Category Archives: Autobiographical

You Never Forget

Apparently it’s true: you really do never forget how to ride a bike.

I took my new steed out for a trot around the block this evening. Actually, first I encouraged Angus to take his bike around the block. And he made it. Even with the stabilizers on, I ran behind him holding on, because the difference in pitch between normal sidewalk and the driveways is quite treacherous, and certainly too much for a beginner with questionable coordination. Gregor took off, running,  ahead of us and was home before we had rounded the final curve. But I give Angus much credit because he pedalled the whole way, even up the big hill, with no moaning or complaining and only fell off a little bit at the end.

After one circuit he declared himself done, but he was willing to run around once more, with his helmet on, he said. So I jumped on my bike and took them on a clockwise circuit which involves no road crossing.

I first rode a bike in the 1970s, rode around the houses as a child and was occasionally allowed to cycle to the next town as a teenager (but only if I called when I arrived, which I didn’t always remember to do; and that time I stopped off at someone’s house unannounced and didn’t call home because her big brother was having girl trouble and was on the phone, and then I forgot until about a hour later by which time my mother had nearly passed out from panic? Well, sorry about that.)

When I turned 21 I convinced the aforementioned traumatized parent to buy me my very first new bike. I was living away from home at this point so the prospects of them being traumatized all over again were relatively slim. I spent one glorious year pedalling around Edinburgh (wearing a helmet for the first time. Yes I am that old. Helmets for push bikes were not invented when I were a lass) on my new 21-speed, with the cutting edge twist-grip gear change. Oooo!

After years of stomping around the city or pedalling rustily on my sister’s old three-speed, I was positively gleeful to be flying along tree-lined Morningside avenues in any one of 21 gears. I bounced across Brunstfield Links on my wider-than-average hybrid tyres. I screeched to a halt and ‘chained’ by bike to the railings outside the library with a new-fangled D-Lock, stashed the key in my pocket, popped a plastic grocery bag over the seat (for protection against the inevitable showers of rain or passing student who’d spent a bit too long at the Pear Tree at lunchtime), clipped my helmet to my backpack and stomped off in my fake Doc Maarten’s.

A year later I flew off to visit my boyfriend in the US and, apart from a short flirtation before my wedding, abandoned my pride and joy flying machine along with my family and friends, and moved abroad. That was 14 years ago.

For some reason (oh yeah, we were broke) I never bought a bike in Boston. I could really, really have used one for getting to the subway station and for the trips home, when the connection would take longer to come than the walk would have taken. I suppose I could have picked one up at a yard sale or something but I never did. (It didn’t help that this was largely pre-Web too — yes, OK, I’m old! — and information about yard sales was gathered by walking past flyer-clad telephone poles, so your options were limited if you lived in a poorish neighbourhood, which we did.

I don’t know why I didn’t buy a bike when we moved to Pennsylvania. Lack of funds, inertia, objections from my non-cycling spouse, all contributed I suppose. Since we only had one car, a bike would have come in handy, but I never bought one.

And then I reached the stage where, whenever I seriously thought about buying a bike, I would discover I was pregnant.

But now, as I said, I am old and I am fat. My weight loss guru has advised finding a form of exercise that you loved as a kid. My boys are getting to bike-riding age. And, dammit, I wanted a bike! So I bought one.

I took it for a quick spin outside the house yesterday afternoon, but one boy was inside and one outside, and it was 92 degrees, so I didn’t get a chance to get a feel for the thing. But tonight?

Tonight I spent a happy half hour whizzing around the neighbourhood with one or both boys trotting alongside or waving to me from the playset in our fenced-in front garden as I wheeched grinning by.

Some things I learned:

1, You never forget how to ride a bike, in as much as ‘ride a bike’ means ‘pedal along in a straight line without falling off too much’.
2, You do forget how to steer in that effortless way you had as a kid: leaning into corners and making tight circles. Or maybe it isn’t that you forget. Maybe it’s that 20 years and 20 more pounds are upsetting the equilibrium a bit.
3, In spite of 15 years of driving over here, I had a bit of bother figuring out which side of the road I should be on.
3.1, Everything’s on the wrong side! I pulled up to the kerb to talk to Gregor (who was ‘poofed’) and realised that I would have to put my right foot down, not my left. Aargh. I jumped right off the bike instead, because my brain and my instincts couldn’t sort this fight out before the bike stalled and tipped me. And then THAT meant that, starting off, I had to start with my right foot on the ground and my left foot on the pedal, contrary to a life’s worth of pushing-off-on-a-bike-with-my-right-foot-first. Go on, YOU try doing something that you do instinctively, but with the wrong limb first…Go on, I’ll wait….. See?
4, My rear wheel brake is on the left-hand side, which is the hand you need to take off the handle-bars to signal the all-important left-hand turn (which here, unlike in Britain, is the one that crosses the traffic). You can probaby get away without signalling the ‘easy’ turn (in this case the right hand one) because your position on the road indicates it, and anyway, you’re not pulling out in front of cars behind you to do it. I haven’t quite worked this out yet and so will be spending a lot of time for now whizzing around the neighbourhood where most of the people in cars know me and will probably try to miss me, if only to avoid awkward silences at the next neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt.
5, I have not lost my love of flying as I glide along the road under pedal power.
6, Cheap bikes now are better than moderately-priced bikes 16 years ago. I had been nervous about my ability to pedal up even the slopes in our neighbourhood, but I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself.
7, A little exercise (and it hurts me to admit this) perks me right up.
8, I might have to get a bike trailer…

Stay tuned for more Amazing Adventures of the Cycling Scot, coming to a blog near you soon.

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Happily Hitched

It’s wedding season here in the US. Anyone who has ever listened to 1930s & 40s popular song knows that ‘moon’ and ‘June’ are synonymous with love — and it’s not just because they rhyme. In most of the States the weather is unbearably hot any time between June and October, so most weddings, with all the formal dress, are planned for the months between last-snow-date and the end of June.

After years in the wedding wilderness, we finally got invited to a wedding recently, and it’s got me all gushy and sentimental, as weddings are supposed to do. Ever wonder why you have to stand in front of your community and make those vows? I think it’s less to do with the couple getting married, and more to do with making the bitter old wives and tired old men spend an evening looking back and getting misty-eyed about when they were as young and blissfully ignorant as the impossibly young couple that’s getting married today.

It worked for me.

I’m thinking about compiling an article of Things To Know When Courting.

Something Kev said, which my mother should be very happy about, was that guy should always look at the mother. This, he reasoned, was a glimpse into the future, and well worth doing if you were contemplating getting yourself hitched to the daughter. I think my mother should take it as a compliment that he came away from his first meeting with her, thinking that he was onto a good thing with me.

I think potential brides should also pay attention to the father of their beloved. Fight it as they might, there is a strong tendancy in the men I know best, to turn into a version of their own father. But the best reason to pay attention to your love’s parents is that, no matter how distant they may seem while you’re dating, if you ever accientally combine zygotes and get them a grandchild, they’re going to be part of your life until one of you dies. It’s best if you can forge a working relationship with them early on.

What insights do you old married couples out there have, for the foolish kids embarking on the journey this year?

I’ve Got The Music In Me…

This week I’m practicing Christmas carols and songs on the guitar, having promised to go in to the preschool Christmas party and lead a sing-along.

I’m looking forward to it, but it’s a bit of a far-cry from my days singing four-part harmony original compositions by a choir director who was to go on to become “the pre-eminent Scottish composer of his generation”.

In the mid-eighties my mother taught at a small private school in darkest Ayrshire. A new young music teacher joined the staff and was put up in a staff cottage down at the end of a muddy lane on the edge of the school grounds. He was a passionate, somewhat scruffy, dark haired, bearded and bright-eyed type. Among his other duties in the school, he led a choir of adult voices made up of teachers and their roped-in spouses (including my parents), maybe a few parents and, since I was too young to be left at home alone, me.

The choir met for a couple of months leading up to the school’s annual Christmas concert, which was always held in a frigid old stone church on the village’s main (one) street. In late October it always seemed ridiculous to be learning about Good King Wenceslas’s snowy footprints in four-part harmony, but the nights soon drew in, as they say, and the cold came with them.

A soon as most of the choir members arrived Jimmy (as I was, in a rather grown-up fashion allowed to call our leader) would somewhat reluctantly tear himself away from an impassioned conversation with a nearby somebody about the inequities caused by the long-running miners’ strikes, and start handing out sheets of music to the small group crammed into his tiny living room. There were dining room chairs and a kitchen bench for the ladies, at the front. The few men up the back tried to sit up straight on the edge of the sofa and armchairs. Jimmy perched sideways on his piano stool, playing with one hand and guesturing animatedly with the other. There were weeks when he was the only tenor there, and two game basses struggled on in the back of the room.

I had been in choirs before, at church and at school, but there was an intensity about the way Jimmy led this choir, that was new to me. He demanded precision and could be now severe, now jokey. It was the first of three or four choirs I’ve been in that were led by real professionals, for whom this was an avocation as well as an occupation and they’ve all been the same: brilliant and funny and fearsome; passionate.

I loved the precision that Jimmy demanded. I loved being squashed into that living room with teachers and other grown-ups, pretending I was grown up too. I loved his wife, Lynne, peeking her head — and a tray of sherries –around the door. I loved bundling up and putting on my gloves and standing in the old, cold church singing my heart out. I even love (the memory of) Jimmy’s scowls when we blew a difficult passage.

But what really sticks with me was the night Jimmy passed around a hand-written piece that was utterly foreign to me. It was his setting of a Renaissance song (a madrigal? A carol?) called “Adam Lay YBounden”. He had written a haunting, dischordant (to my ears), odd and utterly beautiful setting of it. I was enchanted by the music and also by the idea that this guy, who worked with my Mum, had written this music and we were performing it along with the standard Christmas carols and that This Could Be Done.

I know that that was the year Jimmy started playing traditional Scottish music, because I was there in the room, while he and Donald talked about their band and their next gig. About five years later I was there when some of that came to fruition. I listened with amazement as this classical work had a bunch of weary parents, who were only there because their kids were in some school orchestra, tapping their fingers on the knees to the familiar Burns tunes woven into the piece, then guffawing as the brass section perfectly mimicked a bunch of drunken Scotsmen, boasting.

For a few weeks leading up to this, Jimmy (now Dr. James McMillan) had been coming into Ayrshire secondary schools and trying to teach us the very thing I had learned in his living room: that artists live among us; that music –even classical music– is ours to make; and that it should be enjoyed.

He had his work cut out at our school.

We didn’t have an orchestra. We had a ragtag bunch of Wednesday afternoon skivvers who liked to hang out in the music department and play electric guitars, drums, keyboards — and hashily at that.

But he seized it. And he made us compose. He made us bang and pluck and strum and tootle on anything that was to hand and called it music. Then he turned the rhythm backwards and made that the “B” section. Then he took a sarcastic comment from the back of the class and acted on it, gleefully turning the scrawled music on the blackboard, that he had picked out of our busking, upside down. Voila, the “C” theme. Then he slowed us down and found the “D”. We got to perform this wierd and wonderful cacophony as an interlude in the Strathclyde Concerto No. 2, by Peter Maxwell Davies, along with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

And for once, our school was no less grand than the schools with real, organized sports teams and prize-winning orchestras and kids who could actually read music.

When it was over, we went back to being school kids and Jimmy went on to become a star in the classical world. And all over Ayrshire, there were kids whose ears pricked up every time the Scottish Chamber Orchestra came on TV or was mentioned on the radio, because for one night, we had sat among them and played music that was ours, and they had listened to us.

I was lucky. I came from a home where music was a normal, everyday thing. But I’ve learned that mine was not the average experience.

So, it’s a small step, but I hope that by taking my guitar into a class of three year olds and singing Christmas songs with them, I’m starting something. I want these kids to know that music doesn’t just come from speakers, and that instruments aren’t meant to be listened to reverently. I want them to know that we can all sit around on the floor and bang on things and strum things and shake things and that the music belongs to them.

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