31 January 2012

Some Drawbacks of Commuting by Bike

So, I've recovered from the latest with remarkable speed, and I'm a little shaky but back at work.

I've commented on some of the advantages of commuting by bike and train, but there's also the occasional downside:

Helmet Hair
NJ Transit toilets
Dirty shoes
I go through a whole lot of deodorant
... and it's still never enough
Hockey fans
Helmet headaches

Still.  I like water, and I get to look at more of it on the train.  I sit on the east side of the car and look at the Raritan Bay, with Sandy Hook and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in the distance, and on a clear day, the talls buildings of the Brooklyn waterfront.  The car commute goes over the Driscoll Bridge, but if I'm looking at the view I'm in trouble.

And there's also the aforementioned East River, along which I get to cycle every morning and evening.

29 January 2012

Meet Me On The E Train

I've been reading Interborough Rapid Transit: The New York Subway: Its Construction and Equipment, written by anonymous in 1904, on my Kindle.

Now there's an unexpected consequence of owning that machine.  I'm too cheap to pony up $9.95 or more for a Kindle version of a book I can find used for under $4 (with shipping), so I've been browsing the free collections.  I also just read The Call of the Wild, and last summer I tried to read The Count of Monte Cristo while on vacation.  (I think I got through about half of the tale, which in printed editions frequently runs to three volumes.)

But recently, I was browsing specifically for books about the New York City subway, and found Randy Kennedy's Subwayland in a used paperback, plus a hardcover history of the subways initially written as a doctoral dissertation.  Plus the 1904 tome.  (Is it still a "tome" if it's digital?)

It's full of incredible, wonderful details about things like the materials used to construct the stations, the methods used for tunnelling under the Harlem and East Rivers, and the trestles used to hold up the surface trains while the subway was being built underground.

Made me remember how the The Mate and I used to meet up on the subway.  This was back in the 80s, before cell phones.  (Also before Metrocards.)  I'd call him right before I left the office, then board the E train at the front of the front car.  When the train pulled into West 14th Street fifteen minutes later or so, he'd be waiting at the front end of the platform, and he'd look for me before getting on.

We'd ride together to Canal Street, eat chicken or frog legs (this was also before we went vegetarian) at Pho Pasteur on Baxter Street, maybe stop at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory or the Chinese supermarket on Canal, and then walk home.

27 January 2012

Parsing Disability

Monday, I ran 2.5 miles.  Wednesday, I biked nine, and lugged my bike up and down stairs in train stations.  Thursday, I failed the Stairs Test coming out of a subway station.  (The Mate: "Hurry up, we're going to miss the light."  He looked back, and realized I was having trouble getting up the stairs  That's how suddenly it came on.)

The ADA doesn't list medical conditions.  It defines disability, thus:
An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.
What is a cane, a walker, a wheelchair? Sign? symbol? marker? indicator? signifier?

I got on a bus yesterday, panting as I struggled up the three steps in.  It was full.  Aside from the fact that I was clinging to a pole and gasping for breath, I apparently appeared able-bodied (whatever the hell that might mean) to the people sitting at the front of the bus.

Above their seats, signs glued to the windows: "Please give this seat to an elderly or disabled person."  One of the letters, I can't remember which one, is replaced by a heart, whose cuteness at that moment was too precious.

The sitters all looked pretty able-bodied to me, but who knows?

Nobody stood.

Is walking down the street a major life activity? Climbing a set of stairs?  I think so.  I'm impaired in my ability to do these things, today.  Doc is on deck for this afternoon, which means two more bus trips, each punctuated by a change of buses, so four buses in all.

On the outbound leg of the trip (retrieving The Offspring from Hebrew school), the bus had been empty, and I had a seat.  I wondered: if someone came in with a walker, a cane, some other physical object denoting impairment, would I be obliged to give up my seat?  I moved farther back in the bus to avoid the problem.

Impairment is impairment, whether temporary or permanent, whether caused by illness or injury.  I've had to invoke the ADA in order to obtain accommodations in my working conditions, in the past.

I feel sort of fraudulent about it: two days ago, I was riding a bike; today I'm flattened.  But two days ago I knew today might come.  And today, I don't know how long this will last, how weakened I will be before I can ride a bike again.

Wrestling.  Despair comes, but I can feint, or beat it away with my fists.  The wrenching of sense of self that comes when I think of myself as disabled... more difficult  I started the first draft of this post with a reference to "crip days." I tried to fling out the clipped term for humor, defiance, denial.  Didn't work.

26 January 2012

Stereotyping, Anyone?

Yesterday, am New York ran a photo of some buff actor with a little blurb saying he had severe asthma as a kid, and now look at him.

(I pitched the issue in the recycling bin in exasperation, and I can't remember what actor it was or for what movie he's been photographed in something resembling a loin cloth.)

What DO we think asthmatics look like? Emaciated and sickly? Overweight and wheezy?

Try sprinter Jackie Joyner-Kersee, swimmer Mark Spitz, marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, football star Jerome Bettis, crazy basketballer Dennis Rodman, English-Channel-swimmer Allison Streeter, Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich.

And maybe the person in front of you on the jogging path or the one next to you at the gym.  Open your mind.

24 January 2012

Car as Cocoon

Today, I drove to campus for the first time since the beginning of the year.  After taking the train regularly since the start of last semester, it felt like a bit of a novelty to be able to stay dry, control the temperature, control the soundtrack (no hockey fans or NJ Transit announcements), control the air quality (nobody pretending they didn't notice the no smoking signs).

I can understand why so many people prefer the comfort of their own little cocoon rather than having to face the indignities of public transit. 

At the same time, I will be glad tomorrow to be back on my bike and, yes, back on the train, thumbing my nose at the elements, enjoying my solitary ride along the river at the ends of the day. 

And the contact I do have with humans -- pedestrians or other cyclists along my route, train conductors, other random people along the way -- is not mediated by a pane of glass or two.

23 January 2012

My Bike Doesn't Take Space Away From Your Car

Every time I take a trip on my bike, I'm taking my car off the streets and/or my butt off of a seat in a bus or a subway.  I'm not widening the potholes in the city streets, or cutting you off at an impromptu merge in Houston Street construction, or fouling the air you breathe with my car's emissions.

Non-bikers regularly tell me that "they" break the rules of the road.  It's true: we run red lights and stop signs.  In some cities, law allows cyclists to treat stop signs and red lights as yield signs, because of the mechanics of riding a bike.  (It's harder to get going than to keep going.)  It's also true: some cyclists ride the wrong way on one-way streets.  They're more of a menace to themselves and to bikers going with traffic than they are to motor vehicle drivers.

Hey, guess what?  Cars also run red lights and stop signs.  A few months ago, I yanked Zeke out of the path of a van careening through the intersection of 1st Avenue and 34th Street against the light.  He never saw the van: "Ow, you hurt my arm.  What did you do that for?"  The what-ifs still give me heebie-jeebies.

And take pedestrians.  If I had a nickel for every time a pedestrian stepped right in front of me while I was making my way legally through an intersection with the light, I could retire right now.  I'll take a dime for the ones who lead with the stroller, and half a dollar for the ones so hypnotized by their texting machines that they never noticed I laid rubber squealing to a stop to avoid crashing into them.

Most bike lanes are carved out of streets without reducing the number of lanes allocated to motor vehicles.  On the few New York streets where a bike lane replaces a traffic lane, it also reduces danger to pedestrians, and the number of bikers that aren't driving a car or taking a ride in a cab probably reduces the traffic enough to make up the difference.  Because one car takes up as much space as six to eight bikes. 

Maybe four bikes, if it's a Smart Car.


21 January 2012

Jogging in Freezing Rain

I went for a run this afternoon.  The snow had given way to stinging freezing rain blowing into my face.  The East River, a color somewhere between lead and Joyce's snot green sea.

I used to go outdoors and do stuff year round.  Through the winter, I'd be out biking and hiking and jogging.  But for the last several years, winter exercise has all but disappeared what with one lung infection after another for two or three or six months. Spring and summer, attempting to claw my way back to fitness before the next bout of enforced inactivity.

I have no idea why I'm healthy this winter.  I'm fairly shocked by it.  Occasionally I'm annoyed that circumstances mean I can't take good health for granted, but mostly I'm grateful to be aware of what a gift this is.  And I'm out getting exercise -- because I can.  Today, though, trying to keep my eyes from being pelted with little bits of ice, I had a new thought. 

Maybe this is nuts.

19 January 2012

East River in the Morning

Back in the days when I used to ride recreationally, 19 degrees meant DON'T GO BIKING.  DO SOMETHING ELSE.  Go hiking, maybe.  Or stay inside and read a book.

Now that I'm commuting the work by bike and by train, 19 degrees means DRESS WARMER.

That said, biking used to mean getting up on a Sunday morning, riding 20 or 30 miles, grabbing a bite at a deli, and then riding back home.  Going out for several hours poses different challenges in terms of staying warm than a fifteen-minute ride to the train station.

Still, it was cold. But also, it was nice to be out, watching the sky get brighter as I rode south beside the East River.

17 January 2012


There's information on these two bills, on which the Senate is supposed to vote next week, on Wikipedia. But if you're reading this on Jan. 18, you won't be able to follow that link, because Wikipedia is participating in an on-line strike against the bills.  You probably won't be able to follow that link, either. Google has announced it will support the strike with information on their home page, so if you want to know more, you could try going over there.

Some Facebook and Twitter users are avoiding those social networking sites tomorrow in solidarity with the internet strike.  I'll be joining them.  See ya the day after tomorrow.

16 January 2012

East River at Night

It's not exactly quiet.  There's the thump of traffic on the FDR overhead, the clatter and rattle of trains on the East River bridges, and the occasional thwack of a helicopter taking off.

But ending my day biking next to the East River in the dark is, somehow, incredibly peaceful.  I'm alone, or close to it -- a state seldom possible in New York City.

I check the temperature on the Watchtower building and shiver a little; I glance up at the stream of light flickering its way across the Manhattan Bridge, I pedal along mesmerized by the constantly shifting colors reflecting off the water in the river.

Spring will come.  Days will lengthen, temperatures will rise, the joggers and the fishermen, the lovers and the loiterers will return.  I will appreciate not having to bundle up against the cold, not arriving home with chilled ears and fingers and toes.  But I will miss that solitude.  Right now, I find I am enjoying the winter.

15 January 2012

Every Little Bit Counts... Right?

I reached the tipping point.  I've been driving to work so little I realized I should change my car insurance.  So I spoke to a very nice fellow at the agency to let him know that I'm no longer commuting 55 miles each way in my car, and that my anticipated annual mileage will drop correspondingly.

This will, it turns out, save me $4.68.  Every six months. 

I think you can buy a Starbucks coffee confection for that.

Ah, well. I added up the costs of commuting by car versus by train last year.  The train ride wins out hands down, even when you factor in the time spent riding the rails.

10 January 2012

Chocolate and Child Labor ... Still

I've barely recovered from the onslaught of post-Christmas sale offers that hit my in-box, and it seems people are already thinking about the next frenzy of consumption: Valentine's Day.

Did you know that Hershey is lagging behind the other major chocolate manufacturers in its labor practices?  Most of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa, and Hershey has refused to take decisive action to end child labor, forced labor, and trafficking in humans.

Buy chocolate with a Fair Trade label:

That way, you know it wasn't harvested by little kids, and in fact you know that the farmer got a fair price for the raw materials.  Bonus: look for a brand that's also organic, and take a minute to write to Hershey headquarters and tell them to get a conscience.


05 January 2012

Stuff Control

One of the things that keeps coming up on my radar lately: recommendations that we simplify our lives by divesting ourselves of stuff. Postconsumers and Leo Babauta tell you how to decide what to toss.  A Guy Named Dave has thrown down the gauntlet with his 100 Thing Challenge.

Getting rid of stuff is important.  More important, I think, is not acquiring stuff in the first place.

Let's say, for instance, I decide to purge clothing: give a bunch of stuff to charity, keep just enough clothing to get through half a week or so.  In a year or two, the clothes I have left will be worn to shreds, and I'll need to replace them with new stuff.

I think it makes somewhat more sense to stick with the clothing I already own, and make the commitment not to buy anything new until what I have has become unusable.  Better yet, make a commitment to reduce by, for instance, buying a new item only when two items can't be used any more.

The purgers say you should get rid of stuff if you haven't used it in six months, or maybe a year.  Also important, I think, is to avoid buying stuff (on impulse?) that won't get used regularly.

On the other hand, I own things (camping and hiking equipment, mostly) that I used to use regularly, but when The Offspring was a wee thing, that stuff saw the light of day very infrequently.  By the six-month or even the twelve-month rule, a lot of those things would have gotten tossed out -- and now, if I could afford replacements, I'd be buying new camping gear.

In fact, I'm glad I held on to it all.

Same goes for kitchen utensils, bath towels, and all other stuff around the house.  I don't see the point of purging perfectly good stuff, if there's a reasonably good chance you're going to be able to use it in the future, just for the sake of owning less stuff.

(I do realize there's another side of the argument: the problem with owning so much stuff that you end up moving to a bigger apartment or house just to store it all.  That's for another day.)

04 January 2012


Goal 1: Cut back on driving.  In Fall of 2010, my goal was to take public transit to work once a week, and I made it through the whole semester.  In spring, bronchitis and then pneumonia meant I couldn't handle the bike rides at each end, and I went back to driving.  In Fall of 2011, I took the train at least twice each week, and at one point went a whole month without driving my car to work.

This semester, I'm going to aim for fewer than five car trips.  For the whole term.  Plus the two weeks before the semester starts, and the week of Commencement.  Eighteen weeks in all.  I'm glad it's supposed to warm up a little tomorrow, because riding when it's below freezing can get a little ugly.

Goal 2: Pack more lunches.  Health benefit, from avoiding cheap Chinese food or student food court fries; environmental benefit, from avoiding all that plastic packaging.

Do you do resolutions?

03 January 2012

I'm Not Sick

I went for a run this afternoon.  Yes, that's right.  It's January, and I went out for a run.  I don't know how many years it's been since I haven't been laid low for much of the winter by pneubronchashthmitismonia. 

And I don't know why it's different this year.  Maybe it's because of the vitamin D my new doc put me on; maybe it's because The Offspring hasn't been sick much, and we had only a few nights last fall interrupted by asthma attacks.  Maybe summer's Lyme Disease somehow knocked the socks off my immune system.

The wheeled briefcase I use on "crip days" is gathering dust at the back of the closet.  I haven't been to the doctor in months.  Regular exercise, good food, lots of sleep -- I'm gathering strength and energy.  And I'm trying to avoid wondering when luck will run out, Fortuna spin her wheel, thrust me back down to earth.

I'm trying to be grateful for being in good health right now.  I can see this as a gift of awareness, the ability to savor good health rather than taking it for granted until suddenly it's gone.  Rather than the fear of what might be around the corner, I'm trying to focus on that gift -- today.

01 January 2012

Just One Appliance?

I'm hearing on Twitter from a lot of entities to which I do not subscribe.  Now that the semester and the holidays are over I'm going to have to figure out why this is so and what to do about it. Meanwhile, Sears wants to know: "What's the one appliance you couldn't live without?"

I suspect what they really want is to encourage people to buy another appliance.  But I like the idea of living with just one appliance.  Maybe none.

On the other hand, I have eleven appliances in my house, and I'm not in a hurry to get rid of any of them.  The most recent acquisition is a dishwasher.  What a relief.  If I had to give up all but one, I'd have to say that's the one I'd hang on to. (Is it cheating that I'm assuming I'd get to hang on to the washers and dryers in the basement of my apartment building?)

The dishwasher is the only appliance we use daily.  Every week, often multiple times: toaster, rice cooker, crock pot, blender, coffee grinder, spice grinder.  Maybe once a month: mixer, cuisinart.  Less than once a month: waffle maker, 12-cup percolator.  (No, in fact I don't own a hair dryer.)

It's a long list, especially if you've recently read a book like Little House in the Big Woods

In my defense? Most of these are once-in-a-decade purchases, if not less frequent.  The percolator and the cuisinart are hand-me-downs; the crock pot came out of the trash (with a note on it that said, "It works").  The mixer was a wedding present; I bought The Mate the waffle iron before The Offspring came along, so it's been around for quite a while.  The blender jar broke a few months ago, and a couple of weeks ago I finally replaced it -- with one made of stainless steel, that should last longer than the motor in the blender.

It's an interesting idea.  If you had to live with just one appliance, what would it be?

Green Resources

Although the New York Times has dismantled its environment desk, the BBC and the Guardian both have web pages devoted to reporting on the environment, as does the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, if you can read German.

Magazines with extensive environmental coverage include the  New Scientist and the Mother Jones,  blog The Blue Marble.

More specialized web sites for environmental coverage: 

Bike Blog NYC
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Environment Magazine
Environment News Service
Green America
Slow Food USA
Union of Concerned Scientists

Please add your own favorites in the comments.