Thursday, November 24, 2011

25 Things I Love About Family Bicycling, #1: Mama Mittens

Something about the cooler weather seems to prompt me to think more about the small pleasures of ordinary cycling.  Perhaps it's because bicycling in cold and wet weather was an acquired taste for me.  As an undergraduate, I had my share of long bike rides to work on rainy nights with inadequate gear.  Once I discovered wool clothes and warm scarves and mittens, bicycling in the autumn and winter became something I actually enjoy.

I've started jotting down some of these small pleasures to share here.  It's interesting to me how different ways of getting about create some kinds of experiences that might not otherwise emerge.

Consider the unique type of hand-holding that Big and I have discovered this season.  On these crisp autumn days, the front of the bike can feel a few degrees cooler than the back.  While Little is snuggled cozily into my back, Big -- who rides up front with me on the kid saddle of our Workcycles Fr8 -- usually wears mittens so that he can hold onto the center of the handlebars comfortably.  (The center part is metal, so it would feel quite cold to rest your bare hands there on a chilly day.)  Sometimes, though, Big doesn't put his mittens on for one reason or another, and we don't want to take the time to stop and put them on.

On these days, I get to be his mittens.  He puts his hands on the handlebar grips, and I place my own over them to keep the chill off.  I have to admit that I don't really mind it when he forgets to put his mittens on.  I sometimes wish he would forget them more.  Especially as I watch him growing by leaps and bounds in his first year of elementary school, I savor these moments when I can warm his hands with mine.

Friday, November 18, 2011

My Bike-Car Interfaith Marriage

Getting ready for a ride with Big and Little

Our family watching fireworks in the back of Grandma Mona's truck

Yes, I know.  It's a bit of an exaggeration to discuss decisions about transport in my family as though they were some kind of religious affiliation.  But the truth is, navigating our transition from being a two-car to a one-car family has been one of the most challenging, complex, and rewarding periods in our relationship.

When I first suggested that we get rid of a car so that I could purchase a new family bike, I think it's fair to say that my husband thought I was nuts.  He was worried about the safety of bicycling with kids.  He wondered how we might cope with bike breakdowns, and with longer travel times.  He was concerned about the potential hassle and expense of buying a second car again if for some reason living with one car didn't work for us.

These days, he still may think I'm a little nuts for riding my bike everywhere, but he's proud of me, too.  And our system works: it saves us money, keeps me healthy and in a good mood, and fits well into our very happy marriage.

Here's what has worked for us.

1. Poor Auto Maintenance

We had been discussing the possibility of selling one of our two cars for at least five months without finding much middle ground when my husband's car broke down.  After a respectful period of grieving for his...terrible misfortune, we approached the issue of what to do with that broken-down car from a purely budgetary perspective.  At that point I had already been living as if there were no second car for a few months.  He'd had some time to see what it would be like for us to have one parent getting around primarily by bike, and one parent driving.  Things were working pretty well.  Why dump more money into maintaining a second car when we were really only using one? 

I bring this up because I've heard of other families who got rid of cars this way: the car broke down, they figured out how to live without it while they were waiting for (or just procrastinating on) repairs, and they never looked back.  Car neglect could work for you, too!

2. Not Selling our Second Car Right Away

My husband decided he would feel more comfortable with transitioning to one car if we kept the second car for a little while.  We've never bought a car with credit, so both our (very modest, used) cars were already paid for.  We changed our insurance plan to an extremely low-cost, vehicle-in-storage policy for Austin's car, and completely stopped driving it.  (Easy to do when you don't fix it, of course.)  Frankly, I was ready to sell the car right away, but hanging on to the extra car helped us reach consensus on the transition.  Buying a second car after selling one off would be a big hassle, so for Austin, keeping the car around for a little while took the edge off a sizable concern.  And he eventually did decide he was ready to sell it.

3. Compromise and Seeing the Big Picture

Once we decided to rid ourselves of the second car and buy a very nice family bike, we faced what was actually, in my opinion, a greater test of our ability to compromise: navigating the endless transportation decisions that arise in day-to-day family life.  In some respects, I think our transition may have been easier if we had just gotten rid of both cars.  (Which I am totally open to, Austin, if you happen to be reading this.)  Because we still had one car, there was a lot of negotiation at first.  How would we get to our movie date?  What about last-minute, pre-dinner grocery runs?  Dinners out with the kids?

On each of these questions, my inner bike geek was shouting "Go Team!" at the top of her lungs.  I try, though, to take a deep breath and remember that my husband is making some really big changes, and often sacrificing his hard-earned free time (he works full time and goes to grad school at night) so that I can get around by bike.  And he, thankfully, usually remembers that how I get around keeps me healthy and happy, and saves us money.  There are trips that I make in the car with Austin because it would be silly or divisive to go separately.  However, I've also made a mental list of places that I absolutely will not go in a car, under any circumstances: grocery stores, our kids' schools, the library, or anywhere within 3 miles.  Those places are off-limits, and just as I wouldn't ask Austin to take the bus with me to his mom's house in Creswell, he doesn't ask me to visit the places in my no-drive zone by car.

One of the current challenges we face concerns my evening pilates class.  It's located about 35 minutes away by bike, whereas by car it's only 15 minutes.  I happen to really love the bike ride to class, and it seems ridiculous for me to drive somewhere in order to exercise.  But Austin is my babysitter, and he is so overworked that the additional 40 minutes of travel time feels like a significant loss of study time to him.  We've worked out a solution that I think will keep us both sane: if he feels like he needs that 40 minutes for schoolwork on my pilates nights, I can take the kids to a friend's house for dinner.  I think the key for us has been figuring out which seemingly small problems are grounded in something bigger for one or the other of us.  In this case, Austin's time is precious because he needs to spend so much of it studying and holding down a 9 to 5 job.  The longer rides are important for keeping me healthy and fit, and touch on my sense of equity and responsibility: It doesn't feel right to drive somewhere regularly when I can get there by bike or transit.  We feel frustrated with each other's choices sometimes -- what couple doesn't?  But we work hard at remembering to be influenced by each other, and at seeing how these little nuts and bolts issues are sometimes connected to something bigger for one or the other of us.  I feel that if we just managed a tit for tat kind of compromise for these problems, we wouldn't be quite as happy as we are.

When we first decided to stop using one car, Austin had some lingering concerns about the safety of bicycling with kids, logistics of long bike trips or fixing flats with kids in tow, and future changes in our family.  Each one of these topics could be an essay in itself, but suffice to say that we talked each one out, in careful detail.  I took a confident cycling class, which really did help me to figure out the best ways to get around (and taught me about inductive loops -- I can't recommend these classes enough).  We made some specific plans for how I would cope with mechanical problems or with really bad weather (hail, electrical storms, etc.).  And we've discussed our options for future changes -- such as the possibility that I will need to look for full-time teaching work in a bad economy, which could mean a position very far from home.  I think that if we didn't take each others' fears and priorities seriously, we couldn't have made it through the transition to being a one-car household and still love being around each other.

4. Multi-Modal Dates

Another key to our success is dates.  As many dates as we can get.  They have been a great opportunity for us to travel a little by the other person's preferred mode.  And also?  They're dates. 

In general, we alternate.  One date is to the movies by bike, and the next is to some far-flung restaurant in a car.  I do have to suck it up and pretend I don't wish I was riding my bike.  (At least, most of the time I remember not to complain about it.)  But Austin is a good sport and does his part by trying out going to places he normally wouldn't on a bike.  He gets to see that I actually do know how to get around safely, and that most trips are pretty quick by bike.  Now that it's getting dark so early, our bike dates are more likely to be on a weekend afternoon.  No one wins converts to bicycling by making someone ride a bike in the rainy, cold dark.  And we have fun -- by bike or by car.  It would be a waste of perfectly good babysitting not to live it up when we have an evening to ourselves.

5. Having a back-up plan

In the course of those discussions about bad weather and bike break-downs, I had to think through how I would cope with major transportation failure.  Would I call my husband to come pick us up?  Sure, he would be willing to help, but I also have other options.  I could take a taxi, or catch a bus.  I actually did take a long taxi ride one afternoon when I jotted down the incorrect time for a bus from Veneta to Eugene.  (The bus service on rural routes can be infrequent at best.)  It cost me twenty bucks, which seemed expensive at first.  But then, of course, I remembered:  that's less than a tank of gas for our station wagon.  I think it was a relief for both of us to consider some worst-case scenarios and realize that I wouldn't have to call on him to bail me out if it didn't feel like the best choice.

What doesn't kill you...

It's a cliche, but true: taking on big changes makes can make a relationship stronger.  I had some moments of hesitation about going car-light at first -- wouldn't this really be hard on my marriage?  For us, though, the big changes we've made to our life together -- though they may cause some bumps in the road in the short term -- make our marriage stronger and better in the long run.  All those complicated things we throw at our relationship are not just worth it because of their own merits, they also help us stay happy and connected: kids, graduate school, getting rid of a car.  There were difficult conversations and frustrating experiences aplenty along the way to our current, more balanced experience of being car-light.  But that's how it is with everything complicated and interesting that's worth doing, right?  Ultimately Austin wouldn't want to stand in the way of me doing something I find truly important, just as I want to support him in pursuing what he wants from life.

Our marriage is stronger now because we tested it with a bicycle.  Add that to your list of things that are better by bike.

Kidical Mass Giving Thanks Pie n' Chai Ride

By the way...Hello again!  I have been enjoying an unplanned hiatus from blogging.  The time away has been lovely and relaxing (especially while my grad-student husband was on his summer break), but I've missed writing for this blog.  And I've missed hearing from you, all the friendly people I've met here.  If you've written me an email while I was on unofficial hiatus, please know that I was not checking that account while I was away.  I'll be composing my replies over the next few weeks -- thanks for your patience.

In the meantime, if you're in Eugene, we'd love to see you tomorrow at Kidical Mass!  I'm helping to organize and bake pie for the ride, and it would be gratifying to see some familiar and some new faces at Cesar Chavez Elementary tomorrow.  Here's the official blurb:

The weather is just right for cozy mittens, warm drinks, and delicious pie!  Join us for a short and sweet afternoon bike ride from Cesar Chavez Elementary to the Whiteaker Community Center, where we can play outdoors or nosh on homemade pies and hot chai tea inside (decaf rooibos version will be available for the kids, of course).  Along the way we'll stop to admire some fabulous new improvements to our bikeways, and create a simple thank you to our city for making it safer for families to walk and bike through our neighborhoods.

We always ride safe and legal, and all kinds of family bikes are welcome!  Remember your mittens and hats for the coziest possible ride.  Bring lights in case we'll be out after dark. 

Questions?  Find more info at  Hope to see you tomorrow!