Thursday, December 13, 2012

Healing: Looking Forward to Pain

Two down, two to go: I’m halfway through having my right arm in a sling for 4 weeks. My rotator cuff is re-anchored and, now, tight as a drum – but healing. Surgery and post-op pain have been minor inconveniences. The happy miracle was the effectiveness of a yoga breathing technique: long deep belly breaths, using an image of sending healing prana into the pain, and removing it through the breath. I was amazed that as few as 2 rounds of this breathing technique TOTALLY removed the pain and was relieved to need no drug stronger than ibuprofen…and a lot of ice.

During the first week, every small daily task I’d taken for granted as an able-bodied person took forever. Getting dressed, eating, and bathing all take a lot longer with one hand. I moved the computer mouse to the left, but learning to use it with my non-dominant hand, to click and drag, much less type, felt awkward and was frustratingly s…l…o…w.

But by week two, I felt more energetic and started to go for little walks around the neighborhood, ride my stationary bike, and make a few trips by public transport. Over the weekend, in desperation to get out of the house and see a movie, I took two buses to see The Other Son – a moving tale of switched identities between an Israeli and a Palestinian, and what they and their families learned about each others’ cultures. But it was a lovely day and the hour-long, not-exactly-direct, bus trip would have taken just half an hour by bike (not to mention being free).

When I’m out, I look wistfully at the cyclists, taking trips in this still-mild winter weather. Every day, I force myself to get on the stationary bike. It burns calories, it tones my muscles, it works my heart, but there is no joy in the activity, as there is whenever I ride my “real” bike. And, of course, I don’t get anywhere on it. No matter how long I ride, I’m still sitting in my basement, drenched in sweat. I miss the momentum, the sun and wind on my face, the things I see, the places I go, and even the prickling cold fingers and ears. Several times this week, as I’ve been getting ready for a short walking errand, the thought has flashed through my head: how hard would it be to ride my bike 1-handed? But I quickly squelch that rogue thought. I wouldn’t be comfortable riding with one hand, even if the other wasn’t confined to a sling. I’m not about to risk a crash and mess up my newly repaired shoulder.

I know that I’ll ride my real bike again and that, eventually, I’ll be able to stretch my right arm above my head, lift heavy objects, and invigorate my whole body with a downward-facing dog pose. So I cultivate patience, looking forward to starting the painful, grueling process of PT next week. Unlike riding my stationary bike, at least I’ll be getting somewhere.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cycle Chic...Moi?

I am generally as far from “cycle chic” as it gets. My typical commute is 10 miles and I sweat like a pig – even in cold weather. So biking in work clothes…I don’t think so. Besides, comfort is more my style, and I’m usually clad in lycra or fleece – depending on the season. However, if I’m just riding my bike to the metro, I try to wear my “normal” clothes (which aren’t very chic, but a cut above sweat pants).

But this morning, I was taking the Arlington wiggle to the Ballston metro – about a 3-mile ride and it was brisk, but not too cold. On a whim, I put on black tights, short little boots and a claret-colored Betsey Johnson dress with a swingy skirt that I nabbed for a couple dollars in an Olympia, WA thrift store. Topped off with a tight black jacket and a scarf wound round my neck, I took off about 8:20 a.m. feeling, well, chic.

The “wiggle” takes me through my Arlington, VA neighborhood, and I was just in time for the elementary school bus pick-ups. The streets were swarmed with the big yellow monsters, and there were loads of kids with their parents clustered at the bus stops. I secretly hoped that I was inspiring the bus stop kids to beg their parents to let them bike to school, feeling like a good role model for the joys of bike riding.

Maybe it was my imagination, or perhaps it was my good mood – feeling so light and free on my bike, and having my current favorite song-to-bike-to come on Pandora (J Band, Take Our Turn – I don’t care if it is about Jesus) but I definitely think I got a lot more smiles from people while I was wearing my “chic” outfit. Is there something about wearing lycra that creates a subliminal (if not totally conscious) antipathy in non-bikers? Are all people in lycra associated with the obnoxious and impatient racer-types who cut in and out of traffic and seem grimly intense in their pursuit of speed? Or is it just that people still prefer to see a woman in a dress than in sports gear?

In any case, it made me re-think this whole “cycle chic” debate. I have to say, riding in tights and a loose, swingy, stretchy skirt was as comfortable as could be. Sadly, it was really, truly my last ride before shoulder surgery, but once I’m out of the sling, I may rethink my bike attire, trying to add some more “normal” clothes for short trips and see if the smiles are sustained.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Car Free?

            I’ve now been car free for about half an hour, having just signed over the title to my 2005 Prius to my 19-year-old daughter. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around – the young people relying on bikes and public transit and the older generation tied to our cars? But I won’t proclaim car freedom yet, as this is the beginning of an experiment. And my timing of becoming car free is hardly carefree.

            On Thursday I undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, so I will hardly be going anywhere for several weeks. I wouldn’t be driving anyway, nor will I be biking. That made this morning’s bike commute especially poignant, as it may be the last, or one of the last for the year. So public transit will be my new best friend – at least I hope it will be more friend than foe

            In any case, I still had many fresh-looking bouquets of flowers from my daughter’s pre-Thanksgiving dumpster dive at Trader Joe’s. So I strapped them to the back rack of my bike with 2 bungee cords and had a colorful ride to work. I shared the bounty with my office colleagues and, I hope, brightened the morning commute for others on the bike path and the streets of downtown D.C.

            I noticed that the entrance to the south side of the National Mall is now open, so I rode that nice smooth stretch, which I haven’t done in months – having been riding along the north side. It felt like old times to ride around the WWII Memorial, before heading toward the Pennsylvania Avenue velobahn. The pre-inaugural resurfacing is in progress, so the bike lanes are so much smoother, but a bit scary without lane markings. And they seem to have changed the timing of the lights to prevent zooming down the avenue – or perhaps I was just slow, being mindful of the flowers. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the brisk morning and felt happy to count myself among the balaclava brigade of cold-weather cyclists.

            My daughter plans to spend the next month driving back to the West coast, visiting friends and family along the way. Once she registers the car, she will send back to me my prized YOGINI vanity plates. They won’t go up for grabs for 90 days – giving me that much time to decide whether they will adorn my wall as a reminder of my driving days, or whether I will break down and get a new Prius. I plan to take advantage of my Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) discount on a Zipcar membership, and perhaps join Car2Go, as well, as I saw they have a $10 deal on membership.

            In addition to having constrained transportation options for the next month or so, I will also have keyboard limits, as my right arm will be immobilized in a sling. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the long period of rehab, but I am motivated to get well enough to get back on the bike, to carry it up and down the stairs, to lift it onto and off of the bus rack, and wall rack and, of course, not to experience pain during simple getting-dressed movements.
            In anticipation of going (at least temporarily) carless, I stocked up on heavy items, like dog food, laundry soap, a big jug of olive oil, and pounds of nuts. I took the dogs to the groomer and to the vet. But I really want to take this time as an experiment, not berating myself if I ultimately decide that the car free life is not for me, or at least, not yet.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How Could Anyone Want More?

            My dumpster-diver daughter is home for a visit. She knows from experience that the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving will yield an extraordinary haul at Trader Joe’s – which is closed on the holiday and likely to have overstocked in advance. I heard her coming home in the middle of the night, and figured she’d gone to check it out. What a surprise I came downstairs to this morning: a veritable flower shop in my living room.

            The day dawned sunny and crisp, perfect for a bike ride. There were a few things I needed from the store to supplement the dumpster haul. I strapped panniers on my workhorse bike and rode to the Harris-Teeter that’s 5 miles from home, instead of the one that’s just half a mile away, wanting to enjoy a glorious ride. Families walking, children playing, and other cyclists presumably out for a pre-pig-out ride populated the bike path and adjacent parks and playgrounds.

I didn’t really have to go to the store today, but I knew that I would in the next few days and figured I’d take advantage of the Thursday senior discount, which I now qualify for. Why not? Of course, I’m grateful that I’m still fit and energetic enough to bike 10 miles in pursuit of food, now that I’m a “senior.”

We won’t be having a traditional Thanksgiving. My daughter and her friend are ardent Anarchists who object to the celebration of a Colonialist holiday – especially one that presaged the near-genocide of the Native American people. I agree with the political stance, but nevertheless, I enjoy setting aside this day to focus on all I have to be thankful for – not the least of which is a passionate, spirited child.

I tried to give away some of the flowers to local nursing homes, thinking the residents and staff might enjoy some brightness – but after calling around, no one seemed interested in taking them. So instead, I focused on designing a menu that would use the dumpstered ingredients to supplement the other foods on hand. I will admit that I was a bit squeamish when she first started bringing home dumpster food a few years ago. But having seen the perfectly good things that are thrown away – the huge quantities of waste – I’ve changed my mind (at least in cold weather). We’ll be having Brussels sprout soup, tossed salad, spanikopita, and the essential: pecan pie for dessert.

Listening to Pandora on my ride, I heard Barefoot Truth’s The Ocean, and thought it was a perfect Thanksgiving refrain:

Every now and then
I sit and I think about this life
And I say "yeah, how could anyone want more?"

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wiggle Room

True confessions: if I can avoid a hill, I’d just as soon do so. Well, at least the UP part of it. I felt like less of a wimp when I read the recent report on what bike riders really want. Turns out I’m not alone. Non-commuters will ride 1.7 flat miles to avoid 1 mile with a modest 2-4 percent upslope; even we hardy commuters will go 1.4 miles…and the steeper the slope, the greater lengths we’ll travel to avoid it.

For some time, I’d noticed that when I consulted Google maps to plan out a bike route, it suggested a zigzagging path through my neighborhood. I was in the habit of riding slightly farther, in order to get on the bike path as soon as possible, when I intended to travel east. When I take the path, the early stretch on the Custis Trail has a few steep up hills. When I go to the yoga studio, I usually take side streets, instead of the path, but still have three big hills to climb in the short 2.5-mile ride. When I looked up directions to yoga on Google, it again stubbornly recommended the strange zigzagging route, even though it was clearly longer.

Finally the light bulb went off. I remembered my excitement last summer when I learned about the San Francisco wiggle, a genius, east-west route through that city’s valleys, which allows bike riders to avoid the steeps ups and downs that characterize San Francisco. Could Google maps be kind and generous enough to be pointing me toward my own little Arlington wiggle?

In Google I should have trusted. This funny little zigzag through my neighborhood doesn’t avoid all hills, but it definitely minimizes the amount of climbing I must endure. Last Sunday I took the Arlington wiggle to the yoga studio – a slightly longer, but far less taxing ride. I also took it on a trip to Clarendon, where I purchased a brighter bike light (with a rechargeable battery, yay!) for these short days.

The wiggle is changing my life. One might be inclined to think it’s a change in the wrong direction – toward greater laziness and sloth. But I don’t see it that way. Some days I’m up for the challenge of hills and imagine I will still climb them – especially if I just want to take the most direct route or am feeling especially strong and energetic. But other days, the thought of those big climbs is enough to make me avoid the bike altogether. Knowing I have the option of the wiggle makes it easier to get on the bike. Once I start pedaling, who knows, maybe I’ll decide I’m up for the hills after all.

But I also realized that there are times when it’s better to take it a bit easier. Last week, I was fighting a cold, but nevertheless bike commuted a couple days in 40-ish degree weather. I could feel that I didn’t have my usual amount of stamina and, in retrospect, I think it would have been wiser to choose metro over bike. So today, I compromised. I didn’t bike the full 10 miles to work, but I also didn’t bike to my nearest metro stop, which is just under a mile from home. Instead, I biked to the next metro stop (Ballston) – an easy 3-mile ride (using the wiggle) – with the added advantage of a 70-cent fare reduction, each direction. Don’t laugh – those savings can add up and my new light was expensive! In any case, I’m glad to have a little extra “wiggle room” in my bike route options.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Biking Down in Dixie

          Even though I’ve lived below the Mason-Dixon Line my entire adult life, I was born and bred in Wisconsin and my identity is that of a Northerner. I pretend that the Washington D.C. and Arlington, Virginia neighborhoods I’ve lived in aren’t the “real” South. But a visit to my friend Janet’s lake house in rural North Carolina: that’s away down South in Dixie.

            This first weekend in November, the weather is temperate and the trees are just beginning to turn. But the sense of the South is most evident in the acres of cotton fields we pass on the way to the lake. The fluffy white balls cling to dry brown casings from which they’ve burst in snowy splendor. Low to the ground, planted in straight narrow rows, I can only imagine how back-breaking and hand-scarring the work of harvest was – back in the bad old days when it was done by slaves or sharecroppers.

            I didn’t bring my bike, but discover that Janet has a nice sturdy Trek that fits me fine, provided I lower the seat a few inches. Some air in the tires, and I take off, following the country roads with barely a car on them. There’s a mighty hill up from the lake. I can’t quite make it, having to hop off and walk up the last bit of it. Maybe my muscles were too relaxed – having had the treat of a much-needed two-hour massage this morning. Or maybe I’m just not challenging myself to climb enough hills at home. Either way, I continue on my solo ride – the crisp autumn air and bright sunlight making perfect riding weather.

            Past the cotton fields I discover tobacco growing, small wooden structures dotting the landscape that I guess may be drying sheds. My spirits sink as I round a corner to spy a Romney sign out by the road. Janet told me that, in 2008, some precincts in North Carolina went for Obama by a margin of just five votes. It turns out the margin wasn't quite that tiny, but pretty darn close (see link).,_2008 A cluster of trailers – not fancy ones – park on the field across the way and I wonder if their residents will vote and, if so, for whom.

            But the day is too lovely to waste in pointless fretting. I set up my laptop facing the lake, watching the ripples of water in constant gentle movement, sun touching the leaves across the lake – green and gold, with an occasional flame of red.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bicyclists Beware - It's Your Fault if You're Hit by a Texting Driver

It is the responsibility of a bicyclist to make sure that the driver of a car is not texting before the cyclist proceeds through an intersection – even if the cyclist has the right-of-way. That’s what I learned in court today.

Let’s back up. Two and a half years ago, my daughter, age 17 at the time, was struck by a car that failed to stop at a stop sign as my daughter was riding through the intersection on her bike. Yes, she was riding on the sidewalk (legal in our jurisdiction), and was doing so because she was riding along a very busy 4-lane road that is not safe for bikes. Yes, she assumed that the car, which was proceeding very slowly toward the intersection, would actually stop at the stop sign. (Crazy and irresponsible, right?)

The following facts were undisputed in the case. The driver did not see my daughter, even though she hit her with the FRONT of her car. The first time the driver saw my daughter was when she was lying on the ground, after being thrown behind the car, with a severely broken wrist and ruptured spleen (apparently a common bicycle injury when the handlebars are shoved into your gut).

I am not a litigious person, but decided to file a lawsuit after the driver’s insurance company refused to settle a claim and it became clear that my daughter’s injuries were continuing. My daughter spent a week in the hospital, was on bed rest an additional two weeks, on restricted activity for three months, and lost the lion’s share of her spleen. She has continuing pain and disability in the wrist of her dominant hand. We incurred $77,000 in medical expenses – most, but not all, of which were covered by insurance. The driver had a dented license plate and other minor damage to the hood of her tank-like Volvo.

But we have the misfortune of living in Virginia, which has an absurd standard for a plaintiff to meet. Even if the jury found that the driver of the car was negligent, (which she clearly was) they had to find in her favor if the other party could have contributed, even one percent, to the cause of the accident. They made the case, and convinced seven jurors, that a “reasonable person” would have known better than to proceed through an intersection, in which she, by law, had the right-of-way, if a car was approaching.

Get this: when the attorney for the driver made his closing argument, he maintained that IT WAS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE BICYCLIST TO MAKE SURE THAT THE DRIVER WASN’T DISTRACTED. He actually said: “What if the driver had been talking on her cell phone or texting?” He also maintained that, if a driver had to wait for every pedestrian to cross an intersection, “he’d be sitting there forever.”

Well, we wouldn’t want the driver of a car to have to “wait forever” for pedestrians (much less bicyclists) to cross. So – bike riders take note – we should stop at every intersection, dismount our bikes, make eye contact with the driver of every car, and make sure they are not sending an important text message as they approach stop signs (which we should never assume they will actually stop at). Because if they happen to mow us down, it’s our own fault.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fun in Philly

It’s hard to believe, but I had not been to Philly since the cycling yogi’s birthday in May. You see, he lives without air conditioning and the summer was, let’s face it, brutal. Even though I braved the heat and humidity to cycle all summer long, I’m not inclined to attempt sleep without air conditioned comfort. So my visit last weekend felt like old times, especially since I left the dogs at home and traveled via Amtrak. I was glad I walked, instead of biked, to Union Station, as every bike rack was full – some with three bikes crowded onto a single “staple.”

Union Station needs more free bike racks!

Some things had changed during my four-month absence. When I hopped the SEPTA train at 30th Street Station to head out to Mount Airy, there were shiny new rail cars, still sporting that “new car” scent – a huge relief after enduring the bad smell of noxious cleaning fluid on the Amtrak train. On Saturday, I was attending the Barrelhouse writers’ conference, located at the University of the Arts in Center City. I still don’t feel confident about finding my way this distance in Philly on my own, via bike. Fortunately, the cycling yogi is always happy to get an extra 10-20 miles of biking and he accompanied me.

I did not like that he avoided traffic by starting out with about a mile of very bumpy, gravelly, trail through the Wissahickon. Although I can’t say I enjoy riding in traffic, I also am no mountain biker and I had to take it very slowly, complaining the whole time. But our trip improved dramatically when we reached the 3-4 mile stretch of no-cars-on-weekends road along the Schuylkill River. That’s the biking life! As we reached the fringes of Center City, I noticed another change: a number of Green Lanes to clearly highlight the previously-existing bike lanes. However, despite the bright green, bicycle-emblazoned lane, a tour bus must have mistaken the bicycle symbol for a big stinkin’ bus, because he proceeded to hog the lane, driving erratically and spewing out exhaust fumes. I made a mental note to report him to his company, but, of course, I don’t remember its name.

There were bike racks galore the entire block in front of the University of the Arts building on Broad Street. However, about half of them were the old fashioned racks designed to stick the front tire between in a narrow slot. Sadly, today’s theft prevention precautions require use of a U lock to secure both the front tire and the frame to the bike rack. As the photo below clearly illustrates, the street-smart Philly bikers know this, as every bike was lifted over the rack, frame resting on top.

Philly cyclists know how to lock up
After my day of workshops, cycling yogi met me, as we’d planned a dinner-and-theater evening. But when I unlocked my bike, the front tire was completely flat. With the help of Siri, we located a bike shop just blocks from us. As it was almost 5:00, and we didn’t’ know how late the shop would be open, cycling yogi quickly detached the tire and carried it on his bike to the shop for repair. Here he is, elegantly bringing it back – good as new.

Isn't he cute?
 When the show was over, there was quite a downpour, and we rode our bikes fast down the sidewalks the mile or so to the SEPTA station. Fortunately, there were few pedestrians. On the new rail car I encountered yet another change. The conductor graciously escorted us to the door we were to enter, and proceeded to fold a long bench up along the wall of the car to reveal designated bike storage on the train! There was even an adjustable seatbelt contraption to strap the bike to the wall – although it was not long enough to secure both bikes. Nevertheless, our two bikes nestled against each other without dislodging.

Guess which bike is mine
A few stops later, two more bike riders came aboard and – surprise – the conductor flipped up the long bench across the aisle to accommodate two more bikes. What I wouldn’t give to have such luxurious amenities on D.C.’s metro!

Easy storage for 4 bikes

 I took the early train back on Monday morning. As I walked from Union Station to my office, I was waiting for the light to change at North Capitol Street. There were no cars moving through the intersection, so pedestrians were jumping out ahead of the changing light. But I could see a young woman on a bike approaching the intersection, with the light. Of course I waited for her to cross, noticing her nice red jeans and pink yoga mat tucked into her backpack. Realizing, I imagine, that it’s primarily fellow-cyclists who resist jumping out in front of an oncoming bike, she rewarded me with a knowing smile as she passed.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Another Guest Blog from the Cycling Yogi

Even though he objected last time to being referred to as my "partner," I am nice enough to share another guest blog from the cycling yogi - who thinks that "lover" better describes our relationship. Whatever...his observations can be read along with a recent article in the Philly Inquirer, claiming "more cyclists means fewer accidents"

With cyclist traffic up sharply, the city has set up 220 miles of bike lanes including these at 13th and Spruce Streets.

Photo Credit: RYAN S. GREENBERG / Staff
With cyclist traffic up sharply, the city has set up 220 miles of bike lanes including these at 13th and Spruce Streets.

When I started riding in the city forty-something years ago, there were no amenities for cyclists, and I learned to be bold and visible in traffic, giving clear signals and ever watchful for the motorist who wasn't. I had my routes and my habits and so, believe it or not, it kinda went right by me when, umpteen years ago, Philadelphia sprouted bicycle lanes.

Today for the first time, I discovered that Pine St has a full car-sized lane reserved for cyclists, that goes all the way across midtown from West to East. On the way home, I looked for a parallel route and sure 'nuff, found that Spruce St had the same deal East to West.

Both streets have converted what used to be two miles of parking spaces into a bicycle lane, and both have painted lines for a separator zone, a no-man's land about three feet wide. Lights are timed at 20 mph, a little faster than I can manage, but slower than the cars, which tend to zoom from one light to the next, then brake for the red and sit and wait.

As I discovered the bike lanes, I also discovered that they have become a favored landing for every FedEx truck and Coca-cola delivery in the neighborhood. Also people who were parking with their flashers on – just for a minute, I'm sure – while they wait for a date or run in to pick up a friend. Every three blocks or so, I ventured out into traffic to go around somebody or other.

In one place, traffic was tied up, and drivers were sorely tempted to slip into the bike lane to get around the snarl. So I got huffy. I yelled at a driver, and knocked on the roof of an encroacher as I passed him on the right. How quickly I have come to feel entitled!

At the end of the day, I waxed philosophical and came to think that bike lanes are less than perfect, more than useless. Perhaps the best thing they are is an agent for transformation of social attitudes. For now, the city cyclist must remain hyper-vigilant, with brakes at the ready. Most motorists will “be nice” to us, with some sense of liberal condescension. But few will acknowledge – on those rare occasions when we are more of an obstacle to them than they are to us – that we have an equal right to the pavement.

What Counts

            Last Thursday I had eagerly volunteered to help with Arlington County’s annual bicycle and pedestrian count. I was assigned to a busy location, and one that I cycle past almost daily – the beginning of the Custis Trail just after it forks out of the W&OD Trail. I was asked to position myself by the automatic counter, to help validate its accuracy. Although I was provided with an aerial map, I had a great deal of difficulty finding the right location – in large part because I had no idea what the automatic counter looked like.

            Being the diligent do-gooder that I am, I arrived at the intersection at 6:45 a.m. – but could not find where I was supposed to position myself. I rode up the Custis Trail, thinking that maybe the Arlington County fellow had a different idea of what “close to” meant. Let me mention here that, once you round a small bend with a little incline, you then must go up a fairly substantial hill, before which the careful cyclist must slow down considerably, as it requires a 90 degree turn, and downhill cyclists sometimes are found in the uphill lane. So, despite the pleasantly cool 61-degree morning, I was sweating by the time I made it up the hill – and still could not find an automatic counter. So I rode back down, thinking I must have missed it. Nope – I couldn’t find it. Back up the hill, sweating more than ever now – drenching both my “moisture wicking” under layer and the thermal top I wore over it.

            I rode farther, passing George Mason Drive – about a mile from the intersection of the two trails. There was another volunteer counter stationed there, so I felt certain that I had gone much too far. I stopped and showed her my map, and she told me to go back – that my location was, indeed, “very close” to the beginning of the Custis Trail. I still couldn’t find the counter and, by then it was 7:09. I had spent nearly 25 minutes riding back and forth – adding miles and hills to what was to have been a hill free commute day – as I was going on to Crystal City for a conference afterwards – an easier and shorter ride than my normal commute.

            So I plopped down close enough to what I thought was the right place, and started counting. Finally, at 7:53, the Arlington coordinator returned the frantic phone call I had placed at 6:45 – asking for more help in finding my location. He seemed angry that I was counting in the wrong place, reiterating that the manual counts were needed to verify the accuracy of the automatic counts. After being upbraided, downbraided, and generally humiliated, I told him, “ok – I’m just a big dummy!” After that he backed off a bit, and thanked me for VOLUNTEERING to help. He phone-talked me to the correct location, in time to begin recording by 8 a.m.

Finally - the automatic counter (and my nice bike)

             Amazing as it seems, the automatic counters have been on the path for a year and a half or two years and I NEVER ONCE NOTICED THEM. Now that I know what they look like, I am seeing them everywhere.

            But enough, too much, about my mishaps in finding the right location. The results were as follows. Of all the 275 people on bikes, only 13 percent were female. This is a disgraceful percentage and it made me very sad that so few women were on the path on a perfectly gorgeous morning. The percentage held for both the small number of cyclists traveling westward (17 percent) and the great majority traveling east – presumably commuting to D.C. As I had guessed through informal observation – the pedestrians were evenly split between men and women – but cyclists far outnumbered walkers and runners. I only observed 58 pedestrians, total.

            A few other factoids about the Arlington cyclists: out of 275 bikers, only 5 were not wearing helmets. There were only so many things I could keep count of, so I did not record the exact number who were in lycra compared to “street” clothes. But it’s safe to say that the great majority of riders were clad in sports gear. This did not surprise me, given that my location was nearly five miles from D.C. and, thus, most probably had a fairly substantial commute.

            All in all – despite my early confusion and my great disappointment at the small percentage of women who cycle – I enjoyed spending two hours as a volunteer counter. I got lots of friendly waves and smiles, I brought snacks to eat for breakfast, and I got to do some yoga during slow periods. Best of all was getting to see this little girl in a flowered dress on her Dora the Explorer bike, complete with training wheels, protected by a Little Mermaid helmet, accompanied by her dad toting her glittery pink backpack. At the other end of the age spectrum, I saw a heavyset middle-aged woman who had an unfortunate gear malfunction at the bottom of the hill and had to walk her bike up it. I gave her props for the effort and remembered the days – they seem so long ago now – when I had to walk my bike up the big hills, feeling humiliated, but determined.

Maybe she'll continue to be a lifelong bike commuter
            Mostly, though, I remain committed to encouraging more women to experience the joys of bike commuting. It has improved my mental and physical health, it saves me money, and, in a sense, it saves me time – since I used to often go out and ride my bike for an hour in the morning, and then get in my car and drive half an hour to work. How silly was that? What counts for me is not just the number of people who ride their bikes, but the diversity of those who participate. I saw plenty of athletic young-ish men, but also older men, young women, people who struggled slowly, and speedsters. I saw young boys riding to the Catholic school adjacent to the path and a couple of family groups. I saw few people of color – perhaps a reflection of the North Arlington neighborhood. But mostly I saw healthy bodies and happy faces – people enjoying an exhilaration fueled by moving forward on one’s own strength, aided by two smooth wheels.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tornadoes and Asian Pears

All this long summer, despite relentless heat in the 90s and higher, I stuck with bicycle commuting – surprising myself at the temperatures I was able to tolerate, if not enjoy. But when September rolled around, and the heat showed no signs of abating, I began to grow more than weary of it. The humidity weighed on me, turning my limbs to lead and my spirits felt squashed.

On Saturday, after two days of no exercise (prepping for and having a colonoscopy – yay – healthy colon) I felt compelled to make up for my lassitude on Saturday – starting with Pilates, going for my last swim of the season (a mile in the pool) and then biking down to Shirlington to see a show. Part-way through the second act, the power went out and we were informed that a tornado was passing near by. A few minutes later, they told us that the eye of the storm was right above us. I couldn’t feel a thing inside the sturdy theater, but a constellation of cell phones lit up the space, and all around people were checking the weather postings – informing us that a torrential downpour was in progress.

I was starting to worry about how I’d get home on my bike. But shortly, the power was restored, the show went on, and the rain had largely stopped by the time I exited the theater. Its aftermath brought the relief of cool air – something I’d been fantasizing about for months. And even though the rain picked back up, it was just a moderate sprinkle and I was delighted to find weather cold enough to make my ears hurt, just a bit – reminding me that yes, one day again, I will be wearing headbands and ear warmers, long sleeves and leggings.

Water from Four Mile Run Covering the Bike Path

 My route home offers parallel paths – the Four Mile Run path along the stream – usually my preferred route for its shadier and more scenic amenities, and the flatter, faster W&OD. Wisely, I chose the W&OD, as the gushing brown waters of Four Mile Run had overrun the path in many places. Amazingly, someone had already removed piles of branches from the W&OD path and stacked them along the edge.

Piles of Fallen Branches Stacked Along the Path

When I got home, I found that the storm had littered the ground with Asian pears from my huge, ancient tree – whose branches are too high for me to harvest. Usually, the pears that fall to the ground are assaulted by the squirrels – who take one bite out of each pear, apparently forgetting with each new fruit that, in fact, they don’t care for them. I filled a box with my windfall, and brought them inside, lovingly cleaning and drying them and trying to figure out how I would give away the hundred or so more than I’d ever be able to consume.

One Day's Bounty of Asian Pears, Picked for me by the Storm

 Sunday morning dawned crisp and cool, and I filled a pannier with Asian pears, taking them to the yoga studio and exhorting my students to, please, take some. Even though the temperatures are projected to rise again later in the week, I am savoring the pleasant breeze through the open windows, and the incessant chirping of a lovelorn cricket in my basement – signs of the autumn that is sure to come, soon.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bikes in India

Market at Kanyakumari - the southern tip of India

            A recent Twitter photo of a bike rider in India brought back memories. It’s almost four years since my visit to south India and, at the time, I was not the fanatical bike rider that I am today. Even so, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the things I saw people carrying on their bikes and notice how normative bike riding was. 

Outside a temple in Kanyakumari

  It was the first place I saw people with disabilities using hand-cranked bikes – not sleek high-tech versions – but sturdy vehicles cranked with contraptions that looked like old-fashioned eggbeaters.

Courtyard in Chennai

             My India blog maintained lists of the things I saw people carrying on their heads and things transported by bicycle, some of which I share here, along with photos of bikes I saw in India.

"Jew Town" in Cochin - at the time there were eight Jews remaining. 

 Things I saw transported on a bicycle:

On the road near Trivandrum
Porur - suburb of Chennai
  • stack of straw mats
  • pile of burlap
  • many (at least 6-8) large cans of cooking oil
  • 2 HUGE rice sacks
  • 2 big milk cans
  • garbage
  • inner tubes
  • fuel cans
  • aluminum pots
  • bananas
  • sugar cane
  • other fruits and vegetables
  • fresh coconuts (which grow everywhere)
Toy store bike - my Porur neighborhood for 2 weeks

 Businesses I saw conducted from a bicycle:

·       ice cream vendor
·       tea (the large urn and cups for the tea)
·       toy/mask store

Selling chai on the beach at Kanyakumari, where people gather to watch the sunset


            The courtyard in front of every school was filled with bikes – sturdy workhorses able to withstand rutted, dusty roads. 

Porur public school
My neighborhood in Porur
And if we think bike riding in traffic is bad in the U.S. – you can’t imagine the chaos of roads in India, in which the concept of “lanes” is nonexistent. Buses, trucks, autorickshaws, motorbikes, cars, and bicycles fill every inch of space – amid sweltering heat and pollution – making way for cows that meander along with priority rights. 

No bike here - but a sense of the traffic

Porur - try riding in a long dhoti!

 I don’t think I’d be up for riding a bike in urban India, but I’d certainly return for the sweet chai, spicy food, vibrant colors, and – most of all – the people.

Chennai - goat and bike coexist

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Guest Blog by the Cycling Yogi

While I was off in Wisconsin, my partner was having an adventure of his own in Massachusetts. It is with pleasure that I post a guest blog by the Cycling Yogi.

The most direct route from where I'm staying in Arlington, MA out to Walden Pond is to follow Route 2A, about 11 miles each way. Google Maps recommended following the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway all the way up to Bedford, then turning south along the Reformatory Branch trail for a total of 13.6 miles. I was feeling that the mid-Saturday outing, including a swim across the pond, might get too long, so I was inclined toward the shorter route. But once on the Minuteman, I was able to appreciate the venerable wisdom in Google's well-considered judgment. 7 miles without traffic noise, without hills, overhung by shade trees, mostly through suburban backyards, but with patches of woods and one pretty painless stretch skirting Lexington Center. My only regret was that the mountain bike I had rented on arriving in Cambridge was geared too low to take full advantage of the long, smooth straightaways. (I could have rented a road bike for $65 a day.)

It was Saturday and there were families. Occasional children with training wheels weaved across the path, a mother glided by on rollerblades with son in a jogging stroller, and I passed two older women pulling shopping carts. Traffic thinned as I progressed toward the outer suburbs, which still retain a good deal of farmland and forest, despite the development that greater Boston has undergone since I lived here three decades ago.

In Bedford, the Minuteman ended and I had to ask directions to the Reformatory Branch. It turned out to be a dirt path, quite passable after a long, dry summer, but a bit bumpy and much slower than the asphalt. Ah, but the wide-tired mountain bike seemed such a practical choice! The path skirted a farm, then ended near Concord Center, from which I was directed (duh) to Walden St for the last mile and a half.  

I hadn't been to Walden in several years, and the path from the intersection at Route 2 had sprouted a sign, “Not a Legal Park Entrance”. Ignoring it, I continued toward the stones that marked Thoreau's cabin, and the little cove I remembered just below, where half a dozen blue kayaks now were anchored. The best surprise of the day came when I got out to the middle of the lake. Traffic! I'm used to being the only one who ventures more than 100 yards from shore, but Walden has become a destination resort for long-distance swimmers. Swimmers lapping length from the guarded beach at the East end as well as people like myself who took off across the width from various spots along the perimeter. There were smooth, strong strokes and lazy breaststrokes, multicolored bathing caps, men in wet suits and a teen trailing a tethered kickboard (just in case, I supposed). The Chamber of Commerce is raising money to install traffic lights.

Bicycling is ever so much more popular than when I made my living as Boston's only cycling piano teacher in the 1970s, but lake swimming has yet to take off. I was thrilled to see so many devotees in one body of water.

For the way back, I was tempted by sheer perversity to ride on the shoulder of busy, 60 mph Route 2 for just one mile, after which it comes out to the 5-mile, meandering trail through the Minuteman National Historical Park. More mountain bike country, with signs describing historic buildings and sites along the Midnight Ride. I followed other cyclists and navigated by the sun for the trip back to Lexington. There I rejoined the Minuteman Trail and enjoyed the last few miles of smooth, shaded bike path before mounting the ridge and descending through suburban landscape back to the home where I'm staying, overlooking a golf course and the Mystic Lakes.

I'm reminded how much I miss the landscape littered with lakes that surrounds Boston. I see why Miles Standish opted to settle here, and wonder why I ever moved to Philadelphia.

Fly Away Home

            It was with some trepidation that I locked my bike at the airport, knowing it would sit in an out-of-the-way parking area for three days. I had ridden into work with all I’d need in two panniers – in one I’d shoved a backpack with my clothes and such; in the other I stashed both my U lock and a heavy cable lock. I left my “good” pannier at the office and took the bike to the airport via metro. I had printed out the bicycle parking areas in advance, and managed to find the larger of the two that are closest to the metro station. I could see that this parking area had signs pointing to the Mount Vernon Trail, which I would use to return home after my trip. There were about four other bikes parked there, so with some thorough locking and a backward glance, I left the bike – complete with the “old” pannier, helmet, and water bottle.

            I always look forward to a visit home. I enjoy spending time with family that I only see a couple times a year, at most. But, no matter how old I get, what happens at mom’s house is predictable. Upon arrival, I scan the fridge and cupboards for familiar comfort foods. There are always homemade cookies – at least three varieties. There are nuts, and good old Wisconsin cheese. The local paper informs me that Wisconsin is still number one in the nation in cheese production, although California has edged it out in the milk category. I know that I’ll eat too much, my mother and I will both complain about being too fat, and I will sink into a torpor – pulled by a strong urge to take naps (a rare occurrence for me) – and I will sleep long hours at night…despite being a time zone farther west. And I won’t get enough exercise.

            I had planned to rent a bike and ride out to Devil’s Lake State Park – just a few miles from my mom’s house. But it turned out that the bike shop in town only offered the option of paying $50 to test ride a top-of-the-line carbon fiber Trek road bike. I declined, and wished I’d managed to work out how to take my bike on the plane. It just seemed wrong, wrong, wrong that I had not taken advantage of Frontier Airlines’ awesome policy of taking bikes for the same price as any piece of checked luggage: $20. But I was intimidated by having to take off the pedals, didn’t know where to get a box, etc. Ah well, there’s always next time.

            We did manage to walk in the various parks a couple times, but my mom is almost 86. It’s great that she can still get out and do a little hiking – but the pace is slow. All this is to say that I was looking forward to getting off the plane Saturday evening and riding my bike the nine flat miles home. It turned out that I’d parked the bike quite some distance from the old terminal that Frontier is consigned to, but I hadn’t wanted to risk missing my flight on the way out by looking around for a closer lot. So I had a nice brisk walk back to my bike, which had waited patiently for my return and had survived the ordeal of parking at the airport quite nicely. All my accoutrements were still on the bike, and by my return there were about 15 bikes parked there, so I was in good company. 

There were a few drops of rain on the seat and the skies were heavily overcast. But the air was pleasantly cool – though disgustingly humid. There was excellent signage pointing the somewhat convoluted way to the bike trail, which runs right past DC’s National Airport. I was happy to pedal home at a steady clip – giving my legs a good workout. At about mile three of the W&OD trail, I noticed that a ladybug had hitched a ride on my thigh. She seemed untroubled by the constant up and down of my leg – crawling around from time to time. I was worried that she would get squished between my thighs, as she seemed headed in that direction. But, after a mile, when I turned onto to the Four Mile Run Trail, she was gone. I wondered about the life of a ladybug. Would she miss her family? Did she know where she was going? Had she hitched rides on cyclists’ thighs before? I wished her a safe flight home – wherever that might be for her – and was happy that I’d flown away home and back, returning safely and finding my bike unmolested. I got to my house just as big raindrops began splotching the sidewalk. Perfect timing.