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.

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