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Archive for March, 2008

I don’t know why they think punting is so peaceful. The first time I go we are in a hurry to get to the river for lunch and champagne, so we make a rushed tour of the covered market picking up tomatoes and cheese and fresh bread before stopping by Oddbins for prosecco and plastic cups and then we literally run along the fringe of Christ Church Meadow until we see our party, who are reclining in the pink boat looking bored and hungry.

“God, we’re hungry,” they say, so we toss them our load and scurry in. There is a frenzy of gnashing teeth as we scramble to fill our bellies; which is nice enough until the swans start joining in. One of them nearly leaps into the boat in an effort to snatch a crumb from our hostess’ hand. At least it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, I think to myself. It is only when all the food has been eaten and we are simply finishing the booze that it starts to seem remotely relaxing. I think I could drift asleep like this, except that the swans swarming make me uneasy.

Finally we figure we’d best set off to get to the bridge so that we don’t miss a train that we’re meant to be catching, which adds a sense of urgency to the whole production. My love punts, and I am facing away from him, which means I don’t even have the luxury of looking into his dreamy eyes as I soak up sun and champagne along the way; and the going is slow, marked by the drumbeat of the punting pole slapping against the bottom of the river. By the time we get to Folly Bridge and disembark (without grace or dignity, scuttling and balancing) we are officially late for the train, so we have to jog all the way to the station, and then run for the train, and as I am leaping down the stairs two-at-a-time to the platform the strap of my bag breaks and everything goes tumbling away from me. I am sweaty and flustered on the train; I snap at my poor love, and then feel bad, and blame punting.
The second time we go out it is a family affair; a birthday, which is inherently stressful, made even more so by the fact that this is only the second or third time I have met my love’s family, really, and now we are about to be trapped in a very small boat together. All seems to be going well: the flowers I bought are thankfully not pink, his mother’s least favorite colour; we have brought fresh fruit and Pimms, the weather is pleasant and the evening light glorious. But as we approach Marston Ferry Road, about to pass under the bridge, we are suddenly assaulted by a spray of air rifle pellets, launched by a gaggle of teenage boys on bicycles who are engaged in a shouting match with a group of drunk punters beside us.

My love, having a very well developed sense of the moral, considers it his duty to ring the police–so there he is, balancing at the Oxford end of the boat, pole in hand, deftly preventing us from running adrift whilst mostly also avoiding the tangle of bushes and branches by the riverbank, on his mobile phone, trying to describe our whereabouts—which, given that we are at a major crossroads, shouldn’t be difficult, but is, apparently.

“Marston Ferry Road,” he says, again, sounding a little incredulous. “Yes, the river. No, they’ve cycled down the path, but you should be able to catch them up—yes, Marston Ferry—”
They tell him they’ll be there shortly, so we wait, while all around us dusk and silence settles. I sip my Pimms; they were only air rifles, but the idea of being preyed upon while in such a vulnerable position haunts me, a little, and uneasiness begins to creep in. Luckily there aren’t any swans nearby, and anyway, I think, the police will arrive soon, and then we can be on our way, where a nice warm meal awaits.

Thirty minutes later the police have not arrived, and a small war wages on the boat: half the passengers in favour of continuing to wait, the other half in favour of simply punting back to shore. I come down somewhere in the middle: vaguely aware both of a sense of perverse duty, and growing discomfort, I simply keep quiet, and chew on some fruit from the bottom of my cup, while everyone else gets increasingly agitated. By the time we do get back to shore we have waited another ten minutes, seen a few police who tell us the culprits are nowhere to be seen (they’ve had enough time to get all the way across town, I think bitterly), and battled off a pair of extraordinarily intrusive swans that keep threatening to peck at our arms over the sides of the boat. I can’t say I’m exactly sorry to climb back onto the quay, from which point the punts look all candy colored and cozy.

In Gaudy Night, it didn’t happen like that, I think, not exactly bitterly, but with a certain degree of amusement. Harriet and Lord Peter simply floated serenely down the river. She watched him drowse, and bathed in the sunlight, and read florid passages from scholarly books, and he, poor sod, caught up on much needed sleep. I picture the light as being dappled, the trees green, the mood whimsical and steeped in a mixture of profound nostalgia and forward-looking exhilaration (they are in love, after all): so that Harriet can say things like, “Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?”, and Lord Peter can respond both flippantly and thoughtfully: “So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober. Which accounts for my talking so much.” I, for one, have never been tempted to say anything of the sort on a punt.

But I am being unfair to the sport, perhaps. My objection to punting is no objection at all: I merely find myself continually surprised at the stressful nature of a legendarily leisurely pursuit. Then I wonder, is it me? Do I put the anxiety into an afternoon? You can see how this kind of thinking might get one nowhere: trapped in an eddy of self-doubt.

If I want punting to be something other than what it is for me, it is only because I enjoyed it so well the hundreds of times I did it in my imagination; yet all the literary (not literal) punting in the world cannot, I suppose, make up for a few real romps down a slightly less perfect river. And somewhere, as there always is, is overlap: that brief moment between lunch and rush my first time on a punt, snuggled into someone else’s strong, tweed-clad arms, when the sun was coming through the trees in the precise way I felt it should be and the mood was almost whimsical; the elegance of Pimms sipped from tall glasses, even despite the incongruity of the small blue boy across from me (my love’s younger brother, not exactly a small boy anymore but distinctly blue-haired) and the unnerving proximity of a vicious pair of birds. There is always overlap, I find: a confluence of ideals with actuality—the result being something far more authentic than you could ever make it be in nostalgic recreation, or jaded, black and white portrait.

But then again, because I am merely representing the place of Oxford, the experience of punting—perhaps I too risk losing that true authenticity to some whim of my own imagination—I don’t know.

(And if you wonder why I write this when the day feels cold and wet, when hail and rain are storming down and a hot cup of tea and a woolen jumper are the only appropriate accessories–it is because this morning, on my way to work, I think I tasted Spring, my bones felt warmth, and then my whole being ached for a languorous afternoon to play with, to punt away)

*From Pegasus in the Botanical Gardens by Anne Ridler

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Being a girl who finds it difficult to decide which socks to put on in the morning, let alone which pair of trousers or which shirt, the impending date of a friend’s wedding is causing more stress than seems necessary for someone who isn’t actually involved in the event except as a guest. All I have to do is show up, sit quietly, eat some food, sip some wine, chat with some people, try to contain my tears of happiness.

Not a difficult day, really.

And I was all smiles about it until very recently. I had my outfit all picked out: a sequined flapper-dress-type-thing (if flapper-dresses had been skintight and obscenely short, that is) purchased on a whim from Oxfam last summer. I figured I could throw a pashmina over my shoulders in the church, slip on a pair of tights, and bing-bang-boom, all set. And because getting dressed occupies such a disproportionately large space in my brain (and, me being me, therefore causes a disproportionately large amount of stress), my lovely and always immaculately dressed love (in a tweed, wool jumper, Rupert the Bear yellow scarf sort of way—so not high fashion exactly, but put together, mostly) had allowed me for quite some time to live in a delusional world whereby this was acceptable British wedding garb.

However, the date keeps getting closer (rather unsurprisingly), and finally, one evening, he took it upon himself to break the sad news that, however much I might wish it to be the dress is not, in fact, appropriate for a wedding. Online research confirmed this—it is too short, too sparkly, and too close to being white, apparently. I was surprised, but not altogether shocked. For weeks I had been doing an admirable job of ignoring his more subtle clues: for instance, the way he jumped on my brief ambivalence about the dress after I discovered that he would be wearing his university kilt, which is, I need add, rather prominently purple in hue.
“But if you wear a kilt, won’t I clash?” I moaned, occasional Vogue-reader that I am.
“No no,” he assured me. “You’ll be fine, you don’t need to match me. But—if you’re worried—why don’t you ask someone?” In retrospect, I realize he was simply trying to pass the duty of breaking the news on to a helpless someone else.

Every female friend we encountered for the next few days, therefore (and even some male friends) had to hear the tragic tale of the sparkly dress and the St. Andrews kilt—would they be able to work out their differences and spend a happy afternoon together? Would they sit quietly in the church side by side or would they be fighting like children while the happy couple tried to declare their love for each other in solemn grace?

“No no,” everyone assured me (rather unhelpfully, I’m sure my love was thinking). “You’ll be fine. Anyway, think of it this way: it’s not you clashing with him. It’s him clashing with you.”

But having broken the news to me at long last, my love was at a loss to suggest a better alternative. I floundered; I spent a frantic few days weighing options and photographing dress after dress in the changing rooms (I have a feeling that every shopkeeper in Oxford now knows and fears me). I came home feeling miserable about it all; mortally terrified I would get it all wrong in the end and show up wearing something horrible, therefore committing an incredible social gaffe, embarrassing my kilt-clad date, and winding up having to spend the rest of my days in a cave, hidden from the world with a sign outside: WARNING: POOR DRESSER INSIDE. LACKS CLASS, TASTE, AND TACT. OFFENDS EASILY. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. I longed for the happy-go-lucky days of my etiquette ignorance, the rosy hours I spent without the heavy knowledge that there are serious and unspoken customs to think of.

How would I find something that wasn’t too skimpy or too frumpy? And, more importantly, how would I afford it? I spent a few hours scanning the internet, peering into dark corners in the hopes of finding the perfect dress online, but it only threw me into depression: simple, cleanly cut frocks cost a fortune, while the kinds of things that hookers wouldn’t mind being seen in seem to be universally affordable.

Difficult days followed. Getting dressed has never been my forte—by which I mean, it is something I enjoy, but not something I am especially efficient at. Nine times out of ten, I am late not because of traffic, or sleeping in, or some sort of minor household disaster, but because I am changing. Sixty times. A few weeks ago I had such a wardrobe crisis that we missed the train we were meant to catch and had to wait another hour for the next one. My love patiently sat on the bed while I flung shirt after shirt after him, crying, “Ugh, this is hideous,” and, “Not even the frumpiest old woman in the world would wear this.” He knew better, at this point, than to try to persuade me that I was being silly: wait it out, he told himself. Wait it out.

But it’s more difficult still when there are traditions to be upheld. When these traditions are the sort that have seeped quietly into a society’s consciousness, and cannot be readily articulated, it is nigh on impossible for me to cope. Part of it is my own insecurity: I do not labour over getting dressed because I am vain so much as because—rather paradoxically–I want to be seen as confident, aloof, and poised. But in this case, the insecurity stretched further: for my reputation as a viable member of a community that I have grown to love was at stake, and that was not something I could bear to risk.

The best bit of advice I got was from the bride herself, who I contacted at the lowest point of my crisis. “There’s no point getting something you’re not comfortable with,” she said, so I took it to heart. I think I have found the right dress, at long last…from a consignment shop on St. Clements, for a fraction of the price of the swanky frocks I tried on in the High Street boutiques; a recycled affair, mint colored with thin straps and a fluttery skirt. I tried it on and the elegantly dressed proprietress brought me a scarf to cover my shoulders. “That looks nice on you,” she said, and I was instantly flattered, although I knew she also wanted to make a sale. “That colour tends to look really good on dark haired people,” she added.

I swooshed the skirt around my knees and bought the thing without further ado. Now, the find the perfect pair of shoes…

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In East Oxford, disco balls are playing in a window display, dappling a dirty sidewalk, while around the corner, a Dickensian tower pierces a raincloud and sets a drizzle on the city; and on the movie poster hanging outside a bus stop on the Iffley road, someone in the night has written:

There is no Shakespeare sonnet
or Beethoven quartet
that is easier to love than you, or harder to forget

If you think that sounds extravagant

I haven’t finished yet

I like you more than I would like to have a cigarette

The initials after the rhyme (are they the poet’s or the graffiti artist’s?) are smudged and someone else has drawn a moustache on Uma Thurman’s face with a bubble that says, “I like men”; and Colin Firth is, according to the crudely scrawled pen marks, calling passers-by “wankers!”

But the rhyme is big: it speaks volumes, and each letter is clearly defined in black marker, and the saddest thing about it all is that it will probably be gone by tomorrow (it is probably already gone) and I will probably never know why, why was it there, what soul, in deepest late winter Oxford night, stood and put it there for me to find on a morning run.

Some digging reveals that it was originally written by Wendy Cope, once a history student at St. Hilda’s college, Oxford (if you look hard enough at things, they are all connected, and just before your head gets woozy holding all that knowledge, it all makes sense). In a romantic vision, I picture a lover’s tiff, an addicted man scrawling the biggest promise of love he can think of on a forgiving plastic surface and hoping, hoping for his love to come walking by in morning light; but I know it didn’t go that way, probably, and that maybe it was just a drunken gaggle of St. Hilda’s students paying homage to a poet, or a lone, mercenary soul looking to change the city, quietly, overnight.

The city lives and breathes at the hand of the impromptu graffiti artist: like the girls who decorated the loo in the King’s Arms one summer with the names and colleges of good local fucks; like the hand that drew the sign “make tea, not war” on the winding grey walls of Queen’s Lane. I walk around here in a perpetual state of wondering: who are you? I whisper at everyone I see, wanting so desperately to know; and sometimes I try to imagine, and picture elaborate lives for the prim girls in skinny jeans and metallic ballet flats and thin, shiny blonde hair unloading cartons of gin and tonic water outside Christ Church one sparkling Saturday afternoon, but my imagination is always limited by my own experiences, and I come up short.

If you go up the oldest tower in Oxford, you will see a city that is made entirely of twisting spires and thick stone walls; and you will also see a horde of ultramodern pedestrians trotting up and down Cornmarket street past Gap and HMV, passing from medieval buildings to the twisted intestines of cavernous Tescos and Primarks and back again. A patch of green, a tender hill, is just visible past the outermost University buildings. The notes of a bagpipe player reach you, but it is not the ancient sounds of the city calling out to you in a dream, but a man in shorts and Birkenstocks, red in the face and blowing hard for extra cash—a twist on prostitution, perhaps; a sultry occupation, an existence on the fringes of the world.

Sometimes, I wonder what the city would be like if I wrote things for people to find. Is it disgraceful to decorate one’s own surroundings, to embody the arrogance inherent in placing one’s own mark on something so daringly public? Or is it merely the way people find to communicate to one another when all else seems to be failing?

The great mystery of a piece of graffiti is its origin; but there is beauty in this, and the huge liberty to interpret. I walk around wondering who people are and why they’re here, and trying to understand by their glances if they can guess my story and if I wear it on my sleeve or hide myself well (and can never decide which I’d rather do, frankly); but I do not think so much of my own freedom to imagine lives for them, and sometimes I forget that those lives which I imagine are coloured as much by what I have experienced as by what I have read. I say to my mother when she comes to visit, and we stand beside the Bridge of Sighs, “this is where Peter Wimsey proposed to Harriet Vane!” as if they are old family friends; I tell myself, over and over again, that the dreamy spires are but a piece of something larger. I let the messages I find written on the walls prove it.

And the city goes on evolving, and each evolutionary step is an act of faith on the part of its people. We allow the disco balls to shimmer beside Dickensian-era towers: what else can we do? And I do not write cunning messages or tales of cunnilingus anywhere but in the privacy of my own home, and yet I play such a part anyway, because I am another audience. A city is merely the sum of its inhabitants’ experiences, individual and collective. It is what we make it; and what we interpret it to be. Cycling home in the rain, I am one huge bundle of contradictions and juxtapositions: my glistening Apple laptop nestled in a Moroccan bag that smells like the pigeon shit they use at the tanneries to treat the leather; the way I whiz past students in flapping gowns and red carnations who are braced against the wind and yelling into mobile phones; the way I carry my duel knowledges of this city—my literary knowledge, my actual knowledge—as if they do not contradict each other.

And they don’t. That is what I like best of all of this. There is color, black-and-white; things are vintage, futuristic; they are new, they are old, they are what I make them to be and what the man in the night has said they are: and all seamlessly.

If you think that sounds extravagant

I haven’t finished yet

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Just when you think you’re wrong—
it-absolutely-cannot-be-down-this-road-what-a-dusty-old-
corner-of-the-city-why-even-stray-cats-don’t-lurk-here

—you’re there.

Past petrol stations, past bus stops, past closed convenience stores and open barbershops where men are having invisible bits snipped from their thinning fringe; past kebab houses with £1 pound pizzas and pale, wan meat spinning sullenly in the corner: the very edge, with all its peripheral goings-on.

And there, rising above the steamy sidewalks, peeking through the mist: a most improbable theatre. Why here? You climb rickety metal stairs. Below you, the next-door pub’s beer garden sprawls; early drunks guzzle silently and watch the first other human souls they’ve seen all day (everything else is steel and concrete and cold) disappear into the vast innards of a space constructed mostly of emptiness.

In one small pocket of the place, later, an audience will roar and a performer, or several, will hold crowded court—but there will be no overcoming the emptiness, and though you sweat with the presence of so many other breathing beings, there is no chance of claustrophobia, because there is no city but the quiet city around you.

Do they put these places here deliberately, so that the getting there is itself a journey, and you are so introspective by the time you arrive and so alienated from the world around you that you have no choice but to dive completely into whatever it is you’ve come to see? Later, you have a drink or two at the theatre bar and there is the after-performance buzz, but the hollowness of the building drives you back outside, into the maddeningly foreign tangle of alleyways and boulevards. Do they put them here to make you uncomfortable? Do they put them here just because it is cheap? For poetry would demand the former be true; but reality might suggest that Occam’s Razor holds strong, and the mundane explanation wins out.

I, for one, never knew how far London stretches; how thinly it becomes spread. After an hour and a quarter in a double-decker bus at night, with the dull sound of people filing in and out beside you, an hour and a quarter of fits and starts, of brakes slammed, the beeping of the door as it opens and closes, the jolt forward, the tumbling of human figures down a narrow aisle, the buzz of someone else’s music—after that you start to think that you could drive forever and never leave London.

Or when you surface from the tube (huge towering escalator after huge towering escalator until you find yourself saying, “how can we have been so far underground and not started to feel the heat from the core of the earth?”) and there is nothing but asphalt around you, nothing but asphalt and the shambles of buildings that are not cared for and loved as they should be—the remoteness strikes you, but there was stop after stop after stop still left on the line when you got off.

And standing strong, in all these places that are like the bowels of the city, and yet outside the city, you feel, there are places for play and performance. The night stretches like a cat all around you, and the city settles into itself, and though it will never cease to amaze you, you settle in, too.

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Bicycle People


What I knew before I was old enough to know anything properly was that my parents were bike people. I knew this in the hazy, indistinct way that a child understands the world: through shapes and forms and associations, and from riding in a little trailer my father had bought and hitched to the back of his bicycle. We climbed mountains together, he, and I, and my stack of books. Only as an adult have I come to understand that the six or seven hardback picture books I insisted on taking with me (I was four or five at the time) weighed nearly as much as I did and probably didn’t speed up the process of chugging uphill.

Still, as much as they were bike people, they were also book people, and they allowed it, despite the fact that mostly, I would promptly fall asleep, and if I didn’t, I would spend most of the time feeling the wind on my face and saying, “can we go faster, Daddy?”.

There were lots of us who were children of bike people and didn’t know what this meant. All we knew is that our thirty-something parents, all toned and fit and not at all like thirty-somethings with children were supposed to look like, took us on holidays to Baja, California, where we sat around bonfires in the desert and took long hikes before the midday sun had got to its hottest point; or to Brianhead, Utah, where the altitude gave me a headache worth crying over, where the moutaintops even in summer still sparkled with snow, where we went on more long hikes and then napped while the adults, after a morning spent walking, went out on their precious bicycles.

I didn’t know an existence without bicycles strapped to the back of cars and the promise of long rides in lonely locales. This didn’t seem strange to me; we had photographs in our house of my father, in younger years, racing bikes, or standing proudly beside one near (inexplicably) a train track somewhere in Northern California. And I had never known an existence without a bicycle of my own, either: where other children save up pennies to buy their first bike, or are surprised on their tender 10th birthday by the appearance of a shiny new apparatus in the garage, my parents didn’t think any young person could properly develop without a bicycle, and I don’t even remember learning how: perhaps it was ingrained in me already. Probably I fell and squealed like the rest of them, but the process was quick and relatively painless and soon I was cycling confidently down the block like I had never not known how.

So it came as a bitter surprise to the adults in my life when my interest didn’t develop, I think. I rode my bike on the ranch sometimes, but only to make getting to the horses faster, or to quicken the trip to the beach, and it accrued dust and cobwebs in the garage, and I lost the confidence I had as a youngster. By the time I moved away from home, to a real East Coast city, bicycles were as far from my mind as the deserts and mountains of my active rural youth.

But Oxford. You cannot live here and pretend that the bicycle does not exist, as you could, if you chose, in Boston or New York or Los Angeles or even probably London. You have to acknowledge it–first, probably, as a picturesque remnant of the academic city’s glory days: students riding past with gowns flapping and red carnations sparkling look today exactly as they did, I imagine, in the time of Max Beerbohm, or Evelyn Waugh or Dorothy Sayers, especially in the remote corners of Queen’s Lane, which feels positively medieval. Then as something that never goes away: creeping in on your consciousness–for you are never very far away from a bicycle in Oxford, even if you don’t notice it. And if you look with the right eyes, you’ll see that Broad Street is positively crowded with them, and that they are chained to every protrusion in the city, and that their skeletons are strewn about on sidewalks and that there is always, no matter the hour, a cyclist with blinking lights peddling down the road.

So when I moved here, I was given a beautiful, perfect road bike to ride, because over the course of a summer, my interest in the bicycle, which had lain dormant for so many years, had been revived. “When I move back here,” I said flippantly, “I want to buy myself a bike.” And someone listened and gave me the bike of my dreams: sleek, dutch-built, black with a golden wicker basket in front and sloping silver handlebars.

We picked it up from the shop on Valentine’s Day, newly polished and fixed and ready to go. They lowered the seat for me and said, “give it a go,”—and I suddenly found myself with stagefright. I whispered, to the wonderful buyer-of-the-bike, “but I haven’t gotten on a bicycle in literally about four years!” and waited anxiously for the shopkeeper to disappear back inside his lovely shop. It seemed to take him a very long time, and didn’t seem to occur to him at all that I might be terribly, debilitating nervous.

“Go on,” the buyer encouraged me, so finally, I did. It was an awkward and ugly process: I straddled the bicycle, and it leaned this way and that, and I squeaked with fright and nearly toppled off, bouncing from foot-to-foot-to-foot-to-foot; but then suddenly I was off, riding down Magdalen road; and then I was turning on to my own precious little street and going faster down it than I ever could by foot, even if I was sprinting, and I suddenly had a new sense of the street and my worldview shifted completely and I turned off at my house feeling like a new woman. The whole ride lasted approximately two and a half minutes, and the bike buyer wandered up behind me, having followed on my heels with my purse.

“How was it?” he said. All I could do was grin.

Still, the act of riding a bicycle in a city—even in Oxford—requires care and attention. I spent the next few days scoping out my route to work, watching cyclists and memorizing their actions so I could ape them later when I built up the confidence to do so. There were bits—right-hand-turns, for instance, on major thoroughfares—that scared me and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do them right away. I tentatively took a spin down my street, around the block, but was instantly put off by a pair of boys in a roaring yellow sportscar who drove too close and too fast and honked at me when I veered off onto the sidewalk in alarm. “Careful!” they shouted, laughing not at me but in that predatory sort of way that makes them seem like very small and scary boys, and revved their engine heavily. I comforted myself with the fact that they are clearly sufferers of Small Penis Syndrome, but my confidence was still shaken.

Finally I figured the only way to do it was to, well, do it—so I hopped on my beautiful bike one morning like I had been doing it all my life, and rode to work. I walked the scary bits—I figured I was allowed—but by the time I got to work I was so exhilarated that I spent the entire rest of the day in the happy haze of my own grinning glow. And each day, I tried to take more of the route by bike, and less by walking; until one day, I rode the entire way, even the scariest right-hand-turns where you have to pretend, more or less, to be a car—and didn’t even notice it until I’d gotten home, and climbed off the bike, and locked it safely up and understood that in this city, it doesn’t make sense not to ride a bicycle.

I save money; I save time; I have a happy glow of mild exercise every day at work, and a beautiful, sleek bicycle that I want to show off to everyone I see. I know the bike is different from the kind that my father, who was a father also to the modern mountain bike, used to build and ride; but I can’t help thinking, with pride and gratefulness, that I, too, at last, am a bike person.

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