My Bicycling Origin Story

Athena hurling the Javelin

I’m about to hit my 5,000th bike mile for 2020, and I’m buying yet another new-to-me used obscure recumbent, a rare Easy Racers Ti Javelin. A friend in an online chatroom today asked,

Have you always been this into cycling? Or is it something you developed as an adult?

Always somewhat, but this year I’m doing it way more. I have the pandemic to thank. No travel, and I’m not spending money on anything else really, so why not. Most of my socializing is happening on rides with friends; it’s outdoors, safely distanced, yet intimate because you get to know people through conversation and a little shared adventure.

Tell us your cycling origin story!!! How did you get to be so into it!

Like most kids in the 70’s, I was raised to ride bikes; that’s how kids got around back then, before parents drove them everywhere. Started with the typical banana seat kiddie bike, moved up to a Raleigh 3-speed. Lived adjacent to a college campus where biking was the way people got around. Even my Dad biked to work. Now everybody drives on campus, it’s horrible.

When I turned 18 or so I got my first grown-up bike with drop handlebars, what we then called a “ten speed”. It was a Ross. I moved with it to Santa Cruz, CA, in 1987, where I biked to get around. I always disliked cars and fought with my Dad over driving. He said I would “have to”; I said I wouldn’t until solar cars were available. I got my driver’s license and everything, but refused to own a car, and I really hated driving in California, because of the hills and the fact that my friends drove stick shifts I couldn’t manage. So I just stopped driving altogether.

I rode that Ross all around Santa Cruz, building up my leg muscles to get up the hills. In 1991, I moved to San Francisco and got a Univega hybrid. I noticed how rapidly consumer bikes were improving, going down in cost and up in quality. I biked a lot in San Francisco. Then my bike got stolen off Valencia Street in broad daylight. Thieves froze and smashed the urban U-lock. Actually that might have been the Ross that got stolen, maybe I replaced it with the Univega. I painted that (replacement?) Univega with dots of nail polish all over, to make it look distinctive and therefore less appealing to thieves. It never got stolen, but I didn’t ride it long, because in 1999 I discovered Brompton folding bikes while living in Europe.

I got my first Brompton on a trip to the Netherlands in 1999, and took it on trains all over the place the Summer I was based in Veyrier, Switzerland (near Geneva). The Brompton came with me back to San Francisco and became my primary bike. I never had to lock it outside; I folded it up and took it indoors with me, even to go shopping.

When I moved to NYC in 2002, the Brompton came with me, and it was perfect for that city. Bromptons were still obscure in the US back then, but now they’re very popular. NYC has at least 2 Brompton dealers now. I upgraded to a newer Brompton in 2011, and when I moved back to Urbana, IL in 2012, continued to ride it.

In 2013 or 2014 a friend of my Momz’s offered her fancy carbon road bike in trade for an art quilt. It was my first ever high end road bike, so light I could lift it with one hand. I started doing longer rides, which for me then meant up to 30 miles. I bruised my nether regions on that thing, actual bruises along my vulva. I also contended with back and hand pain. Looking at my hands vibrating on the handlebars, I despaired I would have to give up cycling to protect my “money makers.”

Then I discovered recumbents.

A friend had a Rans Rocket he let me try. It took me about half an hour of scooting around with my feet before I could even pedal it. Like learning to ride a bike all over again. But I knew if I could master a ‘bent, I could ride without endangering my precious aging hands.

I rode that Rans Rocket on a local “Moonlight Bike Drive,” a big group ride that went every month from Urbana to rural Sidney, IL, for ice cream and a return ride after dark, about 25 miles round trip from my home. At the ice cream break another rider talked to me about recumbents, and asked if I’d ever ridden a Tour Easy. I hadn’t; I figured my sense of balance was good enough I should be on racier models. He gave me his contact info anyway. He had a Tour Easy I could borrow, he said. On the way back, with a failing headlight, I fell while starting from a stop, and skinned my elbow.

Turns out the Rans Rocket is a notoriously “squirrelly” bike, and the Tour Easy is at least as fast. I emailed Dennis and borrowed his Tour Easy and half a year later he sold it to me when he moved away from town. By then I’d bought some other recumbents via the internet, which is really the only way I could try them as there are no dealers here. I had a Performer Toscana and a HPVelotechnik Grasshopper. But that Tour Easy was a lot better for me. I eventually sold my other ‘bents and became the Easy Racers (maker of the Tour Easy) connoisseur I am today. I took longer and longer rides, both because I was so comfortable and feeling no pain, and because spending all that money and time on bikes incentivized me.

Somewhere around then I got my velomobile, Frosty, which was also a game-changer, because now I could ride in colder weather.

So that’s how I became the total obsessive you see before you today. The End.

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Witnessing a Miracle

The COVID-19 pandemic is a miracle.

I mean this in the biblical sense. Biblical miracles are horrific, bringing death and destruction. The Ten Plagues of Exodus were miracles, or at least “wonders.” The miracles of Revelation are even worse.

A miracle isn’t a fluffybunny event. It is an act of God.

The COVID pandemic is a power greater than ourselves. We can’t stop it; we understand very little about it. It brings us to our knees.

I am in awe of it. I have watched humanity killing the planet my whole life, with obvious warnings of dire consequences. But this Spring’s COVID shutdowns were the first time I saw humanity do anything about it. It was short-lived, but amazing: flights grounded, industry slowed, pollution abated enough to reveal long-hidden mountains for the first time in years.

All of that ended after only a few months. Nothing to see here, folks; go back to paying attention to MONEY. And so contrails again fill the skies, mountains retreat back into smoggy shrouds, and the gears of commerce grind away.

Biblical miracles are famously unheeded, which is why it took all Ten Plagues for Pharaoh to relent. God makes clear commandments; humans don’t follow them. This is the whole story of the Old Testament. Even after occupying the Promised Land, the Hebrews can’t get their shit together, and Jerusalem falls over and over again. The New Testament is no better, especially the ending.

The COVID-19 virus makes its demands pretty clear: Avoid crowds. Stop industrial slaughterhouses and factory farming. Don’t go to (non-essential) work. Spend time with your children; actually raise them. Stay home from school. Stay home, but go outside; look at the sky, feel the sun, breathe the fresh air. Attend to Reality over money. Don’t go to bars, don’t party, don’t crowd into spectacles like sportsball. Calm the fuck down. Take a goddamn break from your hyper-consumer lifestyle.

We still need food and shelter and medicine, the sustenance and maintenance of our lives, and the virus doesn’t seem to have anything against these. The virus clarifies what is essential and non-essential. It turns out much of human activity isn’t essential. We already knew that; the virus urges us to stop denying it.

The pandemic makes another biblical suggestion: a Jubilee cancellation of debt. We can’t stop the gears of commerce, we argue, because we’re all in debt – if we don’t earn money, we will die! Our society won’t forgive debts, but what if we simply froze them, until a vaccine or cure is found? A year (or however long it takes) out of commercial time. Don’t end, but suspend the non-essential economy. All debts, for everyone, everywhere, frozen*. A global time-out. That would be a miracle.

I don’t believe in the biblical god. But I do believe in Nature, and natural consequences. The coronavirus is just one of many disastrous and inevitable natural consequences of human activity. Animal agriculture and overpopulation and global industrialization will do this; it’s a wonder it’s taken so long. It’s also a wonder how gentle the virus is, all things considered. It could have been more like ebola, with a much higher death rate. Plagues of the past have been far deadlier. The Black Death killed 50% of some European regions. We are getting off lightly here.

My response to this miracle is awe. Others respond with denial, or panic, or exploitation. So it has been written; so it ever was, and ever will be. I have long felt like I’m living in a dystopian novel, but right now I also feel like I’m living in a biblical prophecy. What a wonder, to witness these times!

*What about money to run the essential services? Our economic system accumulates vast reservoirs of money in billionaires. If these reservoirs can’t be used, then what exactly is this system for?

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“What is the difference between virtue signaling and actually believing in something and wanting to spread the word about it?”

Last week, on various social media, I shared this brief thought:

I’m starting to find virtue signaling frightening, rather than just annoying, because virtue signalers are the same people who cancel (ie lie, denounce, and attack). Virtue signaling and cancel culture are two sides of the same increasingly troubling coin.

This led someone on fecebook to ask:

“What is the difference between virtue signalling and actually believing in something and wanting to spread the word about it? Asking seriously. I have only seen virtue signalling used as a phrase by Republicans who don’t believe in the cause being promoted.”

To which I replied:

That’s a great question! I am not a Republican, and I actually agree with the messages being used right now to signal tribal loyalty. Like a religious behavior – “praise Jesus!” – one can only ask oneself what one’s motives are.

The signaling happening at the moment has many layers. Yes, the messages are good. It’s also a “safe” time to share them. Suddenly it has become very important for white people to express their concern for black lives, when in fact we’ve been aware of police brutality for years or decades. It would have been much riskier to share these messages 60 years ago, but we weren’t alive then. (Funny, then, that expressing righteousness at that time was quite different, even though we are not inherently superior to our forebears.) It was not risky, say, last year, yet far fewer were doing that then, because there wasn’t a “movement” directing our attention.

It’s pretty clear that there are social rewards for white liberals to share BLM messages at the moment, and, increasingly, social punishments for not (“silence is violence!”), and most of us want to feel safe, so we know what to do. Even asking questions can get you publicly denounced right now. I do not expect people to deeply examine their motives, but I do examine mine, and when even a message I agree with is mixed with so much threat and reward, I pause. All mobs feel righteous. I am extremely wary of mobs and sensitive to mob behavior, and do not want to be part of them.

Another layer is White Guilt, which Shelby Steele wrote very eloquently about 20 years ago. White liberals are hungry to discharge guilt, and ironically use black people, and what should be a black liberation movement for black people, to do it. This isn’t all bad; white people can be useful to this movement, but the white liberal hunger is there, and it’s ruthless, and it causes problems. All we can do is examine our motives.

The social rewards for virtue signaling, and threats for not, come from other white people. White people use black people and a black movement to signal to other white people, and maintain or raise our status in white society. I have some black friends, but most of my social contacts are white. Like any good white liberal, I have anxiety about this. If only I could fix my society’s history of segregation by racially integrating my social life more! Like any good white liberal, I tried harder when I was younger, only to discover that most (healthy) black people don’t particularly like being used by white people this way, and that white hunger to discharge guilt is not a solid base for friendship.

But don’t we want to be “ALLIES”?? The best allies are like that asshole at your dinner party who tries to be “helpful” by getting in your way in the kitchen. (The worst allies are far worse.) I used to be a liberal feminist who thought we needed male “allies” to liberate women. Now I understand that women’s liberation is for and by women, and any man claiming to be a “feminist” is usually a misogynist using women to manage his male guilt. From the outside, it looks to me like a surplus of white “allies” has the same corrosive effect on any movement for black liberation, which should be for and by black people. Like that performative “helpful” dinner guest in your kitchen, like men claiming to be feminists, white liberals who want to help black liberation should just get out of the way.

Any involvement I have in black liberation is only going to come at the request of black people – specifically black women, specifically black radical feminists, whose narratives about current events differ from the mainstream and “alternative” media’s. Unsurprisingly, no one has asked me yet. I’m here if they do, but meanwhile my white guilt is my problem to deal with, not theirs.

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The Human Threat

I’m one of those self-unemployed introverts who is adjusting quite well to our pandemic lockdown. I feel especially peaceful because forced quarantine has temporarily quieted many of the garden-variety “alpha” humans, the ones who thrive on dominating others. They have to stay at home too, and haven’t been able to conduct their usual bullying and stirring up trouble. Under “normal” circumstances, they have power over other people, and the other people just aren’t available to lord it over right now.

But that will end. I don’t dread getting sick as much as I dread what the alphas will start doing. Of the lockdown, they warn us, “this is not sustainable!” and “people will start going crazy!” I know they are right. At least half of Americans are expected to get COVID-19 before a vaccine is available (if one ever is) so I’ve made my uneasy peace with that. But human beings have always hurt me more than any disease. Humans have always been the biggest danger to humans. I appreciate that, in this brief moment, the human threat is made visible, and keeping distance is the rule of the day. I sense on the horizon the impending doom of our newfound boundaries being violated by angry, entitled, self-righteous alphas.

They are already abusing whoever is unlucky enough to be quarantined with them. Wife-battering and child abuse is on the rise. (I am immensely grateful I live only with my Momz, an excellent woman of 78.) Their rage and sense of impotence is building, and soon more will leave the confines of their homes to violate others. Then all the “nice” alphas will up their social policing, virtue-signaling, tribe-forming, scapegoating, and witch-hunting in response. The COVID-19 coronavirus is “novel,” but human behavior is not. I have enjoyed my little respite from it.

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Answers from a Pandemic

100 years without a pandemic has made us stupid. It’s made me stupid, anyway.

So many questions about human nature that puzzled me, I now see answered. Why are we so tribal? Why does language change so quickly? Why are we so xenophobic – so fearful of people who look different from us even slightly?

Answer: communicable diseases.

The Andaman Islanders  had the right idea. They may or may not have known the missionary attempting to evangelize them was full of contagions that could kill them; but they had instincts, and culture, that protected them from infection.

Doesn’t it make sense, evolutionarily, that groups survived that shut out/fought off/killed outsiders? Doesn’t it make sense that language would fracture rapidly, to make ingroups and outgroups develop quickly? The fracturing of humanity protects it from diseases. “Civilization” doesn’t like that, but biology does. And our innate cultural instincts (like language) assisted us biologically.

Deadly communicable diseases are a part of life we’ve been alienated from in the 20th and 21st centuries. Antibiotics especially have transformed the world, allowing human population to explode, and also permitting factory farming on a grotesque scale. We know that antibiotics have a limited life that is ending soon, and our current viral pandemic is just a tiny taste of what’s to come once bacterial diseases return in force. But for over 100 years, we’ve merrily reproduced and exploited without the natural constraint of disease that was a former bedrock of biological reality.

Xenophobia is maladaptive for global civilization, but it’s perfectly adapted for keeping tribal cells of humans hygienically sealed off from each other. “Racism” is only a thing in Civilization, in which humans enslave each other for commerce and power. Without slavery and exploitation, there’s no racism, because there’s nothing pushing diverse groups of humans on top of each other. There’s only “others,” the in-group and the out-groups. The xenophobic aspects of human nature seem appalling in Civilization, but must have worked very well in prehistoric tribal life. Groups were no larger than 150 humans, and most much smaller than that, each with their own dialects, and similar physical traits.

Of course humans would mate outside the tribe, to prevent inbreeding, so curiosity about the “exotic” is another adaptive trait. The exotic is SEXY. Sexy, exploitable, and sadly aiding and abetting racism when repurposed in Civilization. But my understanding is that tribes had very rigid protocols governing permeation through inter-tribal breeding. They were not cosmopolitan. From a biological standpoint, cosmopolitanism = death. But Civilization loves cosmopolitanism: diversity means more markets and an extension of power. Open borders are a boon for global capitalism, but tribal intermarriages were anything but that.

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In Defense of Books

A year or two ago my friend Brewster Kahle told me he had been asking people, “when is the last time you read a book? Cover to cover?” Predictably, the answers were discouraging. In the age of the Internet, people still talk about books, praise books, and condemn books; but actually reading books is rare.

When I first heard of feminist author Andrea Dworkin, in the early 1990’s, I was told she said all heterosexual sex is rape. In popular discourse, “het sex is rape” was considered the gist of her work.

Well, I could easily form an opinion about that, and I did. Of course all heterosexual sex isn’t rape! What a dumb idea. I didn’t have to read any books to know that! So I didn’t.

It was a few decades before I finally read Dworkin’s Intercourse. I had been seeing endless condemnations of “TERF”s – “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” – online, and was constantly admonished to “educate myself” because I had asserted that transwomen are male. Since I had spent my 20’s and 30’s immersed in San Francisco Sex-Positive and Kink and LGBT culture, and therefore had known many transwomen (including a few lovers), I wondered where my education was lacking. I was well versed in Queer Theory, but I realized then I had never actually read one of these “radical feminists.”

And so I learned Dworkin never wrote “all heterosexual intercourse is rape.” Her thoughts about sex were a lot more nuanced. I was surprised by how passionately and sensitively she wrote about it; clearly she was heterosexual, in spite of (or along with) declaring herself a Political Lesbian in her activist years. I was also persuaded by many of her other radical feminist ideas. Dworkin had been unfairly maligned, and because I fell for it, I had missed out.

****

I am part of the moderation team of Spinster, a woman-centered, radical-feminist-leaning social media platform founded half a year ago, in August 2019. A few weeks after our small team had formed, one of the moderators started denouncing Lesbian Feminist author Sheila Jeffreys, and publicly wishing her harm. She explained it was because Jeffreys advocated Political Lesbianism. A young lesbian, this mod considered Political Lesbianism lesbophobic, homophobic, and dangerous. As far as she was concerned, Jeffreys said sexual orientation is a choice, making her no different from fundamentalist Christians and conversion therapy advocates.

Well, I could easily form an opinion about that, and I did. Of course sexual orientation isn’t a choice! What a dumb idea. I didn’t have to read any books to know that!

Over the next couple days, the young moderator accused Spinster’s founders, other mods, and many of its members of “lesbophobia.” If one doesn’t vocally condemn Jeffreys and Political Lesbianism, the logic went, one supports it, and therefore hates lesbians. She was joined by others, and a rift formed, with some Spinster users canceling their accounts in protest.

Time has taught me to be skeptical of the condemnation of authors and their ideas, so it was only a few weeks before I read Jeffrey’s The Lesbian Heresy. Just as Dworkin never said all het sex is rape, Jeffreys never said sexual orientation is a choice. I was especially surprised – and moved – that so much of The Lesbian Heresy was about the very same Sex-Positive and Kink and LGBT worlds I had been immersed in in my youth. Jeffreys helped me piece together events of the 1980’s and 90’s I had never connected; connections that help explain the condemnation of Andrea Dworkin, the replacement of Radical Feminism with Liberal Feminism, the academic acceptance and promotion of porn, and the near extinction of Lesbian Feminism.

That left me with a different understanding of Political Lesbianism and the movement from whence it arose, Lesbian Feminism. I could not in good faith condemn it. I recommended The Lesbian Heresy on Spinster, where arguments about Political Lesbianism rage on. As far as I know, no one condemning it has actually read The Lesbian Heresy; and by the logic of Social Media, or social groups in general, they don’t have to, because the issue has already been summarized for them as Political Lesbianism = Sexual Orientation Is A Choice = Homophobia.

The fact that I had read and was recommending a book angered some women even more. “Oh she read a book and now she’s straightsplaining lesbianism to lesbians!” I was surprised to be resented for reading, and wanting to discuss, a Lesbian Feminist book. I am surprised that Sheila Jeffreys, as lesbian as any lesbian who ever lesbianed, and an excellent writer to boot, is so maligned by women who haven’t actually read her words.

I am open to nuanced arguments, but those don’t happen on social media. Everything gets distilled into soundbites, phrases like “born that way” and “trans women are women!” These thought-terminating memes are effective political cudgels, but anathema to understanding reality. Good books are the opposite.

There are also bad books. I recently read one called The 57 Bus, which resembles an extended Tumblr. But even it was more nuanced than online discourse. I read it for a nonfiction book group I’m part of. I found it agonizingly sexist, and it made me angry; I read it anyway, because I am a grown-up and capable of reading things I disagree with. And it wasn’t completely without merit: it discusses some important issues, in spite of being spun for a target market of white Liberal virtue-signalers. Reading the whole book allowed me to make reasoned arguments, and better understand the intellectual pablum that is the main diet of schools right now.

Some books are overlong. Some books contain important information, but are poorly written. We can’t read everything, certainly not every book that is recommended to us.

But perhaps we can acknowledge that Internet memes, denunciations, and simple summaries of entire books might be missing a world of nuance.

I recently recommended Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth to a couple vegan friends, because they told me they’d never heard even one reasonable argument in favor of carnivorism. I personally don’t eat birds or mammals, and I very much appreciate vegans, and I don’t want to convert anyone; but The Vegetarian Myth makes compelling arguments, and expanded my ideas about eating, life, death, and my own motivations for eschewing meat. (The book had no effect on my dietary choices, proving that it is possible to appreciate arguments without capitulating to them.) Still, my friends refuse to read it because they are certain they already have already heard anything it could contain, plus they read a Wikipedia summary which was easy to condemn. They told me they won’t read the book, but invited me to sum it up for them in a sentence or two. I said I’d try.

But I can’t. The reason good books exist is some things can’t be summed up in a sentence. Or even a paragraph. Or even an entire blog post. 

I used to pride myself on being able to distill complex ideas into simple one-liners, an essential skill for a cartoonist. Refining messages into easily digestible memes is a crucial tool of propaganda and advertising, and I’ve employed my talents in many an ideological battle. Increasingly, though, I don’t want to do battle. I just want to have a conversation. I am lonely, I am tired, and I want to discuss the world, not argue you into compliance, or dazzle you with my clever memes.

Eh, I’m gonna go read a book.

 

 

 

 

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