Endless band practice
made thunder on dank bricks
in somebody’s basement,
in old warehouses, in garages.
The right note makes
medicine with the night air,
cools the fever for a time.
of desolation concealed
an enormous prank played
on the sleepy universe.
poured from speaker cones
the unconscious deluge.
These pictures have soft
focus and deep gray.
The shutter slowed way down
to soak up available light.
I think I was five when I got my first bicycle, a beautiful blue thing with training wheels. I couldn’t wait to get the training wheels off, but it took me a couple of crashes to get that whole “pedal and balance” thing down, but I got it. Once I got going, I must have ridden a million miles on the dusty streets of Texas as I was growing up.
In 1960, my dad saved up 45 silver dollars and bought me a “Western Flyer” 24” bike. It was a beautiful thing with a red and white frame and a battery operated head light. It had chrome fenders. It was a great bike, if a bit heavy, but I wish I had those 45 silver dollars today – they would buy a lot of bicycles. I rode that bike for about eight years. Back in the day, we rode our bikes to school when the weather wasn’t too bad. I wish I knew how many miles I put on that bike. It went through a lot of changes. It lost the basket, fenders and headlight. It acquired a “banana seat” and high rise handle bars which were all the rage when I was in the eighth grade.
In my freshman year of high school, my folks bought me a Schwinn 5-speed. It was blue and chrome, heavy like all the Schwinns of that era, but it was a lovely bike. I ended up leaving it in Tennessee when I left Maryville College after a difficult first year there. My dad was pissed off about that. The biggest problem with that bike was not the weight, but that I had gotten a drivers’ license and cars were just a whole lot more interesting. I was without a bicycle for the next eight years.
In 1980, I bought a matched set of Nishiki Olympic 12 bicycles, one for me and one for my bride. These were very high quality Japanese road bikes assembled of the best components which were designed to compete with the Raleighs, Schwinns, Bianchis and Peugeots. They had light chrome molybdenum frames, 12-speed SunTour derailleurs and other quality components. These bikes were so good that in 2013, I am still riding mine and it has never needed repair.
Back in the day, we called this style of bike an “English racer.” Today, they are simply called “road bikes” or “touring bikes.” We rode them to train for high altitude backpacking trips in the Rockies. When we taught our kids how to ride bikes, these were the ones that we rode, leading the kids like ducklings on their little training bikes. Then the kids got drivers’ licenses and we got dogs that needed to be walked, so the bikes began to gather dust in the garage. Sadly, the dogs passed their time in our lives and are gone. In the meantime, I developed glucose intolerance, and my doctor told me that I needed to get a minimum of thirty minutes a day of aerobic exercise if I want to stay off diabetes medication. At first, I just walked my thirty minutes, but I kept walking past those dusty bikes in the garage. Finally, one day in the late summer, I hauled the Nishiki out into the backyard and washed it off with a garden hose. The old sparkle emerged from beneath the dusty patina. I found an ancient bottle of bike lube and oiled the chain and derailleur sprockets. The last step to make the faithful steed roadworthy was to bring the tires up to 90 PSI. My lower back wasn’t wild about that job.
My first tentative test ride after the long layoff was simply to ride the bike up the alley behind my house. The alley has a slight incline and my calves and thighs immediately reminded me that I was no longer fourteen. This was going to take some work, but already the sensation of gliding through the air silently was casting its spell. It would take some work, but it would be worth it.
I returned to my bicycle purely for health reasons – to lower blood sugar, reduce blood pressure, and improve heart and lung function. To be honest, I expected it to be a chore, mentally interesting perhaps, but physically uncomfortable and difficult. I don’t think of myself as any kind of natural athlete. Yes, I have backpacked the Rockies and the Appalachian mountains, played football in high school, am an expert swimmer and rode bikes from my childhood, but I was never in any danger of being drafted by the Yankees or the Patriots. As a child I had asthma and it seemed like I was sick a lot. The physical things I did, I did by strength of will because I wanted to do them. I have never been one of those who found great joy in physical exertion for its own sake.
The part I didn’t count on was how good the bicycle riding would make me feel. A bike ride of three miles or more – not very far – will give me a warm glowy feeling. I suppose it results from the increased oxygen levels and the release of endorphins. Endorphins are described as “endogenous morphine” which is “released during exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food consumption, love, and orgasm.” After a good ride, I feel like I have taken some wonderful, perfect tranquilizer, but without any drug overhead. I have the proverbial “sense of well-being” while being acutely aware of my muscles and body. I have lost so much weight that I had to have my suits taken in. That’s great for the self image. The bike is good for the body and the mind.
The streets have changed. There are a lot more cars on the street, and many people drive them way too fast. With the smart phone craze, there are a lot of distracted drivers, and I am sure that there are many more who are under the influence of substances. It’s easy to see why so many cyclists are drawn to off-road and cross country riding. It’s nice when you don’t have to worry about being run down by a car. I like to ride the streets and run errands on my bike when I can. A lot of my mental work in cycling surrounds the charting of routes that avoid the crush of automobile traffic. I have added lights to my bikes to increase my visibility to drivers and I use them even during the daytime. I buy riding clothes in bright, electric colors – yellow, chartreuse, and orange – to further enhance my visibility. Even with these precautions, I do not assume that drivers will see me. Most do, and they treat me well on the road, but it only takes one distracted or impaired driver to ruin your day, and perhaps your life. I take nothing for granted.
My hiatus from the bike caused me to miss much of the political movement that has developed around cycling. More people than ever are using bicycles for primary transportation, and cycling sports have reached a high level of development. BMX, cycle cross, mountain biking and triathlon have really come into their own during the past couple of decades, these taking their place alongside traditional bicycle racing. All of these sport and utility riders have formed advocacy groups that have pushed for greater access to the roads, more bike lanes, bike parking and similar accommodations for bicycles. It’s a different world for cycling these days.
I’m sympathetic with the issues which have grown up around the new bicycle movement. Driving a car used to be fun; now it’s an exercise in Darwinian selection. I have driven a car long enough to have a sense of the increasing automobile congestion on our streets and highways. Unless something changes, our cities are quickly approaching the point of daily gridlock in which streets will become impassable due to the volume of motor vehicles. Obesity has become an epidemic in our culture. Heart disease is a top killer. Diabetes is also becoming epidemic. Regular bicycle riding reduces blood sugar, strengthens the heart, reduces weight and increases blood oxygen levels. All of this contributes to overall health and reduces health care costs. Bicycles don’t burn fuel, saving money and improving the environment. Since 1899, almost 3.5 million Americans have died in automobile crashes. That’s more than all the fatalities we have suffered in all of our wars. There are many good reasons to reduce our use of automobiles. The political and ecological arguments for the bicycle have nothing to do with my choice to return to it.
My rediscovered love for the bicycle, that lovely device which lay dormant in my garage for a decade, is rooted in the way the bike makes me feel, what it does for my body, and the way it opens up my mind. It is a purely sensual sort of thing.
In 1959 John F. Kennedy ran for president. His opponent was Richard M. Nixon. I was a first grader in Hearne Elementary School in Hearne, Texas. We were in Hearne because my dad had bought a gas station on the advice of his father who thought he had inside information that a new highway would be coming through Hearne, and gas stations located there would be goldmines. I remember during the campaign of 1959, we would chant in the school cafeteria, “Kennedy, Kennedy, he’s our man. Nixon belongs in the garbage can.” Kids supporting Nixon would offer their counter-chant, reversing the two men’s names. None of us actually knew anything about the two men. We were first graders reflecting our parents’ choices. Kennedy always won the chant contest and he won the election.
The new highway went through another town and my dad’s business venture suffered. My dad was a very spiritual man and he read the business failure as an answer to a question he had wrestled with for years: a sense of call to the ministry in the Presbyterian Church. We moved to Austin, the capitol of Texas and the location of Austin Presbyterian Seminary. My dad had lost so much money that he couldn’t go to seminary right away. He went to work at Lyndon Johnson’s TV and radio station in Austin, KTBC, selling advertising air time. My mom got a good job with the Department of Public Welfare. I went to school at Robert E. Lee Elementary in Austin. I loved Austin in those years. It was an amazingly energetic place to be. We weathered the Cuban Missile Crisis there.
On November 22, 1963, I was in the fourth grade. We were in study hall after lunch when Mrs. Sanders came into our room. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She told us that the president had been attacked in Dallas. They turned on the school’s intercom and we listened to the radio broadcasting the events, moment by moment. The news was very careful in those days. First they said that shots had been fired, then that Kennedy and Connally had been hit. At some point, it was announced that one of President Kennedy’s wounds was a head shot. I had been hunting by this time and I knew the power of a rifle. The schools had planned to let us out early, because the Kennedys were to fly to Austin and there would be a parade up Congress Avenue to the capitol. I had ridden my bike to school that day, and I had planned to ride down to Congress Avenue to see the parade. It wasn’t all that far. The school turned us loose as planned, but I didn’t ride down to Congress Avenue. I rode home and turned on the TV. I was the only one home. I watched Walter Cronkite announce that the president had died. I don’t really remember what I did after that. Eventually, my parents came home and life continued on.
The world changed for me that day. Maybe it was the end of my childhood. I was still just a kid, but now there were questions about everything. Who did what? What would happen next? Were we at war? These are the type of questions that adults ask, not kids. I never thought like a kid again after that day.
cannibal of dreams,
you are rapacious,
Night burns into
day, and into
and there is no
There is only
There is only
and a god
who will not
I will not
I am not
I am not
so vain to think,
the cold flood,
that I would not
but not a fool.
but not a fool,
make red stripes
upon my skin.
By them I know
I am alive.
Pain is the
It seems like it was only last week when I was a nervous young father-to-be standing in the hall of Good Samaritan Hospital waiting for the obstetrician to finish doing whatever they do to get Marian ready to deliver our first son, Alex. That was June 27, 1985. That one still stands out to me as the longest single night of my life. We had to do an emergency c-section because Alex was not turned around right. My parents were traveling somewhere in Mississippi doing genealogy research and I couldn’t reach them by phone. That was before everyone had cell phones. I felt very alone. Even though I was already thirty three years old, this was the last night of my childhood. When the sun came up that morning, I would be a little guy’s father. I would be a different person. I looked out through the darkened glass of the window and prayed. There was a lot that could go wrong in the next few minutes, but it didn’t.
Fast forward twenty eight brief years, and I’m standing in another hospital room with Alex as his young wife cries with labor pains. He hasn’t slept in more than a day, but there is no thought of sleeping. Another little Weedon is on the way. He talks, telling me a thousand things that I don’t really need to know about the hospital and birthing process. We talk because there is nothing else we can do. It’s all up to Caitlin at this moment. In the quiet of my own thoughts, I marvel at how much he has grown up. Then it hits me that the same transformation that changed everything for me twenty eight years ago is happening now to him. His childhood is ending; he is becoming someone’s father. He will soon receive a new reason for living, a new basis for making decisions, and a whole new understanding of his own life.
As for me, I have made it abundantly clear that I was not ready to be anyone’s grandfather, but apparently I don’t get a vote on that. I have reluctantly grown into the role of patriarch. I am the senior male of the clan now. I wish my dad was still here to officiate at the ceremonies and give the blessings, but he isn’t. That job falls to me now. I am thankful that my own life has taken a course that permits me to fill those shoes, but that mantle does not rest easily on my shoulders. There is a part of my soul that is still eighteen, and the title of “grandfather” still sounds very strange to me.
This evening, the new family came over to our house for our first dinner together. I noticed that Penny has really long fingers, like the Weedons, and she opens her hands rather than keeping them balled up in a fist. Alex did the same thing as a newborn. Penny is very much a newborn still; she opens her eyes, but she hasn’t learned to focus them yet. Caitlin handed her to me. She is still so tiny, barely able to lift her head. It scares me just a little to take her into my hands, but I did and laid her against my shoulder. Alex reviewed all of the cool baby gear he had bought while Marian put the finishing touches on supper. Caitlin seemed OK with being relieved of the baby holding detail for while, so I walked into the living room and sat down in my recliner with Penny resting on my chest. I remembered that I have a photo of my father holding Alex just that way in another recliner long ago, except that my dad and Alex were both sound asleep. Eventually Penny began to get restless, and suspecting that she was hungry, I took her back to her mother. But before I turned her over to Caitlin, I gave her the assignment to get big enough that I could take her to Graeter’s for an ice cream cone. I think I could get used to this.
He slides the old wallet into his pocket. It is a miracle of physics that its molecules still hold together. It is so old. He doesn’t remember now if he bought it or someone gave it to him. He thinks, “Time is evil.” Time takes away youth and beauty, and leaves in their place frailty and pain. He fumbles in his pocket for his car keys but then decides to walk. It is not a terrible day, warm and sunny. He lets himself out of the front door and deadbolts the lock.
Out on the sidewalk, he produces a cigarette from one pocket and a lighter from another. He lights it and drinks the smoke. He knows he should quit them, but he loves the smoke. He loves the taste and smell and the way tobacco makes him feel. He considers if life without cigarettes is worth living. This is an open question.
He wants something, but he doesn’t know what. Sex comes to mind quickly, as usual, but he isn’t sure if that is it. Sex is complicated, a lot of worry and maneuvering for a little bit of pleasure. He decides to go for coffee. He isn’t sure if coffee is what he really wants, but it is far less complicated than sex. He begins to walk. Four blocks away there is a coffee shop where college students mooch the wi-fi and nurse cold cups of coffee.
He begins to walk. The sun is hot and he seeks the patches of shade beneath the massive maple trees. There is a moment of coolness beneath the maples. He likes to walk. It makes him feel good and sparks his curiosity. He walks past houses he has passed a thousand times but every time he wonders about the people who live there, what their stories are, how life brought them to inhabit that particular structure, and what they do there when the shades are drawn.
There are angels standing on the rooftops. No one else can see them, of course. Actually, he can’t see them either, but he knows they are there. They have always been there, watching silently through every awkward moment. It creeps him out. He keeps on walking.
He thinks about The Day. It was a warm day in the summer, not unlike this one, the day when the police cars came, two to his house and two to the boy’s house. The police cars came to his house to stop his father from killing the boy. They went to the boy’s house to arrest him. That was fifty years ago and he was still thinking about it. He remembered every small detail of the gun belts the police officers wore – the large revolvers in their black leather holsters and extra cartridges in leather loops along the back, just like cowboys in the movies. He remembered thinking that when he grew up, he wanted a gun like that.
He is sweating now. The sidewalk is hot, but he keeps up his pace, walking briskly toward the coffee shop where the college students mooch the wi-fi. He steers for every patch of shade to escape the relentless sun. He finally stops, finding a place to sit down in the shade. He pulls another cigarette from his pocket and lights it. He inhales and feels the smooth wave of nicotine wash across his nervous system. There is a dead bluebird on the sidewalk, blue back and wings with an orange belly. He wonders what killed it and why it breathed its last on this piece of sidewalk.
It was his fault. He talked. He told Stewart and Stewart told his parents, and Stewart’s parents called his parents, and his parents called the police who came with their black leather gun belts and cars. He didn’t know that this would happen. He would have never said anything had he known what would happen. He wondered if the angels were watching. He wondered if the angels saw what he and the boy did. Someone said that the angels were blind because they could not bear to view human sin, but he didn’t believe that. Would the angels tell? Were they as stupid as he had been?
He looks up to the rooftops and catches an angel in the corner of his eye, but when he looks at it directly it is gone. He gets to his feet and begins to walk again. It feels like the sun is burning holes in his skin. He wears sunscreen, but he doesn’t believe in it. He doesn’t see how a little smear of cream can stop cosmic rays from scrambling the DNA of skin cells, but he wears it anyway because the doctor told him to. He thinks about baseball. Baseball is his favorite diversion. He can watch it mindlessly for hours without the slightest regard for who is playing or who is winning. It really doesn’t matter. He watches the handsome young men with their bats and gloves, pitching and catching, hitting and running. The head games the managers play against each other fascinate him.
The boy was sixteen and he had a pet raccoon. He would go over to see the boy and play with the raccoon. His parents would be working and the house would be empty. Eventually they would go inside and things would happen. The boy would ask him to take off his clothes, and he would touch him in ways that felt really good. He had never felt those sensations before. He was only seven, but he liked the things the boy did. He didn’t know that what they did was wrong, that the police would come with their cars and leather gun belts if anyone found out. He never saw the boy again. The police took the boy away, and his family moved to a different town a few months later.
What do the angels see with their blind eyes? He knows now that what he wants he can never have. There has been too much time and he could never find him. He wants the boy to forgive him for being stupid, for talking, for ruining his life. He pushes open the door of the coffee shop. It is cool and dark. He steps to the counter and orders a cup of Columbian. The boy working the counter is cute and friendly and he gives him a dollar tip on a two dollar cup of coffee.
Red and Green and Blue
Red and green and blue are safely locked in my head. Night returns with disease and obsession, obsessions. I draw a line on a dirty piece of paper. There is nothing on either side but I have created a boundary. I don’t feel any safer.
He walks to the back of the house without great conviction, out the back door to look at the alley. The painkiller makes his vision flicker around the edges. Painkillers are a gift from God when they are needed, and they are needed tonight.
The red is the blood. The green is the money. The blue is the sky. I think about a bourbon. That will surely put me away. I like the sound of ice cubes hitting the lead crystal rock glass. The red is the blood, the poison river, always escaping, falling, splashing.
He doesn’t try to count the city lights. There are too many and he dislikes them all. They hide the stars. He wanders rather than walking because he has no destination in mind. He breathes a word that only he understands. He exhales it.
I touch the steel because it is blue. I touch the skin because it is red. I touch the earth because it is green, but that is all. I am unavailable. Disconnect the phone because I know the danger. A song plays in my head that I don’t like.
He lights another cigarette and inhales deeply. Smoke trickles out of his mouth and nose, slowly, erotically. The smoke curls up around his face and into his hair. He pulls an old book from the shelf. Without even looking at the title, he begins to read.