Culture postsTuesday August 12, 2008
Cyclists vs. Motorists: How The New York Times Ain't Helping
One thing you can say about Jan Hoffman’s nearly 2000-word piece in the Sunday New York Times on the growing battle between motorists and cyclists: It probably won’t lessen any tensions.
I’ve been biking to work for 15 years now and couldn’t find myself in it at all. Talk about reporting. Or as Hoffman might write: Talk about reporting!
I guess most articles are compiled this way: Several anecdotes, glued together by a few stats, with quotes from vested interests. Add some flowery language. Add a death threat for the finale. Voila! Everyone’s happy. Or angry. Which is the same thing if you’re trying to sell newspapers.
This is the money quote for me. It comes about halfway through the article and lit me up:
There’s a whiff of class warfare in the simmering hostility, too. During morning rush, the teeth-gritting of drivers is almost audible, as superbly fit cyclists, wearing Sharpie-toned spandex and riding $3,000 bikes, cockily dart through the swampy, stolid traffic to offices with bike racks and showers.
So cyclists are the rich ones now? Where’s the stats to back that one up? But you gotta love the flowery language. We cockily dart? Through swampy stolid? In Sharpie-toned? On our $3,000? Pity the poor souls who can only afford SUVs.
The next graph, in true journalistic fashion, gives us “the opposite end of the class spectrum”: Migrant workers cycling in pre-dawn hours without headlights. So both extremes are represented. Another job well done.
I’m among the unrepresented between these two groups: commuting on my $350 bike, without the spandex and no waiting shower. But there is a bike rack in a nearby garage. I’m living large. No wonder I’m hated.
This hatred for cyclists is the big unanswered (possibly unaddressed) question of the article. Most of the anti-motorist anecdotes end with cyclists bloodied or dead, while most of the anti-cycling anecdotes end with pedestrians and motorists “startled” or with a “pounding heart.” Yet motorists are the ones who are “white-hot” with anger? What’s up with that? Maybe this discrepancy should’ve been pointed out. Maybe further investigation was needed instead of, you know, flowery language. But who am I to say? I’m not a professional journalist.
How about this graph on biking irresponsibility?:
A pandemic of obliviousness — earbuds, texting — further ramps up the tension. Recently, Scott Diamond, ride coordinator for the Morris Area Freewheelers, a New Jersey cycling club, saw what he called a trifecta of irresponsible cycling: “A guy riding his bike without a helmet, talking on his cellphone, with his kid in the bike attachment behind him.”
Oddly, for a he said/she said article, there’s no correlating graph on the distractions for motorists: radios, CDs, DVDs; coffee, make-up, kids. Those texting cyclists — what percentage are we talking about? As opposed to, say, cellphone-talking drivers? I don’t want to make excuses for an idiot who bikes without a helmet but with a cellphone, but that trifecta of irresponsible cycling? That’s a normal driver.
Listen, there are assholes everywhere, and I’m often one of them (both on a bike and in a car), but everyone knows the entire system is set up for cars. Bike paths are rare, and even when you get one it’s like the weakest kid’s lunch money: Yours until someone bigger wants it. And someone bigger always wants it.
I have my own anecdote to add to Hoffman’s bunch, and it’s not about the number of drivers who have yelled at me over the years — sometimes with reason, most of the time insanely out of nowhere — and it’s not about the overwhelming obtuseness of most drivers (the powerful can afford to be stupid), and I won’t even bring up the whole gas/oil thing.
Here it is: Over the last three years, about a dozen people have asked me, almost shyly, about cycling to work, and I tell them it’s fun and easy and I feel better afterwards. I tell them they should do it. And every one has backed off. They think it’s too dangerous. They’re too worried about being hit by a car.
Now does anyone know one person who has quit driving because they’re worried about being hit by a bicycle?
There is no he said/she said here. There is just “startled” vs. “dead.”
Another day, another glitch
Then, on Orbitz, I made a reservation two round-trip tickets to Minneapolis later this month. The price stunk, and went up mid-reservation, and I had to update some other info, but finally the reservation was made. Got an e-mail confirmation 15 minutes later. But while my seat was listed properly (8C and 20C), Patricia's was not (08 and 20 instead of 8B and 20B). Logging on, I found her seats filled but not by her. So either someone took them just before I did or (more likely) there was some kind of glitch. But who do you call at Orbitz? Is there anyone even there at Orbitz? So I called the airline, who confirmed what I suspected (P had no seats), and, after about 10 minutes, they rebooked us with crappier seats. And suddenly it was 3:30.
I want to emphasize I don't find the above exceptionally annoying. I find it typical — something you and I go through every day — and that's what I find annoying.
It's Sunday morning and I love David Mamet, Randy Newman, Frank Rich and especially Elizabeth Edwards
Loudon Wainwright III (M*A*S*H alumnus, father of Rufus and Martha) has a nice song called "Sunday Times" that I've included in more than a few mixed CDs over the years. Although the cost of that paper has gone up four-fold, the song basically reflects my views on the Sunday Times:
Well I’m trying to read my Sunday Times
It cost a nickel and twelve dimes
Bought it late Saturday night I’m almost finished but not quite
It weighed a ton it seemed to me that each one of them must take a tree to make
And also I should think it takes about a gallon of ink
Loudon then goes through the various sections of the newspaper — bleak section one, fun A&E section, boring Business, plus the Magazine ("the crossword will keep you up late/ And there's camp if your kid's overweight") — but the song's main point is that it's so big how can anyone possibly read it all?:
Well it’s Tuesday and I’m still not done
With Sunday’s Times — son of a gun
Monday and Tuesday’s still unread
I could’ve read War and Peace instead
So for those who are reading War and Peace instead, here are a few good articles from today's Sunday Times.
David Mamet has a great piece on the sad wisdom of fighters in movies, including Stanislaus Zbyszko from the great noir, NIGHT AND THE CITY, Kola Kwariani from Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING and my man Takashi Shimura from SEVEN SAMURAI and IKURU. I had an analysis of SEVEN SAMURAI on my previous site but it was among the 50 or so reviews I dispensed with in making the transfer here — it wasn't worthy of the film — but Mamet has some great descriptions of a couple of keys scenes. It's a beautiful read.
Further in the Arts section, Geoffrey Himes writes about the many versions of Randy Newman's song, "Louisiana 1927," and its popularity in post-Katrina New Orleans. At the breakfast table, Patricia mentioned how she always loved the line, "Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline." I immediately downloaded both Newman's and Aaron Neville's versions. Listening to them as I write this.
In the Week in Review, there's Elisabeth Vincentelli on the popularity in France of a fish-out-of-water, city-man-in-the-country comedy, BIENVENUE CHEZ LES CH'TIS (WELCOME TO THE STICKS), and what its popularity means for France and Pres. Sarkozy as France tries to find itself in a global economy (as we all do, as we all do). Then of course I went to my man Frank Rich and his take on how the prolonged Democratic primary really isn't bad for the Dems. The ending, in which John McCain uses prison help to set up tables and chairs for a private fundraiser in Selma, Ala., has a BRUBAKER quality to it.
Finally, there's Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John, on the awful, need-for-narrative, where's-the-beef? campaign coverage of this year's presidential election by the mainstream media. One can say her point is obvious, that everybody knows the media's dropping the ball, but as someone who's been accused of stating the obvious before, I tend to believe that it's the obvious and effed-up things that need more talking about, not less. Besides, Mrs. Edwards had a front-row seat for much of all this and has sharp things to say. I particularly like her thoughts on Joseph Biden (whom I've always liked) and how he was dismissed almost from the get-go by a media who felt they knew where the narrative was heading. She writes:
[That] decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate. Articles purporting to be news spent thousands upon thousands of words contemplating whether he would enter the race, to the point that before he even entered, he was running second in the national polls for the Republican nomination. Second place! And he had not done or said anything that would allow anyone to conclude he was a serious candidate. A major weekly news magazine put Mr. Thompson on its cover, asking — honestly! — whether the absence of a serious campaign and commitment to raising money or getting his policies out was itself a strategy.
Bless her for that "honestly!" And one wonders: how is it that media momentum is built up in this fashion toward the inconsequential, the wrong-headed, the just plain stupid? Until we can answer that obvious question, we will always be a less-than-serious country in a very serious world.
The Meek, etc.
Watched Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ the other night, and while I invariably stick my foot in my mouth bringing up religious matters — stating the obvious or uninformed or just plain wrong — I wondered, as I watched, what bizarre chain of events could make this figure, this particular figure, the leader of an established anything. The meek, the moneychangers, his comments on the wealthy. What establishment could find comfort there? How do they still?
Mentioned this to a friend who quoted a line from Christopher Lasch's Revolt of the Elites: "The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion."
While watching I also had one of those sharp drops into a greater sense of my own inevitable death. Say "0" is complete unawareness of your own death and "100" is total awareness, total insanity. I usually operate on a 15. The other night, for a moment, I rose to about a 50. Shuddered.
When I was a teenager I lived at 50.
“60 Minutes” ran a piece last night called “And the happiest place on earth is...” A British study determined (how we're not really sure) that this magical place is ... drumroll ... Denmark! My peeps! The country I'm one generation removed from.
So as Morley Safer's story began, I kept wondering why we ever left. Even after they mentioned that herring was the national dish, I wondered. Then Morley & Co. gave me a bit of an answer as to why the Danes are happy; it also helped answer, maybe not why we left, but why it wasn't necessarily a bad idea.
Apparently the happiness there is less a matter of bright sunshine than low wattage. It's a culture of low expectations. If things turn out fine, great, but if they don't, well, who thought they would anyway? At least we won the UEFA futbol championship in '92. Now eat your herring.
There's more to the answer, of course, and the piece seemed designed less to talk up Denmark's happiness than the U.S. lack of. Danes are protected from birth to death by a large social safety net. There's no great disparity between rich and poor. Even middle-income wage earners pay 50 percent in taxes, and all of that money goes to cover health care, free education, maternity and paternity leaves, etc., throughout your life. As opposed to the U.S. with its shrinking social safety net and grandiose ambitions (and accompanying stress, and accompanying disappointment) for everyone involved.
Denmark's social safety net is fine; it's the low wattage that concerns me. The lack of casual conversations. The highly developed body language. The right not to be talked to. Danes go to southern climates and everyone seems happier: people are out in the streets, making noise, having fun. In a cultural sense anyway, I think I'd rather have the ups and downs, the blue skies and thunderstorms, than the overcast skies with a constant chance of drizzle.
So can you have a strong social safety net and grandiose ambitions? Or does a thick social safety net inevitably impinge upon ambition by handing you what you would otherwise strive for?
I do know this: I want to visit Denmark soon. Not to get all Alex Haley on everybody but it seems a shame I've never been.