Bicycle Talk on Lake Washington Boulevard

July 22, 2017

“When did you buy that bike? Back in the eighties?”

“Earlier than that,” I responded. “Probably in 1973.”

I had seen the questioner when he and his six-year-old daughter were buying their drinks and snacks at the Starbucks where I was resting before assaulting the ridge up to my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill. They were sitting at an outside table eight or ten feet from my reconditioned, classic Mercian bicycle. While Anna was reading her book, her father, Jeff, had been looking closely at my bike.

I joined them at the table and we spent the next few minutes in bicycle talk. In response to his questions, I gave him a brief history of my life with the Mercian. He volunteered suggestions on how I could polish the Campy Record components so that they would glisten even more brightly. He filled in a few of the details of his racing in earlier years, primarily on criterium races. “I was always too stocky for road racing,” he explained.

“The bike that was on the other side of the rack,” he told me, “was a Pinarello Dogma carbon fiber bike.”

“Several years ago I saw one priced at $14,500, but I think they are more reasonably priced now,” I responded. “The man who’s riding it told me that he had to get back on the road so that he could make another circuit of Lake Washington. He’d already been around one time, which his wrist-mounted device registered at 48.9 miles.”

“I have to hurry,” he explained, “because I have to run this afternoon after finishing my trips around the lake.”

During these conversations, at least a dozen other cyclists, all dressed in serious Lycra cycling gear, stopped at the Starbucks. Several of them, I presumed, were also stopping at The Polka Dot Jersey, a bike shop one or two store fronts up the street. The sidewalk in front of the shop was a jumble of bikes, riders, and mechanics. Inside, the shop looked smaller than the Starbucks, and there was hardly room for even one more person to push through the open door to ask a question or make a purchase.

“One of our mechanics, who’s not here today, is an expert on classic bikes with old components,” a mechanic on the sidewalk told me. Chances are I’ll bike over to the Polka Dot Jersey in a few days to talk with the Campy expert.

These conversations took place in the Leschi neighborhood, on Lakeshore Boulevard, about three and a half miles from my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill, a former streetcar suburb south of downtown Seattle. Her house was built in 1908 and has been her home since 1981. During my visits these many years, I have explored bike routes over and around Beacon Hill and adjoining ridges.

For me and many others, Lake Washington Boulevard is a happy place to be. While some people frolic in the lakeshore parks, others are walking or running on the walkways near the street. And cyclists? This road, with its peaceful ambiance is a destination point. In a city with hard climbs, steep down hills, and constant traffic, we can enjoy few miles of hard, fast cycling and, friendly  bicycle talk over Starbucks coffee.

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Peter Berger and the Possibilities of Faith

July 18, 2017

On June 27, 2017, Peter Berger died. In its obituary, the New York Times described him as “an influential, and contrarian, Protestant theologian and sociologist who…argued that faith can indeed flourish in modern society if people learn to recognize the transcendent and supernatural in ordinary experiences” (published June 30, 2017).

Two of Berger’s books have influenced my theological reflections significantly: The Heretical Imperative, Contemporary possibilities of Religious Affirmation (1979, 1980) and Questions of Faith, A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity (2004). These two monographs are discussed in an unpublished paper I wrote in 2008, entitled “Fluid Retraditioning.” The first paragraphs and a link to the paper appear below.

 

Classically Christian and at the Same Time Liberal

As I grow older, the biblical character with whom I most closely identify is the man in the ninth chapter of Mark who blurted out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” This conflicted declaration of faith came forth when the man’s adolescent son, who suffered from a seizure syndrome, was brought to Jesus to be healed. When Jesus stated that healing depended upon faith and prayer, the father confessed his own divided heart: faith was intermingled with unfaith. His ardent hope that miracle-worker Jesus could heal his son was compromised by years of disappointment as he had watched the child’s malady grow ever more troublesome.

My conflicts concerning faith are sometimes caused by immediate experiences, but more often by a broader conflict in the mind, by the tension between classic Christian beliefs concerning God, who made the world and called all things good, and the “terror of history,” to use Mircea Eliade’s telling phrase, which is the context in which all people dwell. A second reason for my cognitive dissonance is that the classic language of faith, as used in the church’s liturgical practice, the Bible, and theological tradition, is couched in the “picture language” of heaven and earth, principalities and powers, angels and demons, mighty works and wonders. Yet the world in which my head and body live is determined by the double axis of history and science. How can I, an intelligent man of our time, affirm a vision of life that is expressed in language that is so contrary to what I know to be true?

Peter Berger, who is a credentialed sociologist and active lay theologian, expresses the challenge succinctly: it is “to have faith in the redemption of which the Bible is the principal witness, without necessarily accepting the cognitive structure within which this witness is communicated” (Questions, 113). Read more Fluid Retraditioning


A Biblical Ethic for Using Land and Water

June 14, 2017

Reviewing Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis; Foreword by Wendell Berry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Throughout the Bible references to the natural world abound. Although mountains and deserts, fertile fields, wind and thunder, floods, drought, and fire are mentioned frequently, readers tend to overlook these passages while studying the Bible. We pay more attention to early religious history and teachings about doctrine and social ethics.

Ellen F. Davis’ book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, urges readers to give more serious attention to these texts so that the allusions to the land, agriculture, and water become the primary focus for study.

Davis also recommends that readers revise their method of interpreting the texts they read, especially the prophetic and poetic portions of the Bible. Our normal approach is to figure out what a text meant in its original setting, but our presuppositions often lead us to misunderstand what those original meanings actually were. Before we can even move into exegesis, therefore, we should pay attention to how our own life experience skews our ability to read literature from another time and place.

Davis then proposes that modern agrarianism can serve as a major line of thought about what should be normative in social systems long ago and in our time. Agrarianism, she writes, “is a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on the health of the land and of living creatures. Often out of step with the prevailing values of wealth, technology, and political and military domination, the mind-set and practices that constitute agrarianism have been marginalized by the powerful within most “history-making” cultures across time, including those of ancient Israel” (p. 1). Read more Davis-Scripture Culture & Agriculture


The Coyote’s Bicycle

May 10, 2017

In 2008 serious flooding occurred in the Tijuana River Valley along the borderland between San Diego and Mexico. Journalist Kimball Taylor was assigned to investigate why “the winter flood brought several forty-foot Dumpsters’ worth of used tires with it.”

During Taylor’s investigation, a rancher on whose land many of these tires piled up mentioned another puzzle, the Mexicans on bicycles who “come banzai down the canyons. They drop their bikes on the trails. They run into the estuary. They run into Imperial Beach!” During the past six months, the rancher had collected a thousand of these abandoned bikes (pp. 23-25).

Fascinated by this report, Kimball set out upon a quest to learn all he could about these bikes, the people who used them, and how all of this fit into the larger story of a strange migratory pattern: the bicycles’ movement through the black market, Hollywood, the prison system, and the military-industrial complex” (from the Book Jacket). The result is a big book—406 pages, including notes.

Kimball had a network of friends and professional contacts and already was skilled in following leads, talking with people in bars and other unconventional locations, and converting hints into clearly established facts. He gradually uncovered the story in highly personal detail and in the book tells it in bits and pieces, much as he learned it in the first place.

He takes his readers to a small Oaxacan pueblo in southwestern Mexico, introducing Pablo, a twelve-year-old boy, and his best friend, Solo, who want to follow others of their families into el Norte. Pablo decides to make the trip, and Taylor unfolds the motivations and methods he uses to make his journey to Tijuana. There, Pablo took time to learn how to get across the border and to places in the United States where he could link up with his family.

He became acquainted with coyotes, the people who engineered the crossings and demanded payment for their services, and established a relationship with Roberto, a coyote whose story Taylor has already told his readers. Taylor summarizes the way that this business was organized. At the top of the pyramid was el coyote, and working under him were recruiters called polleros, chicken herders, whose recruits were referred to as pollos, chickens.

Roberto’s operation was unique in that he used bicycles as the means of getting pollos across the border and to safe places from which their travel to the north could continue. Each time Taylor learned something new about this system, further questions emerged. Where did el coyote get his bicycles? What happened to them after they were dumped in the United States? How did the bicyclists escape the notice of the Border Patrol? How could large numbers of pollos stay out of sight while waiting for their transportation further north?

Persistently, Taylor untangles these puzzles, and related story lines. The one that holds the book together and commands the readers’ attention revolves around Roberto, his sister Marta who became his highly skilled and increasingly essential partner in their business, and El Indio, a pollero whom Roberto reluctantly brought into the organization at Marta’s urging. This story gradually deepens into one of love, tenderness, tension, tragic illness, and death.

Taylor’s sub plots are interesting in their own right. One explains how many of the abandoned bikes were used on Hollywood sets that simulated Middle Eastern villages and were used to train U.S. military personnel. Another recounts the story of how bicycles are stolen, broken down, and sold, often with the collusion of law enforcement personnel.

Much of Taylor’s research was done while this business was still in operation. It lasted only a few years, and not until it had been discontinued did he feel free to tell the story to the wider world. In a note to readers, he states: “Names have been changed and identities have been obscured in order to protect migrants and the smugglers who cross them.”

For more than twenty years I have driven and bicycled through the desert Southwest, and during these travels have often passed through Border Patrol checkpoints. While driving, I have sometimes been asked a question or two, but often have been waved on. As a cyclist, I’ve never been stopped. I’m white, old, and mounted on an obviously fancy road bike: no reason to doubt my status.

What little I have known about the business of smuggling people into the country has been negative. The Coyote’s Bicycle, however, describes the deeper story of why people want to cross the border and how the process affects families on both sides of the border. It also shows how corruption affects the process and indicates that some of the smugglers are people of integrity. Taylor also adds to the mystique of bicycling and human life. This is a fine book that deserves a large readership!

The Coyote’s Bicycle is published by by Tin House Books, Portland, Oregon, 2016.

 


Urban spirituality on two wheels

April 29, 2017

Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels, by Laura Everett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017)

Laura Everett lives, works and bikes in Boston, but we met at the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis. The occasion was a retirement dinner for a church executive with whom each of us had worked in our own church-related jobs. Everett was seated at my left and my granddaughter, also a church executive and only a few years younger than Everett, was on my right.

When Everett mentioned that she bicycle commuted to her job (executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches), I responded with casual interest, wondering how competent and committed she might be. My skepticism is understandable because I’m the kind of bicyclist whom Everett calls a Fred, retro-grouch, or retro-grump (pp. 105 ff.)

I’m an older male cyclist who has been on the road forever, with “an unfortunate tendency to mansplain to everyone, regardless of gender, exactly how a particular bike component works.” I’m glad that Everett holds old male cyclists like me in a favorable regard, but her characterization does come as a warning.

Most of what I know about Everett comes from Holy Spokes, which she published in April 2017, a year (almost to the day) after our dinner at the Columbia Club. I had known that it was coming but had little way of anticipating what kind of book it might  be. Although it stands on its own, this book resembles Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling by Bike Snob NYC. and parallels Robert Penn’s book It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels.

Holy Spokes is organized according to the parts of a bicycle, and each component is paired with an aspect of what Everett depicts as urban spirituality: Frame/Rule of Life, Wheels/Habit, Saddle/Endurance, Handlebars/Adaptation, and so on. Each chapter begins with a few lines from the seventeen-century spiritual writing, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.

After two or three paragraphs about that chapter’s bike part, Everett broadens the focus. She tells her own experience learning about that part of the bicycle and then describes how she has matured as a city dweller and young professional woman in a man’s world.

The chapter Fork/Rest is especially strong. Everett acknowledges that “forks aren’t the most interesting part of a bike, but they are critical. . .The fork isn’t productive in its own right, but it’s the connective tissue that allows the bike to roll and steer” (74).

She started paying attention to the fork about eight months into her life as a cyclist when she was hit by an automobile on her way to work. She soon discovered that the “bent fork was an early indicator of a much larger problem: my bike was actually both un-rideable and un-repairable. But my body took the more serious hit: after the crash, I ended up with a bulged disk in my spine and a fair amount of fear in my legs. It would take me a full two years to get back to where I had been on my bike” (p. 75).

She tried to resume cycling before her body and spirit were ready. Gradually she came to realize that she was trying to live too fast a life and that she needed to find a new mode of quietness. “Even though Boston is a smaller city, it moves quickly and constantly. But we humans aren’t designed for constant motion. Cultivating quiet and stillness might be the spiritual practice with the largest gap between city living and rural life” (p. 79).

Laura Everett

Everett tells the story of how she has become a vital cog in Boston’s biking community and in the process has learned to understand her city in a newer, deeper way. I’ve been mostly a solo cyclist and have rarely participated in cycling communities as Everett does. Now that I live downtown, surrounded by my city’s urban cyclists, it may be time for me to open a new chapter in my cycling way of life.

I became an urban bike commuter and aggressive open road cyclist about the time that Laura Everett was born. Even so, in Holy Spokes this strong, wise, young urban bicyclist is helping me rethink cycling and the process of living as much as any book I’ve read for a long, long time.   


Scared to death on the St. Johns Bridge

April 22, 2017

The St. Johns Bridge and I were born the same year–1931. I first saw it about twelve years later and have always held it in high respect as the blog I posted March 4, 2011, indicates. Today, Earth Day 2017, I read an article in the “Portland Oregonian” reporting that in the bridge’s 85-year history only one cyclist has been killed on the bridge: Mitchell Todd York, on October 29, 2016. Since I no longer live in the Portland area, my occasions to bike this bridge will not be often. My prayers are with all who ride this highway high in the sky, and especially with Mitch’s family.

Keith Watkins Historian

Once or twice a month, I bicycle across the St. John’s Bridge that spans the Willamette River on the north side of Portland, Oregon. Lots of company! Two lanes of fast traffic in each direction, more than 25,000 vehicles a day, many of them big and in a hurry because this beautiful bridge carries U. S. 30 across the river and connects two of the city’s industrial areas.

On each end of the bridge, which is almost half a mile long, a sign alerts motorists to the fact that bicycles share the roadway. This means that it’s legal for me to assert my rights to the road. And I do, but anxiously.

Pick-up trucks and eighteen-wheelers swing past me by sliding left toward the next lane of traffic. So far, no close calls, no squealing brakes, no loud horns, no harassing shouts.

Now and then I see other cyclists, most…

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Especially the alto section: an Easter meditation

April 18, 2017

Choir II by Mark Tobey

My Easter reflections this year have been shaped, in part, by Landesman’s Journal: Meditations of a Forest Philosopher, a small book I bought in Patagonia, Arizona, on a bicycle tour in February of this year. The author, Leon Landesman, chose to live the later years of his life in a small cabin located in a forested region close to the Arizona-Mexico border, with only his dog and an occasional passer-by for companionship.

Earlier in his life, Landesman had received a graduate degree in philosophy, and steady reading in a wide range of philosophically oriented books continued to be central to his life. Although antagonistic toward religious belief and practice, Landesman was intellectually invested in matters related to the soul as a metaphysical reality.

In this regard, he writes, “one can only resort to the time-honored reliance on intuition—the intuition that there is a meaning to the creation and development of one’s metaphysical soul and that it does not share the fate of the body. . .But the intuition within me tells me that my soul will return to the ultimate metaphysical source from which it came and enrich its nature” (p. 24).

I use more theological ideas to describe my stance toward reality, including death and that which comes thereafter. Landesman and I, however, have much in common in our reflections upon that which we cannot now know with certainty.

These reflections are too cerebral on Easter day when in churches everywhere the songs and ceremonies are so vibrant, so filled with new life. Christian affirmations that Jesus breaks the power of death and transforms death into a new kind of life renew our joy in living despite the inevitability of dying.

On the morning my wife of 62 years died, near three years ago, I posted a notice on our condominium door: “now singing alto in the choir of angels.” This picture language more accurately embodies the tone of my intuition about death continuing into life than do Landesman’s metaphysical words.

Early this Easter day, I remembered a print that Billie and I bought fifty years ago. Only today have I realized that it portrays that very choir in which she now sings the music of the spheres. Our family was living that year in Seattle. During the spring both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. One day we were visiting the Seattle Art Museum and found ourselves drawn to Mark Tobey’s painting, Choir II: gouache on board, 16.5 by 10.5 inches, in deep shades of maroon and gray blending into black. Long, vertical slivers of white outline an abstract design, with suggestions of Asian calligraphy.

When you look closely, the design comes into focus. Seven ranks of choristers stand almost as though each rank is superimposed upon the one beneath it. Scattered through this choir are a few members holding horns—trumpets, I suppose—but to my ear they sound like renaissance recorders made of fine wood. During the last thirty years of her life, Billie expressed the music of her soul by playing these instruments with small groups of friends, first in Indianapolis, then Phoenix, and for the final thirteen years in Vancouver, Washington.

On Easter afternoon I gathered for a festive meal with members of my family in Indianapolis. For our devotions before the feast, I revealed to them the mystery of this print that has been displayed in our family home as far back as any of them can remember. I was the one with tears and a voice breaking so that I could not speak, my grief still very strong, but everyone in the room heard the choir sing, especially the alto section.