Sunday, February 21, 2016

Visions of Power, at Night, By Bike

Bench commemorating canal power, cars wizzing past in the background (caption upper right about diggging)

Full-ish moon, Sunday night quiet streets, a compelling blog post by Lizbon to think on. Soon after I get pedaling, truly on a Ride of No Purpose or Destination but to drink up the night and feel that cool clarity gather behind my eyes which is part cool night air and part mind cobwebs clearing out, enabled by the quiet running of my fixed gear which makes the sound of tiny shards of rock pinging out from beneath my tires sound loud.

I read her post, headed out on the ride, and was thinking, it's about power. Visions of power. Liquid petroleum distillates are incredibly cheap, plentiful, convenient, and portable stores of power, and the internal combustion engine is acceptably good at converting that power into work and motion in our vehicles. If you need to move something heavy over a distance, which in a nutshell summarizes the transport revolution that empowers most of what we enjoy and rely on in terms of global consumerism and global commodities, hydrocarbons are the way to go, currently. For transporting cargo long distances, it enables an effective vision of power.

But that's not usually what the personal vehicle is most used for. Typically, it's used to portage a single human body some distance inside a one or two ton machine, where most of the fuel, and most of the resulting carbon emissions, are tied to moving the machine rather than the cargo. For short trips around the neighborhood, to the store, to the kid's school, to a local pub to meet friends, to get to work if it's not too far like mine, the poor internal combustion engine system barely has time to get up to operating temperature in the stop and go to the destination. This is another vision of power, one of inefficiency, waste, pollution, risk and danger, of which we remain largely unconscious for various cultural and economic reasons. The short-term costs seem acceptable, while the long-term costs are ignored, so the auto culture drives on oblivious. I prefer riding a bike, and wish more people felt the same.

It was four years ago that I sold my car and committed to commuting by bicycle. I think the monetary and environmental effects of my choice have merit, but more than anything, I look at the health and well-being benefits of an hour of outdoor exercise every day, and find it hard to express how significant or important that has been for me. That's another vision of power: take health and well-being into your own hands, power yourself under food power from point A to B, and enjoy the ride.

I'm not a car-free purist. I call us a car-light family: one vehicle (hybrid), four people, short commutes, kids' school is nearby, low vehicle mileage each year. Lizbon's post was not really about oil or cars, but instead about brutish American-style capitalism, which translated in my ride-cleansed mind into visions of power. I read a quote this week in an article in the Atlantic about anti-vaxxers which took on a broader and deeper meaning for me, a comfortable white middle class American Christian male: 

My major did have the word "science" in it, but my profession is in technology, which, considering the rest, feels like my situation fits the quote well. I am the hegemon. When I forget and think, "Oh, I'm just the embattled [whatever], constantly under fire," it's like yeah, it's understandable that you're being harassed, but it's because you have so much authority and power. Another vision of power.

Mid-ride tonight, I hit the middle section, through one of the wealthiest sections of town. Sunday night and the wide street with its enormous bike lane was utterly quiet. A car turned onto the street far ahead, approaching me, and the driver flashed their lights at me, quick, and seemingly friendly. I waved back in exaggerated greeting, and they flashed back twice as they drove by the other direction, far across in other lane. That was a vision of power, too, one that I can't quite put a finger on, except to say that it whispered of hope and compassion. Did I read too much into it? Perhaps. But riding into the night, with that cool clear feeling behind my eyes, visions of power in that form plant and grow into something splendid, and bright. Not for now. Not for here. I know what traffic will be like in the morning. But, somewhere, sometime. It's possible, that vision of power.

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