Sunday, April 29, 2012

It's time.

My youngest loves "Take Your Child To Work Day."  My oldest likes it as well but between school and soccer has not been able to attend in a few years.  My place of work goes a long way towards making it fun by offering a formal program of classes and events which try and show the kids a view of life as an engineer - designing and problem solving.  Rapunzel's favorite activity is the one where she builds a tower from uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows.  My boss is kind and generous and has kids of his own and he makes my schedule flexible for that day.

So far so good.

In previous years I have:  carried both kids in on the back of my Extracycle, carried just Rapunzel in on the back of my Extracycle and towed Rapunzel in the Burley wagon.  This is a ~9 mile trip so no joke for me but that's how I get to work, I bicycle and so that's how we get to work on TYCTWD, we bicycle.

So I should not have been surprised when the topic of TYCTWD came up and Rapunzel announced that this year she would ride her own bicycle.  All nine miles of it.  My suffering began at exactly this moment.  The first part of my trip has fabulous bicycle lanes but some very no-nonsense car commuter traffic.  The second leg is supremely peaceful.  The third part has no bicycle lane and frankly kindof sucks.  I began to obsess.

Would a responsible good mommy drive the car?
Could Contraption Captain bike with us to work so that we could sandwich Rapunzel safely between us?
Could Rapunzel make it over the 101 overpass with the steep incline and then the scary car off-ramp traffic?
Would we get creamed trying to get over to the left on Middlefield?
Should I force her into a wagon?
What if she was too tired to bicycle back home?
Was it too late to emigrate to Holland?

To add an additional frisson of excitement to the experience, it turned out that that this would be the day we would close on a house.  At 4pm.  In a different town.  I imagined us missing the closing, missing the chance to give away all my savings to the bank and being publicly pilloried as a scofflaw.

So what happened?

Thursday dawned....drear and drizzly.  Rapunzel, like many adults, does not like bicycling in the rain.  Did Rapunzel still want to ride her own bike?  She did.  The three of us set off together, Contraption Captain in the lead, me scowling at the cars and towing an empty wagon.  We got as far as Bryant Street and the rain picked up and Rapunzel asked to ride in the wagon.  She hopped in and opened a book and started reading.  Contraption Captain rolled her bicycle back to his workplace.  I pedaled to my workplace.  No one died.

We had a great day.  Rapunzel completed a minor repair and documented her work.  She built a tower from spaghetti.  She went to a meeting.  She played a little pinball.  Then I buttoned her into the wagon and took us to Palo Alto for the closing where we met up with Contraption Captain.  Then she was back on her own bike and we pedaled to a park and played for awhile.  Then we biked home.

I ask myself sometimes, why not simplify and drive?  I feel the frantic desire to keep my kids safe.  I know that a bicycle can make you vulnerable (although automobiles are hardly bastions of safety) and I know driving can be "easier."  So....?

When an SUV hits a sedan, the occupants of the sedan are likely to be killed (and decapitated) because the bumper of the SUV is so high off the ground.  I was reading an article about this and an SUV driver was quoted as saying that he wasn't going to put his children at risk by putting them in a sedan. Really?  You wouldn't want to put your kids at risk?  What about the kids in the sedan though, you'd be ok with decapitating them?

I want someone to put down the damn gun already.

When people tell me they are afraid to bicycle, I understand.  It can be scary out there.  When they tell me they are afraid for their kids to bicycle I extra-understand.  I adore my kids and this is not Holland where people have made safe routes for bicyclists.

But can we go on like this?  Driving bigger and bigger cars and pointing them at each other's heads?  Pointing them at the heads of other people's children?

It's time.  Put down your gun and walk...or bicycle...away.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

You're mean and loud and that makes me sad.

As I bicycled home today in my ratty tie-die yoga pants and one of my nice work-issued tee-shirt (thanks work, I'd probably be bicycling naked if it weren't for you) ...I tried to get in touch with my inner French woman.  I practised an insouciant smile.  I experimented with significant looks to the left and to the right.  I think I probably presented as more mentally ill than international but Rome wasn't built in a day, right?  Or maybe I should say the Eiffel tower wasn't built in a day.

I navigate the usual number of cars and finally turn onto the Elysian fields of my commute, aka Bicycle Boulevard.  Here the road is wide, the number of cars is small, and the bicyclists are variegated and peaceable.  We're like any other animal, if you put us in a cage that does not have enough room, we develop bad habits and argue with each other.  Here on Bicycle Boulevard the faster bicyclists can pass the slower ones, the mated bicyclists can ride side by side, the children don't need to be on sidewalks and the pretty bicyclists can pause and admire each other.

At the tail end of Bicycle Boulevard I meet up with the Contraption Captain.  We turn our bicycles towards home and with one eye on the traffic we start to sort through our days.  Engineering wins and losses.  The bug he figured out how to solve while still lying in bed this morning.  The persistent problem I finally put to bed on a router in Atlanta. 

The Contraption Captain has the bad cold I had last week and his head hurts so we adopt a slow and gentle pace.  We do not race towards the green light at the top of Sand Hill Road, it's tough to make under the best of circumstances.  Instead we wait at the red, close together in the narrow bike lane that has cars going straight on our left and the right turn lane for cars on our right.  Two more bicyclists pull up behind us.  We're all of us a bit tired and (I think) content and ready to do that last lap home.

I watch as a young man bicyclist on a steel road bike (I kindof like those skinny tubes) heads up the hill fast and strong in the right turn lane and then turns right onto the Alameda.  At the same moment the bicyclist turns and rides away I hear this:

"That's right, run another red light, you dumb prick!"

I look to my left.  In between the two lines of waiting cars is a big fat purple Harley Davidson touring motorcycle ridden by a dumpy looking white man with white hair.

I attempt my "You are beneath contempt, comme la limace gluante" look.  It is definitely not as satisfying as saying "I hate you, you ugly douchebag" but I think it is a good first step on my mission to take the higher more superior ground. 

The light turns green.  Dumpy (the dwarf who did not make the cut in the movie) takes off in a spatter of the wet fart noises typical of motorcycles that lack proper mufflers.  I think about the Dalai Lama.  Here's the message I would project into the air in front of Dumpy if I had the technology.

It's true, you are no longer a young man and it is painful to have grown so old and arthritic, to be so unlovable while feeling so deserving of love.  Your motorcycle, indeed none of your many material possessions have served to ease the dull pain in your heart that might be guilt over how you treated your children but might also be impending cardiac blockages that should get immediate treatment.


Give the motorcycle to a worthy or unworthy person, it does not matter which.  Learn to give away.  Buy a good pair of shoes and a staff.  Begin walking, stopping only to beg for small meals at roadside diners, perhaps in exchange for washing a few dishes.  Learn to forgive yourself for the suffering you have caused others.  Ask for forgiveness.  Listen to the new silence and the answer to "what is important" will come to you at last. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Why have civilization if no one is going to be civilized?

So yesterday I am bicycling home from work after having missed two days because of a bad cold.  I'm still not at my best (ah-choo!) but I'm managing and the bicycling helps me to breathe easier, maybe because the exercise served to get the blood moving and to open the alveoli.

I need to take a left so I move over one to the left until I am in a car lane and then I move one more lane over into the car lane on the far left.  Now I'm positioned to get into the left turn lane.  There are cars stuck doing about 18mph behind me but the traffic light is just ahead and hey, it's red.

The seemingly inevitable happens.  A guy in a red Saab forces his way past me, scarily close, pausing to roll down his window and explain why I'm such an asshole and if I continue to defiantly ride my bicycle in the left lane I should die.

Think about it for a minute.  Here I am, a middle-class, middle-aged woman with two kids on a bicycle on her way home from a day at the office.  I've got a cold.  I'm bicycling home from work, where in stark contrast to the financiers of Morgan Stanley, I actually put in an honest day of it that hurt no one and had some practical use to those people that enjoy the internet.  If you met me on the street would you really want to tell me that you think I deserve to be killed?  Really?

Within the next twenty seconds we both arrive at the red light.  I notice that the guy's window is now rolled up tight.  I wish I could say that I took the higher ground.  I look at the driver watching me in his rear view mirror (is he hoping I look contrite?  is he looking for evidence that I am short a chromosome?) and slowly and very deliberately, with eyes wide open, I mouth the words:  FUUUUUUUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU.

Yes, my bad.  That's weak overall but I've been examining my cursing and my favorite "you disgusting little worthless cocksucker!" which I guarantee gives a rude shock to white men of any age...has homophobic connotations.  I like gay people a lot.  They don't need me making their lives any more difficult.  If you have exciting curses for mean drivers please share them in the comments as I am looking to expand my repertoire.

Guy in car's shoulders go up and down in outrage.  He can't look away and the light stays resolutely red.  FUUUUUUUUUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUU.  A silent message mouthed for his rear view mirror alone.

Light turns green.  Now that his car is safely in forward motion again he returns to gesturing at me.  His gestures say some vague thing as "Why are bicyclists, particularly you, in my way?  Why don't you remember your station in life which is under my wheels."

I learned way better gestures than this one in Massachusetts where (in my day at least) we don't pussy foot around when we don't like the way the traffic is going.  I stabbed my middle finger at him with joyful abandon.  He comes to the next red light, hesitates, and then runs it.  Buh-bye you worthless twat.  Also, your Saab is ugly.  Also I memorized your license plate so don't be surprised if we have more delightful encounters.

Then of course I think about it all as I bicycle the rest of the largely uneventful way home.  I'm (a little) sorry that I responded to uncivilized behavior with uncivilized behavior.  It seems to me like a classic bully conundrum.  Your kid gets beat up on the playground.  The mom says "$bully is merely insecure.  Walk away.  Ignore them.  Make friends even!"  The dad teaches the kid how to throw a good upper cut.

Bullying is an apt comparison.  The cars have the upper hand in every respect:  speed, size, and safety.  If the car had a bad day at the office there is no easier way to vent some frustration than tell a bicyclist that she's doing it wrong.  Some days I put up with this fairly well, I look away and keep bicycling.

Other days I try and punch back.

Friday, April 13, 2012

the size and shape issue. a belated response to an ex-friend

Noodle is a dog who's very long from front to back and very short from top to bottom, which makes it hard for him to dig for bones. One day Noodle finds a wishbone, and the dog fairy arrives with a flip-flap of wings to grant him a wish: "What size and shape do you want to be?"  - Noodle

Three years ago, give or take, when it was first becoming generally apparent that I was bucking the mommy trend of acquiring a Honda Pilot and driving everywhere having instead opted to start bicycling a now ex-friend asked me "Why are bicyclists so fat and out of shape?"

I didn't know what to say.  I'm an engineer of questionable social skills and I thought maybe she was telling me that I might be doing a bunch of bicycling but I was still ugly or maybe she was just voicing general displeasure with her own tomato-like shape.  I muttered something uncertain and vague.  Now I want to revisit her statement.

A story from my past.  It is over twenty years ago and I am exercise serious, loving my bicycle, running, and vain about my pre-pregnancy figure.  I'm also an insecure loser but whatever.  A family visited my family and they had a nanny, Madelon.  It was a Dutch family and a Dutch nanny.  Madelon was huge by my standards, weighed in at probably seventy pounds more.  She was also quite a bit taller.  She had a general wish to "lose a few pounds" but I remember Madelon as quite beautiful and confident and at ease with herself.  

Madelon and I decide that we will go for a bicycle ride, something in the ballpark of 20km if I remember correctly.  I had my ancient steel road bike and she had something not much better.  I looked at the size of her rump and concluded that Madelon was out of shape and would be slow and that I would be able to easily show myself as the faster bicyclist.  You're thinking that I'm an ass and you're right, just remember I was young and I was an idiot.  

Madelon cleaned up the road with me.  And she didn't even know it was a race and she wasn't trying particularly hard.  She was faster than me on the downhill, the uphill, and the straightaway.  She was faster from start to finish.  I had made the novice mistake of associating size with lack of athletic ability.  Madelon was Dutch and she'd been biking since before she could walk and her legs were really powerful.  

What we get, our shape, our legs, our everything, is what the genetic lottery seeks to give to us.  We are tall and short and we have powerful legs and we have slender arms.  We have huge shoulders and we have thick hair or we have reliable knees and strong calf muscles.  It is what we do with ourselves that matters.  

The gift of bicycling is that it is suited to a wide variety of us homo sapiens.  Me?  My balance is not great.  I wanted to be a fearsome skateboarder but I struck out.  I wanted to cover miles on roller-blades but I was never very good at it.  I love to run but ultimately it seems to weaken my hips and tendons to run more than ten miles at a pop.  

You see all sorts of people on bicyclists because it is a sport that is generous to people of all different height and weight.  There are few sports that level the playing field as much as bicycling.  We can all ride to work and back.  Or to the store.  Or just out in the countryside.  

And finally, plenty of us are just in it to get somewhere.  A runner is almost always out to improve their fitness in some way.  Plenty of bicyclists are just out to run an errand or stop by a friend's house.  We don't need some negative middle-aged insecure woman in an SUV peering out her window and saying "well you don't look good."  

We look good.  And we're not looking to see our reflection in your eyes.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

best friends for bicyclists.

The most awesome book ever is Best Friends For Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban.  The humor and pathos of Frances, Gloria and Albert as they navigate the complicated grounds of friendship, partying, solitude and discrimination is without peer.  Don't read the on-line reviews --- none of them begin to touch on the complex issues presented in this one slim work.

Frances and Gloria are badgers.  Gloria wants to play ball with Frances but Frances says she's too little and Frances heads over to play ball with her friend Albert, instead.  Gloria cries.  Unfortunately for Frances, Albert has plans to spend the day catching snakes, eating a lot, and wandering around vaguely and so he rejects Frances's overtures for inclusion.  A mildly disgruntled Frances heads home to spend time with Gloria instead, and in a surprise plot twist, it is not as bad as she had originally supposed to play ball with her sister.

Day #2 and Frances again heads over to visit her friend Albert.  Damningly, his reason for excluding her today is that he is playing ball with Harold who says of France's ball skillz,  "She's not much good" and that "besides, this is a no girls baseball game."  Albert does not contradict Harold's unfriendly and sexist position and Frances is supremely pissed off.

Frances de-friends Albert and heads home to Gloria.

"How did you play so fast that you are home so soon?" wonders Gloria.
"It was a fast game." said Frances.

Frances and Gloria seize the offensive and arrange that they will go out for a fabulous picnic-gala.  With no boys.  Their mother helps them load their wagon with a spectacular spread of food that takes nearly two pages to describe and they pack prizes for games and they make a large sign that says "Best Friend Picnic.  No Boys."  Then they head out, their route incidentally taking them past Albert's house.

Albert (who has a food-tooth the way some of us have a sweet-tooth) comes galloping over desperate to attend the "Eating."  Frances corrects him with appropriate coldness:  "Outing."   Albert wants to come along and play games and help them eat.  Frances points out that this is a No Boys outing and it is only for best friends.

"What good is an outing without boys?" said Albert.
"It is just as good as a ball game without girls," said Frances, "and maybe a whole lot better."

Gloria kindly advocates for Albert.  Frances thinks it over.  "Maybe you'll be best friends when it is goodies-in-the-hamper time, but how about when it is no-girls-baseball time?"


Yesterday Rapunzel had a field trip and needed to be at school early.  At the appointed time she got her little bicycle out of the garage and the three of us set out  together.  We came to the traffic light at Sharon Road and the Alameda and waited our turn with the other cars.  Most of them turn right or left.  We were going straight.

Straight is down a hill populated by those big humps in the road that don't bother a bicyclist very much (the Contraption Captain has caught air on a few occasions cause that's how he rolls) but which slow down a car quite a bit.   It's a very quiet residential road and (surprise) the residents have installed massive slower-downers-of-cars because they like their children and pets in non-flat format.

Cars do a funny dance on this hill: they step on the gas until they come to one of the speed hummocks and then they step on the brakes.  Then they step on the gas and at exactly the moment that they are about to finally get around that fucking bicyclist they have to stomp on the brakes.  The drivers fume, their passengers get whiplash, and the bicyclist coasts happily down, enjoying the gentle ocean-y swells in the road.

The three of us bicyclists head down this hill.  A boxy orange Honda Element moves into oncoming traffic and steps on the gas to get around us.  I have time to see the bumper stickers.






Mr. I-fucking-love-bicyclists comes to the first speed hill and stomps on the brakes, skittering in behind my implacable eight year old daughter.

Mr. You-better-fucking-make-room-for-bicyclists-if-I-am-on-one-otherwise-not-so-much gets over the hilly bit and steps on the gas again, careening around the three of us in a plume of blue-grey exhaust.  This continues for about 2.7 seconds and then of course he arrives at the next speed bump, the bump we easily bump over but he has to step on the brakes or risk losing the undercarriage of his automobile and we are in front again.

Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat with the extra  je-ne-sais-quois that because Mr I-have-covered-my-car-in-bicycle-love-stickers-because-I like-to fake-out-those-asshole-roadies is threatening not just myself and my husband but my darling eight year old Rapunzel?  I want to tear the hood off his car and throw it through his living room window.  I demonstrate restraint though and am content to watch the show of this car behaving like an idiot.


Back to the wisdom of Frances.

"Can't I be a best friend?" asked Albert.

"I don't think it's the kind of thing you can do," said Frances, "and it would ruin my whole day to have to explain it to you."

I'll try though.  Being best friends means that it is make-room-for-bicyclists time when you are on a bicycle and when you are in your car.  Being best friends means that even when you are not the bicyclist on the road  you still have to slow down and not pass little kid bicyclists in a haze of putrid exhaust.  You don't have to be on your bicycle all of the time to be best friends, but you can't ever be a worthless muppet when you are driving your car, not even once.

So what is it.  Are we best friends only when it's goodies-in-the-wagon?  Or are we best friends all the time.  In the case of one moronic orange Honda Element I have my answer.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Pardon

I think about the movie Schindler's List

Oskar Schindler: "That's not power [killing someone who commits a crime], ... that's justice. That's different than power. Power is when we have every justification to kill - and we don't."

He's talking to a psychopathic Nazi, Amon Goeth, trying to find a way to interest Goeth in halting his habit of arbitrarily murdering Jewish people.  Schindler suggests that Goeth can be like an Emperor who pardons people and shows mercy instead of killing them, and that this pardon will demonstrate real power. 

What I learned from Oskar Schindler was not to lose sight of the ends when you consider the means.

When I'm upset about injustice I rant, attack, complain, argue, and draw lines in the sand.  By contrast Schindler attempts to cajole Goeth into not shooting people in the head by appealing to his vanity and considering that it would cost Goeth nothing to shoot Schindler in the head this is a far more effective way to proceed than denouncing Goeth as a mentally ill monster, even if that happens to be true.

On a separate occasion, the Jews are packed into cattle cars in the blazing heat and they're begging for water while the area Nazis sip cold drinks and chuckle at the spectacle of people dying in the sun.  Instead of saying "You people are hideous cretins" (which happens to be true) Schindler convinces the Nazi officers that it would be funny and even charming to cool down the train cars with water from a firehose.  See?  He doesn't get mad and stamp his feet or make a speech.  He gets the job done.  If you were dying of thirst what would you want, a speech or some water? 

Today as I was bicycling for work, a car stopped for me.  It's driver was seated so high over my head that I couldn't view anything but a hand gesturing that I should go.  I sketched a little wave by way of response.  I had been pardoned and I proceeded through the intersection.

I would never be such an thoughtless idiot as to compare California bicyclists to the murdered Jews of the Holocaust....but I do take a lesson from a movie about the Holocaust.  Like Schindler we are not on even ground with our aggressors.  We cannot demand that they spare us.  The law is on their side and we are mere fragile frames of steel or aluminum or carbon fiber.  We must coax and cajole them, convince them that their power lies in making room for us, in pausing for us, in not killing us even though they could easily crush us.

When those big trucks and small sports cars pause in their travels and grandly gesture that I may pass they are the Roman Emperors.  And we bicyclists are the pardoned.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

the patient is currently anaesthetized

I don't take good care of my bicycle and I am mostly unapologetic.  Back when I was a horse person I had a friend who was a superb rider and a human of the highest ethics.  She took excellent care of her horse and she never put her gear away in any shape other than spotless.  What happened?  Gilbert, the horse, came down with a freak infection that killed him in about twelve hours.

One reason that I have moved from horses to bicycles is that it's easier to swap the parts out when they fail.  My bicycle has been feeling "bad" for more than a few days and since I am pretty oblivious to anything but poorly behaved cars and lovely California weather it's probably been in a steep decline for awhile now.

Ultimately I asked Contraption Captain to have a look and today he came home with new gears and chain.  Cross your fingers that all goes well for my bicycle because if it needs to convalesce tomorrow I'll be stuck riding three tons of Extracycle.

My dirty crippled bicycle.  Don't be fooled.  This is what a well loved bicycle looks like, not a neglected one.  Neglected bicycles are shinier.

New gears.

A supremely dirty bicycle gets some attention.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday, Monday

1.  My well-exercised bicycle needs new gears and chain. Contraption Captain is looking for the parts as I write.

2.  Saw a license plate frame that trumpeted "MIT" and thought to myself:   Graduated from MIT.  Can't keep car between the white lines on the road.

3.  Realized that my 8 year old could be bicycling to and from school by herself if American drivers were not such insufferable bastards.

4.  Yelled at a Palo Alto woman who was driving a Tundra or a Tahoe or an Everest or an Annapurna or whatever it was "You big fat idiot!" because I had been terrified that she was about to kill me.  At the next traffic light she rolled down her window and said "I'm not fat"  and I had to explain that I was talking to her car.