NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and coarse humor.
It’s the day after Thanksgiving and I’m not sprawled out like a beached whale. The feast is tonight instead. While the womenfolk prepare it, I’ll recount my gorge-free day of pure gratitude—well, okay, cycling and gratitude—which was yesterday. But don’t worry, this won’t be a Normal Rockwell or Thomas Kincade style preciousness-fest. It’ll be a snarky, snooty … no it won’t. In between. A frigid ride described through the prism of grudging gratitude. C’mon, it’ll be fun. There's even some photos.
Really, I kind of don’t see the point of Thanksgiving. That doesn’t mean I don’t see the point of giving thanks. I just don’t like the idea of compressing all your gratitude into one day, so that everybody is going around the table trying to outdo each other with innovative, comprehensive outpourings. It’s like a bunch of Academy Awards speeches and meanwhile our food is getting cold. My kids haven’t asked me to explain this holiday; perhaps they instinctively know I’d ruin everything by saying, “Well, early colonists would have starved but the Native Americans saved them, so the next year they threw a big celebration feast, and then ran the Native Americans off onto reservations, which were tracts of land that weren’t of much use until somebody had the brilliant idea of running casinos on them so the white man could exploit a lucrative gambling loophole and blame it on the Native Americans.
I prefer to thank as I go, year-round. My wife and I make the kids do it, too. “What are you grateful for today?” is a standard dinner table conversation starter (or killer, let’s be honest), along with “Everybody recount the most embarrassing thing you did today.”
The first thing I’m grateful for is that I got to ride at all. First thing in the morning my wife started speaking to me in hushed tones. This usually means she’s hatching a plan for a family outing and doesn’t want the kids to weigh in. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a bad person, but I don’t always want to spend my day off doing boring things with my kids. (Okay, maybe I am a bad person.) Now, a good hike isn’t boring, and I’d normally be up for it, but one of Ashland’s main attractions is Lithia Park, where teenagers go to smoke pot, and which has a playground for little kids and their bored parents. I had a feeling the playground would suck us in.
I don’t mind watching my kids play on a playground. Actually, that’s not true. I do mind it. For me, quality time can take a variety of forms and that’s not one of them. I’d much rather read to my kids, or just sit next to them on the couch, each of us with a book. I was doing this with Lindsay in the morning, all cozy and everything, and suddenly she fled to the far end of the couch. I asked what was up. “You committed flatulence!” she accused. I denied it (honestly, I hadn’t done it). I said she had done it. “No, I know it wasn’t me because mine are very loud,” she said. “Yours are more … solemn.”
Ah! The insight of a child. Suddenly I had a brainstorm about the craft of writing. I read a Stephen King book about writing recently, and he exhorted the budding writer to avoid adverbs. His position is that if your description is good enough, the nature of the action should be obvious. Well, what exactly about my (alleged) flatulence had struck Lindsay as solemn? What body language had conveyed this surprising notion? And how might this mystery inflect my own writing?
They drove along the winding road, stereo off, taking in the full range of autumn colors. The trees just don’t do this in San Diego. He looked over at Claire, trying to gauge her mood. She’d been quiet for some time: was this a sign of irritation, or had the scenery cast a pleasant spell? He noted a certain set of her jaw, slightly disrupting the tranquility of her face. Was she even enjoying the drive? Or was she distracted by a memory of her former life, when she’d lived here? Probably he was over-thinking things, as usual. He gave his head a tiny shake as he acknowledged, not for the first time, the inscrutability of others. Perhaps it was enough to just enjoy the drive and not try to know everything. Yes, perhaps this smooth, asphalt road and the brilliant hues of the leaves would have to be enough. He farted solemnly.
Getting back to the family plan, I was relieved to learn that my wife’s idea was to head to Lithia Park, let the kids play, and then take them hiking while I did a bike ride. For this plan I felt much gratitude.
While filling my water bottles, asked my wife, “Hey, did you ever check out that link I sent you to the Hater’s Guide to the Williams Sonoma Catalog?” She said she hadn’t, that she hadn’t had time, but not to take it personally. “Take it personally?” I protested. “Why would I do that? It’s not like I wrote the thing.” I reflected sexistly that only a female would take such a thing personally. I reminded her: “I’m a guy. I don’t take anything personally. If you told me my breath stunk, I’d say, ‘Oh yeah?! You should take a look in the mirror! You probably have something really stinky lodged in one of your nostrils!” So I guess in this realm I am glad I’m a guy, and also glad that I can pretend to be sexist without angering my wife.
(Do you think Stephen King would have minded that adverb, “sexistly”? If so, on what grounds: that it’s an adverb, or that it’s not even a real word?)
The next thing I was grateful for was that I managed to overcome a mechanical problem with my bike. One of the inner tubes wouldn’t hold air due to a bad valve. It’s touch and go. The leak isn’t obvious unless you (well, I) apply some saliva and then check, with your (okay, my) tongue for that buzzing, bubbling sensation that indicates a leak. Oddly, my wife didn’t seem curious about why I was French-kissing my French valve. I finally had an “aha!” moment and put a bit of cold vulcanizing fluid on there before screwing on the valve cap, figuring when it set up it might help form a seal. Sounds absurd but it seemed to work. I was really proud of myself and was dying to describe the solution to my wife. I said, “I’m trying really hard to resist describing my innovative bike repair to you.” She replied, “Well you’re not trying hard enough.” I’m grateful that instead of silently suffering my bike-mania, she stops me cold. This dynamic is probably the backbone of our marriage. (By the way, I never normally use valve caps. I was grateful to have brought one, having thankfully noticed the flaky valve before we left home.)
We parked at Lithia Park, I checked my bike tire (still holding!), and I said goodbye to the family and headed out. I was grateful for the ingenious helmet liner that I was trying out for the first time, that kept my head from feeling like it had been stabbed through the vents and then had ice cubes thrust into the open wounds. I was grateful for my extra-thick leg warmers and my stretched-out old cycling shoes that accommodated thick Smartwool socks. And I was grateful for the dry climate of this area. Not only did that make the cold air less harsh, but the crotch of my shorts had dried out after my post-urinal drip. I don’t know why I sometimes drip but I think every guy sometimes does. (A sonnet I once wrote on this topic ended, “For urine flow can never really stop/ Until your undies drink the final drop.”) You might say this is much ado about nothing—how much could have dripped, anyway? Well, imagine the amount of moisture that might condense on a telescope lens. Now picture the Hubble Space Telescope.
I headed for Dead Indian Memorial Road, a solid 9-mile climb up to about 5,000 feet (similar to Mount Diablo in the Bay Area). It’s my go-to ride when I visit my mom. The road used to be called “Dead Indian Road”—it had been called that since the olden days—but the Native Americans eventually protested. The modern name is a compromise that I’m not sure the Native Americans should have accepted. It’s a tricky thing. “Dead Native American Memorial Road” is too long, and “Native American Memorial Road” suggests an entire race was wiped out. “Dead Injun Road” has obvious problems; though it does allude to this name having been assigned long, long ago (which is perhaps slightly less offensive than if the road had been named recently), it’s far too harsh.
I didn’t feel so hot, and thus felt grateful I didn’t have to try to keep up with anyone. I once did a group ride on this climb, on Thanksgiving Day years ago, and one sprightly novice overcooked it and ended up vomiting. I can still picture the pool of vomit in the road.
I saw a bald eagle. I’m not a birdwatcher (or “birder” as they call themselves) but I’ve seen some pretty awesome birds during bike rides. This was probably the highlight. I felt grateful that my wife and older daughter, though both self-identifying as birders, don’t wear hats with long bills like so many birders do (a subconscious, or even conscious, effort to look like birds themselves?) or throw around cool-birder terms like “mo-doe” for mourning dove or “sharpie” for sharp-shinned hawk. And they don’t go around making bird-calls like “pwish-pwish-pwish” as if they could actually attract birds. I felt grateful for all of this.
I gave thanks to the skies for not dumping rain or snow on me. I even enjoyed periods of sun. I remembered several rides up this road when I wasn’t so lucky. One time, it started snowing hard and the wind picked up and I’d have aborted the ride except I couldn’t face the frigid descent. So I kept climbing, just to stay warm, fully aware that I was just prolonging the eventual agony of the trip back down. On that occasion I’d been surprised to see, off the side of the road, some cool teens hanging out. (From my thirties on, all teens had begun to seem cool to me.) They were trying to do flips in mid-air, which made me think of the hoods in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Was that the inspiration for these kids? Or were they being tough-balletic, like the Jets in West Side Story? Reflecting that West Side Story surely influenced The Outsiders, and that West Side Story was itself based on The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, I wondered if these teens’ behavior was the natural result of growing up in the shadow of Ashland’s famous Shakespearean theater. Suddenly I realized one of the teens was looking back at me, and he gave me a dramatic thumbs-up. I was thrilled to be noticed—validated, even—by a real teenager. For a moment, I felt cool. Looking back on that incident, I felt grateful all over again that occasionally I can have moments of not being a totally lame old person in the eyes of youth. (Then it dawned on me that the kid may well have meant the gesture sarcastically.)
There was a pretty dusting of snow on the trees as I reached the higher elevations.
The view was pretty spectacular from up there. You can see Mount Ashland in the distance (with the ski runs).
Plenty of snow up top and that made things a lot colder. I snapped a photo to show my kids the snow (living where we do, it’s something of a novelty). I questioned whether it was narcissistic of me to be in the photo. I thought of photographing just the snow but it seemed like the photo would be terribly boring. I remembered the part in Lance Armstrong’s autobiography (I suppose we should call it a novel at this point) when, demoralized by a poor showing in the spring races, Lance heads back to the states, and then does some brutal training ride in terrible weather and his entourage gets all stoked and then at the top they start to put his bike in the car and he says, “No, I’m going to ride down.” His coach and manservant look at each other with delight, as if to say “Lance is back!” Given that Lance obviously noted their appreciation (having documented it), and that this was a turning point in his great comeback, we can read this episode as a triumph of narcissism over self-doubt. As regards my photo, I decided to err on the side of self-doubt and only keep the photo if I looked old and tired in it. I felt grateful to have enough sense to look inward and worry that I’m narcissistic. Here’s the photo. I think I look old and tired enough.
The descent was mighty cold. I stopped to get this shot, knowing my hands soon wouldn’t work well enough to do any more photography.
By the time I reached the car I was too cold even to sigh and didn’t want to be on my bike anymore. As we drove back to my mom’s, Erin saw a truck lose a hubcap. We tried to drive up next to the driver and signal to roll down his window. (As Ellen DeGeneres has pointed out, the pantomime of cranking a window down by a handle doesn’t mean much anymore, but it’s impossible to pantomime pushing the window-down button.) We stopped at a stoplight and tooted the horn, but just then the guy turned right and drove off. A homeless guy, maybe around twenty, with a backpack and a couple of dogs and a handwritten sign, trotted over to the car, looking hopeful. “Oh, sorry, we were trying to talk to that driver,” I said. He went back to his dogs and we drove off. He’d been looking for someone to take him in for Thanksgiving dinner.
I felt grateful I wasn’t he; sheepish that I was willing to help a motorist with his lost hubcap but not a lonely kid with nowhere to go; grateful that the thing had all unfolded too quickly for me to really agonize over whether to help him out and/or discuss it with my wife; and above all grateful that we hadn’t picked him up only to tell him we weren’t having a special feast at all, and that maybe she should try for something better out on the road if it wasn’t too late. Above all I was grateful that my life isn’t too full of terribly awkward situations—“Larry David moments,” I call them, after the TV show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And finally, I was grateful that like me, my mom doesn’t have TV, and nobody was going to try to watch a football game on Thanksgiving Day.