Thanks for finding your way back to this site after the break. Please send me your stories of personal victories over consumerism during the holidays, under the heavy pressure to buy new stuff. Here’s a short one from me:
My daughter has finally gotten the bug to fix up her weedy, unkempt yard—but she had no tools at all, not even a shovel. Whereas I found myself with double, triple, even quadruple versions of shovels, rakes, brooms, and saws. (How did that happen?) I could have just handed her the extras, but I decided to get some extra mileage out of the gift and have some fun. So I painted all the handles with leftover white paint, and made a couple potato stamps for a contrasting green pattern by rolling the flat stamp over the handles. As a final touch I tied a matching green bow on each handle. I wasn’t at all trying to pass off this collection as new. The metal parts were rusty, the shovel had a nick where there should have been a point, and the broom’s plastic base was paint-over-tape where I had repaired the broken-off section. But she loved the gift, and I know we’ll have some fun times together, cleaning up her outdoor spaces.
And here’s a personal New Year’s story. Who knew it would be a biking story?
My friend Marion had invited a handful of old friends over for the night before New Year’s Eve day. She had just set up a new fire pit, and this was to be an outdoor fire-circle gathering. But rain threatened. And I really didn’t want to leave my comfortable, peaceful house for the outside world. In the end, the promise of good company beckoned. The only question was, bike or car? I usually bike the three miles to her house. A good portion of the trip was a nice bike route, with a red-brick-delineated lane just for bikes, rock sculptures along the way—some of them even engraved with the moving poetry of our most prominent Tohono O’odham linguist and poet, Ofelia Zepeda. But bike routes can be deluged with rain like any other street. Even if it’s not raining when you set out, it can hit you moments afterward, or on the way back—a further deterrent to leaving home. Also, I’d just “done” my hair, a complicated weekly procedure involving washing, conditioning, semi-drying, and a body-treatment involving an hours-long wrap I’ve discovered can make my thin, wispy hair look almost healthy. If it got wet ’d have to do it all over again. And I might arrive soaked, a scraggly mess.
I’d ask Terry if I could borrow his car. I do this four or five times a year. He always says yes. It may as well get some use, with the insurance he pays.
It had been months, maybe years, since I’d driven at night with rain. I was scared and exhilarated. Terry’s car presented a couple small challenges. His turn signals didn’t turn off automatically; you had to remember to manually switch them off or you’d be signaling wrong intentions to all traffic until you remembered. One of the lights was busted, so you had to make sure the brights were always on—then both sides worked. But I knew about those things. So what? I’d be dry. He handed me the keys, and I set out.
Luckily, his windshield wipers worked. That’s something that goes out regularly on most cars. The rubber tends to detach and trail the arm’s movement like a dog wagging its tail. Or the metal arm itself buckles. But Terry’s wipers were good, and I had a good view out the front. But not out the back and sides. Beads of rain, close together and large, blocked my view from those glass plates. It seemed dangerous. Earlier that day, we had heard the unmistakable crash of metal on metal and saw the accident at the end of our block. We didn’t walk to gawk, but I had the usual thoughts an accident always elicits: I’m glad it wasn’t me, and yet it could happen to me.
To make my first right turn—the stoplight was red, but this was allowed—I had to wait for a long line of cars on my left to pass. Before there was a break in it, a tall, black vehicle pulled up on my left and I couldn’t see the line at all. I had a bit of space ahead of me, so I pulled up to restore my view. The other vehicle pulled ahead the same amount. Was that really as intentional as it seemed? To find out, I pulled ahead a few more inches. So did the other vehicle. I hope you crash tonight was my immediate thought. Shame on me! I thought of myself as a good person. Maybe that driver did, too. Maybe it was the highly competitive nature of driving that gave us these uncivil impulses. The light turned green. The black vehicle proceeded through the intersection, and I made my right turn.
Right into the left turn lane of oncoming traffic.
Immediately, I saw what I had done. But how? How could I make such a mistake at such a familiar intersection, just two blocks from my house? I figured it must have been the thoughts and emotions engendered by the encounter with the ill-behaved driver. It was that big jerk’s fault! Then I realized the oncoming lanes of traffic were completely unoccupied and pitch black. I could see that just up the road, another accident had ended up in a blockade, perfectly perpendicular to the roadway. Probably both the lack of oncoming headlights and my hotly engaged emotions had thrown me off and caused me to pass the correct lane, turning into danger.
But it’s entirely possible that I would have done that anyway, that someone else’s accident saved me from one of my own. Luckily, it also gave me the empty space to zoom back into the lane I needed to be in, and go on with my trip, heart pounding.
Even after some minutes, it didn’t stop. Because I really couldn’t see very well. The bright oncoming cars lit the raindrops on the windows, right where I needed to keep track of the curb. Where was it? And where was the stripe that marked the righthand side of the lane, which I wasn’t supposed to cross? I slowed down and felt much safer. Some drivers were matching my speed; others honked as they quickly passed me on the passenger side of the glittering wet glass. No wonder there were accidents on both ends of my street.
I was making slow progress to the house, but I didn’t care. I was almost there. A few blocks away. When suddenly a pair of headlights was coming straight at me. Should I stop? Swerve to the left? To the right, driving through people’s yards? Before I could react, the vehicle turned sharply in front of me, just clearing my car and passing me on the left where it was supposed to be. In the foggy darkness I could see that it was, if you don’t mind me being brand-specific, an Amazon Prime delivery truck.
I swore I would never drive again. Or at least not on a rainy night.
Everyone was already seated in Marion’s living room, so all five faces smiled at me as I entered. Sweet, much-missed friends! They included Keith, a friend and benevolent former boss.
He was in bike shorts, and not at all disheveled. Well, he’s not a thin-haired woman whose clothing, when wet, could cling in an unsightly way! I rationalized. But yes, he’d ridden 20 miles from home, almost at the southern border of Marana, and he planned to go back the same way.
What an athlete. Well. I love him anyway.
Then it was New Year’s Eve. Terry and I had been invited to another firepit circle—I suppose outdoor gatherings were still popular due to the continued popularity of vaccine refusal and Covid-variant successes. This time, a bike ride held unusual appeal, since we planned to drink and didn’t want to drive.
This time, it had been raining off and on all day, and it was misting when it was time to leave. But being motivated to avoid a DUI (only motorized vehicles can be ticketed for that), I had time to get my cold-weather gear ready. I got out the soft, mohair-like scarf to tie under my chin to be pressed down by my helmet, so my ears wouldn’t ache from the cold air rushing past. I found the mittens with the pockets of beans that covered the fingers so they’d stay warm—once I microwaved them for 60 seconds—for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the ride. Best of all, I’d wear the bright-green jacket I found once at a thrift store my daughter wanted to drive us to, in the days when “riding along” somewhere was the only time I got to see her. The jacket was like new, filled with down, and—well, I thought I already had too many coats and jackets. I didn’t buy it. But five blocks down the road going home I asked Anna if she’d be willing to turn around and go back for it. That neon green might save my life someday, I said. Of course, Mommo! So now, it enables me to brave any low temperatures Tucson can dish out. (In fact I’m usually sweating by the end of the ride.)
I remembered to wear all this, and to secure my hair at the top of my head. But I forgot that bike seats, even under a protective roof, can get soaked by a sideways-driving rain. Now there was no time to tie on a plastic bag or towel. I’d arrive with wet pants, for sure.
We set out in the fine mist, energized by the smooth, quiet bike path—completely separate from cars—that would take us most of the way. The small corner of downtown we threaded through was harrowing, but without incident.
The fire was already popping when we arrived. My pants couldn’t have wished for a bigger, more beautiful drying agent. With my back to the flames I felt them dry almost completely in a matter of minutes. Toward the midnight ball drop it started to pour down, so we went inside for snacks and champagne toasts, without further following what was going on outside. So when it was time to leave and we opened the door, we were a bit surprised that it was still coming down hard.
“Hey, I’ll drive you guys home if you want,” said Robert, our host. Put two bikes and three people in his car? What technique did he have in mind?
“I’m riding,” Terry said. “Then I am, too,” I said.
My bean mittens were soaked from the trip over. (What if they sprouted from the watering? I wondered.) But Robert lent me a pair of heavy-duty gloves to ride home in.
We headed out down the driveway to the streets. There would be no escaping a total drenching. I could tell by the way the top of my thighs, facing the productive sky, immediately turned dark and wet. But the streets were almost empty, with most people still toasting 2022 and drinking in their dry, shining houses. We ruled. Water, as in desert recharge, rocked. In the form of rain it was pure and harmless: Waiting for us at home were heat and steaming tea and dry clothing—plush bathrobes, fuzzy nightclothes. The empty bike path, with its mostly smooth asphalt and decent lighting, was an invitation to pull out all the stops.
Whoo-hoo! The joints of my body seemed oiled, the kinks ironed out. My glasses beaded up like little windshields, but I just looked over them. Robert’s heavy gloves warmed my hands—and vice-versa. Was I worried about the down of my jacket getting soggy? Not at all. On this short ride, we’d be home by the time rain got past the jacket’s skin. So my torso was both dry and warm. I was untouchable. And a new year was coming. I had little hope for it, but at least it was starting out invigorating. Empowering.
Almost home, I heard a voice: Happy New Year!—and then attached it to a dark figure crossing my path. Just what was he doing here on this rainy, dark street after midnight? What were we doing on this rainy, dark street after midnight? And why do I rush to judgement and fear? His voice was warm and sincere. Yeah! I yelled back, enthusiastically.
There’s a kind of life-stretching we all want to do, but usually don’t: the stretch toward our own goals. Modern life offers the highest kinds of pleasures and comforts, with such constancy that we tend to hang on and not let go. It’s too easy to expect them, to go with the happy images in front of us, ultimately believing we deserve them. We may look up to athletes, musicians, meditators, idealists, and others who do stretch beyond their comforts to reach the point they’ve identified for themselves. But the rest of us—you and me—continue to be drawn toward the comfortable car, and we have to be pushed to get on the bike. If there are no excuses, we’ll create them. Ooh—I’m gonna get wet, maybe take on a bedraggled look, like a loser.
Avoiding new stuff isn’t as hard as what our heroes do, but it takes the same kind of skills—moving beyond the most comfortable choices, pushing certain other choices, just a wee bit. Trying to fix something instead of tossing it, find what you need on a buy-nothing list, eat a “weed,” build from scraps, wait for that item to appear in a thrift store, adopt a wabi sabi aesthetic, set up a composting toilet . . . ride a bike. The reward for riding over a hill is often far greater than the effort involved. I need to remind myself of that. And I wish everyone that ability to stretch, with all its positive outcomes. I’ll wish it for the ill-behaved driver of that tall car, for the Amazon Prime delivery guy, for the man who greeted me with a Happy New Year in the dark, for myself, and for you.