The Year of the Hearth

2016 is the Year of the Hearth.

We’ve been in this house – my grandmother’s house – since 2001. We rented from my parents for over ten years, covering their mortgage and insurance, thinking we would head further north to Madison, Wisconsin, sometime “in the future.”

That future never materialized, and I bought the house and property in 2014. In all that time, we have done a little bit to improve our surroundings. We painted the dining room, where the paint was peeling so badly that chips would land in our food, and the upstairs bathroom, where humidity caused too many issues. We had fans installed in the bathroom and raised bed gardens installed in the side lot. We replaced the garage doors, and – while she still owned the home – mom replaced a few of the worst windows and the leaking furnace.

That said, it’s been far too little. This home has never felt like mine. It’s time to address that.

It’s a funny bit of mental chemistry that “home” has always been somewhere else for me. When I was in college, “home” was campus when I was with my parents, and my parents’ house when I was on campus. When I had an apartment in the city, the same was true. Even when we moved here, it felt temporary and slightly unreal.

Another funny bit of mental chemistry: I’m generally okay with the unreal.

Now, though, we’re both in a similar mindset. We’re tired of the stenciled grape leaves and Scandinavian white walls left behind by my mother. We’re tired of the cheap plastic blinds, the lack of fabrics on the windows to keep us from the cold, the scuff-marks on the stairs. I’m tired of dust, finally tired enough to do something about it. I’m tired of being slightly ashamed when new friends pop their heads in.

So the Year of the Hearth begins. Time, money, energy – all three are being bent in the service of Hestia.

Hearth encompasses more than home, though. It’s the landscaping and maintenance of all my property, not just the little patch in which we sit and garden. We never use the front lawn or door, and I’m afraid they’ve both gone to rot. The back property is torn up by voles, against whom I have nothing but whose tunnels have to go.

Property besides land? Oh, yes. The cars, Bru-Girl and Bealzebuddy, fall under the Year of the Hearth. Better and more routine care, along with better (if fewer) accessories and accoutrements. My study’s been a fright, with untouched books and those I’ll never read again waiting to be sorted, loved, cared for.

Aside from property, there is pride in feeling. I’ve taught myself to cook well enough now that it’s time for more routine entertaining, something I can’t do in the current surroundings. I want the delighted laughter of friends and family to be the finest decoration the new year brings to my hearth.

These aren’t resolutions. They’re passions that have been banked too long, smoldering under excuses, diversions, insecurities and other such ashes. I’m glad to blow the dust from them, and I long to start the home fires burning.

The Love of Motion

What do I love? What makes my heart beat faster?

Speed in motion.

It’s hard to explain. I don’t fully understand it myself. When I’m on my bicycle, it’s the faster the better. Seeing a hill ahead widens my eyes and expands my soul. Riding down around curves and bends is one of the greatest thrills in the world, moreso when I’m surrounded by the deep solid green of woodlands.

Driving at high speeds isn’t common for me. The environment doesn’t lend itself to such, with too many people and not enough open roads. But when it’s possible, with the windows down and the music up, pushing my silly little import into the eighties is a magical feeling. It’s impossible to frown. My lips pull into their widest grin, showing wolf’s teeth as I rocket over the ground.

The best part of flying is that initial acceleration, when you hear the engines roar and you feel the thrum deep inside your chest as if you’re being pulled forward by some ethereal juggernaut, lifting you like the sound of thunder into the alien sky.

The second best part of flying is coming into Chicago at night. But I digress.

I am a burning wheel in motion, ablaze with a passion for movement. Faster, ever faster, ever faster.

An Unsettling Return

By now, if you’re of a certain age and a certain bent, you probably know Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County is back from a 25-year hiatus.

There’s a certain breathless joy circulating with these four little panels, and it’s a joy I’m not immune to – especially at the sight of our original protagonists, Milo and Opus, in their proper place among the dandelions.

However, I’m also more than a little leery of Breathed’s ability to withstand the current echo chambers of American sensibilities.

“It must feel very empowering to be offended all the time,” he points out in a 2009 annotation to one of his most famous strips:

Why, that strip – which ran in 1981 – reads remarkably like my Facebook wall on a typical Monday morning. But nobody’s laughing at this point, and not just because They Hate Mondays.

In the Eighties, Breathed did the job of the best political cartoonists: he went after the target which presented itself, regardless of the side that target was on. From Bella Abzug to the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, he pointed his finger and readied his pen, releasing hot air from a word balloon.

I’m not sure we, as audiences, have the same tolerance for such things today. Breathed is keenly aware of, and apparently, unfazed by that: Consider this post, in which he states “I can’t wait to publish here… nicely out of reach of nervous newspaper editors, the PC humor police now rampant across the web… and ISIS.”

If I’m lucky, then I’m wrong, and Bloom County will either remain a bastion of the Vanishing American Liberal or will slide further into Herriman’s Coconino County and the dreamscapes where a boy and his tiger still roam.

But I expect, instead, to watch as a familiar online story repeats itself: a figure in entertainment known for his politics chooses the ‘wrong target.’ The internet shifts in outraged slumber, wakes, and turns upon him. Days pass of fingers being pointed, blame being shifted, and other news passing unnoticed. Said persona is diminished forever in the eyes of those who once held him high, and slowly (or quickly) descends into a single-minded attack dog, leashed by those he once opposed and trotted out quarterly to speak with Hannity or O’Reilly as their pet Former Liberal.

Again, my personal motto: I could be wrong.

But I believe Breathed already predicted that end, in that same interview:

“I will probably go out on my sword one day, insisting on a particular strip running despite the furor. One day.” – Berkeley Breathed, 2007.

Choices and Chains

I was up at Ten North after the show let out last weekend, when a crew member made a comment.

“Oh my God, you’re my mother’s age! Is it freaky to think you could have a twenty-eight year old kid?”

I shrugged. “Nah. If I’d made more fun decisions in high school I’d probably have one, too.”

One of the Eumenides was serving drinks. “You say fun,” she said. “But I hear irresponsible.”

It wasn’t a dig, so far as I can tell. Well, the fun bit. I’m still not sure about the age comparison. But it’s definitely made me think this past week.

Most of the times I remember most fondly in life were … irresponsible, at best. It’s not a one to one equation. I was reasonably together for my wedding, and that was a good day. I could afford all the vacation spots I’ve been to. I’ve found a lot of fun in keeping myself fit and fed.

But the times I didn’t think much about the consequences of my actions are the ones that slink up against me, whispering fond remembrances.

I wasn’t an overly serious kid, but time changes things. Grades became important, moreso than playing. When I passed the age where everyone’s your friend, being liked became more important than being myself. Eventually, moving out of my parents’ house became important. Maybe moreso for them than for me, to be honest; but the end result made money suddenly important.

Responsibility aggregates. There should be a “grey” in that word, since that’s how I learned to wear it – a joyless, dreadful chain that others loop around your neck, your wrists, your heart until you start adding chains and locks on your own. Any suggestion that your responsibilities could be fun has been relegated to the realm of the pipe dream.

But since hearing that statement from a wise young woman, in the wee exhausted hours of a post-show confab, I’ve asked myself: How can I best break that cycle of tension? How can I find more fun in those choices I feel required to make – those choices that feel like chains?

Still thinking on that one, to be honest.

The Fear In Other’s Voices

There’s a bike path near my house that runs all the way to the Wisconsin border. Usually, I head in the other direction – it holds some real charm, such as the old gravel pits (wondrously massive, rusting conveyors and materials), the gentle sweep of Larsen Prairie, the bridges over brooks as well as eight-lane roads of standing traffic.

It also, however, passes through another area.  It’s essentially a camping site for some of the local homeless; or at least, that’s the impression that it gives. There are some half-abandoned sleeping bags tucked under bushes, and often a strong scent of urine.

It doesn’t bother me much – the path is well-travelled, and I’ve never equated homeless with predatory. But I’ve got well-meaning family members who get nervous when I take that trail, and they were forefront in my mind at the time. So last Saturday when I got in the saddle, I headed north instead.

That trail’s got many more steep hills (by the standard of an Illiboy) and its own kind of peaceful beauty through the wooded areas, which include a number of unpaved side paths that lead heavens know where. On my way back, I hear some voices from one of those paths, and decide to see where the paths led. I stop the bike to ask the travelers for directions.

Five teenagers, bless them. Babies, really. The boys shirtless in the sunshine, with sunken bellies and Gothic-script collarbone tattoos darker than their wispy mustaches. The girls with that fragile trailer beauty which never ends well for anyone involved, in stained crop-tops and beanies bedazzled with hemp-leaf symbols.

They’re skittish when I pull up out of nowhere and ask where the paths led, but smile a second later.

“Just woods,” the lead boy says. “More woods.”

“There’s a real serious hill, though,” one of the girls volunteers. “Getting your bike up it would probably kill you.”

“Where you going?” The boys asks.

“Nowhere,” I say, honestly. “Exploring. Enjoy your walk!”

“Have a good ride,” the girls chirp together, and we continue on our separate paths.

As I ride away, the voices in my head start scolding. I have an iPhone in my shirt pocket, half-visible in the sunlight. I have a nice bicycle, and a fat wallet. There are killing-steep hills all around me, and they’re young enough to chase me down if they want to, like young lean wolves after a stag grown fat with success. Why would anyone stop alone in the forest to talk to a pack of strangers? How can you be so innocent and blind?

But … it’s not my voice. In my head.

I recognize them all. Well-meaning, no doubt, and full of love. All they’ve ever wanted is to protect me, keep me safe from what they call my childishness, my naivety.

I’m privileged. I know that’s a part of this. I’m white, I’m male, I’m comfortably middle class. I’ve rarely had to consider my safety as closely as many others do, whether from police or from neighbors or, hell, from an entire fucking gender.

Too often I’ve lived afraid, though. I listen to the fear in other people’s voices as it squats inside my skull, and I fail to take chances on what I really want.

Riding back, speeding down a hill, going far too fast in the sunlight of May, I can listen to my own voice for a while. It reminds me of who I am.

I like going far too fast, and I like being on my own in the woods. I like meeting new people, even if only for a minute, to sketch them into my memory.

And yes, I like trusting people. My instincts through history have been pretty sound, in terms of warning me to leave certain people or places alone. I’m still here, aren’t I?

It’s good to hear that voice again. I understand why some would call it naivety.

But to me, it sounds a lot like life.

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