I dreamed

that I was in a bike race and I missed the start, because I was fussing with my earrings and putting one of them in my tongue. My friend Heather kept whizzing by on a vintage coaster bike with her legs up and out to the side yelling Wheee. Then I started on the road race, by myself, in the dark, and there were no markings and I didn’t have a map. And I felt fully confident that it would be a safe, strong adventure.


They also take a ham

“When I get up in the morning, a lot of the time, someone’s just coming home.”

We were having tapas in Madrid with one of my best friends from high school, who has lived in Spain since 1988, when she crossed the Atlantic to teach English for a year or so and ended up marrying a Spanish man. She had three kids in quick succession and now they’re almost grown.

“Your kids are coming home at 6 in the morning?”

“Sometimes, sometimes it’s Alberto. He’s having some kind of mid-life crisis. He’s found some high school friends and they’re sort of … hooligans.” She laughed the easy laugh she’s always had, just going with the flow.


“Well, you know we live in a small town. One of his friends keeps a horse in his back yard. The horse is named Luther. They have a horsecart, and they take it out on the town. So they can drink and not drive. And they dress up.”


“It depends — matadors, flamenco dancers, once like Romans. They decorated the horsecart like a chariot that time. The kids know that if the horsecart is in front of one of the bars, they can avoid that one.”

We utter the kinds of syllables that mean please don’t stop telling me this story, stab at our gambas al ajillo.

“Oh, sometimes they also take a ham. And a big knife.” She pushed her glasses back up on her nose. “I guess in Canada you couldn’t take a big knife into a bar. They cut off slices of ham and give them to people.”

“In the bar?”

“Sometimes from the horsecart. Just in the town. Oh, and there’s a dog. Named Odie. They dress him up too. They’re trying to teach him how to drive the cart.”

The shrimps are gone, along with the asparagus with coarse salt, as I try to digest a life where this is the form a male midlife crisis takes.

J has an afterthought. “Sometimes they skinnydip. The kids won’t go to the pool anymore.”


I learned how to ride a bike by learning how to yank myself out of a free fall onto gravel. I was 7 and we had just moved to a small town near the military base in Germany my dad was going to teach on for two years. My parents bought me a blue folding bicycle and we went camping with the Stolzes. Sandra was my age, and Blair was a year younger.

Our dads positioned us on our bikes at the top of a hill, on a small gravel road, steadied us, then sent us down. My memory puts Rothmans in their mouths and bottles of beer in their hands, young men free and heady in Europe in 1972.

By the end of the weekend, knees embedded with bruises and gravel, grunting through tears and pedalling furiously when I started to fall over, I could ride a bike.

(I learned how to swim in Germany too, in a military pool where a man with a big belly and a speedo yelled and poked me with a stick if I reached for the edge of the pool. There’s a theme here).

The 70s were the days of free range parenting, and my bike and I quickly fell in love. I would hang a little plastic bottle of apple juice around my neck and roll away from the grey white apartment building with the strange metal blinds and five other Canadian families, down a little trail along the tiny river a block away. I’d ride to the next town, look at sheep and perfect, cosy community gardens, beg samples from the carpet store for my dolls, learned how to buy gummi bears. Then the next town, finding the world on my wheels. Later, when my parents’ marriage started unraveling, listening to the wind and the steadiness of my pedalling.

Over two years, we threaded across every country in Europe in our orange VW camper van with the pop up top, Fjords and farmers and small icy streams I fell in. My father pretending to see the Loch Ness monster before throwing a beer can out the window in the green hills, accidentally camping on a wasp’s nest the summer my uncle traveled with us in Denmark, sending him screaming out of the tent in his yellow pyjama suit.

We camped in Rotterdam beside the water one summer, and a guy pulled in on his bicycle, and swiftly unpacked khaki panniers, made a tent, took a tomato out of his bag and cut off a slice with a red Swiss Army knife. I watched in awe — just him, his bike, a tent, a tomato. Self-contained, completely free, independent, alone.

“I want to do that,” I said to my mother.

“You don’t even like tomatoes,” she said.

Like my parents, the Stolz parents broke up in Europe, and my mother got sad wet Christmas cards from Mrs Stolz for years. She finally met a nice man and married him and he died quickly. Blair became the youngest mayor of a town in Alberta. Sideburns and dads with cigarettes and beer while driving disappeared. I rode four decades in my bike seat, always exploring.


But until this week, I never pulled into a campsite along a European river on my bicycle. The universe opened up to put me on a bike route through Bavaria, starting in Rothenburg and following the Altmuhr river to where it meets the Danube. Two friends, a cruiser bike, panniers, no helmet, towns that look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago. A few words of German returning to my lips. Freedom and strength in my legs. Tomatoes — which I now love — and gummi bears in my backpack.


Sentences you never thought you’d utter (1)

“Those weren’t my foreskins.”

(At dinner with an immmunologist who is researching why circumcision seems to help in preventing HIV transmission, by studying the cells of foreskins she collects from a public health program promoting circumcision… in Uganda… where the boys in the Niki program were circumcised last year. But it turns out Jen’s foreskins are from a different part of Uganda. Therefore, not foreskins with which I am, however peripherally, acquainted).

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In the waiting room

There was a mom with a toddler who was walking around, named Alexander, an old fashioned sturdy name, an old fashioned sturdy child. I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and I crouched down and talked to him, and when he wandered over to the other side of the room, another woman leaned down and sort of hummed a song at him.

Alexander’s mom said, “I bet you don’t even know it but that song is from one of my favorite shows!”

At the same time, both women said “Treme!”

“I know where it’s from,” the singer said. “I lived in New Orleans for a while. Pre-Katrina. I sing it all the time in my shows.”

“Where do you gig?”

“Different places. A bar on Roncy, on Sunday afternoons.”

They chatted more about music, and Alexander’s mother tried to manoeuvre the stroller out the door, fix the brake that had applied itself for no reason. I held the door, and she left, and I asked the singer the name of the bar on Roncy.

She gave me her card. There was a line drawing on it, a silk screen of a girl with a guitar shot from the back. She’s wearing a dress and little socks and the guitar is jaunty, a coat slung over her shoulder. A grainy pebbled image.

“That’s me, when I was in New Orleans. It was the best time. I lived in the Ninth Ward. That’s where Katrina hit the hardest.”

I looked at her, no trace of that girl in the socks with the guitar. Weary.

“My father is dying.” Her eyes wavered with tears.

“I’m sorry… I think it’s hard whenever you lose your parents. My dad died when I was in my 20s, and I’m 49 now, and sometimes I think it would be even harder to lose a parent at my age, someone you’ve come to take for granted, think is always going to be here.”

“You’re turning 50 this year? Me too.”

“Next February.”

“It’s hard isn’t it?”

“I got divorced the year I turned 40. I think I thought 50 would be easier. It isn’t, somehow.”

“I turn 50 in September. I’ve lined up gigs for the whole month. I need to get through that time singing. When I turned 30, I was in New Orleans. I was wearing gold lamé onstage, and had a 25 year old lover and thought I had the whole world.”

“The thing is, you know the other side will be just FINE — but getting through the turning point is a squeeze. It’s like… there just isn’t an endless array of possibilities any more. You have to get serious about saving money, people around you get sick, some paths are closed. It’s not bad, it’s not dire, it just is.”

She nodded, close to tears. We looked at each other, recognizing.

“I’m sorry about your dad.”

I folded her card, the girl with the guitar, into my wallet. “I’m going to come and hear you sing.”

Rain in portland

The garden behind the tiny perfect studio I’m staying in for a week in Portland Oregon.


So nourishing after our grey winter.