My classic bike comes home again

July 19, 2016
Mercian Bike in North Portland

Mercian Bike in North Portland

On July 8, I posted a blog announcing my decision to sell the classic Mercian bicycle that has been one of my loves for 43 years. The blog went online at 6:00 am just before I left for my 7:00 o’clock Friday breakfast with the Friendly Old Fellows from my church.

At 8:15, as I was leaving the restaurant, my Indianapolis son was on the phone. He had just read the blog and hoped that there still was time to get the bike back. “Dad, I can fix a place for it in my garage. Even if you don’t ride it any more, it needs to stay in the family.” Later in the day, one of his Indianapolis sisters echoed his sentiment. “If I had room at my place, I would have made the same offer.”

Their entreaties were enough to persuade me. Even a casual reading of last week’s blog shows that my heart was not in the decision to put the bike on consignment. I called the bike shop and reported my change of mind. They’ll do the repairs that it needs and I’ll pick it up in a few days.

One more factor enters into this discussion. As my family and many of my friends know, I plan to reestablish my home in Indianapolis. With the Mercian at my son’s home, I will be able to join him more easily in rides around his part of the northeastern fringe of Indianapolis. His principal bike is the Orange Co-Motion bike I used for a decade after putting the Mercian into semi-retirement. We’ll make a fine pair as we cruise around a nice part of the world on these fine bikes.


Choosing tires at the point where performance, price, and reliability intersect

Fixing a Flat Under the Light Rail Tracks

Fixing a Flat Under the Light Rail Tracks

For several years I have subscribed to Seattle based Bicycle Quarterly and have benefitted greatly from much of the work that writers in this journal discuss. I consistently ride on wider tires at lower pressure than I used for most of my cycling history.

After a long delay, I finally decided to try a set of Compass tires that the people in Seattle have developed and sell. My hesitation was based on my uneasiness about the reliability of these high-performance, light weight tires. I mounted a pair in January in time to ride them for a month with many miles on Amelia Island, Florida, a week of PAC Tour’s Desert Training Camp in southern Arizona, and another week of occasional riding around Tucson.

The tires mounted easily, felt good on my rides, and showed no wear during these winter rides. After I returned home, however, my experience changed. Repeated flats have let me down. They have occurred on regular training routes near my home, on a pleasure excursion in the Coast Range outside of Seaside, Oregon, at the 65-mile mark on the annual Ride Around Clark County, 20 miles from nowhere on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens on the annual Tour de Blast, and finally at an awkward place three miles from home on my regular commuting route from downtown Portland.

Half way through this series of flats, my confidence began to waver, but the tires do give a good ride. They show few blemishes from road debris that might lead to flats. The last let-down, however, persuaded me that despite the confidence in these tires exuded by the Bicycle Quarterly folks they don’t work for me.

I’m at Seaside again for a few days. The first thing I did upon arrival was replace these tires with a set of tried-and-true Continentals. I may even dare the ride up into the high country again while I’m here. As it has been throughout the years, I choose my tires at the point where performance, price, and reliability intersect. For now, I’m making the choice based on reliability. Next year, maybe, I’ll try again for performance (but probably not with Compass).

Rinker Buck’s Rapturous Journey on the Oregon Trail

July 14, 2016

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015)


The Oregon Trail

During the summer of 2011 Rinker Buck, his brother Nick, and Nick’s dog Olive Oyl drove a mule-drawn covered wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon. It was the first covered wagon crossing of this historic route since Ezra Meeker’s journey in 1909.

In his book Buck gives readers an adventure story filled with close calls, unexpected encounters with places and people, equipment failures, and tension between the brothers. Less determined and resourceful travelers would certainly have been deterred from completing the journey.

The book is also a fact-filled history of what is probably the greatest land based migration in human history, when 400,000 people made this pilgrimage across what was called the great American desert. Before, during, and after his crossing, Buck immersed himself in literature about the Oregon Trail: journals of the pioneers, modern histories, and descriptions of the trail itself and sites along the way.

Despite their upbringing in suburban New Jersey, the Buck brothers had significant experiences in early life with horses and mules and with their family had made a covered wagon trip into Pennsylvania. Buck’s research, also reported in his book, included literature on the breeding, care, and driving techniques related to mules.

The book describes candidly the complex relations of the two brothers who from childhood through middle age had developed in markedly different ways. Throughout their adult years, they had lived apart, and their relationship was fraught with tension. Although they found ways of living and working together throughout their trip across the plains and mountains of the West—and could never had made the trip without each other—they parted at journey’s end still facing life in different ways but with a new sense of acceptance.

Rink dedicates the book to “Nicholas McMahon Buck, who got us there with rare gumption and skill.”

With these complex and intersecting narratives, The Oregon Trail is a long book. Its narrative drive is fired by the dream that came to Rinker Buck at the restored Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express Station maintained by the Kansas Historical Society. Describing that occasion, he writes about the “preposterous scheme” that he concocted.

“But you can’t save an addictive dreamer from himself, and that jackass happens to be me. Already, powerful forces were drawing me west. I felt an irresistible urge to forsake my life back east for a rapturous journey across the plains” (p. 8).

Usually when I read a book, I take notes along the way, partly to help remember ideas and insights, partly to use in my ongoing work as religious historian and contemplative cyclist. The Buck brothers’ “new American journey” was too interesting an adventure story for me to break the momentum with note-taking. A second reading will allow me pay more attention to Rink Buck as historian and interpreter of the American journey.

Although Buck is aggressively hostile toward religion and religious practice, his interpretations of the Whitman Mission and Mormon activities in the West are useful additions to the literature about their respective roles in shaping western culture. One of the pages I flagged uses colloquial language to describe the human condition that usually is obscured by traditional religious terminology.

The two brothers are talking about earlier times in their family’s life when things had not gone well, and Rinker reports that “over the next few days, I was occasionally moody” because of this remembered history. Trying to be helpful, Nick declares—in his own crude way—that Rink is fucked up, but not any more than the next guy, and that “nobody ever really recovers from anything.” Then comes a remarkable description of what theologians entitle original sin.

“’You’re probably right,’ I said, to which Nick responded: “There’s no fuckin cure for any of us, Rinker. Get into it dickhead. I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up, okay? Fucked up is normal.” Rinker then adds his reflective response. “Nick was right, I decided. Fucked up is the universal condition of man” (p. 196).

For me, the most surprising aspect of this book is that one person stands out as exemplar of all who made this epic journey across the west: Narcissa Whitman, who lived America’s “national irony to the fullest.” He describes her as the “proud, self-important evangelist from the Finger Lakes, incapable of getting along with the Cayuse,” and as “the brave, adventurous woman galloping sidesaddle up South Pass.” We don’t have to choose between these two identities because “Narcissa Whitman was both” (p. 414).

At the end of the summer, Rinker Buck not only had had a great journey and understood America more clearly, but he was at peace with his past.

Learning to live with death and dying

July 11, 2016

In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying, by Eve Joseph (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2014)

Joseph“I was a girl when my brother was killed,” Eve Joseph writes at the close of this multi-textured book. “In the silence that followed his death, grief took up residence in our house. His death led me to the dying, and death led me back to him” (p. 199).

During her adult years, Joseph worked as a hospice counselor, living in close contact with people as life ebbed away, observing with a poet’s sensitivity the physical, emotional, and inter-personal aspects of the experience that comes to all.

Joseph also read a wide range of literature about dying and death—clinical studies, personal narratives, religious and philosophical reflections, myth, poetry, and legend. She was also attentive to her own family systems, Judaism and the Salish First People of Vancouver Island.

In the Slender Margin is the culmination of this forty-year process of living with death. Joseph writes as a poet, “in short meditative chapters leavened wit insight, warmth, and occasional humor” that are connected with emotional rather than discursive logic.

Joseph describes what people believe, imagine, experience, and ritualize about living and dying, about the intertwining of the living and the dead, of animals and bees and the people who are dying or in death’s way. She neither discounts nor affirms; rather she accepts all of them as signs of the dynamic reality of human experience—experience in which dying and living are always present.

Many people in the western world are inclined to discount much of what Joseph describes, thinking of it as superstition or unscientific. The impact of Joseph’s sensitive description, however, is to soften this resistance so that fact-oriented westerners can be embraced by a wisdom that has long existed among the peoples of the world.

My academic approach to life and death was quickly overwhelmed by this narrative, and my personal grief two years after my wife’s death took control. I remember only a few of the facts and explanations Joseph recites, but find my grief softened and my spirit enlivened.

With her, I am ready to affirm that “The slender margin between the real and the unreal is the margin between factual truth and narrative truth. . .The factual truth is objective. The narrative truth opens the door to the mysterious” (p. 199).

With considerable firmness Joseph states that her purpose in writing this book was not the hope that it would be therapeutic, bringing her closer to her brother, although this it seems to have done. “I wrote as Joan Didion says, to find out what I was thinking. Along the way, I was surprised.”

She describes the book as a work of art that “lies somewhere between the corporeal and the spiritual: the sacred and the profane. I am closest to my mother and brother and innumerable others when I write about them.”

I, too, am a writer. Rather than poetry, my work has been academic prose. During the next two or three years, however, I want to write two monographs, one focusing on personal and family aspects of my life and the other on my work as theologian and religious historian.

Joseph’s distinction between factual truth and narrative truth will be an important guide as I choose memories that are important and then weave them into a narrative that hovers between the corporeal and the spiritual. I will write in order to understand what I think, and in the process, like Didion and Joseph, I hope to be surprised.

New life for an old bike

July 8, 2016

Mercian Full View

No tears were shed, though my eyes were misty, as I left Sellwood Cycle Repair. My 43-year-old Mercian Vincitore bicycle stayed behind. After a little fixing up and cleaning, it will be made available for purchase by someone who can appreciate its classic lines and fine feel on the road.

I first saw a Mercian frameset in the spring of 1973 at Chuck Sink’s bike shop in Marion, Indiana, and it was love at first sight. A few months later, the day before we started an automobile trip from Indianapolis to Portland to visit our families, my entry-level ten-speed disappeared from our garage. Before summer’s end, it would have to be replaced.

Already Portland was a premier location for adult cycling. In shops around the city, I saw examples of the best European imports. Action Sports in Beaverton (a farm village during my Portland boyhood but now a rapidly growing suburb) featured Mercian frame sets. Half a dozen were hanging on the wall, two of them my size. The plain King of Mercia model, for $125, was the sensible choice but the ornate Vincitore, for $150, was the one that caught my eye and set the juices running.

Mercian Steering TubeBrilliant metallic blue with white panels, Reynolds 531 steel tubing, and sleek lines were part of the appeal, but the gold-lined, intricate lugs were what set this bicycle frame apart from ordinary bikes. The price included bottom bracket, headset, and seat post by Campagnolo, the Italian company that manufactured the most highly prized components of the time.

With my wife’s consent, I went for the Vincitore. Entry-level wheels, drive train, brakes, and handlebars, mostly by Sun Tour, and a Brooks saddle, added another $125 to the cost. I had to borrow $200 from my mother to swing the deal.

A few days after the purchase my wife drove Mike (our cycling son) and me to Action Sports so that I could get the bike. I can still feel the excitement in my muscles that I experienced while riding this classy and performance-oriented bicycle back to Mother’s apartment. Nothing had ever felt the same.

During the next 30 years I rode the Mercian well over 100,000 miles. Some of them were done exactly 40 years ago in June and July of America’s Bicentennial Summer. Daughter Sharon, a recent college graduate, and I traveled self-contained across the country from Portland to Indianapolis, she on her orange Peugeot and I on my blue Mercian.

23 years later, in the spring of 1999, I rode my Mercian on a solo, motel-at-night trip from San Diego to St. Augustine, averaging 86 miles a day. During these years I commuted to the campus where I taught, regardless of weather except when the roads were slick, and most of those miles were on the Mercian. Countless training rides, day trips, invitational century rides, week-long (and longer) road trips piled up year after year.

Components have been upgraded several times, and twice the frame has been repainted, in authentic colors and genuine decals. The rear dropouts were spread to accommodate modern cassettes. Despite these changes, this fine old bike, that still catches the eye in bike shops and on rides, is much the same as it has always been.

That’s the problem, because I have changed. With advancing years, I’m not as limber as I used to be and I need a softer ride, although on a bike still designed for long, hard, fast miles. In recent years, I have bought two bicycles that accommodate my current stage in life. One is set up for winter and city riding, with fenders, generator lights, and capabilities to carry things like books and groceries. The other is custom designed and built so that it accommodates my current needs and can be adapted to the gradual changes that will come during the next few years.

I have thought seriously of keeping this bicycle as a remembrance of times past, but space and the cold light of reason do not allow. As I downsize in order to fit into a smaller living space, I’m turning my Mercian free to find someone who can restore it to more active life.

The crew at Sellwood Cycle think they can find a new owner. After making it showroom ready, they’ll post photos online and one of these days—maybe even before the winter rains return—someone younger and nimbler than I will fall in love with this bicycle, which was for so many years the two-wheeled love of my life. (By the way, a new Mercian Vincitore frameset costs about $1,500 plus VAT and shipping.)


St Paul in the Park Blocks

July 2, 2016

FCC StepsOne of my favorite windows at First Christian Church in Portland, Oregon, carries the title “St. Paul at Athens.” It depicts an occasion reported in the seventeenth chapter of Acts when Paul and his companions were visiting this proud, ancient city. Although political and economic power radiated from Rome, classic intellectual and religious culture were centered in Athens.

The window shows Paul standing on an open platform with his left arm stretched high and his right hand reaching out to his listeners, with the Acropolis in the background. The only way we can see the window is by viewing the picture on page 78 of the book, Stained Glass Windows of First Christian Church, because it is one of many that have been in storage due to remodeling that has been done in earlier times.

In this sermon (July 3, 2016), I want to bring Paul to the south park blocks here in Portland and ask him to update his sermon. If he were to preach two sermons to us—one on how Christians should act in their political lives today and the other on how we should respond to the welter of intellectual and religious currents of our time—what would he say? Of course, no one knows how the church’s first theologian would respond to modern America, but I want to suggest some possibilities. Since tomorrow is one of our nation’s major political holidays, my sermon today speaks to the relationship between Christian faith and citizenship. Read more . . . . St. Paul in the Park Blocks