Tuesday, November 27, 2012

the night belongs to lovers

Sometimes I get so exercised about lighting and terrain and cooler weather and increased risk of accident that I forget a critical key fact about bicycling at night:  It's fantastic and I love it. 

My commute home, after dark, effectively has two parts. 

The first has all the excitement of surfing on two thousand wild buffalo during a stampede.  Christmas is coming and gigantic herds of Californians are making their awkward way to Costco and Bed Bath & Beyond, they low and bray unhappily as they struggle to make a left turn into the Sea of Parkedasses.  The otherwise ordinary guy driving the dented Subaru Outback makes an abrupt right turn without signalling as he finds the inspiration for an extreme REI run. 

Despite having more lights than a Hanukkah display I periodically hit rocks and bits of broken car in the road that I'd otherwise be able to steer around and this throws me from one side of the lane to the other and because bicycling at night gets me all excited anyway these bumps are punctuated with me shouting nonsensical stuff like "yee-haw!" and "suck it, Brocade routers, suck it!" 

The air is cool and invites excess and the dark wraps around you like a mantle and for the 50 minutes it takes me to get home in traffic the ride can feel like a non-stop party complete with drunk bouncers and a hot guy to meet up with.

Part the two of my ride is far quieter because the cars have been pruned away by Bryant St.  The ride goes from a 24/7 party where some of the people are on acid and have guns to sweet and soft and majestic and sleek as a penguin diving beneath the ice. 

I notice the sound of my bicycle more once the cars are out of the picture, especially the soft and satisfying trill of the chain rolling across the gears.  In the evening, the wind drops off and this contributes to the (mostly false) feeling that I am going supremely fast, the cool air sliding affectionately around me as I pedal towards home.  If before you were surfing maddened buffalo now you are racing along in the company of silent and sympathetic grey wolves.  You are the night and the night is you, everything but a bit of metal frame stripped away and your body the engine that drives the perfect machine. 

The second part of my ride ends when I meet up with the Contraption Captain and we circle each other happily and talk and then  pedal the last leg home together, going over the happenings of the day and pointing out the funniest of the car antics and planning our evening.

People ride their bicycles for many different reasons, all of them equally legitimate.  One reason I like to ride is the sense of possibility that comes from bicycling, from being fast, from the act of setting yourself free. 

Every ride home is good.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

never a dull moment

Tuesday the Contraption Captain and I are in the local emergency room, soaking up that special emergency room aroma of pain and worry.  Although we both rode our bicycles to the hospital (possibly because we are nuts) it was not a bicycle accident that brought us in and for the record, we are both fine, in fact as time passed we became increasingly fine while sitting there, him in the hospital bed and me on one of those hard plastic chairs and the finer I got the more I had time to look around our small curtained area.  I got a little bored.

First I sanitized my hands several times with the automatic Purel foam dispensor.  Then I sanitized the Contraption Captain's hands.  Next I very carefully (no touching) went through the cabinets behind the bed and checked out the various tanks (oxygen or oxygen?  We'll take oxygen ...) and computers.  There were no sharps in the sharp dispenser and no trash in the trash can.  They had one of those test your reflex hammers but I've played around with those things a lot and the thrill has kindof gone.  I resisted experimenting with the nifty check-your-ear tool although I was definitely curious.  Then I sat in the plastic chair for a few minutes, momentarily non-plussed.

Two beds away and across the room someone, a woman from the voice, was behind a curtain having a time that was less fun.  This person had been in an accident of some kind, they had cuts and abrasions some of which were deep enough to require stitches and cleaning.  I first thought the person was an old woman who had taken a fall.  A man with ridiculously colored hair was pacing around making phone calls.  I thought that the injured person was his mother.  The person in the bed was not old though, they were more middle-aged and the guy was the person's worried and unhappy husband.

I totally get "not my business" so I returned to playing with the adjustable bed until I distinctly heard someone say that the person had been hurt by a car door.  My ears went up.  I mouthed "car door" at the Contraption Captain.  "Do you think it was a bicycle accident" I whispered.  "Well not too many pedestrians get injured by car doors" he returned.

 The woman had bicycled to school with her two children, had dropped them off, and had been bicycling back to her house when someone had opened a car door in her face and knocked her down.  She had been cut up in the fall, her knee and face and arm all had needed stitches.  Her collar bone had been broken in the fall, an injury that the nurse said generally did not require medical attention, they heal on their own, but her collar bone had been broken in such a way as to require surgery and so they were going to ship her over to Stanford for the repair.

As the medical team got ready to move the woman one of the nurses aid "well I hope that the person who hit you will be more careful in the future."  The woman's husband said grimly "We know who hit her" and then he added "It's one of her friends.  She's going to feel awful when she finds out about this."

So hey yes, if you are driving a car think before you open the door on the street side.  The bicyclist you hit might be someone you know.  To update an old phrase, "open your car door in haste, repent in leisure."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Carob and Sorrows. I mean Sharrows.

"If you think of carob as itself and not as a chocolate substitute, you'll appreciate these lovely brownies even more than you would anyway."  ---The Moosewood Cookbook

Over twenty years ago I suggested to my parents that I would like to be a vegetarian.  My mother said that to be a vegetarian, you had to eat lots and lots of fish.  This made sense to me at the time because I was raised to believe that if there is something that you really want it comes with a price that is in direct proportion to your desire.  I hated eating fish so it was logical that this would be the price exacted of me if I wanted to be a vegetarian.  This is probably at least part of why I have persistent fears of being dismembered by an automobile when I am out riding my bicycle.  I desperately love riding my bicycle and I am trained to believe that a cost of equal intensity will be exacted from me if I continue to ride.  Slowly I piece together that there are vegetarians who do not eat fish and so I suggest to my father that I will become a vegetarian who does not eat fish.  My father tells me that there is "meat in everything."  I go off and consider my favorite treat, the Snickers bar.  I read the ingredients.  No meat!  I become a Snickers-tarian, subsisting on Snickers bars and the occasional piece of fruit and let me tell you it is one hundred percent true, a Snickers really does satisfy.  Parents, let this be a lesson to you:  lying to your kids can have unpleasant and unexpected repercussions.

Fast forward six months or a year and I am pretty burned out on candy bars no matter how filling and sugary.  This is before internet access for me and so I visit a vegetarian restaraunt and buy a cookbook that happens to be the Moosewood Cookbook.  And in that cookbook (I'm getting to the point here) is a recipe for (wait for it) Sharrows!  Just kidding.  It's a recipe for Carob Fudge Brownies.  Yummy!  Carob!  Kidding again!  No one gets very excited about carob.  To paraphrase Sandra Boynton, both chocolate and carob are brown but then again same thing can be said of dirt.  Carob is arguably not tasty but it is definitely and unquestionably not chocolate which brings me directly to so-called "sharrows."

I've been chunking through my "I hate sharrows" post for awhile.  The problem is, when I am bicycling in one (they have arrived in my local downtown) the hatred is not some pure and unforgiving fire.  It's not even hate.  Sharrows are the guy you date when you are lonely but you should really wait for someone slightly better, you know, like a guy who is not a total asshole and who has a job.   If I say "I hate sharrows" then obviously I want them gone but I find that I am not sorry they are there.  So, what's the deal?  The deal is that sharrows are what you get instead of Mr. Right or even Mr. Employed and Not An Ass.

Sharrows do not make cars share because cars do not share, it's not in their nature.  There are decades of signs posted alongside roads that say silly hopeful stuff like "Share The Road" and those signs are ignored all the time by everyone except the bicyclist being forced up against the curb who points at them just before getting side-swiped.  Cars.  Don't.  Share.  Cars can have three lanes and they'll still balk at moving out of the way for a bicycle because the poor long-suffering driver of the car is working very hard with their hands and feet to keep that big heavy machine moving forward and if they were to move over one lane it might kill them.  Asking a car to share is like asking a semi-conductor to give a lecture on higher mathematics.  You can ask but there won't be a ton of response. 

Back to chocolate and carob:  Sharrows are carob when I am expecting chocolate.  What I want is a bicycle lane.  What I want for my kids and their friends and enemeies is a separate network of bicycle roads a la Holland.  What I want is a place to ride where I feel safe and confident and for me that is a bicycle lane and in some places that is a path where there are no cars.  At no time do I feel safe and secure in a sharrow because sharrows are filled with cars and cars kill bicyclists.  But if I stop trying to make carob into chocolate, or stop asking the sharrow to be a bicycle lane, I find that I like certain aspects of it.

What I like:
  1. Sharrows look a little like bicycle lanes and so serve the purpose of hinting to the attentive cars that they can reasonably expect to see a bicycle.
  2. I tend to ride too close to parked cars and their doors because I am less afraid of being doored then I am of being run over.  Sharrows persuade me further away from the car doors.
  3. For those brief moments when I am bicycling on top of the sharrow paint I think the cars have a slightly harder time bullying me.  They seem to wait to force their way around until I am no longer on the white chevrons.  It's not perfect but every little bit helps.

What I do not like:
  1. We are not getting cars who reliably watch out for bicyclists.  Depending on what study you read, cars may actually be incapable of watching for bicyclists.  I want to ride my bicycle with the same risk of death as a pedestrian walking to the corner store.  I want for kids everywhere to be able to enjoy the independence of bicycling to school and team practices or just the home of a friend without being run over and killed by  some seventeen year old listening to Emo music and angsting over his C- in Photography.  
  2. Sharrows feel like a cheap sop to the masses.  Like asking for a living wage and getting a $2 coupon to Subway.

I'm always going to choose chocolate desserts over carob desserts but in the end if someone throws something down in front of you and says "here it is" there are occasions when you should probably suck it up and eat.  For me, sharrows are one such occasion.

Monday, November 19, 2012

well that was humbling

A week ago Monday I realize that when my meeting gets out, at 5pm, I could bicycle to Rapunzel's gymnastics class, put my bicycle in the trunk of the car and ride home with Contraption Captain and Rapunzel.  I consider the location of the gym and see it is about five miles away.  Then I see that I can take the lovely Stevens Creek trail, yay!  I will zip along and see no cars and have a beautiful ride and then meet up with my family, life is excellent!

5pm comes and goes.  The meeting drags on.  Outside it gets dark.  I feel a faint uneasiness.  I haven't been on this bike trail in over three years but I remember that it is not lit and that the "off-ramps" are marked in only the sketchiest of ways.  I start to wonder if I will be able to find the exit off the trail to the street I need to take to the gym. 

I reassure myself that I have a new bright light and that if I miss my turn-off I can always bicycle back for it because hey, missing a turn-off on a bicycle is not a big deal, right? 

At 5:30 the meeting grudgingly comes to an end and I beat it out of there.  It is very dark.  I turn on all my lights.  Now that the meeting is almost over I have a bare fifteen minutes to get to the gym but I'm a fast bicyclist so that should be fine.

Note to self:  when you hear that small nagging voice in your head, you should listen.  You really really should listen. 

I hurtle down the entire length of the trail and arrive at an expressway.  There is no gym in sight.  I have no clue where I am.  I ask someone for the street I am looking for.  She has no idea where I am either.  She suggests I go back onto the trail and "turn at the large garbage can."

I barrel back onto the trail and do a few tight circles around a large dumpster.  It is super dark and if there is a way off the trail here I can't see it.  I take another turn and find myself way up in the sky crossing over a highway.  This would be fabulously interesting if I were not totally lost and late and starting to freak out. 

I ask myself how a road bicyclist could find herself lost in the forest.  I dig through my backpack and discover that my cell phone has a sliver of life.  I call the Contraption Captain and sounding angry (because I am really mad at myself for being such a jackass as to get lost in the woods) I tell him that I am lost and he should head home with Rapunzel. 

Not unreasonably he asks where I am, he wants to help.  I basically shout "In the woods with all these trees!  I have no idea where I am!  Arg!"  I end up circling around some more following directions from helpful passersby that go exactly nowhere.  The directions that is, the people passing by are all too smart to get lost in the woods. 

Finally I just exit the trail altogether and start pedalling up a sidewalk on the wrong side of the road.  Yes.  I became one of those people.  I wanted to at least be on the correct side of the road but couldn't figure out how to get across the seven lanes of traffic without dying.  Then my hand was forced by the sidewalk ending and so I made my way across the road averting death. 

Ultimately, the Contraption Captain found me by the side of the road standing with my bicycle, demoralized and disconsolate.  Rapunzel silently offers me some of her Halloween candy. 

It's been a week and now I can admit that yes, it was pretty funny.  Not at the time but in retrospect at least.  The frantic biking up and down the trail and over the highways.  The joggers dressed entirely in black who would appear and disappear like ninjas.  The dying cell phone. 

Contraption Captain told me that the place I was supposed to get off the trail was basically a parking lot behind an apartment building and he is not surprised that I didn't see it.  Probably he is just being nice but it still cheered me up. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What part of "no" don't you understand?

I've been on very good behavior for over a week after letting someone have it in such an angry way that I had to sit myself down later for a talking.

After work, the Contraption Captain and I bicycle towards each other and when we meet (usually in Palo Alto) he turns around and we often pull over for a minute or two.   When he comes up beside me we signal and then pull into a parking space to avoid blocking bicycle or car traffic.  We get off our bicycles and are hugging when I am briefly and unpleasantly startled to see that there is a white car wedging itself in behind us.  I say "wedging" because we are in a single parking spot and the car has it's ass in the road and it's nose in the piece of the parking place that we are not using.

The person in the white car rolls down their window and yells "Can you move forward?"

Forward is the driveway to a parking garage.  I don't want to be in the driveway for the parking garage.  I want to be in the parking space, where I am already parked, and I want to be left alone.  Also, I'm mad.  Really mad.  I say in a very unfriendly voice "No.  I can't."  To me the matter has been settled and I begin the important business of handing my laptop bag over to the Contraption Captain.  He has panniers and I do not and I am happy to give my back a break.

The person in the white car tries again "How about you move forward about three feet?"

So here I am in a parking space that happens to be a loading/unloading zone where people can park for twenty minutes.  We have our bicycles in the spot.  We have hugged.  We are loading and unloading.  The entire operation is going to take about three minutes and yet before thirty seconds is up someone wants me to move?  I take a deep breath and bellow "Jesus Christ!!  What is your problem???  WAIT YOUR FUCKING TURN!  What part of "NO" don't you understand you dumb broad?"

I'm really really angry.  Usually when I'm angry it is because someone has done something that makes me think I am about to die.  That wasn't it this time, this was new.  I was angry because no matter how tiny a piece of real estate I command as a bicyclist, there always seems to be someone who is telling me that it is way way too much and I should give it all back to their very deserving 4-door sedan.

The cars honk and shout if the bicyclists ride side by side and try and talk to each other.  The skinny little bicycle lanes of Toronto take up too much room and need to be torn out.  When I try and make my way across the road, signalling that I want to take a left someone may shout at me that I am in the way.  When I am pedaling to a red light a Dodge Charger roars by in the passing lane and then slams to a stop in front of me upset that I slowed them down however briefly.  If bicyclists stand out too much we are behaving dangerously but if we blend in too much we get run over.  And finally, if we move our bicycles into a parking space, away from the busy road and away from the crowded sidewalk there is still going to be someone standing behind us insisting that we should move forward.

Once I understood why I was mad it mostly went away.  I'm still bicycling, still enjoying the beautiful evening air.  I have a new helmet and some new lights and a new rear-view mirror.  I know that many regard my tiny piece of real estate to be way too huge but I am not giving it up.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Part 2. There is probably some truth to that "it's not if, it's when" stuff

First off I had no intention of leaving a cliffhanger.  Two things happened:  one was that I was so totally demoralized I couldn't really write.  The other is that I re-read my previous post and all the typoes made me wonder if a nine year old had taken possession of my hands.  I hope not because a nine year old running my hands would have serious repercussions for my work performance.

It's true about how bad news travels fast and that's how one day you find yourself getting a message from one co-worker that there has been an accident and another co-worker, who happens to be an avid motorcyclist, has been hurt.

I get this bad news and I'm really really upset.  I've known this co-worker since before moving to California and he's a good guy with a family and now I am sitting there worrying that he is out on the road or at an ER maimed or paralyzed or worse and despite my having a supremely bad attitude about anything motorized I actually can't stand to see anyone suffer an injury greater than a little humiliation at the hands of an angry middle-aged bicyclist.

But I am more than just upset that someone has been hurt and to get why you have to understand that this co-worker takes motorcycle safety to the nth degree.  He wears state of the art protective gear.  He trains on a track with a coach.  He's been riding for something like twenty years without incident.  He really really loves to ride his motorcycle and at the same time he comes across as rock solid clear on the dangers of it and so he hedges his bets as best he can with good practices and good gear and training.  What he does to protect himself, those are his walls.

I have my walls against death and dismemberment as well.  My bicycle walls against the world are careful practices, good lights, a safe-ish route, a helmet, a reflective jacket, a loud voice, an understanding of car behavior (maybe) and an absence of headphones.  

Back to my co-worker.  We find out that his head and back are okay.  We find out that his hand and foot are quite injured.  One toe will be amputated.  Several fingers will be wired back into place.  He's at the ER, surgery will follow.

My response to this is relief (he's not dead) and then a creepy progression towards minimizing.  One toe?  Well, there are still nine others, right?  One toe doesn't sound all that grievous.  I manage to hold on to this very comforting position up until I am treated to a picture of his foot sans big toe and needing a skin graft.  Hint:  it looks like it hurts.  A lot.

It's been weeks now and I haven't been able to write about this and as an aside he has not been able to return to work much either.  I wanted to write about how my co-worker loves to ride his motorcycle, as I love to bicycle, and he tried to keep back the wall of larger vehicles but ultimately one got through.  He was hit by a car in an intersection; he was going straight, they turned into him.  It's a classic bicycle accident, the hook, I can't help but notice.

So I am thinking about what I want to say, about bicycling and tricking ourselves into thinking we'll be ok and cars and I am in a bicycle lane and I see a squirrel dart into the street and I just have time to yell when the next car hits it and I see it's body half crushed and as I bicycle by it's shuddering in this sickening death twitch.  I stop my bicycle and then continue on and although I hate being this way I cry because I feel so awful about this squirrel and I think about the blank expression on the driver's face as she rolled over an animal and went on without hesitation.   The Contraption Captain is always very nice when I unhinge in this manner so at the next traffic light I cry and he pats my back and I slowly stop seeing that awful moment of impact.

A shiny Mercedes pulls up.  A window rolls down.  Really.  Because when I'm upset there is nothing I enjoy more than a driver telling me that I'm doing it wrong.  An over-coiffed man informs me in what he thinks is a nice way that he's a doctor and perhaps he can help because obviously I am on a bicycle and having a nervous breakdown and he has his MD and is in a shiny car.

I collect myself and say in a reasonable voice that I saw a squirrel get run over and I'm upset.  The MD says in what he thinks is a helpful way that when the squirrel gets hit it cannot process what has happened to it, the vastness of the trauma.

I don't know what to say to this.  The Contraption Captain uses the word "fuck" which is totally unlike him.  I don't say that it is my understanding that when massive trauma gets inflicted on a human shock gives them some protection from what is happening.  It doesn't provide me any comfort at all that if I get squished into the grill of a Toyota Tundra I won't fully be able to appreciate the extent of my injuries.

So here's the deal.  When they came for the squirrels no one said anything because hey, squirrels, who cares, right?  When they came for the opossums and the raccoons no one said anything then either because who cares.  Then they came for our cats and our dogs and we were kindof bummed out.  And they've come for our children and they say "we didn't see him|her" and we go along with that for some misbegotten reason.  They have come for the motorcyclists.  They've come for the bicyclists, they have definitely come for the bicyclists and they say that we ran that light or we were not wearing a helmet or we had it coming or we "took our chances."

They are the cars on the road and at this point, they've come for everyone.  For each other even.  I don't have a plan here other than if they come for me and you find out?  Don't paint a bicycle white.  Don't send flowers.  Rise up.  Take back your roads.  Slash tires and set fires.  Tear down signs and stop traffic.  Blockade highways.  Because some day, some where, we must end the way they come for us and kill us and continue on up the road.