Friday, April 4, 2014

the life you save may be your own

Yesterday I am riding home, and the weather is pretty good, and I am looking forward to going to the open house at my daughter's school, and I don't want to be late, and then I see something flash past just to the right of my wheels.  My brain rewinds and plays through the image again and what I think I have seen is a very small bird sitting in the bicycle lane.  

Bicyclists are close to everything, only pedestrians are closer and both parties see a lot of dead and injured animals.  On a bad day we see the shocking moment when an animal is killed and a car keeps on driving.  I know I should go back but I dread the misery of finding a terrified and dying animal.  Still I turn around.

It's a very tiny hummingbird.  It is sitting in the middle of the bicycle lane facing four lanes of busy and loud rush hour traffic.  I swear by anything holy that it's eyes are fixed in this total thousand yard stare as it appears to gaze listlessly at the steady stream of cars going by at about 35mph a few feet from it's head. Not without some dithering I prop up my bicycle and get between the bird and the traffic so as not to startle it into the road.  Then after more dithering (plus the anxious mooing noise I make when I am nervous and worried about doing the wrong thing) I kneel down and very gently scoop the bird into my hand.  It sits there, uncomplaining.  

Next I peer all over and around me looking for adult hummingbirds and looking for a nest I can boost this guy back into.  The only close tree is huge and high and over my head.  Maybe it has a nest.  Maybe not.  I call the Contraption Captain, the bird in one hand and the phone in the other.  I end up taking a small to-go container from my backpack and gently and apologetically I transfer the bird into the container and the container into my backpack.  

I continue towards home, meeting up with the Contraption Captain.  About a mile from the house we start hearing squeaking noises.  We think it's my bicycle but at a traffic light we realize - it's the bird.  

At the house we consult the internets and Contraption Captain fixes up some healthy (we hope) food for the guy.  We all take turns feeding him.  The bird's beauty and fragility - you can't be near to it and not feel something in your heart, I think.  For feeding we lightly touch the back of the bird's head and his tongue sticks out and then we present him with an eyedropper of the food and his tongue does that crazy crazy thing as he sucks up the nectar.  

The bird starts looking a little more hopeful.  Ok maybe not but I start feeling more hopeful.  He (or she) makes it through the night and eats a bunch more and shows some interest in flying.  As I write this he is en route to a further out town (by car alas) where there is a wildlife rescue that already has five of these little guys.  They will make sure he (or she) is grown up enough and stable enough and strong enough and then the bird will be released close to where he (or she) was found.  

I m fantastically happy about this.  So often I arrive too late, or without the right skills, or without the right tools to do anyone or any animal any good.  Just this once though I was in the right place at the right time and I am hopeful that a lovely little life was saved.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Engineers (at least in my part of the world) really love their tee-shirts.  We love a tee-shirt paying homage to a favorite movie.  We love a tee that reminds us of a project we worked on.  A tee shirt commemorating a major outage is always full of win, really.  A tee shirt that sends up someone else's text editor of choice is even more win.  I just had a birthday and I got two fantastic tee-shirts and I am totally psyched.  

Here is a picture of one of my favorite tee-shirts.  Get it?  GET IT?  DO YOU GET IT?   I LOVE THIS SHIRT.

Some of the tee-shirts I see are a little creepy.  I know a senior engineer who periodically wanders around wearing a shirt that says "go away or I'll replace you with a tiny script."  But hey, just a tee-shirt.  Covers the nipples and adds some warmth and a pretty affordable thrill in an expensive life.  

Fast forward (and I mean really fast, really forward) to the people driving cars.  I watch these guys a lot.  You could say with some accuracy that my life depends on watching these guys so I am more attentive, more perceptive when it comes to observing the American Car Driver.   

What do I notice?  They don't seem very happy.  This is the bay area, where money rains from trees (haha, no actually) and so I am looking at some very high end cars but to this particular piercing scrutiny I notice that the people behind the wheel of the Porsche Carreras look like the people behind the wheel of the Toyota Corollas.  Bummed.  Disappointed.

Study the people around you and report back if they look like the people I see.  The people I am looking at are sortof sagging back into themselves, two chins become three, three become four.  Their mouths are fixed in a thin squeezy line.  The stare straight ahead.  Many will have a phone in one hand and they study it, their heads bowed and their lower lip drooping a little.  

Back to tee-shirts.  Do you follow xkcd?  It's even better than tee-shirts.  And one of my favorite xkcd graphics is about tee-shirts.  Someone I used to work with got the tee-shirt with that comic and wore it in to work.  It was a little uncomfortable.  

The idea I have as I study these alternately glum, angry, resigned, deadened drivers is that their cars are their tee-shirts.  Maybe if their car is sporty enough someone will love them.  Maybe if their car is luxurious enough they'll feel posh.  Maybe if their car is special enough, someone will finally think they are special.  And they're sad and hopeless because no matter what car they buy they are still themselves.  Ageing.  Lonely.  Misunderstood.  Frustrated.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

what it's like, what it's like

I was riding home from work last week and there were these haunting delicate hints of wisteria in the air.  I could smell the dampness of the coming rain and the fried smells from In 'n' Out and the spicy smell of a Chipotle.  People who picture California may see Big Sur in their head or maybe the Golden Gate Bridge or Silicon Valley even but for people living here it is obviously more prosaic and I pedal past Costco, REI, several fast food restaurants and a bunch of gas stations as I make my way to and from work.  Yet in this very ordinary of worlds I notice the smells of trees and flowers...and last week I realized with surprise that the streams of people going by in their cars couldn't smell anything but the insides of their cars.  Body odor.  Shampoo.  Maybe new leather.

Because I am not in a metal box I get every noise un-muted and every scent unbound.  I think it must be like this for dogs.  They get all this information and one day they wake up and notice that everyone around them is oblivious.  The cars miss out on a lot of things (including some truly nasty smells that they generate) and they miss out on what they should be looking for (a kid running out into the road) and they also miss out on quieter things, like that the wisteria growing on the Costco building is in pastel lavender bloom.

A video made the rounds of my bicycle circles, it was a supposedly comic (not to the bicyclists obviously) duo ragging on how horrible bicyclists are, how they shouldn't be allowed on the road, how stupid lycra is blah blah blah.  I'm not linking to it because (a) we've hard it all before and (b) I got no wish to drive traffic to a troll.  I've been trolled by the best and this was no quality trolling - just two weak lazy people preying off an underclass.  I know these comic car people don't care about what it's like to be a bicyclist, but if I could corner them this is a version of what I would say.

You get up.

You get into your car.

You back out of your driveway and head out onto a shared road.  To your right is a slim bicycle lane and to the far right is an even narrower path for pedestrians and to your left is the road for trains.

These are special trains, they don't need a track.  The newest generation of these trains not only does not need a track, they are extra wide so as to be very comfortable for the passengers.  A train can carry up to sixteen people but it is more typical for it to have just a driver.  Unfortunately the extra width does mean that on narrower roads there is little room between you and the train, so you should be careful.

Did I mention the trains travel at 220mph?  They are much faster and more efficient than your car.

Technically the trains are supposed to stop at red lights and stop signs but sometimes they just slow down.

Periodically your lane will disappear and pick up on the other side of the train lane.  So then you have to look in your mirror and cross the train lane.  Some trains don't mind this and might yield to you but others get angry and speed up.

If you're unlucky the train driver is drunk or on strong prescription tranquilizers in which case they might not see you or even worse, get confused and start driving in your lane.

Of course if their lane is congested the trains will often drive in the car lane anyway.

On older roads there isn't enough room or train and car so they have just one lane and the trains ae supposed to be careful when they pass you.  Yeah that works well.  Not.

People in cars are encouraged to wear helmets because if you get hit by a train you are going to need some protection for your head.

Periodically a car gets hit by a train.  It's sad but really, what do the car drivers expect sharing the road with something so much heavier than themselves???  You have to wonder who would take a chance like that.

There you go.  What it's like.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

well, that was depressing

Q:  Are you still a bicyclist?
A:  Yes.

Q:  You stopped writing?
A:  Yeah a bit.  The aforementioned friend died after the long illness.  My friend's daughter had a severe complication during labor and it looks as if the baby is brain damaged as a result.  I found all of this sobering.

Q:  And now?
A:  I'm in less of a dark mood.  I am excited that my favorite route to work which is seasonally closed may be open for bicycle business again in a few weeks.  

Q:  Anything interesting to report?
A:  I've seen a lot of car accidents in the past months!  They all roughly translate to "I was driving too fast and I hit another car and now I'm very sorry."  As I bike by the people standing next to their crumpled vehicles I think "I hope you learned something from this experience."  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

your baby would probably be a better driver

One of the weirder aspects of bicycling (for me) is that it makes me very happy (peace!  love!  pedaling!  beautiful sunset!) and very scared (omg please don't back over me!) all at the same time.  Add to this that my sense of humor has never been entirely correct and you get a bicyclist (me) pedaling deliriously up a bike lane (oh bike lane, how I love thee, despite half of you being taken up by broken pavement and smashed up bits of car!) and alternating between crying unhappily (you killed that little cat you miserable fuckers!) and laughing (the sky is peach and blue and streaked with unicorns!) ...cheerfully.

Fortunately cars don't see bicyclists so I can behave erratically without fear of social repercussions.

I am sitting at a red light, wondering what I will eat for breakfast.  I'm a mammal.  Decisions like this are very dear to me.  The light turns green and I roll forward and clip in and begin pedaling.  I've made it about six feet when the road, and the bicycle lane I am in, veer slightly to the right.  No problem!  I've been turning my bicycle in different directions for about forty years now.  Yes.  Problem.  The giant shiny white Range Rover (does anyone else hate those things?) says "fuck turns in the road, I got shit to do" so instead of following their big wide freshly paved lane they roll into my crappy skinny broken up lane forcing me against a curb where I almost but don't quite un-clip before tipping onto my side.  I right myself and pedal on.

At the next red light the Range Rover is conveniently waiting for me.  "Hi to you too" I mutter dangerously as I scan it's snowy white rear end.  The rest of the world sees a white SUV.  I see a small mountain of rancid lard that's beached itself and is quietly grumbling and farting.

A magnet (I love these things!) on the back says "BABY ON BOARD."  I check to see if a baby is driving the SUV, as overall that would explain a lot and maybe even convince me to give this SUV a pass.  No baby.  Driver looks to be your usual blah blah female who is right now poking at her smart phone as she desperately whiles away the two minutes of otherwise unstructured traffic light time.   I lean over and casually pick the "Baby" magnet off the SUV and toss it under another car.  There.  Fixed that for you.

I told this story to a friend shortly after it happened and he was amazed.  "Don't they notice?"  And the fun thing is: They do not!  Cars notice like...nothing.  I honestly think I could drop trou and take a dump (sorry, vulgar, but cars, especially American cars, are super vulgar and you should speak their language don't you think?) on an offending bumper and no one would notice.

Don't push me or I might test this theory out.  Would be a fun headline if I got arrested that's for sure.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

you have fucked with the wrong bicyclist

I have worked really hard to control the vitriolic outbursts that I direct at cars that behave dangerously towards me and mine.  

I know that if you get mad at someone who is, relatively speaking, holding a loaded howitzer you might get shot so it is important to control your temper.  I know on some level that if I chew out a car driver they may abuse a bicyclist further down the road and I would not like that.  I suspect that cars don't learn very much when shout questions about their sexual prowess and strongly suggest that no one wants to go to bed with them and so they drive like a douchebag to compensate.  

I know I should (probably) get behaviors like this under control.  I really do know this.

For awhile things went very smoothly!  I had this great alternate route that was totally car free and you would be amazed at how peaceful and pleasant I was.  I even slowed down a little so I could, you know, smell the flowers as I pedaled along.  Once a bunch of old ladies decided to have an impromptu yoga class that covered the entire path.  Did I get upset?  No, mon ami, I was absolutely serene and I even walked my bicycle around them.  It turns out that I'm not a walking talking volcano waiting for a chance to go all pyroclastic on people, I'm pretty easy-going right up until someone makes me think that my body is about to be smashed to pieces.  Then I get upset.  And if I get scared that my kid is going to be smashed to pieces?  I get really upset.  

So it is Christmas Eve day (yes, alas) and beloved older daughter actually has a soccer practice.  We decide that we will all bicycle to the practice and that we will then go downtown and wander around until it is time to retrieve older daughter and bike back to our home for more low key cheerful festivities like wrapping presents and making cocoa.

Often with me I am doing ok and then some car is mean and I cope but the next car that steps out of line I really go off on.  On this occasion, just outside the high school, a big red pick-up truck wanting to take a right on red gets mad at us for pedaling through and guns the engine as he passes, startling me.  I don't like being startled.

We get closer to downtown.  The town library is to our left and also a park.  On our right is a cafe and bookstore and we have a big street to cross and then we are in the downtown proper.  I tell you this so that you understand that I am not walking up an interstate here, I am in a totally ordinary place for a mom and her family to be.  

There is no bicycle lane and so we are pedaling single file (because cars love it when we are single file, right?  RIGHT?) towards a red light.  Contraption Captain is first.  Then beloved honorary daughter.  Then my darling Rapunzel on her new red bicycle that looks totally frigging awesome.  Then me, at the back watching my rear view mirror like a mother hawk.  Did I mention that the light was totally red?  It was red.  No one was going to get much of anywhere.  But what do I hear?






What.  Are you...are you...honking

You are honking at me.  And my husband.  And.  My.  Girls.

It's about to go down.


I stop my bicycle and I turn around in time to see the car behind me give it one last honk.  I get off my bicycle and start walking towards the car.  Contraption Captain tells me later that he saw all of this in his rear view mirror and thought..."uh-oh."  I am aware of the kids and I know he has them.  I know I am going to take care of this car.

I get to the car.  It is no longer honking.  Actually I think if this car could cross it's legs to avoid peeing itself it would.  It is a very quiet car.  I gesture with a hard knife-like motion of my hand that the window should be rolled down.  The driver, an olderlady with giant black sunglasses pretends I am not there.

That is a mistake.  

I do not want the car to stomp on the gas and go over me or push by me and hit my family so in a weirdly lucid moment I lie down across the hood of the car, my bicycle held delicately to one side.

Yes.  Really.  I mouth the words "put.  down.  your.  window."

The window rolls down.  I walk over like a cop ready to issue a ticket.  The words hiss out of me as if I were a cobra and my voice is very low and very dangerous.  I say.  "What is your problem."

The driver knows she is fucked.  She starts saying "you were right there in the middle of the lane making it impossible to get by."

I smile and it is not a nice smile.  My low dangerous voice says "We are in the lane for people going straight because we are going straight.  SHALL I call the police?  Let's call the police.  Let's ask them where we were supposed to be bicycling here."

The driver does not want to call the police.

I on the other hand love the idea.  "Let's call the police!  Let's tell them how you harassed my family, how you threatened us with your car, how you honked and honked at a red light because you wanted us to get out of your way!  Let's call the police right now and talk to them about this!"

And the driver says, "I'm sorry."

And I love the words.  But not quite enough to let her go because I can sense that she is sorry that a middle aged woman is chewing her a new one but is not yet sorry that she drives like a mean selfish monster.  Her car is purring soft classical music.  I tell her to turn it off.  I tell her that I am out here, bicycling with my family, hoping to do a little shopping and that there she is is in such an incredible hurry to get to a red light that she has to lean on her horn and make me wonder if she is going to kill my beautiful daughters just so that she can get to her hair appointment thirty seconds faster.  I tell her that I am ashamed for her.  

She points out hopefully that the light is green?

I hiss "I'm.  Not.  Done.  With.  You."

Interestingly enough, the cars waiting for that green light behind her do not even breathe.  For just this once I have everyone's undivided attention.  I tell her to stop driving like a monster and I tell her that she will stop harassing bicyclists and that now I am going to pedal off with my family and if she knows what is healthy for her she will give us a great deal of space.  And all of a sudden I am done.  I back away from the car and I walk my bicycle back to where my family is waiting for the light to turn back to green.  When it does we pedal quietly through the intersection with the now very quiet are far behind us.  I tremble for another thirty minutes or so but in the end I am ok, and maybe I should be sorry for dressing down an impatient car.  But.  I'm not.  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

waiting for the light

I'm heading home from work (again) and I am stopped at a red light and zoning out.  The bicyclist to my left is this tough old guy on a steel frame road bicycle.  We nod politely at each other.  I notice that he is studying me.  I turn towards him and he admits, embarrassed, that the way the light was falling across my face made it look as if I had a black eye, but I do not have a black eye.  He has this old school accent, like what I imagine California in 1940 to have been.  I smile and say some pleasantry about the evening.

A propos of nothing he says, this time without looking towards me, "Do you like cars?"  It comes out more as "Dew yoo lahk carz?"
I turn and look at him very directly, no smile on my face at all.  With a ghost of a Boston accent hovering between us I reply seriously, "No.  I do not."
The other bicyclist nods,  satisfied and equally serious.  "Me neither."

Friday, January 24, 2014

small peaceful moments in time

2013 was the year I made peace with other bicyclists.  I used to get bothered if someone passed me on my left as I waited at a stop sign.  I used to get childishly annoyed if a faster bicyclist went in front of me.  I'd get huffy if I saw a mother riding without a helmet.  I didn't like people on electric bicycles.  There was an entire litany of sins and annoyances that I would levy against the other bicyclists.

Then I decided to stop caring about the actions of other bicyclists.  I reasoned that they were not a threat to me the way cars were a threat and I decided that their presence, even if it was an uneven one, ultimately made me safer.

At first I had to grit my teeth and fake it.  I'd be pedaling through an intersection with the right of way and a bicyclist with no lights would cut across in front of me, out of nowhere, and startle me.  I loathe being startled.  But I didn't say anything, just clenched my jaw tight to keep the obscenities leashed.

And a funny thing happened.  I progressed from pretending to not care to actually not caring and from there I progressed to wishing these other bicyclists well, to hoping they had a good and safe ride.

So it is a few weeks before Christmas and I am on my way home from work and it is quite dark.  The road is a residential one and very bike friendly, both legs of it actually take you to different bicycle bridges.  The road forks and I need to go left.  Approaching me is a bicyclist who if she continues on towards me, has the right of way.  To my left is a car waiting at a stop.  Both of us bicyclists have the right of way over the car but I am watching the care carefully because I don't trust it to wait for us and I effectively have to cut in front of it to make my turn.

The bicyclist goes right.  I make my left turn.  The car guns it's engine with frustration at having to wait twelve seconds for two bicyclists (TWO.  TWO.) and then peels away and a moment later I almost collide with a third bicycle.  I am spooked because I pride myself on seeing everything around me and I have zero clue where this guy came from.  Zero.  I swerve around him and I say nothing and I feel no hostility, I'm just trying to get around and on my way and not have a collision.

The dark mystery bicyclist is now just behind me and he says in a self-deprecating way, "A light would probably have made that easier."  I turn to look at him.  He's a young guy in office like clothes on an ordinary bicycle.  I say "Lights help, yes."  And then.  "I think I have an extra.  Want one?"

He can't believe it.  He's ridiculously happy.  He tells me he had a light but someone stole it and he hadn't replaced it.  I show him how the neoprene ones  go on and off very easily.  We turn the light on.  It flashes a happy red.  He thanks me profusely.  He tells me that he was attending Stanford Medical school but is on leave to develop a drug that he thinks will halt the progression of a rare disease.  I tell him, gently, that this is all the more reason to have lights on his bicycle.  He agrees and we ride together for awhile and he thanks me so often it gets embarrassing.

If you have not already, turn and make peace with the bicyclists around you.  They are the ones with whom you truly share the road.  The forces lined up against us are too strong for us to be able to tolerate being divided.  We belong together.