselves, we smiled. There's a certain cachet to being declared an emergency area, kind of like being the first in your class to get braces. It's a grown-up thing. Then our local yokel from the National Weather Service went down the list of engorged waterways. When he mentioned Alewife Brook we went, "Yes! That's us!" This is perverse but great fun. Here it is, our 15 minutes of fame for our neighborhood flood, our little (not so little any more) neighborhood brook carried by the National Weather Service. We had to be proud.

I had passed 6 houses on Seagrave that were being pumped, and that was at the end of the day. More houses on other blocks underwent the same procedure. The flood had subsided somewhat, and Alewife Brook Parkway Lake looked splendid, reflecting the fall foliage of the trees planted on still-invisible medians. At least the side streets were now passable. We turned on the evening news and sent up another cheer upon learning that we had broken flood records: 8 inches where we were, 12 inches northeast of us. We look at the prospect of a few days without heat or hot water as the basement dries out. (We had gone truck-camping over Columbus Day weekend, sleeping in sleeping bags in a pickup where we peeled iced condensate off the ceiling of the truck cap on a frosty morning, so we're still feeling adventurous.)

It's midnight and we're still hearing the pumps. Showers are predicted for morning, scattered rains in the extended forecast. My landlord and I, talking by the pump, both expressed our thanks that this was not the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers during their recent floods. Our house has not floated away, and Boston-area residents compensate for the cancellation of the Head of the Charles Regatta by paddling their own boats down city streets. But then, we were used to cross-country skiing those same streets during last winter's record snowfall.

All of which goes to prove that even under very sobering conditions, Mother Nature brings out the kid in us.

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The Spirit of Giving

My intentions were honorable. Really they were. I was going to go to the office supply emporium to get a roll of tape, a mouse pad, and holders for photo negatives. Then I was going to go home. But even under the best of circumstances I can't be trusted in a store like that, any more than a former boss of mine could be trusted in a store that sold marine accessories. I once watched him try on hat after hat marked with anchors and signal flags while I muttered, out of earshot, "You have three hats. Now stop it." He was giving me a lift home so I was held captive among deck finishing oils and floating compasses and what have you.

As for me, put me in a stationery store and don't expect me to emerge any time soon.

Next door to the office supply place there is a toy store. I mean a real one, the kind for children. I mean for children not yet of voting age. They were having a sale. My employer holds an annual holiday party for disadvantaged children, and a number of us donate toys that are wrapped by volunteers and distributed by the head of our maintenance division who has both girth and mirth of ample proportion to make a splendid Santa. Every year I donate a toy. One year I also did wrapping detail, and was the lone dissenting voice who insisted that just because it was a truck it didn't have to get wrapped for a boy, and just because it was a doll it didn't have to get wrapped for a girl. (I had a beloved collection of Matchbox cars when I was growing up, and when one of my cousins had a girl the infant's grandfather found a discarded toy truck, cleaned off the rusted metal and old paint, and repainted it pink.) I've tended to go for the non-gender-specific toys that are both creative and self-sufficient, so that someone below the poverty line doesn't have to spend food money on batteries and extra supplies. In past years it's been things like Etch-A-Sketch. This year it's Speckled Smud. (Think of speckled Silly Putty in neon colors.)

Anyway, I was going to go get the toy and get out, then go to the office supply store. No such luck. Soccer Pals were on sale. A childhood friend whom I've known for almost 30 years is a soccer mom, with both her children on teams. A Soccer Pal lets you practice without having to chase the ball across the street. From the look of the package photo, the soccer ball is placed inside a fishnet connected to a leash held by the player. I don't send holiday gifts but I do send birthday gifts -- in this case the birthdays are in March and April. But when I find something that fits, I get it and put it away for however long. I have a card that I'll have had for five years by the time I send it (and I really do still know where it is).

Then I saw the Hacky Sack -- the new "larger, softer, more responsive, more fun!" kind. And no, I did not get it for my friend's kids. I've never played with a Hacky Sack. If I can't master it, I thought, the cats probably will. At long last I advanced to the store next door and set out in search of the original items I'd jotted down. Mary needed a mouse pad, but was hesitant because she was already using a plastic binder for traction, and why spend two dollars when you've got an acceptable substitute? Soon enough I found myself in mortal combat with the mouse, which obeyed my commands about as often as the cats do. I told her, "I'm getting you a mouse pad." (This meant really that I was getting me a mouse pad, but why quibble?) The cheap pads had the store's logo on them and were monochromatic. Phooey. I got a more expensive but much more aesthetically pleasing Loony Tunes mouse pad, which I later found out goes with several items of the same decor in Mary's possession. The cursor moves much better now. (This also has to do with the fact that Mary cleaned oil and grit out of the mouse, but why quibble?)

I got the roll of tape, but there were no holders for photo negatives. There were, however, holders for photos and we needed those, too, so I got them. Having fufilled my mission, did I leave? Not on your life. I hadn't been to this store in months, and I had to get my fix.

To supplement the Soccer Pals I picked up various fun things like a swirled memo pad and stick pens done in a flowered motif that would have made me gag at my friend's daughter's age --but then again I was never brought to tears because my plastic jewelry didn't match my dress. (What plastic jewelry? What dress?) A star map. A set of 3 rolls of scotch tape colored in lemon, grape, and peach but that go on clear. (This is certain to disappoint. Granted, the kids are older now, but my first big disillusionment came when I discovered that no matter what color the Crayola crayon was it still tasted like wax.)

And, in deference to the advance of years, a compact lighted magnifier to keep in the truck. Several times in our travels -- particularly through Somerville, whose urban design was patterned after the Bermuda Triangle -- we have had to use the detailed street map residing in the glove compartment. I go blind. I complain: my street map has bigger print. My street map doesn't lose whole avenues in the space of a worn-out crease. So what if my street map has each town on a separate page and is more than 200 pages long? It's the principle of the thing. Make bigger glove compartments. Mary gets to drive while I look for a street the size of a microdot, so I have picked up the magnifier. Now, if we wanted to, we could even bring along the Compact OED on a drive; it's probably better than the map for letting us know where we are.

I arrived home about an hour later than I intended to, but Mary knew I was coming from that store. We oohed and aahed over the purchases. I asked her, "Have you ever played with a Hacky Sack?" She said, "I've got two of them." I laughed and said, "Well, now we have three." Then again, we decided, we'll send it to my friend's kids. God only knows how many Hacky Sacks they have.

We supplement our purchases with intangibles that tend to do more good: volunteering at a Thanksgiving dinner for the HIV/AIDS community, giving blood at the company blood drive. (You feel much less faint if you wiggle your toes. This was told to me by one of Mary's in-laws who, like Mary, has literally given blood for decades. I tried it and it works.) Getting gift shopping done early isn't a chore; it lets me bow to commercialism all year! It also lets me avoid seeing commercialism at its worst, when the lines are long and patience is short. Besides, you never know whether that perfect gift selling in 1987 will still be on the shelves 10 years later when you intend to give it. No wonder we rent out a storage room.

Happy holidays to all!

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Whatcha See is Whatcha Get

Tucked in among the photos on my office wall are five pencil sketches. All of them are of sleeping or otherwise motionless cats. They have singularly riveting titles like “Red’s Nap,” “Daisy’s Nap,” and “Stuffed Tiger With Sleeping Cat.” The most recent one, called “16 Nov. 1996 Artist’s Date,” shows a placid Daisy watching Mary sketch. Since Mary was the one who moved around, I have a rather good rendering of her foot and watercolor box and not much else. But Daisy is recognizeable, along with her "bizzy ball," a throw rug, a bottle of water, and other still life accoutrements.

Several years ago I picked up Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Although the title is more appropriate metaphorically than neurologically, the book helped me improve my drawing by several orders of magnitude. This is not to say that I don’t have a long way to go, and drawing from anything other than a motionless object or image still has me scratching my head. Twenty-five years ago, when I started writing stories, I illustrated them by tracing comic book images and adding the features of my characters. Doing so gave me my first lessons in proportions, foreshortening, and shading. Once I picked up Drawing..., I started learning to draw what I see, concentrating on the space surrounding a familiar shape rather than on the shape itself. For example, I don’t try drawing a nose, but the space around the nose — otherwise, my old conditioning takes over and I find myself drawing what I think I see.

More recently, Mary gave me a copy of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron with Mark Bryan. Subtitled, "A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity," it gives the reader a discipline and exercises to help unblock creativity. One of the foundations of the course is a weekly “artist’s date,” in which the individual engages in creative play. One of my artist’s dates involved taking my camera and shooting a roll of film — everything from a gnarled tree in the sunset to the feet of pedestrians waiting at the curb to a pastel-colored, flowered bottle placed incongruously on top of a metal meter box. (I told myself that I would photograph only found objects and juxtapositions, that nothing would be rearranged or staged.) Pebbles took on new intensity. A spilled beer bottle, or lines painted in a parking lot, became suddenly very significant.

Up until now, most of my sketches have been done in a No. 2 graphite (black lead) pencil. I’ve dabbled a bit in other media, but have relied on pencil to try to actually copy other forms. My discovery of colored pencils has been taking me beyond black and white renderings, and my wish to find immovable models brought me to Erik A. Ruby's The Human Figure: A Photographic Reference for Artists.

Published in 1978, The Human Figure has excellent black and white photographs that make me wonder if they would have been different had the book been published last year rather than almost 20 years ago. Not only are almost all of the models Caucasian (most of the book consists of photographs of two models, a man and a woman), but their poses are gender-specific (or gender-stereotyped, take your pick). They include photos of the man running but not of the woman running. The man holds his stick to the side like a spear, while the woman holds her smaller stick demurely across her body. The woman is posed in the manner of an odalisque (at least as painted by Ingres); the man is not. The man is positioned lying face up, almost crucifixion-style, on a rectangular box with his arms and legs akimbo; the woman is not (she gets to drape herself gracefully over the box instead).

Perhaps the most telling gender difference in the collection has to do with the fact that the woman is entirely nude, while the man wears a white G-string. An artist friend of mine tells me that this probably had to do with the pornography laws of the time. I suppose that explains why the Sistine Chapel ceiling is in the Vatican and not here. Of course, the postcard vendors outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence didn’t follow our publication code, either; ten years ago when I was there, they were selling cards reproducing one small section of Michelangelo’s David with the caption WOW, DAVID! I wish I’d bought it; I could make copies and tape it onto the G-string in my photo book. I don't think of myself as a serious artist (I prefer to think of myself as a fun artist), but the Ruby's omission really does a disservice to art students, who might learn to expertly render a G-string but not male genitalia.

It got me to thinking: could I learn the body parts -- the crook of an elbow, the skinfolds at the waist -- so that I could mix'n'match? Substitute the woman into the man's pose, the man into the woman's pose? Because the repertoire of poses in reality, and the diversity of models, go beyond the so-called "realism" of Ruby's collection of photographs. There is even a further layer of reality to consider. I learned recently at a conference that "some studies" estimate that four percent of Americans are born as biological hermaphrodites (unfortunately, I do not have citations for these studies), and I have met an individual who escaped the surgery that assigns a male or female gender to a baby born as an "intersex" person and is proud of who [pronoun not yet invented] is. I came away from the conference thinking that we live in a world where entire languages are invented for fictional beings (the published dictionary of Star Trek's Klingon culture is but one example), but we have not yet invented satisfactory pronouns for a segment of the human race that really does exist. This individual was part of a panel that also included both male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals. (I was surprised to read two years ago, in Kate Bornstein's book Gender Outlaw, that "MTF" and "FTM" transsexual surgery occurs with almost equal frequency. Women who become men simply do not get the same press coverage or the attention as do men who become women, obscuring yet another layer of reality.)

In the late nineteenth century, the art world was in an uproar when the Impressionists invented a new way of painting. Never before were the principles of light used in quite that way. Bordering a color with its complementary hue to make it shimmer had been unheard of. And yet, the Impressionists painted what they saw. They just saw reality in a different way.

And so, as I wield my newfound treasures of yellow ochre, ultramarine, carmine red, burnt sienna, apple green, indigo blue, and the rest of my starter set of pencils -- as I learn how pencil colors can be overlaid and combined, how some can burnish others, how a fixative can prevent "wax bloom" -- I marvel at how far I can go beyond black and white and gray. But I also know that even if I get all the other colors available out there, I still won't have them all.

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The Adventures Continue

It was a cold and cloudy day. The mission: get the mail from my P.O. box in Harvard Square. Then get groceries on the way back home, before cycling with a friend of ours who is training for this year's AIDS Ride. The temperature was close to freezing, with gusty winds.

We pulled on jackets over jerseys over long johns. Mittens for Mary, heavy cycling gloves for me. Gore-tex oversocks for me, two woolen sock pairs for her. I put panniers on my bike, then bungeed the rack trunk down. Mary attached her panniers and backpack, then donned her CamelBak filled with switchel.1 Reflective vests and bands over everything. Mary traded her glasses for contact lenses while I tucked a neck gaiter around my head. If we didn't get outside soon we'd both roast.

We maneuvered the bikes down our two twisty flights of stairs with a send-off from Red, our 14-pound orange "kitten," who scooted around wheels and feet to steal styrofoam from our landlord's recycle bin. Finally, we headed out into the combination steeplechase and survivalist game known as Boston traffic, done to perfected bedlam in Harvard Square on a Saturday.

We pulled up in front of the Post Office. I reached to my waist to get the box key from my fanny pack and said, "Oh shit." In amongst our preparations for cold weather riding, putting on panniers for shopping, and my taking Mary's advice to slip on the bright yellow reflective vest for daytime riding ("They may laugh at you but they're less likely to hit you,") I'd forgotten the fanny pack in which I'd stashed not only the keys to my P.O. box but my ID, money, credit cards, and other keys including the ones to the apartment. Usually we check to make sure one of us has keys, but this time we were both sufficiently distracted.

"Do you have keys?" I asked Mary.


She did have ID and money, just in case. After toasting with our water bottles "to adversity," we chose to ride back home. Our landfolks were not home, as we could tell by the untouched mail we'd slipped under their door earlier. But their relatives lived across the street. Mary suggested we go to them for help, but I was armed with a strong sense of self-reliance, my "only child syndrome" of doing things myself, a hankering for adventure, and -- more important than any of that -- a keen feeling of acute embarrassment. I'd never left the house without my keys before, not since I wore one around my neck in grade school. Feeling adventurous meant I didn't have to feel utterly dumb.

And I had a plan, based on past experience. The first year I lived in this third-floor attic apartment, I was locked out through no negligence of my own but through an act of nature and another of Scripture. One warm weekend day I'd heard my doorbell ring and answered it in my nightgown, only to find a set of well-dressed Jehovah's Witnesses. As I tried to excuse myself, a gust of wind entered the window on the second-floor landing and slammed shut the door to the stairway into my apartment. Standing with the Jehovah's Witnesses on the ground floor, I heard the slam and thought: Oh, shit. My landfolk weren't home that weekend, either. (Weekends they spend with their daughter on the south shore.) Fortunately, their relatives across the street were at home and my landlady's brother-in-law had a key to their apartment. Unfortunately, we couldn't find their extra key to my apartment, so it seemed I was back where I started.

But there was another option. My rescuer climbed the fire escape ladder to my living room window, was able to open it from the outside, and then let me in through the door. Throughout, the Jehovah's Witnesses stood around silently, watching politely and with complete indifference. I was ready to climb the fire escape myself and hitch up my nightie with nothing underneath, thinking, "Scripture this, suckers!" But, alas, I'm usually polite, too.

So it was that as Mary and I rode home, I remembered the fire escape and suggested we try that. I was almost relieved to find that the relatives across the street were away, because I really did prefer a death-defying climb to the roof over looking like a fool. This time Mary suggested that we remove all our reflective gear, so that we didn't shine like a pair of beacons as we broke and entered into our own apartment (her version of "not looking like a fool").

We parked the bikes out back and I clambered over the railing on the back porch in order to reach the bottom rung of the ladder. Fortunately, I like heights. This was an adventure, a test of my perseverance and ingenuity! The theme music from James Bond movies played in my head. I swung myself up onto the planks that gave me firm footing on the roof.

Mary told me, "The window without the plants is the one more likely to be unlocked." Fortunately, she was right. The summer day I was locked out in my nightie, I'd had the windows up and only the screen in. But this day was cold. I'd have to take out the screen and the two storm windows and open the wooden-frame window as well. If that was locked -- well, we could sleep in the truck.

Carefully, I coaxed the aluminum frame into yielding the first storm window, then the others, thinking: now I know how burglars can have such an easy time of it! The aluminum frame itself couldbe unscrewed from the wood, which I did in part to get to the recalcitrant screen. Mary opted to climb inside (in her blue woolen cap she looked the part), at which point Red did what any good watchcat would do: he disappeared. Daisy, however, put up a bold stand, making threatening sounds, backing up to Mary's advance, and puffing up her tail to full capacity. Then she sniffed Mary's outstretched hand, realized, "Oh, it's you," and gave her a look that said, "Don't do that to me again. You come in the front door like a normal human being, you hear?"

Mary handed me my fanny pack and I came in through the door like a normal human being. We put the window back together, reinforcing and locking it this time, and I put an extra set of housekeys into my rack trunk. Our friend cancelled out of cycling, and we had enough time to scoot back to the post office ten minutes before it closed for the day, then stocked up on groceries.

Embarrassment gave way, at least partially, to the pride of masterminding a successful apartment re-entry. It was an adventure. It was macho. It was a bonding experience. It was something we hope we never have to do again. We celebrated in Harvard Square with skewered vegetables and hot chili to fortify us against the wind, the double-parkers, the taxis driving in reverse, the sudden right-turning traffic, the diesel-belching buses, and weighted-down plumped-up panniers. When we walked in through the front door, Daisy purred her approval. Red, once more emboldened, came down the stairs to greet us, as a pretense for stealing more styrofoam.

1Switchel is an energy drink (from the days long before Gatorade) made with molasses, sugar, vinegar, ginger, and water. A CamelBak is a container you wear on your back that holds a plastic bladder with a feed tube for "hands-free" drinking.

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Waste Not, Want Not...

...unless you do indoor composting. We've changed the motto to, "Waste not, want a gas mask." Our garden plot is under snow, but Mary and I are nostalgic enough about fertile ground to have decided to compost over the winter. Having placed bottles and cans picked up off the street into our recycling bin, we've taken our practice even further by trying to puzzle out how much we can turn into something useful -- partly because we're both frugal, partly because of an environmental mindset, and partly from patterns learned in childhood. According to "The State of Garbage in America" (Biocycle, April 1992, p.48), many states will exhaust all of their existing landfills in the near future if current dumping practices continue. New York is expected to do so in about five years, with only Fresh Kills deemed suitable so far as a tourist attraction. Massachusetts landfills are expected to be exhausted in 1997. Figuring the cost to haul garbage to landfills (and in the Northeast this can range up to $100 per ton), countrywide composting could save us up to $1.6 billion a year. (Tom Christopher and Marty Asher, Compost This Book!, San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1994.)

We recently heard -- on an environmental radio program called Living on Earth -- an ingenious if sobering story of recycling occurring in Vietnam. There, the government employs people to go out and retrieve discarded munitions scattered throughout the countryside. (This includes unexploded mines, so the job is not what you'd call cushy.) The metals are recycled into pellets and sold to the Japanese, who use them to manufacture automobiles, which they then sell to the United States -- who "contributed" the metals to Vietnam in the first place. What goes 'round comes 'round. Recycling, or the lack thereof, was also said to play a crucial role in our own Civil War. In the South, planters typically exhausted the soil on which they grew crops, then moved on to virgin land, generally on the frontier. In contrast, northern farmers tilled their own soil and owned only as much land as their family could work; both that and a more humus-friendly northern climate led to the return of nutrients to the same soil. When the Yankees tried to stop Southern plantation owners from moving their slaves out west to work yet more virgin land, it jeopardized an entire way of life. (William Chandler Bagley, Jr., Soil Exhaustion and the Civil War, Washington, DC: American Council on Public Affairs, 1942, as cited in Compost This Book!)

Mary grew up in California, where water is in short supply. Her family went on extended camping trips, so they learned various ways of resource conservation. I grew up in Brooklyn, but I remember, even though very young at the time, the New York City water shortage of the 60s. In addition, both my parents lived through the Great Depression (as did Mary's), and I grew up with the values engendered by a state of having to make do, even though we were solidly middle class.

What made Mary's day was discovering that we could collect the perfectly good water dispensed while the shower warmed up and use it in the teakettle, or to cook rice. In addition, used shower water could double as flush water for the toilet. Wash water can also double as flush water, since we launder at home with the aid of a small pressure washer that runs on easy bicep power rather than electricity. Having had a clog in said toilet from not flushing often enough (mind you, we do flush when we have company), we had begun to discard the less-soiled toilet paper into a separate container to remedy the problem.

Then we started composting, using a 5-gallon plastic pickle pail that came from a fast food chain and was itself recycled. (A twin pail holds the shower water). Originally, we were going to limit our composting to foodstuffs -- orange rinds and coffee grounds, the pieces of spaghetti that escape the colander, and so on. Then we decided that hair cleaned out of hairbrushes was just as organic, as was shed cat fur and dust bunnies. In fact, once we picked up Compost This Book! (off a remainder table, of course), we read that "what went into an eighteenth century compost heap might include, among other things, herring, blubber, hair, woolen rags, feathers, and furriers' clippings, the offals of the tannery or the glue factory, and the dung of seabirds, pigeon dung, and excrements of dogs and rabbits."

Neither of us had composted before, and we decided that if this was a dismal failure it could simply be placed on the curb with the other garbage. Composting, however, is an infinitely forgiving process. Our first (and so far only) challenge arose when we lifted the loosely-placed cover of our bucket and Mary remarked, "Good day at the vomitorium." The bacteria were doing their jobs, but our mixture was too nitrogen-rich, leading to the creation of gaseous ammonia. Fortunately, the authors of our composting bible had an answer: get more carbon into the mix. In fact, the ideal mixture for compost is a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 25 or 30 to 1. Vegetable wastes and coffee grounds don't quite make it. But you also get carbon, and in good supply, from cellulose. We got cellulose from, among other things, the used (from urination only) toilet paper we'd been carefully collecting lest our cup runneth over. The strategy has been working: with the addition of the toilet paper -- itself made from recycled materials with no chlorine bleaching in the process -- we have transformed our pile from a watery brown glop that smells awful to a more solid brown glop that smells a fair degree less awful. And removing the excess water means that fewer decomposers (the bugs that turn trash into humus) drown. (If you do decide to use toilet paper or any paper in your composting mix, it's best to avoid anything that has been bleached, since the bleaching process creates dioxins. It's also best to avoid paper printed with synthetic inks, and instead use paper printed with soybean inks.)

We haven't thrown in the kitty litter -- even though it is "environmentally friendly" in both English and French -- because cat manure can contain dangerous parasites. It becomes a game, a challenge to see how little we can add to the landfill. We stir and aerate the heap almost every day, which allows us to monitor the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio by our sense of smell.

Recycling isn't without its fun and imaginative uses. We buy various items in bulk, tote them in used gallon jugs and parcel them out for everyday use. As a result, a well-cleaned squeeze bottle makes it appear as though our maple syrup disinfects on contact and gets dishes squeaky clean. Then again, I once squirted rubbing alcohol into my mug instead of honey (both in opaque contact lens solution bottles) and ended up with spiked Russian tea. In her journeys, Mary has found some discarded photographs on the street, that we have posted on the wall as "found relatives." We don't know their names, or anything about them. But they look like nice people, so we are pleased to call them our own, and if asked about them we can make things up. A friend of ours has contributed some sepia tints of his own truly-related but unidentified ancestors -- which I suppose now makes him our cousin. It's a small, reusable world.

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Pilgrimage I: The Spark Ignites

The past couple of years, more and more, the 'I am's have been sloughing off my soul like shed skins. Somewhere, there is an identity that must limit me, circumscribe me like the others. Somewhere, hidden where I can't touch it, there must be a goal. Such is the natural order of things. But if so, they are covered by a murky pool that hides my subconscious, tells me who I am only in my dreams....I become a tabula rasa with baggage, and it does not feel uncomfortable, only strange. I am liberated from the labels by which I have defined myself for decades, and I am not quite ready to look for new ones yet.
— writing exercise, 10/29/94

I had reached a point in my life where many of my struggles seemed to be behind me. On the one hand this was wonderfully peaceful; on the other hand it was lobotomizing. I felt limited by my own complacency. I felt more and more risk-averse, and I told myself: this is how one starts to age. In an era in which technology, habits, etc., are aimed at preserving life, these precautions can often put a damper on the very life we preserve. Take such "self-preservation" to an extreme and you get conditions like agoraphobia.

After doing various 'thons to raise money for AIDS research and education, and my first bike-a-thon to raise money to combat arthritis, I started seeing posters advertising the AIDS Ride to be held in September 1995, from Boston to New York: 3 days, a total of 250 miles under all weather and road conditions, 2,000 people (1,000 from Boston, 1,000 from NY; in the end those numbers would swell to more than 3,000), an average of a bit over 80 miles/day. I said to myself: if only I had the stamina to do that... because I wanted to and didn't see how I possibly could.

Hours after my writing exercise on 10/29/94, I read a full-page ad for the AIDS Ride, billed as "the first event of its kind." Well, kind of — in California, 500 people cycled from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1994: 525 miles over 7 days. People wearing knee braces did it, people with HIV and AIDS did it. People who were not athletes or cyclists and who hadn't even owned a bike before they did it, did it. The support systems attending the ride sounded excellent: bike and nutrition education and training rides throughout the year, catered meals and showers on the ride itself, tents, medical support, etc. etc. I was mildly surprised at how quickly I knew I was going to register.

Then I started thinking about why. I've always been an explorer, and my explorations have mostly been solo, testing my limits and learning on my own — whether that meant being self-employed or driving in the Australian Outback. Now my needs and priorities are different, and I started thinking about the importance of pilgrimages — why things like the Hajj, the journey to Mecca required as one of the basic pillars of Islam, are so basic. It's not only the religious underpinnings; they serve as a vehicle for an underlying process, just as the bikes are the literal vehicles for this AIDS ride. It's the shared hardship and exertion and exhaustion that lowers barriers in the face of a single, very intense focus. All the politics and ideologies of a plethora of divergent people drop away in the face of this focus, which is to push on in spite of your mind and body's protests until you reach a destination linked with a purpose, and to share that focus with people who are sweating as hard as you are. It strips you down to your basic, essential humanity — and the more complacent one is, the more susceptible one becomes to being separated from that stripping-down. I've known only one person who's died of AIDS, but to me this is our modern-day Plague that tests our humanity the way the Bubonic Plague did in the 14th century.

For me, every trip from Boston back to New York has been a pilgrimage of sorts, as I rediscover elements of my own past "on location." The Ride would give this a new overlay, with external forces overlaid on the internal ones. I've always paid attention to symbols personal and otherwise. The Hebrew word chai means life and is also the number 18, so at age 36 this is my "double-chai" year. The Ride would close out that year for me, and I would spend it in training, involving a process that goes beyond preparing for the Ride itself. I could not think of a more apt symbol for me to associate with the event: the forces of love and life pitted against those of hatred and death, thousands of riders on a pilgrimage against a modern-day Plague.

A century ago, great numbers of European men and women, sheltered in the often stifling arms of "civilization," took off for previously unexplored lands. Alexandra David-Neel became the first European to sneak into the forbidden city of Lhasa, Tibet. Edith Durham explored the Balkans solo, writing down observations about Bosnia in 1908 that proved frighteningly prescient. More recently, Robyn Davidson left a placid, middle class life to journey, with only camels for company, 2,000 miles across Australia's Simpson desert. The appeal of Westerns and stories of space exploration come in part from watching the testing of humanity in a frontier, in an alien setting. A testing not only of our physical and psychological limits, but of our relationships with each other. Wars accomplish the same things, but with attendant violence —serving to test our humanity in the face of our own inhumanity. So do plagues, in their pitting of life against massively-realized death.

Which makes me wonder how much of this drive, in whose grip I found myself, lies in something hardwired into our species. Our ancestors roamed in bands and forged cooperative strategies for survival. Does it work both ways? Are we programmed not only to band together in the face of struggle, but also to seek the struggle itself as a tool to reinforce that bonding? On the surface, I was not responding to a threat against me personally; I was taking on a challenge in which a major motivator was to return to a basic, essential part of myself. Did my hardwiring kick in as a response to how "civilized" I've become? Because this is different from the other 'thons I've done; they were safe. When I registered I knew that to an extent, this would also be safe — the support systems were there to ensure that this would not be a life-or-death situation for physically healthy participants.

Instead, this pilgrimage would be the latest phase of my exploration of both my own humanity and the ways in which we bond together. I'd chosen to chronicle this year "in training," because it is the latest phase of how I've been "in training" both for my corner of the human condition, and for the bigger picture.

Pilgrimage II: Body and Soul

"I would rather be ashes than dust, a spark burnt out in a brilliant blaze, than be stifled in dry rot....For man's chief purpose is to live, not to exist; I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them; I shall use my time."
— Jack London

I remember something about the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory: questions concerning the preoccupation with bodily functions. If you proved preoccupied, you got ranked somewhere in some pathology. The good news was that such preoccupation was typical of college students; the bad news was that being a college student made you, to a degree, automatically pathological.

It is November 1994, 10 months before the Ride. I do what outdoor training I can before the snow comes, and on this evening I celebrate my first 100-mile weekend. Sixty miles on a bike Saturday, 40 miles today, plus an hour on the weights. Two months ago my bike was still in the same mothballs it had been in for a decade. When I finally took it out, a 5-mile stretch was all I could manage. Then that became 12, then 20, and so on up.

Before I started training for the Ride, I spent a year getting myself in shape in other ways and watched my body changing. This fascinated and bored me at the same time — it's facinating because I can do things I couldn't do before, and boring because this kind of training is by its very nature self-involved. All pumped up and nowhere to go. I looked and felt better but I was working out in a vacuum. I thought: I've got this transformed flesh, this new and wonderful instrument; now I've got to do something with it.

I found the Jack London quote on the "Writers Walk" in Sydney, Australia, in 1991. It made me grin — there I was, exploring a country halfway around the world, and the quote spoke directly to my traveler's heart. It speaks to me now in a different way. I am not traveling great distances, but I am exploring and honing a body that is changing from the inside out. What adds a needed dimension to this self-involved process is the fact that I do this honing in preparation for a life-giving endeavor, and in doing so I add my spirit to the mix.

My focus on this has become laser-sharp; I'll be honest about it and call it an obsession. In the past, my obsessions have focused on more cerebral undertakings, most of them having to do with writing projects. This current obsession, more than the others, weds my body to my soul. Training my body alone is not enough; neither is training my mind alone. This process is teaching me how to undo the Cartesian separation of body and soul and make them one again.

Blind faith is an important component of this process. I've got to raise $1,200 to do this Ride; the money goes to the AIDS/HIV services of the Fenway Community Health Center in Boston as soon as I submit each check. I hate asking people for money. But this is for a cause that I believe in, so part of the process I undergo involves disciplining myself to do just that. Both the physical discipline of getting my bike out at 7AM in 37-degree weather, and the spiritual discipline of explaining what I am doing and why — I'll call this "proselytizing" — are pursued in tandem. Wearing a chai (see Pilgrimage, part I) has actually given me an opening with the people who know me, because they're not used to seeing me wear any jewelry at all (or rarely), let alone the same jewelry day after day. A couple of them have asked me if I've "found religion," and I tell them that this is the same old spirituality I've always had, just expressed in a new way (that also happens to be an old way). I've got a red AIDS awareness ribbon sticker on my bike and another on my weight machine. By my treadmill I've taped a message to myself: "If it seems impossible — just get a good night's sleep." Because this all seems daunting sometimes, the fundraising more so than the physical preparations.

The fundraising is more than just asking for money; it has more value to me than that. It requires a certain magic — an optimism that I have by nature but which needs to be freed a little bit more. When the thought of what I am doing is not daunting, it is downright fun. It is radically different from doing my usual work in front of a word processor. It pushes against Thoreau's sad vision of people leading "lives of quiet desperation." Even with all its intimidating qualities, this process has a wonderfully rejuvenating effect on me because in the final analysis I am excited about what I'm doing; I tell people about it and my adrenalin takes over.

Part of that adrenalin comes from the physical changes I undergo; this is all "psychosomatic" in the best sense of the word. I've experienced this from the other end: doing a victory dance at 3AM after writing 'round the clock. There, my mind wills up energies after a long period where my normal bodily needs — eating, sleeping, elimination — are magically suspended. Instead of being exhausted, I get a rush because my spirit has been nurtured by the act of writing. This time, I dance after a 100-mile weekend; after my morning workouts during the week, I need to discipline myself to spend a day sitting at my desk. In both cases, body and soul are in partnership rather than at odds with each other: a self-perpetuating energy system.

The writing — a mind-generated product — took me out of myself, away from my environment, and placed me with my characters in a different time and place; in that sense it was a "vacation" from the everyday. The physical training — a body-generated product —focuses me on those very things the writing separated me from; in this way, for me, body and soul are different depending on which has the dominant influence on my actions. In writing, my ultimate aim was outreach, to express the human condition in fiction that was shared, rather than just writing in a vacuum. I had to find a way to de-isolate my physical training that would make it equally communal, give it a purpose other than solely that of changing my body.

In the process of preparing for the Ride, I am still preoccupied with the physical changes transpiring, but they become a fraction of the many changes occurring on multiple — perhaps "multi-phasic" — levels.

Pilgrimage III: Nothing to Fear But...

"Avoiding danger in the long run is no safer than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." — Helen Keller

For participants in the AIDS Ride, two fears take precedence. Riders who don't worry about the fundraising requirements ($1,200 per rider) are afraid they can't do the Ride itself. Those who feel confident they can do the 250 miles in 3 days from Boston to New York quail at the thought of asking for so much money. Some are cowed by both requirements — but are driven just as much to face the challenge of both raising a lot of money and doing two-and-a-half "centuries" worth of pedaling.

I have this little superstition every time I go on a trip. If I'm flying, the plane will crash. If I'm driving, there will be a collision. Dealing with this possibility on a conscious level is my equivalent to taking an umbrella with you to make sure that it won't rain. I've seen worse — in graduate school, one of the doctoral students had memorized every fatal air crash in history, and the work he was doing required him to be a frequent flyer. Almost monthly, before each trip, he could be seen shuffling down the corridors with a glassy look in his eyes, mumbling, "I'm gonna die..."

As for me, I just assume a stoic fatalism about it all: que sera sera and all that jazz. The truth is that 1) I want to take the risk badly enough, and 2) the risk heralds a transformative experience. Part of my fear comes from an approach-avoidance conflict about the actual transformation, and that's because the transformation itself is an unknown. Usually it has more to do with expanding my horizons than with anything more profound. But it's new and unknown, like the time I took a helicopter flight over the Juneau ice fields (which are larger than the state of Rhode Island). Or even driving to central Massachusetts, because I rent a car only a few times a year: for me, driving is not a banal experience but a rare treat.

(Then there are individual differences. Some of my most banal experiences are new and fearful experiences to other people — like a woman I met who is getting to the point where she can take herself to the movies for the first time. For me, this activity is second nature.)

My first training ride of 1995 was in March, after I spent most of the winter on an indoor wind trainer. I used toe clips on the road for the first time, confronting the fear of riding on unknown roads with traffic plus getting caught in the clips. Another rider was overcoming the fear of using cleats for the first time. Several of us talked about the prospect of doing this together not for the 20 miles of the training ride but for the whole 250-mile shebang. None of us in that group had done anything remotely like what we planned to do in September. For some, this small jaunt became the longest ride they'd ever done — so far. Others were using brand new bikes for the first time. (Others didn't have bikes yet.) Standing at the starting point and comparing spandex, accessories, and energy bars, we became something of a mobile support group for Early Training Jitters Anonymous. For me, what works is the mantra of the word will. When I was young I had a fantasy alter-ego who had supernatural abilities. Whatever she said would happen, happened. If she was up against a particularly tough adversary, she would say something like, "I will get through this," or, "This force field will hold." This is called the power of positive thinking, but I didn't know about that "gimmick" until a decade after the fact. As a result, my modern-day mantra goes: I will raise the $1,200, and I will ride the 250 miles. No need to question it; it will happen. It's a force of will with attitude; behind the mantra is the hidden agenda of Just try and stop me. A friend of mine takes a slightly different tack; when people tell her, "You can't do that," she looks at them and says, simply,"Watch me." Backing up this subtle self-hypnosis, of course, is a tightly focused, concentrated effort aimed at meeting the goal.

I prefer the trial-by-fire approach. If I have a choice between waiting for something fearful to happen and going out to meet it head-on, I choose the latter. I always arrived early for exams, partly to settle myself in the room and "absorb" my surroundings, partly to be there so I wouldn't have to worry about getting there. I didn't learn to drive until I was 31; early on I asked my instructor when we were going to do Boston driving. His reply was, "Turn right." My first drive in downtown Boston was during the evening rush hour, at dusk, at the start of the Christmas shopping season. I was at peak awareness, my adrenalin level high and my language colorful, as package-laden pedestrians jaywalked without looking. ("It's okay," my instructor said, "you can hit 'em." "I can't hit 'em." "Sure you can...") For me, this experience had the thrill one expects from bungee jumping; I swear to you it was fun. I'm sure I'd feel differently if I had to do it every day, but its redeeming quality is that I don't.

Now I am dealing once again with traffic, but the other vehicles are bigger than mine. I have graduated from the bike path where I had begun to build up my mileage. I've soloed left turns and rotaries, first on weekends or at the tail end of rush hour, with traffic off-peak; then in heavy traffic. Riding with other cyclists helps build my confidence: if you're going to splatter me on your windshield, chances I won't be the only one. When several of us on the training ride took a wrong turn, our esprit de corps kept our spirits high as we asked pedestrians, "Excuse me — what town is this?" Lost sheep in spandex, triumphant when we found the magic road that would take us home. If one in our small group caught a red light, the rest of us called forward to the lead rider to stop and wait until we were all together again. Not only were we overcoming our fears; we were overcoming them collectively.

Most of my training rides in the spring of '95 have been with a cycling partner who logged 6,000 miles on his bike last year and is aiming for 10,000 this year. I no longer have to fear getting a flat on the road because it's happened. I no longer have to fear a series of hills that don't go up and down but that just go up and up and up and up, because I've done those (and gotten my flat in the middle of one of those climbs!). I no longer have to fear some pretty tight squeezes in congested traffic in a strange city because I've been there, done that, following in the tire tracks of my mentor. I no longer have to fear riding in the rain because I've done that — several times. During a weekend on my own, I had my first taste of solo navigation and self-sufficiency on the road, and soloing now complements my group cycling activities. Little by little, my skills and confidence improve.

My cycling partner tells me I have a great attitude. On a 93-mile ride he asked me, about a half-dozen times, "Do you hate me yet?" I reassured him that I didn't. He's never forced a scenario I couldn't handle. On the contrary; he gives me choices at every decision point as to what kind of terrain and what kind of mileage I want to aim for, and I make my decisions based on what my body tells me. What my mind tells me is that unless my body is insisting otherwise, there's no reason not to try for the brass ring — or for the muddy one. I might spin the hills very slowly near the end of an endurance ride because I'm conservative with my legs that late in the game, but I don't complain. I have no reason to.

On May 21, 1995, I put my first century (defined as riding at least 100 miles in a single day) behind me. The day's total had in fact come to 131 miles, after an easy, 66-mile "warm-up" the day before. Did the prospect of a century-plus scare me? You better believe it. But it thrilled me even more. My lowest, most fearful point came during the last 20 miles of the event, when we were heading toward an area with the never-ending climb that I'd already experienced. The organizers — who had given us some challenging hills earlier — very nicely steered the ride around the terrain that I was dreading. The psychological boost from having entered and left Topsfield without a single challenging hill shot me with enough adrenalin so that I could sprint up the final hill in Wakefield before the ride's end.

Overcoming one's fears provide a thrill in itself — but when one's fears vanish in the face of accomplishment, the effect becomes no less than exhilarating.

Pilgrimage IV: The Old Blue Mare

To Elissa
Live out your dreams. Come back to Alaska and do some dog-driving. You'll love it.
Live Adventurously
Norman D. Vaughan
— autograph dated 2 October 1992 in Vaughan's book, With Byrd at the Bottom of the World

My cycling partner offers me the use of one of his many "steeds." He has paid me a compliment, telling me that in the bicycle/rider partnership, it is now my bicycle that is the weaker partner. He tells me that I have great physical strength — that if I rode the same kind of lightweight bike he rides, I'd leave him behind in the dust. So I use an analogy to defend my trusty Univega: racers will fill their water bottles with lead to give them more weight to carry in training. I'm doing the same with my veteran "blue mare" (also known affectionately as my "old Chevy").

Each issue of Bicycling — a major cycling magazine, to which I've lately subscribed — begins its pages with a wonderful bike photo: sometimes a sepia tint, a colorized photographic plate, or a more modern but exotic view. Old rickety things with a single speed, shown in wartime passing cars waiting in gas lines. Or an Iraqi cyclist pedaling before a bullet-ridden mural of Saddam Hussein. The magazine features collector's items that cost maybe $50 when I was born and that now go for several thousand dollars apiece. Then you get to the section that profiles the newer bikes, with everything from shock absorbers to the latest, sleekest "clipless" pedals, aluminum frames and titanium spokes — and a price tag spanning multiple paychecks.

I like my "old Chevy." It has only 12 speeds (only! — not long ago 12 speeds were far too many for me to deal with; now I can use them all in a single ride and wish for more), versus the 21 or more that the latest bikes use for hill climbing. It has a good, old-fashioned steel frame, not the aluminum, titanium, or carbon fiber lightweight frames selling today. A mechanic recently admired its parts — still all the original parts — for their durability. In this day of planned obsolescence, there are newer bikes whose parts are already hard or impossible to find. The mechanic's colleague, the one who didn't want to get his hands dirty, wanted to sell me a newfangled bike. "I don't want to sound condescending," he said (ahem! I thought), "but many people hold onto their old bikes for emotional reasons when they really need a new one." I told him I knew I was being "sentimental" (I refrained from telling him I appreciated his need to make a profit) — but it's also the principle of the thing.

The prevailing cycling culture views my Univega the way one would view a trusty, big old Buick on the Autobahn. You know, the one everyone else passes, but also the one that's held together for decades. My steel frame means I'm pushing more weight uphill, and my lack of a third gear on my front derailleur means I'm working harder to push that weight. Maybe ten percent of the time I wish mightily that I had that third, "granny gear." My bike maintenance instructor said "granny gear" is a sexist, ageist name, and she's right. But I prefer to think of it as a wise gear, one that I can use when I realize my limits and want to preserve my knees. Too many cyclists have blown out their knees because they view that third gear as a sign of weakness. On two occasions when my lowest gear didn't cut an extraordinarily steep hill, I got off and walked. That's about the time when well-meaning fellow cyclists tell me I need that lighter frame, and that third gear.

I admit it: part of my resistance is macho pride. I've had people tell me, after I've ridden a century (one of nine by this time), "You did 100 miles on that?" The heavy frame, limited drivetrain, and my switch to upright handlebars conspire to make me one of the least aerodynamic folks on the road. A 12-year-old Chevy among '95 Maseratis. My old blue mare isn't ready yet to be put to pasture just because she's not a Secretariat. Even while my cycling partner and mentor suggests it's time I graduated to a "better" bike, he tells me that he benefits from the times he's had to wait for me to catch up to him — times that become fewer as I increase my physical strength, to the point where I've started passing him on those hills. He gets a chance to catch his breath and not overdo it. Time to admire the sunlight dappled on iridescent green trees. Time to smell the roses.

Time to be luxuriantly slow. I have an "official Iditarod musher collector card" of Norman D. Vaughan, dubbed "The Oldest And Slowest." Vaughan was part of Admiral Richard E. Byrd's Antarctic expedition in 1928-30. In 1991, at age 85, he finished his 13th Iditarod race — the one where you mush sled dogs across Alaska in the dead of winter . In 1993 he climbed the Antarctic mountain named after him (Mount Vaughan, 10,301') at age 87. He is pictured in musher's clothes with a bushy white beard, twinkling eyes, and a big grin on his face. I look at him and tell myself: this is a man who knows how to have fun. I have the card on my refrigerator, to remind me that you don't have to be the quickest or the sleekest or the newest. All you have to do is have fun. (There is also an "Iditabike" race across 160 miles of Alaskan wilderness, also during the dead of winter. I don't intend to do that one any time soon — at least, I don't think I do. But if I ever did, I'd have to get a newer bike...)

My "old Chevy" is fun. It gives me time to coast through back roads and enjoy the scenery. It teaches me both patience and pacing as I slowly, slowly spin uphill, and it offers me some wry amusement when I put my legs to work and coast uphill behind my cycling partner while he's still pedaling hard on his carbon fiber steed. Which is why he tells me, "If you were riding a bike like mine, I'd be toast." My old blue mare gives me a psychological advantage. A couple of triathletes stared at me when I told them, on Memorial Day Weekend, that I'd cycled almost 1,000 miles on my Univega since the beginning of the year (I passed the 1G mark on June 3 and the 2G mark on July 30). Such a feat wouldn't be half as fun if I'd been on a megabuck titanium wonder, where people expect that sort of thing. (And traithletes and the other racing cyclists concentrate on speed, so their priorities are different. Hearing stories of their cross-training exploits makes me as goggle-eyed as they become when I quote my mileage figures.)

Maybe some day — maybe when my wish for a lighter, speedier bike occurs 25 percent of the time instead of 10 percent of the time — I'll check out the new offerings. Maybe if it's a question of riding longer distances — double-centuries or extended touring — where time on the road becomes a factor. But in this day of high-tech, high-priced breakthroughs, each one coming on the heels of the other, maybe the next great athletic challenge will center around the magic of low-tech equipment. The no-frills challenge, the human body unassisted, or relatively so. Babe Ruth used a wooden bat. Zola Budd ran barefoot. The original Olympians — well, they couldn't be spokespeople for advanced footgear or spandex because they competed buck naked. (Never mind corporate sponsorship dollars; just think of the ratings!)

In the meantime I'll get out my work stand, my solvent and lube and my tool case, my grease rag culled from an old shirt. My old, worn travel toothbrush to clean the tight spots. My tinkerer's heart. Because it's time for a little grooming.

Hello, Old Paint.

Pilgrimage V: To Boldly Go...

"Doing something that you're just on the edge of disaster, you're pushing the limits, constantly. Pretty soon, you find yourself realizing you can go beyond the limits and still survive. This creates the need to do it just a little more. You're still staying on the conservative side of disaster, on the safe side. So you don't have the disaster."
— auto racer Lee Kunzman, quoted in Studs Terkel's book American Dreams: Lost and Found

On June 28 I made the $1,200 fundraising goal. Back-to-back centuries over Memorial Day Weekend meant I'd ridden roughly the equivalent of the first two days of the Ride — Labor Day Weekend I'd ridden 249 miles in 3 days. A foray from Boston to Provincetown raised my one-day mileage record to 137 miles. As part of that ride I was pedaling on the streets of Boston in pitch darkness at 4AM, and through pea soup fog shortly after sunrise. The weekend prior, getting lost on an ad-hoc ride led to an exhilarating day of solo exploration on roads I'd never been on before, and a subsequent 104-mile solo took me across state lines from Cambridge, MA, to Woonsocket, RI, and back. A ride halfway across the state had me climbing up a shoulder of Mt. Wachusett and riding through real pain for the first time. The day after Provincetown I cycled 50 miles through a torrential downpour.

Two months prior to Provincetown, my major fear was negotiating left turns in traffic.

Over the course of the summer, the "limit" of 2,000 riders on the AIDS Ride was dispensed with, and eventually more than 4,000 riders had registered; over 3,000 would ride. Our closing ceremony location, originally in Central Park, had to be changed because there was no room for all the cyclists plus SAG (support and gear) vehicles. The logistics team frantically searched for a place to hold us all, setting and resetting the route, and a heavy recruiting drive was launched to get more volunteers for the support crew — everything from security to food preparation to setting up/taking down tents and tables. While last year's California AIDS Ride had 500 cyclists, this year's ride had 1,800 and the first two days featured rain and temperatures in the 50s. Back in the spring, the prospect of a logistical nightmare — another "Woodstock" — would have made me much more nervous. Now, the practical side of me is cautiously optimistic. The adventurous side of me is thrilled.

My adventurous side is on a two-wheeled starship. When soloing, I am a mote in the middle of nowhere. When I am with a group we share a camaraderie and — let's face it —a fanaticism that is strong even among strangers. Meeting other cyclists on the road, going in the same or in opposite directions, means exchanging greetings. Seeing a cyclist on the side of the road means asking if he or she needs help. When I saw this in action for the first time, I automatically made comparisons with the shootings on L.A. freeways when one car cuts another one off. Unwittingly, I have entered into a culture with which I was previously unfamiliar. The closest thing I've seen to it is the boating community, where ships that literally pass in the night hail each other and ensure that all's well. It gets obnoxious sometimes. On our return from Provincetown, the 5 other cyclists in my group appraised the 20+ bikes parked on the ferry. My cycling partner realizes it's frightening when he not only recognizes a make of bicycle from afar, but recognizes a make of tire. A call I made to inquire about a ride ended up as a 45-minute conversation about nothing but cycling. And, in my workplace, finding other long-distance cyclists led to a 15-minute "break" at a time when my department was working on 2 proposals and theirs was working on 6. The only other time I've been this consumed with a single subject matter, day in and day out, was as a young "Trekkie," when Star Trek was not just a television series for me but a way of being.

The connection does not escape me. Today, I am boldly going where I've never gone before, or in a way in which I've never gone before. I play multiple roles: captain of my vessel; navigator; helmsman; the engineer who lubes and repairs where necessary; the science officer weighing time, distance, and energy; the communications officer hailing other explorers crossing my current "final frontier." When I embarked upon my training, I was fighting a tendency in myself to become risk-averse. Somewhere along the line, my level of confidence and training rose to the point where I now embrace the unknown.

Back in March, the simple fact of riding with toe clips on the street, with the risk of falling, was cause for fearing the unknown (and proceeding ahead anyway). On a cold, raw day I attended my first training ride in a group of people who represented many firsts: first time in cleats, first time on a new bike. First training ride. By signaling to each other and communicating on the road, comparing new accessories and spandex, and sharing both our hopes and fears about the AIDS Ride, we bonded during what was to be a short, 20-mile ride lengthened by the fact that half of us got lost. Then we'd joke that if this happened on the Real Thing, the 250-miler we were rehearsing for, we could be asking such questions in Missouri.

In August, pulling a back ligament meant I had to deal with the fear, after all my training and self-generated hype, of not being able to do the ride at all. Three weeks out of the saddle made me deal with the fear of detraining. My sense of paralysis was followed by one of anger and determination; if I couldn't bike I could walk. I could swim. I could cross-train. I told myself: if Carl Lewis can train with a hamstring injury, I can put up with pain and discomfort. People with AIDS are doing this ride, so my minor mishap was small potatoes. Another rider crashed the weekend before the Ride and needed to have emergency dental work done; for a day she couldn't lift her arms. But only for a day; then she was back on her bike and telling me she was fine, but I'd recognize her because she'd look like she was punched in the mouth.

On the eve of the Ride, the fears that have been whittled away are replaced by excitement and impatience to get the show on the road. As long as I don't get hit by a truck during my 8-mile ride from home to our starting point, I'll be fine...

Pilgrimage VI: Homecoming

"I wanted to prove to myself that I am still alive."
— AIDS Rider Peter Urban, HIV+, quoted in the September 18, 1995 Boston Globe

Of all the AIDS cases in the United States, 17% occur in New York City. That information was part of a speech at the Opening Ceremonies at Boston's World Trade Center on the evening of September 14, 1995. Another fact was that we had raised $6.5 million for AIDS treatment and research: more than three times the organizers' original goal. The woman listening in the row behind me would be doing the Ride with an artificial leg. A man and a woman in the aisle to my right hugged each other tightly, both of them in tears. I'd connected with my riding partners, and we wore identifying wristbands identical to those on the head tubes of our bikes, and dog tags with chips identifying our tents and matching the numbers on our gear. The security area was an endless sea of bikes that would all be in motion less than 12 hours later. After not much sleep and fortified by a carbo-loaded breakfast, we were arranged into three columns of road warriors who wheeled out onto the Boston streets — and kept coming, and coming, and coming.

Urban — whose name I didn't know until I read Sally Jacobs's Globe article — had a Jean-Luc Picard doll attached to his helmet; I'd seen him on the road every day of the ride. Another rider wore a Power Ranger doll. There were helmets with streamers, with a toy chicken, with long, fake-hair braids, with Viking horns. Riders wore everything from bikini to tutu. Bikes carried teddy bears. AIDS Ride shirts, their backs printed with the words RIDE. EAT. SLEEP, were signed by supporters or bore the names of loved ones dead of AIDS, in memoriam. One shirt read, "Please God, Find A Cure for AIDS. Thank You, Amen." A sheet of paper flying from the rack of one bike bore the names of sponsors, and then of the dead whose memories would be carried across three states in three days.

At no time was I ever alone on the road; we covered the route in throngs, coaxed throughout to ride single file but so thick that we were often traveling as many as 5 abreast. Most times, the group I was in stretched forward and backward interminably. We called constantly to each other: "On your left!" "Slowing!" "Stopping!" "Glass on the right!" "Car back!" Spectators lining the route were fantastic: everyone from retirees in rocking chairs applauding from their lawns to kids lining the curbs for gimme-fives. Signs posted by locals cheered on loved ones and encouraged the rest of us: "You can do it!" "Keep going!" Residents came out with water, with signs — and, on the last day, with umbrellas as they supported us in the pouring rain. An auto mechanic we passed somewhere in Connecticut simply stared at the never-ending flow of bicycles; from across the street I could hear him say, "Oh my God..."

Countless people simply went beyond their limits and their wildest dreams doing this ride. One woman had heard about the AIDS Ride while doing the AIDS walk-a-thon in Boston in June and registered without owning a bike. Until she got one, she worked out in the gym. The last 10 miles of the first day and the first 10 miles of the second were one steep hill after another, that up to 90% of us walked, including me. On my 12-year-old, 12-speed Univega, I covered some of the steep ones with standing climbs and saved my legs on others. Many riders had iced and bandaged knees for most of the trip. They also simply kept on going in spite of the pain. By the end of the first day, people who never thought they'd make it were crying with joy, exhaustion, and sheer amazement in each other's arms, while those riders who had arrived early at the campsite stood by the entrance and cheered on the latecomers.

The roads out of Boston were closed to traffic, but we shared the streets with cars once we passed into Newton and for the rest of our journey. Local cops throughout the route ran interference to give us passage. We were provided an escort throughout by members of the women's motorcycle club Moving Violations, who also managed traffic and provided numerous volunteer services. In fact, not only did riders come from far and wide (representing 29 states and 7 countries), but so too did the volunteers — I met one who had flown in from San Diego just to help out.

I'd been expecting another Woodstock, but this event was extremely well organized, with SNAFUs kept to a minimum despite the unexpected. The medical tent was well-prepared for inexperienced cyclists — on a hot Saturday I saw some at a pit stop on stretchers and under heavy blankets, sunburned and chilled from dehydration. The massage team was kept constantly busy. The showers never ran out of hot water. The first night we camped out in Mansfield under a sky riotous with stars and an occasional meteor. All 1,500-plus of our two-person tents, which we picked up from the truck, assembled, and disassembled in the morning, were placed less than a foot apart. The towels we'd placed on their roofs were stiff from frost the next day, and one cyclist's computer read 38 degrees inside the tent in the morning. The jester's cap I'd worn so my riding partners would recognize me (we'd never met before, just communicated by phone) doubled as a head-warmer during that cold night. In the morning, within hours of riding out of the frost, the temperature had risen by 45 degrees. We rose before dawn and rode until dark.

Our only problem arose enroute to Bridgeport, where we camped out the second night in Seaside Park. The park was lovely, but when I arrived at a pit stop 19 miles from camp I was told to get off my bike. The organizers had closed the route shortly before I and the cyclists I was with arrived, because there had been incidents of rock throwing and deliberate "dooring" (drivers opening their car doors in front of cyclists). Furthermore, the approach of inclement weather would hasten nightfall. Hundreds of us waited at the pit stop, and more waited at other rest areas, to be bused to camp. When buses arrived to take as many as they could carry, they delivered blankets for riders who were dressed only in T-shirts and were freezing cold. The women of Moving Violations entertained us with everything from juggling sticks to yo-yo tricks and Broadway show tunes, and then spent the entire night making sure that everyone and every bike got "home" safely.

Shortly before midnight, the rain came. A steady downpour clattered on our mostly-waterproof tents, and by Sunday morning the muddy field where we stayed looked like Woodstock. The hardship served only to galvanize us further. We were breaking out into spontaneous song, everything from "Singing in the Rain" to "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow." Our hands had long turned into prunes, and it may be a month before the dye from my black leather cycling gloves is completely gone from my cuticles. The rain stopped when the throng I was in reached Mamaroneck. Due to the weather, our Pre-Staging area for the Closing Ceremonies was moved from Gansevoort and West Streets in the Village to our lunch stop in New Rochelle, which meant that we filled Glen Island Park to capacity. While we were picking up our Victory Ride T-shirts and preparing for our onslaught on Manhattan, the sun came out and the cheers rising from that park were deafening.

When we entered the Bronx, residents came out from their tenements to stop traffic for us. Cops doing the same cheered us on as they waved us through. We shared the Manhattan streets with taxis and buses — that is, when we didn't take them over entirely. Our triumphant ululations echoed as we scooted under the el. A derelict on a streetcorner applauded us by banging on a pot that seemed to be his sole possession. When we reached the Closing Ceremonies site at the Village Piers under a clear blue sky, I stared ahead at the Twin Towers with tears in my eyes. I had left home, and I had come home, and those landmark pylons rose before me and the crowds and bicycles and banners like a mirage.

With the exception of the 19 miles of closed route from the troubles in Bridgeport, I had covered the entire course from the Hub to the Big Apple, from my adopted home to my birthplace. There was a victory party that night at the Palladium. One of my riding partners, crippled with injuries from a cycling accident the weekend before the Ride, had lived on ibuprofen, ice packs and bandages and was recovering from the journey. My other partner and I tripped the light fantastic until 1AM. Still high on adrenalin, we decided to forego a cab and walked from 14th Street back to our Times Square hotel. The opulence of the Marriott contrasted starkly to life in a tent city, and we were thrilled most, I think, by having access to toilets that actually flushed.

Pallotta & Associates, the LA-based firm that ran the 2 California AIDS Rides and this one, is planning rides from Orlando to Miami, Philadelphia to DC, and Minneapolis to Chicago. I want to do them all. Riders who had done both California rides had come to this one, and for three days I lived in a tightly bonded, mobile community — warriors fighting AIDS and pushing ourselves to our limits. It felt very strange to be back at my desk, to remove my dog tag and wrist bands and await my loyal and trusted bike's arrival at a South Boston warehouse.

This phase of my pilgrimage is over, but there's more to be done. And cycling — and life — will never be the same again.

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© 2000, Elissa Malcohn Version 5, 2008-04-24
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