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?


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


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?


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!


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bicyclist's lament: Change a-coming


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.