Usually, I head for the beach on my bicycle, but the past few weeks, I've headed inland, taking old country roads through Kensington to Exeter. This week the lilacs have been in bloom, lining the roadside and perfuming the air. Spring has come in fits and starts, but mostly it's been cool, in the 60's. That's fine, because the days are dry and clear and it's easy to ride without getting dehydrated.
The horses along the way are getting to know me. They lift their heads, but they no longer trot away from the fences along the road. They snort: "Oh, it's just him. That dumb guy on his bicycle."
I keep my iPod plugged in, and listen to my playlists. Randy Newman is wonderful on long bike rides. How could I have missed so much Randy Newman all these years? For two hours I have him to myself. And George Carlin. And boogie woogie musicians I cannot even name, and did you know Jonny Rivers did the best "Rockin Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu" ever?
I had a friend I used to walk with, along the Potomac River, along the C&O canal towpath, and he was appalled by people walking in all that primal splendor wearing head phones. You had the chittering of Kingfishers, the rat-a-tat of piliated woodpeckers, the rush of the river, the wind in the trees. Why would you want to block all that out?
I never argued with him. But when I walked alone with my dog, I plugged in. Stevie Wonder, Ritchie Havens, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker. Have you ever listened to the piano player in Cocker's band? What a marvelous age we live in. A piano player plays in England and I can walk along the Potomac, deep in woods inhabited by foxes, muskrats, beaver, deer, listening to what that guy did on Abbey Road.
Sometime in the early 1960's I asked my father what age, what time in history, he would have liked to live in. He was sitting in his leather sling chair, reading. He read. That's mostly what he did, as far as I could see. He did not play ball or fish or hike. He read.
When I was tired enough, I read, too. History was my favorite. The Civil War, of course, was in my blood, growing up where I did. I fantasized about hanging out with Lincoln. From my house in Maryland, I could have walked to his house, less than 10 miles away. I would have just watched him and listened. I might have advised him. (Get rid of those loser generals. Get to Grant and Sherman.) You could just hang around the White House then. Or, the age of knights and kings. Or maybe, the age of exploration, in sailing ships.
My father put down his book briefly and looked at me, one of those rare occasions when he seemed to notice me. It wasn't often I asked a question he considered interesting, as far as I could tell, but he said, "Well, this age." He did not seem annoyed at the moment, to have been interrupted. The question was not without some merit. "The present," he affirmed. "This is the best time to have ever lived."
"What?" I sputtered. With all the nuclear bombs ready to drop on us? With racism in every city?"
"Every age has been beset with hate, fear and terror. We've made progress and we benefit from it now."
He picked up his book and returned to whatever he was reading.
I wandered off considering that 1960 might in fact be a better time to be alive than 1860. In 1960, Lincoln's beloved son would not have died from typhoid. We had better sanitation and antibiotics. My father saw the virtue of the present where I had lived in the romantic past.
Now, I remember that, as I pedal along the roads of Rockingham County, New Hampshire.