Monday, February 16, 2015

The Phoney War

The technological world in which we live encourages multi-tasking in every venue of life, from bathroom blogging to cycling while on the phone. The above image, gleaned from the Interwebs, suggests a rather leisurely form of this (latter!) activity. I've done this myself, chatting merrily as I traverse the town, or (once in a while) listening to favorite music or to the police scanner if I'm wondering about some nearby sirens. It's American as deep-fried dill pickles.

The problem for me with being on the phone while cycling is that not everyone is equally good at it, and no one is as responsive to their environment when trying to multitask this way as they are when going "au natural" (in the technological sense, I mean).

Generally, I've had good experiences while toddling along on my slow bike and carrying on a relaxed conversation using my earbuds. They don't block all that much outside noise, and I can keep both hands on the handlebars. However, a number of times I've become aware I'm not AS good as I want to think I am at this. Shyness prevents me from going into details, but let's just say that my Guardian Angel is likely a bit nervous when the phone comes out and the earbuds go in.

This is particularly the case with music, as I can get pretty lost in that when cycling. A few months ago I was making my way to church one Sunday morning at sunrise. The crepuscular light was mesmerizingly beautiful as it wove its way through the clouds and along the still dark-shrouded streets. Add to this some beautiful 17th century English music for viols, and you have a moment etched in memory. And yet...

One of the things that I value about cycling is the ability to be deeply rooted in the Here and Now. In a world dominated by "cyber" this and that, there is something truly revolutionary about being completely rooted in the present moment and place.

Being on the phone or listening to music while driving is a complicated subject in itself, with a fair amount of legislation having been brought to bear on the subject of distracted driving in recent years. Yet, cycling often requires sharpened senses and perception as well, making such technological multi-tasking perhaps less than wise.

Yet, I wouldn't want to see an absolute ban on the practice. As with a great many things, I find myself skeptical about too much regulation of something like this. There are times when a peaceful phone conversion while cycling seems just the ticket. The issue is knowing when not to make a call, or when to hang up.

Beyond the question of plain old safety, there is the matter of escaping what is sometimes called "the sacrament of the present moment." Cycling allows one to engage deeply in this gift. So much today seems to encourage us to seek stimulation of the electronic or communication variety. As I reflect on my life, however, I see that it is only when I am rested enough (on all levels) that my communication, my observation, and my study yields real and lasting results. It is also the case that escaping from the present circumstance allows one to continue the shielding and isolation that marks so much of modern American civic life: being too busy, too self-absorbed to care or learn. I want cycling to be part of a life with plenty of shalom, in all the senses of that complex and rich Hebrew word.

So, I do still put my earbuds on from time-to-time and plug them into the phone when I think I need to make a call along the way...but I'm doing so much less now. It just seems not only wiser, but much more honest to the experience.

This Lent I am planning to do a fair amount of review on the theme of how electronic communication has affected my life in a number of areas...and this is one of them. In a season that emphasizes listening and silence, it may be a good time to declare a cease-fire in the Phoney War.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Importance of Being Seen

Building on the theme of my last post, I'm thinking about the issue of visibility while riding.

I have found it very helpful to be pretty illuminated while out on the streets of Salem. This time of year the skies are often grey, the landscape murky, and combining this with the average harassed and distracted motorist makes for an added sense that being visible is not only desirable but the kind thing to do. I'm not even going to speculate (for now) on what the effect of our new marijuana laws will bring after this summer.

When I drive at dusk or at night, I occasionally come upon cyclists who have only reflectors to illuminate their bike. I usually wish they had a bit more to alert me or others of their presence. I sometimes physically cringe at the risks people take biking. Being sympathetic to cyclists as I am, I still feel that a little investment in lights would be tremendously helpful to all involved.

This brings up the problem with a great many cycles sold in our country--they assume daylight or optimal conditions riding. I realize there are many kinds of cyclists and cycling out there, but using a daylight bike at night is dangerous for rider and driver alike. Having a devil-may-care attitude about this is profoundly unwise, though I realize part of the problem is that suitable lighting costs a fair amount. If more bikes came with suitable lighting when purchased (rather than as an option or an aftermarket add-on), the problem might be diminished some.

Bicycle lighting is required at night, this is often ignored for financial as well as other reasons. I hear a lot about this from folks who only drive cars. They are very quick to point the lack of adequate lighting on some bikes. Yet, interestingly, when I was making my way to church one dark Sunday morning and using my lights, a parishioner remarked that my lights were TOO BRIGHT! He said that having such bright lights on a bike was distracting. Yikes. The lights I own are not top-of-the-line mountain trail models...they are really just good, standard street-rated lights.

What I took away from this interview was that for at least some motorists, the mere fact that there are bikes out there at any time is the problem. I had to inform this person that such a comment presented me with the "damned if you do/damned if you don't" dilemma. I figured I best err on the "do" side.

There are a lot of solutions out there for the visibility problem. Some of the more effective I have found are:

  • A truly bright flashing light in front and back. I know that when I come upon a bike at night that has a bright red LED flasher (especially with an alternating or semi-irregular pattern), I really take notice. Having a flashing white light in front can also help a great deal for oncoming traffic. This is in addition to a steady light that I use to see the road with...I know it seems excessive, but they really are two different things.
  • Some sort of spoke lights. I have something called "The Monkey" that creates multi-colored patterns in my front wheel--quite visible at night. It has proven very effective from long distances, as it is unusual and eye-catching. While weighing a bit, it is worth that weight for the times it has alerted others to my presence. It also makes me rather happy to see it rotate as I make my way along the dark streets early in the morning or at night.
  • Reflective side-walls on tires. These really show up well at night and make very clear that I am riding a bicycle, even from a long distance. 
  • A bright raincoat. On really grey, rainy days I find that having a bright yellow coat helps make me that much more visible to drivers, as it may be seen in over the hoods of cars when one or more of my lights is obscured.

These are all expensive additions to the most basic bike cost. However, it seems to me that we live in an era where folks are intensely distracted and this level of visual insurance is a wise investment...though it is a pity it costs as much as it does.

When I drive at night, I am sometimes aware of just how many signs are stuffed into the visual field all at once, each one demanding my attention for a split-second...and this on top of the attention I should be giving to what is going on with my car, other traffic, and anything that happens to be going through my head at that moment. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but it seems to me that we are asking a great deal of many drivers today.

I was recently at an antique auto museum and was musing about how things might have changed in the traffic department over the years. The relative fragility, slowness, and openness of early automobiles might have engendered a bit of humility that our current crop of isolate and armored machines do not. Being visible as a cyclist and pedestrian is perhaps an unfortunate expense being required of us, but given what we are up against today, it seems increasingly reasonable.

I just wish that it weren't necessary. But, there is fodder for another blog post...the ways in which we live now diminish our humanity.

Until then, stay safe and stay visible!