Friday, October 15, 2010

Irony

*Image by Pete Millar

Efforts to substitute driving with bike riding came to a halt this summer when my neck started complaining. Ignoring it didn't solve the problem. My back started to hurt, then my arm; and when my index finger and thumb went numb, it was time for a visit to the doctor. Oops. Degeneration of the spine, and a disc problem, not an uncommon complaint for people in my age bracket. After a few sessions of physical therapy and diligent practice of bi-hourly prescribed exercises that looked very strange, things are feeling great again; but, the one activity the therapist advises against is bicycling.

Whether this is a life sentence remains to be seen, but in the meantime, it is all too easy to slip right back into the car, kind of like reuniting after a divorce. And, like in a renewed relationship, it is also all too easy to slip back into old habits that are so ingrained they feel like second nature.

For instance: it's a gorgeous late-autumn day, offering no reason in the world to hurry or be uptight. Red-gold leaves swirl like dancers in the street as I stop for a red light. I'm in a great mood. A large and shiny SUV is behind me. Judging from the proximity to my rear bumper, the driver is obviously anxious to go fast, so it isn't a surprise when he zips into the next lane, which happens to be a lane that merges into mine in another few yards; and then the driver ever so subtly, revs the engine.

It was like someone sticking out their tongue and saying: I'm going to beat you.

On the side of the truck is a campaign poster advertising a candidate I do not like, and since the car is bigger than mine, the sign is right at eye level. The light changes, and sure enough, the driver guns it, but here's the great part: so do I. He vrooms forward with his 17 million+ hp engine, and I floor it, my mini-motor sounding like one of those remote controlled little airplanes that kids sometimes fly in the park. The miles-per-gallon meter plummets: 47.7, 47.6, 47., 33 ....

Of course, he beats me to it, but my adrenaline-engorged heart eggs me on. When we slow down, I switch lanes, and glide next to him. Ha! See where that got you!

Whoa.

This was a race against--? Who knows? And yet, it felt as real as the sun in my eyes. I win I win I win I win!

Where does this stuff come from? Who cares who gets into the lane first? If the guy pulled out a gun, would I shoot back? Assuming I had a gun, which of course, I don't. All that conscientious do-gooding, out the window with one wag of a tail pipe and one tea party candidate's sign.

So, my body isn't up to commuting by bicycle, and my mind works like a fighting rooster's. This does not bode well for anyone claiming to promote Transportation by Muscle. Sounds more like Transportation for the muscle-bound. Where is the Marriage Counselor for this dysfunctional relationship between the driver and the driven?




Saturday, July 3, 2010

Greyhound



Bus and passenger train service is terrible in our part of the country. Rumor has it that on the east coast and in California, where driving is more expensive and more irritating than it is here, the bus is making a comeback with a trendy new company, the GoTo bus. Alas, where we live, if you don't have access to a car, Greyhound is pretty much the only alternative, unless you want to try Amtrak, which shares a track with freight trains, and is rarely, in my experience, on time. Last time we took the train, a two hour drive took seven hours on the train.

When one of our children, age 18, planned to volunteer for a week at a camp in a small town with no train service, farther than we were willing to drive or let her drive, it appeared the only option for getting there was the Greyhound bus (let's just say up front that hitch hiking wasn't on the table).

Every kid should take the Greyhound bus at some point, right? It's a rite of passage. OK, so it was for my family, in my generation, but still.

It turns out the one-way fare was $75, and round-trip $126. We made a deal: if she got herself down to her job, we'd pick her up. I further volunteered to make things easy and loan her the use of my credit card, so we could buy online (she doesn't have one). Surprise! There is a $20 "guest" fee when the ticket buyer isn't the passenger. The ticket is not refundable, unless you purchase insurance, which, surprise! Is another $20. Now we were up to $115. This is a hefty price tag for a person whose summer job pays close to minimum wage. In a Prius, incidentally, gas would cost about $18. She got online and checked the schedule. Hmm. A 4.5 hour drive would take ... 9 1/2 hours, involving 12 stops, a 1 1/2 hour wait for a transfer bus, and would drop her a half hour drive from her destination. Sound like fun?

The weeks dribbled by and nothing else turned up, so she arranged for a ride at the other end, and took hard-earned cash to the bus station, a character-filled site if there ever was one, and bought a one-way ticket, deciding against the $20 "insurance" fee.

As the day grew closer, friends regaled her with horror stories about taking the bus, warning NOT to get off at any of the stops on this milk run, for fear of having to deal with shady characters, or getting her stuff stolen, or the bus leaving without her. Whether or not any of those scenarios were to play out she'll never know, because by the time the day came, she'd lined up friends with a car and they took a road trip, camping on the way, with nary a backwards glance at the $75. Our trip to pick her up at the end of the week, a leisurely drive on a perfect day through the redwoods to the coast, was, OK, really fun.

Is there any room for complaint? Most airlines don't offer refunds, after all, and there must be some logical reason for the "guest fee," although from this end it looks like a tax on people for not having credit cards.

And who wouldn't choose a camping trip with buddies over a 9 1/2 hour and 12 stop bus ride? Well worth the $75 plus gas and food, I guess. We came away wondering why anyone, unless they absolutely had to, would take the bus? Cars are just too wonderful, and driving too affordable.

Greyhound does, incidentally, offer the option of using the ticket within a year. We're not taking any bets.

5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, an oil well spews its poisons. It is one of 4,000 deep water wells in the Gulf, products of our struggle to reach the bowels of the earth, since all the easy stuff is gone. People die every day in the Middle East in wars that are, at bottom, about oil.

Nobody is going to get out of their cars if the alternatives are inconvenient, expensive and unpleasant, but we have to start somewhere. Sometimes, though, it feels like a fool's errand.








Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Raw


Get ready for the mother of all excuses for burning gas.

Oh the irony. Set goals to cut back on fossil fuels, swear off paper bags, cups and plastic water bottles, then drive 18 miles (hey, it's round-trip) for a half gallon of milk.

BUT -- (So many buts) -- BUT

It's fresh milk, this-morning fresh, with two inches of cream on top. It comes from a farm with three milk cows who are free to wander and eat grass all day, imagine that. The farmer is happy to show you around, describe how she keeps udders clean, and how she can tell when the cows don't feel well. In order to buy from her you have to sign a piece of paper that says this milk will only be fed to your cat. Then she asks -- do you want cold, milked last night, or do you want me to pour you a warm one?

OK, here it comes: Listeria! Salmonella! E Coli!

Yes. Raw milk is risky.

So is peanut butter and spinach (http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2007/03/peanut_butter_recall13.html), (http://www.ny1.com/content/top_stories/106025/salmonella-spurs-spinach-recall/). So is refrigerated cookie dough, ground beef, salsa and chicken pot pie.

A few words to the sputtering on pros and cons:

Pros: According to proponents, grass fed cows produce safer milk than milk from cows that live in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and never see the light of day; and unpasteurized milk from grass fed cows contains:
*all 8 essential amino acids (a couple are heat sensitive and thus don't make it through pasteurization), making it a "complete" food;
*conjugated linoleic acid;
*lactose-digesting lactobaccilli
*lactoferrin,
*lysozyme and lactoperioxidase, more anti-bad-microbe warriors
*immunoglobulins, aka antibodies, some of which are also heat-sensitive.
Benefits attributed to the above ingredients include assistance with digestion and improved absorption of nutrients, protection from tooth decay, and, you probably guessed these, virus/bacteria/cancer fighting properties.

Cons: The other side, by far and away the Great Majority, includes, naturally, large-scale milk processors, but also vegans, who are opposed to consuming anything from cows, most medical professionals, people who get sick after drinking raw milk (one of my best friends), and the FDA. The dangers noted above (Listeria! E Coli! Salmonella!) are linked to death and permanent maiming. The FDA also states on its website, in bold letters, that pasteurization DOES NOT reduce milk's nutritional value. Hmm.

This is not an anti-pasteurization essay. I feed pasteurized milk to my family. Heat processing makes it possible to distribute reasonably healthy milk to millions at a minimal cost. The FDA's assertion that "Pasteurization DOES save lives" is correct. It does. Their claim that it DOES NOT reduce milk's nutritional value is off, but pasteurized milk is good for a lot of people, especially if you live in a big city and are not lucky enough to live less than ten miles from a dairy.

So, why risk it? Why waste fossil fuels to get it?

1. Because it tastes like ice cream, and one glass will keep you full for a morning; 2. It is healthier than pasteurized milk (sorry FDA); 3. Processed milk doesn't sit well with me, but raw milk does, and I'm tired of taking supplements and drinking faux milk (soy, rice, almond, hemp, tried them all) to get my Required Daily Allowance of calcium; 4. If the claims of anti-bacteria/virus/cancer benefits are true, well then...

It's not just rawness or freshness that is appealing. Just like we pretend it's OK to drive cars that are as big as we like, as far we like, we pretend that it's OK to ignore what happens to cows that produce most of our milk.

Most dairy cows in the United States are treated like car parts that poop. Most live in CAFOs, (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) which confine thousands of animals, inside, year round. Pathogens abound. The animal waste produced from these operations is appalling. The cows are fed hormones to increase milk production, which cause udder infections and leach into our milk and water supplies; antibiotics to quell the rampant infections; and processed food, rather than grass.

It is not a good idea to drink raw milk from this kind of dairy.

How about from a small, clean, three-cow dairy? You have to decide for yourself.

Four things tipped the scale for me:

1. My grandmother's dairy. We used to line up with the barn cats when she milked, and she squirted right into our tin cups (and the cats' mouths). Probably losing a lot of you here. Warm milk from a cow sounds yucky to most of my friends. It was heaven to a five-year-old who didn't know any better. How amazing, that this experience evolved from innocent and commonplace to exotic and weird within a span of 40 years.

2. Johanna Spyri's book Heidi.

3. Madame Colette's cooking class. When my daughter was in middle school she took cooking classes from a French native. Every year the students made chocolate mousse, using raw eggs. One year they sold it in a bake sale. Not one case of food poisoning. Fear of raw milk is 100% legitimate, but it is, perhaps, overblown, just like the fear of raw eggs. This is not to say throw caution to the wind, but precautions lower risk. It's as simple as that.

4. Chris and Walter's farm. These friends run a 40 acre organic farm, including a few chickens and a milk cow or two. Chris recently pointed out that fresh eggs from bug-scratching hens, and raw milk work on a small scale, but only on a small scale. As soon as you start trying to produce in bulk, pathogens become a problem, as well as transportation, liability, and a host of other trip-ups. In our state it is legal to buy raw milk only when you buy it directly from the dairy. Makes sense. How else can you be sure that udders are clean, that cows are grazing, that jars are sterilized? It's a tricky business. The farmer can't be in it for the money, because it takes time to produce, and a fair amount of acreage. There are no economies of scale. And yet, there are a lot of underground people, many without a lot of money, going to the trouble.

This goes against our cultural grain. Progress and Efficiency, gods that so many place faith in, dictate that Small is backwards, primitive, dangerous. Worse: Small is eccentric, socially unacceptable. I don't buy it. It's exciting to have faith in technology, but just in case superbugs get the upper hand, or the CAFO smells get too much for the neighbors, or we have one too many spills of cow sewage into rivers and streams, we might be happy to have a few farmers who know how to pasture and milk cows the old fashioned way.

It is a good thing when cows eat what cows are supposed to eat, and live healthy lives, their waste decomposing benignly in the grass, and with no pus from hormone-engorged udders dripping into their milk. We should all be fighting the fight to improve the lives of cows in big commercial operations.

A word to anyone thinking about trying raw milk yourself. If your intestines have never seen unpasteurized cows' milk before, they may not be able to handle it right away. Prep them with a healthy yogurt for a few days first, and break in slowly.

Yes, raw milk is risky, probably about as risky as bicycle riding in traffic. Yes it takes extra fuel to get to the farm to buy it. BUT --



Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bicycle Philosophy: The Great Dance


"As long as the music is playing you've got to get up and dance."
Chuck Prince, former head of Citigroup, July, 2007

Arrived recently with dry shoes and flowers in hand, at a birthday lunch for a friend. The party took place on a rainy day, and my entrance was not post-conveyance by bicycle, bus or on foot. It was a grand party.

It would not have been the end of the world to show up at this occasion rain soaked, with bicycle bag and helmet in hand. It was, however, fine to arrive in the same condition as all the other drivers and slip in as one of the crowd. Riding a bicycle to a setting like this is attention-getting.

Which is the point, right?

Oh, do I have to always be making a point?

Over lunch we covered many topics, mostly light and funny. At one point someone mentioned her family's new Chevy Suburban. It turned out that everyone else at the table owned a Chevy Suburban. Another said something to the effect that she was lucky to live on the Republican side of town, where many people drive big cars and she doesn't have to feel guilty.

This was my opening. Did I take it?

No.

First of all, my family owned an SUV for 20 years, and cashed it in only recently; and we still drive a seven passenger van.

Second, pointing out that we should feel guilty about driving guzzlers would have been obstreperous, cantankerous and, again, attention-getting.

SO?

A few years ago when the van was new, friends introduced me to a politically correct fellow who recoiled in horror when he saw the size of our car (he didn't live on the Republican side of town). Even though he was right about the wastefulness of this purchase, his reaction injected a poison into our interaction, and colored the relationship, which was brief. But his noticing and pointing out did stick with me.

What is more valuable? Soured relationships and moral courage, or social comfort and shared cowardice?

Of course, we hope for an opening which doesn't entail choosing between, something like the momentum of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, or the decision by the British when they recognized that they could only hold India by tyranny (at huge expense), and chose to withdraw. Very few of us have the moxie of a Greg Mortenson, willing to give up everything to do the right thing. And do we know what the right thing is? We could be on the verge of discovering a miracle fuel, relegating worries about fossil fuel dependence to the dustbin of ridicule. Remember Euell Gibbons?

And so, do we choose, like the bankers at Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, to dance while the music is playing, hoping perhaps to be like the British, and secure our riches before we have to do (what is probably) the right thing?

No.

The questions come down to this: should we drive less? Yes. Can we bring ourselves, individually, to drive less without being forced? Yes. Can we bring our friends, families, community, to drive less without being forced? Maybe. It requires the assembly of certain ingredients, namely, humility, humor, finesse and good timing; or a great deal of political skill.So, probably not.

A friend writes in response to the April 14 blog: [we] must try to live more like europeans: live close to school or work and public transport. live small and humble. collect skills and experiences, not stuff. the benefits of feeling connected/committed to people and place are tremendous.

My wife and I do what we can to consolidate car trips, and we practice gratitude for the convenience of operating a car. but personally, i don't believe that society as a whole changes until some big event (your waterfall) occurs. so i see no point in personal sacrifice.

And there we have it. Ordinary people, getting around. We're part of the great dance, but not a very large part. So, we do our best, and we're polite at birthday parties. Next time though, I might say something about the SUVs.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Sacred


After the teacher asked if anyone had

a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrunk

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he'd chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming
up, the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

Reprinted from Between Angels: Poems by Stephen Dunn. Copyright 1989 by Stephen Dunn.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bicycle Setbacks: Off the wagon














New developments threw a dent, literally, in my resolve to work on shifting toward relying on calories rather than fossil fuel for transportation:
1. A good friend crashed on her bike.
2. Our youngest crashed in the minivan, and while it is being repaired, the family is sharing one car, meaning I'm needed as a chauffeur.
3. For unknown reasons, my neck hurts, especially when bicycling.
The upshot is that the bicycle is once again gathering dust in the garage. My friend is fine, my daughter is fine, but getting back in the saddle is hard.
The irony is that being down one car brings to light just how much driving goes on in our household. Before the crash, thanks in part to my bicycling, our daughter came and went in the minivan, to school rehearsals, meetings, parties, sporting events, a whirlwind of activity. She plays the violin and goalie on a lacrosse team. Even if carrying the full regalia on the bus were practical, bus service between home and school is abysmal. Ten minutes in the car takes over an hour by bus. Reduce the scenario by one car and (temporarily I hope) one bicyclist, and everything shifts. To be honest, I don't push her or my husband to bike. It is scary to have loved ones riding bicycles in traffic. It feels OK for me to do it, but not them. So, since my schedule involves going the most places during the day, this month I drive my husband to work and our daughter to school so that the car is available for me. The two of them take turns biking or walking, and my daughter is making an heroic effort to transport herself via bicycle, but when all else fails, we drive.
This is the way people live these days, if they can afford it. And if they can’t? In her book Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich documents the difficulties of people in poverty who do not have cars. If you can’t afford a car, you probably also can’t afford to live in a neighborhood that offers jobs you are qualified for, and so you commute long, time consuming distances to work. We are organized around the automobile, and living without one takes a lot of energy.
Confronting this truth makes my efforts seem puny and naïve.
There are people voluntarily giving up cars, joining “zip” car cooperatives, moving to homes that are walking distance from work and school, or using mass transit and simplifying their schedules so that transportation is less an obstacle. We haven’t done this in our household, however, and unless forced, it is hard to imagine we will. Judging from the number of cars on the road, most of them guzzling about 5 gallons of gasoline every 100 miles, it seems unlikely that, unless forced, most other people will either.
But we know better! Over consumption of gasoline is connected to unhealthy politics, especially with the Middle East, China and Russia, and causes environmental problems world wide. But cars are part of our lives. We simply can't imagine, don't want to change. Instead, the current sweeps us along, and we hope for the best. Where is the will? What is that sound in the distance? Maybe the roar of a waterfall?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bicycle Philosophy: More and More



The image at left is a zoom-in of a photo depicting 410,000 paper cups, the number disposed of in the United States every 15 minutes (http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php)

At some point during every trip in the car, the urge to stop at coffee kiosks rises in me like a phantom. Oh look! There's Dutch Brothers Coffee! There's Fast Lane! The new strip mall has a drive through with organic coffee! On special this week! There's nothing like windshield wipers, a heater, public radio's Fresh Tracks, and a hot cup of --

The habit started when our children were small and we drove them everywhere: school (no school bus available), soccer, piano and saxophone lessons, girl scouts, boy scouts, play dates, etc. At about 4:00 pm, prime driving time, waves of sleepiness hit so strongly that sometimes my eyes drifted ... closed ... at stop lights .... zzzzzz, until kids yelled, "Mom! Green light!"

At about the same time, drive-through coffee houses were springing up like mushrooms. It became a ritual to stop, order a shot of espresso with a dollop of cream, ignore the children while they begged for Italian sodas (sometimes giving in), and succumb to bliss. The effect espresso has on me is something close to what some might call enlightenment. Suddenly everything makes sense. My powers of conversation and sense of humor blossom.

Alas, soon it seemed one shot went too quickly, and became two (same price! what a deal!), and then, almost without my noticing, 8 ounce cups became 12 and 16 ounces, sometimes with steamed milk and chocolate shavings, and this eventually evolved into a $18-a-week-habit (no! surely not $950 a year!). Even the realization that two hours after a double shot my mood soured, didn't slow me down. Decaf made a fine substitute. And there was always tea.

What to do? This is not a good use of resources.

It seemed an indirect approach might be called for. How about giving up the throwaway containers coffee comes in?

A lot of trees go into paper coffee cups, 9.4 million in the coming year, according to the Sustainability is Sexy website. 5.7 billion gallons of water will be used to produce them, 363 million pounds of solid waste will be created when they are disposed of (most aren't recyclable because they contain chemicals to keep them from getting soggy). There are lots of styles insulated mugs available and the only trick is to remember to bring one. Linking this to the pledge to try to get around without a car made a kind of sense.

How's it going? GREAT. Usually. No car, no Pavolvian response. Usually. When there is, the thought of stopping the bike, locking up, dealing with helmet hair in a coffee shop full of people with tidy hair, is enough to kill it. When driving, more often than not, the insulated mug is forgotten at home. Taking the trouble to remember a mug triggers the idea of actually putting a tea bag and hot water in the mug (sorry struggling small coffee businesses).

Success! Usually.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bicycle Philosophy: Mind Map



"When you drive a car your peri-personal space expands to include it, from fender to fender ... As you drive you can feel the road's texture as intimately as you would through sandals. As you enter a parking garage with a low ceiling you can "feel" the nearness of your car's roof to the height barrier as if it were your own scalp. ... When someone hits your car you get upset--not just because of the bills and the hassle ahead, but because that person has violated your peri-personal space, no less than a careless elbow in your rib." Sandra & Matthew Blakeslee, "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own."

This is mind-blowing. We grew up thinking that when, for instance, you cut your finger, the finger sends an alarm signal to the brain, and the brain reacts (OW), and tells you to feel pain and react. This happens within nanoseconds, if all goes well. But, we're learning, the brain is more astounding than that. It doesn't just connect linearly (one brain part to one body part), it makes maps of your body parts, which interact with each other. Same scenario: finger cut. The visual map interacts with the finger map, and the brain chooses whether to send a pain signal, or maybe something else like that finger is toast, send opiates. Interestingly, the brain extends these maps to include the space around you and the tools you use. When you handle a fork, for instance, you can "feel" the texture of food, even though you are only touching an inert utensil. Apparently that space extends to our cars. Put another way: according to your brain, your car is part of you.

Yowza. Does this mean that when we don't drive, part of us feels left behind? If we stop driving, does the mind map of the car deteriorate? Does less driving lead to a kind of brain drain? Switching to bicycling literally messes with our minds?

That would explain why showing up on a bicycle is greeted as an act of heroism, or an oddity (like nudity). It would also explain why a person who has driven cars for say, 35 years, feels exposed on a bicycle. We insulate ourselves with clothes and homes, extend that bubble of privacy to travel, and our minds take it all in.

But of course, there is the other side of the coin: without a bubble of car, how far might a mind map extend? To the bike, surely. To the edges of the bike path?

Maybe as far as the cherry trees that hung over the sidewalk this week, heavy and fragrant with rain.

Maybe even farther.







Monday, February 8, 2010

Rickets on the Rise



Newspapers report that rickets is on the rise. Remember rickets? Dickensian malady of children in the poorhouse, surely? Not our darlings.

Yes indeed. Obeisance to the mantra Sun Is Bad, the increased time children spend indoors and probably poor diets, is causing vitamin D deficiencies. Children's bones are softening, bending to the insufficiencies once the herald of poor children in poor countries.

We need more sun.

These are my gloomy thoughts on a winter morning, sodden and alone in the bike lane, on a morning when it seems it will never stop raining, and succumbing to auto envy -- all those lucky children sailing past in warm cars. Or are they so lucky?

New research links low Vitamin D to not only rickets, but other awful diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis and cancer. The absolutely, bar none, best way to get vitamin D is to spend approximately 15 minutes a day with 45 percent of your body exposed to sunlight. But sunlight causes cancer! Argh.

Don't panic. Fifteen minutes a day will not, for 99% of us, cause skin cancer. If you're worried about crows feet, slather SPF 50 on your face, or wear a hat.

But there is another hurdle for those of us who live at the 45th parallel or northwards. The optimal time for getting adequate sun exposure is between 10:00 am am and 2:00 pm (most people are at work), and between June 21 and Dec. 21. At other times, the sun is too low to do much good.

Many of us, it appears, need supplementation, or so says my family physician. This news is sending manufacturers into a frenzy of production and advertising, and consumers to purchase and ingest Vitamin D, much as we scurried to manufacture, advertise, purchase and slather ourselves with sunscreen. This will undoubtedly be followed by an epidemic of Vitamin D toxicities, tainted Vitamin D batches imported from overseas, a surge of tanning bed-burn scandals, and reports of sun-caused melanoma.

We're always in pursuit of a quick fix.

Don't panic. Slow down. Get tested. See if you are deficient. See if your children are deficient. If so, find out the best way to take vitamin D, and find the best sources.

And when it rains, don't just get in the car and roll up the windows. Get out an umbrella and walk, and have your kids walk with you. You never know when the sun might come out.





Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bicycle Hero: Peace Rider


Don Ross is proof that cold, dark and wet don't qualify as reasons to retreat to fossil fueled transport. He recently visited our town, en route from Alaska. He left Fairbanks in October on studded bicycle tires, camped in the snow along the ALCAN Highway, and now aims to ride coast to coast and make Washington, D.C. in time for Earth Day. He meets with bicycling enthusiasts and school kids along the way, carrying the message that the way we live cuts us off from each other and from nature, and disconnection leads to environmental policies that don't make sense. Cheer him on, and follow his blog: http://wkly.ws/7r

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Against the Flow


A couple of years ago, a woman in a wheelchair crossed a driveway in front of my car. She was on the sidewalk moving in the opposite direction from street traffic, where my attention was fixed. If it hadn't been for a passenger who yelled Watch out! my SUV would have hit her. The image of her head barely cresting the hood, and the neon-tipped antennae on her chair, waving an almost comically placid warning, is seared into memory.

Let's dispense for the time being with the question of fault: My fault.

Let's also dispense with the SUV. (Done, thanks to cash for clunkers.)  

Consider instead the complexities of moving against the flow of traffic.

Several of us bicyclists routinely ride against traffic on a particular section of sidewalk. Pedestrians on this section are rare and don't seem to mind; street traffic is heavy and there is no bike path; crossing to the other side can add up to a quarter mile, and the walkway is wide enough for two SUVs.

Wise bicyclists pause at every intersection and visually make contact with drivers waiting at the lights. It is more fun, however, to tear along, timing the lights, visual contact be damned. And, if there are no cars waiting, the temptation is strong to sneak through against lights rather than listen to noisy signs policing the crosswalk, "WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, WAIT ... Walk Sign is ON Across ____ Road."

In other words, the trust shown by the woman in the wheelchair as she ventured in front of a stranger's SUV, is familiar territory. From the SUV driver's point of view, it bordered on bravado, maybe even defiance. Who knows? Maybe from the woman's point of view, too. And unlike the duck who almost fell victim to my bicycle (assuming that the woman was not developmentally disabled), we are not innocents. We know the risks.

What if the alert passenger hadn't been there? A driver asleep at the switch + a woman moving against the flow of traffic = recipe for tragedy. The question of fault would be revealed for what it is: a legal technicality, overwhelmed by the the awful and wondrous truth of human frailty, mine and hers.

In a time when Ben Bernanke is named Man of the Year for saving us from an economic disaster he helped create; when the President, much as I like him, is named Nobel Peace Prize winner, as he increases troops in Afghanistan; when seed saver-suing Monsanto is named Company of the Year, it is important to follow the laws, but sometimes listening to the WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, WAIT... just isn't practical. We also need people willing to go against the flow, and more than ever, we need companions on the lookout.





Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robert McCloskey, meet Justice Roberts (Duck!)

A gray morning, with commuters starting to stack up at stoplights, and instead of the usual lone bicyclist (me), there are three of us in a row, a virtual cycling rush hour. Into this arterial steps, with all the aplomb a mother can muster, a Mallard duck, followed by three babies. They proceed to mince across the bike lane, straight into traffic. It happens so suddenly, the last duckling almost gets smacked by my front tire, and by the time I stop, they are halfway across the first of four lanes.

What are they thinking? The other side of the street is a shopping mall. Who knows? Stupid ducks.

This is what goes through my head.

A kinder, quicker-thinking driver is already stopped, out of her car, and waving at the other cars. The ducks make it to the other side, and disappear into a photinia hedge which borders the parking lot. A miracle.

Wheeling around to continue on while pondering odd duck behavior, the commute is interrupted again by a squeal of brakes. This time it isn't waterfowl. It's me, absentmindedly rolling across a driveway in front of a moving car, which stops inches from my right leg. The driver widens her eyes meaningfully and toots her horn. "It was the ducks!" I want to tell her, but who cares? The ducks are gone, and the driver almost had her day wrecked by an inattentive cyclist. Let's not think about what almost happened to the cyclist.

Shepherding ducklings through traffic is a good deed in the finest Robert McCloskey tradition. But what if their journey is doomed, and, like moths battering against a porch light, they are fated for an untimely end? What if stopping for waterfowl causes a serious crash involving bicycles and car bumpers, human blood and guts?

Blood is spilled for sillier things. Ever watch a football game? So much hoopla and serious commentating, and always blood and guts (speaking as one in a household of Oregon Duck fans).

Is a Mallard family camping out under a photinia any more foolish than sucking aquifers dry to maintain green lawns in a desert? Or buying oil from terrorists?

No.

As for bicycling while under the influence of daydreams, is that the ducks' fault? Remember the old TV show "Paper Chase" about a first year law student at Harvard, when Professor Kingsfield chastises a female student with: There is no excuse for a disorganized mind (or the equivalent). The ducks provide a reminder: be ever vigilant. Pay attention.

And for better or worse, we are like those ducks, blithely heading to the mall. Never mind yesterday's Supreme Court ruling that henceforth campaign stop signs and donation speed limits will be illegal. We have faith. Some kindly corporate board will surely stop and Make Way.






Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bicycling and the Wild Life: Aerie


Enough with the complaining. You're either going to bicycle, or you're not. If you do, it will be a pain and an inconvenience, and risky. Or, it might be nice. Or, it might just change everything.

There's an aerie in the neighborhood. And guess what? You probably won't see it unless you are on foot or on a bike.

This morning, the eagles put on a show. A pair, nesting on a butte that overlooks the river and bike path called out raucously and passed overhead, then balanced on a craggy branch in a fir. (The photo isn't mine, although it might be my eagles, taken locally a few weeks ago and posted on the web. Credit and thank you to kparkton and Flickr from Yahoo).

A good friend many years ago fell in love with birds of prey, and it seemed that everywhere he went, there were kestrels and Swainson's hawks, and saw whet owls. He even had a snowy owl recuperating in his bedroom for a time. Not true for me. Sometimes wildlife has to practically hit me in the face before it registers.

This might be changing. Getting outside helps. One fall morning, maybe the first or second bicycle commute across a bridge that always has heavy traffic, there was a peculiar and unfamiliar bird cry, distinct even above the noise of the cars.

Is this just me, or is there something about bird calls that makes them easy to remember? Is there a primitive brain part that supercedes ordinary places where things are remembered? Although my memory is not great, once someone identifies a bird's particular song, it's in my head forever. Towhee (a buzz, cofirmed by the red eye), robin (tweedle-up, tweedle-up, over and over), flicker, kingfisher, red tail hawk, scrub jay. Hummingbirds make a sound that could come straight from the nectar they drink. Although it is a struggle to remember the difference between the visual profiles of buteo and accipiter, it is easy to distinguish the cry of a grosbeak from a starling pretending to be a grosbeak. Equally, unfamiliar calls are easy to recognize as, unfamiliar. This one started like a loud gull's cry, then ended in a sweeter sound, something between a neigh and a warble.

The sound was odd enough to get me to stop and look around, although without someone to officially identify whatever it was, chances were slim of figuring it out. At least, that's how things usually go. If friends point out bald eagles and hand me binoculars, eagles are pretty obvious. Eight foot wing span, yellow feet, and all the rest; but, on my own, unless someone spells it out, eagles blend together with hawks.

Not this one. A huge bird appeared out of a tree that grew next to the bridge, swooped across the river, did a U turn right in front of me, not more than 30 feet away. White head, white tail. OH. Unmistakeable.

Another bicyclist weaved past and muttered. A river of cars passed, drivers oblivious. It was tempting to call out to the next bicyclist who was speeding by in tight jersey, clip-on shoes and sunglasses, "Look! It's a bald eagle!" but the biker was already gone.

This was to be a just-for-one-person moment. In the middle of town, among hundreds of people, there was just me, my bicycle, and the eagle.

The big bird glided away, neatly folding her wings before tucking back into the tree, a big leaf maple with bright yellow leaves.

My skeptic's heart knows that it was coincidence, serendipity, a lucky break, but seeing that creature, powerful, close, a species that has made its way back from the brink of extinction, made it seem like more. The beginner's thrill. My first bald eagle siting on my own, so blatant there could be no doubt, and it only happened because it was a biking day, not a car day. If there are such things as omens, this felt like one.




Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bicyclist's lament: Road Hazards


Introduction:

My efforts to become a bicycle commuter generated a spate of thoughts, many of them during rides. It is, admittedly, an insignificant stab at doing my part to reduce the use of fossil fuels. It has, however, raised a gamut of questions about how we live, and why, and how we should approach the coming issues of the age.

As trite as it might sound, bicycling has driven home this: it's hard to be different, to choose discomfort and take risks, just because it seems like the right thing. How often does "the right thing" turn out to be a stupid thing? Riding a bicycle in a car-filled world is lonely. It's -- and this emotion took me by surprise -- embarrassing.

Then again, sometimes it's wonderful.

A confession:

The intention to start biking regularly sat idly in my mind for a long time, a kind of perpetual New Year's resolution.

It was easy to put off. We lived on a steep hill, and getting home was a bear. My children were involved in sports and music, there was no school bus, city bus schedules were horrendous in my neighborhood. Easier, it seemed, to wait until they were driving. Ironic, certainly, that in my mind more drivers in the house should precede less driving. Is this the human condition? The American condition? What a lesson for our children: transportation costs take a back seat to soccer and violin lessons.

But aside from all that, there was a more powerful deterrent. Biking is dangerous.

When my kids were small, a friend crashed his bike and suffered head injuries, requiring months of rehabilitation, followed by years of struggles with depression.

Shortly after, another friend was following her husband down a steep road with their six year old son in the car, when the husband crashed, and died in my friend's arms.

My husband, on a recreational ride, moved onto a graveled shoulder when a car passed, lost control and flew over the handlebars. He suffered minor injuries, but it scared the daylights out of me. After this spate of accidents, my bike collected dust for almost ten years.

Fast forward to 2006. My oldest was a new driver, and the Bicycle Idea was beginning to stir again. Yes it's dangerous, but what are the odds, really, especially if you are cautious, alert, follow the rules of the road? A friend and teacher has bicycled almost exclusively for 20 years, including on vacations, and he's fine.

In May of that year, an avid local bicyclist, a well-known and beloved researcher and community activist, died when she collided with a truck during a training ride. OK, she was a serious biker, who rode fast on back roads. It was horrible, but not the same as a city commuter?

In June, 2008, a young man in his twenties riding downtown without a helmet was killed when his bike collided with a car. A white "ghost bike" surrounded by flowers, marks the intersection to this day. A local paper reports that the woman who hit him, absolved of legal responsibility (it appears he may have been careless), still cannot bring herself to drive, and has been harassed by people who call her a murderer.

In November, 2008, a friend, bundled up on a cold morning, was hit by a car and suffered multiple injuries. She spent three weeks in an induced coma, and 14 months later is still working her way back to her previous, active life.

Were the gods speaking to me? Don't do it! Who cares? Be safe! Your family needs you.

No. The gods were not speaking to me. This is a fact: bicycling in a car-filled world is dangerous. The question is, is it worth the risk?

Yes.

If gods are speaking, it feels like this is their message. One person bicycling is insignificant in the movement toward less reliance on fossil fuels, but it is still movement. Every driver that passes, even if it's only subconsciously, registers -- oh, a bicycle. Oh, it is possible to get around without a car. Bicycling is, literally, as one reporter recently described student protests in Iran, voting with your body.

Besides, other things shifted into place.

My husband's office moved, and we followed, moving to a house that is closer to town, in a flat neighborhood. My youngest got her license, and the oldest headed off to college. A young mother bicycling in traffic is one thing. A post-50 woman, with time on her hands and adult children is something else.

So, the old bicycle was greased and the gears adjusted, fenders, a rack and all-weather pannier added, as well as a bell, head and tail lights. A friend donated a reflective vest, the kind you can buy at Sears, and worn by road workers. After a couple of soaks, a hooded rain jacket and pants were added to my wardrobe; and after catching a pant cuff on the pedal and almost tumbling, velcro strips to snug around my ankles.

There! Everything set! This is going to be fun!

Not.




Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bicyclist's lament: Change a-coming

Prologue:

Just shook myself off like a wet dog, hung up dripping reflective vest, socks, gloves, water resistant (ha) jacket, rain pants, regular pants with wet cuffs, shirt with wet shoulders, helmet, reflective velcro strips to secure pant legs; then took a long, hot, water-wasting shower.

Ah, bicycling in winter.

This is an undertaking that is going to require assistance, backup, outside support, consultation and, shall we say, a pat on the back, something more than splattering in the wake of sport utility vehicles.

As will several other undertakings in the offing.

Let's start with bicycling.

What the heck, let's start bigger.

Post-aught United States, careening from Biggest-Recession-Since-The-Depression, to something that may or may not be recovering, is on the brink of cathartic and possibly cataclysmic change. Of course, everything changes all the time, but there are periods when change comes quickly enough that history books take note, and this might just be one of them. Whether from the effects of instant communication, change in the temperature, shortages of oil, rare metals, water or food, monetary policy, securities based on "repackaged" loans, social unrest -- it doesn't matter. Change is a-coming.

What are comfortable ordinary US citizens to do? Do we try to help change come about in a good way? If so, how? Between comfort and ordinariness, it seems insane to do anything. My family already thinks me eccentric. Gosh, maybe change will come about slowly enough that it won't matter until after this body passes on. Or is the attempt to do "good," naive and a waste of time? Maybe the future will be fantastic. Nimble and creative minds will reshape everything in a good way?

That seems unlikely, at least in the short run. And in the long run, the usual rebalancing, winners and losers, as always. Which leads back to the question of what one person can and should do in the face of oncoming social, political and environmental change. And the age old lament in the form of a question: how much difference can one person make?

So here is one lapsed Catholic, raised on guilt, and brought up in a Disney World, where indeed, one person is supposed to be able to Make A Difference, and to put in a good try. Even a comfortable, ordinary housewife. Erin Brockovich's Unite or some such thing. But Erin had moxie, boobs, and a mind like a steel trap. Not exactly ordinary. We're talking run of the mill, behind the scenes, smallish town Mom here, driven by an ordinary person's sense of duty, and a comfortable person's sense of wanting to give back, as well as a bit of excitement and dread about what might be ahead.

Where to start?

1. Volunteer. Check.

2. Buy local, organic food when possible, in that order. Check.

3. Start a back yard garden and a kitchen compost pile. Check.

Not nearly enough to make up for, um, two big screen TVs and a minivan. Not to mention long, water wasting showers.

How about biking? How about, instead of driving to a gym to exercise, biking to exercise? Or at least walking? Um. OK...

So began the Great Bicycling Chapter, which on days like today, seems like a really stupid idea.
Here we come full circle. The GBC, part 1, coming soon.