01 May 2009

Bye Bye Johnny; Hello Pavement

I'm told this is going on Bicycle Magazine's blog but I wrote it weeks ago and still haven't heard anything so I'm posting it here first. You're welcome, mom...

August 16th, 2008 will forever stand out in my memory as a fateful day. On that day the kids and I scribed a farewell message in shoe polish on the old minivan’s window and donated it to a local bike charity. Strictly speaking it was a “swap” not a donation, set up by the folks at New Belgium Brewing. I soon found myself the proud owner of a spiffy Black Sheep commuter bike with tricked-out components, panniers, a full gear set--all the bells and whistles (actually, the bell came separately).

But I should point out this automotive trade-in was not the “push, pull or tow” variety. Our 1997 Nissan Quest was a bit like a member of the family. Poundage of rogue goldfish and gummy worms, no doubt, still occupy the crevices of Ike (age 4) and Tallulah’s (age 2) middle-row captain’s chairs. We spent many hours grooving to kid rock (the genre, not the performer) in its confines on the way to work and/or daycare. It was no schlub discard our “Johnny” as we called it, but the decision had been made: it was our destiny to be a one-car family, and Johnny would go down honorably as a substantial tax write off.

The decision though was one the family agonized over. When I made my submission video for the swap, the numbers were against me. Living in Portland, Oregon, of course I bike commuted pre-swap from time to time; it was my civic duty (you take an oath when you register to vote). I had long wanted my bike commuting to transcend to a higher plane though my wife Jennifer really wasn’t really copacetic with the proposed arrangement. So before I would trade in my workaday trappings for the flowing robes and long white beard of Enlightenment, there were to be some down-to-earth negotiations and assurances.

“You are not doing this,” Jenn said. I’m paraphrasing because my mom might read this. “No!” Ike demanded. Even my two-year old burst out in abject laughter at the preposterous idea. I assured Jenn that there was no way I would win the contest and that just by submitting the video didn’t mean I had to actually go through with it.

I did.

Ultimately, my wife acquiesced and agreed to dispense with one of our cars for a year’s trial. She’s good that way. There may or may not have been the promise of a Prius in the offing.

Long story longer, she and the kids met me downtown at the riverfront for the ceremonial giveaway. Only, it turned out, the tow truck wouldn’t be taking Johnny away that same day. We ended up taking it back home to await its eventual removal with a parking ticket on the windshield. That was the kids’ last trip in Johnny.

You know how you build up obstacles in your mind and psyche yourself out of the positive change for which you profess a longing? This bike-commuting thing may be one of the more constructive mid-life crises on record. Turns out there was a way to make arrangements for picking up the kids at daycare across town when my wife had client dinners or other social engagements after work. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t seem to mind renting a car for their visit in the absence of a seven-seat vehicle. My doctor was amazed that I dropped nine pounds in the three weeks after my daily commute began, and at the follow up to my physical I effectively stayed the high blood pressure medicine prescription she’d been considering for me. Granted, I’m still balding and overweight, but still, there’s progress there.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s true what they say about Portland. If you don’t like the weather, stick around five minutes and it will still be raining. And there have been days when I have had to drag myself to my bicycle. On those days, if an auto were an option, there’s no way I’d be bicycling. But when I hang my sopping jacket or tights from my locker door, I can chalk up one accomplishment before my day’s even begun. I’ve encountered scenarios on my commute (a barn owl, prostrate septuagenarians, cartoon-themed panhandlers, volcanic eruptions, tons and tons of goose shit—all true) that you just never encounter in a car. Though I may miss NPR, I had a habit of switching to sports talk anyway.

The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes, left to your own devices, as good intentioned as one might be, there’s going to be some backsliding. These lapses in will power are human nature, not necessarily character flaws. Sometimes it takes a little less to become something more. So I got rid of my car.

Here we are at Day 237 of the Year of the Bike. The white beard never grew in. I put back most of the pounds I shed. But I do ride my bike to and from work everyday. Some people think that’s crazy, irresponsible, heroic, or whatever. But what I’ll tell you (in the strictest confidence) is it’s, surprisingly, really not that big a deal.