IK in Kalamazoo, MI -
I started mulling it over about a month ago. When I mentioned my plans to my wife, she immediately responded “That’s crazy! This is just one of your fads.” I let it drop for a couple of days. Then, without any cues, my wife came around to it. “Okay, let’s try it for a month. If it works, then we’ll get rid of one car.” That’s what I love about my wife. She’s subject to strong convictions, but that does not stem from intellectual laziness. She wrestles with an idea, probing it’s every cranny. Her eventual blessing of the project meant that it met with her approval, and her approval was not merely facial. It was because, despite her negative initial reaction, she thought it was a good idea.
And so we’ve tried it. We just made it through our first full week. I had been turning the idea over in my head repeatedly since I filled my car up on gas during Katrina: $48. Having been raised in Northern Michigan, four miles outside of town, biking was a necessity if I desired any sort of freedom before age sixteen. Soon that full blown necessity turned into a love affair. I rode every day. To school. To work. On a beautiful cross-country ski trail outside of town and on single-track blazed through abandoned state hospital grounds. I raced. The magazines that I kept under my bed in high school were not illicit, but I did lust after the titanium and carbon fiber bodies that graced their pages.
Then, I left. I went to school in an area that had all the topographical significance of Paul Bunyan’s pancake. My bike gathered dust for seven years as I slogged through undergrad and on to law school. I got married, graduated and started working at a law firm. I became a dad. I got fat. My low point came when a group of friends came up to our home in northern Michigan to compete in a mountain bike race. I sat out because I was too out of shape to even contemplate pedaling twenty-seven miles. Then we moved from northern Michigan to the city we now call home: Kalamazoo.
I started riding a little more. Hooked my road bike up to the trainer and got some miles in over the winter. Got a state park pass and did the weekend warrior gig over at Fort Custer (great trails if you’re in the neighborhood). A passion was rekindled out of embers that had been buried under false obligations, bad diversions, and about fifteen pounds of excess body mass. And as my life seemed to coming together, the world seemed to fall apart. Iraq. Katrina. Global warming. Israel and Lebanon trading missiles like baseball cards. Iran dangling the specter of $200 for a barrel of oil. Russia and Venezuela home to leaders that reeked of early twentieth century dictators, emboldened and furthered by the power and revenue generated through oil fields.
So I threw my cards out on the table to my wife. We should go down to one car. I’ll ride the bike into work. On days when the weather was for too inclement, I would take the bus. We live right on the line and it’s four miles (mostly downhill) to my office. She will now admit that her initial reaction was one rooted in pride. We are young, we’ve bought a house, and we own two cars. We’re missing a dog (due to allergies), but we’re well on out way to the American dream. Going down to one car seemed to her a scarlet letter, a mark that we we’re struggling and on the path to poverty.
After a week, she’s behind it. Yeah, it’s frugal, and that is a definite plus, but there are far more positives than just penny pinching that have popped up. For one, I’ve lost weight. I always worked out, but after twelve years of regular physical activity, I reached a point of homeostasis. Any extra calories burned were quickly replaced by pizza, french fries, or a gyro. The extra eight miles a day have pushed me over my burn rate. I’m getting closer to my freshman year fighting weight.
Two, I’m happier. I’m on a bike. I seem to remember a quote (I can’t remember who said it… maybe Einstein) that said, “A man on two legs does not feel the contours of the earth. Only the man on a bicycle, with two points of reference, truly feels the earth.” I think that is true, and even truer when compared to people in cars. When people are on their commute, they’re self-absorbed. They’re drinking coffee, eating breakfast, listening to NPR or talk radio of sports talk. They’re distracting themselves, looking for stimulation, and insulated from the world. When you ride a bike, it’s different. You are experiencing the world, living in “the now”. You breathe, you sweat, and you look around. React to your surroundings. You’re engaged with the world. I now notice local stores, and stop by on my way home to pick up supplies. I wave to the same crossing guard I see by the elementary school. I’ve had to get a new barber, one downtown that I walk to on my lunch hour as opposed to driving to a strip mall. These are, as I see them, all good changes.
And yes, it is harder. I have to plan. My job as an attorney does not lend itself to sitting through client meetings in spandex as sweat drips from my brow. I go into my office on Sunday and drop of a load of clean shirts. My shoes, my suits, my ties are all in a closet adjacent to my office. I use flushable baby wipes to freshen up in the morning before I throw on my work uniform. But since when did living deliberately become a scarlet letter as well, right up there in notoriety with being a family with only one car? I try to avoid clichés like the plague (and yes, I meant to write that) but there is a lot of merit to the old saw “sometimes the right way isn’t always the easy way.” Because that’s what it’s about in the end, isn’t it, ease? Having two cars negates the need to plan, to think out one’s day. You don’t have to think of others as you hop in your car and head to work. And that’s the problem. We’ve lost the sight of how much is to be gained by sacrifice, and we all now worship at the altar of easy living.
Why do I want your shirt? Because I like your cause. I’ve already won one convert to it, my wife. As one who does not like soapboxes but feels passionate about environmental issues, my only course of influence is to make my own life conform to my beliefs. I’ve seen some wheels turn in people’s head when I mention what we’re doing. Who knows, maybe someone will stop me and say, “Hey, cool shirt, where’d you get it?” And I’ll say “Well, you have to go to this website and read the essays there… it’s kind of a movement.” And that will be my soapbox. So thanks for the opportunity. And as I say to my wife when I get home: “It’s a heck of a ride.”