Monday, October 13, 2014

when bicycles and torah intersect: my teaching on yom kippur afternoon

A few days from now I will head home to Portland, to that bastion of bike-friendliness where I can ride almost anywhere I like and when I get tired I can toss my bike on public transit.
Lately there have been lots of people complaining about the state of "alternate" (read: NON-car-dependent) transportation in my lovely city.
While I'm sure that many of their complaints are perfectly valid, I would invite them to do what I've done -- come and spend five weeks in Overland Park, Kansas, with nothing but a bicycle and trailer to get around and an occasional ride from a car-centric pal when the lightning and thunder come out. Do that, and THEN tell me the transportation picture in Portland sucks.

Because when you compare it to other cities it's actually not bad at all.

Of course, it could be better -- there's always room for improvement -- but the kind of better I envision is when every major US city has decent public transit in ALL quadrants and no quadrant can shut out the busses or light rail to keep undesirable folks out of their sterile suburb. Because that scenario plays out in so many suburbs across the country it's pathetic.

Thirty years ago, I spent a semester off from college living with my mother in the metro Atlanta area. I had recently gotten my drivers' license. My mother worked in downtown Atlanta. I had gotten a job at a print shop not far from her house. So every morning, I had to get up and drive my mom to the park-n-ride nine miles away, over the county line, where the closest MARTA bus stopped to pick up passengers. MARTA wasn't allowed to operate in Gwinnett County, because that county's residents didn't want black people coming up from dirty, rundown College Park to look for jobs or to shop in their fair, very white county.

In 2014, there are still US cities that operate with the same mindset: If we don't let the bus system in, then Only People Like Us will live, work and shop here. Sadly, this scenario is playing out in Johnson County, Kansas, just over the state line from Kansas City, Missouri. I am told that people move here mostly for the quality of family life and the excellent public schools, and that is certainly a factor. Johnson County public schools are some of the best in the nation. They are also, demographically speaking, some of the whitest, a fact that no one likes to talk about out loud.

But I digress.

I recognize that, as a visitor very much from the Outside, I must step lightly and speak gently. But I also recognize that, with repeated visits to this place, and more of these lovely people asking if I might ever move here so I can serve their synagogue community full-time, I have an opportunity to share a different perspective. And when I am asked to teach the lesson around the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon, using a combination of discussion and music, I realize I've been handed a gift. I have to unwrap it very carefully.

The Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur afternoon is Leviticus Chapter 19 -- commonly called The Holiness Code. In it there are all kinds of instructions on what constitutes holy behavior. I focus on one important point: "Do not hate your kin in your heart." I ask the people assembled in the sanctuary, Who is your kin? And when they begin to offer the predictably correct answers -- the homeless, the stranger, the orphan -- I stop them, and ask, Do you really mean that? If a homeless person who hadn't bathed in a week approached you at an ATM and asked for help, would you take him home and let him use your shower to clean up? Would you make him a meal? Or would you simply try and get away as quickly as possible? People began to squirm, but not uncomfortably; at this point the vibe was like getting caught passing a note to your friend in class. Everyone was in on it and no one would get sent to the principal's office.

I went further, talking about the fact that my home state of Oregon may seem all hip and cool, but in fact has had a pretty shameful history of racism that once included sundown laws (some of which remained on the books until the 1930s) and redlining agreements between realtors. People looked surprised. They were interested to see where I was going with this.

Where I went with it was to talk about the source of hatred.

What is the root emotion at the heart of hatred? I asked. Immediately, someone answered, Fear.
Absolutely right, I told them. And fear left unexamined can lead to mistrust -- which, in turn, can lead to hatred. 

Then, I went for the jugular.

I talked about my experiences as bicycle rider in Overland Park, a place that was to be my home for five weeks (including the High Holy Days). I spoke of what it was like to be unable to rent a car (due to night-blindness) and to depend on a bicycle and trailer to haul my guitar back and forth to temple each day. On my days off, I said, it would be nice to be able to venture farther afield, and maybe even explore downtown Kansas City. People nodded in agreement; they may live in the suburbs, but they still think downtown Kansas City is a cool place to show off to visitors.

So where are the buses? I asked. In my five visits to Overland Park I'd seen exactly one bus stop sign and no buses -- and had just learned on this visit that the one bus stop sign I'd seen was being taken down and the bus route eliminated for lack of use. Because in Overland Park, everyone drives a car and wants to keep it that way. Overland Park does not want public transit because that would mean Kansas Citians would pour across State Line Road to shop and work in pristine Overland Park. And while Overland Park is almost exclusively white, Kansas City has a very large black population and pockets of high unemployment.

I didn't say anything about race or racism at this point in my teaching. I didn't have to. I'm pretty sure folks got the message even though I limited the labeling to Missourians and Kansans. I urged them to consider the source of their fear and entertain the possibility that some fears may be, well, unfounded. And then I taught them the song Gesher Tzar M'od ("The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to let fear rule").

I am sure that even if I never hear about peoples' reactions to my teaching, the rabbi who hired me could get an earful from his congregants after I go home. We'll see. Anyway, I stand by what I did and make no apologies for it. If I got one person in the room to examine his or her fear around transportation and that leads somewhere positive, then I am happy. Change is slow and incremental. I'd like to think I made as much or more of an impression by my stubborn insistence on riding in the rain (when there was no lightning, anyway) as I did when I asked why there are no buses here.

Tomorrow I will take the loaner trailer back to the temple, and Thursday I'll drop off the Kansas bike at the rabbi's; he will store it for me and then hand it off to the music director, for her to use until my next visit. And I'm fairly certain that somewhere down the road there will be a next visit, because the community and I have developed a sweet relationship over the course of the last year and a half.
On Friday, I get to go home to my Sweetie and our kitties and my bicycle and our lovely city, whose transportation troubles seem paltry compared to where I've been lately.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

a little giggle

Perusing the craigslist ads back home, just to see what's what, I came across this delightfully absurd listing:


The seller is apparently serious.
And I cannot stop giggling at the wackniess of it all.
Somebody please buy this. Please.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

greetings from overland park

I arrived in Overland Park, KS on Monday afternoon. After lunch, I was dropped at the synagogue, where I'd shipped my bicycle (the Kansas Bike, see previous posts on is topic for photos). The bike box had come through mostly not too worse for the wear, though the axles burst clean through their beefed-up cardboard siding (admittedly, I did a pretty quick hack job of boxing this thing). The hard plastic covering I'd improvised for the rear derailleur had done its job and the rear derailleur and its hanger came through intact and working fine.

It took me about half an hour to unbox, re-accessorize and test-ride the bike and dispose of the garbage and reecycleables. Then I hooked it up to the loaner trailer, the very same one I've used on every previous visit here (thank you, kind K Family!), and rode to my homestay, a nice two-mile ride away. The couple who are my hosts this time are around my age, and find themselves very suddenly empty nesters as they have just sent their twin daughters off to college (double your tuition, double your fun, right?).

The back-forth rides between home and temple have been pleasant so far. Of course, this being Overland Park, I mostly have to ride on the expansively wide sidewalks -- in fact, a friendly policeman urged me to for my own safety and pleasure. I do take the lane once I turn off the main road and onto slightly quieter residential streets, except during the hour or so window they call "rush hour" here. By and large car drivers here are friendly, and often back up to allow me to ride the ramps from one sidewalk to the other at intersections. I have encountered exactly ONE rude river so far, not a bad track record for so car-centric and community. The other night, towing my guitar home from a late rehearsal, I spotted my first Other Bicycle Rider, a guy clad in lycra and a reflective vest on his road bike, apparently out for an evening training ride (the roads do quiet down a lot after dark here so it makes some sense).

Nicest of all, besides the gentle reminders from friends to "be careful out there" -- these people have never ridden bikes in a big city -- is the news that the city council of Overland Park will begin adding in bicycle amenities in order to boost walking and bicycling among residents, and especially among schoolkids. Their plan is to add amenities like bike lanes and shared-use paths as roads go through their constant cycle of repair and paving, so that over the next several to ten years there will become noticable changes for bike riders here:

As you can imagine, assuming I am invited back in the future, it will get nicer and nicer to ride a bicycle here. It's the most positive thing about bicycling I've seen in all my visits here, and a step in a very good direction.

Next weekend I've been signed up to join a friend on a charity ride called Tour de BBQ, a fundraiser for children's cancer research and patient services in the Kansas City area. I asked to do the shortest route, 15-20 miles, so I could take my time and conserve my energy for the real reason I came here -- to sing a whole lot of music. Still, it will be nice to take a longer ride and I look forward to it.
Cheers, and happy riding!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

repair and return: a video

Today, a few days before I head to Kansas for my first out-of-town High Holy Days pulpit as a cantorial soloist, I had a bad case of the jitters. I've prepared, of course -- had a productive practice session today, even -- but I am feeling at loose ends, not connected here or there or anywhere really. So I went for a little bike ride. Within a few blocks of home it became a scavenging mission, and when I was done I'd added three wheels to my collection of found parts. One front wheel was trashed, save for the skewer, which became the skewer for the other front wheel which was actually okay. The one rear wheel in the bunch was semi-taco'ed, with obvious bends in the rim. I figured I'd try and make it at least ridable if not near-perfect again. I set about, first loosening the spokes a bit, then whacking the rim against my stool in the worst-bent spots, then readjusting the spoke tension until the wheel was true enough and tensioned consistently enough to be ridable again. In a week where I felt unsure of the work ahead and my ability to do right by it, I needed to step back for a little while into tasks I knew I was fully capable of, if only to remind myself that I can learn, and grow, and do some good in the world.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the two holiest days of the Jewish year, give Jews an opportunity to get clear of past mistakes and to think about how to let go of old behaviors and thought patterns that no longer serve us well. Like a bicycle wheel, a person is prone to damage, to regular dings and dents from traveling under load and over many miles. A wheel can be trued again, made straight so it can be ridden again. The wheel isn't ever as good as new; molecules change their position in the metal's composition as dents and bumps affect the rim. But the wheel can be repaired and made serviceable for many more miles.

Maybe it's like that for the human heart. Life will hit us all, hard sometimes; and we will be changed by those jolts and bumps along the way. Our molecules will change position slightly as we grow and age. Skin loses elasticity; hair turns gray, wrinkles line the corners of our mouths and eyes. And our hearts bear the marks of a life lived, embracing both pain and joy as we travel down the road. Some believe that the heart can be made good as new through repentance, through returning and making amends where we have missed the mark. Others believe that a broken, contrite heart is holier than one that has not yet been broken. Whatever the case, I am old enough that I find I need this time of year, to take stock, make repairs in my life choices and relationships with those around me, and to begin again, straightened (perfectly ridable, though far from perfect) and ready to move forward towards whatever lessons this next year may bring.

If you inhabit the always interesting intersection between Judaism and bikes, I wish you and yours a Shanah Tovah.  May you be inscribed for a sweet year.
For the rest, enjoy the beauty of this autumn and safe, happy riding always!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

off again, on again: kansas bike redux

Originally I had thought that I would ship a bike for the last trip to Kansas in June. But the rabbi didn't want to pay the shipping and worked instead to find me a loaner. It worked okay, and I was prepared to ask to borrow it again; but the owner needs it to commute during the fall (it has uprights and a fender and I guess that's preferable for her). She offered to loan me her cyclocross bike, but she's a fair bit taller than me and I knew that the reach to the drops would be too long. So finally, I am shipping the blue bike. It will live in Kansas. If the synagogue is happy with my work and wants to keep bringing me back every year, then I will ask about leaving this bike in the care of the synagogue or the rabbi to store. If not, I will leave it there and ask the rabbi to drop it off at the local bike non-profit as a donation.

If my travels continue to grow in frequency I may have to look into a folding bike.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

bicycle culture, activism, and class shifting

The excellent writer Elly Blue has written a thoughtful post about the change in bicycle activism:

In it, she laments the demise of grass-roots activism in Portland's bike scene. I invite you to read it and ponder your own experiences with "bicycle activism" where you live.

I have lived in Portland since 1975, having moved here with my family when I was twelve years old. I beacme a dedicated bicycle commuter that same year, when riding the school bus became not only onerous but dangerous; bullies would pound the crap out of me in the back of the bus and after three broken pairs of glasses my family and I had had enough. I started riding to school in all but the worst winter weather, and for the most part I have never looked back. Not even forty years later.
So on some level I was a bicycle "acitivist" from an early age. Because, seriously, how many other teens would eschew car ownership and the hallowed drivers' license until the age of twenty-four?

But the older I get, and the farther removed I am from working in the bicycle industry, the less my life has become About The Bicycle, and the more the bicycle has simply become another part of my life.
Perhaps some of it is aging, and some of it is that racing got too expensive and physically demanding, and commuting daily to the same place is no longer a part of my everyday life. Whatever the reasons, I ride my bicycle most days but now it's just something I do on my way to somewhere.

That doesn't mean I don't still enjoy it, that I don't still prefer it to driving a car.

Today is my eleventh wedding anniversary. Sweetie, who is not much of a bicycle rider but who does like to ride with me sometimes, suggested we ride to a cafe for brunch, and then to a park afterwards. It was delightful. The bicycle was not the event; it simply got us to the event and then home again. And that was all I needed or wanted it to be.

I agree with Elly that the recession hit bicycle activism hard, but I would go a lot further and say that the recession hit many facets of modern culture and society hard and we may never recover from that. Instead, we may change as the world is changing, to the point where bicycle activism will look like something so different to our great-grandchildren that we would not recognize it. And maybe that is okay. At any rate, I suspect such change is inevitable. And so I keep riding.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

urban off-roading: alleyways of N/NE portland

I've been trying to get as much riding in as I can because I will be traveling so much this year.
Some days it has felt almost obligatory, other days it has started out that way and turned out to be pleasant.
Today I wanted to take my mountain bike and find some gravel. I'd missed racing short-track and cross and wanted to have a little taste of the thrill without the pressure (or expense) of competition. The problem is that I can't just toss my bike in the back of a truck and head up to Sandy Ridge; I live in the city without a car.
In the past my go-to option had mostly been to ride down to PIR (Portland International Raceway) and ride around in the cottonwood stand that makes up one half of the course during the Portland Racing Short-Track Series. The series had ended in late July (while I was away), so the BMX dirt track would be locked up and inaccessible; but the stand of trees was wide open and accessible.
Or so I thought.

I rode down to PIR, a five-mile ride from my house, fully expecting easy access through the un-manned entry gate. Except that it wasn't un-manned. There was an armed security guard stopping people and making them sign a waiver; then I was directed to the ticket booth, where I was told that to ride my bicycle on the grounds I would have to pay a fee of ten dollars. I said no thanks, turned around and rode back up the hill. Along the way I looked for a few alleyways where I might find some gravel to play around in, but after riding down three of four of these I was feeling sweaty and dismayed and sort of deflated. So in the end I just made my way home.

Some pix from my ride:

1. Urban off-road panda. There are lots of these little alleyways and side-streets, many with signs reading "Roadway Not Improved", like waving a red flag in front of all the mountain bikers in the city. Some of them are deadly dull during these dry summer months, but they will become a little more challenging and exciting in the rainy season.

A decidedly, um, Hitchcockian vibe on N Bryant:

An example of gravel grinding in the city. Urban alleyway near I-5:

And sometimes people give stuff away by leaving it at the curb. What this is, I have no idea:

I know I will want to do some more urban off-roading before the summer gets away from me completely. I may have to try again next weekend.