Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Dog's Life

I have a dog who chases helicopters. I suspect this behavior began because my office is on the second floor of my house and my desk is next to a big double-hung window. Cosmo likes to lie by my feet while I'm working, just under the low window sill. From that vantage point, he can only see the tops of trees, an occasional bird, and the helicopters that fly overhead. The birds are too quick and too quiet to capture his attention. Planes also fly above us but, while Cosmo can hear them, they're usually too high for him to see. However, helicopters, with their distinctive drone and low altitude, excite him every time.

When Cosmo hears a helicopter, he leaps up, all seven pounds of him, and stands on his hind legs, with his front paws on the window sill, scanning the sky for the offending aircraft, all the while growling, barking, and wagging his tail. When he finally has the helicopter in his sights, his barking increases exponentially. This continues until the helicopter leaves Cosmo's airspace—that is, until he can't see it anymore.

Of course, trapped as he is in my office, Cosmo can't actually chase the helicopter. For that, he needs to be outside. While other dogs focus on squirrels or bunnies, Cosmo is ever on the alert for an aerial opponent. As soon as he hears the telltale whine of a helicopter, he strains at his leash and searches the sky. When Cosmo was younger, he often didn't know where the noise was coming from. I would point in the direction of the helicopter and Cosmo would look at my arm or down the street, anywhere but up. Eventually, however, he got the idea. Now, if he doesn't immediately spot the helicopter on his own, he turns to me for help and his eyes follow my pointing finger up into the sky. When he at last sees the helicopter, delirium ensues. Picture, if you will, an apoplectic apricot bundle of fur, complete with furious barking, frantic running, and fierce growling.

When the helicopter eventually disappears from view, Cosmo invariably looks at me with an expression that can only be described as triumphant. And he walks with an unmistakable swagger. After all, in his mind, Cosmo hasn't been barking ineffectually at an unreachable enemy. He's vanquished the helicopter and chased it clear out of his territory. He's heard the enemy, seen it, and barked it away.

If only my life were that simple.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Art of Crying

When I learned I had breast cancer in 2003, I didn't cry. It's not that I decided not to cry. I simply didn't. Though my body thrummed with anxiety, my mind seemed detached. I remember wondering whether I felt sorry for myself. I actually pondered that as an objective question. I realized that the answer was no when, rather than asking "Why me?" I found myself asking "Why not me?" After all, I'd been fortunate to have 54 healthy years before this bad news. My eyes stayed dry.

The process of diagnosis and treatment for cancer is often filled with waiting. For me, the waiting began after a suspicious mammogram. First, I had to wait for a biopsy to be performed, then I had to wait for the pathology report. Once that confirmed I had cancer, I had to wait until I met with my breast surgeon to learn exactly what the path report meant and what treatment she recommended. After that meeting, surgery was scheduled, but not for the next day. Rather, I had to be slotted into my surgeon's busy schedule. I was "lucky" in that I only had to wait ten days. But I was dealing with cancer and I wanted the cancer out, so ten days seemed like an eternity to me.

Once I finally had the surgery, there was more waiting for the next pathology report. And so on. Very anxiety provoking. During these waiting periods, I couldn't eat. I woke up with a start each morning to find my body literally vibrating with nervous energy. But mentally, I remained detached. I focused on understanding my situation. I spent a lot of time researching every aspect of breast cancer and its treatment on the Internet. This kept me outwardly calm. I still didn't cry.

When the pathology report finally arrived, I learned that the surgical margins weren't clean. This meant that some cancer still remained in my breast, necessitating a second surgery. My surgeon was going on vacation, so the surgery couldn't be scheduled for several weeks. More waiting.

Physically, I recovered quickly from the first surgery and (outwardly, at least) resumed my normal life, which included caring for my toy poodle, Cosmo. Cosmo's vet had recommended that his teeth be cleaned, so I dutifully brought him to her office early one morning. Late that afternoon, when I picked Cosmo up, he seemed woozy from the sedation required for a canine cleaning, but otherwise okay. As I carried him out to the car, though, I noticed a swelling on one side of his mouth. On closer inspection, I could see that his entire upper lip was swollen. I immediately brought him back inside and asked what had happened. The vet seemed surprised but not terribly concerned. Probably the technician had propped his mouth open too wide during the cleaning, she speculated.

I felt terrible. Cosmo was totally dependent on me and because I'd trusted this obviously incompetent vet, he'd suffered. I quickly drove home and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Cosmo bore his wound with stoicism. He didn't cry. I sat down on the floor next to him. By now, his lip was massively swollen, the raw skin of his inner cheek turned outward. I began to cry.

Soon I was sobbing. In the midst of my tears, I realized that I was crying not only for Cosmo, but also for myself. In my distress at Cosmo's helplessness, I had at last found an outlet for my feelings of fear and sadness about my own situation. After I'd had a good cry, I picked myself up off the floor. I knew Cosmo's lip would heal. And I'd been told I had an early stage cancer with a good prognosis. I found strength in accentuating the positive. It made my husband and sons feel better and it made me feel better, too. But the release I experienced when I finally let go and cried was profound. My mind and body felt reconnected.

My mother-in-law, Reggie, died this week. I'm saddened by her passing and I miss her already. I haven't cried yet, but I know that crying can't be forced. One of these days, something will trigger my tears. In the meantime, I'm choosing to accentuate the positive by recalling Reggie's many gifts—her free spirit, her contagious laughter, her unexpected insights. Eventually, when I least expect them, the tears will come.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Saab Story, Part Three: Recapturing Our Lost Youth

After Eric and I sold our Saab Sonett sports car in the late seventies, Eric tried to compensate for its loss—he took up flying. By the time we moved from Chicago to Boston in the summer of 1979, he had both an MBA and a pilot's license.

Eric's enthusiasm for flying caused me considerably more anxiety than his pursuit of speed on the ground ever had. Nonetheless, once in Boston, I accompanied him on excursions to the Vineyard, Bar Harbor, and other interesting locales. At first, we flew in a rented Cessna two-seater aircraft, but before long Eric teamed up with a friend and together they bought a Piper Cherokee with room for four.

While we were still in Chicago, our Mazda RX2 had died and we'd replaced it with a boaty, used Mercury Montego, which we brought with us to Boston. Eric had been hired as a consultant at Bain & Company and I planned to finish my third year of law school at Harvard. We were both thirty by then and had been married for over seven years, but we hadn't really thought much about having children. Once we decided we were ready for a family, I grew more anxious than ever about Eric's flying hobby. When a mouse got into the Cherokee and chewed up some of its wiring, even Eric acknowledged that flying could be risky.

Our son, Aaron, was born in June of 1982. By then, the plane and the Montego had been sold and we'd moved from Boston to the nearby suburb of Newton. After moving nine times in ten years, we settled down in a 40-year-old Tudor-style house on a quiet, leafy street, a block from the local elementary school. On our driveway sat a Honda Accord and a Honda Civic, which Eric used as a commuting car. I'd decided to forego a career in favor of full-time motherhood, pursuing law and other interests on a part-time basis. Our transition from free spirits to responsible parents became complete when, in 1984, we purchased a Volvo DL 240 station wagon, a tank-like vehicle whose main selling point was its stellar reputation for safety. By 1985, when our younger son, Alex, was born, the Saab Sonett, and the life it represented, seemed a distant memory.

A Mercury Sable station wagon eventually replaced the Volvo and took us through the grade school years. In 1995, it was supplanted by a Toyota Avalon, then in its first year of production. By that time, Aaron was a teenager, and the Avalon's roomy back seat was ideal for big teenage boys. While I ferried the kids around, Eric continued to use a second car for commuting. In 1990, he replaced his Civic with an Acura Legend. It was the first car since the Saab that Eric had really loved—a sleek, metallic-blue luxury sedan, with great handling. Eric drove the Legend for seven years and would probably still have it today had a patch of black ice not caused it to spin out, wrecking its under-carriage. The damage was repaired, but while the car was in the shop I persuaded Eric that an SUV was the way to go for a safer commute in wintry New England, a dubious claim, given the rollover potential of SUVs. Still, Eric agreed that an all-wheel-drive vehicle made sense. He sold the Legend and bought a two-door Ford Explorer.

As Eric's fiftieth birthday approached, I attempted to avert any chance of a mid-life crisis by encouraging him to buy a new car, something really special. Eric had long admired two Jaguars from the sixties—the S-type and the Mark 2. For the 2000 model year, Jaguar came out with a new S-type, whose design borrowed from both those earlier cars. Eric bought the Jaguar sight-unseen and took possession on his birthday, in June of 1999. The S-type fulfilled his expectations—it was a powerful car with great acceleration, but also luxurious and easy to handle. The Jaguar was hardly a sports car, but it reawakened Eric's passion for cars. At about this time, we were emerging from the fog of over-protective child-rearing. Aaron was a senior in high school and driving Eric's Explorer. Alex was a high school freshman. Eric began to fantasize about someday owning a sports car again.

He was encouraged in this line of thought by our friend, Mason, a knowledgeable car buff whom we'd known since college. One summer, Mason invited Eric up to his house in Vermont for a weekend. Little did I realize that the main event of Eric's visit would be the 2005 Saab Owners Convention at Stratton Mountain, featuring vintage Saabs of every description. Among the more behemoth models on display were a few restored Sonetts. On seeing them, Eric immediately regressed to his adolescent state—he wanted one of his own. He even phoned me from Stratton Mountain, claiming he'd purchased a Sonett on the spot. I wasn't amused until I realized he was only joking. I worried that if Eric ever really bought an old Sonett, he would be disappointed, since I believed the actual car could never live up to his mythical memories of it.

I didn't hide my concern from Eric, so he reacted the way any rational man would—he began searching in secret for a 1969 Sonett to restore. His quest continued, without my noticing, for over a year, mostly on the Internet. Since so few Sonetts were built to begin with, there were very few on the market and most of those were in bad repair. Finally, though, Eric thought he'd found the car he wanted. He decided it was time to reveal his intentions to me.

I reacted the way any rational woman would—with dismay.

"You can't recapture the past," I admonished. Eric insisted he simply loved the Sonett and relished the idea of restoring one.

"You'll take over the garage," I complained. Since we have a three-car garage, that argument didn't hold much weight.

Eventually, I was set straight by several of my girlfriends, who pointed out that boys like their toys. One of them put things in perspective—at least Eric didn't want to build an airplane, she reminded me, or ride a motorcycle (her husband had succumbed to the lure of a Harley-Davidson not long before, with near-disastrous results). I was at last convinced and gave my grudging support to Eric's project.

Eric excitedly showed me pictures of the car he'd found through his Internet search. It was located in Arizona, where it had been owned by two generations of the same family. The car looked just like our Sonett, except it was bright red rather than electric blue. The photos showed the car housed in a spotless garage, suggesting it had been well-cared-for. The current owner, Mike, was selling it because his wife was having a baby and wanted the garage space for a sensible car. Here was a woman I could relate to!

When the deal was in its final stages, Mike mentioned that the car had been in a minor rear-end collision at some point before his father purchased it. The damage had been repaired but, in the interest of full disclosure, he wanted Eric to know about it. Eric mentioned off-handedly that he'd had a similar-sounding accident with his Sonett.

"But my car was blue," Eric said.

"Oh, didn't I mention that this car used to be blue?" Mike replied. "My dad painted it red."

Eric asked Mike where his father had purchased the car. The answer—Berkeley, California, not far from where we'd last seen it at Eric's parents' home on the Stanford campus.

Shortly after this intriguing conversation, Eric was helping his mother sort through boxes of old documents as she prepared to move from the Stanford house after 47 years. During the process, he came across a copy of his original title to the Saab Sonett, VIN number included. He immediately contacted Mike, who confirmed that the VIN number of his Saab Sonett was identical. So, Eric was buying back his original car! This amazing coincidence erased even my remaining hesitation about the purchase. A short time later the car was shipped from Arizona to a convenient locale near our home, where Eric picked it up and drove it onto our driveway.

I gazed at our now-red 1969 Saab Sonett. It looked cute, smaller than I remembered, and somehow not quite ours. Perhaps it was the red paint, perhaps the intervening years, but I didn't feel much connection to this little vehicle we once again owned. A while later, back in the house, I saw the car keys sitting on a table in the foyer. I picked them up. They were old, clearly the original keys. I felt a rush of emotion. These were the same keys I had held back in the seventies, when we were young and starting our life together. These were the very same keys I had inserted into the ignition, the keys that had started not only the car, but our journey together. Memories came flooding back, along with the thrill of having somehow recaptured a little piece of our youth.

Our 1969 Saab Sonett, fully restored by Eric and repainted its original blue color.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Saab Story, Part Two: Over the Edge

Eric and I arrived in California in the summer of 1972, during a heat wave. The hills had been baked a golden brown by the unrelenting sun and it seemed impossible that it would ever rain. By the time it did, we had been hired as managers of a garden apartment complex in East Palo Alto, where we could live rent-free. We moved into a pleasant one-bedroom apartment with shag rugs and a tiny fenced-in patio. Our 1969 Saab Sonett had its own cozy carport among a row of carports at the front of the complex.

Our neighbors were an eclectic group, including Leonard, a taciturn engineer who restored antique cars; Melanie, a "masseuse" with a throaty, seductive voice; and Susan and Gowen, recent Princeton grads who became our friends. Our next door neighbor, Rita, was a down-and-out middle-aged woman who depended on her no-good boyfriend for support and listened incessantly to a record of Fats Domino singing "Blueberry Hill." Above us lived a lively couple who were into wife-swapping, as we discovered when they invited us for drinks one afternoon. We even had a famosity connection—the apartment across the garden path from us was rented by Joan Baez's cousin and personal secretary. Ms. Baez would sometimes visit with her big German shepherd. Among that varied group, our main distinction was of course our snazzy Saab Sonett.

When the rain finally arrived that fall, it came not merely as drizzle or showers, but also as impressive wind-driven downpours, veritable blizzards of rain. During one such deluge, Eric and I were driving north on the 101 Freeway. We had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and were in the fast lane. The rain was coming down in sheets and, even with the windshield wipers going, our visibility was poor. Nevertheless, being 23 and fearless, Eric was careening along at high speed. Since the Sonett had no radio, the monotonous motion of the windshield wipers provided our sole accompaniment—left, right, left, right. We had just passed the exit for Ross, Eric's home during his third- and fourth-grade years, when the driver's-side wiper swung left and kept going over the edge of the windshield, where it dangled uselessly.

Within a nanosecond, Eric had no visibility whatsoever. The windshield wiper on the passenger side still worked, but it didn't help Eric see directly in front of the car. Frantically, he opened his window and leaned his head out. I stuck my head out the right window so I could look back at cars coming up beside us from behind and guide Eric into the slower lanes. It was a near-death experience, but not one characterized by white light and bliss. More like screaming intensity, not to mention that we almost drowned. Eventually, Eric edged the car across several lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder. There, we waited for the rain to let up, which it mercifully did after about fifteen minutes.

Back home in East Palo Alto, we made a disconcerting discovery—the part we needed to repair the wiper wasn't available. This was our first stroke of bad luck concerning Saab parts. We'd had quite a different experience during our drive west, when our alternator failed just outside Boise, Idaho. Thinking we'd be stranded for days, we had coasted downhill into town, where we learned that the only Saab dealer between Chicago and San Francisco was located right there in Boise. And he had the part we needed!

This time we weren't so lucky. The local Saab dealer informed us that not only did he not have the wiper part, but no one else in the U.S. did, either. He suggested we call Saab's U.S. corporate headquarters in Connecticut. Maybe they could order the part for us from Sweden. Coincidentally, I'd recently applied to a Master's program in anthropology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Eric convinced me that we should wait until I heard from Wesleyan. If I were accepted, he reasoned, we could delay contacting Saab headquarters until we actually arrived in Connecticut. Meanwhile, ever resourceful, Eric came up with a temporary fix using duct tape. By then, the worst of the rainy season was over and the tape held until the coming of spring and dry weather.

During that winter and spring, while Eric worked at home maintaining the apartment complex and writing a book about blues roots piano, I commuted in the Sonett to the Stanford Music Library, where I'd been hired to create a catalog for Stanford's Archive of Recorded Sound. I spent my days in the musty basement of the Knoll, a lovely old building that housed the Music Library. Surrounded by ancient Edison gramophones, I listened to and cataloged spoken-word recordings made at Stanford during the prior decades. They ran the gamut from lectures about Shakespeare, astrophysics, and architecture to speeches by Henry Kissinger and anti-war radical David Harris.

In mid-summer, after I was indeed accepted as one of two graduate students in Wesleyan's anthropology department, we began driving east toward Middletown, Connecticut, where Wesleyan is located. Somewhere in Wyoming's big sky country Eric's duct-tape wiper fix failed. We could see a storm coming from miles away. When it hit, the faulty wiper made a couple of left-right swipes, then headed once again over the edge. This time, fortunately, we were on an empty two-lane highway and the storm was brief. We pulled over and waited for it to stop, then continued on our way. We spent the rest of the trip praying for dry weather and pulling over when necessary. After we arrived in Middletown, we managed to persuade someone at Saab's corporate headquarters to order the correct part for us. Once it arrived and was installed, we felt ready for whatever Connecticut weather might deliver—rain, snow, or ice. What we weren't prepared for, though, was the coming oil crisis.

Following the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, during my first semester at Wesleyan, OPEC declared an oil embargo against the U.S. and other countries that supported Israel. By this time, Eric had found a job in West Hartford, as assistant managing editor of Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, a weaving magazine. The commute was about 45 minutes each way, not a big deal until the gas crisis hit. When it did, the Sonett proved its worth. With its extremely light-weight fiberglass body, it got about 40 miles per gallon. Even with that amazing mileage, Eric would still have found it hard to buy sufficient gas for his daily commute were it not for the ethnic factor—with his dark hair and Mediterranean complexion, Eric could pass for any one of a number of ethnic groups. The local gas station happened to be run by an Italian who naturally assumed that Eric was a paesano. He told Eric not to worry—there would always be enough gas for him to get to work. Happily, this proved to be true.

After our year in Connecticut, we drove back to Northern California. Although I had planned to follow up my classwork with fieldwork in San Francisco, my anthropological fervor decreased the further away I got from Wesleyan. So, instead of studying the ethnography of language among Portuguese immigrants, I opted for a job as an assistant editor at Guitar Player Magazine. Eric's music background, coupled with his publishing experience at the weaving magazine, led to his hiring by Guitar Player's publisher to develop a book and record division, Guitar Player Productions. We settled in Los Gatos, about 25 miles south of Palo Alto.

Although I felt comfortable driving the Sonett around town, I had managed to avoid driving it on the highway ever since my traumatic downhill experience with the freewheeling clutch two years earlier (see Part One). I still thought the Saab was a cool car and I enjoyed being seen in it, but the fact that I was afraid to take it on the highway served as a constant reminder of my driving inadequacy, so it hadn't exactly enhanced my self-image. All that changed, however, when I heard about the San Andreas Health Center in Palo Alto. The San Andreas center was a holistic health mecca which offered biofeedback, Rolfing, encounter groups, the Feldenkreis Method, and numerous other non-traditional medical approaches. In my quest for self-realization, I was dying to try them all. But I had to get there first. Eric was less than enthusiastic about alternative medicine, so I knew I was on my own.

One evening, there was a lecture on full-spectrum light, which I really wanted to attend. Calming myself with my Transcendental Meditation mantra, I got into the Sonett, made my way to the freeway, and hit the accelerator. The freedom was glorious! It turned out I loved driving fast in the Sonett. And the Health Center was fantastic. I soon started attending biofeedback sessions and, in early 1976, I persuaded Eric to move to Palo Alto. By this time, I had left Guitar Player and, while working as a freelance editor, I began volunteering at the health center. Eric eventually left Guitar Player, too, and joined Inner City Records, a small independent record company.

It was a wonderful existence, but we felt we hadn't quite grown up. In the fall of 1976, Eric decided to apply to business school and, not to be outdone, I applied to law school. We were both accepted at the University of Chicago and decided to return to a colder clime. We agreed that the Sonett wouldn't be the right car for the frigid and gritty south side of Chicago. Eric's dad had long admired the car, so we gave it to him, thinking we might reclaim it later. In the meantime, we bought a more practical but still offbeat vehicle, a used, orange Mazda RX2, with a rotary engine. Soon after we arrived in Chicago, my father-in-law realized he simply didn't have room in his driveway to keep the Sonett. After some soul-searching, we told him to sell it. Thus, a powerful symbol of our carefree youth vanished from our lives. Or so we thought.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Saab Story, Part One: Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Once upon a time, my husband, Eric, owned an electric-blue sports car called a Saab Sonett. It was a rare car, one of only 640 built in 1969, his model year. The car was unusual in other ways as well. Its body was made of fiberglass and it had something called a freewheeling clutch, which sounded alluring until I tried using it while descending from a mountain pass in the Sierras.

When I first dated Eric, in the winter of 1969, the Sonett had just been shipped to him from Sweden. On our first date, we drove to a movie theater on Route 9 in Amherst, Massachusetts, where we saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. With the Sonett's aerodynamic design and spaceship-like interior, it was the perfect vehicle to transport us into the futuristic world of HAL. Afterward, as Eric explained the meaning of the film to me, I marveled that I'd found a guy with brains as well as a snazzy car. Despite Eric's attractions, though, I broke up with him the following summer. At that stage of my life, I was too masochistic to settle for such a great guy.

I didn't encounter the Sonett again until January, 1972, during a visit to Amherst College. Eric, having taken a semester off, had just finished his senior year. I had recently gotten back in touch with him. I now regretted our earlier breakup and was trying to figure out how to rekindle the romance.

Enter Wendy Wasserstein. The future playwright and I had graduated the prior spring, she from Mt. Holyoke College, I from Smith, but we had both spent our junior year at Amherst, where we'd become friends. After graduation, we both moved to New York City and saw one another occasionally. The trip up to Amherst was her idea. A friend of ours was giving a French horn recital at the college and Wendy wanted to attend. She asked if I'd like to come along. This gave me the perfect excuse to visit Eric and crash on his couch.

Wendy and I arrived by bus on a bitterly cold evening. Icy snow coated everything and crunched underfoot. Wendy soon departed with our horn-player friend. After they left, I stood shivering outside the fraternity house where the bus had let me off, waiting for Eric. Five minutes passed. Ten. Eric's low-slung car finally roared around the corner and up to where I stood. Eric leaned over to open the door for me. He didn't look happy. Uh oh, I thought, this isn't starting well.

"Sorry, I'm late," he said. "I had a little accident." It turned out that, in his haste to meet me on time, he had backed the Sonett into his friend Rick's VW bug, barely denting Rick's car, but damaging the Sonnet's fiberglass rear end. On impact, fiberglass doesn't dent, but instead fractures. So, Eric's car now had a jagged scar. At the time, I worried that the mishap would spoil our weekend together. It didn't occur to me that Eric's momentary loss of motor control might have been due to his nervousness about seeing me.

Despite starting with such an unfortunate bang, the weekend went well. Eric played hard to get, which only heightened my interest. While I attended the French horn recital with Wendy, Eric stayed behind at the Hadley farmhouse he rented with friends, reading Plato, or so he claimed. When I returned, I found him in bed with The Republic, whereupon I persuaded him to abandon metaphysics for the purely physical. This seemed to help him transcend the trauma of the car mishap. In any event, by summer we were married and heading west to California in our blue Saab Sonett.

Fortunately, we had few possessions, so we were able to cram them all into the Sonett's hatchback. Included was a tent, which we used as we car-camped our way from Massachusetts to California. During our trip, Eric never tired of extolling the car's many virtues—its innovative roll bar, which he assured me would protect us even in the event of a head-on collision with a Mack truck; a windshield designed so that snow and even rain would glide right off, providing clear visibility without the use of wipers; a ventilation system that circulated fresh air, creating a delightfully cool and comfortable environment despite the lack of air conditioning; and, finally, that fantastic freewheeling clutch, which enabled the car to revert to neutral when the driver's foot was removed from the gas pedal, eliminating the normal braking action of the clutch and resulting in an extraordinary sense of freedom.

Thankfully, we didn't encounter a Mack truck along the way, so we were unable to test out the roll bar's effectiveness. As for the car's other supposed attributes, Eric's love for his Sonett was blind, or at least near-sighted. Regarding the vaunted windshield, for example, during the first few moments of a rain shower, the windshield did remain notably clear. However, any significant rain quickly made visibility impossible. To my dismay, though, Eric usually insisted that he could see just fine and often delayed activating the wipers until the rain was coming down in sheets. On the plus side, the windshield wipers functioned just fine once turned on, at least until a fateful day in Marin County (more on that in Part Two).

As for the ventilation system, a day traversing the Nevada desert wilted even Eric's conviction that the Saab's fresh-air flow would keep us cool no matter what. With the windows open and bugs of unusual size splatting against our windshield, we sweated our way through Nevada and began climbing the Sierras. By then, though, I had something else to focus on, for it was in the Sierras that I experienced the full impact of the much-touted freewheeling clutch.

Eric had done most of the driving during our cross-country trip. To be honest, he'd done virtually all of it. Back in Massachusetts, he'd taught me to drive the Sonett's manual shift and I'd taken a spin or two around the block, but I'd never driven on a highway, let alone on steep terrain. Now, he encouraged me to get behind the wheel. We were newlyweds and his faith in my driving ability touched me, so I complied, though not without some trepidation. Once in the driver's seat, I managed to put the car in gear and merge onto the freeway without killing us. We continued climbing, heading toward the pass. I began to relax. This was easy. I'd always been a good driver, after all, even an aggressive one. As we arrived at the summit, I stepped on the gas and the car zoomed downhill, picking up speed until we were approaching 85 miles per hour. I lifted my foot off the gas pedal. Although Eric had explained the freewheeling concept, I instinctively expected the car to slow down due to the braking action of the clutch. Instead, we hurtled down the highway at breakneck speed. What Eric experienced as extraordinary freedom felt like a total loss of control to me. I applied the brake pretty much all the way down from the summit into the San Joaquin Valley, until I finally found a place to pull over and hand the keys to Eric. I didn't drive the Sonett on the freeway again for the next two years.

Despite its quirks, though, I grew to love the Sonett. It had speed and maneuverability. Its black seats, though vinyl rather than leather, were sporty and comfortable. The car featured three-point seatbelts, which were far safer than the lap belts then standard in American cars. It had a simple, elegant dashboard and a powerful engine for its size, which gave it tremendous acceleration. It was even possible to switch that challenging clutch into regular mode rather than using freewheeling, though once I got used to freewheeling, I actually came to like it. Perhaps most important, the Sonett was a great-looking piece of machinery, a really cool car. We drew stares of appreciation wherever we went. In it, I felt instantly transformed from a staid, uptight kind of girl to the hip, laid-back woman I'd always wanted to be. By marrying Eric, I'd gained not only a husband, but a car and the image that went along with it. It remained to be seen if I could live up to that image.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Books & Books & NASCAR, Too

It's not an exaggeration to say that my husband, Eric, and I moved to Miami because of a bookstore. Once we discovered Books & Books in Coral Gables, it was only a matter of time before we decided to decamp from Massachusetts to Florida for the winter. When we began looking for real estate in earnest, we narrowed our search to the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, only a ten-minute drive from Coral Gables and the bookstore of our dreams.

We had already been drawn to the area because our son, Aaron, spent his college years at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables. Although my parents had lived for over twenty years in Boca Raton, only an hour north of Miami, during our visits there we had rarely ventured to Miami. We thought of it as a high-crime city without much to offer culturally. I did, however, have fond memories of Coral Gables, having spent an idyllic week there in 1969, visiting my college roommate. Her parents' glamorous home featured a "Florida room," a sun-drenched enclosed patio filled with potted palms and other exotic flora, where we dawdled over breakfast before heading to the country club to swim and sunbathe the days away.

Eric and I had been yearning for a respite from New England winters, but we could never picture ourselves living in Boca, with its early-bird specials, homogeneous (read old) population, and its suburban feel, strip malls and all. When we visited Aaron, though, we found Miami to be a city transformed from its gritty past, boasting a dazzling skyline, almost blindingly white compared to the dark brick and stone of Boston. And then there was South Beach, its charming art deco architecture awash in pastels, and Coral Gables, as lovely as ever, with its Spanish tiled roofs and lush foliage. We promised ourselves that in the fall of 2003, after our younger son, Alex, had left for college, we'd spend some time in the Miami area and check out the real estate. We still weren't sure we could actually live there, though. With Miami's reputation for glitz, we wondered if it would suit our more literary tastes.

In November of that year, we flew down to Miami and started looking at apartments. In the evenings, we checked out the vast array of local restaurants. One night, we chose Cafe Abbracci in downtown Coral Gables. We found a parking space about a block away. As we got out of our car, Eric said, "Look. A bookstore." The sign read "Books & Books" and the store appeared to be arranged around an attractive open courtyard. We were already late for our reservation, so we decided to see whether they would still be open when we were through with dinner. To our astonishment, the sales clerk said they closed at the late hour of 11 pm. We surmised that some people in the neighborhood must care about books to justify such long hours.

After a delicious meal at Abbracci, we hightailed it back to Books & Books, which exceeded our expectations. The courtyard was still lively at 8:30 pm, its tables filled with people speaking English and Spanish, enjoying dishes prepared at a small cafe located inside the bookstore. We entered the store through a doorway off the right side of the courtyard. We could see a book group in progress at a table in a small room adjacent to the paperback book area. On the other side of the courtyard, we found not only hardbacks, but a reading in progress in a large back room which housed an impressive-looking collection of art books. From a listing on the bulletin board, we could see that such readings were frequent. Virtually everyday, sometimes twice a day, authors came to talk about their books. We were sold—any community that supported a bookstore as vibrant as this one was a place we could feel at home.

Our faith was not misplaced. Five years later, Books & Books is still one of our favorite spots. We've attended book groups that meet regularly at the store and we've heard authors as varied as Madeleine Albright, Jared Diamond, Dave Barry, Andrea Mitchell, Carl Hiaasen, and Angelo Dundee. These author appearances are not mere book signings. They're full-blown lectures, during which the author talks about the subject of his or her book, perhaps reads a bit from it, and then takes questions. The Dundee event was preceded by a boxing exhibition in the courtyard. Mr. Dundee turned out to be a delightful gentleman, who shared many wonderful anecdotes about his years as Muhammad Ali's trainer. After Mr. Dundee's talk, we were treated to a few words by the "Fight Doctor," Ferdie Pacheco, who became so emotional about appearing with his old friend that he actually cried.

Not long ago, NPR's Scott Simon came by to discuss his recently-published novel, Windy City, and next week, Jhumpa Lahiri will be visiting the bookstore to talk about her new book, Unaccustomed Earth. Some events are held at local churches, synagogues, and hotel ballrooms, to accommodate the enormous crowds well-known authors draw. Dave Barry rated the ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel and Madeleine Albright filled Temple Judea, which seats a thousand.

A recent Books & Books highlight was a performance by the Florida Grand Opera Young Artists, an event which was held at the bookstore. The performers sang selections from The Pearl Fishers, by Georges Bizet. Maestro Stewart Robertson, the Grand Opera's musical director, provided fascinating commentary about Bizet and his work. When the artists began to sing, the power of their voices in that intimate setting was simply breathtaking. Eric and I saw the entire opera a short time afterward at Miami's spectacular new Ziff Ballet Opera House. While I enjoyed the full production, I felt I had really understood the appeal of opera for the first time when I heard the music performed up close and personal at Books & Books.

Eric and I have learned it can be rewarding to attend events featuring authors whose subjects may not be of particular interest to us. A few weeks ago, we decided to take a chance on Liz Clarke, who was speaking about her new book: One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation. At best, I had an anthropologist's interest in what makes NASCAR fans tick. I expected Ms. Clarke to be a brassy, hard-edged type, with maybe with a tattoo or two. Instead, I encountered a refined, articulate woman, a sportswriter at the Washington Post and a graduate of Barnard, who lyrically described the personalities of the drivers and the dedication of their fans. Eric and I were so inspired, we bought the book. We even persuaded some friends to drive down to Homestead-Miami Raceway the other day to watch some qualifying heats. Unfortunately, NASCAR wasn't in town, so we were forced to settle for Formula One and Grand Am heats this time. But NASCAR, here we come!

All of this cornucopia of book-related activity owes its existence to one man, Mitchell Kaplan. In addition to starting Books & Books, which now has branches in Bal Harbor, Miami Beach, and the Cayman Islands, Mr. Kaplan also co-founded the Miami Book Fair International, an event that attracts book aficionados and speakers from all over the country. He provides living proof that a single individual can make a huge difference in the cultural life of a community. In fact, I can't think of a better motivation to write a book than the opportunity to talk about it at Books & Books.