Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bicycling and the social contract

I've been overcoming a lot of my former anti-bicycling prejudices these past two months.  Whoop!   But those prejudices . . .  well, my dear, new "Sudden Painful Death Machine" has that (loving) name for a reason, of course.  Prejudice #1 is fear of gravel in corners.  More on that fear later.

But the two other big reasons I've been hesitant to take up biking have little to do with personal comfort or safety.  If you look at the most popular reasons that make people hesitate to ride bikes, I myself would shrug them off:
  • "I'd get too hot/too cold."  Faugh!; I walk more than I drive already; I don't mind dressing for the weather.
  • "I'd get sweaty."  I love getting sweaty!
  • "Traffic around here is nuts; biking is too dangerous".  I happen to live in a very bike-friendly city*.  Many of my friends and colleagues bike to work already.  
*Although --- interestingly enough on this last one --- my avid-cyclist husband has had trouble with traffic out on the wide, quiet country roads.  In the southeastern part of our county, in the land of pick-up trucks and confederate flags, drivers will sometimes deliberately swerve at him or throw beer-bottles at him.  One guy actually threw tacks in the road in front of a bunch of cyclists (only to discover to his chagrin that one of those cyclists happened to be a cop).  If my husband rides alone in those areas, he wears his "Budweiser" bike clothes, which affords him a bit of protection.  I think that's pretty funny.

But aside from the Prejudice #1 (the Evil Spectre of Corner Gravel), much of my reluctance to ride bikes was less personal than it was social.  Here's what I really thought would be the hard part of squeezing bicycling into my routine:

  • Prejudice #2:  Biking will make me late.  This is related to, but not quite the same as, other people's worry that biking takes too much time.  In my case, it's really issues of whether I could squeeze biking in between other tasks I've promised to do, and still meet the obligations of being a good professor and mom.  
  • Case in point: going to Market on Tuesday mornings.  I typically do this after I wake the boys and send them to school, but before I teach my 8:30 a.m. class.  I only have about 45 minutes in that little window, so speed is critical; I know if I drive there, it takes me 25-30 minutes roundtrip.  But . . . to my surprise, I've discovered recently that if I bike there, it takes me 25-30 minutes roundtrip.  Same amount of time, exactly.  So biking to market does not, in fact, make me late.  Whoop!
  • Second case in point:  taking the boys to the doctor's office takes something like 1.5 hours out of my day, mostly because pulling the boys out of school takes   F O R  E  V   E    R . .  .    and sitting in the waiting room and then sitting in the examining room are also not exactly speedy activities.  So biking instead of driving to the doctor's office doesn't really steal that much time from my workday, nor does it make a huge dent in my boys' ultimate academic success.
  • Prejudice #3:  Biking will just be tormenting my sons.  Since I walk (and don't drive) to work, the majority of my local car use has been to transport the kiddos around.   And therefore, it follows that my choice to bike instead of drive becomes their new routine as well, for good or ill.  Is that fair to them?  Can they deal with it?  
I've hinted above that things are actually more-or-less working out okay with the new bike routine.  I'll write some other day about biking with kids [and spoiler alert: they love it more than I do, even!].  

Which brings me back to Prejudice #1:  fear of gravel in corners.  I can blame one bad spill many years ago for this particular terror of mine.  Male bicyclists I talk to try to rationalize this fear away:  "Well, you get used to looking for gravel", or "that corner we just went through is perfectly safe [so why are you such a little whiner?!?],"  or "the really bad thing isn't gravel, it's wet leaves."   And I 'get' this rational approach.    Sort of.

But a woman I know who races bikes heard me talking about gravel, and her response rocked me.  Cathy said, 
"Yes, you've got to be careful of things like that, because you have a family who's relying on you.  Guys can crash, and it's just them.  But you have to think about who's going to take care of the kids and the house if you get hurt, so you have to take extra care not to wipe out.  It'll take you two years of riding before you can really know your limits.  You'll have a few near crashes, a few skids, a few slides, and then you'll know how far you can push and how far you can't.  Two years of riding, and you'll be fine.  But for now, you're right:  guys do crazy stunts all the time and think nothing of it.  But you have to think about things like corners and gravel, because it's not just about you."

I'm not entirely sure that the male/female division is as sharp as she made it out to be, and I know for certain that my fear of gravel isn't as noble as she gives me credit for.  But Cathy made me realize how often our reluctance to change something about our own lives isn't just about us -- it's also about how our decisions will affect our ties to other people, to our jobs, and to those past promises we've made.

As David Brooks wrote in a recent article I just love, nowadays we're good at talking about "personal rights" and lifestyle, but we don't really have a good language for commitment, civic obligation, or a public responsibility.  Cathy and David Brooks together shook up something in my head.  They made me realize how much this new hobby of mine isn't just about me doing my own little thing, and even more, that it is a Good and Proper thing to think about the bike in the context of the greater social contract.

It's not just about the bike, even when it's staring straight atcha. 

No comments:

Post a Comment