Thursday, January 14, 2010


Why is it the people who are most obviously out of control who most shrilly assert that they have free will? John Adams's metaphor (not original with him, I'd guess; his was a keen but not an original mind) is the one I like best: the passions are the wind, and reason sets the sails. A skillful sailor can usually get where he wants to go, but seldom directly, and not on a strict schedule. In a severe emotional gale sometimes all you can do is heave to, drop a sea anchor, and wait it out.

No wonder Americans won't put his head on a nickel. They prefer that prodigal slaveholder, the politically hysterical Jefferson. "The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots." Screw that. I'll take Adams, every time. Build your weakness into the system. Make your weaknesses part of your strength. And

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Ten things I've learned in six months of commuting by bicycle:

1) Most drivers are extraordinarily kind and accommodating if they see you.

2) They see you about half the time.

3) They have no idea that the raised left hand signal means a right turn. You need to signal by pointing left with your left hand or right with your right hand. Extending your whole arm, extravagantly.

4) Riding close in to a line of parked cars, where you'll plow straight into a door if someone suddenly opens it, is an excellent way to court death. You need to ride a few feet out. It feels more dangerous but it's actually much safer. It's where drivers look for vehicles, where they expect them. And they're not so tempted to try to squeeze past you if there really isn't room.

5) In the mild maritime Northwest, at any rate, cold isn't so troublesome as rain, and rain isn't so troublesome as wind.

6) It's your hands and feet that you need to keep warm and dry. The rest doesn't really matter. You generate plenty of body heat for that.

7) Except that blue jeans, once truly wet, will stay wet for a whole workday. You need to keep them dry, not for the ride, but for the sequel.

8) You must always assume they don't see you. Drivers, pedestrians, other bicyclists. (Bicyclists are no better than anyone else at being aware of bikes.)

9) It's just as fun as when you were a kid. You go zoom! and whoosh! You're a sky creature, not a miserable earth-crawler. And you get to the end of your commute feeling invigorated and intensely alive.

10) There's always a parking space. Always.

It takes me 20 or 25 minutes to drive to work; 30 to 35 minutes to bike. If I drove to work and went to the gym to get my daily cardio, the total drive-and-exercise time would exceed my total bike time by at least fifteen minutes. Maybe even half an hour. I'm saving time by riding my bike. Not to mention the $10 parking every day. (Yes, parking in downtown Portland is exorbitant.) $10 every working day, by the way, comes out to some $2,500 per year. In other words, enough to offset my whole breakfast-out addiction.

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