Change, Determination, Purpose, Uncategorized

Making Way

flying bike

On bike, top of hill, foot down.  Red light.  It was green as I was climbing but turned yellow before I could get through.  It’s a quiet Saturday, holiday weekend.  A few cars cross in front of me, no one behind me.  The rotation complete, my turn next, I step on the pedals and inch out.  The light stays red, though.  It is red as oncoming traffic starts to enter and turn left.  Because no drivers had joined me on my side of the intersection, the signal never kicked to green.  I could wait here all day at a red light that stays red.  Instead, I press through.  The oncoming drivers pause for two extra beats to wait for me before turning left across the empty lane.

A man jams his body halfway out of his driver’s side window.  His head, arm, torso look like they’re about to climb out after me.  He screams across the road, “Why don’t you obey the law, you fucking idiot!”

I catch my breath and keep riding.

Through my head race all the answers I would say if his were a real question.  Louder than my imagined response is the clang clang clang of his fury: “You fucking idiot, you fucking idiot, you. . .”  For the next mile at least, I tense at every approaching engine, sure he’s whipped around to come after me.  Will my helmet work when he clips me and I flip onto the side of the road?  It’s a quiet, leafy neighborhood.  People are out.  Surely someone will see it and call 911.

You fucking idiot, you fucking. . . Continue reading “Making Way”

Fitness, Living in the Moment

I Race the Bus

The bus couldn’t care less. Its giant red backside shrinks into the distance. I bend and downshift, pumping in a crescendo of power.
I know what might be waiting at the corner.
Brake lights burn on. At the street’s edge, a cluster of bodies draped in satchels and overcoats jostles forward. This is my chance. The mirror that my Mister gave me catches the hint of a silver shape closing in on my left. I dart right instead, hopping up onto the sidewalk and weaving around behind the embarking passengers. A ramp opens in the curb and I re-enter the fray.
I’m in front now. Only three downhill blocks separate both bus and me from the stoplight where we’ll turn towards the metro. A line of cars crowds into the tiny oval of my mirror. Every commuter is trying to pass the fat, red city bus, and every attempt is frustrated by the cyclist who materializes in the intended lane. Now the driver joins the crowd of vehicles trying to pass me. I squeeze to the right as far as I can but with a line of impatient commuters crowding his other side, he can’t thread the needle. It’s no use anyway. Another knot of passengers waits at the bottom of the hill. The driver gives up and falls back to slow for them. Theirs is the final stop before the metro station.
It’s my last chance.
I stop pedaling and drift back into the middle of the right lane. My left hand is out. The surge of cars refuses to flag. Every driver is highly motivated to ignore me. We share a sense of urgency if not community. Each of us has somewhere to be now. Dentist, office, yoga, court. We weave. We push. The rules are posted but only loosely applied. Every vehicle, stoplight, pedestrian, and orange cone is an obstacle. The road is a chess board on crack. All pieces are in motion simultaneously and at least half of them are lethal.
I inch closer to the white line with my hand still out. Now, I am upright in the saddle and I swivel my head. Rush hour drivers are as tactical as tank commanders. The illusion of ignorance is as critical a defense as steel skin and rolled up windows. My mirror is too small for the precision required by this foray. Eye contact is necessary. People-ness occasionally triggers a breach.
One driver slows. No gesture or head nod accompanies the pause. It is a matter of seconds before she takes up the slack. I lean into the gap. It is exactly what I need and it was not required, so I wave and smile. Seven cars line up ahead in the turn lane. This is maybe an eight-car light and I’m going about the speed of a tenth. Before I have a chance to get my bearings, the green arrow flashes us into motion. I stand up on the pedals, gather breath, and push. The sun blinds me. I plow straight east and then turn hard, blowing through just before the light shows yellow. One car makes it through behind me, nipping at my heels. Then another. I glance in my mirror. I see red.
Just before the high school, a growl rattles my middle. My rival overtakes me. The crimson behemoth passes on my left. I turn off through a neighborhood shortcut and catch a last glimpse of brake lights as the bus hisses up to yet another intersection. A narrow band of bike trail carries me down under the cool concrete bridge where the drivers up above must wait to turn into the station. I-66 echoes against the bike’s metal frame and throbs into my damp skin.
I emerge, squinting into the bustling metro hub just as the bus rounds the corner. The horseshoe by the station entrance teems with taxis and pedestrians. The bus creeps through on its way to a shelter on the far side. At the bike rack, I jump off and wrestle with spiraling steel, rusted combination numbers, spokes and rubber. Across the macadam, commuters push open the doors. I unclick my chin strap and snap on my smarttrip lanyard. Our feet land on the same sidewalk at the same moment.
It’s a draw.
The man with the giant grin who passes out free newspapers beams at me. “How was the ride?” He calls.
I brush sweat from my forehead and holler back. “Victorious!”


Happy 100 Days: 92

Eleven and a half hours. That is how long he sleeps without stirring once. I wake at dawn and head out into the damp dark to run with only the glow of the waning moon to show the way. I return, stretch in the dew, walk the dog, pack lunch, shower, and bring the water to boil for oatmeal. He sleeps on and on.
This is what happens the night after the day the kid rides his bike to the school and back all by himself. Not all by himself, actually — training wheels notwithstanding, he is still skittish about hills. When we come to the top of a slope, he slows to a crawl and asks, “Mommy, can you hold on, please?” I touch the handlebars the way I remember learning to hold the barre in ballet. This lightest of grips is poised and at the ready. When he hears a car, he tenses and turns back three or four times to look. He veers in a wide arc away from the curb. I tell him the story about hitting the telephone pole when I was learning to ride a bike even though I was staring right at it. “You tend to go wherever you are looking, so keep looking at the place you want to go, not the thing you are trying to avoid.”
“I am going to run over that black spot,” he says. He peers with great intensity at a tar patch on the street ahead and steers his front tire over it. “Now, I am going to go over that one.” The cars pass on by.
At the playground behind the school, we run and run and run and run. It is dusk and the storm clouds are rolling in. I chase him up the slide and down the ladder, up the fire pole and down the parallel bars. We do not speak. This game demands no negotiation of rules. He bends and peers at me from between poles across the yard, eyes flashing and skin on fire. He breathes hard and braces himself. I charge and he shrieks, mulch flying. He tears off over the jungle gym and under the bridge, ducking, faking left then right. His wild laughter echoes off the school’s brick walls. We run until he notices the sky.
“Those clouds are very low,” he says.
“Yes. They are.”
“We should go home.”
He is back on the bike and I drop my fingers onto the handlebar. He nudges my hand away. “No, Mommy, you don’t need to hold me.” He weaves in and out and around the pillars at the front of the school building, tires churning up the chalk murals of peace signs and rainbows. On the way home, we meet the slope going the other way. He lifts his hands from the bars and gazes at the red, puffy spots on his palm.
“We can put ice on your hands when we get home,” I tell him.
He makes a fist, releases it, then pushes on.
“They make special gloves for biking,” I say. “They have padding and no fingers. We can get you some.”
“I’ve seen them,” he says.
And now he is climbing. Up in the seat, he stands as he pedals up the hill, grinding against gravity. I grin and tell him he’s got it. He climbs all the way to the top hill and then drops into the seat, pauses, and looks at his hands again. The red spots are angry now.
“We’ll use that soft ice pack,” I say.
He turns right at the stop sign and continues all the way home. He never asks for my help, never complains. He makes it to the driveway and then lets me maneuver the bike into the garage. Inside, we root around in the fridge for the ice pack. He presses his hands to the blue pockets of relief.
When I put him to bed an hour earlier than usual, he does not protest. We read our three books and sing our three songs, cuddle and nuzzle and have butterfly kisses.
It is no surprise he sleeps on and on this October morning. When he wakes and comes padding into my room, he tucks himself under the already made folds of my comforter, grinning with sleepy bliss.
“Can you come cuddle me, Mommy?”
“I can cuddle you for exactly one minute. We have to get ready for school.”
I lay down next to him and put my face against his. He turns and presses his nose into my cheek.
“How about exactly two minutes?” He puts his hand on my arm. The red blister has faded to a pink whisper.
“Okay,” I say. “Exactly two minutes.”
He hums into my neck, closes his eyes, and pulls my arm across his belly.


Shift Happens

I was nearly twenty when I learned to ride a bike. As a kid, I had tooled around my neighborhood on my 3-speed, but these short trips never took me beyond the distance my feet could cover if a tire blew. It took the self-righteousness of young adulthood coupled with a bike-snob boyfriend to push me past the safe circumference of my known territory. Living in accordance with strict ideals about justice and simplicity meant a vegan diet, a cooperative house, anti-racist activism, and thumbing one’s nose at the auto industry. In Burlington, Vermont in 1993, a womyn had to learn how to ride.
The finely muscled boyfriend and I ventured into the country on our slick, matching Fat City Wickedlights. With shoes snapped into slim pedals and water bottles sloshing, we were so much who we aimed to be. In the span of a few months, I learned how to change a tire, true a wheel, adjust a derailleur, and repair a busted chain. Who needs AAA? On the side of the road with just a tiny cache of tools, I could handle anything short of an organ transplant. When the apocalypse came, I would be delivering the mail.
The only problem was that I could not ride. My personal drill sergeant would pedal alongside me, offering up corrections. He called it “help.” I had another name for it.
“Shift up,” he’d holler. “Lean down and just glance back.” I was too frightened to see if a car was gaining. Every time I did, my bike would sway like a drunken frat boy. The stress further constricted my peripheral vision, and I could only hope I would hear an engine coming before I had to make the next turn. Wildly swinging into traffic when I most needed to hug the shoulder, I was a two-wheeled terror on the Hinesburg-Shelburne road. I covered dozens of miles with the boyfriend drafting me as he shouted out warnings about approaching traffic.
After a few near misses and a lot of yelling, I figured it out. Just as a driver checks mirrors and blind spots before changing lanes, a cyclist has to look back while staying straight. I practiced leaning down, steadying the handlebars to keep the front wheel aimed in the forward, and taking a quick peek at the terrain behind. It is a bit of a mind game, turning the head without steering the body in the direction of the eyes. After a few tries, I could share the road.  The boyfriend got off my rear a few hollers short of a black eye.
Hills, on the other hand, refused to yield to either logic or determination. At the base of every incline, my well ran as dry as my mouth. Vermont is not flat country, so the Green Mountain cyclist has no escape from the ups. Every time the ground rose ahead of me, my gut contracted and my heart raced. I hated hills the way George Mallory must have hated gathering clouds. My legs were not strong enough. My lungs were too tight. Every bump on the landscape was my own personal Everest. The altitude, no matter how miniscule, conquered me every time.
I tried to hoodwink the topography by speeding down the previous descent as fast as I possibly could, shifting into the highest gear and spin spin spining to get up the other side. Pedaling like a maniac carried me about halfway up before I started to lose steam. Barking in pain and gritting my teeth, my momentum slowed to a wobble. The sight of Lance Armstrong up ahead, standing up on his pedals with his legs of bronze sinew glinting in the sun as he floated up to the summit, was enough to make me want to shove a tire lever up his axle. I walked my bike to the next flat stretch.
“You have to shift to a higher gear,” he explained.
A higher gear? You’ve got to be kidding me. “You mean the harder one?” That went against all logic. When a tough stretch approaches, why would a rider increase the difficulty? I was working as hard as I possibly could in the lowest gear, and still was not strong enough to get up the hill without teetering off. I was a lost cause, and he was a fool.
He went on explaining. “First you shift higher then you stand.”
My mind rebelled and my body followed suit. “I just stand?” I saw him doing it, but I could not make sense of it.
“Just stand up. Like this.”
He orbited around me, shifted up to the highest gear, and lifted his fine backside up off the seat. I had a hard time believing this thoroughbred was my companion. His claims of confidence in my cycling abilities were even more incredible than his affections. It all seemed like an elaborate ruse, and I was the one who would land on my ass.
He continued to draw smooth ellipses around me. “Then you can climb. It’s easy. Try it.”
Nothing is harder than the task someone else tells you is not.  I did try it, goddamn it, and it was anything but easy. Over and over again, I tried. My bike crossed that stretch of blacktop, and I willed myself to stand. I commanded my legs, “Climb!” I roared at my tush, “Up!” These intractable parts paid me no heed. My posterior remained planted on the seat. I rolled to a stop.
“Maybe it’s like the eyebrow thing,” I panted.
“The what?”
“You know how some people can raise one eyebrow, but other people can only do them both?” I lifted both mine to prove my physical deficiency. “It’s genetic.”
“You mean to tell me you are genetically incapable of standing up on a bike?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I am.”
“Yeah. Maybe you are. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You can always just get off and walk up the hill.”
“Yeah. Thanks.”
My tolerance for his proximity quickly exhausted itself.  The ability to ride alone was too compelling.  I would have to be independent after I killed him, after all. He was too perfect, and even if he were not, any witness was a distraction. This was between me and my goddess. Or, more accurately, it was between me and my demons. The boyfriend, no matter how right or skilled or just plain gorgeous he happened to be, did not have a say in the matter.
A few days later, I made my way alone to a stretch of somewhere road with a shortage of cars but an abundance of contour lines. I walked to the top of the first hill and perched there like a sky diver at the open hatch. I swung my leg over, kicked the chain up to the highest gear, and let ‘er rip. Body and machine sped as one down towards a rising wall of blacktop. “Go girl, go girl, come on!” I hit the dip at the bottom and started the ascent. My speed dropped and my legs began to scream. The urge to downshift almost won. I shouted at the road and the sky and my own resistant butt. “Up! Come on, UP!”
Just like that, I stood. Off the saddle, legs push-pulling the pedals, I was up where I had no business being. My torso tipped slightly forward to keep the now careening handlebars even. I sat back down and promptly ground to a halt, tipping off the bike and onto my feet. “Woah,” I breathed. “Just stand.”
Back at the summit, I did it all over again. Leap, fly, grind. Then, right at the beginning of the ascent, I stood. I started to climb. Climbing was exactly what it was. Ascending a hill is like walking up a staircase, one foot in front of the other.  The bike felt alive in my grip, ready to lift right off the ground. The only way to hold it steady was to hover miles above the safe clutch of the frame. I willed my skeleton to stay upright, refused to succumb to the desire to cling, and pressed my mighty muscles into the climb. I trusted the laws of physics to pay me back in motion. In a blink, I crested the hill and went whirring down the other side. I hooped aloud, flushing grasshoppers from roadside brush.
It turns out that this is how it works. Plates make their tectonic shifts without so much as a warning tremor. Mountains appear where the land was once flat. The impulse is to pull back and creep along, gripping the earth and keeping to a familiar pace. It will not work. A greater effort is required, but that effort is unlike anything ever required before. Shifting into a lower gear may keep you feeling safe, but the wheels just spin twice as fast while covering only half the distance. Trying to stay grounded will wear you out long before you reach your destination. You will not make it over the hump.
No matter how counterintuitive this seems, the toughest transitions require a hefting of more weight, not less. Change has no mercy. It has no attention for resistance, cowardice, or the illusion of control. The starkest way is the only way forward: pure exertion. Crisis requires the courage to press pass the point of self-imposed incapacity.
Conquering the mountain is impossible, yet nothing could be simpler. Bear down. Engage the muscles. Brace yourself and rise up out of your protective posture. Allow momentum to carry you forward.  The extra effort is unavoidable, but the mind and body are stronger than gravity. They are mightier than the imagination’s most clever tricks.
Increase the tension, lift your body past the pull of gravity, and climb.

Stories have a way of moving towards their proper denouement. The aforementioned boyfriend found his way to a partner and a purpose perfectly suited to him. Read about their adventures at 2cycle2gether.


Mind the Gap

The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them.

Sue Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry

The bike was the key. It was liberation. It was the only way to get to the shopping centers with all their pre-teen allure: Montgomery Donuts, the movie theater, dark alcoves and roaming packs of boys. By way of the broad and quiet neighborhood streets, I could meander up to the busy stretch of what passed as “town,” spend a few bucks on comic books and Twix, and feel like I had really gone somewhere.

I have never been very good at riding a bike. I wobble widely. When another rider calls, “On your left,” I throw a gaze over my left shoulder and end up veering directly into her path. This is still the case, despite several decades of practice.

At 11, I was as already a full-grown klutz. For some reason on this one particular day, my sister and I chose to take the more direct yet less forgiving route to the edge of our neighborhood. We turned ourselves out along a roaring stretch of Old Georgetown Road. Six lanes of frenzied traffic whipped past as we made our way to Wildwood Shopping Center for our sanitized version of adolescent mayhem. We rode on the narrow sidewalks, confident in our immortality and in the protective capacity of those three inches of curb.

At every intersection, a handy little dip in the curb for folks on axles – strollers, wheelchairs, skateboards and the like – ferried us smoothly down to the road and back up again. I am sure the sidewalk engineering choice was not intended for cyclists, but considering how few pedestrians actually frequented those loud and dangerous thoroughfares, we made happy use of them. I could zoom down the sidewalk, slowing just enough to make sure no one was turning off the main road onto a neighborhood street, and buzz right through the intersection up onto the opposite path. I was too poor a cyclist to learn how to “pop a wheelie,” as it was called. The sidewalk design saved me slowing to a stop, walking, and lifting my bike up over the curb.

I was zipping joyously along, picking up speed as I became more confident in my ten-speed prowess. I looked ahead. One of the intersections neared. My stomach leapt into my throat. An enormous telephone pole was rammed right into the sidewalk just beyond the opposite ramp. I saw it. I could not slow. I took its measure, and I knew I had enough room to veer around it. I watched it and I locked my gaze on it, calculating the distance, determined to miss it.


My bike flew out from under me. I body-slammed into the pole, face pressed against the splintered wood and old staples. My arms wrapped around its girth as my poor bicycle wobbled and fell into the gutter. My sister screeched to a halt, whipped around, and burst out laughing. “You are so weird! How could you not see that pole?”

I slid down and did my best not to burst into tears. We rescued my bike and made the rest of our limping way to the strip mall.

How could I not see that pole? That was the wrong question. I did see the pole. I was looking right at the pole! My question was this: how could I crash into something I was working so hard to avoid?

Anyone who has put a kid on training wheels or taught a teenager to drive knows the answer. You do not look at where you do not want to go. The gaze is more powerful than any of us really understands. Look, and your mind, posture, and even behavior will veer in the direction of your vision. For this reason, any student of the road learns to look at where she intends to go. She looks ahead.

My sister, with her natural physical aptitude and addiction to speed, had learned this without knowing how to articulate it. She focused on the gap and squeezed herself through it. I fixed on the obstacle and met it.

Today, in the face of several mounting so-called problems at work and at home, I needed a reminder of how to direct my gaze at the open road instead of the flashing lights and gaping potholes. I dipped back into Appreciative Inquiry’s fount of refreshing thinking.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a tool that has gained its foothold in the worlds of Organizational Development and leadership practice, offers up practical approaches for drawing upon the power and possibility in people and systems. Work, love, parenting, friendships – hell, life itself – all are riddled challenges. This is especially true if they are seen as such. Pulling from AI’s handy toolbox is a great way to training the mind away from problems and towards capacity when trying to build a way forward.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. . . AI deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this “positive change core”—and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.

David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change

Through a series of questions about the system when it is at its best, AI allows participants to give voice to stories that generate power and animate dormant resources for building towards a vision. Instead of a problem to be solved, the task at hand is a mystery to be explored full of opportunities to be discovered. The people involved are rich sources of insight. It is a choice to perceive of things this way.

Today, I began again to wean myself from panic, and returned to the practice of asking the generative question. Little by little, the answers offer up source material for telling a new kind of story. Learning how to do this takes intention. I am as much a klutz here as I am on two wheels, but, as ever, learning is exhilarating. (More on the specifics of AI and the questions can be found here.)

Dissect a fear and watch it thrive. Describe despair and feel it spill out of its container. Delineate the barriers to your greatness, and notice how quickly they harden into cinder-block and razor wire.

In the inverse lies solace: You can make real the very thing to which you attend. Ask the right sorts of questions, and watch the future bloom.

Be careful where you set your sights. Yours is an awesome power. That telephone pole is there, for sure. But so is the gap. The open path has been there all along. Hop back on the bike. No matter how you wobble, the way ahead is waiting to meet you.