First World Problems

Some years ago I managed a low-income housing co-op in the Santa Clara (AKA Silicon) Valley. I was an immigrant from Wisconsin.

First you need to understand that not everyone in the valley is a multi-millionaire engineer driving a Ferrari (or Tesla Model S nowadays). Back then, there were semi-conductor plants and factory workers making those chips in the valley. There were (are) fast-food restaurants and service workers providing for those mythical multimillionaires. There were all the usual workers that we need to keep a society humming. Those are the folks who lived in the co-op I managed.

That being said, a lot of folks didn’t consider themselves poor, they considered themselves pre-rich. The day after returning from a “vacation” building housing in the third world, I received an urgent maintenance request from someone whose clothes dryer had died. She needed it fixed now; it was an emergency. Now the Santa Clara Valley has a Mediterranean climate – it is essentially a desert. Hang your clothes out on a line and the ones you hang first will be dry by the time you finish hanging the load. That is a slight exaggeration, but if you wash a second load, you could take the first one down before you need to hang the second.

Where I come from (and in the country where I had just been) you hang clothes outside to dry. In California I found that that was looked down upon. It was embarrassing to have people see your laundry; no matter that each patio had a 6 foot redwood fence surrounding it. Only poor people did that, and these people weren’t poor, they were pre-rich. Out of 80 families, two had clotheslines; the other family was from Northern Minnesota. But we were in the first world and we were in California where nobody except those crazy folks from Wisconsin and Minnesota hang clothes, so I expedited the dryer problem – just not higher than the clogged drains and leaks.

Another urgent request came from someone who saw a mosquito on her patio. She wanted me to call an exterminator immediately. Being a dry climate, mosquitos were rare. Our usual insect problem was from termites. I urged her to keep an eye out for that mosquito and, if it returned, I advised her to kill it (by slapping it).

The complex had a pool. It took me a while to wrap my head around that. Where I came from, you swim in a lake. Only the ultra-rich have pools. Municipal pools appeared eventually, but we swam in the lake or the quarry.

Boomer Tales

Mosquitos were another matter in the upper midwest. Where I come from, the mosquito fogger made the rounds on summer nights. This was a Jeep with a tank on the back which spewed a chemical fog (most likely DDT, but I don’t know for sure). The neighborhood kids would jump on their bikes and ride in the fog, inhaling that poison. My parents urged me not to do that, because I could get hit by a car that couldn’t see me in the dense fog – not because breathing insecticide was bad for me. Being a smart kid, I stayed away because I didn’t want to breathe that poison any more directly than I had to. I figured that if it killed insects it probably wasn’t good for me. Everyone told me I was wrong and that it was harmless to humans.

I grew up in a post-World War II suburb. The area had originally been Ho-Chunk land. There was one remaining Ho-Chunk family. I didn’t know until many years later that my classmate’s dad was a famous artist – or maybe he didn’t become famous to white people until many years later. He carved this effigy tree from a hackberry that was struck by lightning. It was later replaced with a bronze casting of the original after it began to rot. (Image from Allenbrowne.blogspot.com)

When white people came to the area, it was first to start dairy farms, and later to build vacation cottages on the lakeshore. It was a short boat ride across the lake to one’s summer home – or a 5-10 mile drive for the rich folks who had cars, as the streetcar line ended about five miles away.

After the war they quickly put up houses. The actual building sites were leveled, but the backyards just had grass seed strewn over the former cornfields – furrows and all. My mom said she would let me go play in the back yard unsupervised because she trusted that the toddler me would never make it to a road – it was about 250 feet over furrows to the back drainage ditch and another 300 feet to the next road. I would never make it that far because I kept falling down climbing over the furrows. We were home to the neighborhood baseball diamond. My dad built a backstop and the neighbor’s yard was left field, with the hedge on the far edge of their lot forming the home run fence. Right field was too big to hit it out. Nobody ever hit our house, which was the de facto right field wall. The furrows made ground balls take interesting hops. We learned early to keep our body in front of the ball to field it.

From what I hear, our furnishings would now be hip – “mid-century modern” they call it. I thought we had a formica kitchen table because that’s all we could afford. Particle board was not the greatest medium for furniture; especially the particle board from those days, which was more like sawdust and glue. Part of the cachet of those old tables is that they weren’t built to last, so any that survived are rare. Ours didn’t survive my childhood. Dad was always trying to fix wobbles with matchsticks and glue in the screw holes. Our living room furniture was “blond” wood – either unstained or maybe bleached. Ultra hip today.

Going downtown was a big deal. Mom would put on gloves for that. We had to dress up. We took the bus, transferring part way. I was 12 when we got a second car and mom could drive places. We had “school clothes”, “play clothes”, and “dress clothes”. Woe be unto the kids who wore the wrong ones at the wrong time. We didn’t wear blue jeans to school in order to show that we weren’t farmers. I got a paper route when I was 12. On Saturdays we had to take the bus downtown to pay our bill at the newspaper office. I’d take the bus with a friend who also had a route. After we paid our bill we’d go to HL Green (the low-budget drug store soda fountain) for a banana split. They had balloons hanging over the lunch counter and you picked a balloon for the waitress to pop to find your price on a tiny folded piece of paper inside. Sometimes they didn’t fold them enough and if you looked in just the right light you could see the price. We always searched for the one that said 1 cent. Once when the waitress opened a new can of whipped cream, the pressure was enough to knock my scoop of ice cream off the dish. She quickly scooped it up with her hand and put it back on top. What do you expect for a penny?

I must have grown up with smart people. I just learned that my high school reunion has been postponed for a year due to the pandemic. I don’t have to be a party pooper. There is no party to poop out on. (Or should that be “out on which to poop”?)

On of these days the temperature will rise above 45 degrees (7 C), the wind will die down, the sun will come out, and I will return to riding for fun and not just for transportation. Then maybe I’ll write about bicycling again.

The bike clubs have started their spring season but I don’t know who is riding. It’s one thing to ride in April snow flurries to get to work. It is a different kind of crazy to do it solely for recreation. See ya on the road.

Questions

I find questions much more interesting than answers. Questioning is like opening a book. You don’t know what’s in store. Answers are like closing the book. There’s nothing left to say. Even if you have more to say, there’s nothing left to say. The question has been answered.

My friends Martha and Carrot started a dialog today. I’m not sure they knew they were talking to each other. Martha was talking about how the pandemic has freed us from the need for “normal” socializing and how one writer pathologized this as “social anxiety”, while to Martha it is “introversion”. While she didn’t belittle the very real mental health issue, she noted that there are some things you just don’t do in a group. She mentioned her first novel. “I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision, for Martin (the character) into real life. I’d done the work, the immense research, all of it, the library time (back then). Because of my book, I KNEW people who’d lived in the 13th century. The experience catapulted me into a different Martha, but I couldn’t share that, either.” I will mention her rediscovery of herself as a painter and drawer this year. First the blog began to feature oil paintings. Lately, pen and ink drawings have graced its pages. Even the title of her blog changed (twice!) during this pandemic. Is she another “different Martha”?

Carrot posited a restaurant in which “the phrase ‘can I get you started on something saucy’ is as much about the dialogue as it is about the appetizer.  The table clothes will be covered in questions and hypotheticals.  Each bill will come with the quote du jour.” The food you are served would correspond with the table talk:
Customer: Excuse me waiter, I ordered the gnocchi and pesto.

Waiter: Right, I’m sorry, it’s just that I heard you talking about your Instagram followers, so enjoy your Cream of Wheat.

How do we ask the right questions? Ask the wrong question (one that cries out to be answered) and we get nowhere. “What’s your favorite color?” “Blue.” Now what?

Ask without questioning, and you only get an answer. “Who am I?” “George.” Done. Or “the guy who writes this blog.” Who was I before I wrote this blog? Same me, or someone else? Am I the things I do? the roles I play? the thoughts and feelings I hold? the sum of all of my experiences? my beliefs and opinions? my body? Or am I someone else, who “has” all of these, rather than “being” any or all of them? Am I the point of view from which I see the world? If I didn’t see literally, would my “point of view” change? Would I be someone else? Is my “self” additive? (The sum of everything I hold as “me”?) Is it subtractive? (If I take away everything in the world that I identify as “other”, is what’s left over “me”?)

Dalton Trumbo looks at the relationship between body and identity, and between how we see ourselves and how others see us in the novel and subsequent film “Johnny Got His Gun”. It is the story of a badly injured WWI soldier and his post-war life in a VA hospital. There is little left of his body and he cannot see, speak, or hear. Who is “in there” and does that matter if no one “out here” acknowledges his humanity?

I used to ride with friends every week and talk and then drink some beer and eat some dinner and talk some more. Before that, I would go sit in a hot tub with some other friends and talk. Before that, I worked in a neighborhood store that was the center of a community. In all of these cases, it was a community of people interacting face-to-face. For the past year I have seen my coworkers and patients, and my family. I’ve had little contact with most of the people I identified as “my community”.

But I found this other community (hey, I’m old…it took me a long time – my daughter has been in a number of world-wide online communities for years) that has grown as organically in its own way as the physical community. When I started this blog I got some tips from a music blogger I know. I found and read a couple of bike blogs and they led me to this world of climbers, painters, writers, musicians (and writers about music)…It was Carrot and The Dihedral who introduced me to Martha.

What is community and what is necessary for our mental health? Is an online community any less real than a physical one? Can you go out for a virtual beer or cup of coffee? When I return to in-person friends, how will I balance that with these online friends?

Are other people essential, or something you have to deal with to get through your day? If the ones you “have to deal with” were gone, would you miss them?

P.S. The day after posting this, I read Ask Amy, with someone concerned about returning to face-to-face interactions. The writer related a recent interaction and made the distinction “interacting with people from a place of compassion, treating people as human beings — not human-doings.

Baiku

Bicycling magazine used to give away a bike each spring. Each year was a different contest. I never won. One year they wanted a picture of your bike to show why you needed a new one. I sent a photo of a bike I’d made from snow. I figured it would melt soon so I needed a new one. They disagreed.

Another year they wanted you to tell them why you should win a particular bike. I wrote a song called “My Serotta” to tell them why I should win the Serotta Ottrott. It was written to the tune of “My Sharona”. They were not convinced.

Then they asked for baikus – haikus about bikes. I sent a bunch. I didn’t win again. Here are rewritten versions of two of the losers – one about my daughter’s first ride, one about my imagined last ride.

First ride – age 5

Holding the saddle –
I let go as she rides off.
She doesn’t look back.

Last ride – age 95

Steep mountain descent.
Heart stops – dead before I land.
Body found smiling.

The Norway Maple in the yard of our old house (across the street from where we live now) succumbed last year. Counting growth rings is harder than it seems, so I don’t know how old it was. I’ll guess it was around 50 years old, having been mature when we moved in there 27 years ago. Our son (who was born that year) wanted a particular cutting board this year, so I was looking at cutting boards, and end grain maple boards (like butcher blocks) seemed like a top choice (though he chose edge grain walnut). Most are made by gluing a bunch of small pieces of wood together. I figured, what’s a stump but a big chunk of end-grain wood? Who needs glue?

So I took various saws across the street and started cutting. Once I got a slice free I had to get it relatively flat and smooth. “Relatively” is an important disclaimer there – cutting through 18 inches of wood and having two flat and parallel sides is easier said than done. But now I have a tree-shaped end-grain maple cutting board. I liked the shape of the tree rather than cutting it into a rectangle. I left a few scars intact – I’ll say it’s because I liked the way they looked, but I could also say I would have had to take off a lot of wood to get it totally smooth, and without a planer (and especially not one that can accept an 18 inch surface) to run it though. The colors are natural. It has been treated only with a food-grade mineral oil and wax mix.

It must be spring. The loons are passing through on their way to Canada. The robins are back. It is 75 degrees (24 Celsius) and sunny. The first warm Sunday of spring means it’s motorcycle crash day. Lots of people will be out for the first time, riding too fast, and not noticing the sand and gravel collected on curves. Wednesday Night Bike Rides start this week!

The path of least resistance?

Where I live we have three types of thoroughfares: roads, shared-use paths (commonly known as bike paths) and sidewalks.

Roads are for motor vehicles and bikes; pedestrians if there are no adjoining sidewalks. Sidewalks are for pedestrians and bikes (unless buildings abut the sidewalk, in which case bikes are prohibited). Bike paths (officially known as shared-use paths, even though some have “bike path” in their names) are for bikes, pedestrians, joggers, skaters, skiers, equestrians…

How do bikes fit into all of this? Some of the trails are toll roads if you’re on a bike but not if you’re walking. We have no toll roads for cars in this state. I have seen rants in the newspaper (or heard them from people) that bikes don’t belong on rural roads – they should stick to the paths. I’ve heard rants that bikes don’t belong on other roads because they go too slowly. I’ve seen rants (on a neighborhood app) about bikes that go too fast on the paths. And I’ve seen claims that bikes on sidewalks are illegal (as noted above, they are illegal in only a very limited downtown area where I live).

So where does that leave bikes? Not wanted on the roads, not wanted on the paths, not wanted on the sidewalks. Too slow for the roads, too fast for the paths, just plain dangerous on the sidewalks.

I have written before about John Forester‘s concept of vehicular cycling. Back in April of 2018 I wrote a series of posts about bike safety. This time, I’m here to talk about the conundrum. Our society has not yet decided whether to consider bikes toys or a mode of transportation; partly because there is no reason they can’t be both. How we are using a bike should be a determining factor in where we ride. Generally I prefer to ride lightly-traveled streets – both in town and in the country. Whether going fast or slow they seem to work best. (Jarjour, et al in Environmental Health, 2013, found lightly-traveled bike boulevards reduced cyclists’ exposure to environmental pollutants from vehicle exhaust – a result that should make you say “duh”, but should also make you rethink riding on busy streets.)

The purpose of traffic laws is to standardize and define relationships and expectations among users in order to increase safety. In grey areas, the most vulnerable user should have the right of way.We are responsible for each other’s safety and ultimately we are all responsible for our own safety. A law will not protect us from a multi-ton vehicle. Common sense should be our guiding principle.

Drivers are often advised that it is safest to drive at or near the prevailing speed of traffic rather than strictly at the speed limit; thus they may be going slower or faster than the posted speed at times. Going faster is always illegal, regardless of the “prevailing speed”.

Q. Isn’t slower always safer?
A. No, federal and state studies have consistently shown that the drivers most likely to get into accidents in traffic are those traveling significantly below the average speed. According to research, those driving 10 mph slower than the prevailing speed are more likely to be involved in an accident
.” https://www.motorists.org/issues/speed-limits/faq/

“It has been found that motorists are generally capable of determining the driving speed that is reasonable for prevailing road and traffic conditions unless there are some roadway conditions that they are unaware of or which are not readily apparent and that the majority will subsequently adjust their speed accordingly. The 85th percentile speed, the speed at or below which 85% of the vehicles travel a particular roadway, has been found to best represent this perceived ‘reasonable’ speed.https://wisconsindot.gov/dtsdManuals/traffic-ops/manuals-and-standards/teops/13-05.pdf

I would argue that 85% of motor vehicles exceed the speed limit on 25 mph residential and urban streets. Yokoo, et al (Traffic Injury Prevention, 2019) found that “speeding is widespread…” in Minneapolis/St Paul. Hu and Cicchino (Injury Prevention, 2020) and Jones and Brunt (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2017) argue for speed limit reductions in Boston and Wales, respectively. Apparently motorists can determine the safe speed but that doesn’t mean they/we adhere to it. The 85% rule appears to be most applicable for highway speeds.

 Urban shared-use paths require care and vigilance. Travel slowly enough not to spook other users and to be able to react to their sudden moves. Calling “On your left” frequently results in pedestrians looking over their left shoulders while unconsciously moving to the left into your path. That’s why I use a bell in the city (and most of my bike path use is at 6 AM when there are few people walking). People seem to do better at localizing the sound of the bell and moving appropriately. I have no evidence to support this beyond personal experience. (Lack of evidence is not the same as evidence against. It just means I can’t find that anyone has studied this.) The Next Door app in my neighborhood is currently exploding with a thread about e-bikes on shared-use paths.

The same standard that applies to motorists appears safest for bicyclists. If you are going to be traveling fast, stay on the street (or rural paths that are known to be used primarily by bikes). If your town has “bike boulevards”, they tend to be safer, with infrastructure designed (sort of) or retrofitted for bikes. (Walker et al. define bicycle boulevards as “low-volume and low-speed streets that have been optimized for bicycle travel through treatments such as traffic calming and traffic reduction, signage and pavement markings, and intersection crossing treatments.” [Fundamentals of bicycle boulevard planning & design. Prepared for the Portland State University Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation.2009])

Eric Minikel studied bike boulevards in Berkeley, CA, comparing them to adjacent streets and found:
“Using police-reported collision data and the city’s cyclist count data, this study finds that Berkeley’s bicycle boulevards do indeed have lower collision rates for cyclists than their parallel arterial routes. This is true for all six bicycle boulevard–arterial pairs for which data are available, with risk ratios ranging from 1.8 to 8.0. This is true whether only reported bicycle–motor vehicle collisions are examined or bicycle–bicycle, bicycle–pedestrian and single- cyclist incidents are included as well.” (Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2012)

If you are going to be traveling slowly, use urban paths. Personally, I see very few times that a sidewalk is safe. Motorists backing out of driveways (or turning into driveways) are not looking for bikes. They are not looking for anyone traveling faster than walking speed. Small children on bikes may be going at walking speed, but are so low as to be all but invisible to motorists. Learning to ride a bike on the sidewalk in front of your house may be fine, but traveling any distance on a sidewalk is probably not very safe for a young child.

Forester recommends riding like a vehicle – stay right except to pass, turn left from the left lane. He essentially argued that bikes should be integrated with motor vehicles and that separate bike lanes cause more dangerous situations at the inevitable intersections between bike and car – e.g. bikes turning left across multiple lanes of traffic from a bike lane on the right, cars turning right across bike lanes going straight. A completely separate bike path inevitably intersects roads, and motorists who have learned to be unaware of bikes (since they are not on the roads) will inevitably be more dangerous when they do have to meet. Apologies to Forester if I misrepresent him by merging my thoughts with his.

I would argue that bike paths have their place and that they require the same style of riding as do streets – with the understanding that the other “vehicles” with which you are sharing the road are roller bladers, kids, strollers, dogs, beginning riders; instead of cars and trucks. I think he is right that bike lanes create a false sense of security and result in greater danger (cars parked in the bike lane, parked cars opening doors into the bike lane, cars in right turn lanes turning right across the path of bike lanes that continue straight). I would argue that riding as close as practicable to the prevailing speed of traffic is safest – thus slower on shared-use paths and faster on roads.

While this column did not start as an argument for bike boulevards, they seem to deserve serious consideration. In many cities there are parallel roads. I would argue for using the less-traveled route while on a bicycle. Minikel shows that crashes are less-frequent on bicycle boulevards than on adjacent routes, but is this due to the boulevard infrastructure or just the relative dearth of traffic? Where one route is less-traveled than another, common sense would hint that the less-traveled route is safer for bikes. Is the infrastructure a major determinant? Mulvaney, et al (Cochrane Database Systematic Review, 2015) set out to determine whether infrastructure could be credited for increased safety. They concluded “Generally, there is a lack of high quality evidence to be able to draw firm conclusions as to the effect of cycling infrastructure on cycling collisions. There is a lack of rigorous evaluation of cycling infrastructure.” They judged the quality of most evidence as low and preliminarily hinted that 20 mph speed limits may help and that roundabouts may be dangerous for cyclists.

Personally I tend to avoid urban shared-use paths because I have to treat every intersection as a yield sign in order to protect myself from cars, and I have to ride more slowly than I’d like to when commuting during daytime hours when others are out. There are routes where the street alternative is worse, so I choose routes on a case-by-case basis. (And some are too pretty not to ride on.) My daily routes to and from work were chosen by trial-and-error and adapted over time.

As in almost everything I read for work, “further study is warranted” and “there is a dearth of quality evidence”. As always, common sense should be your guide, and common sense is less common than it ought to be.

As Rodney King (1992) asked, “Can we all get along?”