This happened when I was living in Rochester, New York about fifteen years ago. My future wife and I were sharing a third-floor (and probably illegal and fire-trapped) attic apartment on a street intellectually named Harvard. I had recently purchased a used, half-rusted, lime-green bicycle at a yard sale and was using it as my primary means of transportation to and from one of my many part-time jobs around the city. One crisp early fall morning, as I was riding down Oxford Street (Cambridge Street was nearby, in case you were wondering) on the way to my shift at a funky used book store next to an independent movie theater (that served incredibly good coffee and Neapolitan pizza, strangely), a very old, very shaggy, very slow dog began to ambulate across my way. This rough beast was moving so slow I should have had time to stop or at least swerve. Sometimes people say things like “It happened so fast, I couldn’t get out of the way, etc.” but in my case things happened so incredibly slowly that my disbelief paralyzed me. Was I really going to hit a dog with my bike? Or more specifically, was a dog really going to hit me with my bike? Neither happened, because I braked and flipped over my handlebars, landing on my right elbow. Just before this happened, he looked at me. (I’m sure the dog was a he. I can still see his eyes. Sleepy. Judging.) My arm went numb almost immediately, but like the desperate wage slave that I was at the time (illegal apartments that mock building code don’t come cheap), I got back on my bike, now slightly bent in an unfixable way, and made it to the shop. All throughout my shift, as I drank excellent coffee and downed a few slices of warm, bready pizza, my elbow began to swell to the approximate size of a grapefruit. After work, I drove to the emergency room. They drained some particularly disgusting fluid from my joint, gave me some pain pills, and sent me home. A few days later, I was good as new. Why am I telling you this? That slow, mangy dog taught me a lesson. A simple lesson, but one that I needed to learn. That dog taught me to always wear a helmet. A helmet I wasn’t wearing that day. A helmet whose absence could have caused real paralysis or even death had I landed just a few feet north of my elbow. That dog also taught me a lesson about lessons. That we learn life’s most important lessons when we least expect them. And that these lessons are usually taught by unbelievable (as in, not to be believed) teachers. Like the woman I wrote about five years ago who learned the dharma from a rusty pipe, I learned the dharma of bike helmets from a stray dog. One of the towering figures of Zen Buddhism, eighth century Chinese master (and father of the modern Zen word-puzzle, or koan), Joshu, was once asked if a dog had Buddha-nature. He responded, almost angrily “Mu!” which has been translated as “No!” throughout the centuries. And yet, the Buddha himself said that all things are imbued with Buddha-nature. How then did Joshu have the temerity to contradict the Buddha? Who is right? That answer to that riddle, the entry gate to the Zen life, is still up for grabs. To this eternally unanswerable question, Master Joshu answered no. But on that day, the listless yellow mutt that crossed my path had Buddha-nature, and as I slow-motion catapulted over my handlebars, he looked up at me like he knew it.
I work at an elite New England liberal arts college that shall remain nameless. It’s early March. The snow is melting, the grass is coming back, and out of the depths of the 10-foot high snowbanks, the abandoned bikes have started to appear. As I walked back from my noonday swim at the field house, I saw the rear tires and partially exposed frames of some really nice bikes. They had been locked to the bike rack for the winter. Bikes like these are scattered all over campus, chained to lampposts and garbage cans, or just left in heaps by the entrances to dorms. They look so sad and abandoned, orphans all. I’m sure their owners will claim them again when Spring finally arrives for good, but I couldn’t help thinking of that John Hiatt song, “Perfectly Good Guitars,” about musicians that smash their instruments just because they can. Maybe it’s because most of the students at the college where I work are wealthy and can afford to let their bikes freeze and rust in snowbanks. Maybe it’s because when I bought my first mountain bike with my own money, I used to keep it in my dining room and wipe it down with a soft cloth every night, much to my wife’s chagrin. Maybe we live in a disposable society where we don’t value and take care of our precious belongings that have been so hard-won. I don’t know. I just know that those bikes looked lonely and cold, and if I could have, I would have brought them all home.
I had some minor surgery last Friday, so I took this past weekend to recuperate. While I was flat on my back, gazing out the window at the sun-dappled leaves and listening to the birds singing, I was able to start and finish five books. They are: The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Into the Wild by John Krakauer, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. All highly recommended. I can’t wait to fully recover so that I can get back on my mountain bike and resume my search for the perfect swimming hole. I’ve lived in Bath now for almost ten years and I’m just now really starting to appreciate the diversity of the landscape. The Kennebec can look foul one day, and as beautiful as the Seine the next. I might take a hiatus from this blog for awhile, too. It’s too beautiful outside to spend time at a computer. I hope you all can find your own private Eden this summer, too. Cheers! – henry
In the same way I wonder why small, inexpensive homes have to be so ugly, I wonder why we can’t create a bicycle utopia in this country. I’m not an economist or urban planner, but I can’t imagine it would cost that much. I know it might be difficult in a place like NYC for instance to widen the road a few feet on each side to make a bike lane possible, buy why can’t we mandate that all new road construction include bike lanes? Then, let’s give every adult in the country a $500 tax credit to buy a bike with. Third, let’s try and implement the two-mile rule. Since it’s been shown that most of our driving occurs within a two-mile radius of our home, let’s encourage people to ride their bikes to their destinations instead. Perhaps we could invest more in public transportation (remember Bill Clinton’s promise of high-speed rail?) and zip cars for people to use on longer journeys, and redevelop, or “undevelop”, parking and vacant lots into gardens and green spaces. Then let’s put American ingenuity into creating clean-burning and recyclable energy solutions by asking (nay, demanding) that Detroit to stop making gas-guzzlers and instead produce more hybrid and electric cars. (Isn’t it sickening that GM/Jeep/Chrylser is now trying to subsidize their customers’ fuel bills for driving their gas-guzzlers with their “$2.99 Gas Guarantee?”) I don’t want to eliminate cars completely (except when I’m on my bike and they blow past me going 50 with inches to spare), but it would be nice if in this country we could break our blind faith in the idea, created and foisted upon us by the car companies, that a personal vehicle is necessary for freedom. I can be just as free riding my mountain bike into the woods and jumping into a stream. Using bicycles and public transportation when we can just might allow us all to take a collective deep breath of fresh air, instead of the exhaust fumes of the guy stuck in traffic ahead of us.
I biked to work and back today, 20 miles round-trip. My standard garb: some long underwear from Reny’s under a few old T-shirts, bike shots bought at Goodwill, beat-up brown suede slip-on comfort mocs from LL Bean. It looks like I’m biking in slippers. Oh, and my helmet. Nothing fancy. I dream sometimes of quitting my job, selling my car, and biking everywhere. It feels so good not to consume. My new fantasy is to bike to my job at the brewery and then peddle home with a fresh sixer tucked under my arm.
Here’s a nice piece of wisdom from one of my favorite blogs, How to Avoid the Bummer Life:
“You know, as I’ve said before, I’m a simple man with simple needs. By my own choice I have very little social life, I don’t eat much, I’m mostly house broken, and generally when I’m feeling in need of a break, instead of taking time off to go lay on a beach, go camping, or whatever regular people do when they go on vacation, I simply peel off on the bike for a few hours, drink some beer and maybe nap in the woods somewhere..”
I baked two loaves of bread the other day. This might not seem like such a radical thing. People have been baking bread for centuries. I got the idea from the book I’ve been reading, The Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson. In it, he says “if you can make bread, you can do anything. It’s amazing how much confidence baking bread gives you.” My family and I have been eating this bread, which is so much more substantial that supermarket bread, for three days now, enjoying it with our dinners or toasting it for breakfast. It’s a gratifying sight to see your three-year-old son eating the bread you baked. I’ve cooked many meals for my family but for some reason making bread has been the most fulfilling cooking I’ve ever done. And it’s thrifty. Another of Mr. Hodgkinson’s mantras is to “reject waste, embrace thrift.” He advises us to throw out the telly and stop buying magazines. These devices just entice us to buy things we don’t need. Ride a bicycle, the thriftiest invention ever! I just saw an ad on television for Lowe’s, a chain of home improvement stores. Spring is here, and so now we must start our “outdoor projects” Gene Hackman, their paid spokesperson tells us. We are forever working, even during our leisure time. “Let’s build something together” Mr. Hackman exhorts. More like “Spend a lot of money at Lowe’s, using your Lowe’s credit card, and then go home because now you’re on your own, friend.” Commercials never tells us that spring is here and now it’s time to lay in the grass, do nothing, and watch the clouds pass overhead. For the stores, there’s no money to be made in promoting idleness. But it feels so much better to be thrifty than to shop. Shopping will never gratify us. That’s why we keep doing it. If we were ever really gratified, we’d stop shopping tomorrow. But that’s not in the stores’ best interest. To always keep us wanting for more is their philosophy. But what a sweet victory thrift is over waste! For example, I found a free book in a donation bin a few days ago, a guide to identifying trees of North America. It’s one of these old fashioned Golden guides, with colorful drawings instead of photographs. I didn’t pay a cent for it, and yet my children and I have been enjoying looking at trees and trying to find them in the book so as to name them. We found out that the tree in our front yard is (probably) a Norway maple. We’ve lived in our house for almost ten years and never knew that. For the longest time the tree in our front yard was just named “tree.” But now it has a name. And just yesterday my son said that when he got out of preschool he wanted to “look for trees.” Now that’s much better than television.