I spend a lot of time advocating for and worrying about the future of cycling in Seattle. Despite the gradually-improving bike infrastructure here, and the growing adoption of cycling as a way of life, we’re still a car-centric city where riders are largely unseen by drivers and bike facilities are a funding afterthought.
On a recent tour through Yunnan province in China, I saw what cycling looks like as a way of life. Cycling doesn’t belong to hipsters, or exercise fanatics, or scofflaw messengers. Everyone does it, and it’s so deeply integrated into every aspect of society that most people don’t give it a second thought.
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I found this bit of observation on my laptop while looking for something else and it make me chuckle. Passing thoughts as I waited for a plane in Denver one day …
So it’s 14 minutes after my flight should have taken off and I’m sitting cross-legged on a metal floorboard, propped up against the glass wall of the moving sidewalk. I feel its soft rolling vibrations through my back as if I’m laying on a washing machine in spin cycle. Above me unbound pieces of accelerated conversation zoom past leaving tiny fragments hanging there in space. In slow motion I unwrap my tuna sandwich from its wrinkled plastic wrapper and I eat as I wait for a delinquint 757 gradually to materialize on the other side of the plate glass window. A woman in khaki pants and lime green Kangaroo trainers races by, trying not to spill her Starbucks as she pushes her stroller down the long blue corridor. She is egged by her final boarding call and her tiny traveler who bestows encouragement in the form of unearthly gurgling sounds. I imagine myself staring up from within its pastel-green-and-pink plastic racecar, flourescent motion-blur sky still novel and mysterious.
Nearby a man who I name Steve in my head is interrogated by his heavyset friend, who I call Jimbo because he is wearing a one-size-too-small t-shirt featuring a screenprinted eagle and large patrioticly-decorated lettering informing the world that America is prepared to “Put A Boot In Your Ass”. Steve is alternately fumbling with a mobile phone and stuffing artifically-colored bright orange things into his mouth and then wiping the oily dust residue on his roomy gray sweatshirt.
“You don’t smoke?”
“No,” says Steve
Jimbo hoists his backpack high up on his shoulders and lets out a chuckle, tilting his head back slightly and revealing the full expanse of his chalky gray trucker beard. “Well shit man. Do you drink?”
“No, I don’t drink.”
“Well shit man. Yer gonna have one boring-ass trip then,” Jimbo says, slightly louder than airport etiquette might prefer and breaking out into hearty laughter that turns into a brief coughing fit. “Shit, man, come on, let’s go to the smoking bar”.
It’s about noon on Thursday and I’m flying home from Memphis. Probably somewhere over northern Colorado right about now; some sort of frozen mountainous paradise/wasteland lies below. I think when you’re on a plane, the country is reduced to flat parts and mountains — a strange dualism that doesn’t hint at the true bizarreness and complexity of what is really down there on the ground. Like the CNN red state/blue state maps that portray us as one-dimensional colors. Of course everyone knows that only the red states are one-dimensional.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been on an airplane in the last four years since I got the corporate whore gig. 100 maybe? 200? I’ve flown more than 200,000 miles with United Airlines alone. Looking out the windows never gets old. Since I live in the most beautiful state in the country, coming home has a few extra rewards even before I land — Baker, Adams, Hood, Ranier … majestically reflecting the sun on their snow-capped peaks that jut out from grey backgrounds like the first few stars to appear in the evening sky. Yeah that’s right, I made a 1337 simile; suck on it.
So here I am floating again above the mountains and the farms. Unconnected. It’s simple up here. The only place I can go during work hours where you can’t find me with your cell phones and your text messages and your emails and your IMs and your whatnot. Work is done here. Books read, naps taken, and music enjoyed as more than background noise. They say this gets old but it’s working for me so far. But of course, we come down, we corporate whores all, occasionally to visit upon the land. And things get complicated again.
To my great relief, the ones I spent last Thursday morning worried about as I was making my way across Memphis are all safe.
On business travel all week, my days have been packed quite full, even so that I had to fly out on Monday – Independence Day – at 5am. Across the desert and over the plains, 2,369 frequent flyer miles to Memphis: home of Sun Studios, Beale Street, the world’s largest cargo hub and the pork BBQ capital of the world (I am a vegetarian so you can only imagine how profoundly exciting this was for me). Memphis is a typical Southern city in same the way that the platypus is a typical mammal. But statistically it represents well the modern day Southern town. Like its neighbours, it is home to a large (~50%) community of black people who overwhelmingly live in poverty. The average individual African-American income in Memphis is about half that of the average white person’s. Up on the twelfth floor of the Downtown Marriott, I was only blocks up Second Avenue from one of the worst areas of unemployment and homelessness in the city. Driving West toward the freeway, sun just beginning to glimmer off the Mississippi, I crossed over streets with names like Crump and Forrest; names shamefully reminiscent of the slavery and Jim Crow days that set the stage for the city’s current racial divide. And I, Whitie from the great white North, was happily exploiting, as I do, the business amenities offered to Whitie by just about every modern city. Memphis doesn’t hide its past though, so I guess I just noticed this time.
Anyway, there I was, in this strange anachronism of a city, as the USA turned 229 years old. Unfortunately, in Memphis, like most places in America, Independence Day isn’t about freedom from state-sponsored religion or the true meaning of democracy, or really anything more than trite nationalism, endless loops of “God Bless America” and unabashed pyromania (I was, sadly, cheated out of the last by a particularly ill-timed thunderstorm). I observed all of this; a tangential distraction from the purpose of my visit, but all the same a reminder of the profound iniquity that exists in this country that has spent trillions of dollars creating and then fighting the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda while letting its own live this way. The worn-out hollow platitudes about freedom seemed to me just preversions of something that once had meaning but now are just tools of the religious-military-industrial complex to rally any heretofore bench-warming flag-wavers around more of their dirty little wars. So I settled, eyes-forward and of singular purpose befitting my corporate whoredom, into my week. And so it went. Until Thursday.
Now, back at home in Seattle, I am catching up on the stories of spods, Raindogs, and co-workers from across the pond. I am relieved at their rational, mournful, hopeful and angry responses to the attacks. I am relieved that they didn’t react like Americans: the emergency response was flawless; people continued, resolutely, with their modern lives; Tony Blair went, briefly but immediately, to the injured city. It was all very impressive. I must say I do quite like old London. Their biggest failure appears to be that in the 229 years since the USA declared its independence, they have developed an utter and inexplicable loyalty to the foreign policy of the U.S. government.
So, what I have learned in the last few days is this: London doesn’t need my sympathy. It doesn’t need the inane prayers of empty-headed Floridians. It doesn’t need Mr. Bush’s resolve. It doesn’t need to be another battlefield of the “war on terror”. What it needs is independence from the United States.