LIFE CYCLES OR RIDING TO SPRING

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Today is March 1st and it’s snowing. We’re stuck in a weather pattern that seems unwilling to let go of its hold on us. The thermometer read minus five yesterday morning when I crawled out of bed and headed to the gym for a 7AM spin class. This is my mission- to get ready to ride around the lake on my bike when all the ice melts. I always choose a spin bike in the back row and stuff my big sneakers into the upper clamps on the pedals. As I slowly warm-up before the start of class I look at the shoes of the other class members. Almost everyone has expensive spin shoes with cleats that allow them to lock into the pedal. I recently learned that the spin shoe gives you a better workout . It provides muscle balance, increased power and more comfort but I haven’t made the purchase in part because I’m waiting to see if this spin thing takes. The same way I’m waiting for spring.

It’s strange riding in place at the back of the pack in a cold room with a teacher shouting instructions through a head set over loud music that is intended to inspire you. When we’re simulating an easy ride along a flat road it helps if I close my eyes and remember my childhood in Illinois. Bikes were always at the ready as we hopped on and took off in a moment’s notice. We met friends at the park or in front of Petranek’s Pharmacy and leaned our bikes up against the long glass store front before we went inside for an ice cream at the still operational soda fountain.

Petranek's Pharmacy

Petranek’s Pharmacy

When we’re imitating a climb in class I imagine ascending the hills around my lake house on a warm spring day. Each of these hills vary in intensity and in every  fantasy I never have to get off and push the bike to the top.

Our winding and hilly road is so narrow it runs as a one way strip past our house, so if you forget anything you have to drive all the way around the lake again to retrieve it which can easily take over ten minutes. As a driver you have to creep along at 20 MPH to avoid hitting pedestrians walking their dogs or the occasional jogger. Most drivers are slow and careful and almost everyone waves as they pass you. The road has seven hills in total which can be challenging. For this reason, the hardest thing to do here is ride your bike.

Raising children on Lake Drive didn’t offer a lot of opportunities for bike riding. We have a small flat portion of road that runs about an eighth of a mile just in front of the house. Because the house is set below the street we had to haul the bikes uphill to reach the road, so the image of children running outside and jumping on their bikes for a quick spin to visit a friend never happened.

Jackson learned to ride a two wheeler bike before we moved here but Quinn arrived without that ability. As a parent this always bothered me, that I had somehow failed to provide her with this simple and basic skill. Another mother once announced to me that she had done her duty as a parent and the rest was up to the child.

“She can read, swim and ride a bike,” she proclaimed. “Now she’s ready for life.”

We had the reading and swimming part down but the bike part alluded us. I’m also not entirely sure Quinn held great ambitions about bike riding. She owned a variety of bikes over the years that we lugged to the street, loaded into the car and then drove off to a flat area so she could learn. These experiences never went well and they exhausted me so I stopped initiating them. There was always a small voice whispering in my ear that said, “Yes, of course Quinn will learn to ride a bike.” She was fairly athletic, taught herself to dive and was eager to try new things but riding bikes wasn’t among them. It was hard to reconcile since her paternal grandfather had been a champion bicycle racer.

Then, during the summer before eighth grade we noticed an old Schwinn chained up outside Herb’s Auto & Bicycle Store. We pulled over and got out of the car to take a closer look. The bike only had pedal brakes and it was heavy with big tires and a wide cushioned seat. The cross bar was low so it was easy to climb on. Quinn instantly loved it like an old friend.vintage-schwinn-bicycles

For fifty dollars we toted it home and set it up on the kick stand in the gravel drive. Quinn sat on the wall and looked at it for bit then climbed on. “I’m ready to learn,” she announced. All my failings as a parent were about to be mended and erased with time. I procured a helmet and the instructions commenced right in front of the house.

She steadied herself with me holding her seat and we practiced using pedal brakes and tipping to one side to stop with her feet. This concept alone reassured her that safety was just a step away. Back and forth along the allotted eighth of a mile she pedaled. She rode one way turned around and rode back. She did this activity for three days. She had it, but I wanted more. I wanted her to ride around the lake or even part way around. She needed to feel the freedom bike riding could offer, after all hills are a part of life.

quinn bike1I briefly reflected on the time I tried to ride around the lake with Jackson shortly after we moved in. He had a new bike and as we took off down the hill he steered himself and his bike into a neighbor’s hedge with his legs sticking out one side and his head and hands out the other. Lots of people came running over including the hedge owner who was in her yard talking on the phone.

“I have to hang up, a boy just crashed through my bushes.”

As she helped me free him I repeatedly apologized but she stopped me.

“I hate these bushes, I’m going to cut them down.” Which she did about a year later.

I decided Quinn and I  would go the other direction and take on some smaller hills first. Before starting out I drilled her again on the use of her brakes.

“When we come to a hill don’t pedal, just coast and when it starts to feel too fast push back on the brakes to slow yourself.”

“Okay,” she said as if she wanted to please me.

“You can do it!” I said.

“Okay,” she said again.

Off we went slowly and steadily coasting down a slight slope before leveling off. “You did it,” I sang out. Quinn forced a weak smile and we pedaled on and then climbed up another incline. When we reached the top we stopped our bikes and looked down.

“I’m not so sure,” she said frowning.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I assured her. “Just remember to brake as you gain speed.”

“Can I put my foot down?”

“Well you have to stop to do that,” I explained. “We’re coasting to the bottom and that gives you momentum to ride up the next hill.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I’ll be right beside you.”

She looked straight ahead saying nothing. I took that as a sign and started pedaling slowly as she followed me. The time between that launch and her crash was mere seconds but I always see that fall in slow motion. I watched the panic set in as she lost confidence and her bare knees and palms skidded across the asphalt. I was powerless to stop the thing that I had started.

Once again another neighbor woman sitting on her porch ran to the rescue. She helped me drag Quinn to the curb and offered some damp paper towels to quell the bleeding then she went to call our house. Rob glared at me as he shepherded a crying Quinn into the car and he became the good cop. I was the bad cop who rode my bicycle home alone.

Quinn limped along for weeks with bandaged and scabbed legs. She wasn’t having any part of the old back in the saddle adage. The bike was stored in the crawl space and languished for years. Her brother asked to bring it to college but Quinn insisted she would one day use it. Eventually some friends brought her to a park and taught her all over again. Eventually she wanted the Schwinn at college and we pulled it out but now it needed new tires and we couldn’t locate the proper size in any store so it went back underground. For one whole year- Order Quinn’s tires– sat at the top of Rob’s to do list. She occasionally reminded him and then forgot about it. I mean if she really wanted the tires she could have looked for them herself.

Sort of like me riding in the back of the spin class staring at all the other people’s spin shoes, wondering if this is a hobby that will take or if spring will ever come.

photo by Robert Forlini

photo by Robert Forlini

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I SPEAK ICE

 

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Photo by Alice Hagan

The fourth winter at the lake the water froze solid before a single flake fell and we nervously looked out onto a shining, black glass canvas. The ice appeared to be about half a foot thick but you could still see moving water in some places below the ice floor. The ice cracked and cried out as we stamped our boots down on the shoreline and listened to a chorus of vibrations that scared us back onto the dock. It was difficult to tell if the sounds were warning or welcoming us.

All night long the lake moaned a sad and melancholy song. I got up and crept down to the kitchen so I could watch it in the moonlight as I listened to it groan. The sounds were guttural and eerie as the ice, I later learned, was expanding and thickening. The sounds are accentuated in the early morning and late afternoon when the outside temperature is fluctuating.

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Photo by Robert Forlini

The next day I saw a child skating on the lake in great looping circles. I had my answer, it was safe to skate. We made hot chocolate and lugged our thermoses, skates and extra socks down to the dock. Initially we stayed close to shore before we brazenly skimmed over a sheet of black ice that was so beautiful I felt guilty about laying tracks of skate blades across the top. You could see frozen bubbles just underneath the surface and my son often chose to lie down on the ice and stare into the abyss.

Rob ditched the skates, preferring to walk across the ice taking pictures. My daughter and I  skated restlessly to the other side and as we turned around we had to remind ourselves that we hadn’t just skated through water and it was safe to return. There is a feeling of endless freedom accompanied with open lake skating.

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Photo by Robert Forlini

I had grown up skating on a similar sized pond called Butler Lake in Libertyville, Illinois. I remember the thrill of the opening day of skating. The town managed the safety of the ice and hung up warning signs if the ice ever grew too thin. Libertyville maintained a small warming house that sold cheap snacks and pumped WLS radio through a set of loudspeakers attached to the outside of the house and facing the lake. ImageMy mother used to drop us off for the day during winter vacation from school and no matter how low the temperature plunged we couldn’t leave until she was good and ready to pick us up.

One bitter cold day the warming house was packed with kids like us, each hesitant to give up their seat on the bench. My older sister bargained for me to go buy the hot cocoas.

            “You go get them,” she prodded. “I’ll save your seat.”

I stared at the endless line of shivering children in wobbly skate blades waiting for a surly high school boy to serve them while he flirted with a cluster of overly zealous girls. I sighed and took my place in line.

I returned quite a bit later with two partially filled Styrofoam cups that had sloshed down around the cuffs of my snow jacket. My seat was filled by an oversized middle school boy in hockey skates and knee pads. My sister looked at me with one of those “what do you expect me to do?” looks. So I teetered in my skates on the thick rubber mats that ran through the aisles and sipped at the chocolate flavored hot water and wished the day would end.

Out of boredom and the increasing din in the warming house we dressed back up in our hats and scarves and ventured out onto the ice for short bursts. Just long enough to not freeze to death. The ramp down to the ice had a metal railing that you clung to for dear life hoping one of the hockey boys didn’t plow you down before you cleared the path.

After about five minutes of limb numbing exercise we pulled ourselves back up the ramp, our frozen fingers barely clinging to the metal rail.

By the time our mother arrived it was almost dark and most of the other children had left. We stuffed ourselves into the back of the station wagon and our silence confirmed to her that we’d had a great day. She obviously had.

            “Well you must be exhausted from all that exercise,” she’d say. “I bet you can’t wait to go back tomorrow.”

            In actuality we did have fun at Butler Lake over the years but the area you were allowed to skate on was cordoned off  and if you ventured too far out someone skated after you with a bull horn and made an example of you.

           “Hey kid, you in the stocking cap,” he announced to every turned head on the rink. “Whatya want to die out there?” You’d nonchalantly pull off your stocking cap and skate back looking at your toe grips hoping you could blend back in.

My memory of the color of the ice on Butler Lake was always a dull grey, never the jet black color that spread out in front of us that winter or the expanse of a rink that was as big as the lake was long. Butler Lake may have called out long heart wrenching cries of expanding ice but any sounds it produced  were drowned out by Larry Lujak  playing  songs like “Harper Valley P.T.A.” or “Little Green Apples.” You expect to hear these things at an indoor rink even today but out on a lake you should just be listening to the ice speaking.

Last winter, my children grown, I skated alone on my lake through a thin crust of snow and watched the late day shadows grow long. A lost seagull was circling above me, both of us inadvertently moving to the song of the ice beneath us.

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Skating through thin snow. February 2013

I am ending this blog post with a link to silentlistening that has posted a recording of ice sounds. Enjoy.

LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE

I haven’t been back to visit my father’s grave in Illinois since his funeral in 2007, so my sister’s e-mail containing an image of the stone was a welcomed sight. It’s a simple marker, slightly elevated from the grass containing his name and dates, the Janus logo and this line– Leave them wanting more. It’s a great line, especially for my father, who knew when to end a story, an argument, an advertisement or a eulogy. His strength lay in his often keen ability to self edit, whether written or spoken.

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Leave them wanting more can be applied to so many things in this time of excess and heightened self importance. Leave them wanting more, not taking more. Wanting and taking are polar opposites.

A lot of people today are clamoring for their own personal version of celebrity. They drop in at the local diner and share ten pictures of the event. They believe everybody who knows them needs to have this information.

“Heading off to an overdue appointment at the nail salon.”

“Why can’t we have ‘nut-free’ and ‘contains nuts’ tables at the school bake sale?”

“Just about to eat this monster donut!”

Not only do I not yearn for more, but find myself running from what is offered. I want to share in the lives of my friends and family, but mainly key events.

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My father’s memorial is the only connection I have to a now much altered community. When I was a small child, the town and surrounding area was awash in flat, black Illinois farm soil and patches of forgotten prairie pushed up against the encroaching but still distant suburban sprawl. The main street was quaint and two-bit with Swiss chalet store fronts and an old mansion serving as the library. The local diner had a twenty foot milk bottle sitting on the roof that said, “Joe’s.” But before I was out of middle school a large percentage of that rich soil was sold, paved and turned into auto dealerships.

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The town currently boasts having thirteen extremely large, new car lots. The town website proudly declares, “In Libertyville buying a car has never been easier!” At what price? And of course the milk bottle is gone for better or worse. Libertyville, where my father is buried, has never left anything alone which might explain how it became a wealthy upscale village that young professional families clamor to today. The town motto: Fortitudine Vincimus

“By endurance we conquer” says it all. They don’t want more because they took it all. I understand this is not particular to Libertyville. Most small communities that rest within commuting distance of a major metropolis strive for this achievement.

Except where I live. Noting the subheading of this blog, Navigating the world from a small lake near New York City, this is surprising.

When we moved here over thirteen years ago the business district was a sleepy, ramshackle collection of quaint, small businesses.  We had a decent hardware store, salons, a pharmacy, wine shop, auto repair, pet supply store, two post offices, a decent deli, pizza parlor and a number of professional offices. Today we consist of a biker bar, two nail salons, tanning salon, a bagel shop, a beading den, pharmacy and a liquor store that is struggling to the point of absurdity. Most of the businesses are stuffed into a large out of place blue office building that never should have been built. There’s a fine line between rural bliss and rural blight and we’ve reached it.Image

 

Libertyville destroyed it’s rural character by paving over the richest farm land in the world to make more parking spots. My town has retained it’s rural character but at the same time driven out most small businesses and left vacant, rotting storefronts that glare at visitors just on the other side of the town’s welcome sign. This is not the outcome of a bad economy but bad planning. Our lack of development has left us wanting more. Not always a good thing. Like everything in life we need a balance. Our town motto is Putnam Valley: The Jewel of Putnam County, which I really think they should reconsider. Too bad my Dad isn’t around to write a more appropriate one.

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