In Praise of Snot

The other day I heard Bill Bryson on NPR talking about his latest book. To paraphrase, he said that our bodies deal with cancer on a nearly daily basis. Usually we recognize mutated cells as invaders and destroy them before they cause damage. This is, of course, a completely unconscious process. Our bodies are way smarter than our conscious minds. (Imagine having to take responsibility for beating your heart every second, and still having enough consciousness left over to decide whether The Bachelorette was making a smart choice.) It is only on the rare occasions that those cells divide uncontrollably that we are faced with what we know as cancer.

That got me thinking about mucus. Over the years I have seen a lot of fad diets come and go. In the ’70s, the “mucusless diet” was a big thing. The theory, as I understood it, is that when we have a cold we have an excess of mucus and therefore mucus is bad. We have a stuffy and/or runny nose and we don’t want that. The next step was that certain foods cause us to produce mucus and we should avoid them. Among those “mucus-producing” foods were all dairy products. Being a Cheesehead, that was pretty hard to swallow. No 11 year old Cheddar? No Brie? And don’t get me started on the Velveeta on which I was raised.

What if that is bass-ackwards? What does mucus do? It forms a protective barrier. When we leave a dusty environment, we notice that we want to blow our nose. When we do so, we blow out some pretty disgusting-looking stuff – dusty mucus. The technical term for that is boogers. Our body makes mucus (snot) to line our mucous membranes. That snot ensnares toxins in the air we breathe – dust particles and god knows what else. It traps that gunk so we can get rid of it before it gets into our lungs and causes some real damage.

When we have a cold, that system gets overwhelmed. Something has gotten past the defense. Our body makes more mucus to try to repel the invaders. Too much, too late. That we have failed doesn’t mean the system is bad. Our body also has an inflammatory response. Sometimes it, too, is overwhelmed. At that point we suppress it with ice, elevation, and anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or steroids. Does that mean the system is bad? No, it just means that it sometimes overcompensates after its failures. (Sound familiar?)

Likewise, mucus is not bad. Mucus is a good thing. We need it every day. It is only when it is overwhelmed and tries to overcompensate for its failures that it becomes excessive.

Long live snot! (And eat cheese if you want to.)

Set the controls for the heart of the sun

sunI try to go on a January 1 ride every year. Sometimes it is just to a nearby coffee shop. This has been a warm December (after a cold November) so I thought about a longer ride. Just before Christmas it seemed like a great idea to tour the solar system for the New Year.

In 2009 the University of Wisconsin Space Place created a scale model of the solar system that one can tour by bicycle. They commissioned graphic artist Tsela Barr to design a sign for each planet and placed them to scale. Thus, Mercury is only a few feet from the sun and Pluto is 23 miles away via the Military Ridge State Trail. What better way to welcome the new year than to ride to Pluto and back?

The trail starts at the Monona Terrace Convention Center, which was conceived in 1938 Monona Terraceby Frank Lloyd Wright as a civic center on the lake. The idea was fought over for years, dying and being resurrected through the decades. In the 1970s, Madison was served by Mayor Paul Soglin, who decided to put an end to the fighting with a new proposal. He suggested taking the existing Capitol Theatre (a 1928 movie palace) and combining it with a former department store (Yost-Kessenich) and a few other storefronts to create a civic center away from the lake and closer to the state capitol. It worked and, in 1980 the Madison Civic Center was born.

Soglin took a hiatus in civilian life and returned to the mayor’s office in 1989. He decided the time was ripe and spearheaded the effort to build the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed civic center on the lake. It was repurposed as a convention center (since the city already had a civic center) and opened in 1997.

Meanwhile, the civic center was showing its age; the result of compromises and the fact that the Capitol Theatre was designed as a silent movie house. Along came a couple of wealthy philanthropists. Jerry Frautschi had made a fortune in the printing business (Democrat Printing Company, which became Webcrafters) and bankrolled his wife’s plan for a company that would make historically accurate dolls with a complex backstory supplied by a series of books. The Pleasant Company was born. When Pleasant Rowland sold the company to Mattel, the family had a few million dollars to spare and bequeathed the Overture Center to the city, a massive renovation of the civic center with a new, larger, and acoustically superior theatre where the department store had been. In 1997 the Frautschis pledged $50 million. Eventually that grew to over $200 million. Overture Hall opened in 2004 during Soglin’s second hiatus away from the mayor’s office.

In 2000, local singer/songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman wrote the song “Madison, Wisconsin”, with a chorus including:

“So how’s old Madison Wisconsin
Is that Paul Soglin still the mayor,
And is Rennebohm’s expanding,
The Club deWash still there?”

While the Club deWash burned down (under suspicious circumstances, but that would be another post) and Rennebohm’s was swallowed by Walgreen’s, Paul Soglin returned to the mayor’s office in 2011 and is still there today. While their songbook says the song is from 2000, I could have sworn they sang it when I heard them in San Francisco back around 1990.

Enough back story! Let’s ride!

New Year Ride

We rang out the old year in the usual fashion, with a potluck at the home of old friends Vic and Shel, followed by the (last) annual New Year’s Eve concert by Lou and Peter pieBerryman. Potlucks call for pies, so we made Chocolate Ancho Pecan Pies, from an Eldorado Grill recipe.

We had a surprising white Christmas when it snowed overnight on Christmas Eve. (Living on a narrow strip of land between two lakes, we often sing that old Irving Berlin favorite “I’m dreaming of a wide isthmus”.)

 

 

Back to rain and sleet and the snow was gone. New Year’s Eve started with rain, changed to sleet, and then to snow. This made for great riding today. I put the studded tires on my winter bike and abandoned the thought of riding the Bruce Gordon. Side roads and bike paths were solid ice. Without the studded tires I’d have spent much of the day picking myself up off the ground. With studs, it was like riding on clear pavement, except much prettier.

To get to the sun I first had to ride over the river and through the woods.River

As Lou and Peter told us:

“Up in Wisconsin, up in Wisconsinice fishing 2
The weather isn’t very nice.
Up in Wisconsin, up in Wisconsin
They gotta fish right through the ice.”

 

 

 

 

I rode to the sun and then started on my way out through the solar system in a winter wonderland. The heavy, wet snow on top of ice stuck to the trees. I had to photograph the planet signs from the leeward sides, as the windward sides were invisible under the snow.

 

 

A sticky disc brake piston made it harder and harder to reach escape velocity as I passed the larger planets. Finally, at Saturn, I used the gravitational force for the slingshot effect to launch me back toward Earth, after a brief vist to Titan.

                          

baklava

 

 

Cafe Domestique called to me, and an espresso and baklava were in order before returning home. Happy birthday to my baby sister, who has entered the decade in which Officially Old begins – she’s not That yet. Since she was born on January 1, too late for a 1958 tax deduction, our father called her “Pokey” as a child.

Geting paid to ride

We tend to romanticize getting paid to do something, despite the fact that “amateur” comes from the Latin root “amare”, “to love”.

Bicycling is no different, with movies such as Quicksilver, with Kevin Bacon starring as a stockbroker-turned- bike messenger. (Or my personal favorite, Major Bedhead the unicycle courier from the Canadian children’s TV show “The Big Comfy Couch“.)

I guess I was a professional bicyclist a long time ago, without thinking about it. When I was 12 I began delivering newspapers by bike. Like mail carriers, “neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stayed [me] from the swift completion of [my] appointed rounds”.

There was one day when it was too icy to ride my bike and I streetskateskated my “appointed rounds” and there were a few days when it was colder than -20 degrees, which entitled me to a ride in a car according to house rules. Otherwise, I rode 364 days per year (no newspaper on Christmas in those days).  When it was a little less cold, my eyelashes would freeze and clink when I blinked. The lenses of my glasses would fog, then freeze, and I’d have to take off a mitten to scrape the ice off with a fingernail. For those who doubt it was really that cold, I offer this:

On the other hand, there were beautifGlenn-Shil-webul summer days when it was not yet hot, though you knew it would get that way. The lake was like glass and I dreamed of what it would be like to be skiing as the sun rose. (I suspect those who lived on the lake would not have appreciated it in the same way.)

At 5 AM, the only people out on the streets were the newspaper carriers and the milkman. Milk was delivered to our house every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Bread was delivered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The “Omar Man” had a handy carrying rack for bread. It was cleverly designed with an upper rack for breads and a lower rack that cantilevered out with pastries. It was right at eye level for little kids so we could beg mom for pastries, which we could never afford. He never gave up.

I did my best thinking when I was out early in the morning on my bike. I wished for a portable tape recorder and a microphone mounted on my handlebars so I could record my thoughts as I rode. Alas, my best thoughts are lost to the world. I would probably be a famous inventor now, retired and living on my royalties, had I been able to record those ideas – or at least that’s what my 12 year old self thought.

I spent some time as a bicycle traveling salesman. When I was in Cub Scouts we had an annual candy sale to raise money. My dad encouraged me to venture farther from home to hit territories other kids wouldn’t get to. When I was 9 he dropped me and my bike at an apartment complex 6 miles from home and told me to hit all 216 apartments, then ride home. I found my way home (without a trail of bread crumbs) and won a prize for the most sales.

Now I am an amateur – unless you readers want to pay me for this ride.

 

Better Safe than Sorry?

Relations between people on bikes and people in cars are frequently strained, even though most adults who ride bikes also drive cars. What is that about, and what can we do?

Maynard Hershon is a writer about bicycles and motorcycles. Back in the 80s he wrote an essay for the California Bicyclist which changed the way I ride. I haven’t been able to relocate that essay, but I’ll put my own spin on what I remember of/learned from that essay and what I’ve learned in the intervening years.

When someone in a car cuts you off when you’re driving, you think, “What an @sshole!” When a bicyclist rolls through a stop sign when you’re driving, you think, “Those d@mn bikers!” What does that mean about us? First, we notice aberrations, not the norm. We don’t pay any attention to people doing what is expected of them. We pay attention when they don’t do that. Like the kid in class who never raises his/her hand is never noticed, but the kid who acts up get attention. So we don’t really notice all the cars that don’t cut us off and all the bikes that stop at stop signs. (And here someone is thinking, “no bikes stop at stop signs.”)

But there is something else going on here. We live in a car-centric society. Without consciously realizing it, we consider the driver of a car to be an individual, because driving cars is what we do. We consider the operator of a bicycle to be representative of a class, because that’s what they do. I can speed in my car, and I’m just an individual @sshole, but if I roll through a red light on a bike, I’m one of them, and they never stop at red lights.

But, guess what? Someone has studied this. Dave Schlabowski , former manager of the Neighborhood Traffic Safety Program in Milwaukee, has wrtten extensively on the topic. He notes that “people riding bikes are more law-abiding than people driving cars.” Dave has revisited this topic and found a high incidence of speeding by motorists. How many people actually drive at or below 25 mph in a 25 mph zone? Not many. He cites another study (which I can’t find right now) that indicated that people tend to break laws that are convenient for them to break and where the consequences are minimal. Thus speed limit laws seem to be the least followed by motorists who break the law, and stop signals are the least obeyed by bicyclists who break the law. In Idaho, the law allows bicyclists to treat stops signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs.

Version 2
Spring is coming late this year. This is all that’s blooming in my yard so far. Something was needed to break up all this text. Good thing I got the photo when I did. This crocus is now buried under 4 inches of snow.

Back to Maynard: the essence of his essay was that, if we are going to be seen as representing a class when we ride bikes, we should represent ourselves the way we want to be seen. Before I read that essay, I rolled through stop signs and went through red lights when there was no traffic. I didn’t know about the “Idaho stop” at that time. Now I make it a point to stop and, especially, to signal my intention and then stop and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. I’ve been known to move a bit to the left to make it harder for a motorist to blow by me and through the crosswalk. I’m still amazed by how many pedestrians are surprised to see a vehicle obey the law and yield the right of way to them.

My daughter makes a joke that no one seems to get. “Question: What do you call it when you kill someone?” Answer: Murder. Question: What do you call it when you kill a bicyclist with your car? Answer: An accident.” It isn’t funny, but it does appear that if you want to kill someone, that’s the best way to get away with it. The Des Moines Register studied 22 fatal car-bike crashes. The most common penalty (the mode, in statistical parlance) for drivers found at fault was $250. The joke actually stems from the article below.

Daniel Duane, in the New York Times, found that “studies performed in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene. When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, ‘Oh, well, accidents happen.’ If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, ‘Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,’ that will most likely be good enough.” (NYT 11/9/2013)

What does this mean to me? Whenever possible, I make eye contact with drivers. I figure it is harder to kill someone who is human and not just an obstacle. I try to communicate with other road users. I try to use clear hand signals (and no, the one consisting of an extended middle finger doesn’t count) and talk to people. I wear bright clothing. That way, if you hit me, I figure you were aiming, not that you couldn’t see me. I try to remember that you’re not an @sshole, but you weren’t paying attention. I was once wearing day-glo pink when a texting driver almost ran me down. I yelled to get her attention. She said, “I didn’t see you.” I (not so calmly) pointed out that I was wearing bright pink and of course she couldn’t see me while looking at her phone.

In honor of our unseasonably cool weather:

Next time: a look at some specifics of bike safety.

And finally, on the way home from a meeting Wednesday night, I heard a loon on the lake – the first I’ve heard this year. Our lake in on their annual commuting route to and from the north woods. For those who have never heard one (and those who want to hear it again), here is a Common Loon (from Peter JH, recorded near Ely, MN):