Collecting Bike Stories in Serendipitous Meetings

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Yesterday, I made a new friend. There are those who quietly lead very inspiring lives. For anyone who, like me, needs a little dusting off this morning before going back into the fray, I share this.


My friend is Caucasian, originally from Zambia, Africa. Just celebrated his 50th birthday. He tells me that he’s now living in his back pack. His reasoning is that he gave up on the first world and decided to work in conflict zones, refugee camps and natural disaster areas as a field medic.

Last night, he was waiting out a twelve-hour layover at Pearson Airport, before boarding another flight for eleven hours. We decided to keep each other company. When I asked for details, he told me he came in from the Philippines (where he’d worked since the Typhoon Yolanda in November) and was now on his way to Uganda to work in a Sudanese refugee camp called Rhino camp.

Here is how he describes his past: “I was the epitome of the first world male. I had an amazing career, houses, cars, motorcycles, horses, boats and owed nothing; I had a turning event which really changed my life when I realized I was not happy.”

We talked for a couple of hours about whether we missed our stuff (neither of us does to any extent) and how the bohemian lifestyle in a developing nation suits us (sometimes, it can tear at you emotionally: he had to leave one camp because his main job was sewing up young rape victims. He couldn’t take twelve hours a day of that, where the locals saw it as a way of life) My life is one of simple inconvenience compared to this. Perspective is really valuable.

He told me he’d had everything, and given it all away. When I asked about the greater rewards, he sent me an image of a Ugandan newspaper clipping, entitled “Eight-year-old girl survives stray bullet”

And then, when I described the bike book project, he shared a bike story. *sigh* I love this part of being me.

“You should have met my friend Joris who was cycling around the world and was in Bangkok when the Typhoon hit, he loaded his bike on a plane and flew to Manila and cycled three hundred plus kilometers to Tacloban to help in the clean up. He just started digging bodies out of the rubble and placing them in body bags … he had just turned 23. I was wowed by this young man.”


Last week, I temporarily gave up on the human species: insecure, narrow-minded, self-centred people abound and sometimes they burn me out. Why my new friend and I met, I don’t know. I think the bike project interviews has attuned me to watch for opportunities at odd moments. Our three-hour conversation healed so much of the disappointment and frustration we were both feeling, and recharged us to be on our way again–me to my small mammal world of sustainable transportation advocacy (“look! bikes are very cool!”) and he to his order-of-magnitude-larger world of healing torn bodies.

Best of all things, Gary. Strong bike energy coming your way as you fly out.

Increased Bike Energy

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The whole point of the One Block North project has been to get more people on a bike. That moment has arrived, and I wanted to share with you what I’m seeing.

We’re at a neat crossroads for this bike book project. While I’ve been sharing these stories verbally for three years with anyone who would listen, our project now appears in print.

Why does that matter? I wondered that the whole time I was working on it. Never having published anything creative before, I couldn’t say. [People keep asking me, ‘What the hell is creative non-fiction, anyway?’] Was it really worth all this expense and trouble?

The moment Andrew at Tlac handed me my first sample copy a month ago, an unexpected change came over my patient listeners.
On seeing a copy of the book, my listeners were frankly astonished at the size of the project. And as they flipped through the pages and became immersed in the gorgeous design and the photos and the map, they were then drawn to read a little of just one story. Any story. As they read, I could see on their faces that seed of a desire, to be out on a bicycle, sharing the adventure with us. They were moving from, “oh, isn’t that nice” to “wow, you can do that?”

Any book is going to change the persona of those with whom we share our bike stories, from a listener to a reader.

A reader can go on the bike adventures in their imagination, without the pressure of demonstrating enthusiasm as I stand before them. It allows the person a corporeal experience: it’s a tangible thing they can take away with them, to read in quiet moments, in private places, alone. A volume is a companion, like a bicycle. Readers can put a book down and pick it up again later; they can dawdle over a story as long and as many times as they like (kind of like a great bike ride).

But this isn’t just any book. Forgive me saying so, but these particular stories carry an extra jolt of energy, by virtue of their authenticity.

This is the moment we’ve really been waiting for. Because of you and your willingness to share your stories and your editing or designing or publishing skills, more people will be setting out on their own bike adventures soon.

Thank you for your unending enthusiasm for bikes. I love that about you.

Next, thank you for graciously sharing your stories with me, and for setting aside the fear of exposure in a public forum, instead being forthright and confident of your opinions. I was originally terrified of being called out for my uninformed and entirely subjective opinion. However, having tried so many of these things myself and having witnessed so much, I can now intelligently and dispassionately form clear and objective opinions. I’m strongly of the mind that a positive, encouraging, supportive approach—where we recognize the human element in whatever form of transportation is being employed—only there can we (as Peter Miasek said) “turn the Titanic around” and make streets more accessible to all. A bicycle is just one of many valid options for getting around, but it’s an awfully good option. Our favourite, in fact, and we want others to experience just what an awfully good option it is.

Last night, Peter also shared with me that, because I happened to recommend valet bike parking to him during our interview, he went with it in 2012, and this year there will be a whopping five valet bike parking events in the Markham-Unionville area, all sponsored by those cities. Five valet bike parking events, which translates into a huge jolt of bike energy. I told you: neat, eh?

The whimsy and romance and innovation of your bike stories, the quiet determination to just be on a bicycle, these things inspired me and now will inspire others, to consider this approach. What a legacy.

At the Bateman’s launch last night, interviewees were being introduced to each other, modestly sharing their stories and realizing how much power there is in positive bike energy, in being kind and gentle and encouraging in our approach. They realized suddenly what company they were keeping (“Hey! That’s Howard Chang!” I heard someone whisper, before approaching him and saying hello; at the next launch, I hope to hear that happen several times, over virtually any name associated with a bike story in One Block North.) Several people bought their book and politely disappeared into the night, only to text or email or Tweet me to say how surprised they were, how delighted and how inspired they felt at these stories. “Yes, I know!” I say back.

This morning, my acupuncturist—who took a few copies to sell in her office—called to say someone wanted one. A non-cyclist.

Prepare for an increase in bike energy across Ontario. And because of what you do on a bike and for this project, I salute you.

#OneBlockNorth Bike Book Launches!

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If you’ve been following this blog, you probably know that the book This Road Continues One Block North is about to be published: I collect the first box of printed copies next week. Since the book is self-published, I’ll be peddling (ha ha ha) the print copies myself immediately; some bike and book shops have tentatively agreed to take a few copies on consignment. And, in a couple of months I hope to have an e-version available through the major chains.

Please consider this your personal invitation to join me and many of the interviewees at one of the upcoming bike book events, in Kingston, Ontario and in Toronto, Ontario.  Copies of the book will be available at all the events: my bike (and me too, I suppose) will be available for autographs.

Guest speaker at Cycle Kingston’s (March) Annual General Meeting in Kingston, Ontario

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My premiere book launch will be held in March at Bateman’s Bicycle Company in Toronto, Ontario

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A second book launch is scheduled in April at Duke’s Cycle, also in the great city of Toronto, Ontario

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More events will be confirmed and advertised soon!

Thanks for your support of this project over the years. I couldn’t have done it without you.

#BikeBunnies4Ever

Diamonds in the Rough

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A couple of weeks ago, I was alerted to an upcoming celebration at the Jet Fuel Coffee Shop, on Parliament Street. The more people I spoke with, the more I realized I was the only cyclist in Toronto who didn’t know about it.

The Jet Fuel Coffee Shop has been open for nineteen years. Its owner/operator is John Engler, an enthusiastic supporter of cycling in Toronto. The café boasts a competitive road bike team, La Bicicletta. And because John is involved in the messenger community, it is a known hangout for couriers.

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Every year since its inception, John has thrown a party to celebrate. At each anniversary, the agreement is that the number of kegs of beer available equal the number of years the café has been in business, and further that said beer must all be gone before closing time. Did I mention that the shop has been around for nineteen years?

I contacted my friend Steve, whom I would meet out front, to confer on our plan of attack.

Never having been to the shop before, I turn at Carleton and Parliament not sure what to expect. Nothing on the west side of the street is clearly marked, but by the quiet I have to assume I’m not there yet. The next block is equally disappointing, and I have a moment of despair. What if I can’t find it? I stop. A heavenly beam is descending on the sidewalk directly across from me. There, on every conceivable lockable element, are stacked bikes. People are coming out of the woodwork on bicycles, singly and in groups, and locking up against street signs, bike racks, hydro poles, and other bikes. It is the most beautiful mayhem imaginable.

The closer I get, the more bike energy I can feel.

“Wow!” I shout to Steve, who is approaching from the other direction. “Can you feel that? I want to put a card on every one of these!” He giddily points to the stack nearby.

“Yeah!” he agrees. “And every one of these bikes is unique.” Some are brightly painted, others drab and banged up. Some have white or coloured tire walls, others are plain black. There are both slicks and knobby wheels; road, hybrid and pure mountain bikes. The variation in handlebars is unbelievable.

“Who rides this, I wonder?” I point to one set that remind me of the horns on a steer. I tell him I just interviewed an ex-messenger last week and that Nate had explained how there is no “messenger style” of bike. Here is living proof, on the hoof. Each bike is well maintained and appreciated by its owner. I’m completely stoked and suddenly terrified.

“How do you want to do this?” Steve asks, feeling the same level of intimidation.

“Let’s see what happens,” I tell him. I figure messenger + beer is a better combination than messenger + competition (as in, Icycle) but we’re about to find out.

Agreeably, the messengers in the doorway smile and welcome us. It’s only 8:30 p.m., so it’s not a dense throng yet. The café is long and narrow, brightly lit, with pounding music; the walls are decorated with posters of cyclists in Jet Fuel cycling jerseys. Partway back is a table on which stands a keg; several full cups await. Steve asks how much. The servers laugh.

“It’s free, but you can put something in the tip jar, if you like.” Surprised, we both do as suggested and grab a cup.

We head to the back together, where many people seem to be heading out a door, to the back yard. The door opens to a narrow walkway, which then opens into an enclosed yard. It’s already nearly packed. You can’t walk around, but around the edges are benches on which cyclists are catching up. The air is a little thick, so I head inside before my thinking gets too clouded for the task at hand.

“Anything interesting?” Steve asks.

“Well,” I explain, “I think I should get as many interviews as I can now, because the crowd is about to become awfully mellow.” He looks over, eyebrow raised, and then sniffs the air. We chuckle. The first person I approach is the most colourfully dressed. I like her open face and affectionate manner with almost everyone here. Her name is Leah.

When she first started as a courier, it was summertime. One day, she was cycling along Bloor St., the other side of Mt. Pleasant Road, when a call came in. The cranky dispatcher was screaming that the priority on a package had changed and she needed to hurry. Leah sped up. Seconds later, she realized she was heading into the on-ramp to Mt. Pleasant, in the middle of traffic. There was a car only inches to her left, cutting her off.

The next day she had a softball-sized bruise on her hip, where she had hit the mirror.

She is wearing brightly marked full-body technical gear, and her long hair is shorn in the back, adorned with flowers and tied in unusual but becoming styles. There are bangles on one wrist and a goth band on the other. She is wearing a startlingly pointy choker. In fact, Leah is covered with metal. I am not the least nervous. Her warmth is infectious. I thank her as she heads off to her friends.

Moments later she is back with another messenger. I must interview him, she insists. The man smiling behind her has long, unkempt hair, broad shoulders, and a warm smile. His name is Brian and he wants to tell me about his Death Defying Moment. I wonder if they will all have one of these stories.

Brian tells me he was one day moving as fast as he had ever gone on Adelaide just past Peter Street, when out of nowhere a minivan cut in front of him. It appeared suddenly from around the side of a parked bus, leaving him no room to proceed. In that moment, he decided to “take the van.” Inches from it, he threw his hands into the air and bounced off its side, landing a full eight feet back.

The van owner jumped out and rushed to his side. He wanted to know if Brian had hit his head. Brian looked up and realized that the side of the van was still shaking from the impact.
He looks into my eyes and says, “I was trying to hold off killing him for having cut me off.” Instead, he walked away. I look at his kind face.

“I shouldn’t have been able to do that, you know,” he explains. “You have to know how to take a hit.” It upsets me to realize we might not be having this conversation, if the accident had ended badly. He laughs. Brian likes being a messenger. He is a musician, and this job allows him the flexibility of working around his other interests.

In the yard, I find a very pretty blonde woman with a generous smile. Her name is Rebecca and she is very happy to chat until I tell her what I want. All her bike stories involve near death experiences. She tells me that, while she is not a messenger, she does ride a lot and loves it. She does not have a story to share, but she does have a strong political statement. Rebecca tells me that she prefers to ride in the downtown core to anywhere else, because once you get to say, the Danforth, you are jockeying with cars in bike lanes and a general lack of courtesy and it gets dangerous.

“There are certainly places in town where bikes receive less acceptance,” I say.

“Acceptance is the wrong word,” she corrects me. “We should not need to feel acceptance. Cycling for me is a fulcrum for everything in my life where I feel myself in the minority: my gender, my sexuality, my chosen field.” She tells me that it’s all got a similarly unfortunate sense of having to prove something that shouldn’t require proving. She is a very strong, very intelligent, very rare woman. In many ways, her story is my story. I have just become numb to it, while she has not. She is not angry, but she is not going to pretend it doesn’t bother her. I thank her for sharing her thoughts, and she smiles warmly, pleasantly.

It is an interesting collection of people. Every age is represented here, as well as a variety of ethnicities, incomes, style aesthetics and sexual persuasions. There are bike bags everywhere. The place is now packed to near implosion. Faces are engaged, friendly, genuine. There is no posturing. On the waiver forms I’ve collected tonight, I note a wide range of educational levels. Some interviewees have email addresses and their handwriting is confident, while others can barely print their names.

Steve looks over the crowd. “These people are evolving faster than others in this city,” he says. “They love their jobs. If only everyone felt that way.” He calls them “totally alive” and I suggest that it is because they are not one-dimensional, but very artistic in their approach to things. We have both noted how often people greet each other with a hug.

It is at this moment that he spots someone he knows and becomes unexpectedly excited. Following him down into the crowd, Steve gets the fellow’s attention, standing directly beneath the posters decorating the wall. These young men are involved with Jet Fuel’s competitive racing team. One of the young men in the group, who has been quietly watching, shakes my hand. I ask him how he is involved, and he points at one of the riders in the race lineup, in the poster overhead.

“That’s me,” he says modestly.

“You’re famous!” I tease him, and then realize I sound like a bike bunny, and blush. Or, maybe I am a bike bunny. Either way, it would be fun to hear his story, but it will not happen tonight.

Back upstairs, I find myself beside Leah again.

“How it is that all the messengers know each other? Surely they don’t all work for the same company?” She laughs. No, but they do congregate together as they wait for calls to come in. Because they are a “modestly boisterous lot”, they have to change their venue regularly. They also see each other on the road all day long. Leah explains that the downtown core for courier territory has generic boundaries; say, College to the Lakeshore, and perhaps Church to Bathurst. Intrigued, I ask for more details.

There are actually three kinds of messengers. She herself is what’s known as an intercept rider. She goes into the offices and collects packages, and then takes them to a second messenger who awaits in a car. The driver then takes the package out to the suburbs. The second type of messenger is fondly known as a “core whore”, someone who collects and delivers to the law firms, banks, printing firms and whatever else is located within the core boundaries. The third type is called a distance rider, someone who delivers packages as far north as Eglinton.

Everyone has their own style. Some carry enormous bags of deliveries, while others have smaller, more portable bags. Some have a militaristic style, some attach things to a chain, and one man has been known for years to only carry a single package at a time.

“In fact,” she states, her finger stabbing the air, “he’s even looked exactly the same for years!”

She looks out over the crowd with me. “It’s not so much a melting pot as a salad,” she declares. Each person is “an individual, intricate part of the whole.” She describes how she came here from Barrie years ago, and how her family disapproved.

“I told my mom that I’d rather be homeless in Toronto than employed in Barrie.” As it turned out, Leah was indeed one of the working homeless for several months.

“How did you manage?” I want to know. You couchsurf. Friends put you up. These are some of the pluckiest people I have ever encountered, with a passion for their work. She has no stress, apart from the occasional traffic altercation. And cycling is the best way to vent frustration.

When I moved here, someone in Kingston had pointed to this sort of character as “Toronto colour.” While I don’t think the intent was particularly flattering, I find these people winsome and they have an undeniable strength of character that I admire intensely.

Beside me, George the Bike Guy is swaying on his feet, more inebriated than most. But then, it’s nearly midnight. George used to have a bike shop in Kensington Market called Parts Unknown.

He exclaims expansively, “John always throws a good party.” John used to also have a bike shop in the market, and the day he closed down to start Jet Fuel, he showed up at George’s shop with a thousand bikes. A remarkably generous man, this John fellow.

At home, I check my Twitter account to find the simple report from Taddle Creek: “Jet Fuel Café beer gone.” All nineteen kegs have been consumed, as required.

Mission accomplished.

Tuck ‘n Roll

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In honour of an outstanding human being, a dear friend, and our very talented book design team, I give you the bike stories of James Wilson of Overdrive Design.

 

Wouldn’t you know, it is by far the hottest day of the summer, with a humidex of 48C. I’m heading west to Overdrive Design, near the DuPont and Dundas West intersection. I climb into the car irritated because the intense heat has made it impossible for me to enjoy the challenge of cycling to new parts of town, on small backwater streets.

The office is an open-concept loft, where people work quietly at their desks. The atmosphere is charged with positive energy. James Wilson, the owner, works at the desk nearest the door. His work station is walled in by counters, against which are parked four spectacular bikes. These are the staff transportation equipment. The ratio is not exactly one-to-one, but it is actually James who didn’t ride today. We begin our introductions by accusing the stifling weather, both of us relieved that the other was equally culpable, equally victimized.

James’ story is a hair-raising, spine-tingling, gut-wrenching adventure. He’s a hard-core cyclist. Here’s a teaser: James designed the Rocky Mountain logo, the triple peaks in the red circle. OMG!

James lives in Oakville. He leaves the house at 5 a.m. so that his commute is timed for mostly green lights. His preferred route is Lakeshore Boulevard, so he drops in at Kerr Street and Cornwall Road, and drops out at the Humber River Bridge. The trip is forty kilometres, door to door. That’s one way, in case you’re wondering. Yeah, OMG. James assures me this is a lifestyle choice, that he prefers to do the eighty kilometres round trip ten months of the year. James wants to see a shift in thinking about bikes, to how they accommodate our health, the environment, our commute, to how they bring an element of fun to our lives.

In the mid-’80s, he worked at City Hall, writing safe cycling handbooks.

“I‘ve seen the complete and utter disregard that cyclists demonstrate for the rules of the road,” he says grimacing, knowing that the odds are stacked against you.

“On my rides in, I try to avoid death,” he declares. Like me, James makes eye contact with drivers, cyclists and pedestrians and he uses hand signals. Unlike me, he never plugs into an iPod. He is one of those advocates who leads by example.

“All the bikes leaning against your counter are cardable beauties,” I say genuinely. He grins. All of them are his, with the exception of a cool Gary Fischer commuter bike. This last belongs to Sylvia Nan Cheng, the cyclist who invited me here today.

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“I lend bikes to all my staff so they can ride half-decent machines.” He runs the office with as much environmental observance as possible. The air conditioning goes off at the end of the day. Overhead lights are off, but each person has a desk lamp. There are recycling containers in plain view. Leaning against the wall is a hand-built rack, with pulleys. James typically uses it to hang bikes from his office ceiling, out of the way. The ceilings in this office are too low to install the rack, which explains all the bikes along the counter.

“Well still, there’s something charming about walking into an office where bike souls greet you, before people do,” I assure him.

The cycling mentality feeds into the office environmentalism. He doesn’t want to be despotic about it, but he hopes it rubs off. One of his new employees actually quit smoking to fit in. James lives his life in the firm belief that the fifty-five-year-old employer should be in better shape than his employees if he expects them to maintain high standards.

James’s bikes are equally astounding. For touring, James uses an ’84 Pinarello Montello SLX. The leather is hand-stitched. He owns a Fondriest, the spectacular red and white Italian carbon fibre bike reclining a mere five feet away, on loan.

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Today, James had planned to ride his 1987 LandShark Pro steel frame tandem. Yes, he had intended to ride his tandem, unaccompanied, forty kilometres, into the office. And then home again. The frame is hand-built and fillet-brazed. He assures me that the bike is very light and it handles extremely well, so you hardly notice the second half behind you.

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He muses on the days courting his wife, when he’d ride the tandem on the Bayview Extension to her office at Yonge and Eglinton to pick her up. I’ve done the Extension on my mountain bike. There are no polite adjectives available to adequately describe the Extension. The effort of riding a tandem up that hill to pick up a girlfriend sounds incredibly romantic.

James cycles a lot. By the law of averages, James (like most cyclists) expects to have accidents. He has been hit six times by cars, all on left-hand turns where the driver illegally cut James off. He typically “Supermans over the hood,” sometimes with the bike and sometimes not. James has been doored once, and yes, it hurt. I have heard this story several times now and I’m beginning to see a pattern. There appears to be a direct relation between the size of the vehicle being driven and the visibility of smaller transportation options sharing the road. Drivers don’t mean to cut off or hit cyclists: they just don’t see them.

James tells me he has crashed in lots of races, and then he stops talking for a moment. When I look up he declares, “You might as well hold a gun to your head if you’re not going to wear a helmet.”

His worst accidents are things he has done to himself.

Awhile back, James and his brother were training down by the zoo, in Scarborough. The pavement was wet. They was travelling downhill at about twenty-five kilometres/hour (so, not fast) when they hit a bridge deck. Bridge decks are notoriously unreliable surfaces. Unfortunately, there were no signs posted to alert oncoming traffic of the deck’s presence, so the cyclists didn’t slow their rate of descent. The bridge deck was covered with a microfilm of water, which responds to a tire the same way sheer ice responds. James slid out. His front wheel ripped off, the stem snapped and the forks catapulted him straight into the deck. He laid on the road, stunned.

His brother was temporarily paralyzed, but when he could move, he noticed James was spurting blood. James’s face needed a hundred stitches, and two rounds of reconstructive surgery. Yes, he’s still ruggedly handsome. (Don’t tell his wife I said so. I want her to continue to ride that tandem with him.)

James got back on his bike two weeks later. Signs were posted at the bridge deck as a direct result of James’s accident and the lawsuit, that he won.

In 2004, James was training north of Oakville. He was coming out of a fast decline (about forty-five kilometres/hour), standing in the saddle.

“Suddenly, I was in the middle of a catastrophic equipment failure.” The crank arm snapped off the bottom bracket and he slammed into the top tube.

In the accident, James chipped his pelvis, broke a rib, and gashed his head. At his computer, he finds an image of his core, taken after the accident. The bruising sustained was gruesome. He feels fortunate to not have severed anything. O-M-G, that would hurt.

Three weeks later, the bruising was healed enough that he could ride again.

In 2009, he was enjoying the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour, an annual ride between Ottawa and Kingston hosted by the Ottawa Bicycle Club. In Perth, the Ladies Rotary feed the cyclists, and knowing this James sprinted to the tents, distracted by the feast ahead. He cracked a nothing joke with a friend and suddenly sailed into a five foot ditch. His fall was stopped by the wall of dirt on the opposite bank. The result was four broken ribs and a body unwilling to pedal another foot. He was out of the saddle for a couple of weeks. The takeaway to this particular story is that you should always buy Campanolo wheels.

“They’re bombproof,” James assures me (and apparently, so is he). After the accident, his wheels didn’t even need to be trued. When he realized this, he bought Campanolo wheels for the tandem.

James is an intelligent, kind and compassionate man. His work speaks for itself. On a bike, James does not ride foolishly, nor does he make irrational decisions.

“I stay alert so I don’t do something stupid on the road,” he says. “Every time I ride into work, I consider my mortality and manage the ride to reduce the risks.”

Despite everything that has happened to him, James still believes cycling is a smart and viable way to travel. And having met him, I can honestly say that if James has OMG stories, it’s because his life is lived in an equally OMG manner where the things that should matter, do.

And uh, well maybe tomorrow I’ll just leave the iPod in my pocket.

The Most Beautiful Bikes Ever

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Noah Rosen rents space at Bicycle Specialties as a bicycle frame painter. Mike Barry thought I should talk to Noah, and that’s all I needed to hear.

Noah has a beard and an engaging smile. His girlfriend, Suzanne Carlsen, is very pretty, with long, dark hair. They’re both in their early thirties, both artists. A friend introduced them to each other because they were the only two people she knew who rode bikes year-round. As the interview begins, I find they do more than that. For instance, last week they collected their Christmas tree with their bikes and a bike trailer; they rode home along Christie Street with a six-foot tree.

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Because he’s Jewish, this is Noah’s first tree-shopping expedition. Suzanne is from Kelowna, where you chop down your tree on your own land.

“Even if we had a car,” Suzanne tells me, her eyes gleaming, “we’d get the tree by bike because it’s fun!”

Suzanne operates Poka Bike Accessories, a metal and textile business that offers custom chain guards, bicycle bags, and head badges. A standard head badge is a manufacturer’s logo affixed to the bike’s head tube. They may be made of metal or plastic, a sticker, a decal, or a painted logo.

Online, someone’s described personalized head badges as “hood ornaments for your bike.” In Suzanne’s case, a head badge is an opportunity to leave a small, intimate indication of the bike’s personality in plain sight.

In her outstretched palm are the most exquisite hand-crafted ornaments, delicate pieces featuring hot air balloons, rockets, canoeists and trees.

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Designing custom head badges is a rare art. Each badge must fit the bicycle’s head tube precisely, and every bike frame is slightly different in shape, size and design. Suzanne also designs unusual chain guards. Noah’s bike bears one of hers, which makes his bike look extremely classy.

Suzanne started out working as a guest artist at Harbourfront, and she now distributes to such shops as Hoopdriver, Curbside and Blacksmith. Noah and Suzanne both consider themselves very lucky to be able to support themselves artistically.

“Getting to paint bikes is amazing!” he says.

Noah began working for Mike Barry Sr., on a three-bikes-a-week basis.
“I was allowed to screw up his Mariposas,” Noah says, as a nod to the kind patience of his mentor. Noah eventually rented space from Mike and developed his own full-time bicycle-painting business, Vélocolour.

Noah enjoys the recycling aspect of his work, making an old frame look new again. What he finds most exciting about the process is “what others are excited about.” Sometimes, he’s asked to restore a carbon frame to its original beauty. Sometimes, he keeps the paint on a mountain bike simple but adds a few interesting details. And sometimes, he’s asked to create an entirely new aesthetic, what he calls “art projects,” or even “complete free-for-alls.”

On a straightforward project, the entire painting process takes about seven hours, over the course of a few days. First, the frame is stripped and dried, and then sandblasted. The next day, before the painting process can begin, the frame is cleaned again.

“[Mike] taught me how to paint, but I had to evolve the process,” Noah says. When I look confused, he explains that it’s “more about the bike than what I did to it.” What he means by this is that his job is always to bring out the bike’s existing personality, not attempt to impose something on it that it’s not. The downside to painting is that it’s very labour intensive. “I’d love to paint everyone’s bike in the city, but it all just takes too long.” Offering quick jobs would compromise the quality, and the artist in him refuses to do that.

“How can people bring themselves to ride such masterpieces, after you’re done?” I ask.

He laughs. “After they get the first mark on the frame, they’re okay with it.”

And he’s not worried about theft, because these bikes are unique. It’s easier to sell a bike that blends in. These bikes would have to be repainted first, and that would be too much trouble and expense.

When I ask Noah what his favourite colour is, he tells me at once that he “really loves grey.” His city bike is grey, a colour you can mix with subtle or vibrant colours. Grey is a blend of modern and classic.

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There are only a handful of people painting bicycles in Canada and Noah is the only professional bike painter in Toronto. He’s been in the trade for eight years and he says his reputation stems from his connection to Mike Barry, but there’s more to it than this.

A couple of years ago, Noah won the North American Hand-Built Bike Show award for Best Paint. The bike was Mike Barry’s 1951 Cinelli, one of his racing bikes. With only black and white photos to guide him, Noah found it a challenge to match the paint colour. Another challenge was matching the proportions on the seat tube bands because the metal had roughened over the years. Noah put in twenty hours, many of which were taken up getting clean lug edges.

“When I was done with the Cinelli,” Noah tells me proudly, “Mike had a sixty-year-old bike looking brand new.”

Statistically, 95 percent of Noah’s customers are men, and the majority are Caucasians. “Do women have a different attachment?” he asks me.

I admit I don’t know the answer to this. Stereotypically, women do concern themselves with the artistic elements of everything, while men prefer the safer blues and browns. And so, at the start of this project, I’d assumed women would be more into the idea of being interviewed for a bike story, but that wasn’t the case at all. Why don’t women bring their bicycles to Noah’s shop? A fascinating statistic I’ve noticed this year is that women are less likely to bond with their equipment—for instance, by naming their bicycle. My male interviewees did this far more often than my female interviewees. Regardless, Noah would love to have more women calling him, excited at the prospect of having their bike painted.

When Noah and Suzanne ride together, he often rides with his arm around her waist. “It’s so nice,” Noah says, “that we can be that close and that comfortable with each other!”

Like true artists, they want to share this romance they feel on their bicycles with others. They want to make bikes sexy, in whatever form that takes.

Recently they were cycling slowly through the Yonge and Dundas intersection, and passed two older women walking with canes. As the young couple passed, one of the women pointed at Noah’s bicycle and shouted, “That’s the most beautiful bike ever!” She then mused, “If I were their age again…”

Suzanne grinned at them and called out, “Anyone can do this!”

My heart skips a beat, because I’ve been insisting on this all year long. And then, Noah nails it.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t ride. It would be heartbreaking!”

http://www.pokacycle.com/
http://velocolour.com/

The Evolutionary Advantage

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Hemingway once stated,

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.

Marty Kohn—the man I’ve come to interview on the tenuous credibility that he is married to Dufflet Rosenberg (of Dufflet Pastries, famous for its entirely natural and lovingly hand-crafted pastries and desserts)—quotes my favourite author’s view on cycling. Marty is eagerly leaning toward me from across his kitchen table. He first heard this comment as a child and it has shaped how he sees things. “I never got over it,” he tells me. “I still want to get to know a place from a bicycle seat.”

At an early age, Marty learned independence on a bike. He explored the entire city on the simple instruction, ‘Be home for dinner.’ He later toured Europe for five months on a bike. “It really changed me,” Marty explains. “There is this wonderful intimacy of touching every inch of this trip. You understand the scale.”

Today, Marty is the Kohn in Kohn Shnier Architects, where his mandate is to encourage others to ride. Everyone does the Ride for Heart together, and they “see stressed clients doing it, grinning like a kid.” If someone rides into work on a junker, Marty takes the bike home. The drop bars are replaced with flat bars, wheel size is reduced, and cantilever brakes are added. These small changes turn the ride from a chore to a pleasure, which affects the rider deeply.

“When I see a bike, I see a person on it,” Marty explains. “People fetishize all kinds of things and I’m not immune to that, but there’s no such thing as a bad bicycle. You can make pretty much any bike a nice thing to ride.”

“How do you know to do all this?” I ask with some surprise, wondering how I continue to unearth fabulous stories. He explains that he worked for a time at Bicyclesport.

“Mike Barry is at the centre of sensibility,” Marty declares energetically. “There’s something noble, and wonderful and well-mannered about him … I owe him a lot because cycling is connected with the best things in my life.”

Marty’s architectural firm is currently designing a kindergarten-only facility in Thorncliffe Park, the first of its kind. Enrollment is anticipated to reach eight hundred.

“There’s so much pedestrian space in Thorncliffe Park but circumstances discourage riding,” he tells me. “If more people rode bicycles, the world would be a better place.”

Marty dreams of gathering a herd of bicycles for the school—thirty balance bikes (which allow children to learn without pedals and training wheels) and thirty regular bikes. I’m in awe at this man who prefers to discuss children cycling over the facility he is designing.

He takes me on a tour of his basement. Marty and Dufflet own a lot of quality bicycles. Not a few of these bikes feature the decal Dufflet Pastries. There are several Moultons. Against one wall leans their Mariposa tandem. Marty and Dufflet have done twenty overseas trips on this tandem, most of them in western Europe.

When you travel by bike, people generally see your vulnerability and your commitment, and this translates into an interest and an appreciation, a connectedness. You can also create stories on a bike.

Marty and Dufflet sometimes ride through smaller European towns where they like to interact with people in passing. They once met a woman carrying her young son, who had polio. Dufflet gave her seat to the boy, who laughed as he and Marty rode.

One day, Marty and Dufflet were riding on a steep descent through a forested locale when, in the clearing, they came upon a wedding party. The groom and the best man were heads down under the hood of the car, and the bride stood arms akimbo beside them. As the tandem came into view, the party stopped and pointed at the enchanting sight of a couple on a bicycle.

Playfully, Marty gestured to the couple, “Do you want to borrow our bike?” Everyone laughed, and a photo session with the tandem ensued. He says when you go touring on a bike, it is good to just let the day unfold.

Charmingly, Marty describes women on a bike as very beautiful in their self-sufficiency; he admires their willingness to accept challenges and the sense of independence they exude. Marty used to ride to Dufflet’s business for a quick visit, and sometimes would accidentally spot her on the street, cycling.

“I would see her on her bike and I would fall in love with her all over again.” he says dreamily.

Marty is enamoured with his wife’s Tour de Dufflet events, where cyclists travel between Dufflet locations and enjoy something sweet at each. It provides opportunities for taking children on a fun outing, and to see unexplored parts of the city. Besides, this is a guilty pleasure that you can cycle off. And as an architect, Marty fantasizes about people using bicycles to engage with the city.

“Why restrict the Ride for Heart to the Don Valley?” he wonders. If organizers created a loop that included the 401 and the 427, if businesses hosted parts of the ride, if the event involved more of the city, the impact would be enormous. “There would be no highway exhaust for one morning.” Suddenly, Marty is nearly leaping off his seat with these imaginings. “Think of the blackout! There were lots of wonderful things that happened as a result.” He thinks a twenty-four hour period of deprivation brings out good things in people, and then points to the event a Day Without Cars in Palermo, Italy. He envisions an off-road circuit, riding along the Humber, across the hydro right-of-way and down the Don, exploring the ravines.

Like me, Marty is outraged that we have overcomplicated cycling in Toronto. “Why can’t my grandmother ride here?” he says heatedly. “It’s much riskier than it needs to be.”

The door is unlocked at this moment, and Dufflet appears in the kitchen. As if on cue, two cats leap onto some furniture, to stand near her elbow. Dufflet leans into Smokey, who sniffs her face. She scratches the cat’s ear. Laszlo, a black and white cat, waits his turn.

Marty explains to Dufflet what we are doing, asking if she has any stories she would like to share. She protests gently that he has likely already told all her stories. The cats have her attention entirely.

He smiles at me. “The evolutionary advantage that cats have is that they can trade food and shelter for frugal displays of affection.” I am entirely in agreement, and decide to leave the four of them in peace. Rising, I begin to collect my things.

We continue to discuss the city’s mindset as I head toward the door. Given Toronto’s incredible cycling history that includes such names as Mike Barry, Martin Heath and Jet Fuel, Marty thinks it should be a better place to ride. He tells me that in Holland, cyclists and pedestrians coexist because they know how to behave. He says there’s a very clear code of manners there: you pass on the left, and when doing so you click your brake lever to alert them of your presence. If someone has passed you, you remain behind them.

“We can be a boorish society,” I agree.

At the door, Dufflet offers me homemade date squares. These are kind and gracious people.

Half an hour later, I’m driving north of the city, tired and distracted. The highway is dimly lit and there are no protective barriers for wildlife. Suddenly, a deer stumbles onto the highway between me and the truck ahead. My headlights flash across his flank as I veer to miss him, allowing him to scramble to safety.

Pulling over to recover myself, I realize this is one of those paradigm moments. There is no evolutionary advantage to be gained as a commuter in Toronto: regardless of our chosen mode of transport, we are all sentient beings trying our best to get along sensibly in life. Whether you cycle or walk or drive, we must all slow down and watch out for each other, because you never know what creature you might be trading kindnesses with, around the next bend.

Changing the Fabric of the Dream

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Having lived in Toronto for eleven years, I’ve discovered you can get anything you want here, but you have to know where to look. We’re not very good at advertising. Someone suggested that we prefer to keep certain gems to ourselves, like best-kept secrets. Yesterday I was to meet Nick Cluley—a Toronto Cyclists Union director—at the Centre for Social Innovation, but we missed each other. In a later email exchange, we realized I was waiting at the Bathurst location while he was at the Spadina location. There are three CSI locations in town, but I didn’t know that. This time we’ll meet at his office, the new ING Direct Café at the corner of Yonge and Shuter streets.

It’s a spectacular open-concept café with warm colours and textures, reassuring on this wet November day. The café boasts free Wi-Fi, and groups are encouraged to use the space to build community. A young woman tells me that 100 percent of the proceeds from my tea purchase will go to support the Canadian Red Cross in its flood relief efforts in Pakistan. ING Direct Café Coffee is delivered around the city core by cargo bike, by Bradley from Red Riding Goods. I have an ING Direct account and yet I didn’t know about this café. Another gem, guarded. Collecting my tea, I sit down beside an athletic young man with agonizingly healthy hair, knowing it must be Nick.

Nick is very much about infrastructure and how it works. He compares the showy infrastructure of New York’s Times Square that no one uses to the much more practical infrastructure bridges near the square, that everyone uses on a daily basis. In Chicago, where he’s from, everyone is history-minded.

“We need people building the myth of Toronto,” he explains. His mission is to lobby for broader accessibility on Yonge Street. Like me, he has ridden down Yonge Street to work, from Richmond Hill. He knows the challenges facing him. “This city was not built for any vehicles,” Nick tells me. “We all have complaints. The city was built with small streets. And the history is being lost.”

“I definitely agree with that,” I say. “It’s hard to share the road when you don’t all fit.” Nick nods.

“And look at how the bike lanes are constructed here,” I suggest. Many of the roads have been constructed for cars. When you approach an intersection in a bike lane, the lane disappears, only to reappear on the other side. Nick agrees.

“How do we give credibility to cyclists?” he asks. “By giving them infrastructure that works for them … You have to have the audacity to look at the entire city and place bike lanes where people need to go.”

Not only that, but the city’s cyclists are losing their political voice. Historically, cyclists in Toronto haven’t had much clout at City Hall, but with the current administration we’ve begun to move in the opposite direction from every other major city in the world.

Then, Nick shares a sobering bike story, one that underscores this disturbing trend.

The day before the bike lanes were installed on Jarvis Street, Nick was riding his cruiser, and while making a left-hand turn onto Jarvis from Queen he was hit by a car. His head smashed the windshield, and he awoke in hospital with no memory of the actual impact. No one is sure who was at fault. “I like that it’s a mystery,” he says smiling, although he does feel terrible for the driver. When there’s no defined infrastructure for making turns on a bike, an intersection becomes ambiguous and everyone is left to second-guess who has right-of-way. The fact that we are about to lose the bike lanes so recently installed only increases this burden.

I argue that we need to become better at negotiating, and Nick suggests that we need to start with things that the average citizen should be expected to do, such as voting, writing to our city councillor and volunteering our time. Our activism should become a natural outpouring of our civic life. If we want credibility, we have to get involved, and we have to do it with the gentle approach that abounds in the cycling community.

One troubling attitude I see in cyclists is self-deprecation: we’re not good at celebrating what we have. Nick believes Toronto cyclists should cheer for themselves, not in a way that’s disrespectful to other communities, but rather in small ways that build confidence that what we’re doing is important. I liked the Bike Union’s suggestion in the spring of 2011 to thank drivers whenever possible.

Expressing appreciation for a positive action always takes people by surprise, which almost always brings about a positive change in mindset.

The other attitude I’d personally like to change is our perception of what a bike means, especially given our affection for them. We should perceive bikes as awesome rather than utilitarian.

“The basics of a bike are so much better for the world,” he agrees. Nick stays committed to riding to work year-round. “The fabric of the American Dream is a car. We have to change that to the perception that you are gonna get a sweet-ass bike!” This man, who doesn’t name his bikes, is actively engaged in a love affair with them.

“It’s an emotion connection you can’t have with anything else,” he agrees. Nick has had his heart broken three times, all the result of stolen bikes. “No girl can ever touch that,” he declares. He lifts his pant legs to reveal the bike lane cyclist logo on each calf.

“A bike gives you something you can’t get other ways!” I enthuse.

He concurs. Cycling builds character and confidence. You’re doing it yourself, on your own steam—arriving at a destination on time, getting up that hill, navigating around the city in rush-hour traffic, battling weather.

“When you get on a bike on a bad-weather day and prove you can do it,” he argues, “that’s pretty cool stuff. You can’t learn about yourself in a car.”

“I want to see your bike, if you don’t mind,” I say. I want to know what this quixotic man rides.

He invites me through a back door and down a set of stairs, where his muddy cyclo-cross Kona is waiting.

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He shows me the pinhead lock and points to the key, which remains in the lock when not in use. One day he heard the key splash into a sewer grate and wondered if he might have to replace the bike because he could never unlock the wheels and the seat again. Ray at the Bicycle Common replaced the key quickly. “I half hope I can hang onto this bike forever,” Nick confides. And then he hesitates.

“It’s not the physical machine I’m in love with, but the idea of my bike going fast!” he explains, smiling bashfully.

He likes that people on bikes are more curious and more gregarious. He thinks that if we put all the Toronto cyclists into a TTC car, rather than the typical silence you’d find there, the car would be boisterous.

As we walk down another hall, Nick continues with the brainstorming. “We expect things to be great but we approach everything with caution. Be as passionate as you feel!”

“We need to stop over-analyzing things and just have fun,” I agree, grinning broadly.

We arrive at a smaller room in which resides a herd of Linus bikes. They vary in size but are all a sleek, elegant black. This herd was assembled from proceeds from a family ride, sponsored by a team comprising staff from Curbside, MEC and ING Direct. This month, the team are giving away two groups of bicycles at the Wellesley Community Centre. The goal is to reward children—chosen by members of the community—for getting involved with something in St. James Town, the huge complex of high-rise towers that mostly houses new immigrants. Each of these children will receive a bike from MEC. Then, they’ll be asked to identify an adult they believe could use a bike, and that person will also receive one of these Linus bicycles.

“I can’t wait to see someone on one of the coolest bikes in the city!” Nick says, laughing.

And then he turns to me, serious. “This city can be a better place. I choose to believe that, and I want to be a part of the group working to make that happen.”

And while you’re doing that Nick, I’ll be cheering with great vigour. We can’t afford to keep this cycling community a secret any longer.

The Social Artist

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When I go into Janet Attard’s studio at 401 Richmond Street, I’m greeted by so many images of bicycles that I’m overwhelmed. “Bikes are beautiful and the sensation of riding can be expressed through art,” Janet explains.

Janet started as an art teacher at the Christian Resource Centre in Regent Park, where everyone came to know her as “the bike girl.” Her passion for cycling was so strong that people encouraged her to get involved at City Hall.

So, she did. She’d head into a meeting, and in the hallway would be met with endless posters related to cycling issues. But these posters consisted of unillustrated text in the same tired fonts, mercilessly photocopied in faded black and white. The cycling messages were being lost. She took some home, enlarged the posters and enlivened them with a bike stencil. Then, she rehung them. Months later, she’d see her posters, all of them having eluded removal and overpostering. People saw the stencils as artwork and were caring for them. She realized this was the perfect way to get a message out.

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In 1994, Bike to Work Week coincided with a recycled bike auction, for which entrants were asked to decorate a bike to be auctioned off. Rather than decorating a bicycle, Janet designed a bike stencil. To her amazement, city councillors Jack Layton and Dan Egan got into an all-night bidding war on the item (Jack won.)

Shortly afterward, Janet was working at an event, and Jack and his wife Olivia Chow approached her.

“We’ve been collecting bike art for years now and are proud to have yours,” they said. This took Janet aback. “People make bike art?” she wondered. That was the beginning, for her.

Janet’s first stencil hadn’t involved any serious intent, and yet today she describes her art as a living project: this bike stenciling project, she says, will never be complete.

People are confused by what she does. They don’t realize the images are all freestyle, hand-drawn. Nothing here “comes out of a machine.” The stencils themselves are hand-cut, at hours and in places where she will not be distracted (hence her basement office). Janet does not own a telephone, nor does she have Internet access.

“I’m a nun of my art,” she laughs.

Although she has a few images she describes as “fantasy bikes,” most of her images are based on real bicycles. These images are so realistic that she’s had bike mechanics identify a brand name by the shape of certain parts.

Janet is very particular about her own bicycles. She prefers the ’70s women’s road bikes and the Mixie frames. (Mixie frames combine a hybrid frame, BMX wheels and a fixed gear.) Janet’s current bike is an earlier women’s road bike model, to which she has added upright handlebars. She likes that it’s clearly feminine. She once had a bike that included a high-quality Specialized derailleur, because it’s important to her that “women recognize quality on a bike.”

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In fact, Janet wants everyone to recognize quality. Whenever she opens her doors for an art show, she says it’s “mind-expanding in a positive way for families.” They arrive naive but by the time they leave, they’ve discussed equipment, cycling habits and etiquette. They often approach her as if she’s a unique thinker, but after a conversation they realize “I’m a normal person, just like you.”

Even today, Janet’s agenda is not about getting stencils into people’s hands. She wants to get messages out. One thing that matters to her is bike education. She took the Can Bike course after being an urban cyclist for fifteen years. When she took the test, she realized she was not “some superstar” and that there is always more to learn. Whenever she interacts with the police, she shows them her card and is immediately treated with more respect.

When she attends cycling meetings at City Hall, she insists speakers use terms accessible to the common person, not “lawyer language.” She despairs at the bureaucracy. “Why is it all in secret code? Do they not want us to know?”

As well as promoting cycling in her own city, Janet has gotten involved with social groups all around the world. Some of her stencils have been reprinted in books, allowing others to make their own posters and petitions. She’s also donated images to a book on stickers, because she feels stickers are a conversation starter and a valuable resource. Janet is helping to get bike messages out. “I’ve totally immersed myself in art,” she says, “so I could be passionate and make a difference positively.”

Here in Toronto, Janet is becoming impatient with the city’s unfulfilled promises, with how slowly things move when the city’s officials aren’t entirely supportive, and how very quickly things move when the idea appeals to them. New bike lanes appear at a glacial speed, yet removal of an existing one can occur almost overnight. I too am becoming impatient and I echo Janet’s frustrations.

“If they wanted these things in Toronto,” she sighs, “they could just be done.”

A friend emailed me recently to ask about the book, and without knowing anything about Janet, they described me as a social artist, someone working to encourage change. Maybe we should all be giving that title some thought.

Meaningful Christmas Traditions

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In my travels, one of the few things that caused alarming homesickness was missing out on family traditions. Being in Kingston this year means we can, if desired, share some of our favourite traditions again. This month, my kids, my sisters and I are celebrating the season together. All week, we’ve been discussing family traditions to a level of near euphoria and it makes me wonder why these things hold so much value. I think I understand it a little, after the past two years.

I think family traditions reinforce stability. They’re things you expect to find, like a landmark in a familiar place or a welcoming face in your hometown, your pet dog or cat’s enthusiastic greeting. When expectations are met, you feel that all is right with the world. It gives the same sense of satisfaction as comfort food, and prepares you mentally and spiritually to go out and do good. Your soul is fed.

Our family was big on building traditions when the kids were little. We had a Jesse tree to count down the days of the month, as well as a (fake) Christmas tree. The tree was decorated with either hand-me-downs from our parents or handmade objects that family members contributed each year. Having musical roots, we all sang in choirs, and kept a huge range of Christmas-related tunes on the radio and players. The kids knew all the words from an early age.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, the kitchen was constantly busy with holiday baking. We liked our squares and our baked puddings. I loved making mincemeat pies and apple pies and pumpkin pies. Over the years, we discovered several Christmas cookies that became necessities if the season were to be properly feted: Amaretti Biscuits, Snowballs, Cherry Balls, Gingerbread, Shortbread, Thumbprint Cookies, Sugar Cookies. Last weekend, Meg and I spent a companionable afternoon making Candy Cane Shortbread cookies, as well as Candy Cane – Chocolate tree ornaments. Just being with my daughter in the kitchen was rejuvenating.

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With these ornaments, you place two canes into a heart shape on a cookie sheet and heat them to soften. Press the ends together to form a solid heart. Mug appropriately for the camera.

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Melt chocolate and pour it into the form on the parchment paper. Let the chocolate harden in place, et voila!

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One Christmas morning in my youth, I was forced to endure breakfast before opening gifts. It was torture. As a result, I wanted my kids to be able to do both at the same time, so I always served hard-boiled eggs and a special, homemade Christmas bread, things we could nibble on while we sat on the floor together and opened gifts. One of the first conversations my daughter and I had this month, when she had invited me to celebrate Christmas morning in her new home, was the bread.

“What do you want for breakfast?” she asked me hesitantly.

“Well,” I texted, also with some hesitation, (not wanting to step on any of their new, married-life traditions) “We could have bread.”

“Yes, please!” she texted right back. “I have the recipe in that cookbook you made me!”

When she’d gone away to university in Ottawa ten years ago, one of my gifts to her had been a handmade, personally designed cookbook of all the family favourites. I’d forgotten that the Russian Kulich that they both loved was included.

“Yay!” I responded, relieved. Not only did I want to see this tradition continued, but I was eager to contribute my part to the festivities. Besides, I’ve been hankering to bake bread.

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Finally, my children’s favourite tradition has always been the stockings. When the kids were small, I knitted four stockings, one for each of us. Our stockings always included small, functional items that addressed the small, often unrecognized needs we all had—socks, desk calendars, bars of soap and favourite sweets. You felt someone had noticed with these gifts of things you wouldn’t normally ask for. There’s an intimacy to our stocking stuffers. Now that the kids are adults, the stuffed stockings have become the main focus of the morning.

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We’ve become serious in our intent to build community with the items with which we stuff our stockings. For instance, yesterday I was directed to visit Living Rooms, a favourite shop of ours, to collect a specific item. On Christmas morning, my daughter’s focus won’t be to see who gets the most. Instead, it will be about including as many local businesses as we can. After all, it’s in our best interest to ensure those shops are still around in 2014.

http://www.livingrooms.ws/page/about

Over the years, my daughter has become a champion stocking-stuffer. Last year, her enthusiasm worked its magic on Matt, her new husband. He made her a stocking of his own, out of masking tape. I adore its weirdness.

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New traditions are as welcome as the old stand-bys, because they too encompass the sense of community, affection and landmarking time and place. Matt’s stocking will have the same regenerative powers this Christmas morning.