Thursday, September 20, 2018

CHOPIN"S FINAL DAYS

My first piano recital piece—I was 9 years old—was Chopin's prelude in C# minor, Opus 28, No.7 When I returned to the formal study of the piano in retirement I kept running into Chopin.  The first time was during the marvelous 2000 exhibit, "Piano 300," on the history of the piano at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. which I explored three times in as many days.  Among so many other treasures in that exhibit were compositions, some in their own hand, some by copyists, of Mozart, Liszt, Haydn, Gershwin, and Chopin.  The most beautiful handwriting of all was Chopin's.  Each page of his composition on display, the Impromptu in G flat major, op 51, was a work of art.         
          I began reading biographies of Chopin, the best of which I found to be Siepmann’s Chopin, the Reluctant Romantic. The book was so good I read it twice and the second time made many notes.  But it was mostly in Paris, the city in which he spent much of his short life, that I kept running into Frederick Francois Chopin. I sought out and visited his residences, including the one on the Place Vendome near my office where he died.  I ran into Chopin again as I walked above the quays of the Left Bank.  I looked up at the delicate steeple of Saint Chapelle and up river to a clear view of Notre Dame in the near distance.  Crowds of tourists milled around the green stalls of book and print vendors, babbling in many languages, taking pleasure in the warmth and sunlight and the boats and the architectural beauty of the grand buildings along the Seine.  Sunlight flooded the western tip of the island that is in the heart of Paris, the Isle de la Cite.
          I looked for Chopin portraits and books among the stalls. =I was below the Pont Neuf Bridge and not far from the Place St. Michel.  A vendor in his late 40s with a full but neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard had just finished unloading the contents of the green metal box that held his wares and was fussing over their arrangement.  Propped up in front of rows of his old books was a full-length portrait, not more than seven inches tall.  It had the greenish tints found in some old daguerreotypes and was clearly authentic 19th Century. The face looked familiar.  "Chopin," the vendor said.  He was now standing beside me.

"A daguerreotype.  Taken in 1849, a few weeks before he died at age 39."  

          In the photo Chopin is in the final stages of tuberculosis.  It wasn't any Chopin I had ever seen, certainly not the young, frail handsome romantic. He looked old and tired, with dark circles under his eyes. He seemed to be barely holding on to life and perhaps was surprised at what the disease was doing to his body.  Death, I thought, already has her arms around him.  Perhaps the vendor saw the dismay in my face.
"Look at his eyes." he said.  "Look at the soul in his eyes and he hummed a brief passage from one of Chopin's works.  Such beauty!"       
          But I saw pain where the vendor saw beauty in the face of the man who composed such exquisite music.  I walked away but I could not forget that portrait as I sat in a cafe on Place St. Michel with an espresso coffee, thinking about the photo.  I liked it very much, I said to myself, and it is not expensive.  But could I live with it?  I finally decided no, I could not.   
          Chopin requested Mozart's requiem mass be performed at his funeral service.  The funeral was delayed because there were major parts for female voices in Mozart's mass and the Madeleine had never permitted female singers in its choir.  The church relented on the condition that the women would be invisible behind a black velvet curtain.   Also played at his funeral were Chopin's preludes Opus 28, No 4 in E minor and No 6 in B minor, both mournful keys.   Chopin's funeral was the first public funeral in the temple built by Napoleon as a monument to his victorious armies that later became a church, the Madeleine.  Thousands followed the Chopin funeral cortege, walking from the Madeleine to Pere Lachaise cemetery where he was buried. 
     For some months I walked frequently from my office across the northern edge of the  Place de la Concorde and up the rue Royale to the Madeleine.  I walked through bouquets of flowers on the lower steps and trotted up into the church almost every day to spend a few minutes remembering Chopin and my French assistant, Anne Marie-Migeot.  For two and one half years Anne-Marie and I were the USIS Paris support for our regional offices in the major consular cities in France.  We had endured much frustration in a poorly organized USIS program together.  Anne-Marie died at 47, quite unexpectedly, while visiting her brother in Brazil. While at the beach.  A blood clot on the brain.  Anne-Marie occasionally complained of migraine headaches but there were no other symptoms or warning signs.  We were all in shock.  Anne-Marie's funeral mass was held at the Madeleine. Gabriel Faure's much-loved requiem was first performed in the Madeleine for a funeral mass in l888 and he became the organist at that church from 1896 to 1905. 
          

OUR OWN SEPARATED CHILDREN


There has been a great deal of criticism of the Trump administration’s former practice of separating the children of would be immigrants from their parents.  Perhaps a thousand children were so affected.  The outcry was strong enough that under public pressure, the policy was cancelled.     
          What has caused little or no public outcry at all is the daily separation of American children from parents who are incarcerated.  The numbers are staggering.  Not a thousand or so, but five million children, all US citizens, have had a parent in state or federal prison at some time in their childhood.
          In some cases, the second parent, grandparents, or other relatives take them in.  But most of these children are put into some form of foster care. 
          These separations from a loved parent are terribly painful. I know that because I was such a child, and I wrote about my experience in my first book, Children of the Manse.   

Children of the Manse, p 43

          “Lonnie was arrested again following a break-in of a local liquor store. I remember the day we were taken to see Janey (new born sister) and our mother at Mercy Hospital in Portsmouth.  I best remember the occasion because I got to see my Daddy again.  He gave me and Brother and Charlie sticks of Wrigley’s chewing gum in light green paper wrappers.  He was with a sheriff’s deputy to whom he was handcuffed.

          When the visit was over we all walked out of the hospital together and I saw the black sheriff’s car and two more deputies who would take Lonnie back to jail and then to the Ohio state prison. He tried to hug me but couldn’t because of the handcuffs.  When he looked up at the deputy, asking to be freed for a moment to hold me, the deputy shook his head.  They opened the car door so my Daddy could get in and he sat between two men in suits and fedoras and they sped away.  I can’t forget seeing him like that, being driven away with his head down.  My Aunt Mary told me I came running into my Grandmother McNelly’s house afterwards crying, “Grandma!  Grandma!  They took my Daddy to jail.  They took my Daddy to jail! I believed, said Aunt Mary, my Grandmother McNelly could do something about it.  All I knew was the joy of my heart was gone and Aunt Mary said I cried inconsolably long into the night.  Nothing my grandmother or Aunt Mary said or did could help me.” 

          I was five years old, the worst time say the psychologists, to be separated from a loved parent. In my case, Lonnie was the parent I loved because he loved me and my biological mother was a selfish and cold woman who would eventually beg state social workers to place me and three younger siblings in a county children’s home. 




Wednesday, September 19, 2018

RENOIR'S NUDES


When I lived in Paris in the late l970s, the Impressionist museum was across the street from my office in the Talleyrand building.  During a later visit to Paris  I was disappointed to find the entire Impressionist collection had been moved to the fourth floor of the new Musee d’Orsay.  That was in effect moving them to the attic of what was once a handsome Parisian railway station. But it has always been  how the French treat the Impressionists. Formerly the Impressionists were not allowed into the Louvre Palace Museum proper but were relegated to an outbuilding, the royal tennis court, which was why I could walk across the street at will to view them.  
          Even so, I was delighted to view the paintings again on whatever floor they were and in 2000 spent an entire day roaming through the impressionist galleries in a half empty museum during a sunny weekday in late winter.  When I came to the Renoirs I stood for some time in front of one of the best of his 1918 painting of young bathers, Les Grandes Baigneuses.  Two plump, lovely, nude young women, lie next to each other, relaxing after their bath.  The painting is full of warm dreamy oranges, yellows, and greens.  
          In the background, as I circled the gallery of Renoir’s canvasses, I could hear a group of school girls, laughing, exuberant and joyful.  The first two, smiling dark-haired girls in blue skirts and white blouses, danced into the Renoir gallery.  They stepped up to Les Grandes Baigneuses and inspected the two young women closely. Suddenly one, in glee, turned to her companion and said,

"Look!  There are three! she said pointing at the bottom bather."

Then she walked up to the painting, dragging her companion by the hand,
"One," and she pointed to the bather’s right breast.  "Two," and she pointed to the bather's left breast.  "And three,” she said triumphantly, pointing to the bather's right elbow.   And, as in one of those geometric figures in psychology books used to teach us about perception, it was possible, looked at in a certain way, that the elbow could be seen as the bather's third breast.  After a moment of observation her companion agreed with her.  There were indeed three.  These two turned back to the next two girls in blue and white who had just entered the room, and announced with excitement,
"Look!  There are three!”
Then the first girl again walked up to the painting, and said, 
"One," and she pointed to the bather’s right breast.  "Two," and she pointed to the bather's left breast.  "And three,' she said triumphantly, pointing to the bather's right elbow."   Influenced by the excited enthusiasm of the first two girls, the second pair of school girls immediately agreed.  Indeed, this young woman in the painting had three breasts and wasn't that fun! 
So, this group of four ran back to drag the rest of their classmates and their teacher into the gallery to show them this amazing discovery.
Soon I heard a chorus of "Oui, Oui!  Il y en a trois!"  "Yes, yes, there are three."
It was obvious to the half-dozen of us who had been watching this little drama that things had gone too far for correction by the time their mother goose, a teacher plump like Renoir's bathers and wearing dark rimmed glasses, entered the gallery. She was trying to hush the girls who by now were gathered in a group in front of painting, commenting, tittering, all fascinated to see A nude woman with three breasts.
"Oh, no, no, there are not three," I heard the teacher say.  “There are only two.  What you are calling the third brest is her elbow.   Can't you see?” 

          The teacher blushed as she looked around at the other adults in the gallery who were now as interested in the reaction of the children to Renoir's painting as the children were in this unusual piece of art.   
After a few more attempts to demonstrate there were not three breasts in Renoir’s e painting, but only two, the teacher gave a Gallic shrug as her charges danced happily into the next gallery.  As they moved on we could hear the teacher still trying to hush them and the girls still twittering, still pleased with their surprise discovery.  
 


 


    

BARBERS ABROAD


I recently timed a female barber who cut my hair.  Five minutes, 10 seconds.  A record.   All through the years, reaching back over half a century, having my hair cut required at least 20 minutes and sometimes half an hour.  Then when unisex barber shops arrived, old fashion males-only barber shops began to disappear and 20- minute haircuts went with them.  Well, I guess some folks reckon a five- minute hair cut is progress.  But I don’t.
          Today’s five- minute haircuts in unisex shops make me nostalgic for the barber shops of my youth when the barber began with clippers and trimmed his work with scissors. Then he applied lather from a shaving mug and shaved your neck with a straight razor. The barber cocked the razor in one hand to begin shaving.  Then he wiped off his work with a hot towel.   
          Ahhh!  The warmth of the next step, a second hot towel, was most pleasant against my neck, a mildly sensual experience.  Often a gentle shoulder massage was included. Eyebrows and ear hairs were trimmed and a moustache or beard if you had one.  It was a relaxing and delightful experience, having someone fuss over my hair. In those days such shops were as much a territory of males only as was the local beauty sop the territory of women.  But women could enter if with their small sons. On those rare occasions when women were present, the sounds of the conversation would hush, and it was sometimes necessary to change the subject.  When I began to grow a beard, a shave with more lather and more hot towels was even more relaxing.   Then there were the ointments and the pungent lotions, which were probably not necessary or even healthy but nice none the less.  Yes, I miss all that. 
          Now I have just described an old-time American haircut.  But when I became a diplomat and began to travel around the world I found there were barbers and haircuts that were quite different from those in the US. Even so, haircuts abroad were mostly an occasion to look forward to, a too-brief 30 minutes of luxury and pleasure.
          At one extreme I have sat in the shade of a mango tree in open African markets for a barber working with the old-fashioned hand clips and a pair of scissors.   Not an altogether pleasant experience but it did have one plus.  Those haircuts cost me a British shilling, at the time worth about 14 US cents. 
          At the other extreme I have been coiffed by a lovely young woman in a unisex parlor near my office on the rue du Faubourg St. Honoree in the upscale 8th arrondissement in Paris.  I was never able to find a proper barber shop in Paris, so I had ended up in a fancy French salon where “haircuts” lasted an hour and cost the equivalent of 60 US dollars.  The process began with a shampoo by a pretty assistant of the coiffeuse who pulled my head back into a large semi-circle stainless steel receptacle and gently messaged my scalp.  It ended as my hair was blown dry and somehow given body and a shape not its own.   I was quite handsome at the end of all that….for 24 hours.  
          One of the best haircuts I ever had was in an ultramodern, air-conditioned Portuguese shop in Beira, Mozambique.   I had arrived by freighter a couple of days before and settled into a pension called the Gato Noir (Black Cat). All the streets in the center of the city had been dug up and were open as workers replaced an ancient sewer system.  At that time Beira was surely the most foul-smelling city on the planet and it was in this very modern Portuguese barbershop that I sought temporary relief. The Portuguese barbers were highly skilled, but I suspect what has planted that haircut firmly in my mind is the rank smell of the city’s open sewers.
          The Chinese barbers in a shop I favored near our embassy in Singapore were skilled but unremarkable, perhaps because haircuts in Singapore were much like those in the US in the l940s and 50s, as also were those in Canberra, Australia. 
          If I were to choose my favorite barber I would select a shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  That barber -- he was a one-man shop -- was from northern India. He used only hand tools, not an electric clipper, and worked slowly and carefully.  Once he was happy with what he had done and had my approval, he rubbed a delightful smelling unguent around my neck and over my face.  Then he messaged my shoulders and upper back.  Then…the first time he did this I could not believe what he was doing…he began firmly beating the center of my upper back with the edge of his hands and descended my back, disc by disc. Because I had been suffering from lower back pain for some months my first reaction was, Oh, No!  But I did not try to stop him. When he was done I realized that my back felt better than it had in many months and I continued to go to his shop for haircuts and the service of what I came to think of as a skilled chiropractor during the remainder of my four-year tour in Malaysia.      









CARUSO, THE SINGING BLACKBIRD

          One of my favorite birds in Australia was not an indigenous Australian bird at all.  Lying in the sun on our second-floor deck after a long bike ride, I heard beautiful birdsong. The bird trilled, warbled, and did acrobatics with his voice.  He had one standard call and then began a series of imitations.  I tried to observe the bird with binoculars, but it managed to stay out of view. The song seemed to be coming from a eucalyptus tree partially hidden behind a neighbor's high fence.  
          Then one weekend evening, the bird changed his perch to mount a corner post of the neighbor's fence, and I got a good glimpse of his profile.  I wanted to know more about this marvelous songster.   I went searching through The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, by Gordon Pizzey and Frank Knight, the bible for birders in Australia.
          I observed that my bird—I already thought of him as my bird—began to appear regularly on the post as if it were a small stage.  I occasionally heard him in the morning as I left for work, and I often heard him during the early evening when I returned to my residence. On weekends, I could hear him singing throughout the day.  I observed that he would sing for 15 minutes and then leave the stage as though for an intermission.  After a brief rest, he was back, singing his heart out.  I decided to call him Caruso, as I was sure he was a male.  Was he trying to attract a mate?  There were many mating rituals going on among the birds during that season in Australia, with chases in flight and chases on the ground.  I thought that if I were a female of that species, I would be easily won because Caruso's singing touched me deeply.  Only two or three times before in my life had I been so moved by birdsong. 
          Then one afternoon the light was just right as he flew up to his perch on the post and began to sing.  Through my binoculars, I could see that the bird was black, solid black.  The late afternoon light caught his beak.  Was I seeing orange?  Yes, I decided my bird had an orange beak.  Were those yellow circles around the bird's eyes?  The only bird in the guidebook that had a similar profile, was black, had an orange beak and yellow circles around its eyes, was the common English blackbird!  Since when does a common English blackbird sing like an angel?  According to Pizzey and Wright, the English blackbird was introduced into Melbourne. Australia by a visiting bird dealer in 1857, and then into Sydney and Adelaide in 1863.  I have no idea how Pizzey and Wright determined the exact years.  The English blackbird, they wrote, is a thrush like the robin, and like robins, it hops across the ground, cocks its head to listen, and then jabs its bill into the ground for worms.  I read the following description in the Pizzey's and Wright guide:
“Voice, serene, mellow, often loud in measured phrases; lacks repetition of the song thrush. Whisper song in autumn includes imitations of native birds.”
          This is not autumn.  It is spring Down Under, but I am hearing imitations of native birds every day from this blackbird.  Today, while planting my tomatoes, I got a clear view of him through my binoculars again.  Yep.  Black, orange beak.  Yellow eye rings. That settled it.  Caruso was indeed a common English blackbird—how unglamorous in Australia where so many birds come decked out in bright colors!   How can such a plain bird sing so spectacularly?
          Over the months, I learned a few things about Caruso that are not in the "official" bird book.  First, the imitations by male blackbirds occur in spring as well as in autumn.  Second, blackbirds are great mimics, the rivals of American mockingbirds.  Third, when this bird is trying to attract a mate its song is loud, but it is also varied in volume and is musically poetic.  Last is something no expert has written, but I am persuaded is true.    The blackbird in my garden is special within his species.  He is, if you like, an individual bird with an unusual musical talent.  He is indeed a Caruso of blackbirds.  His range, his timbre, his creativity, his desire simply to sing, must be at the higher range of his species.  Birds, like humans, surely have individual qualities of their own. 
          Then Caruso disappeared.  I no longer heard his singing.  Had he given up on finding a mate​?   Was he the victim of a predator?  I missed him.  Six months later, in the southern spring, during the first week of September, I heard the call of a blackbird as I walked away from the embassy late one afternoon.  I had not realized that blackbirds were migratory and thought Caruso was gone forever.   I wondered if he would return to the same tree or even the same neighborhood as before.  The very thought he might filled me with joy. 
          I could not believe it!  Less than an hour after I heard the blackbird near the embassy, I saw a blackbird in the pear tree in the middle of my back lawn.  Is it possible? Is he Caruso?  I have not yet heard him sing.  I watched as he sharpened his beak on the branch of the tree and looked around as if to reacquaint himself with his territory.  He seemed to approve what he saw and seemed glad to be home.  Then he began to sing.  Yes, it's Caruso! He has returned!  It seems that blackbirds migrate in  a single flock and Caruso’s flock arrived in Canberra that day.  
          During November, I wrote that my blackbird sang faithfully each day, when I left in the morning and when I returned in the evening.  One day I heard another blackbird responding to his song.  It was thus that I learned there were blackbirds everywhere in   Canberra.  Now that I was aware of them, I heard them all over the city.  My theory, based on observation only, is that English blackbirds form a singing network based on territory, and they sing to and respond to each other throughout the day—a telephone system for blackbirds.  Caruso disappeared each March and reappeared each September during the next three years of my tour in Australia.  He sang every day, all through the day.  Blackbirds are monogamous for life.  Perhaps there was a shortage of female birds so that he was unable to attract a mate while I lived in Australia.  I liked thinking he found a mate eventually because Blackbirds can live to be 20 years old. 


Friday, February 21, 2014

Philomena: Will Hollywood ever tell the other story?

  

          I cannot go to see the film “Philomena.”  I would find it too upsetting.  You see, it’s not my story.  My story is not about a mother forced to give up her baby and then spend a lifetime looking for him.  My story is about a mother who willingly gave up her children, all four of us, and begged social services in the 1940s to put us in an orphanage while she went on her merry way in her self-centered life. 
          My story is about a mother who showed up a year later with a new husband and a new baby on the one occasion she visited us in the orphanage.  I knew then that her marriage to my father, the father I deeply loved, was over, and that she was perfectly happy to leave the four of us in the orphanage.  Actually the man who was with her during that visit was not her husband.  He was yet another lover who did not marry her.  But she found a new man (there were many) and he married her and they had another child, another girl. 
          This is not the kind of story Hollywood wants to do.  It doesn’t grab the heart strings somehow.  If ever they decide to film my story, or one like it, it is told in the first third of Children of the Manse, a book I published four years ago.
          But what Hollywood would like is the way our story ended.  We were rescued and mostly healed by Fred and Evelyn Luchs and went on to enjoy healthy and productive lives. That story is told in the last two-thirds of the book.  We all like happy endings, don’t we?     
     

Saturday, January 12, 2013

WHY I CYCLE



        As the surprising result of a back operation at the age of 50, road bicycling became the recreational passion of my later adult life.  For 30 years I ran for exercise.   For 45 minutes, three or four times a week, usually at dawn.  Running kept me in decent shape.  I ran frequently along the C and O Canal a block from my home near Wash D. C, and once ran past then vice president Bush on the canal, preceded and followed by secret service agents on mountain bikes.  I encountered the vice president again, this time at Ft. McNair in l983 as Bush ran around the campus with Alberto Salazar. I was then a student at the National Defense University.
          I could run anywhere, an important feature of my Foreign Service life. All I needed in my suitcase was a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and good running shoes.  In the l960s I ran as I watched the sun rise in Madagascar and Mali. I ran in sun and rain in Paris and Strasbourg and Bordeaux in the l970s and in snow in Stuttgart, and more rain and sun in Munich, and Vienna in l983.  I could run anywhere.  I couldn’t cycle anywhere.  Certainly not in congested Singapore.  So I continued to run, usually at first light, on the asphalt lanes near the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia until a disc in my back ruptured and had to be removed.  Following the operation a State Department doctor told me my running days were over. I immediately thought about cycling.  I had lived on a bicycle as a boy in Athens, Ohio, so many years ago.   

“How about cycling?” I asked. 

“And no cycling.  You can swim.”

“But I don’t like to swim.”

“Sorry.”

I worked at swimming in the embassy pool in Malaysia but swimming did not seem to be helping and I was miserable without a physical activity I truly enjoyed.

                                        Down Under
         
          My next tour took me and my family from Malaysia to Canberra, Australia.  More than a year after the disc removal my back was not healing and continued to hurt.  I went to a primary care physician in Canberra.  I told him about the continuing pain in my back and he asked,

“Have you tried cycling?” 

“I was told I couldn’t cycle.”

“That’s odd,” he said. “You see,” and he cupped his hand, palm down, to simulate the rounded back of a rider on a road bike with dropped handlebars, “That opens up the discs and should be good for your back.” 
          The following morning I climbed on the green Gitane I had bought at La Samaritaine, the famous department store in Paris, but had not much used. I coasted from my house in Garran down the street to an entry to Canberra’s network of 450 miles of independent paved bike paths, rode 15 miles, and for the first time in ten months, my back felt good.  When I did not ride for two days, the pain returned.  So I set a goal of riding every other day and began to lengthen the distance from 15 to 20 to 25 miles.  For about two months.  Then came an extremely busy time at the embassy and I missed four days of riding and the pain did not return.  After two months of regular riding I had no more pain and have never looked back.  By then I so enjoyed the wonderful sense of health and well being that long rides produced in my body that I was addicted to riding my Green Gypsy (Gitane is French for gypsy), and did so two and three times each week.  Unlike running, which I made myself do because it was good for me, I enjoyed every minute on my bike.

                               A Cyclist’s Paradise

          Canberra, Australia,  is a capital created out of sleep pastures near the Brindabella Mountains in New South Wales, three hours from Sydney by car and not much further from the Snowy Mountains.  Neither Sydney nor Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, was willing to cede the honor of being the national capital to the other.  The compromise worked out at the beginning of the 20th Century was to build an entirely new capital at a location between the two cities and, for reasons of national security, far enough inland to be beyond the range of the largest guns of the world’s most modern battleships at that time. 
          The award for the best design for the new city went to Burley Griffin, a landscape architect from Chicago, who was ably assisted by his talented wife.  The centerpiece of the Griffins’ plan was a large lake -- created by damming the Murrumbidgee River -- around which the city’s commercial and government centers were developed.  The Griffin plan left large tracts of pasture land and native eucalyptus groves to separate a network of satellite suburbs.  So extensive was the natural area left free of any development that it was often said that living in Canberra was like living in a national park.  There are abundant kangaroos near central Canberra to prove that.
          In time a 400 mile paved cycle network totally free of motor vehicles was built centered on the lake, now named for Burley Griffin.  The network passed through the city center, wove around the handsome new one billion dollar Parliament House and other government buildings and then spread out through pastures and woods to the edge of the city in all directions.  As the city grew, so did the bicycle network.  Imagine over 400 miles of independent pave cycle trail, often eight feet wide!  I know of no such bicyclist’s paradise anywhere else in the world.

                                        Physical Changes

          Beyond the healing of my back, I could see other changes in my body as I rode week by week in Canberra.  I had more energy.  I was more relaxed.  I found that cycling quickly dissipated the stresses accumulated at work.  My immune system was stronger.  I no longer succumbed to winter colds. The sustained effort at a moderate to high aerobic level gave me what felt like a total body tune-up.  I even found regular cycling a means of weight control.  Running didn’t do that for me.  In those days I was somewhat heavier than I wanted to be but I soon found that when I cycled 75-100 miles each week, I could eat as much of anything as I wanted and not gain an ounce.   

          Now in my late -70s, I continue to ride regularly, at least twice each week when the weather permits, and at least one 40 mile ride each week. I also do a three times each week senior’s fitness program at the Y that promises to exercise every muscle in my aging body.  It’s a great program  but only long cycle rides give my body what feels like a total tune-up and make me feel twenty years younger for two or three days.  I have just read in a health newsletter that regular vigorous physical exercise adds years to our lives. Healthy years.  That wasn’t an established fact when I began cycling but as I age, I will be glad to add it to all the other reasons I cycle.  

                              How to Solve Problems

          I found yet another benefit in cycling.  Problem solving.  I would often leave the office on Friday evenings with a problem I had wrestled with all week that seemed to have no solution.  Then, during long weekend rides, letting my mind wander to the sights and smells of the landscape (eucalyptus groves have a marvelous aroma), solutions that I immediately recognized as right popped into my mind. As if from nowhere.  As research uncovers more secrets of the brain we are learning that such insights come from intense attention to a problem or a creative work, and then parking the issue in the unconscious and letting the mind wander.  I suspect this is a process that creative artists have always understood intuitively.  Walking or simply sleeping on a problem may work for some, but for me, the rhythmic cadence of pedal strokes on a 40 mile bike ride is the best way to encourage new insights as well as relieve stress.   

                                        Other Joys in Cycling

          There’s yet another reason I ride.  I feel like a boy again when I’m on a bicycle.  Perhaps that’s because my brothers and I lived on our bikes in the small college town in which we were raised.  We could ride anywhere in daylight and for hours at a time and our parents need not worry.  Bikes were our means of freedom to temporarily escape adult supervision and go more or less as we wished. 
          When I began riding with groups in the Potomac Peddlers in Washington, D.C. (1992-95) I was amused to hear them brag that cyclists have the best sex.  Well, science is confirming that as well, but not just for cyclists.  “High levels of any sustained, vigorous nonsexual physical activity go hand-in-hand with sexual well-being, especially for men.”  (UC Berkley “Wellness Newsletter.”)
          I now live in Eugene, Oregon, near the center of the city because I want to be within walking distance of the University of Oregon and Eugene’s downtown.  But I love the country and cycling takes me out into the county where I can feel the wind on my body, breath pure air, smell the fields and woods, and enjoy the changing seasons.  The arrival of first swallows in late February, new born snow white lambs in the fields of March, horses frolicking on a warm spring day in April, freshly mowed hayfields in June, ripened grains in July, blackberries in August. There is something special about moving through rural scenery at 15 miles per hour that is very different from rushing through in an automobile.  I don’t have to own the farms and horse properties to enjoy them.  Someone else takes on that responsibility while I ride pleasant county roads along their borders.   

          Not all road riding is bucolically peaceful.  I remember well a near encounter with a black bear on an isolated road in Idaho and having to outrun a rogue boar in Southeastern Ohio.  Dogs are a menace in some states but loose dogs in Oregon are rare. Occasionally young men driving pickup trucks on lightly policed county roads or inexperienced RVers make cycling in Oregon more dangerous than it need be. And occasionally there is a sad sight, the road kill of our automobiles seen up close.  I have picked up a yellow warbler just struck by a car, its warm body in the palm of my hand and watched as its eyes close in death before I buried it.  Any road cyclist has seen countless birds, dead squirrels, raccoons, possum, and deer along the way.   

                              Meditation on a Bike

          I like the silence of country roads and solitude without the background noises of the city.   For me, cycling three or four hours in a prefect blend of human body and machine brings a depth of relaxation rarely experienced otherwise.  Cycling through natural beauty punctuated by the steady rhythm of pedal strokes (rather than counting breaths) can be a form of meditation that brings a deep sense of peace and joy.

                                        Companionship
         
          I don’t always ride alone.  I enjoy company and have ridden with half a dozen groups, large and small, since arriving in Eugene over 17 years ago.  There is a special camaraderie among cyclists, a sense of adventure shared and challenges (steep hills, strong headwinds, and blowing rains) successfully overcome. One group of three I rode with included a doctor in his mid 70s, born and raised in Eugene, and a road cyclist his entire adult life.  He added a special flavor to our touring by sharing his in-depth knowledge of the history and historic sites and geology of the south Willamette Valley.                        

                                        Still More Benefits

          I have not mentioned saving gasoline or kindness to mother earth as reasons to cycle because mostly I cycle because it’s fun.  My spirits rise after a long ride.  Cycling is a powerful mood lifter.  And cycle tours, whether a professionally organized like those of Cycle Oregon, or a low budget week of cycling and tenting with friends in the San Juan Islands make a wonderful, healthy, and relatively inexpensive vacation.     

          The sport is within the economic reach of all.  I figure my Green Gypsy and the  red Cannondale I bought to replace her when Gypsy’s down tube cracked have cost me about three cents per ride. I expect a similar return from the Specialized Roubaix carbon fiber bike I purchased five years ago, a sweet bike with frame geometry especially kind to aging bodies.  Is there a better bargain in sports equipment than a fine bicycle?  I don’t think so.