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?


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.


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?


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?