I make their blood boil. Them: the people who aren’t on bicycles, too. The people who scream out their windows when I ride up 52nd Avenue with my boys on the way to school; they don’t realize how physics works, how their words are cut off when their cars pass by. “You shouldn’t—!” I hear. Shouldn’t what? I’ll never know. Or, “Those kids—!” or some other bit-piece of rant. I parse, try to make an angry sentence out of them, even though I know I’d do better to turn it funny. “You shouldn’t look so adorable with little boys on your bike. I’m sexually conflicted!” I should imagine. “You’re the best mom possible to those kids!” maybe the man with the light blue sedan says.
“You’d better get those babies baptized!” shouted a woman from the sidewalk once. I think she meant to add in case they die; I wanted to comfort her, “Oh, honey, they are.” Not that baptism saves anyone from anything, least of all from the fate of a planet where the carbon dioxide level is nearing four hundred parts per million, the highest in human history.
Of course they are angry. You don’t scream when you ain’t angry.
I’m used to it.
I get a lot of anger, so much that my oldest son and I look at each other, amused. “Misplaced rage,” I say now, having explained to him how these emotions work. With the biking and the cooking of food with local ingredients and the growing of things in my messy urban garden and even—should I mention it?—the fact that with a family of five, we fill only a slim can of garbage a month. . . . I get a lot of anger. Even though what I do is all little. None of it is complicated or a big deal or done all at once. None of it really even matters. When I pull my bike-built-for-four out onto the sidewalk of our busy Portland arterial street, the cars and trucks and SUVs and motorcycles rush by, all going ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit, all within a foot or two of my feet and my younger boys’ feet swinging from the back of the running board, and I see it: the enormity of the world and the inanity of my solution.
This woman in the Mercedes is beautiful—beautifully dressed, in a slick luxury car in a smooth, elegant color. She has pulled up fast toward the busy street we’re biking along, the only way to get to where we’re going so we have to share the road with cars and semis traveling at forty-five or fifty miles per hour. I’m gamely pedaling along in the brown corduroy skirt I found in a free pile (you wouldn’t know it; it’s super cute), my stripey wool socks, my wool jacket, my technicolored knitted hat, my wild hair. Maybe I look otherworldly, colorful, anachronistic, and today I am speeding down Holgate Boulevard toward the train yard with my ten-year-old son on the back of my bike. We have to startle and skid a little to avoid colliding with her; I am so slow over the bridge with my kid on the back that, always, at this corner I jump onto the sidewalk.
It was her fault; she should have approached the intersection more slowly. But she’s mad. This surprises Everett still, but not me. I’m sorry. I mouth it, though I give a yelp first; she scared me. Sorry.
“We seem impossible,” I tell him. “She just doesn’t understand why—or how—someone would get around without a car.” She didn’t expect us there, and because she can’t see the world through our eyes, she defends herself with anger.
When my youngest was little, still technically an infant—eight months—I bought this bike with my tax stimulus check. I used to carry him on a seat between the handlebars; when he’d fall asleep on the bike, his head would loll on my gear-changing arm, and I’d ride in the lowest gear so I didn’t have to wake him. The other two boys, then three and almost-six, rode on the Xtracycle platform, built like a skateboard top. This bike is called a “LongTail,” a “cargo bike.” I call it “mamabikeorama.”
When I bought it, my life had already changed. I gave up my own luxury car in 2006. That’s when my insurance expired and one of the worn-out tires went flat. The car needed a thousand dollars in work just to make the windows go up and down. I shrugged my shoulders and bought bus tickets and a new helmet for Everett.
It didn’t seem radical; it didn’t seem “elite” or “ableist” or “insane.” It certainly didn’t seem like child abuse. It didn’t seem like I thought I was better than everyone else. It didn’t seem like that at all.
What I thought was that I was just getting along, rolling with the punches. We didn’t have much money that year. By 2012, we’d be better, our household income above the median. We’d buy only ten-dollar wines. But then, we were broke, and I’d sometimes search cushions and all of the jacket pockets in the closet for bus fare. Biking was awesome: no incremental cost; free as long as I could ride fueled by snacks in my panniers. I was outside, where I’d rather be, going slow, like I’d rather do. Smelling and looking at the way people build their garden boxes and curtain their kitchen windows. Stopping whenever I wanted to pick alley raspberries or take pictures of the clouds rising dark over the light-dappled train yard. Saying “hello!” by bike bell to the other biking mothers and fathers and commuters on cruisers.
The car stood in our driveway for years until a neighbor’s friend said she’d buy it. She borrowed it for the weekend, and on Sunday, we got a call that it was stuck one hundred miles away, towed for violations. Price of disposal: the car left us ignobly.
I impede progress of the traffic zooming to the next stoplight, and I cause ordinary Ford F150s to swerve into the oncoming lane to get around me, and I force the drivers of BMWs to squeeze by my bike to avoid getting stuck behind the bus. I personally, all on my own, have probably caused whole minutes (collectively, taken together) of delay in the quest to reach the next stoplight first.
I wonder sometimes if modern humanity hasn’t fallen into every ethical trap in its quest for—what? What is our quest? I don’t think the guy in the BMW looking to beat the bus really knows, because—what? He might, if he’s lucky, be a minute earlier to work or to meet his friend for drinks? The Ford F150 drivers—I don’t know. Can’t your construction projects wait another thirty seconds? What are we all rushing for? Not to be any later to jobs that make us squeeze the steering wheel too tight with stress and only get us enough money to need to work more?
After I stopped driving my car, I read a book by a man who was deteriorating from ALS. My friend knew him and asked me to review his book, The Ethical Executive, for a finance blog I run. The book lays out a series of “ethical traps.” There are forty-five traps in all. I don’t know how I hadn’t known this before, the thing with anger and why, but Bob Hoyk, the author of the book, says anger is a secondary emotion that hides vulnerability. It’s caused by anxiety, fear of loss. It’s caused by shame. It’s caused by the feeling you’re helpless and out of control. Fear, shame, chaos—and on every page, I found another explanation for this anger I feel directed toward me. I wrote a sparkling review. “Everyone should read this and not just executives,” I wrote. My friend told me that when Bob read my review, he cried.
Anger is the first of seventeen traps described in Part II: Defensive Traps. These, Hoyk writes, “change our perception or give us ways to sidestep our guilt and shame, setting us up for repeated unethical behavior. Although some of these traps can cause us to behave unethically, they usually affect us after our wrongdoing.”
It was after Bob Hoyk died from ALS that I put it all together. I’d been using the idea of ethical traps everywhere—in parenting, in my marriage, in work relationships, in comments to my blog posts about frugal living or eating organic vegetables. And one day, I was riding my bicycle up a long slow hill and an SUV sped past me and I thought of Bob again and I made the connection between Bob’s work and the way most of us live, and (because I wished he was alive to hear my revelation) I cried. It’s all about ethical traps.
You know how it goes: the facts pile up like dust on my windowsill. How many Earths it would take to produce resources if everyone lived like us in America. How many inches the sea is going to rise by 2063. How many tons of trash make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. How many people died in a garment factory in Bangladesh. Even one of these facts could swamp us if we let it hang too long in the front of our brains.
I let these facts linger. Maybe my amygdala, the bundle of neurons that helps displace emotional responses, is too slight; but I let them get to me, let them wash over me and pull me out to sea. That’s why I ride my bike and don’t buy T-shirts any more. That’s why I agonize over a box of cookies from Trader Joe’s. I reach up to the shelf and count the ethical compromises. Trap 28: Zooming Out. (Like Google Maps, “the person contrasts the big picture with the street intersection and realizes how trivial the small area is in comparison to the larger view.”) My one cardboard box and plastic cookie tray and plastic package are so small compared to the millions sold and tossed every day. Trap 29: Everybody Does It. If I don’t buy these cookies, somebody else will.
What I realized on that slow ride up a long hill is that we can’t possibly live the way we do without dozens of ethical compromises every day, without falling into ethical traps that rule our lives. You unlock your car door and turn the key, and you’re falling into Traps 28 and 29 and probably 27 (Advantageous Comparison: at least I’m driving a Prius), and 25 (Reduction Words: no big deal, just driving to the office), and 24 (Desensitization). And 34, too. Bob calls it Coworker Reactions, but it’s really Society’s Reactions: If our fellow [humans] ignore, justify, or condone our unethical behavior, it supports our view that we didn’t do anything wrong or that if we did, it’s no big deal.” Reduction Words again.
You fall like this.
Everybody’s driving cars and it’s really no big deal, and when I look around from inside my car, everyone looks back and they’re not giving me that glance that says, “You creep.” In fact, if I drive a nice car, I’m proud of it and get looks that are more like, “You’ve really arrived.” (Trap 14: Self-Enhancement.)
But when some woman rides her bike fast down Holgate Boulevard, free-box skirt flapping in the wind, with bottles of grass-fed Jersey milk in the panniers and a ten-year-old kid on the running board, she’s visibly opting out of all of those ethical compromises that help me put that key in the ignition, that help me turn it. I don’t want to acknowledge all that: that not everyone is doing it. That when the lens zooms back in.
What you are doing is a big deal.
Asking people to face their ethical compromises every time they make them is impossible. This essay is being written, after all, in a house heated by natural gas, and there are so many more compromises between here and there: the groundwater poisoned and packed with methane from fracking, the methane gases released in pipeline leaks, the possibility there will be a spill and all the fish in a river will be killed. Each of these compromises was made in the writing of this essay.
And let’s go to Congo, where the metals that power this laptop were mined, and let’s just think for a brief minute about the millions slaughtered, raped, abused, starved, and mistreated because of the heavy metals we need to make our laptops and iPhones work. How many cell phones have I owned in my life? A dozen, probably. A drop in the bucket, and yet, how many lives were shattered for that coltan, the precious metallic ore that is an integral component for all cell phones, laptops, and many other electronics? Maybe you could work it out to just one, for mine, and now I have to ask if checking the arrival times for the next bus is worth one life. All of these questions—they have no answers and they have only one answer.
That one person in the Congo who died for my mobile phones is killing me, along with the woman who gave birth in the wreckage of the garment factory in Bangladesh, the building that was already falling apart when her bosses said, “We won’t pay you unless you go back in.” Maybe the one person who died for my coltan was ten and the oldest like my oldest son, already the man of the house, stealing food or protecting his little brothers, or maybe it was a mother with babies in the same room where she was raped and left to die. I see the faces of both these Congolese, just as I see the face of the Bangladeshi teenager, dead in the rubble, tangled with a sewing machine. Oh, lest you think I’m holier-than-thou (I’ve been called it), I know I’m addicted, too. Trap 33: Addiction. I am powerless to resist my iPhone. And there is the Tyranny of Goals. Trap 7. My “art.”
All the world’s a trap, and I am merely caught in it.
Knowing why those people yell at me out their windows or into the comment box on their laptops makes me angry, too. I can see not only why they’re angry but also how they could stop being so angry at me and start picking apart the ethical compromises that stitch our planet (however unsustainably) together. Then we could sit on the curb of the playground, as my friend Kath and I do, and talk longingly of the day when the speed limits will be twenty miles per hour everywhere but freeways and when the cities will put bike parking lots in urban centers.
What I haven’t said is that my husband’s in Kuwait. He’s been deployed there for three years, and why he’s there is (of course) the same reason I ride the bike and agonize over that plastic cookie tray: because we’re using all that oil. He’s a driver for the Joint Forces; he picks up generals and corporals and country music stars from the airport. They ride in a luxury SUV going way more than twenty miles per hour down the freeways of Kuwait, drinking water out of that squishy plastic he tells me is burned and not recycled.
My husband drives 120 miles per hour for bottled water and oil.
My husband pays our mortgage waging war for bottled water and oil.
I’m angry and scared and compromised as hell, but I’m happier on my bicycle. I know most of the people in my city who transport like me, and as I pedal down Clinton or past People’s Co-op where I get my bulk local brown rice and tomato starts, I see them, and we wave and smile. None of us are angry, even the ones who’ve had drivers do worse than yell at them. Enrique was hit by an SUV, and wide white scars play his torso like a toddler’s scribbles. Kristin tells me she was purposefully run off the road by a woman in a Subaru. We ride together chatting, or we stop to trade news and enthusiasms, and we hold up traffic.
I get yelled at all the time, swearwords and indictments and judgments. Worse, I am afraid my kids will live in a world wracked with drought and starvation, but I’ve never been happier or felt freer in my life. I slow myself down riding up the hills, and sometimes, I walk my errands, spinning observations and flash memoir in my head. With my boys, I stop at the train yard and watch a hawk banking its slow circles over the tracks, and we listen for the sounds of woodpeckers on telephone poles, and we halt to pick up trash and treasures on the road. And I want to tell you I am happy, that I have looked at my compromises for what they are and I have chosen not to enumerate the traps into which I’ve fallen, but to set myself free.