Friday, April 2, 2010

Playing hooky

Yesterday I played hooky. After an hour of desk work, I shut down my computer and went for a three-hour bike ride. What a treat.

The sense of novelty that came with being out enjoying the sunshine rather than sitting at my desk reminded me of a tradition from my childhood. Every year, I was allowed to miss one day of school to go into Boston with my mother on the train. We’d go shopping and eat lunch at a restaurant, and although we could have done the same thing on a weekend or a school vacation day, it wouldn’t have been the same. Feeling sneaky, feeling special, the whole sense of doing something exceptional, was what made it so much fun.

And yesterday I discovered that playing hooky still feels special, even though being self-employed means that I no longer have to ask anyone’s permission to spend a day outside instead of at my desk. My 12-year-old niece Phoebe is visiting this week from Pennsylvania, and because she’s such a good athlete, I knew this was my opportunity to do the kind of bike ride my kids are still too small to do. Given the beautiful weather, I grabbed that opportunity.

We set off on the Minuteman Bikeway at 11. We rode steadily for an hour until we reached the Alewife Station at the end of the Bikeway; then we threaded our way along the extension to Davis Square, where we rewarded ourselves with a fabulous lunch of burritos and guacamole at Anna’s Tacqueria in Davis Square. In both directions of the ride, covering 24 miles round-trip, there was so much to see. Flooded swamps and back yards in Bedford and Lexington. The shimmering expanse of Spy Pond in Arlington. Brooks running through the still leafless woods. Along the Bikeway, women pushing infants in strollers, a preschooler using a scooter, dog-walkers whose multiple charges contrasted amusingly in size and breed, a middle-aged father riding his bike with two small kids in a trailer, an elderly couple walking slowly and stiffly together. It wasn’t crowded the way a sunny Saturday on the Bikeway would be, but there were plenty of people out enjoying some exercise and recreation.

By coincidence, I returned to the same town where our bike ride began in the evening for a different reason: I was writing a feature story on a hobby group that meets at the veteran’s hospital in Bedford. I spent the evening talking to some of the men who live in the hospital: men in their seventies and eighties, many missing limbs, some semi-immobilized by strokes or muscular disease, most in wheelchairs. They seemed to be enjoying their club, which was a fly-tying group, but the volunteers who were helping them tie flies all told me the same thing: it’s not about the fishing, it’s about the companionship. The men are just happy to have company and have people taking an interest in them.

I thought about that a lot while I observed the fun they were having. Even the ones who could barely speak or respond were smiling. All of them were once soldiers, deemed fit and able enough to go to war. Now they sit in wheelchairs in an industrial cafeteria with Easter bunny cut-outs pasted to the windows, glad for volunteers who come to help them tie flies for fishing excursions that the men are not physically able to take.

So it was a day of contrasts: physical fitness under a bright sun after three days of rain, all of us out enjoying a beautifully designed recreational trail; and then the VA hospital, with the men so physically compromised but still happy to have company. Yet as different as they were, both experiences reminded me that sometimes there is no more blessed way to spend a sunny day than skipping work or school to bask in the fresh air.

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