Bicycle

When I was young, I had a blue and yellow BMX style bicycle of the sort that you braked by pushing the pedals backward. A friend and I once briefly swapped bicycles while riding around on some tennis courts whose nets seemed to have gone missing. We raced back and forth along the courts and then turned to cross to the other side. His bike had hand brakes and pedals that would turn freely in reverse. As we approached the midpoint of the court, we saw that while the net itself was gone, the net cord remained. We were pretty small, and it was at just about neck height for us. My friend frantically used the hand brakes that did not exist on my bicycle, and I frantically pedaled in reverse to try to brake. I recall hitting at an angle, which somehow made my impact with the cord less severe. My friend took the brunt of the impact on his wind pipe. We were both ok, but it was a memorable bike swap.

When I was ten, I got a freestyle bike with hand brakes, free-wheeling pedals, a rotor that allowed the handlebars to be turned all the way around without interference from the brake cables, and foot pegs. I loved this bike and spent loads of time riding and doing some basic tricks. I was never brave enough or good enough to do much more than a short wheelie, an indo, or sort of a halfway attempt at riding while standing on the crossbar. Pictured below you can see some of these tricks, including one of my first efforts at the standing trick (I believe these photos were taking on the Christmas day that I got the bike).

Over time, I developed this last trick a bit more. It horrifies me now to think of it. I would pedal furiously to get up to top speed and then clamp my feet around the seat post, with the seat itself between my calves. Then I’d just stand up and hold my arms out to the side and coast. This was in the olden days when we didn’t wear helmets. I can still picture the sparkly bits in the ashpalt zooming by below me like stars in the dark ribbon of my path, and I think of it pretty much every time I cringe when looking out to see my own kids, with their helmets and directives not to go too far up the hill or ride too swiftly or dangerously.

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Gymnastics

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This was a well-timed photograph more than a skillful gambol.

When I was young, I took what was billed as a gymnastics class, though it was more tumbling than gymnastics. We did cartwheels, somersaults, and handsprings and that was about it. My son, who is currently the same age I was in this picture, takes real gymnastics at a facility that has all the equipment you see in the Olympics and similar events. He’s still mostly doing tumbling, though he’s begun working a bit on the rings and some of the various sorts of bars.

My class was taught at a little dance school, which I remember as a small building with a small, cluttered lobby and one room with a wooden floor, mirrored walls, and a ballet bar. Although I perhaps wasn’t as great at it is this lucky photograph would seem to suggest, I eventually outgrew the class, and my parents debated getting me in a class in the larger town nearby (my town rounded its population up to 3,000). For whatever reason (likely convenience, since it would have been an hour drive each way), that never happened.

I remember doing two recitals while taking classes with a teacher I believe we called Ms. Jane. In the picture above, it’s clear that we had some sort of military theme. For the other recital, I had a Superman costume. I don’t remember much about the recitals other than that we did a series of tumbles across the stage. There was ballet and clogging too, and my sister participated in both of these (I’ll do her the kindness of not sharing any of those photos).

Among my most vivid memories of my gymnastics class was running through the giant cluster of pampas bushes in front of the building one day while waiting for my mom to come pick me up. Two or three of us chased one another around and through the bushes, and when my mom arrived, I stopped and discovered that my skin was scored all over with little painless cuts from the serrated edges of the grass’s blades.

Bo Peep

When I was pretty young, my family got what was called a toy apricot poodle (“toy” referring to her size and “apricot” to her expected color, though she wound up not being apricot after all). My dad threatened to name her “Cat” but we ultimately settled on the pretty obvious “Bo Peep.” She was a cute little dog with a lot of personality.

More than once she was run over (accidentally) by bicycles, and once my mother accidentally slit her throat while grooming her (thankfully she just buttonholed the skin). She loved popcorn and would pretty much maul you to get a piece of bread. She could do some of the basic tricks on command and would also dance (twirling around in a sort of hopping circle) if you twirled a treat above her head.

She lived to be 17 or 18 years old, and by the end, she was pretty well blind and she had a sickly sweet odor about her. I believe my dad finally put her down while I was away at college.

The pictures below show her mostly at a cute phase of her early life in 1982, though in the one shot from 1989, she looks sort of evil, guarding that horrible 70s couch alongside some handsome devil, mostly out of frame, sporting a fashionable pair of what were then called jams.

Halloween

With Halloween just passed and having thought recently of some photos my dad scanned a few years ago, I decided to go back and find some of my childhood Halloween photos. I also remember being the Hulk one year, and I had a great homemade E.T. costume another year that I wish I had photos of. The year my sister and I followed a Star Wars theme was among the best.

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1981. I guess I was the burger king? That’s supposed to be a beard, I think.

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The saddest pirate. I think this was the makeup for a pirate costume my dad wore as a kid, which I wore to some Fall Festival, though my actual trick-or-treating costume for that year appears below.

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Procure candy you must.

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This was in 1983. My mom crocheted the snake around my neck and my sister’s Leia wig. In fact, everything but the mask was homemade, including the nifty utility belt.

The Black Cauldron

On the recommendation of a coworker, I’ve begun reading Lloyd Alexanders’s The Chronicles of Prydain book series to my kids. I hadn’t know about this series, though I had known the second book’s title The Black Cauldron from a video game I had played in my own childhood. The video game apparently was commissioned by Disney, who made a movie version of the Newberry award-winning book. Well, I was apparently basically illiterate as a child (or more likely, my small-town library didn’t have these books, though my mother in perhaps her most formative and best parenting moves made sure I had frequent and mostly unfettered access to the library), but somehow we managed to score the video game to play on our Tandy 1000 computer. This computer had 640k of memory. That is kilobytes, not megabytes or gigabytes, mind you.

Beginning to read the series with my kids has helped me recall the videogame, and I’ve found some YouTube videos of a play-through! I remember toiling away at this game and being so proud when I could play it through at last. We had the Tandy but didn’t have any other actual cool gaming system until much later (my sister’s Nintendo, which she bought during college and brought home over the summer; to be fair, we did have a Texas Instruments gaming console with lame versions of various games, but it was hardly cool [though still, in retrospect, it was still a good bit more than most in my podunk town had, so in a way maybe my parents were pioneers]).

Looking at the game now, I think it’s sort of ridiculously low-fidelity. It’s tempting to quip that Minecraft has just barely surpassed the graphics quality of this nearly 30-year-old video game, but Minecraft is really quite a bit more complex in spite of its low-fi graphics. My kids could basically program a game these days of similar complexity to The Black Cauldron using Scratch.

Watching some of the video play-through has filled me with nostalgia. How vividly I remember some of these screens and the trials of trying to get past them!

Here’s the first video in the series, in case this was, against most odds, a part of your childhood too:

Other games from this era that we played were King’s Quest IV and Police Quest. I also played a whole lot of Earl Weaver Baseball, under which in certain circumstances (I forget specifics) you could hit a home run over the backstop.

This was in the days in which we used DOS with the ubiquitous C:\> prompt and our calendars and document management were handled by a program called Deskmate that looked like this (credit):

Pen Pals

Letters

A box of letters dating back at least 19 years.

Although I’ve lapsed in recent years thanks to the infernal intarwebs, I’m a cultivator of pen pals from way back. I’ve always loved letters, the pleasure of sending something off and waiting for a reply, and of course getting a fat envelope a few days or weeks later in my own mailbox.

I remember writing thank-you notes to my grandmothers complete with drawings of the presents I was thanking them for (I wrote these at the prompting of my mother, sure, but the fact didn’t diminish the care I put into them).

In other artsy letters, I remember sending notes off to baseball players Howard Johnson (no relation to the hotel chain as far as I’m aware) and Will Clark. My friend and I came up with the devious plan of including our own drawings of the players in hopes of increasing our odds of getting autographs in return. As there was never a reply that I can remember, these gentlemen were not, strictly speaking, pen pals.

One summer during high school, when I went off to a program lasting several weeks (maybe a couple of months — I don’t remember for sure), I wrote dutifully to my parents, my two best friends, and one or two other people who surprised me by being more interested in keeping in touch than I might have figured. I got into trouble with the two best friends for duplicating a letter to them essentially word for word. How many ways were there really to say the same things to them? At least I wrote it out by hand both times.

Midway through high school, both one of those best friends and I moved to different schools across the state, and we clove to one another at a distance via the mail as best as we could, resorting to phone calls only occasionally (as these were the olden days when you had to worry about raising your parents’ ire with high long-distance bills). That was a hard time for me, and these letters, often inane, frequently enough containing doodles and other silliness, were a great solace. I think it was the writing as much as the reading that helped. Later, one of my friend’s new friends struck up a correspondence with me, and it was peculiar and fun and wonderful to connect with a stranger in this way.

There’s something special and intimate and even workmanly about sharing your handwriting with somebody, and it seems like a real privilege, on looking back after years of reading friendly notes almost exclusively on a screen, to have been the recipient of others’ hand-written notes. I can still visualize my parents’ hand-writing, and that of my grandmother, though I’ve not corresponded any great amount by mail with any of them for probably a decade.

I was an inveterate decorator of envelopes, something I remember picking up from the R.A. who wrote to my older sister before her first year of college and who made elaborate abstract drawings all over the envelope.

During college, my use of the postal service tapered off pretty quickly, and with it the legibility of my handwriting, which was never terribly good to begin with, but I did keep right on pen-palling.

There was the summer during which I heard at random from a girl named Ingrid from Norway. She was a violinist, and we delighted in learning about one another’s cultures as we emailed back and forth. I forget why the correspondence ended, though I know it wasn’t a falling-out. She was one of my early email pen pals, and it was a bit of a wonder at the time how easy it was to connect with someone from across the world who, just a few years previously, you would never have known existed. We’re fairly well accustomed to this by now.

I emailed many strangers while in college. Early on, I would write random people to ask for permission to use fancy blinking background graphics to embed in various little web sites I was setting up, for example. I once put a really horrible paper about the author William Golding online, and a high school teacher asked if I’d be willing to correspond with his class. Twenty or thirty kids (just a couple of years younger than I was) sent me notes — some serious and seeking and others sarcastic and resentful at the assignment — and I answered them all with as much gravity as I could muster.

Later, I corresponded with friends over the summer breaks, and I once professed my infatuation for a girl whom I couldn’t work up the courage to actually speak to (and even managed to avoid a restraining order). I may have done that a couple of times. You can hide behind written words in a way that you can’t when speaking.

One of my favorite pen pals was a writer I encountered online maybe midway through college. He was a 65-year-old guy, not a name anybody’d recognize from a literature book, but I think he was fairly well known on the Stanford oral poetry scene. We enjoyed a longish back-and-forth that helped me learn a lot about what I thought about things. He was warm and accepting of the naive and searching letters I sent him, sort of a Rilke to the young poet I fancied myself at the time. Of course we lost touch not long after I graduated, and I learned a few years ago that he had died of cancer, and it made me sad. I’ve changed email addresses and mail clients enough times over the last 16 or 17 years that I’m missing much of my old correspondence, but I was thrilled this weekend to discover a CD I had saved my letters to and from Jim on, and it’s hard not to put aside a few hours and read them from start to finish.

My wife and I met online, and of course we wrote many letters as well, mostly via email. Thankfully, the necessity for that ended with my move to be with her in Tennessee after graduation, but the fact of the correspondence and the speed with which we were able to send our letters made the courtship at a distance somehow more bearable, if perhaps also somehow more tantalizing.

I rarely write people now, and I rarely get a letter of any length or importance. I scan my inbox, delete the things that aren’t quite spam but aren’t quite ham, and send back quick replies occasionally. I banter with people on Twitter and sometimes send something rather more long-form (e.g. this) into the void of the internet, but it’s ultimately not satisfying in the way that a good exchange with a pen pal always was. Much as I’ve to some degree embraced the culture of slow food in recent years, I now look back with longing to the culture of slow correspondence — if not of biding my time between letters, then at least of the satisfaction of a well-written personal thing, the care in writing something meaningful that somebody might linger over for a few days, that might provoke in somebody the pleasure of sitting down to enjoy the drafting of a thoughtful reply.

The Oak Ridge Boys

I’m not sure how I was introduced to the Oak Ridge Boys when I was a lad, but I was, and I’m still a big, unironic fan of their iconic song Elvira. Here’s a video of a performance:

If you’re not familiar with the song, make sure you stick around for the chorus and the giddyup-a-hoom-bop-a-hoom-bops (which F calls giddyup-baboon-butt-baboon-butts). When I was a kid, I had a little 45 record of the song. The album had a blue sky label with a rainbow on it, and I don’t remember what was on the reverse side of it. I also had a 45 with a song on it called Pacman Fever. As far as I can recall, these are the only two vinyl records I could ever call my own.

I introduced Elvira to L in a fit of nostalgia when she was young and have recently turned both she and F on to it. Tonight, we went Youtube surfing and found another fun one called Bobbie Sue, which I’ve embedded below.