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brian on street with bikes

 

In a country where the car and the motorcycle are symbols of freedom it can be hard to explain how my mountain bike can arouse similar feelings. A two-wheeled vehicle that one pedals hardly fulfills the image of counter-cultural rebellion the way Harley motorcycles do in the movie, Easy Rider (one of my favorites, by the way). And yet, for me it does.

My first savored moments of freedom occurred at seven years of age riding my bike. The bike had a purple banana seat and plastic streamers in the ends of the handlebars (it was the seventies, you had to be there) and I rode endlessly around our house in the circular driveway. A year later, I was off down the street, exploring other parts of the hospital campus. I have written before about growing up on the campus of a state mental hospital (see Life in the Mental Hospital), and one of the prime advantages of growing up in a campus-like setting is the lack of traffic. This meant I could bike down relatively quiet streets and explore. The added thrill came when I left the confines of the driveway and the house and could careen, happily, hands in the air, down a small hill. At eight years-old this was my first taste of freedom and I liked it. Years later, travelling in other parts of the world, often alone, I would stand somewhere in Europe and feel as if I was tasting again that peculiar, familiar taste in my mouth that I first tasted when I was eight flying down the hill away from my parents’ house. Free! It has a taste, you know, sweet, salty, mild.

I still feel that even now when, approaching forty years of age, when I ride swiftly through clogged traffic past people in cars. I get that taste again in my mouth. Ha, I think, as I zoom past the impatient in cars. I’m outta here.

I think of this now because Brian and I have been biking around town together. He’s in front, I follow. And I follow, not because I can’t lead us, but because we get into fights about which routes to take and it’s easier if I let him pick than try to convince him that my choice of route is faster. I learned this the hard way after one heated debate at an intersection on Clark and Wellington. But where was I? Oh yes, freedom.

I grew up riding my bike and exploring town on it, but Brian didn’t.

“I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike outside the back yard.”

“What? Why?”

“Because we had a really busy road near our house.”

“Oh, I see. Well, you got to ride later, didn’t you?”

“No, by the time I got old enough, I started reading comic books and stayed inside.”

As a result, Brian’s first trip on a bike on a street was when he was thirty years-old in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he bought his first mountain bike. I bought a new one too, and together, we rode from our house to the campus of LSU to bike, like others do, around the many lakes that surround the campus. Soon after, Brian became as enamored of biking as I had been and on the hottest days with the worst ozone, he would still ride around those lakes.

In the past few days, since we both have time off from teaching, we have been taking daily rides to the parts of the city with bad traffic or parking. We roll up on two wheels, lock up, and shop or eat. A bicycle in Chicago has meant a return to a kind of freedom that I experienced as a child. On two wheels, I’m propelling myself forward on my steam and I’m free (for the moment) of adult responsibilities. During the holidays, when traffic is light, we have the added bonus of deserted streets and not having to weave through cars and buses. (Brian is much better at this than I am). We ride lazily practically in the center of the street and side by side, engaged in conversation. The last few days have felt, for me, like that easy part of life when living is the same as careening down a hill with your hands in the air, laughing, not screaming.

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unwrapping presentsBrian

  • subscription to Vintage Guitar Magazine
  • yellow polo shirt
  • Stiechenbacher’s Granola
  • Lou Reed’s Hudson Valley Meditations
  • one new-fangled stereo (yee-ha!)
  • 4″ x 6″ scenic sandstone landscape
  • book: Ted McCarty’s Gibson Guitars
  • winter clothes, socks and shirtsm
  • Jimmy Reed album on vinyl

Pearlimgp0688_resize.jpg

  • books: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Bunnicula, Bunnicula Strikes Again, short stories of Philip K. Dick
  • rabbit candle holder
  • 8″ x 8″ original painting of a pink rabbit
  • winter sweatshirts
  • The Who Sing My Generation
  • Fleetwood Mac: Blues in Chicago
  • red sleeping bag

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  • Morris the Cat catnip bag
  • various cat toys
  • cat brush
  • plush cat bed

Rosie

  • mouse that hangs from doorframe
  • Morris the Cat catnip bag
  • various cat toys
  • plush cat bed

Jackson

  • 2 raspberries
  • bunch of cilantro
  • handful of rabbit pellets

The Short Punks Family

  • massive Christmas basket of teas, cookies and chocolate (Awe-some!!)

The Dinner

  • 2 pound smoked ham from the Paulina Meat Market
  • organic mashed russet potatoes
  • steamed green beans
  • vanilla cream pie with fresh raspberries
  • mulled apple cider

rabbit on stove

The Day

  • Brian sleeps for 4 hours
  • Pearl bikes to the Lincoln Park Zoo and watches the cheetah and the sea lions
  • Ben sleeps on new plush bed all day
  • Rosie sleeps on radiator next to Jackson’s cage
  • Jackson learns to climb up the stove

Another Christmas passes in The Short Punks Household. Hope yours was peaceful and joyous in its own way.

Happy Holiday everyone!

rabbit and treeWe’re either really loved by our families or really hated. For the sake of argument and intensive amounts of therapy, I’ll just say we’re really loved and that they don’t mind if we’re not with them on Christmas Day. I have enormous gratitude for this. Today, rather than flying or driving somewhere or shopping for others or brining a turkey, we were wandering the aisles of our local Ikea with a handful of other shoppers.

We had lunch at the cafe and browsed through near empty aisles imagining what we would own if we could.  Brian and walked through mock apartments like it was some deserted Disney Land. In the 375 square foot apartment we stood in front of the loft-style bed and the minute yet modern kitchen and commented on how it looked like apartments we had been to in New York City.

“It reminds me of my brother’s apartment,” I said.

“My friends live in one this size,” Brian said.

And we wandered on. In the quiet Ikea, we browsed like tourists in a museum. We looked at placards and read descriptions of illusionary kitchens and baths and living rooms.

“If there’s ever an apocalypse,” I said. “I’m coming to live in Ikea.”

“Ha.”

“No, I’m serious. It’s like that movie we saw last week with the last guy in Manhattan. He stayed in his apartment, but I would move in here. Every day I would use a different kitchen or sleep in a different bed.”

“Yeah, but none of this stuff works,” he said, as he pointed at a gleaming stainless steel sink.

“Oh yeah.” My dream was blown. Until I had an idea: there’s still water in the cafe. “But you could still eat at the restaurant!” I exclaimed. I continued my end-of-the-world fantasy in my head. If it all came to crashing end, I would come here.

The Ikea closed at seven and Brian and I drove him in light traffic with new pillows, a no-slip pad for a rug, christmas tree garland, and an agreement on a what the kitchen table will be once I get paid.

At home we ended the evening, still blessedly quietly, with last-minute gift wrapping and some prep for our Christmas dinner. Jackson helped with the Christmas wrapping by unrolling the paper, shortly before she set upon eating our tree.

That’s our night before Christmas, and I would like to thank our families for it. It’s the best Christmas present we get.

rabbit and wrapping paper

bike in snow

Two days ago I was cruising down Halsted St. on my bike. It was cold, but the pavement was dry and the ride down to school took 35 minutes, ten minutes less than driving. Today, my bike is covered in several inches of snow and so are the roads. I’m not going anywhere.

I have written before about how my attitude towards winter in Chicago has evolved over the fifteen years or so that I have been living here. After years of despising the cold, especially the sub-zero cold, I decided last year that winter shouldn’t stop me from doing things that I love to do in Chicago including biking. Last year I outfitted myself with all the winter biking gear and I kept riding. I rode in 20 degrees; I rode in 15. There is, however, a limit, one major obstacle, at least for me. And that’s snow — deep snow. The irony is that despite how much I disliked the sub-zero cold in Chicago, I have always liked the snow. Snow means it’s not sub-zero; it means the temperature is at least thirty degrees. That’s why there’s snow. And snow reminds me of growing up outside of Rochester, New York, where they know from snow. Rochester is an hour south of Buffalo, and Buffalo is famous for snow. Rochester gets its share too. Growing up in Upstate New York, I played often in deep, soft, fluffy, white snow.

The best winter memories I have involve being zipped into a blue and white snow suit and belly flopping into a 4 foot snow drift. I also remember snow forts and snowmen and snowball fights and snow angels. I remember “decorating” pine trees around the house with snowballs. I remember icy snow falling into the tops of my boots and dampening my calves. And I remember the icy red marks around my legs when I took the boots off later. I remember my brother and I piling wood onto a sled and dragging the sled across the backyard towards the house. I remember hot chocolate made from sugary packets of instant hot chocolate. I remember this because as an adult I went gourmet with hot cocoa and only use milk, sugar, and European cocoa and I can’t imagine opening a packet and adding water. Ah, the food snobbery.

Today, when we woke I wanted to zip up into my blue and white snow suit and bellyflop into the snowdrift in the back patio of my apartment building. I did, eventually, but only after grown-up thoughts about who was going to shovel the walk and when should we brush off the car.

brian in snowBut later, after all the grown-up things and errands, Brian stood in the backyard while I let myself fall backwards into eight inches of snow. The cold, dry snow filled the spaces between my arms and legs. With the zeal of a 10 year-old, I flapped my arms and legs like some flightless bird. I stood up and there it was: my snow angel.

snow angel

queen-jackson.jpg

It all started with a dare, a dare made five years ago.

“We could do it today,” he said.

“You think I won’t?” I said.

He grinned at me. I dare you.

“I don’t back down. You dare me and I won’t back down.”

He kept grinning. Yeah, right.

“I will. I can do it,” I said. And to prove it, I walked across to a phone book on a shelf and opened it to the blue pages which list city services. I walked back to the table where he sat and laid it open. Then I picked up the phone and held it my right hand.

“I can do it,” I said. “I can do it right now.”

He looked away, feigning amusement.

On the outside, he looked calmer than me — less dared. On the inside, I learned a few years later, he was terrified.

“Did you think we would make it?” I asked him this morning over a bagel and lox at a restaurant called, appropriately enough, The Bagel. He was eating matzo ball soup and was breaking the softball-sized ball into smaller pieces with his spoon.

“No,” he said.

“Neither did I.”

We didn’t think we would make it. Some rational part of our brains, or at least mine, thought it would be crazy to do it like this, but there I was doing it.

On December 2, 2o02, on a day that snowed like it did today, we stood in front of a judge in the Cook County Courthouse on Dearborn Street in Chicago and said — and I still can’t believe it now — “I do.”

I was wearing a red jacket, one I used to teach in all the time, and he was wearing a brown check jacket he used to teach in. And in less than three minutes, without really knowing how or why, we said, “I do.”

The moment after we said it, we both stared at each other and instead of dread, there was a sense, for me, at least, of relief. Finally.

We got married on a dare one Thanksgiving weekend five years ago, and even now, I marvel at our guts. We got married even though we had only spent, at most, three months together at one time, and that was three years before. We were still discovering each other. Still figuring it out. And there we were standing in front of judge, who just seconds before had been leaning back in a chair with his feet on the desk reading the newspaper. His black robe hung around the back of the chair, a pair of limp black wings. His cup of coffee stood on the desk next to his feet. Brian and I had entered the empty waiting room, slightly nervous. Tacked on the wall above a row of gray plastic chairs was a garland of white plastic flowers. We sat beneath it. While we waited, I heard the receptionist behind the window speaking into the phone. “He needs to bring forty dollars, the license and his bride.”

Forty dollars, the license, and the bride.

Brian and I had split the forty dollars. Two days before, the day after Thanksgiving, we came to a near empty courthouse and applied for the marriage license. The room to purchase marriage licenses was deserted because of the holiday and we walked past the ropes to a clerk at the counter. It took ten minutes to fill out the paperwork, and when he asked for forty dollars, Brian and I each gave him twenty.

Then we had a day to think about it.

We planned to return the next morning, to appear before the judge which would seal the marriage, and that morning, Brian got sick. Nervous sick. I saw him doubled over on the edge of the bed and thought, “This ain’t happening today.”

And it didn’t. And I let it it go. We had planned on a long engagement and that was okay with me too. So we enjoyed our weekend in a city emptied of its people because of the Thanksgiving holiday. On Monday, the day Brian was to fly back to Connecticut, I watched him pack and thought about what we would do on the last day of his stay in Chicago.

“Why did you change your mind?” I asked him years later.

We were eating breakfast. Brian hovered over his cereal bowl and the newspaper. “When we didn’t get married the day we were supposed to go back, I felt sad. I felt like we should have gotten married. So, the next day, I thought we should go back and get married.”

I have a picture of him of that day, standing in front of my apartment, with the snow falling in thick flakes around him. He was slightly hunched as if the snowflakes hurt when they landed. We walked to the El station and from the train we watched the snow fall over the city.

“Isn’t it pretty?” I said.

And when we emerged from the subway tunnel onto Dearborn Street the snow had already begun to accumulate downtown and there was at least three or four inches on the sidewalks as we walked back to the courthouse. When we entered the building, we brushed snowflakes from our shoulders and our hats.

And, eventually, there we were in front of the Judge. He words seemed to float quickly above my head and I said, “I do,” in the pause of his words, and I heard Brian say, “I do,” in the second pause. I remember hearing the Judge say, “I pronounce you husband and wife,” as he bent over to sign the license.

Brian and I looked at each other, and without prompt, kissed. The whole ceremony lasted three minutes. Within another minute we were being ushered out of the office, before they could move us out, I asked the receptionist to take one picture of us in the Judge’s office. And then we were in the hallway, moving up the escalator, and out on the street.

We were married.

We had lunch at Italian Village downtown and by four o’clock that afternoon he was on a plane back to Connecticut.

That first year we didn’t think we would make it. I tell people now that eloping when you don’t know much about each other is a tough way to go. When we got married, it was all about faith. Underneath it all, I just knew that we were supposed to be married. That despite not knowing much about each other we had to be married. Somewhere, somehow, something meaningful would come of our being married. I remember a story I read once about a psychic who was about to get on a plane and as he was boarding he realized that the plane was going to crash and — this is the part that gets me — he knew he still had to get on it. If the plane was going to crash, he knew he had to take that journey. The plane did have a problem in the air, and miraculously, it landed safely. Eloping, in retrospect, felt like getting on a plane that I knew could crash. I had to do it anyway, because I still had to take that journey. In the first year and even a little bit beyond that faith was tested more than once. But, here we are, still married. Playing music, raising our three little animals, writing songs.

We did all right, considering it all started with a dare.

It’s snowing here. And it’s icy. I discovered this the hard way as I biked home from the farmers’ market. On the way there it was a brisk, but dry, thirty-one degrees. On the way home it was wet, cold, and icy. I kept going anyway.

I like cycling in the winter. It’s one of the only reasons why I can handle Chicago in the winter. I don’t love the cold. For fifteen years, the amount of time I have been living in Chicago, I dreaded winter. From the first snow of the season to the first day I could go outside without zipping my coat up, I dreaded winter. I used to mentally count the days until spring. In November I would think, “It’s only 4 months to spring.” And “spring” to me meant the day I could walk outside and actually smell the dirt. You know, that wet, heavy smell that comes from the ground once the snow has finally thawed. And I mean, really thawed — for good, for the season. Until that moment, I hated winter. I hated the layers of clothing (which I often had to wear inside because my apartments tended to be under-heated); I hated the sub-zero wind that blew right through me despite the layers; I hated the ice on my car windshield. But mostly I hated it because I couldn’t be outside. I couldn’t go for a walk or ride my bike or smell the flowers.

But last year I decided I couldn’t spend another day hating something I couldn’t control. So, I started winter cycling. That means even in the cold, the sub-zero, the snow, the ice, I still bike everywhere. Of course, to achieve this, I had to do research. I googled “winter biking” and sure enough, there are people who love riding in the winter. And they have all kinds of tips. What kinds of clothes to wear (ones that are warm but breathe), how many socks, what kind of gloves, how to avoid frostbite (a real bummer). I researched until I had a list of things to buy and last November I went to a bike shop and bought all the stuff. And on one 19 degree day in December, I tried it all out. I went biking. And I liked it.

Hey, look at me, I thought. I’m outside and it’s freezing and I don’t care!

I had five layers on the top, two on the bottom, and the hands and feet were each in two layers. Once I started moving my legs and working against the wind I discovered that rather than being too cold, I was becoming — can you believe it? — too warm. It turns out that is the real trick of winter cycling: wearing the right clothes so you don’t get too hot as you pedal your bike.

When I began winter biking and moreover, winter bike commuting. (Yes folks, twelve miles, round-trip.) I discovered a whole new side of the city. A quiet side. Streets and buildings look different when they aren’t surrounded by people. Even the buildings settle into a winter quiet that shows off their windows, moldings, and detail. I also discovered a kind of hidden camraderie between winter bikers. At stoplights we nodded slightly at each other or smile. Hey, look at us. We rock. We’re outside. Look at those wimps in cars. It’s almost like Harley bikers who use that upside down wave, a hand outstretched, palm facing upwards, when they past other Harley guys. A little howdy that says, “Yeah, we’re in the club.”

So I biked today in the snow and ice … and it was awesome!

For more about the band, go to: www.shortpunksinlove.com

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