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

Bicentennial Summer: Big Hole National Battlefield

June 30, 2016
Big Hole Battlefield: Online Photo

Big Hole Battlefield: Online Photo

For thirty-six days we rode our bicycles from Portland, Oregon, to Indianapolis, traveling in reverse over routes explored by the Lewis and Clark expedition and half a century later by 400,000 pioneers on the Oregon Trail. At 44 years of age, I was the senior member of our threesome; my daughter, Sharon, recently graduated from college, and Paul, the son of a seminary classmate and an elementary school teacher near Indianapolis, were my companions on this 2,600-mile journey.

On our bicycles we carried clothes, personal items, tents, sleeping bags, tools, and a little food—a total of about thirty pounds each. Not counting our five rest days, we averaged 85 miles a day, despite daytime temperatures often approaching 100 degrees, mountain passes as high as 9,600 feet, heavy traffic, and a little rain.

For the western half of our journey we often were surrounded by many other cyclists, since a recently formed company—BikeCentennial—had developed a 4,200 TransAmerica Bicycle Trail and inspired 4,100 people to celebrate the American Bicentennial Anniversary by bicycling across the country. After riding through Yellowstone Park, we developed our own route for the rest of the journey.

I kept a journal, which for the most part records the externalities of the trip. Shortly before we started, I had bought a new camera, but I set it incorrectly and at the end of the trip discovered that most of the photos were seriously overexposed and so the visual record is sparse.

July 4, 1976, was a Sunday, and I had hoped to attend church that day to give thanks for the heritage of our land. Our camp site on Saturday, July 3, however, was in a public park near the summit of Chief Joseph Pass in western Montana, far from any town or church. On the great day, we cycled to the top of the pass where we encountered a band of cyclists, all of them young men about the same age as Sharon and Paul, who had reached the pass by cycling up another trail that came from a different direction.

Later in the morning, most of us stopped at Big Hole National Battlefield. Instead of celebrating our nation’s heritage of freedom in a church, we sat in the amphitheater overlooking the battlefield. A park ranger displayed a video describing the battle that had taken place there in 1877. There had been a decades-long struggle between the United States government and the Nez Perce Indians who were the long-time residents of this region. As often happened in these conflicts, there had been a history of friendly relations, treaties, broken treaties, military skirmishes, and outright military conflict. Chief Joseph had finally decided that their cause was hopeless and he had inspired a significant body of his people to flee to Canada where they would be safe.

In the pre-dawn hours of August 9, 1877, U. S. armed forces swept down upon the sleeping camp of men, women, and children. By the time the smoke cleared on August 10, almost 90 Nez Perce were dead along with 31 soldiers and volunteers. Big Hole National Battlefield was created to honor all who were there. Later, Chief Joseph made this declaration:

“I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

After watching the video, we enjoyed a 30-mile downward sweep to Wisdom, Montana, where we ate lunch in a mosquito-infested restaurant and watched and listened to Walter Cronkite’s narration of the tall ships coming into New York Harbor. As we continued across the country, however, visiting many places that depict the glories of our nation, the tragic aspects of our history continued with me.

A Key to Good Health

June 23, 2016

Snowball in a Blizzard: A Physician’s Notes on Uncertainty in Medicine, by Steven Hatch (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

HatchWhen he started this book, Steven Hatch intended to write about issues with which he was struggling in his professional life as assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The focus would have been on “methodological aspects of human-subjects research, mainly the difficulties of study design and the subtleties of statistical interpretation” (p. 241).

Tepid responses from literary agents led him to realize that “more was to be gained by telling stories about the consequences of these issues, and that I could occasionally sprinkle the text with brief explanations of the more essential methodological points.” How should women decide when to have mammograms and how much confidence should they have in the results of these tests? How reliable are PSA scores in making decisions about possible prostate cancer? Why are guidelines for blood pressure levels changing, especially for older adults?

The first half of the book consists of Hatch’s narratives about the above illnesses and others, including infectious diseases, his own field of specialization. The mix of case study narration and description of how scientists and physicians conduct studies and reach conclusions provides a strong story line so that general readers can stay with his analysis and understand his interpretations.

Halfway through (p. 153), Hatch summarizes the book to this point. Studies discussed in previous chapters leave questions dealing with uncertainty about the values of a drug: “First, what will be the yardstick by which we will measure a drug’s value? … Second, how big will any potential observed benefit need to be before we consider it a success? . . . Third, what are the potential harms of the treatment?” After listing and briefly explaining these questions, Hatch states what could be considered the thesis of the book.

“Because the answers to these questions differ for each treatment, and the fact that the answers tend to fall onto a continuum rather than cozy themselves into a tidy binary yes and no category, both doctors and patients alike need to carefully consider the data before ‘knowing’ that a drug is right for them” (p. 153).

Hatch then begins a fuller discussion of the processes by which physicians and researchers reach their conclusions. The chapter title and epigram suggest the tone of what follows: “The Correlation/Causation Problem, or Why Dark Chocolate May Not Lower Your Risk of Heart Failure: The science was accurate, but it was extrapolated beyond imagination.”

He also gives a concise description of the kind of study that has been described and affirmed throughout the book and makes this assertion: “Nevertheless, the power of the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial lies in its ability to ask [the above questions] in an organized and systematic way. We can say this drug saves this many lives (great!) but comes at the cost of these side effects, of which these particular effects are truly dangerous (not great). They do not settle questions, but they give us a framework by which we can ponder uncertainty and allow us to decide where we can place a drug’s value on the spectrum (154).”

The ideas presented in this book lead to a specific kind of relationship between medical providers and patients and families. Instead of issuing decisions about treatment, doctors exercise humility, explaining the basis for their proposals for treatment and acknowledging the limitations of their knowledge and certainty. Patients and families need to be active participants in the discussion, asking questions and responding to the guidelines that physicians present.

This relationship is illustrated in a pattern of consultation that is developing in intensive care units. Families are encouraged to be present at the bedside when the medical team makes its daily rounds to evaluate the patient and the care that is being given. In this way, the conversational, collaborative nature of the doctor-patient relationship is manifested.
Hatch frequently describes the role of the media in describing medical matters and developing public opinion. Much of his commentary is negative and he supports the importance of good coverage that reports carefully on studies, recommendations, and guidelines.

Despite Hatch’s emphasis upon uncertainty, humility, and collaboration, he does make one unqualified assertion at several points throughout the book: “Exercise more. Eat less. Don’t smoke. Everything else is commentary (p. 225). Hatch also writes that there is one aspect of medicine where the benefits are so great and the risks so minimal that it is on the far left of the “spectrum of certainty.” That procedure is vaccination, which has to be considered “the single greatest triumph of modern medicine” (222).

My wife died of metastatic breast cancer, and I deal with prostate and blood pressure issues. During the past decade, we had many conversations with a wide range of doctors and consultants. Our experience has been increasingly along lines that are consistent with Hatch’s recommendations. We would have been helped if we had been able to read a book like Snowball in a Blizzard.

This book is a key to good health!


Arbora Court: How one church is helping low income people find places to live

May 18, 2016

Arbora CourtEvery urban congregation faces the challenge: to respond to the housing crisis that forces many people to live on the streets.

They can offer a helping hand by providing free meals, emergency shelter, counseling, and referrals, food subsidies, advocacy, and friendship. Even as church people offer these ministries, they know that more is needed. Would it be possible, they wonder, for their church to use its resources—its members, money, buildings and property, and social standing—to resolve seemingly intractable problems in its neighborhood.?

One congregation that has answered the question with a dramatic “yes” is University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Seattle. On May 14, 2016, this church and its community partners celebrated the completion of a long process that is giving birth to Arbora Court across 15th Avenue Northeast from the church’s historic building. Ground breaking is planned for this fall, and in early 2018 a new structure will provide living units for 133 households, with incomes ranging from zero to 60% of the area median income.

Apartments will range in size from studio to three-bedroom, with a strong emphasis upon families with children. They will live in the middle of the University District, within walking distance to grocery stores, restaurants, public library, community center, high-quality public schools, and transit opportunities. The estimated cost of Arbora Court is $41,000,000, with funding coming from several sources including Washington State Housing Trust Fund, and King County County Housing Finance Program.

University Christian Church has been the central player in this process. Since 1915, it has been one of the ecumenical Protestant churches that line 15th Avenue on the western edge of the University of Washington. Nearby residential neighborhoods are long-established and costly and tens of thousands of university students compete for places to live. Business establishments run the gamut of types one would expect near a major university.

And Seattle is one of the most expensive cities in the nation in which to live. Many people struggle with incomes and personal circumstances that make it impossible for them to afford housing.

University Christian Church has long recognized the need for affordable housing while it has also addressed its own need for parking. In the late 1980s, it used funds from its endowment to purchase two old houses across 15th Avenue and adjacent to the church’s small parking lot. The houses were reconditioned and made available to low-income university students, many from migrant farm families, who otherwise would not have been able to stay in college.

For one short period, the parking lot became the location for “Nicholsville,” a self-managed tent city community housing a tiny portion of Seattle’s homeless population. It was clear, however, that a more substantial effort to make long-term, affordable housing was needed and that University Christian had the opportunity to turn its “mission-to-the-community” energies in this direction.

Over the years a stable church committee with a gradually changing set of participants worked at this mission challenge. The church concluded that the best way forward—for the church and for its community—was to convert its small parking lot and the adjacent old houses into a new, multi-story apartment building with affordable rents and support services that would help residents respond effectively to life challenges they were facing.

The process turned out to be complex and daunting. Coalitions needed to be developed; the support of residents, businesses, churches, and community organizations had to be secured. A maze of legal and political issues—especially zoning–had to be resolved. Funding for this costly project had to be found. The active period of hard work has taken a decade, but the preparatory labor has been completed and Arbora Court soon will add to the quality of life in the University District.

University Christian Church has been crucial to this entire process. Its members and leaders provided the vision and constancy of purpose. The church’s stability over a multi-decade period of time kept the project going even though the membership of its planning committee has changed over time. The wide range of personal skills in dealing with the practical politics of urban life and political systems was invaluable.

Arbora Court is being made possible by a generous below-market sale of land by the church to a new corporation that will carry the project forward. Compass Housing Alliance will provide on-site support for the households transitioning from homelessness. The church will own 60 parking spaces in the building’s garage.

The project will include a prominent art installation honoring the legacy of University Christian Church. The most significant and long lasting monument to the church’s ministry in Christ’s name, however, will be the generations of families that will be blessed by living at Arbora Court in the decades that extend far into the future.


Ride Around Clark County 2016

May 8, 2016

The first day of cycling summer in Clark County, Washington

RACC Metric CenturyWhere I live the summer cycling season begins with RACC—Ride Around Clark County—sponsored by the Vancouver (USA) Bicycle Club. It takes place on the first Saturday in May, which is well ahead of the official start of summer and explains why cyclists often ride through rain. Confirmation that summer has started in this part of the world was in full display at the Vancouver Farmers’ Market when I finished my ride: strawberries—real strawberries— were for sale in large quantity by several vendors.

This year cyclists rode through a perfect Pacific Northwest summer day: cloudless sky, full sunshine, and temperature near 60 degrees when we started and the low 80s when we finished. A light breeze refreshed the spirit without impeding the body.

The route is one of the most interesting century rides I know. It takes cyclists on a kinky, easily followed course through a semi-rural countryside in which country estates and hardscrabble cottages coexist in visual harmony. Unexpectedly churches appear in secluded rural locations and on the edges of residential developments. They represent a wide range of denominations, including Adventist, Catholic, Episcopal, unaffiliated, and Apostolic Lutheran (historically connected with Finnish immigrants).

Working farms and vineyards are interspersed with show places resplendent with flowering trees and magnificent shrubs, such as rhododendron, in full bloom. One large field had become a parking lot for people who were spending the day at a horse show. Only in three or four short stretches have suburban residential developments turned rural roads into angry thoroughfares.

Most of the route passes through countryside with second growth timber providing shade for cyclists. We rode through dappled sunshine with green fields and wild flowers everywhere.

The full 100-mile version of Ride Around Clark County travels across the northern part of the county, close to the Lewis River, and passes through the small communities of Yacolt, Amboy, and LaCenter. Knowing the challenging character of the Clark County hills in the region where I regularly ride, I was apprehensive when I first cycled in the county’s northern reaches, but was greatly relieved to discover that there are long stretches of gentle terrain.

In recent times, I am finding that the metric century (rather than the statute mile century) suits me, especially this early in the season. This was the route I chose again this year, although with two minor adjustments near the end in order to bypass late-in-the-ride hill-climbing challenges. When RACC veterans speak of the Felida Hill, it usually is with tremolo in their voices. Even my doctor knows this climb and suggests that it is one I should consider walking—which I hate to do on sponsored rides with the “whole world” watching.

My alternative route starts at the bottom of the Felida Hill and wanders along Salmon Creek. A friend whose family farm backed up to the creek once told me that in the early 1930s his dad would fish for salmon with a pitch fork. All year round everything in the creek bottom is intensely green, and this is especially true at the beginning of summer.

Despite the fact that registered riders number in the thousands, I cycled by myself the entire distance, but I was never alone. Always there was someone up ahead a quarter of mile or so and others coming up from behind. On these rides, there is a strong sense of comradery and riders are energized by being with others, even though most of the people around them are complete strangers. We find ourselves traveling with some of the same people all day and see them and talk as we ride along and stop at the rest stops or stand at quiet places to take photos or stretch a little.

At the rest stops, food, water, toilets, and bike repair stations provide support services for everyone, and we know that the volunteer support staff are ready to drive out into the country if we need help.

This perfect ride came close to disaster in Hazel Dell, about five miles from home, when I realized that my rear tire was half flat (the third time this tire has let me down in the last two weeks). Hoping for the best, I pumped it up again, and made it home in good shape. By evening the tire was flat, but I—showered, rested, fed, and weary—reveled in the peace of a wonderful ride on the the first day of this year’s cycling summer.

Bicycling to the World’s Lowest Places

April 25, 2016

Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents, by Jim Malusa (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008)

MalusaJim Malusa and his wife Sonya took a long honeymoon, “six months on bicycles with no particular destination.” Three years later they did another bike trip, “Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—the back door to China, over the mountains”—to a place in the Takla Makan desert called Turpan, five hundred feet below sea level.

During that journey, concluding that “down was better than up,” Jim developed an idea: “Why not visit the lowest points on the planet? The bellybutton of each continent. The scheme had two golden attributes: I wouldn’t need insulated underwear, and I could ride my bicycle.”

Easy enough to identify the six destinations. More difficult was developing the plan. What he did was make one trip a year for six years: first Lake Eyre in Australian, followed in succession by the Dead Sea in Asia, the Caspian Sea in Europe, Salina Grand (Patagonia) in South America, Lac Asssal in Africa, and concluding with a trip from his home in Tucson to Death Valley in North America.

A life-long desert dweller with a PhD in botany and an academic post at the University of Arizona, Malusa knew a lot about desert flora (and fauna). He was temperamentally inclined to travel alone and unprotected, depending upon his knowledge of the desert and his ability to get along with everyone he met. He was quick-witted and was confident that he could extricate himself from any awkward circumstance he might encounter.

Malusa writes with verve that conveys facts and feelings inseparably intertwined. “Evening is the sweetest time in a hot place…With dusk comes the promise of the night. The wind quits, the leaves relax, and I keep riding. With the road to myself I ride as the stars blink on and Venus becomes queen of the sky. Birds in the dark whistle laconically, and I ride, all alone, approaching the center of Australia.”

He meets amazing people. Passing a refugee camp outside of Djibouti Town in Africa: “In occasional clearings by the road, kids chase cans or balls. I expect them to yell and wave when I pass. Instead they sprint for me. Out of the swarm of a hundred, one rushes up and grabs my brake lever and nearly topples me. Most of the kids scream and laugh and back off, but the bolder ones snatch up rocks, and in an inatant I’m more target than tourist.”

Thankfully missing: mileage logs, technical data, efforts to report everything that happens, confessions of being unprepared.  Malusa refers to books he’s read in preparing for the trips, but there’s nothing didactic in his use of these materials.

In the final pages he summarizes information about his bicycle: hybrid style, with drop handlebars, 700 x 47 road tires, 21-speed with low gears, and racks for carrying loads on front and rear. He could carry up to two gallons of water along with food, clothes, repair equipment, and camping gear.

On the last of the trips—Tucson to Death Valley—Malusa spends his last night alone, as always, at the deepest point in the continent. At 8:00 pm, with the moon “just a grin on the western horizon,” he muses: “There goes the moon. The earth is spinning, and I’m pinned by gravity and good fortune. I think of the Seven Summits and the urge to leave Everest not long after you arrive—and how different this is, lying on a glazed sea of salt.”

He continues: “Everyone has a plan, something that may or may not happen—but that’s not the point. It’s the plan that counts, the pleasure of possibility. You might hope to sail alone to the palm islands in a boat of your own design. To please your spouse in a remarkably athletic way or marry the right person the next time around. Or to sell your house before the plumbing goes and move to a carefree condo at the clean edge of a golf course until God’s call.

“As for me, I wanted to pedal my bike to the lowest points on earth. To my everlasting surprise, I did.”

Not until page 314, at the conclusion of his acknowledgements, does this solitary cyclist reveal the source of his courage and strength: “My trips and my story would have been very different if I didn’t hold in my mind my true home. Wherever I was in the world, I knew my children were in good hands with my sister, Sue; the Black family next door; my tireless mother-in-law, Rosa; and my wife Sonya—the grand prize winner for my warmest thanks. The pits are pretty nice, but I know where my heart belongs.”





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