Monthly Archives: April 2012

Catching my breath

Peas=pollen

It is allergy season and I have spent the last week exhausted. Single parenting, even with just one kid, means early mornings and late nights. Part of the reason I have felt so unwilling to go anywhere, I realized, is that I was constantly short of breath. It was unnerving. On the bike, feeling unable to breathe made even level streets feel impossible.

A little shortness of breath is a small price to pay for all of this

I have been here before so unlike the first time, I knew it would get better eventually. When I first found myself gasping for air in a California spring, I thought I might be dying, perhaps from a giant tumor on my lungs. That is because I was a hypochondriac. Longer term residents assured me it was spring pollen coupled with the lack of sleep inherent in having a newborn. That’s less exciting but turned out to be: true.

So when Matt got back on Saturday afternoon my goal was to catch up on sleep and in general take it easy. Neither of us wanted to drive anywhere, and Matt was tired of all forms of travel. However we needed to cook enough to make it through a week (we cook on weekends) and I hadn’t shopped for four people in two weeks.

How to park a balance bike

As a result, on Saturday I decided to ride my bike around to various neighborhood bodegas. I do most of our shopping at the grocery stores near work so I sometimes forget the quirkiness of the neighborhood joints. There is the place a block from home that sells outstanding coffee and top-shelf liquor, and another two a block downhill. One of the downhill shops is a dirty and odd-smelling market that has outrageously good prices on pretty much everything, including organic produce, if you don’t mind groceries pretty near their sell-by date. But unbeatable value! Across the street is a wildly expensive natural foods pocket, which ably serves the coconut water and primal snack bar needs of the neighborhood. None of them had what I wanted, so I rode down to the Haight Street Market a mile away. I had never been there before because it’s too far to walk and unbearable to drive—Haight Street is always packed with pedestrians, some sitting on stoops testing out the wares of the multiple head shops, and traffic backs up for blocks. But on a bike, there’s no problem. I parked right in front of the store (which is fantastic, I will return) and slipped easily through the crowds on the way home. I am always reminded on the weekends, when we slip out of our normal routine, how liberating it is to ride a bike in the city. Traffic jams and parking, which formerly frustrated us on a daily basis, become other people’s problems.

On the way to the races

Then on Sunday we walked around the corner to our neighbors’ block party. The neighbors on this street are cooler than the rest of us, and arrange to close off the street once a year. Then they drag out chairs, toys, and grills from their garages and backyards, throw them all into the middle of the street, and start making and handing out food, playing music, and running big wheel, scooter and balance bike races down the hill. My son’s martial arts studio does a show and the local fire station drives over and lets the kids climb on board the trucks. It is fantastic. It was pretty lame to get a bike ride by riding my bike literally around the corner to the block party, but I redeemed myself by running a quick errand a half-mile away partway through the afternoon.

Complete street

On Saturday morning I was still gasping for air most of the time. But by Sunday evening I was only slightly out of breath. Things are getting better.

Breaking boards!

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, family biking, San Francisco

Running out of steam

Maybe I need a new hobby. Bike polo?

I don’t usually ride my bike every single day. That is, until this month, when I signed up for 30 days of biking. Commuting by bike is brilliant, as is running errands, but on the weekends we have usually just hoofed it around the neighborhood, unless we’re headed out of town. Today I talked to a neighbor, also a bike commuter, who said the same thing. There are compromises to be made when you live in San Francisco, but a huge advantage is being able to wind down on the weekends by going almost everywhere on foot.

So 30 days of biking is starting to wear on me toward the end of April. 6 out of 7 days on the bike seems reasonable and almost effortless. 7 out of 7 days on the bike has been a challenge. And it’s been a tough month in other ways—flooded basement, multiple tedious end-of-the-school-year committee meetings, and a conference out of town. Mentally, I want to stick a fork in 30 days of biking already. Today my daughter and I rode to pick up our CSA box and Chinese takeout. It would have been almost unbearable to make this trip by car (no parking, ugly traffic) and unpleasant on foot (exhausting, time-consuming) but mostly I just didn’t want to leave the house at all.

Part of the problem may be the advent of pollen season, which makes difficult to breathe even lying still in bed. It’s either that or I’m coming down with the killer flu that’s felled half my office and my son’s elementary school. Maybe getting an electric assist would take some of this edge off, because it’s the hills that are really killing me lately. Either way, at this point I think I might celebrate May 1st by taking the shuttle to work and back.

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San Francisco Parks and Recreation Eggstravaganza

My son's handmade Easter bag

Recently our son decided that Jewish holidays were depressing relative to Christian ones. On Passover you stop eating bread and on Yom Kippur you stop eating altogether. Whereas on Christmas you get presents and on Easter you get candy. Even Matt’s efforts to promote Hanukkah and Purim did not impress him, as he is not a fan of fried food or Hamentaschen. The Jewish tradition was starting to come off like the enemy of fun.

Technically we are an interfaith family (I come from a long line of Protestants). We usually have a Christmas tree but have never done anything for Easter. What can I say? We may be interfaith but our true religion is laziness. Before we had kids we exchanged unwrapped chocolate bars and went hiking for Christmas (still do!) At any rate, our son was ready to renounce his faith after contemplating Passover v. Easter this year. He wanted candy and he wanted to go on an egg hunt. The things kids learn at school! And one-third of his class is Jewish, too, although our son is the only Caucasian one, and that was a weird discovery at Rosh Hashanah last year, as each of these kids had been assuming they were the only representatives of the faith. I digress. Our son insisted he didn’t want to be Jewish anymore if he couldn’t celebrate Easter. We decided to play the interfaith card and start celebrating Easter.

Free parking!

Fortunately for us, we had all noticed the signs advertising the SF Parks and Rec Eggstravaganza the day before Easter in Sharon Meadow, next to the Children’s Quarter. As a bonus, like virtually all events in Golden Gate Park, it would have free valet bicycle parking. Our kids were over the moon with excitement at the prospect of going egg-hunting in the park. I was pleased I wouldn’t have to figure out something at home—we have no yard, so an egg hunt would have been challenging. And we wouldn’t have to drive anywhere or walk to the park (which would definitely imply carrying our kids up the hill) or worry about finding bike parking. Although I hate crowds I have found I’m willing to attempt a lot of events I wouldn’t otherwise consider if there is a bike valet.

Making Easter bags for the egg hunt

Much of the Eggstravaganza was not really our kind of thing. It was obscenely crowded, featured terrible food (stale popcorn and “nachos” with neon orange cheese sauce), politically incorrect rides (the ghastly “Hillbilly”), a petting zoo filled with terrorized rabbits and goats, and long, long lines for all of these things. But there were also less crowded craft booths for making hats and Easter bags, egg hunts with almost no lines, play areas with dancing, and napping tents. After the first 30 minutes we realized we could stick to the fun stuff—making things, dancing, and hunting for eggs. The kids were absolutely delighted. The egg hunt was a huge hit. You would have thought those cheap plastic eggs had been laid by unicorns.

My daughter's handmade Easter bag

Also we were two of only six bikes at the bike valet, in a crowd of thousands. The valets had started parking kids’ scooters by the time we left just to have something to do. Our choice to ride our bikes did at least draw envious comments from people saying that they should have done that, probably because parking for cars was beyond nightmarish. I realized that the bike valet had not been well-advertised, as most people who talked with us had not realized it was there.

When we got home I made our kids a morning Easter surprise using little green plastic strawberry baskets, some paper grass we’d picked up at the Eggstravaganza, a bag of peanut butter M&Ms chosen for their vaguely eggy shapes, and lavender Peeps. To my shock, they actually ate the Peeps. And they declared it the best Easter ever. Clearly we have kept their expectations low.

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Filed under family biking, rides, San Francisco

#virtualfamilybikegangride

Park panda

Saturday was the #virtualfamilybikegangride. Thanks for the inspiration, cargo biking families! I had a complicated morning, because I had to give a talk on campus just after Matt and my son left for a week in Boston. This violated one of my parenting principles, which is Do Not Work On Weekends (Especially When Your Spouse Is Out Of Town And You Must Pay A Sitter), but it made my department chair and my dean happy, and this is worth something too, given that I am currently up for review. And I was home in time to make lunch and attempt to get my daughter down for a nap. No nap, unfortunately, but the effort meant we got a late start.

"I say 'Cheese!' and 'Shy cookie!'"

For a change of pace, we took the Kona MinUte, now that my daughter is old enough to ride on the deck safely. At my kids’ current ages (3 and 6.5) the medium-tail really shines, as it can carry either or both of them without any need to attach a child seat. There are things I would change about that bike (e.g. compatibility with bus rack, better brakes, more stable kickstand, chain guard, dynamo lights, front basket—and even making the possible changes would run a tab higher than the list price of the bike), but it is very easy to use for multiple purposes, and that alone makes it probably our best ride almost all of the time.

Bikes and helmets locked; let's play!

My daughter wanted to go to the park, and was thrilled at the chance to ride Daddy’s bike. We headed to the Koret Children’s Quarter at Golden Gate Park, a quick downhill from home. I am always amazed to find ample bike parking there, as it is packed with both people and bikes, but I think that most people must be unaware of the racks under the Sharon Building, or just like to keep their bikes on the playground itself. Also there are mostly kids’ bikes on the playground, which suggests that a lot of people are driving with the bikes in the car.

Happy happy.

The weather was unbelievable for San Francisco, sunny and warm, verging on hot. And I was struck once again as we arrived at how effortless it is to travel this city by bicycle, assuming you’re not facing a hill. We rode past dozens of cars circling for parking or stopped, complete with fuming drivers, hopped off, locked up the bike and helmets, and went to play. No waiting, and easy. And for the first time all day, even as I watched my daughter express her lust for danger by climbing up various ladders and ropes, hanging off monkey bars, jumping off decks and barreling down giant slides, I felt relaxed.

Delighted to get a second ride.

After some time on the playground we headed to the carrousel, and as we are regulars there, even got a free second ride on request. (Nothing will ever top the day, years ago, that we were the first and only family to arrive one morning and the operator ran the carrousel for my son for almost 20 minutes nonstop, blasting Tom Waits rather than the usual Julius Fucik. But my daughter, who was as yet unborn on that occasion, was delighted just the same.)

Slowing down at the Academy

I wasn’t sure where to go next, except that we should ride somewhere, and after some consideration (and probably because it was getting seriously hot by San Francisco standards) my daughter decided on the California Academy of Sciences. We visited the Rainforest (a poor choice given it was even hotter than the outdoors), went to the aquarium to see colored jellyfish (“Medusas!” yelled one little girl) and even saw a pregnant daddy seahorse, which was hanging out in the seadragon tank, presumably as encouragement. Although it was getting toward dinner time, we stopped at the café for a pink jellyfish cookie, then headed home.

My goal while Matt is away is usually just to keep the kids occupied enough that they don’t obsess about his absence. With our son away as well I was concerned that our daughter would be more lonely than usual, but she was cheerful all day long. As sometimes happens, I screwed up at bedtime. But when I went in later to check on her, she forgave me, as she always does.

"I love you and you love me," my daughter says. "We love each other." Yes, we do.

For most of the rest of 30 days of biking, I will be either commuting or riding with my daughter. When I have time alone with her, I am always struck with amazement that we have this brave and strong little girl, who lights up our lives like a second sun. I couldn’t ask for better company.

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Filed under cargo, family biking, Kona, rides, San Francisco, traffic

420

Oh yes. One of this kind of day.

On Friday, April 20th, I had one of those driving days. I had to be at one meeting in the morning and another across town in the afternoon, and the combination of tight timing, high dress standards, and steep hills made riding a bike implausible. The second meeting was the campus sustainability awards committee. Because I was driving for the first time in two weeks to attend a sustainability award meeting, I figured I would win the irony award. Despite that things were going reasonably well at first.

I had planned to pick up my son early from school after my last meeting, because he and Matt were heading to Boston for a week to visit an uncle’s new memorial, and I wanted to spend some time with him before he left. But then I got an emergency call that my in-laws, who were supposed to pick up our daughter at preschool, were nowhere to be found. And it was an early pickup day, and preschool was closing. I was across town and had no transportation but the car. This was a situation I would come to regret.

Golden Gate Park looks so innocent from campus

So I started to drive back across town to pick her up, with the clock ticking and fees for late pickup piling up. Traffic was unbearable, even for San Francisco. By the time I reached Golden Gate Park, I realized the problem: I was trying to drive across Golden Gate Park at 4:20pm on 4/20. A haze of marijuana smoke lay over the park like thick fog. I didn’t reach preschool until a half-hour later. I have not yet had the courage to ask how much a pickup that late will cost us.

Matt picked up our son, late, and they rode his bike through the park. He said that even that was significantly slower than usual, as walking stoners kept darting into the road and driving stoners with out-of-state plates kept circling randomly looking for parking, which was nowhere to be found for miles in any direction. They seemed confused to make this discovery.

Getting closer to the front of the line

My son, when I asked if there was anything I could do to make up our lost afternoon, requested a quesadilla from the Mexican restaurant. His favorite Mexican is a block from the park. Sigh. I rode my bike down through the traffic, which was stopped dead in every direction. It was a bad day to drive for anyone. I waited behind 100 stoners in line at the Mexican restaurant for 30 minutes, which was a trial. Their conversations alone, if you could call them that, were numbing. They had trouble organizing their orders. At least it was a quick ride home. That’s 20 days of biking now.

We had a similar experience last year, and the year before, on 4/20. I think given that we live so close to the park, I will have to black out that date on my calendar. Next year maybe we’ll rent a car and drive to Danville for the day.

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Bellingham destinations: Kulshan Cycles

Surprise! We visited a bike shop in Bellingham! Unbelievable, right?

There are places in Bellingham that I recognize and places I don’t. It’s been about 20 years since I lived there, and like anywhere else it changes. From my jaded urban perspective many of these changes are improvements; it is possible, for example, to get a decent meal in a restaurant, if you aim squarely at the paper-napkin-but-the-heavy-kind level. With this target firmly in mind we headed one evening to a brewpub. We were not the only people who had this idea, it turned out, and the place was packed; even if the only patrons had been riders of the bicycles parked in front, they wouldn’t have been able to seat us. So they gave us a beeper and told us we could go anywhere within four blocks for the next hour. We took the kids outside because they were being raucous. It was the best decision we could have made, because a block away was Kulshan Cycles.

This is only 1/3 of the store.

Kulshan Cycles was a store that I did recognize. It turns out they’ve been in business in the same location for 37 years, longer than my family has lived in Bellingham. I had a vague memory of going in once before, but whatever I remember pales in comparison to reality. It was in some ways the strangest bike shop I’ve ever visited.

A display like this is always a good sign.

In San Francisco, bike shops specialize. There is a shop that sells only folding bikes, and a shop that only  does repairs, a couple that sell only electric bikes, and about a bazillion that specialize in either mountain bikes or fixies. Bellingham is not big enough to have specialty bike stores. Instead, it has Kulshan, which does absolutely everything. I know just enough about bikes now that I was blown away by the diversity.

We had to drag them off these bikes, literally.

My kids ran to the kids’ bike section. The display bikes in various sizes made the only practical use of training wheels I’ve ever seen—the store had attached them to boards so that kids could use them like stationary bikes. Mine spun on those bikes for about 40 minutes, and it was very easy to see which bike fit each kid. In the meantime I walked around their enormous store, increasingly impressed.

This Brompton featured my high school colors. Nice touch.

They sell Bromptons, and had a display Brompton that I could practice folding and unfolding. And speaking of the UK, they sell Pashleys, which I had only ever heard of before, as heavy 3-speed English bicycles are about as practical as Hummers in San Francisco. They’re not very practical in Bellingham either, which is hilly, but they had one just in case.

Well hello there.

They sell mountain bikes. They sell commuter bikes, and nice ones at that. And they sell many cargo bikes! An orange Batavus Personal Delivery, which I knew listed at over $1000 (later I checked: list is $1300) was on sale for $750! It’s also not a good climber, which perhaps explains the screaming deal. But if you are in the market for a Bat, I’m guessing that even with shipping it would be tough to beat this price. They had a Trek Transport, which I’d never seen in person before. They had nearly every Surly under the sun in stock, but had recently sold their Big Dummy.

Pretty commuter bikes

At this point I had started talking to the guys on the floor. One of them told me he had built his own Xtracycle-type bike the year before the FreeRadical came out, and had put a child seat for his son on it. Then he showed me the child seats they sold; a rack-mounted seat even cheaper than the Topeak (which I now think of as the finger-slicer). They stocked that particular seat because that was what had sold historically, but had ordered and installed Yepp seats for customers recently.

Unicycles: are they more or less practical than fixies? Discuss.

I told them I was blown away by the selection. “Oh, have you seen our overpriced fixies?” they laughed, pulling out a bike painted the same flat black color as cars that speed on country roads late at night with their headlights off. I know nothing about fixies except that they have no gears and that in San Francisco they are primarily ridden by people who hate children, but evidently this one was an exemplar of the genre, as it cost $3000. And this was at a bike shop willing to sell a Bat for almost half-off. In San Francisco I presume it would sell for $5000.

When I told them I was visiting from San Francisco, they asked if I had an electric assist on my cargo bike. Because it turns out that they also sell electric assists, primarily the BionX, and given the local topography, that market has been growing. They had a loaner Trek with a BionX in the back that they let customers use for a few days if they were thinking about electric bikes, and did I want to borrow it? It was very tempting, but that bike didn’t have child seats, and they’d need a day to put them on, and we didn’t have another day.

Trailers and child seats

Would they rent it to me on a future visit? They were willing to consider it. Will I be calling them to try to rent a bike the next time I’m headed to Bellingham? You bet. But if that doesn’t come through, it turns out that there are other shops that rent bikes in town: Fairhaven Bike & Ski (which is the same vintage as Kulshan, and also offers rental trailers), Jack’s Bicycles, and Fanatik, none of which I visited but all of which I will check out if necessary, because the next time we visit Bellingham, we’ll be rolling on two wheels.

My son wanted the Sumo wrestler horn. I told him he already had a horn.

In the meantime, Kulshan has unicycles. They have beach cruisers. They have Sumo bike horns. They have multiple child trailers, which make sense to use outside of major cities. They have t-shirts with bike-friendly messages in sizes down to infant. They had a balance bike displayed on a repair stand, and that made me laugh. The employees were clever and friendly and funny and happy to see kids in the store. I liked Kulshan Cycles. Not every small city has a bike shop like this, but all of them should.

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Filed under bike shops, cargo, commuting, destinations, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, travel

Life in a northern town

Back in the day, people in Bellingham lived in stumps. Totally not kidding.

Over spring break, while Matt was in China, I went to visit my mom in Bellingham, Washington, where I grew up. When I was a child, it was a pretty small place, mostly populated by bombed out Vietnam War veterans and hippies. I mean this literally. My high school geography teacher was deaf from his years in a bomber. We knew people who kept goats, and sometimes the goats lived with them inside.  We foraged for berries and clams a few blocks from our house. The town was, at the time, remote.

My kids loved finding bivalves on the beach

This has changed. It is now a destination of sorts, at least for retirees. The university has grown from a glorified teaching college to a desirable place to get an education statewide. There are restaurants without the word “shack” in their names. Parts of the city have expanded so dramatically that I get lost on the new roads leading to new developments with new schools. The beaches are lined with condos. There are people who actually commute from Bellingham to Seattle, although it is 90 minutes away by car without traffic. If some parts of the US are emptying out, other parts are filling up.

Bike racks outside a downtown restaurant

When I got older I became itinerant. Since I graduated from high school, I have never lived more than three years in one place. My mom has lived in Bellingham for 35 years.  We try to visit, but manage it only rarely. On this trip I realized that although I remembered how to get around the older parts of town, I had forgotten a lot about it. It is not an accident that this was the place I learned to ride my bike. Although it is hilly, it is a bicycle-friendly place, and then some.

Bike racks at the beach

Bicycle-friendly encompasses a lot of things. I regret that I was unable to get a picture of the most outlandish bicycle I saw, which was a tandem bicycle with a gas motor rigged in the stoker position that sounded like leaf blower, dragging a stripped trailer behind. Although I spotted (and heard and smelled) this bike three times in a single week, I missed a photo because it was always moving at about 25 mph in car traffic.  Less outlandish was the couple at my mom’s church with infant twin boys, who had commuted with them in a trailer almost since they were born. (Although trailers are a poor choice for kids in San Francisco, I would feel safe with my kids in a trailer in a small town.)

Life out of balance at the county museum

While I was in town I mostly drove, because my mom hasn’t ridden a bike in years, does not currently own a bike, and lives at the top of a hill far from public transit, which is pretty limited anyway. My mom has a Prius and after driving it for a week I decided that (a) I hate driving and (b) I hate driving a Prius, which has terrible sight lines and a weird turning radius, and made me feel even more like a road hazard than usual. And getting the kids into and out of the car was a huge hassle compared to loading a bike. Going to Seattle to visit Family Ride was a relief.

But I was pleased to see all the ways that Bellingham welcomes bikes for those who choose to ride them, and encourage people who are on the fence. There are ample bike lanes and extensive bike racks. Riding bikes is subsidized, more than in San Francisco. This would be a great place to live for a biking family. While I was there, the paper covered a local move by bicycle.

Full bike racks for a yoga class

Another example: while I was in town I took some yoga classes at a studio in town. They offered free mat rentals to anyone who arrived by bike, bus, or public transit, because “it’s harder to bring your own mat that way.” A lot of people took them up on that offer. The studio, 3 Oms, was a lovely place, although my limited time there meant I had a limited choice of classes, and ended up in some inappropriate ones. The intermediate class focusing on learning new postures I visited while my daughter was napping was learning Astavakrasana (“one of the easiest arm balance poses!”), or, in my case, not learning Astavakrasana. But this kind of support for alternative transit was not unusual; I saw it all over town.

Museum-1: nice ride

And again: when we visited the county museum, I spotted a lovely commuter bicycle by the entry desk. The woman working there told me that it was purchased by the city for employees to use for errands and lunches around town. The museum had only one, but the Department of Public Works, with more employees, had four, and so on. She said she used it frequently, and wished she could afford one of her own.

Museum-1 up close, with city seal

On closer look, I could spot the city logo. For obvious reasons, they did not bother to lock this bike up.

My kids love visiting Bellingham. This always surprises me a little, as there is not much to do, relative to the city, but they like skipping school and seeing their grandmother and picking up pinecones in the woods around her condo and occasionally going a day or two without eating any vegetables. Although in the past I’ve sometimes gotten bored during a week in Bellingham, I found I enjoyed myself too. And at the end of the week, I even found a place to rent a cargo bike with an electric assist. Next time we visit, we’ll be cruising around in style.

A variety of cargo bike choices

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