Keeping track of what’s coming from behind

June 29, 2012

I’ve always liked the idea of using a rear view mirror while cycling, but until this winter those that I tried failed to satisfy.

My first attempt was more than 30 years ago, early in my career as aggressive cyclist. With 7,500 other cyclists, I was doing TOSRV—the Tour of the Scioto River Valley, riding from Columbus, Ohio, to Portsmouth and back again. That’s where I met Chuck Harris from Gambier, Ohio, who was wearing a tiny mirror fastened to the end of a spoke that he had clamped around the left temple of his glasses.

Greg Siple, one of the founders of TOSRV, wrote an article about Harris in 20111. Greg’s brother Dave bought a mirror from Harris in 1972 and still uses it. I bought my Harris mirror three or four years after Siple bought his, but after a serious effort to make it work, I gave it up. Siple reports that Harris working out of his cluttered workshop with needle nosed pliers has made 88,000 of these mirrors and this income has been an important source of financial support for his family.

Commercial designs have come on to the market, and I have tried at least three models that fasten to eyeglasses or are mounted on the helmet. In each case, however, I gave up the efforts after a while. They were hard to aim in the right direction. They jiggled. I had to close one eye and squint with the other to see. I worried about having that sharp piece of steel so close to my eye.

I also tried a second type of mirror, about four inches long that was attached to the left drop bar. But it was bulky and in the way. I had trouble keeping it aimed.

Despite these disappointments, I’ve wanted to find a mirror that works. My hearing is still good enough that I can hear motor vehicles and usually can tell how close they are and how fast they’re traveling. I can still look over my shoulder for a quick fix on whatever’s back there. Even so, a third mode of keep track would help, especially when I’m riding with larger groups such as century rides during the summer and PAC Tour trips during the winter.

My friends at Cyclepath in Portland provided another choice: an end-of-the-drops, ball and socket system that mounts easily, stays stable except when bumped, and can be looked at with eyes wide open.

When I installed one of these mirrors on my new Davidson riding bike, I figured that there were two things I’d have to learn. First, was to remember to look. A couple of months later, I was riding another bike without a mirror and, to my surprise, found myself looking down all the time to glance at the mirror that wasn’t there.

The second lesson would be to interpret what I see. I’m still working on this. It’s hard to judge distances by the mirror alone, but it alerts me to traffic back there before I hear it, and helps me keep track of cyclists on my tail.

Two bloggers have recently posted their experiences with this kind of mirror. R J from Walla Walla tried one and then gave it up. One reason is a problem that also bothers me: the image is small. He now uses a larger mirror that mounts on a bracket that is clamped on the left drop near the bar end. He reports that he’s not sure why he should be so excited about a mirror, but he is.

Dave Moulton has installed a mirror similar to mine on his new custom bike. As a veteran bike builder, Dave is experienced and opinionated. He’s a late-in-life convert to using mirrors and refers to this one as his “Italian Rear View Mirror…I love it and wouldn’t be without it now.”

From what I read, the type that Dave is using has to be aimed and taped into place before handle bar wrapping is installed. The ball-and-socket variation that I’m using strikes me as being a superior design.

Will this new mirror keep me safe? I don’t know. But it helps me see some things that otherwise would catch me unawares. At that this stage in my life, that is reason enough to ride with it.

What Aztec civilization can teach modern Americans about religion and culture

June 25, 2012

Daily Life of the Aztecs is one volume in a series of books that describe classic civilizations of Rome, ancient India, the Etruscans, Greece in the time of Pericles, and Palestine at the time of Christ. Although the Aztecs reached their zenith in the early 1500s of the Common Era, long after the others had disappeared, their culture had a strong degree of symmetry with the ancient Eurasian civilizations.

I have often wondered about the Aztecs because they were dominant in the regions of North and Central America that were overcome by Spanish conquistadores and missionaries. My continuing activities in the Sonoran Southwest, with its admixture of European and Native American cultures, increase my desire to know something about the Aztecs, “those fierce, honourable, death-obsessed, profoundly religious people whom Cortés and his minions encountered five hundred years ago.

It surprises me to learn that there is a large body of source material from which to draw in order to write an entire book on the Aztec civilization. Author Jacques Soustelle describes the “many sets of records that can be compared and combined.” Despite the systematic destruction of Mexico City by the Spaniards, a growing body of architectural artifacts have been discovered and studied.

“A wealth of written documentation” has survived. Much was written by the Mexicans themselves. Soustelle refers to “an immense quantity of books…written according to a pictographic system that was at once figurative and phonetic, and treating of history, history combined with mythology, geographical description, ritual and divination.” He claims that this literature includes “piles of official paper” dealing with all kinds of disputes that would arise in a city which he estimates had a population of 1,000,000 people.

After the Spaniards arrived, Indians adopted European letters for their accounts, sometimes using their own language and sometimes using Spanish. Despite efforts by the conquerors to destroy this literature, much remains.

Furthermore, the Spaniards wrote about the Aztecs. Some of the authors show little objectivity or understanding of what they described. Other European writers, however, learned the native tongue and wrote carefully and in trustworthy fashion.

Soustelle (1912–1990) was both a scholar and a politician. When he wrote this book, which was first published in France in 1955, he was director of “the most famous ethnographical museum in the world, the Musée de l’Homme” in Paris.

As I read this imaginatively and gracefully written book, I am learning much about the complex, sophisticated culture that flourished in Mexico at the time of the Spanish invasion.

I am also recognizing how much the writing and reading of books is influenced by the frame of reference that authors and readers bring to their work. Soustelle, a European scholar steeped in Catholic culture and the feudal systems of Europe frequently uses analogies from that world to describe Aztec civilization and life. With my American background and interest in the non-urban Native Americans of cooler climates, I find myself continually amazed at the patterns Soustelle presents.

More important to me, and likely to prompt further postings in this series, are several themes in Aztec culture that are directly relevant to Americans today who are concerned about the character of our own culture: the perils of combining political authority and religion, the destructive results when war and religion join forces, the strength and weakness of societies in which religion is the compound that holds things together, and the fascination and evil possibilities that come when the shedding of blood is the ritual that keeps nature and society in motion.

Note: Although Soustelle’s book was written more than half a century ago, its continuing usefulness was confirmed when the English translation by Patrick O’Brian (1961) was republished in 1991 by Phoenix Press (London). Its value is also supported in Tlacatecco, a blog dealing with Mesoamerican culture, history and religion. More recent books about Aztec culture, history, and religion are available for readers interested in delving more deeply into this subject. My thanks to Annie Bloom’s Bookstore in Portland’s Multnomah Village where I came across Soustelle’s book.

A riding bike for the next few years

June 14, 2012

A Revised Report

“Dad, what makes this bike ride the way it does?” my daughter asked after riding my new Davidson bicycle fifteen miles on the Marine Drive Trail along the Columbia River. “It smooths out the rough patches on the road.”

I explained the reasons: titanium tubing, long wheelbase, 28 mm. tires, Brooks saddle, and light weight. She was surprised that she could feel the difference, and I was gratified that she did because I had spent a considerable sum of money to get it that way.

Both my reading and my experience on long rides had convinced me that comfort is one of the secrets to riding long days at a fast pace. Rough roads cause bikes to vibrate and this vibration diverts some of the cyclist’s forward motion into wasted up-and-down movement. It also forces the cyclist to absorb that wasted in energy in his or her body, thus leading to fatigue.

The conclusion is obvious. On comfortable bikes, cyclists go faster and last longer.

At bike shows, I have talked with several makers of handcrafted bicycles in the Pacific Northwest and found myself gravitating to Bill Davidson who has been handcrafting bicycles in Seattle since 1973. I like his ideas about bicycles, his shop creates bicycles in a timely fashion, and the workmanship is meticulous.

When we started serious conversation, I was beginning with my Waterford bicycle designed for heavy touring, which weighs about 30 pounds. My goal was to design a comfortable riding bike that weighs a lot less. Bill was starting with one of his performance-oriented Ti bikes, which weighs 16 pounds. With each change that I requested—generator front hub, lights, 32 mm. tires, fenders, S & S couplers, Brooks saddle, custom steel fork—Bill estimated how many ounces it would add.

The final result: a bicycle that is roughly halfway between our two starting points. And if I want to go all out for performance, I can substitute lighter wheels, remove the fenders, and ride with a lightweight saddle. The result would be dramatic reduction in weight, although with a modest reduction in the comfort level. What I would lose, however, would be wintertime lighting and protection from the Northwest’s rainy season (January 1 to December 31 every year).

One of my goals was to simplify the gearing by using a compact crank set with double chain rings instead of the heavier, clumsier triple crank that I’ve been riding. Bill found a new Sugino 42/26 double which, when matched with an 11-32 cassette, gives me a gear range from 104 to 21.6. This will keep me climbing the steeper grades for a while longer despite my diminished strength.

Another goal is that this bicycle can be modified to keep me riding as I move through my octogenarian decade. Already the reach is easier than on my other bikes, and by changing the stem further adjustments will be possible.

Since my new Davidson is intended to be my “riding bike,” to use Robert Penn’s phrase, I have added other accessories that increase the bicycle’s usefulness enough that I am willing to tolerate the weight gain: a Gilles Berthoud front basket, long frame pump, and bar-end rear view mirror. When I worry about the weight, I take comfort in a recent blog by Dave Moulton.

Weight weenies, Dave comments, are obsessive about the weight of their bikes. Weight Weenieism is not a disease, he says, “and there is no 12 step cure; it is a more like a religious or political belief. It is relatively harmless, although it can cause financial hardship, leading to marital stress,” both of which I hope to avoid.

The bicycle’s inaugural ride was PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic, a weeklong, 475-mile ride in southern Arizona in late February. The bicycle caught the eye of some of the other cyclists, but what I appreciated even more is that it carried me through the desert well enough that I can imagine more long rides like this during the next few years. It may all be enough fun that I will finally agree with Robert Browning (in Rabbi Ben Ezra):

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Ars moriendi, the art of dying

June 11, 2012

“That’s the way I want to go,” people often say when they hear that someone has died suddenly. “Fast, no suffering, still able to do what I like to do. It’s not death that I fear. Dying is what scares me.”

Most people in America, however, have to go through dying before they die. It’s a slow decline that includes diminishment of their vital powers. Because of extreme medical processes, dying takes longer than it used to and is accompanied by increased wretchedness and loneliness.

At the same time, the church seems to have abandoned its traditional role of helping people experience “a good dying.”

Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church’s Voice in the Face of Death is an awkward effort to help the church recover its voice and reclaim its spiritual role in guiding people through the ending-of-life experience. The authors want the church to help people in ars moriendi, the art of dying.

The writing of this book was prompted by ten examples of dying that were not artful in the classic Christian sense. The initial case was the dying of a Presbyterian minister whose sister and father are two of the authors of the book. (The third author had been one of her seminary professors.)

Speaking of her sister’s death, Joy V. Goldsmith says, “From my view (as caregiver), her dying in the church, while working full-time, then part-time, but never not working, was a debacle. A devastation. A secret. An unspeakable thing” (xiii).

The authors became aware of other pastors who also died while continuing their ministries. The majority of the ten examples the authors studied were marking by ambiguous communication,congregational denial, and suppression.  The congregations experienced negative, long-term consequences from these episodes.

How could this have happened? And why? The authors declare that the primary reason is that the church has outsourced all aspects of caring for people as they move through terminal illness.

They speak of “glorious medicine” as one of the villains. It is a trust in medical miracles that postpone death and encourage people to dissemble with one another, especially with the one who is dying. The result, however, is often the increase of suffering, loneliness, and the fear of alienation from God.

They also write about the “faithification of the fight,” meaning that people are encouraged to use every weapon at hand to fight as though death could be forestalled forever. As a result, dying is evaluated by the heroic measures taken to keep it from happening rather than by the peace, love, and joy experienced by dying persons and those who mean the most to them.

The constructive aspects of Speaking of Dying are the chapters in which the authors recount the church’s story. Its plot line is that God’s love surrounds and sustains us through every aspect of life including the final episode of dying. Because that forgiving, renewing love is expressed in Jesus, especially in his own death and subsequent resurrection, we can face death confident that God loves us and will be with us through death and beyond death in life with God.

In our baptism, we have been united with Jesus in a death like his and in the eucharist we receive the continuing renewal of love, faith, and hope. Because these sacramental experiences remove the sting of death, we can pass through our time of dying with grace.

The authors provide useful suggestions for the churches as they reclaim their proper role in helping people die. As is the case with most preachers, I have rarely dealt with this subject in sermons. On a recent occasion when I was a one-Sunday guest preacher, I did speak of how to live in the face of terminal illness. Comments afterwards lead me to conclude that the authors are correct when they encourage preachers to speak more fully about this important topic.

It is surprising that the authors give little attention to the institutional challenges that are related to their case studies. Congregations and denominations ought to have processes for handling situations in which pastors are unable to perform their duties, but the authors do not discuss these matters. Portions of the book, especially the earlier chapters, are marked by a defensive tone that beclouds the positive character of the book’s primary message.

The authors distinguish between dying, which is their focus, and death, which is another part of life that the church should address. The artfulness of how one dies, however, may in large part be influenced by what one believes about death itself.

Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith, and Joy V. Goldsmith have written from the heart, and their book, despite its shortcomings, constructively addresses topics that are important for pastors, congregational leaders, and bishops and conference ministers.

Yes to the Christian God

June 4, 2012

Does God Exist? An Answer for Today, by Hans Küng. Edward Quinn, trans. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1978, 1979, 1980; German edition, 1978

I have begun my summer’s reading project, which will include several books about Christian understandings of God. Although I will include recent publications such as Paul Davies’ The Mind of God and Jacob Needleman’s What Is God, my primary interest is in reading (or re-reading) more ponderous tomes representing the classics in liberal theology, beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher’s precedent setting On Religion.

My purpose is to think carefully about the basic narrative line that has sustained my way of life these many years.

The first book in the project is Does God Exist? by the prolific Catholic theologian Hans Küng (published in 1978). I started here because a borrowed copy of the book was handy and I had never read any of Küng’s writings. It is a good place to begin, I have decided, because he focuses on the relation of theology, science, and philosophy.

Although Küng wrote as a Catholic theologian, his work is trans-confessional in its style and conclusions. He believes that the Christian God can be trusted because in Jesus Christ this God identifies with us in our suffering.

The Christian God, Küng writes, is a strong, persuasive alternative to the “god of the philosophers.”

Does God Exist? is a massive book, and I decided to postpone reading the first 580 pages in which Küng discusses the ideas of Descartes, Pascal, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Kant, Barth, Wittgenstein, and others. Instead, I started with the Preface and then skipped to the final part, “Yes to the Christian God.” Even this section, however, is 115 pages long.

To my surprise, I have found Küng’s prose style to be straightforward and understandable. At this stage in my reading, however, I am concentrating on following his development of the topic. It is too early to write an analysis and evaluation of his work. (For a review of the book, see the report by Catholic theologian Richard P. McBrien, published in the New York Times soon after it was published.)

 My main objective is to compress his ideas into a set of study notes, mainly for my own use. Even so, the result is a lengthy paper—fifteen pages (8,400 words).

It’s important to let Küng speak in his own words, which he does in the half page with which he concludes the book:

“After the difficult passage through the history of the modern age from the time of Descartes and Pascal, Kant and Hegel,

considering in detail the objections raised in the critique of religion by Feuerbach, Marx and Freud,

seriously confronting Nietzsche’s nihilism,

seeking the reason for our fundamental trust and the answer in trust in God,

in comparing finally the alternatives of the Eastern religions,

entering also into the question ‘Who is God?’ and of the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ:

after all this, it will be understood why the question ‘Does God exist?’ can now be answered by a clear, convinced Yes, justifiable at the bar of critical reason.

“Does God exist? Despite all upheavals and doubts, even for man today, the only appropriate answer must be that with which believers of all generations from ancient times have again and again professed their faith. It begins with faith—Te Deum, laudamus, ‘You, God, we praise’—and ends in trust: In te, Domine, speravi, non confundar in aeternum! ‘In you, Lord, I have hoped, I shall never be put to shame” (702).

To read my notes on this book, click Does God Exist