Monday, March 31, 2008

The One Time in My Entire Life

By now you've all probably lost all interest in the public furniture story, for which I don't blame you, but here it is anyway. In my next post we'll go see how the Japanese are handling this, and then take a u-turn back home for a surprising look at Trimet's latest take on it.

In my thirties I spent a year and a half in Eastern Europe, a year of it in a small remote town in Czechoslovakia. Though I was able to frequently visit Prague by way of a swift and direct three hour train ride, carting my car-less self around to the many fascinating small towns could be achieved only by snail rail. You could put in six hours and a couple of transfers getting to a town a third the distance to Prague. That, and the fact that my job teaching at a high school left me exhausted on the weekends and preferring to stay home and slouch, somewhat limited my travel to the more rural areas. Knowing I'd be grateful in retrospect, my forays out to the Czech and Slovak countrysides were accomplished only by holding a gun to my own head and forcing myself out of my apartment and down to the local train station.

On one of these trips, after having travelled already for about six hours on a train that had embarked in the dead of night to reach a destination that would've taken a couple of hours in a car, I slumped in an almost empty train car. I became overcome by the urge for a change in position and thought to rest my feet on the vacant seats opposite me -- like the average American slob on Trimet would do. I'd never seen it done in Eastern Europe, or Western Europe for that matter, and I knew it was a bad idea. But my fatigue won out.

After about 15 minutes of weighing the pros and cons, I looked carefully at the bottom of each shoe, and finding no trace of dampness, mud, or chewing gum on them, I gave in and ventured a daring dip into squalid behavior. I lifted my dogs onto the seat across from me, gingerly placing them just so, ever so careful to rest all their weight on my achilles and not let even the back edge of the soles touch the leather uphostery, just in case they might soil it.

It felt soooo good. My whole corpse sighed audibly in deep relief.

No sooner had I settled into this deliciouls infraction than the door at the back of the car wacked open and a large uniformed woman patrolling the train strode up the aisle, stopped abruptly beside me and barked, in Czech that was well within my third grader comprehension level, "FEET! OFF SEAT!" while stabbing a pointed finger first at my feet and then on the floor. My whole body jolted back into an upright position, my feet leaping off the seat like two fish off a hot skillet, and on she went, with a stomping gait that defied even the thought of veering from standard behavior.

I got to be bad for exactly nine seconds. Thanks Mom. I'm cursed for life.

Next: What Would Japan Do?


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Halftime entertainment

While you're waiting for that Eastern European furniture story, here's something to do:

Move your right foot around in a clockwise circle.

Now move your right hand to make a number six in the air.

Your foot will change directions.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Consequences of furniture worship in the family pecking order

Before I tell you this next story, you must understand that I come from a background in which slouching in the living room was seen to be bad for the furniture. I'm not kidding, my mother would see you and say "Oh DON'T slouch all over my nice sofa that way, honeyyyyyyyyy? If you want to do that, go slouch in the recreation room. That's what it's for."

The furniture in the rec room was expendable. My mother, for whom slouching wasn't a basic human need, never entered it except to peer from the doorway to demand it be cleaned up. The rec room furniture stayed behind when we'd move to the next destination, 9,000 miles away, while the living room furniture came along. Mom acquired the pieces one by one, always in terrible shape, and nursed them back to health with fine fabrics and wood polish. Sort of a Geppetto-Pinocchio relationship, only better. Each piece became one of her children -- one that never talked back, misbehaved, or refused to go to school.

Sure, there was sibling rivalry between us and the Favored Ones, but we loved them too. I developed an inner contempt, though, for the people that had more right to the living room furniture than we did. ("It's not fair, Mom, how come some stupid old Ambassador Potato-Head gets to slouch there and I can't?" stomp stomp.) Today they'd name it Acute Furniture Attachment Disorder and send you home with a pill.

Coming from that, slouching in public felt like the social equivalent of tooling around town in your bathrobe. Putting your feet up on a coffee table or another seat? It didn't dare enter my mind. Fast forward to Eastern Europe fifteen years down the road and see where my formative conditioning gets me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What I'm working on now:

The Role of Home Furniture in Childhood Development and how it shapes our relationships with furnishings in public spaces.

-an exclusive excerpt from my forthcoming book: Around the World With Eighty Tons of Crap.

(Coming soon, possibly tomorrow.)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Driving with Miss Doozie, Part 2

Just when I was contemplating the effectiveness of car extraction by horse cart, a blue land rover pulled up behind it. The Mennonites deferred to a higher horse power and trotted away.

The license plate on the land rover said PRICE, which was good news and bad news. The good part was that he had a jeep, a cable, and a wench, even, and could probably help us. The not-so-good part was that he might mention it to my parents, since they knew each other. My father was the Big Cheese at the American Consulate, and this was the Big Cheese of British Honduras: Prime Minister George Price.

He and his driver pulled us right out of that mud, as if they'd done it a million times. I declined to introduce myself, thinking that if I remained silent he might take us for wayward tourists. They helped us climb out the driver side window and back up onto the road to lighten the weight, and I watched mutely as the two men who knew what they were doing got dirty in our behalf.

I didn't mention the incident to my father because I thought he'd decide my driving skills were not sufficient to handle Belize. Though the front left fender had been bent upward by the pulling, my strategy was to hose down the car and pretend nothing had happened. I considered it a small lie of omission, and an easy one, considering my father's lack of observation skills on the domestic front. I wasn't trying to deceive him, I simply thought that to a person who could walk into a living room and not notice that the furniture had been rearranged, a minor shift in the shape of a car wouldn't matter.

A few weeks later, though the bend was on the side of the car away from the house, where my father never trod, Pop noticed. He didn't ask what had happened, as if somehow he knew already. His only point was, "I don't understand why you didn't tell me." He seemed horribly hurt, and I felt crummy about it. Not crummy enough to apologize, apparently, but crummy nonetheless.

Not only crummy, but dumb, too.

I'd forgotten about the consular license plates, which may or may not have remained covered in mud. And there was that other clue: we were the only Volvo in Belize. What was wrong with me? I don't know -- a lack of observation skills?

Today I'd do it all so differently. I'd say "Hellooooo Mr. Price, I'm _____'s daughter! So nice of you to stop, I can't tell you how much I appreciate it." Later I'd tell the whole story to my parents, after which they would express sympathy, not anger, and they'd send Mr Price a nice gift, and it would've become a "funny story" in the anthology of family tales.

But this is now, and that was then.
I for one am glad youth is over. I wasn't my best self.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Driving with Miss Doozie

I brought my buddy Dann down with me and planned to practice on my parents' 1966 Volvo manual shift sedan. The very same Volvo we'd bought in Canada in 1966, had driven across the Atlantic in 1971, had stuffed with our family of eight and driven around Naples, had now ended up with us in British Honduras. Old and bulbous, but good. Why buy a new car when the old one will do the job?

Of the two highways in the country, the Hummingbird Highway going North to South, and the Western Highway going ... yup, you guessed it -- West to East, we set out west along the Western Highway with no particular destination, just so I could practice driving in a straight line with very little traffic to worry about. I forgot about the fact that a flat surface is also a requirement for the inexperienced driver.

The road rolled out unbending in front of us, shoulderless through the swamplands on either side, whimsically changing its surface from dirt to gravel and back to dirt again, with an occasional, inexplicable length of heavily pot-holed asphalt. Fifteen miles out (= a hundred in bad-road miles), the car began weaving back and forth all on its own for no reason whatsoever -- like a fish -- in a random act of car-ness which I later learned is known as fish-tailing. My attempts to correct each swerve by instinctively steering in its opposite direction proved the opposite of helpful, as did the unintelligible instructions yelled by Dann from the passenger seat. Wider and wider went the swerves until, like a frog to the lily pad, the car hopped sideways off the road and plopped into the deep mud.

We immediately sank halfway up to the doorhandles and all I could do was sit there staring ahead of us at the bog and launch a royal navy fleet of super annoyed sounding words. Dann muttered something about watching my language, which further annoyed me -- like who was he to talk -- but when he succeeded in directing my attention out my window, I understood his concern. A face looked in -- a concerned face. A woman's face with brown hair pulled back in a bun and tucked into a small white bonnet; a benevolent face, the face of a person undeserving of being anywhere in the vicinity of such profanity.

"Can we help?" she was asking, leaning down to us.

Beyond her on the road I could see the vehicle she'd stepped out of: a horse cart. With horse attached. Was it one horse, or two? I don't remember. These were the Mennonites, seen frequently around Belize in those years -- the ones known as the Horse & Buggy Mennonites, and the others known as the Rubber Tire Mennonites. Both were helpful, industrious, self-sufficient people who kept to themselves and tread light on the earth.

She peered in while I sat there trying to answer the question. Could they help? I didn't know. How many horses does it take to pull a car out of the mud?

to be continued........

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Don't worry....

.... be happy. I'll soon be returning to the promised topic of driving practice in Belize. We had to stop for a little commercial about bicycle safety. Just to remind you that this IS a bike blog.

Actually, I've been meaning to tell you: I've decided to move forward with a more metaphorical interpretation of the imperative "ride my handlebars." That way, when life temporarily leads me astray from biking, I can still take you with me.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

OK, Car-Heads -- Watch THIS!

The link below has got to be the best ad out there for bike safety awareness. It's a commercial that is running in the UK right now.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Driving Lessons

When I got back to Eugene I called some driving schools and started scrimping like crazy to save up the $130 dollar tuition (which wasn't exactly peanuts in 1975). I hadn't dared ask Pop for the money when I was in Belize because he would've offered to teach me himself. My siblings thought I was being extravagant, but I forged right ahead. If there was even the slightest chance driving skills could be transmitted genetically, I was determined to head them off at the pass.

The interesting quirk about my father was that in spite of his blissful oblivion to his own driving errors, he was hyper attuned to even the remotest possibility of anyone else's driving errors. As a passenger he would constantly seem to hallucinate some situation of imminent slaughter and would flip into an absolute panic, suddenly grabbing the dashboard with both hands and gasping horrifically. And my mother, or whoever was driving, would say, "What? what?" half expecting to hear a baby carriage crunching under the car, and honestly, you couldn't even find what he was gasping at. There'd be like maybe a pedestrian stepping off the curb half a block ahead, or something... or a car inching forward at a left turn signal, clocking .05 miles an hour. I never understood how someone could panic over a non-event and yet remain oblivious in the face of repeated life-threatening danger. (As the nuns were fond of saying, "It's a mystery.")

The teacher from the yellow pages picked me up at my dwelling in his small yellow standard with Student Driver written all over it. (After the jungle jeep experience, I insisted on stick shift.) He was the calmest man. About Pop's age. His head was tall, hairless, and pointed, and since I don't remember his name I'll call him Mr. Conehead, since the Coneheads are a people close to my heart. Because he was calm, and because I knew he had an extra brake over on his side, I was calm. Having had up until then a limited number of adult male role models in my life, I was utterly fascinated by the spectre of a Man of Calm.

To this day, I remember everything Mr. Conehead said. Like how when you turn, you're supposed to stay in the near lane, not wang out into the far lane where there might be a car already, coming right up on you. "Now, don't get sloppy!" he'd warn as he honed in on the finer points. I still hear him saying that when I execute certain maneuvers. Everywhere I look I see other drivers making these bubus he warned against, without the palest idea they're doing anything wrong, and I think to myself, "There goes another poor soul who didn't have Mr.Conehead."

You can learn to drive, but you don't really know how till you've practiced for about a year. If possible, you need to practice out of view and preferably out of range of the overly civilized world. That's why I thought that Belize would be a good place to do that, and went back down there.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How I learned to drive

Actually there are two parts to this story: 1. Driving Lessons, and 2. Driving Practice.

As for learning, there wasn't that much to it. I knew beyond a doubt that I didn't want my parents teaching me. My mother was a self-avowed non-teacher, and my father drove like a maniac -- and I don't mean that in a good way. Not like one of the colorful Italian maniacs I was discussing yesterday, but more like a general, all-purpose, universal, one-size-fits-all, certifiable maniac. A hazard to humankind all over the globe for the entire span of his career. I don't say that out of disrespect, but out of respect for the truth. People can have their faults, but after a certain point it's one's duty to warn others.

I could say a lot of good things about him, but at the moment the topic is driving. My mother tells a story about a Neapolitan traffic tangle in which a madman leaps out of another car and prances around my parents' car in a rage, wielding a hatchet. Even the first time I heard the story, my reaction was that the man probably had a good reason.

When I was about 32 he ran a stop sign through a busy street with me in the passenger seat. I looked to my right to see three lanes of cars screeching to a halt beside me. Pop didn't notice, but continued merrily through the intersection without a scratch.

I suddenly realized for the first time that I had a choice. I don't know why it took me that long. I made a silent vow never again to ride in a car that he was driving. I never told him that -- it would have hurt his feelings -- I just silently arranged it.

Next I'll do part one, Driving Lessons, and after that I'll do part 2, Driving Practice. Part 2 is a little hairy -- some of you may want to close your eyes.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Why I learned to drive

A year after I left Naples, my parents moved to Belize City, British Honduras - an unusual and little known corner on the map of Cental America where I didn't mind visiting them as often as possible during their four years there. The first time I went, I met their jungle friend who'd run away from his British parents in India at the age of 16 and lived "out in the bush." He grew his own food and ran a rehabilitation camp for injured and orphaned wild animals. At my mother's suggestion, he invited me on an outing innocuously referred to by everyone involved as a "hike."

We arrived at the base of the hills in a blue landrover, one of the few kinds of vehicles one dared drive on Belizean dirt roads. The smooth, neatly groomed and lined-with-cedar-chips trails I knew in Oregon were not part of this picture. Here, one hacked one's own trail, using a machete. Tarzan was taking me to his most secret inner-jungle discovery, and though he'd hacked a path to it frequently and recently, the ravenous jungle overgrowth had left no trace of it.

He took the lead, flailing through the shrubbery like a human weed-eater. I found it taxing just to follow along without a wielding a weapon. I needed all four limbs to keep moving forward, since ground would routinely give way to rot underneath, leaving you up to your knees in a hole. You had to constantly squelch the instinct to grab onto something as you were falling because many of the available handholds were the thick stems of some kind of evil tree covered with inch-long spines. Somehow, in spite of the frequency of my plunges into the earth, I managed not to grab onto one. Tarzan was falling too. There was no other way to advance, short of a helicopter. Very unlike hiking, this was like some altogether new "extreme sport" consisting of a series of uphill falls alternating with digging oneself out of earthen pits.

I am much too squeamish to describe the exact way in which Tarzan, whose real name was Richard, injured himself on the machete when he fell into one of these sinkholes. Let us just say that blood flowed copiously and we needed to get back to the jeep immediately. Fortunately, we hadn't made much headway up the hill, and the trek back, downhill along the already cleared path with holes clearly visible, went much faster.

But when we arrived at the vehicle and he tossed me the keys I had to deliver the unpopular information that I couldn't drive. So Richard drove himself, one-armed, operating both the stick shift and the wheel, handling the rises and falls of the ground like a bronco rider, with me bouncing and whiplashing along beside him trying to keep my head from smacking the ceiling or frame of the car by alternately gripping the beltless seat, grabbing the dashboard, and encircling an arm around my head. We made it back to the so-called road, and from then on he artfully slolomed potholes at top speed till we reached the mere suggestion of a town, where we found a concrete block clinic with two nurses on duty and no anasthesia on hand. I waited in the hall, squeezing my head while Richard screamed his head off under the needle.

True, knowing how to drive wouldn't have prevented Richard's accident -- but I sure could've been a lot more helpful afterwards. Besides, things could have been a lot worse. I decided I'd work on it. Learning to drive is another story, which I'll tell you if you beg me. What I problably won't tell, at least on this blog because it's too long, is the story of my second attempt at this expedition. Yes, I know not how I got talked into it, but I went back, this time with Richard and Richard's friend. We made it to the secret destination this time. I found out why it needed to be so secret. It may still be a secret, but I doubt it the way Belize (new name) has been relentlessly discovered by the outside world since then.

But if you want to hear about driving lessons, I might be able to fit that in. Not as harrowing, perhaps, but a story nonetheless.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Why I didn't learn to drive

My last teen years were spent in Naples Italy, where I held these truths to be self evident:
1. To drive there successfully, you have to be insane.
2. If you're going to be the perpetually frightened passenger, you will become insane.

I slipped into the role of the relaxed, unfrightened passenger, and kept my sanity. By the time I actually turned 18, driving age in Italy, I was majorly not interested in taking the wheel. My parents were fine with me being stuffed into smoke-filled Fiat 500s with six or seven Italians and being driven around by maniacs. Neither I nor my parents worried, because clearly these people knew how to drive like maniacs correctly -- unlike the occasional American or German driver seen on the streets, immediately identifiable by their attempts to drive cautiously, causing near accidents right and left.

I left Italy at nineteen to attend university in Oregon. I lived in the dorms and had no need or desire to drive anywhere. When I eventually moved off campus I got a bike. By this time I'm about twenty, so now you know why I hadn't learned to drive thus far. I thought I was safer not driving -- until I travelled about a couple thousand miles southward. That's where I changed my mind.

The next episode will reveal: Why in the end I finally did learn to drive.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Roads of Hell are lined with Moving Vans.

I've been somewhat involved in my sister's move out of Oregon. What little spare time I've had went to that instead of blogging. And I can assure you it wasn't a "bike move" as featured in my blog last summer [see archives August 13, 14, 15, 2006]. No, this move was highly motorized every step of the way -- and like most moves, a never ending nightmare.

I know one thing about hell -- it's a place where you have to pack up every possession you've ever acquired, and move it to another dwelling. When you get there, you have to unpack it all and set up house. The minute you finish that, you have to pack it all back up again and move to yet another destination..... and on and on, into eternity.

As the Flexcar slogan goes (I think): "Sometimes, you just need a car." Had I not finally given in and developed the skill of driving a car, I would've been no help at all this last week. In my teen years, unlike other kids who wanted nothing more than to learn to drive, I was determined to have nothing to do with it. Later on I'll explain what happens when you can't drive and your Tarzanesque jungle guide falls on his sword a million miles from civilization. But right now I'm going to bed.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Don't forget your two-wheeled friend

While you're waiting for my next fascinating post, here's something else to read. It turns out that over a thousand people a year disembark from the public transportation, both the MAX and the busses, and forget to take their bikes with them! Yes, it's true. It averages out to about three a day. Here's the link to the story.