Riding After My Daughter

In 1967 I was ten-years old. That year my mother got her first microwave and my father got his first car with an automatic transmission. These purchases came several months apart, but each was an occasion for social gathering and optimistic speculation. The microwave came first and my parents invited our neighbors over to watch it turn mugs of water into mugs of steam. My mother made tea for the adults, and the neighbors sniffed at their mugs, smiled strained smiles, and asked only half in jest if the tea was safe to drink. Later that evening, after the neighbors had gone home (presumably in sound health,) I found my mother alone in the kitchen, staring at her new Radar Range. She looked up at me as I came in and I remember thinking she was going to cry. She gathered me into her arms and said, "By the time you have children, you won't have to do any cooking at all." She said it as if to imply how wonderful such an outcome would be?her tone implied a great hope. But in thinking back, I wonder if her optimism hid a deeper regret over something soon to be lost, the tears I thought she was about to cry being the tears of worry rather than those of joy.

My father, on the other hand, displayed no such complexity in his regard for our family's new Buick. We had had new cars before, but the new Buick shifted automatically. In 1967 we were behind the curve in adopting this technology and my father was supremely happy to be back running with the Joneses. Once again the neighbors were called upon to provide an audience and my father stuffed seven of us, four adults and three children, into the Buick for a trip to the lake. He didn't need to wait for a quiet moment alone to make predictions about where automatic technology was taking us. "By the time you're old enough to drive Barbi, you won't even have to do the steering... robots will do it for you," he said. His enthusiasm was pure and his belief in an intertwining of prosperity and technology was rock-solid.

1967 was also the year I got my first bicycle. But unlike the microwave and the Buick, my bicycle was not considered a link in the great chain of progress. My father, in his ever-present concern for his family's safety, refused to let me ride the bike around our neighborhood. "It's not safe," he said. "Too many cars and none of them watch where they're going." To ride the bike, we made special trips to the park on weekends. We'd load it into the Buick's ample trunk and my mother would pack a lunch. My parents sat on a blanket and sipped wine while I rode laps around them on the grass. I loved these excursions. And back then I never thought it strange that my bicycle was given such an unnecessary status in the ranking of technological objects. Bikes were toys, pieces of athletic equipment at best, but certainly there was no mistaking them for useful, practical tools.

For thirty-eight years I continued in this tradition of assuming that happiness and progress came from newer and more complicated things. For thirty-eight years I thought bicycles were antiquated toys that became impediments to public safety when used upon roadways meant for automobiles. Then my daughter, Sarah, came along.

Don't get me wrong. My husband and I raised our daughter up right. We got her a driver's license and gave her our old Suburban when she turned sixteen. We thought the Suburban was perfect because it was big (my husband insisted on "safe" vehicles) and it was an automatic (I didn't think Sarah would want to learn to shift the car herself.) Sarah drove and seemed to love it as much as any teenager but when she went away to college, the university wouldn't allow freshmen to have cars. My husband wanted to file protests and find loopholes. He took to ranting about "Sarah's safety" and how the school's policy was endangering his family. But in the end, we just bought her a bike and a helmet and told her we'd pay for a taxi if she ever needed to go very far.

Sarah passed her freshman year without ever taking us up on our offer of taxi fare. She came home that summer and we assumed she'd take the old Suburban back with her since only freshmen were disallowed cars. But the day she got home and saw her car in the driveway she just said, "Why do you still have that old thing?" When she graduated three years later, she still didn't own a car. We offered to buy her a new one as a graduation present but again she refused. "How will you get to work," my husband wanted to know. "I'll ride my bike," my daughter responded.

Sarah's decision became a preeminent concern for my husband. "She'll come around once she finds out what real work is like," he said. At first I thought the same thing. But then I remembered 1967 and the sad look in my mother's eyes the day microwave technology inched her one step closer to the prosperous future, and I began secretly hoping that Sarah would hold out. For the first time in my life, I thought that maybe I'd left behind something valuable by chasing after a life of convenience.

So began the fork in my world view. At first it shamed me. How could I shun convenience when the world was filled with people who would give anything for a taste of the luxuries I enjoyed? Wouldn't choosing to forgo the automobile be as pathetic as the trustafarians (as my daughter called those college students with trust funds and painfully romantic notions of the real world) who liked to get high and wax poetic about the virtues of hard manual labor and the merits of poverty? There is much value in technology and the freedoms it grants us and I couldn't accept the idea that giving it up would somehow make my life better. Yet the desire to ride persisted and it took a conversation with Sarah to set me straight.

Sarah and I have a habit of telephoning each other early in the morning. We're both early risers by nature and this habit, which began as morning conversations over breakfast, turned easily into morning phone calls when she moved to Portland. I'd been wanting to tell her about my concern. I worried it might be some kind of mid-life crisis. I wanted to tell her about my mother and her microwave but the idea that a microwave could be the cause of some kind of foreboding sense of sadness seemed ridiculous and dramatic when I put it into words. Instead, I asked Sarah what made her dislike automobiles so much. "What do you mean, Mom?" she said. "I like cars."

"Why do you ride a bike everywhere?" I said.

"Because I don't need a car. I live in a city. Everything I need is within twenty miles. If I had a place to park it I'd probably buy a car just to have for trips, but I'd still ride my bike around town. Does dad still think I need a car? Is that what this is about?"

"So you don't hate cars?" I said.

"No. Why would you think that?"

After our conversation I felt rather stupid. I'd spent months feeling guilty because I'd framed my dilemma as requiring a choice between convenience and some sort of romantic notion of necessity. I felt stupid because I'd framed the problem all wrong. As Sarah saw it, the choice to ride a bike wasn't a rebellion or an Amish-like resistance to the evils of technology. Riding a bike wasn't a denial of progress. In fact, from her perspective, riding a bike was the epitome of the idea that technology is progress. The bicycle is technology perfectly applied to the problem of urban transportation. The bicycle eases congestion, keeps us healthy, consumes fewer resources, and is cheaper.

Again I thought of my mother's microwave. Her worry, I thought, stemmed from a similar framing problem. There is nothing evil in a microwave (nothing re-heats mashed potatoes better in my opinion) but there is something troubling in the idea that from the microwave we must progress to automated cooking, or from the automatic transmission we must move to automatic steering, and on and on. If that is our idea of progress, then my mother was right to be worried. But Sarah, perhaps by having been raised in a different era, made no such connection. For her, I believe, technology is much more a tool than a savior, something that works best with thoughtful application rather than blind faith.

With my dilemma solved, I bought a bike the next day. It's a Trek touring bike, like my daughter's. The salesman explained how everything worked and I put it in the back of our car and drove to the park, the perfect place to learn how to ride a bike, in my opinion. I won't say it was easy in the beginning. I hadn't ridden anything with two wheels since I was in my twenties and certainly nothing with gears to choose from or brakes operated by hands instead of feet. I bought a book about cycling and worked to apply its principles, sage bits of advice that flowed easily off the page but were won only with much difficulty on the bike. But after two weeks, I could select gears with confidence, stop relatively quickly, ride in a straight and narrow line, and look over my shoulder without swerving too much in any direction. The seat, which had been a source of initial worry, ceased making me sore. With every hour at the park, the bike and I became more suited to one another until, finally, I felt ready for my first ride through town. In fact, the confidence came on while I was tooling about the park and not wanting to lose it, I set off for home, three miles away. I rode in traffic, amidst large automobiles. I survived. That evening after dinner, I told my husband about my adventures. I hadn't planned on telling him so soon, but he asked me where my car was... I'd forgotten I left it at the park.

My husband's reaction was not unexpected. He played his safety card, naturally, but his objections, for all their volume, had little weight for they were comprised of conclusions reached by anecdotes and jumps rather than experience and logic. Like piles of leaves, they blew away in the face of a determined wind. The ability to ride a bicycle confidently is a skill, something to be proud of, and in the end, I think, it was the very hard-won nature of such ability that brought him around. The worry and skepticism in his voice was replaced by pride. Or perhaps he just knew what cycling would do for my legs. Either way, he came around and we bicycle together. After a few weeks at the park, he now rides to work three days a week.

We've become a cycling family. Our cars, when we drive them, still shift automatically but I've signed up for a cooking class. I think my father and my mother would both have approved.